Monday, November 15, 2010

The problem with Newton is his father

What should be a memorable and satisfying season for Auburn football has been tainted by the sobering accusations that Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Cameron Newton may have passed on attending Mississippi State because the school did not offer money requested by his father, Cecil, who has not exactly denied those claims.

Newton played last Saturday and was stellar in a 49-31 victory over the University of Georgia, passing for 148 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 151 yards and two touchdowns. He is one of the most dominant college quarterbacks in recent years but his father's greed may hinder a great career, just as it did with former USC running back Reggie Bush.

Kids coming out of junior college suddenly don't decide to ask for money to play. They get that idea from somewhere and in this situation, it was Newton's father who decided he was going risk his son's reputation by cashing in on his talents. It's not as if Cameron won't make enough money in the National Football League, he decided a college scholarship wasn't enough. He needed to be paid right now.

And his desire for indulgence could cost his son his reputation and Auburn University football wins. What gives him the right to do that? The parent is not on the football field taking those hits. And he is trying to rob his son's opportunity at a basic and enjoyable college life. He is on scholarship, which means he will live in nice quarters, won't be short of a meal and will have his books and tuition handled. In addition, he is probably the most identifiable Auburn athlete since Bo Jackson or Charles Barkley. And he singlehandedly resurrected a football program that had been reduced to the stepchild of in-state rival Alabama.

Auburn football is significant again, and Newton in the nucleus of that revival, but now it could all be destroyed by a headstrong father who believed he was intelligent enough to circumvent the system. He apparently hired a "representative," who contacted interested schools and said it would require more than a scholarship to attract his son.

Really? Did Cameron actually say that or was this the case of a money-hungry father looking to be compensated, perhaps to clear up a couple of debts while his son pays all the physical dues. Hopefully this is a case of a father perhaps associating with some seedy people who have decided to cause a stir with some exaggerations. Regardless, there is smoke to this fire and Cecil Newton is guilty of poor judgment if anything else.

The question why do parents anoint themselves responsible for capitalizing off their children's success? Instead of sporting a fresh Auburn baseball cap, sitting with the other parents and basking in pride, Cecil Newton tried to sell his son to the highest bidder, sacrificing his son's character and reputation in the process.

The money will be there eventually for Cameron Newton, but unfortunately his own father tried to jeopardize the two luxuries that all of us wish we still had, youth and innocence. Thanks Dad.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The long balls aren't that long anymore

Who knew the decline of the home run would occur this quickly after Major League Baseball implemented drug testing amongst all of its players? The drop has been staggering, with just five players with 30 or more homers as the season reaches late August.

Such numbers so late in the season are reminiscent of baseball in the 1970s, when a 40-home-run season was a career achievement. George Foster's 52 bombs for the Cincinnati Reds in 1978 was a staggering number in that era. Just 20 years later, 52 home runs were commonplace, a rather drab number as home runs piled up like bonus points in a pinball game. Major League Baseball sought an escape from the doldrums caused by the 1994 strike-canceled season and jumped on the home run bandwagon, ignoring the fact that many of its players were injecting chemicals into their systems to enhance their performance.

When the numbers finally reached the point of ridiculousness and many of the game's top sluggers began admitting -- or were forced to admit -- their use of performance enhancing drugs, suddenly a drug testing plan was instituted. Following the embarrassing PED admission of Alex Rodriguez two years ago, it seems the home run has been viewed differently by the average fan and the game has been handed back to the pitchers.

Nearly every week this season there is a near no-hitter while players who aaccustomed to averaging 30 home runs by the All-Star Break -- David Ortiz, Mark Teixeira, Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard -- are now trying to reach that mark for the season.

Even more telling is that the league's home run leader -- Jose Bautista -- is a 29-year-old journeyman and former Rule 5 Draft Pick once returned to the Pittsburgh Pirates by the Baltimore Orioles. Bautista (pictured above after a home run) leads the Majors with 37 home runs, six more than his nearest competitor. He had just 13 last season.

Bautista's power rise is a byproduct of hard work and gradual improvement, reasons that we want all players to bash home runs. PEDs should be a solution of the past and these rather ordinary home run numbers show that. With roughly 40 games left in the regular season, there may be just two or three players reach the 40 home run mark, meaning the home run actually has more value because they become more difficult to amass.

Home runs used to be exciting because they possessed the element of surprise. But when players started bopping them at an exponential rate and more and more bombs showed up on "SportsCenter" highlight reels, they became more superficial, more like a video game and less like America's Pastime.

So it's time to appreciate Major League Baseball's return to its roots, before PEDs, before massive body armor allowed players to stand inches from the plate and before pitchers were afraid to throw inside. MLB has gone retro and the game is as real and enjoyable as its been in years.

Let's hope this era lasts.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

U.S. Soccer should be better by now

Wasn't it about 15 years ago when every American child abandoned Little League Baseball for soccer? Weren't were cultivating a generation of soccer players who were going to turn the sport in the American passion? Weren't these kids supposed to push the United States past being a respectable soccer nation and into a power?

Well it's 2010, and those kids born in the mid-1980s are the prime age for being professional soccer players, yet we still lost to Ghana in the World Cup. If Landon Donovan is the best American player, then that doesn't bode well for U.S. Soccer because he was about the fifth-best player Saturday in the 2-1 Knockout Stage loss.

It's amazing to see the Ghanaians play harder, faster and tougher than the American team because by now, we were supposed to be a soccer force. Those kids who could have been LeBron James or Evan Longoria or Chris Johnson were supposed to have ditched the three major sports in favor of soccer, but somewhere interest has been lost.

Somewhere between those cute pee-wee soccer leagues and those high-level leagues reserves for our top players there has been a disconnect. Kids stopped loving soccer or parents stopped pushing their kids to play when the sport became too demanding or too expensive. We aren't complaining about the shortage of great basketball players or football stars or even baseball players. They are hitting the professional ranks in droves.

But we have no idea who will consist of the 2014 World Cup team because the sport's young stars are either too young or not good enough for intense international competition. Donovan is a nice player, but what happened to soccer sensation Freddy Adu, who was playing professionally at age 16?

We are again at a crossroads in soccer. Even the most pedestrian soccer fan could have figured that Ghana was the better team Saturday. We lacked the athleticism and precision, the depth and the endurance. And it was the same case in '94 and '02. But we were supposed to build off those World Cups and return with a vengeance. Instead we are asking ourselves whether we will ever be a soccer country.

That's a question that should have already been answered, but somehow the U.S. Soccer Federation never adequately fed off the soccer craze of the early 1990s, because those kids should be superstars by now. And the U.S. team that is coming home today has no superstars. We know that much.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

NFL Draft doesn't measure heart

On the day many NFL first-round draft picks were being introduced to their new teams and glorified by fans with Super Bowl dreams, JaMarcus Russell (pictured right with commissioner Roger Goodell) was officially tabbed a bust and his once immense potential abandoned by the Oakland Raiders, who traded for Washington Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell to be their starter.

Russell was the No. 1 pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, a rocket-armed mammoth dart thrower expected to lead the Raiders back to respectability. Instead, Russell collected more spinning rims and expensive platinum chains than touchdown passes. He relished the $31.5 million signing bonus and splurged on bling, moved many family members to the Oakland area and was a fixture in the Bay Area party scene. There was one thing missing: Russell forgot about the demands and expectations of his draft position. He forgot that every one of his moves were being judged, and the same fans who were clamoring for his autograph this time three years ago, would be tearing into him after his first interception.

Russell is a prime example of why the professional draft process is so inexact. Teams can measure height, weight, speed, agility and even intelligence, but they can't measure passion, heart or how money will affect a man barely out of high school. Russell loved the money more than the game, and when that happens, you will be replaced.

The NFL is a no excuses league and the Raiders were reluctant to admit they had made a mistake but their pursuit of Campbell, a hard-working player who has been often criticized in Washington -- but never for his worth ethic -- now has a new home. While Russell will have to resuscitate his career with a new team or hopefully he saved some of that cash for his post-NFL career.

This week former Detroit Pistons Bad Boy Rick Mahorn filed for bankruptcy, admitting he and his wife had just $1,001 in his bank account and his Piston championship ring was missing, likely sold or pawned. It's a harsh lesson that money doesn't last forever, and the key to long-term financial comfort is maximizing your career. Russell has done nothing my maximize his waistline in Oakland and will soon learn that same demoralizing lesson that the money or lifestyle doesn't last forever, or even past age 25 in many NFL cases.

New draftees are kissing family members, mamas, daddies, kids and crazy uncles but they need to fully realize the arduous path ahead to succeed. The adoration doesn't last long when you don't produce results and while a platinum chain in your likeness wows the ladies at the club but self indulgence does little to improve your passion or desire or increase the size of your heart.

Heart can't be measured. That's why it's fascinating to track those high picks who falter and those low ones who flourish. Denver took a lot of heat for taking Tim Tebow but he has an intangible that will supersede his weaknesses and teams tend to forget this is a people business. Russell had all the physical tools but the heart of a kitten.

But there he was, dressed in a well tailored suit, shaking hands with the commissioner, smiling, holding up a jersey, but it was all a sham. Russell can no longer get by on his physical tools, his allure eventually dried up because there was no substance, no devotion and no fortitude.

Those characteristics can't be measured at the NFL combine. Russell is the latest example of an athlete who loved the money more than the game, and that same affliction could fell many of this weekend's picks. Until the NFL views heart and desire as a critical part of success, it will continue to pour millions of dollars into fraudulent saviors who deliver nothing more than unrealized dreams.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Note to NCAA: Do Not Expand!!

The NCAA wants to rake in more money from the tournament because CBS has declining revenues in the current television deal. And their simplest solution is expanding the 65-team tournament to 96, adding an extra weekend and as many as two extra games for some participants, meaning a champion may have require eight consecutive wins to earn the title.

This is ridiculous. The NCAA, as usual, is attempting to mess with a formula that doesn't need meddling because they are trying to scrape more money out of the system. College basketball is an effective and attractive entity already and the tournament reaches all sectors of America because of the popularity of the office pool. Even Jane from accounting is enthralled by March Madness, but the product and the excitement would be diluted with 96 teams.

Can you imagine the five or six teams who had a legitimate gripe about being included in this year's tourney -- Illinois, Virginia Tech, Mississippi State, William & Mary, Arizona State -- along with 26 other teams being included? The first-round games would lack intrigue because many of the participants would be teams barely over the .500 mark. The standard for the NCAA Tournament has always been high and there have been many occasions where I was disappointed my Cal Bears were not selected, but each time I could point to three or four concrete reasons they fell short.

Of course, the NCAA believes the best way to earn more money is feeding the audience with more games, regardless of the quality. While the amount of Division I teams grows yearly, there needs to be perhaps a few more spots added to accommodate conference tournament winners and deserving at-large teams but 96 would turn the NCAA Tournament into a nearly month-long sojourn that would lose viewers and interest because it would take weeks to reach its apex.

Look at the NBA Playoffs as an example. The five-week process bores the non-diehard basketball fans, who want to be awaken when LeBron faces Kobe. They'll pass on a Milwaukee-Orlando seven-game first-round series. The NCAA has so many revenue streams it can figure out another more creative way to make money and keep the integrity and excitement of the NCAA Tournament. Things are OK just as they are now, just as Jane in accounting.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Mentoring is missing in pro sports

Can you hear their cries? They are piercing my ears?

You can hear the screams each time an athlete decides to test his own mortality or decides to live the life of a thug/gangta/athlete that sounds good on rap lyrics or in fantasy but doesn't quite resonate in reality.

If it isn't Gilbert Arenas branding guns, it's Shawne Williams selling syrup or Delonte West carrying three guns on a motorcycle -- where was he going? And there is a common thread in all of these challenges to authority, these players lack not only discipline but guidance.

Covering professional sports, it's difficult not to build a personal relationship with the players you cover. You want to see him succeed. You want to see them make good decisions. You hope they are managing their money properly and are not swayed by the temptations of their lifestyle.

And when you see their mistakes, you cringe because in many cases, in knowing these young men, you realize they don't know any better. They were treated as kings on their college campuses and allowed to roam wherever they players, as long as they averaged a double-double. And in the real world, they are mostly surrounded by yes men who call themselves friends but are more like leeches who only benefit from the financial wealth of the lifestyle.

What the NBA, NFL and even Major League Baseball desperately need to do is increase their mentoring programs. There are so many former athletes looking for work, an opportunity to give back -- with some type of compensation, of course -- would could help and perhaps save the lives of these young men, some of whom grew up without father figures or whose fathers are their "business managers" or living off their child's success.

In talking with many of these young man, you realize how little they know about people skills, proper behavior and ediquette. Life is difficult enough for those 20-somethings without the lure of women, money and hangers-on and professional badly needs to address these issues for the healthy of not only their league but of the young athlete.

Both the NFL and NBA have collective bargaining agreements that are set to expire soon and both leagues have allowed their respective players association to handle issues such as mentoring or help with finances or substance abuse, etc. But it's about time for the leagues and players association to unite and form a mentoring group for individuals who seek help. It's acceptable to say that players can always reach out, but how many of these kids will before they cry out with an egrgeous act?

Mentors can serve as guides and examples for these young athletes. We assume because of their financial status and the fact they have agents, that many athletes receive proper instruction and consulation. Hardly. Many agents rarely contact their clients or represent so many other athletes they have little time to focus attention on those with problems.

Sometimes the solutions are basic. Perhaps if Arenas had better direction, someone he trusted in his circle who wasn't on his payroll, he would have made better decision and not banned for the NBA for a series of foolish acts. Because these young men look grown, doesn't mean they are grown and I'm not sure how many examples we need to see before the powers that be in professional sports change the system and reach out to these crying babies.

Do you think they hear them like we do?