I’m high but I’m grounded
I’m sane but I’m overwhelmed
I’m lost but I’m hopeful, baby
And what it all comes down to
Is that everything’s gonna be fine fine fine
Cause I’ve got one hand in my pocket
And the other one is giving a high five
Alanis Morissette, Hand in my Pocket
I thought this song was by Sheryl Crow, but she’s been assigned to the Lance Armstrong scandal in the 1st round of the 90s Female Singers draft, so I can’t also apply her to Ray Lewis.
Instead, Alanis Morissette, the angsty Canadian patron saint of contradiction, fits better with the scary, confounding man in purple. She who released a song called “Ironic” that was anything but, entering terr(or)itories of philosophical meta-irony that I don’t dare to venture into.
The yelling, dancing, preaching, player thumping, Bible thumping, intimidating Ray Lewis is a man of both conviction and contradiction. A purple people eater who gobbles up ballcarriers, the captain has mobilized his Baltimore Ravens in an inspired march to the Super Bowl by announcing his impending retirement after the championship game. This is Lewis’ second appearance in the Super Bowl, and he has a knack for making news in relation to the big game; some abhorrent (2000 murder charges), some laudable (2001 game MVP), and some involving deer that I have absolutely no idea how to classify.
In case you haven’t heard, allegations broke this week that Ray Lewis used deer antler spray, which contains a banned substance, to rehab from his triceps injury. I don’t think there’s anyone else in the league who I would believe this story more about than Ray Lewis. It conjures up an image of Lewis unleashing his primal instincts and destroying the deer who happened to run a slant route across the middle, then snapping off an antler and supping marrow, a witches brew of blood and juice trickling down his face as his body bulges and twitches, transforming back into the Hulk. So raw, so gritty, so…Ray Lewis.
This is one of those stories with all kinds of wacky twists and public fodder. The company Lewis allegedly ordered from is called Sports With Alternatives to Steroids (S.W.A.T.S.), which is exactly what I would call my steroid company. They offer cutting-edge, completely legitimate wares such as jugs of “negatively charged” water and hologram stickers worn on the body to ward off adverse frequencies. Aside from the antler spray, S.W.A.T.S. provided Lewis with personalized underwear soaked in menthol liquid and exposed to radio waves. Mitch Ross, the founder of S.W.A.T.S., is a former stripper and steroid dealer. Another client, South African golfer Vijay Singh, admitted to using the deer antler spray, also banned by the PGA Tour. The company was successfully sued in 2011 by ex-NFL linebacker David Vobora, who was awarded 5.4 million dollars after a S.W.A.T.S. product caused Vobora to fail a drug test.
Lewis called the PED allegations a “trick of the devil,” the eternal font of Super Bowl week disruption. We could begin to consider this argument, were it not for the fact that Ray Lewis has been working with this company since 2011, and phone records show him asking for and getting instructions on how to ingest the spray. This is a lot like ordering 15 Junior Bacon Cheeseburgers from Wendy’s every day since 2011, having Wendy Thomas teach you how to eat them, then saying it’s a “trick of the devil” that you look fat.
You live you learn, you love you learn
You cry you learn, you lose you learn
Alanis Morisette, You Learn
If the above is indeed true, Ray Lewis is a PhD level scholar, especially with the crying. Lewis has triggered waterworks seemingly every time he has been in front of a camera during the playoffs: After games on the field, after games in the press room, and even during the national anthem in the AFC Championship game. SNL satirized Lewis this week; when asked about the sketch, he said: “When I saw it, I laughed so hard. I was in tears actually last night laughing about it.” Ray Lewis was in tears from laughing about his excessive tears; isn’t that ironic, Alanis?
You oughta know that it’s not fair to remind Ray Lewis of his past demons, as Wes Welker’s wife did last week- or at least, that’s the rule in the press. The media refuses to discuss the fact that, frankly, there’s a pretty strong chance that Ray Lewis committed murder. Two men were murdered after a fight with Lewis’ crew; Lewis’ white suit vanished, one man’s blood was found in his limo, and Lewis was indicted for murder. Lewis reportedly cried when he was read his rights. He reached out of court monetary settlements of an undisclosed amount with the families of both victims. Here’s the cliffnotes on Wikipedia Is it because it sullies the perfect Ray Lewis narrative? The press should be vultures with a ravenous appetite for veracity, instead of sealing the vault. It’s a complacent media that accepts bygones, but I suppose it’s easier to write a column full of light-minded idiosyncrasies and game notes than latching on to an inconvenient truth.
The press informs the fans; how do NFL fans regard Ray Lewis? He’s rough around the edges, but he’s entertaining, and he elevates the game on the field and as a spokesman. One Ravens beat writer said that he’s never seen Ray Lewis with any reading material besides his Bible and his playbook; Lewis certainly has a passion both personal and professional. Before games, he dances. During games, he hits. After games, he speaks. He’s good at all three.
Their acceptance of Lewis shows that fans want the most entertainment out of football that they can get, and that means they want the highest level of product. Lewis is dangerous, but religious. He’s a criminal, but he’s fun to watch. What it all comes down to is fans overlooking Lewis’ transgressions and embracing his play. He’s won them over in spite of themselves, and they’ve fallen head over feet for the grizzled veteran.
Should we be alarmed, or is everything going to be fine?
On the surface, Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a pretty typical record. The subject of the album is love, just like countless other releases. But the object of frontman Jeff Mangum’s affections is a pubescent Jewish girl who spoke to him through her world-famous public diary. Working against the relationship? Her death by genocide in 1945. Mangum is passionately in love with Anne Frank.
The serpent tempts me to pick the low-hanging fruit, which oozes with juicy adjectives like crazy, insane, or deluded, but I’m not convinced. It’s important to reflect on just how easily one’s life can be mutilated by the oppressive forces of subordination, and to highlight the fickleness of perspective in regards to insanity. Do you realize just how easy it is to be classified as insane? A few people working against someone and collaborating on a shared story is plenty to land that person in a psychiatric ward. Unlike in prison, where you appear in court and receive a finite maximum sentence (with many inmates discharged much earlier for good behavior), the stay at a psychiatric hospital is indefinite. It’s like hitting Staples’ easy button for perpetual imprisonment. Of course, you just could tell people it’s all been a mistake and you’re of sound mind, but nothing sounds “crazier” than tormented pleas of sanity. The harder you thrash in quicksand, the deeper you sink. Nellie Bly was a reporter who bluffed her way into a psych ward for a story. She acted normal once inside, but the staff never realized their mistake. “Strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted, the crazier I was thought to be,” Bly wrote.
Not only am I terrified of this happening to me, but I think that “crazy” is a societal construct. How can you objectively state that what goes on in someone else’s mind is wrong on a universal basis? There’s quite a bit that I disagree with on a personal basis, but I’m not conceited enough to feel like I can competently judge the thoughts of the world around me as sound or unsound. Men who claim to be descended from deities are imprisoned and dismissed today, but at many different times in history, a populace that was either less jaded or more gullible embraced these purported saviors.
But I digress. Mangum once preceded a live song with a cryptic, “I wrote this before things started to change in my head.” While Mangum’s vision may seem loopy, it makes a lot of sense when you venture from the blunt, physical world and into the realm of the abstract- a realm where Mangum presides in. He’s enamored with the idea of Frank, perpetual hope juxtaposed with an untenable situation.
Mangum has become the reclusive muse of music, attracting comparison to wordsmiths like Pynchon and Salinger. His disarming earnestness contrasts with Salinger’s famously divisive narrator Holden Caulfield, apt to label elements of the world he sees as insincere as “phony.” After concluding a tour at the end of 1998, Neutral Milk Hotel split up. Between 1999 and 2010, Mangum played only 7 shows in public; in 6 of them, he performed only 1 song.
Neither In the Aeroplane Over the Sea or On Avery Island, the 1996 debut by Neutral Milk Hotel, achieved commercial success. The lack of access to the mainstream dictates that the music will be unearthed by alternative fans that dig deeper for music than the average person. Because of this, the frontman who epitomizes sincerity draws an audience of hipsters, known for spreading the irony on thick.
Mangum’s lyrics are both meaningful and magical, often sifting through the dirt in the world to extract the golden nuggets. His language about sex is brash but poetic. The song “Oh Comely” contains a verse that tells a foreboding origin story in few words, before describing intercourse through lush prose. At the same time, Mangum uses impressive assonance while each line is syllabically perfect, resting precisely between a simple strumming.
Your father made fetuses with flesh licking ladies
While you and your mother were asleep in the trailer park
Thunderous sparks from the dark of the stadiums
The music and medicine you needed for comforting
So make all your fat fleshy fingers to moving
And pluck all your silly strings and bend all your notes for me
Soft silly music is meaningful magical
The movements were beautiful all in your ovaries
All of them milking with green fleshy flowers
While powerful pistons were sugary sweet machines
Recently, Mangum has emerged from his sabbatical. He played for Occupy supporters at NYC’s Zuccotti Park in 2011, and at popular music festival Coachella in 2012. He toured throughout the first half of 2012, crossing the country and journeying to England and Spain. A fantastic NPR article reports that demand for the show was insatiable:
“ the thousand or so tickets for Mangum’s two Baltimore dates sold out in 18 minutes. Makes sense: reclusive artist, limited tour dates, high demand. Of course, some people were bound to buy tickets just to flip them for exorbitant amounts of money. Rumor had it that tickets for previous shows on the tour had re-sold for more than 10 times their face value, up to $300 apiece.
“Easily,” (show promoter Todd) Lesser says. “And I’ve also heard of the extreme cases, where people are paying into the four figures for tickets.”
But there would be no ticket scalping on Lesser’s watch. Working with Mangum’s booking agency, Lesser instituted a policy that IDs would be checked at the door, and that they had to match the name of the purchaser. If you bought two — the maximum you could buy — you had to give the name of your guest.”
Mangum brings both music and mystique to a live show, the rare chance to see an artist that shuns the spotlight. Just when it seemed like Mangum was at last embracing his fame, he announced on his website that he was playing one last acoustic tour, “giving him the chance to play to all the silver citizens dwelling in citys (sic) that he has yet to sing in.” The final tour began in January, and wraps up in February of 2013.
The knowledge that this may be Mangum’s swan song inspired me to shell out $40 to attend his show in Cleveland. As a spendthrift, the financial blow was cushioned by the exorbitant sums others are apparently paying, and the perspective that seeing a reclusive savant will be more valuable in the future than placing a few extra calls to Papa John’s.
On January 11th, a horde of hipsters descended upon Euclid Ave., clad in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles jackets and ugly sweaters, many realizing something that, for many years, was only a dream. My research on the ID requirement was in vain; upon flashing my teenaged driver’s license, security assumed I was making an audacious attempt to get alcohol. The best outfit of the night wasn’t even intentionally funny, but a man adorned in a Ryan Gosling scorpion jacket from Drive that was more cosplay than cool.
Thousands saw Mangum enter stage right and sit on a minimalist stage, bare besides a chair, mic, bottled water, and 4 guitars. He sported a full beard that could shame a mountain trapper, jarring when compared to the clean-shaven mug only accessible to the world in pixelized form. His aesthetic may have been foreign, but his voice unmistakable. He played mostly hits, along with one unreleased song.
I scrutinized his demeanor due to his hermitic reputation; Mangum is undeniably uncomfortable as a showman. The crowd was reverential, silent until Mangum assured the audience that it was OK to sing along. He seemed genuinely surprised at the turnout, at one point remarking that he was unaware that so many people listened to his work.
One seminal image still burned into my mind occurred when Mangum played “Holland, 1945.” The song, embedded below, is one of Neutral Milk Hotel’s most accessible and upbeat compositions. From the balcony, I spotted two women dancing with each other at the back of the floor, whirling in uninhibited ecstasy, rejoicing, their bodies as much of an instrument as Mangum’s cords and chords.
As I left the auditorium, I overheard one fan say, “Now I can die happy.”
Kyrie Irving’s Uncle Drew is a raspy reminder of a romanticized sport, a pure chapter of skyhooks and bank shots that recalls an era of basketball long elapsed. A frail, hobbled man decrying the extravagance and exalting the fundamental miraculously taps into the fountain of youth and schools the “youngbloods.”
It’s youth clothed in mortality, a near-teenager draped in the ashen cloak of inevitable age. But as Kyrie Irving breaks, sprains, clatters, and fractures, his mortality is highlighted instead of hidden, and it threatens to derail the career of one of the NBA’s most promising prospects.
Irving’s truncated collegiate career is seen as an advantage by some, less tread on the proverbial tires. In 11 games, Irving scored 17.5 points per game and flashed the ability that made him a lock as the pole-sitter in the NBA Draft. By missing the majority of his year at Duke with a toe injury, Irving may have foreshadowed his own professional demise.
For a 20-year-old
kid man, Irving is a magnet for injury baggage, hoarding hard knocks and demonstrating a zeal for collecting ailments. Professionally, it was tabula rasa for Irving until February of his rookie campaign, when he greeted Dwayne Wade’s knee with his skull and missed time with a concussion. A subsequent shoulder sprain sidelined him for another 10 games in April; Irving said it was the same shoulder that he hurt sophomore year in high school.
Irving “only” missed 15 games in a lockout-shortened season, but the early injuries may be the tip of the iceberg. A brawl with a wall during a summer league practice broke Irving’s dominant right hand; a puerile lapse for a player who personifies a collected veteran in the media.
“It wasn’t so much a lesson,” Irving said. “It was one of those things that was just a freakish accident. Honestly, it could have been me being smarter, but going forward, I’m staying away from pads.”
I doubt the padding of the wall is as much of a problem as the conscious, aggressive decision to strike barely-cushioned cement, but even if his message is misguided, Irving’s intention to repent is sound.
After surgery on the hand, Irving carried a clean bill of health, save the wisdom teeth extraction that plagues young adults pedestrian and professional alike. Until November, that is, when a fractured left index finger caused him to miss almost a full month. He almost made it a full week before the latest dust-up, a collision with the hardwood floor where Irving fractured a bone in his jaw.
Along the way, believe it or not, he acquired the label of “injury prone,” but the fragile star insists he’s anything but.
“I’m not worried about being injury prone,” Irving said in October. “Not at all.”
It’s important to consider Irving’s rave reviews on the court along with his checkered injury history. Irving earned 117 out of 120 first place votes for Rookie of the Year, becoming one of 6 players in history to tally 18 points and 5 assists per game in their inaugural seasons. The others: Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson (would he write off Irving’s punch because it was only practice?), and LeBron James.
His stint on the USA Select Team, practice fodder for the Olympic squad, provoked unanimous adulation. James said that Irving stood out on the Select squad, and organizer Jerry Colangelo tabbed Irving as “a player you could move from one court to the other court,” referring to the stratified practice setting between Selects and Olympians.
“Kyrie always impresses me,” USA Basketball frontman (and Irving’s college coach) Mike Krzyzewski said. “This week, he’s been who I think he is, which is one of the top guards anywhere.”
Irving was born in Australia before moving to the United States, and has dual citizenship. He publicly pondered playing for the Australian Olympic squad, so it will be interesting to see if the glut of American guards pushes Irving to the dark side. Watch him destroy current guards Russell Westbrook and James Harden in this camp footage, especially the ridiculous spin at 0:26.
It seems that Irving doesn’t miss a beat when returning from injury. He torched the Lakers with 28 points and 11 assists in his return from the finger injury. In his first game wearing a giant mask to protect his fractured jaw, he makes Jason Kidd look like Uncle Drew before the bones stop creaking, en route to a career-high 41 points against the Knicks.
In Greek mythology, Kid Icarus had the potential to escape Crete, but pride and ambition led him to assume risk and fly too close to the sun. His wings melted, and he dropped from the sky and drowned. Kyrie Irving can become an NBA great if he can avoid the crash and burn.
In Greek language, the name Kyrie means “Lord”. Body willing, Kyrie Irving has the potential to rule the game. With moves like he ones he put on Westbrook and on Kidd, it’s “Kyrie eleison!”- Lord have mercy! Change the tone and the phrase becomes a mantra, a plea of Cavs fans wishing health upon their injury-riddled cornerstone. “Kyrie, eleison.”- Lord, have mercy.
The Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.
These are not my words. These words are taken directly from the mission statement of the Heisman Trust, who will award the most kick-ass looking trophy in sports tonight to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein, or Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o. According to CBSSports’s historically reliable straw poll*, Manziel is poised to hoist the stiff-arming statuette. This would be an outrage on par with The Godfather Part III, anthrax epidemics, and Rick Astley. Manti Te’o is overqualified for the Heisman, and quite possibly the most deserving candidate of all-time.
*It should be noted that this straw poll only features 11 voters, an incredibly small sample size. Also, don’t get me started the logistical hassle it must be to convene 11 national college football writers just to toss some straws in the wind!
(Disclaimer: From this point forward, we will ignore Klein, the Ralph Nader of the 2012 Heisman Trophy Presentation.)
Pro football’s premier award honors the sport’s most valuable player. Consequently, the NFL MVP race is more predictable than a Cuban presidential election (and I don’t think Nate Silver has an evil twin averaging polls in Havana). The best quarterback will almost always win, because quarterbacks influence a given team’s overall success more than any other position. This is inherently fair, but it also makes for a boring award. By contrast, the Heisman purports to recognize college football’s most outstanding player, ostensibly eliminating positional bias. Theoretically, punters, longsnappers, and super-foxy cheerleaders have the same opportunity for Heisman glory as quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers. Sadly, this is not the case.
The fact that an inside linebacker is a Heisman finalist demonstrates how outstanding Manti is. In college football’s modern era, Pittsburgh DE Hugh Green (second in 1980), Nebraska DT Ndamukong Suh (fourth in 2009), and Manti are the only exclusively-defensive players to have been named finalists. Indisputably, a linebacker must be transcendent to finish first or second in the Heisman, whereas a quarterback can lead a field of weak candidates. (See previous winners Troy Smith, Jason White, or Eric Crouch.)
Some will stupidly grouse that Manti isn’t even the best defensive player in the country! While I disagree, the answer is immaterial. You could just as easily argue that Manziel isn’t the best offensive player; perhaps that title belongs to USC’s Marqise Lee or Oregon’s Kenjon Barner. Truth is, there’s much more to the Heisman than being the best player on one side of the ball.
Now let’s look at “whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.” This particular phrase is the reason why Heisman winners are overwhelmingly the best player on the best team – because guiding a team to a perfect record and number one ranking is the embodiment of pursuing excellence. Manti is undoubtedly #1 Notre Dame’s best player. He’s led a dominant Irish defense – which surrenders a mere 10.3 points per game, the lowest in the nation – in spite of an offense that has scored 22 points or fewer on seven occasions. As The Plain Dealer’s Doug Lesmerises put it, “That’s like [Manziel] winning seven 49-42 games this year.”
Manziel has padded his stats against schools that Gordon Gee would classify as “Little Sisters of the Poor” – dumpster-fire Arkansas, Division 1-AA South Carolina State and Sam Houston State – while struggling against ranked opponents. Meanwhile, Notre Dame is undefeated vs. Top 25 teams (largely because of Manti), and doesn’t stoop to scheduling 1-AA universities.
As for integrity, Manziel was arrested and charged with three misdemeanors for fighting in June. Manti received the Awards and Recognition Association’s National Sportsmanship honor in November, and touchingly comforted the parents of a dying, 12 year-old Notre Dame fan in October.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the intangible factors that go into Heisman voting. Winners are often cult heroes, transcendent players that have captured the zeitgeist. Recent examples of this include Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton, and Tim Tebow. Many have added Manziel to this esteemed fraternity because of two false premises:
- The “Johnny Football” nickname, one of the most overrated monikers of my lifetime. A kindergartener could come up with something more imaginative than this.
- That he’s a freshman, which he’s not. People gush over Manziel’s precociousness as if he were a fresh-faced 16 year-old, plucked from a nearby driver’s ed class and inserted into A&M’s starting lineup without any practice or knowledge of the playbook. Nonetheless, he’s a redshirt freshman – essentially a sophomore.
Manti, on the other hand, is intriguing and soft-spoken, hailing from the mysterious island of Oahu. A year ago, he eschewed millions of guaranteed dollars to return to South Bend, hoping to play for a BCS National Championship. Pundits and fans scoffed at such a notion, but Manti has achieved just that. He’s been universally lauded for performing valiantly in the wake of tragedy – his grandmother and girlfriend passed away in September – and moved the Midwestern, rural Notre Dame crowd to don leis in a show of support.
Manziel has hoodwinked voters into championing his cause, but Manti is more deserving by the letter of the law. Commenting on his star linebacker’s Heisman candidacy, Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly declared, “If a guy like Manti Te’o isn’t going to win the Heisman, they should just make it an offensive award.” Hell, they might as well get rid of it altogether!
UPDATE: It’s come to my attention that a contingent of anti-Manti propagandists are using Manti’s stats to discredit his case for the Heisman. “But he’s not even in the top 100 in tackles,” they protest. True, when you cause as many 3-and-outs as Notre Dame does, you’ll have fewer opportunities to make tackles**. Fortunately, linebackers (and Heisman winners) aren’t judged by arbitrary stats, provided without context.
**If we took tackles as seriously as these haters claim, D’Qwell Jackson would be a first ballot Hall of Famer.
Ticketmaster is generously providing Browns fans attending the Steelers game Sunday with an inflatable flag to combat the terror of the Terrible Towel. Problem is, a white flag isn’t exactly evocative of victory.
This is just another misguided stab at fending off the swirling hand rags of the steel city. 2006 brought Cleveland the “Dirty Brown Towel” (which doesn’t at all suggest that the franchise is excrement.) Another site looks to monetize self-loathing with the “We are Terrible” towel, a gag gift website making the same exact joke as the Browns marketing team.
But we could really go back to the future by considering the Growl Towels of 1986. Also white, these were manufactured at a time before surrender was the default. Before the Pilot Flying J era, it was Bernie Kosar piloting the Browns to a 12-4 season that culminated in Elway’s immortal Drive. If the Browns wanted to pay homage to this success, they would have been better served trawling Ebay than issuing new flags ceding failure.
It’s hard to believe that a more apropos, gift-wrapped metaphor exists. It’s David vs. Goliath, only David forgot to bring rocks and deferentially dropped his slingshot.
Is the Browns’ promotion a white flag against their
rival bully the historical floor of the franchise? Of the city? Playing the jilted lover, the Browns are no stranger to seeing former beaus peak after changing scenery: LeBron, Modell, Bill Belichick. The only thing that’s peaked in Cleveland is Shawn Kemp’s weight.
Perhaps the motif of white would be best applied to a beekeeper’s protective dress, because these swole bumblebees have done lots of stinging since Lerner reanimated the Browns into a slightly less lifeless corpse than the one Art Modell left after he gutted the franchise and toted the heart to Baltimore. The Steelers are 23-4 against the Browns since the 1999 expansion, a success spell terminating any notion of equality between the teams.
“They knew we were going to run the ball and they couldn’t stop us,” said former Steelers linebacker Joey Porter after a 2006 thrashing. “They want to be on our level and call it a rivalry, but I don’t see it.”
The Steelers aren’t even coming into the game at full strength. Gone is the ticking battery of the offense, quarterback Big Ben Roethlisberger, as well as his bad backup Byron Leftwich. Helming the Steelers is third-stringer Charlie Batch, a QB who couldn’t get off the bench when Leftwich was floundering with broken ribs. Gone are the luscious locks of shampoo aficionado Troy Polamalu, and All Pro punt returner and starting wide receiver Antonio Brown will also be absent.
Most of the headlines coming out of this game the past few years have revolved around cranium-rattler and former Golden Flash James Harrison rendering Mohamed Massaquoi limp and Colt McCoy averse to light. Maybe the white flag debacle is a media ploy designed to trick the Steelers into underestimating Cleveland. Based on Porter’s sentiment, they seem to already estimate the Browns pretty low.
Browns strong safety and political corruption homagist T.J. Ward spoke out against the humiliating giveaway on his Twitter account, @bossward43.
“Is this white flag thing true?! If so….the white flag give away needs to be white flagged!”
Preemptive surrender or not, expect the Steel Curtain to deliver a (to channel Kellen Winslow) cold war on Sunday.
NOV 24 EDIT: The white flag promotion has been canceled as of Saturday. “After further and careful consideration, we felt it was in the best interests of everyone involved that we not have a giveaway item at tomorrow’s game,” said team spokesman Neal Gulkis in a statement. ”It is something that was intended to be fun for our fans and that they could rally around, and we regret that some didn’t perceive it that way.”
No word on the Pittsburgh Steelers revoking Terrible Towels for their self-deprecating nickname.
The departure of Kimbo Slice doppelganger James Harden from Oklahoma City severely stunts the playoff hopes of the Thunder. In a league building towards superstar-laden rosters, the Thunder dealt a great player for average picks and average players. They traded out of contention because of the luxury tax, which makes it hard for small-market teams without lavish TV contracts or sugar daddies with deep pockets to retain talent. They traded out of contention because of an ill-fitting jigsaw of overlapping skill sets, and they traded because of ego, of Sam Presti, James Harden, or maybe both.
How could you deal a 23-year-old core player, drafted #3 overall, on the heels of an NBA Finals appearance? James Harden is an electric scorer who can catch and shoot (like most shooting guards in the NBA) but also can create his own shots (an elusive trait inherent to stardom.) Harden is quiet and humble, willing to check his ego and come off the bench. And, thanks to his inordinately hirsute face, Harden is both incredibly marketable and terrifying to children.
Posting this to show Harden and former running mate Durant in the spotlight, not because of Kate Upton. Definitely not because of Kate Upton.
But Harden’s liabilities are already vulnerable in Oklahoma City. The reason he watches the tipoff from the bench is due to his poor perimeter defense, ceding time to lock-down defender and awful offensive talent Thabo Sefalosha. It wouldn’t be as much of an issue if fellow stars Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant were not also weak defenders. Each player has a parallel skill set, which yields a problematic symmetry where talents and flaws are equally amplified. All three players can’t handle one ball, and each possession only permits one shot to be created.
Could the Miami Heat have beaten OKC into submission? Did the 5 game Finals thrashing convince the Thunder to head back to the drawing board? Miami made it work without a true center and a rotating crop of token point guards who deferred on-ball duties to LeBron or Wade. Bill Simmons believes that the Heat eliminated both of those core NBA positions, creating a dexterous system where shooters space the floor from the corners while either of their stars can take over creative duties. OKC could have chosen to copy and implement Erik Spoelstra’s strategy, isolating all of their superstars and preying on the easiest defensive matchup. Instead, they traded out of their embarrassment of riches, choosing conventionality in a league experiencing sweeping change.
To his credit, Thunder GM Sam Presti has been successful rebuilding from the ground up. Besides the particularly heinous offense of spending a lottery pick on scrub Cole Aldrich (offloaded in this Rockets deal), Presti’s drafts have been successful. Westbrook, in particular, was a risky gambit that paid out handsomely. He only started one season at UCLA and scored less than 13 points per game, but Presti selected him 4th in the 2008 draft. He nabbed Serge Ibaka, nicknamed Serge Protector for his electric defense, with the 24th pick in the same year, Presti’s inaugural draft. Presti, who was hired at 31, isn’t afraid to take chances. He traded face of the franchise Ray Allen shortly after taking office, when the franchise was still in Seattle, and scored the draft rights to Jeff Green. Green was a solid contributor before being sent to the Celtics for Kendrick Perkins, a player who hasn’t panned out for the Thunder, and with a yearly salary of almost $10 million, Perkins contributed to the cap conundrum that forced a move for Harden.
The bounty Presti scored for Harden includes veteran shooting guard Kevin Martin, a first round pick via the Raptors that projects near the late lottery area, a Lakers first rounder that should fall among the last few selections, a second rounder, and rookie shooting guard, rap auteur, and Scrawl so Hard favorite Jeremy Lamb. He parted with Harden and 3 negligible bench players. Martin is a prolific scorer but a poor defender. He may be most helpful for his expiring $13 million contract coming off the books after this season. His career has consisted of scoring buckets in droves while losing games. He’ll have to modify his game to become an off-the-ball shooter if he wants to play with Durant and Westbrook, but could generate scoring on the second unit. Lamb has a high floor and a high ceiling; he’s wiry and athletic, and is as likely to make the trade a gem for the Thunder as he is to self-destruct on the bench. He’s also not used to playing 5th banana, and many NBA scouts criticized his attitude and intelligence. The outcome of the picks will rest on Presti’s shoulders, but the NBA draft always produces busts. He’s mining for gold while playing Minesweeper.
This fascinating Grantland profile on Harden encapsulates his enigmatic personality; at times, he is selfless and stoic, a teenager who had to be convinced to shoot more and put the team on his back during high school. Other times, he is a “swaggering and smack-talking alpha dog,” going toe-to-toe verbally and on the court with the legendarily competitive Kobe Bryant. Harden was offered a 4 year contract for about $55 million to stay with the Thunder, but he rejected it. Is the alpha dog in Harden bearing its teeth, intent on being the primary conductor on a mission to orchestrate a winner? Unlike NBA royalty like the Miami trio and Tim Duncan, Harden was unwilling to take less to remain on a great team.
Disconcerting is the fact that the max deal Harden will get from the Rockets pays out $60 million over 4 years, only $5 million more than what he turned down from the Thunder. At such a negligible difference (percentage-wise, for an NBA player,) Harden’s departure suggests tension or frustration with being bottled up on the bench. Former players and current pundits Bruce Bowen and Jalen Rose believe Harden might regret eschewing a potential dynasty in favor of an increased role and salary. During negotiations, Presti laid out for Harden and his agent that he would be traded if he didn’t accept an extension. If it was really all about the money, the Thunder maintain they had no room to budge.
“We wanted to sign James to an extension,” said Presti, “but at the end of the day, these situations have to work for all those involved.”
Durant was surprisingly reserved. Both men have referred to each other as “brothers,” yet Durant tweeted a simple “Wow” before wishing luck to all four of the Thunder players traded.
“I actually talked to Kevin (Durant) last night,” Harden said. “He called me and he’s still in shock. Like I said, it happened so fast. I think he was at a football game when he found out and I think he said he stopped watching the game he was so upset.”
On Tuesday, Durant was so upset, he released a rap with Stephen Jackson.
Today, the Thunder roster is worse than before the trade. Potentially, Presti may be lauded for making the difficult move and improving the team in the long run. Harden could be heralded for moving on and carving out his own legacy in the eye of Linsanity. Whatever schism motivated Harden to depart, the exit from the talented Thunder core in a superstar-oriented league comes as a surprise to most fans. And it might have broken up the last challenger fighting in a valiant but fruitless stand against the heavy spenders in the major market. The hopes of a carefully crafted dynasty exit stage left and defect to Houston, while the Miami Heat return for a curtain call.
Ohio State University dean’s-lister Cardale Jones likely acquired his classroom chops while enrolled in Ginn Academy, a school founded by Glenville High School coaching legend and former security guard Ted Ginn. Jones’ tweet has ignited controversy, garnering coverage from media outlets like ESPN and Deadspin, and eliciting vitriolic backlash that has caused Jones to delete his Twitter account. Despite a grammatical lapse, I believe the criticism is largely undeserved, and that Jones has a valid point.
A 2009 ESPN article says that 78% of NFL players are broke within two years of retirement. The movie “Broke,” part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, profiled a number of penniless former pros. From bad investments, to family pressures, to child support, athletes surpass Rossian proportions of blowing money fast. The locker room is a Petri dish of envy, swarming with competitive and suddenly rich men prone to take drastic measures to impress. But the money is like a flood, gushing through the levies after a life of drought and providing an abundance of water, a fleeting abundance that will evaporate if not properly preserved.
Ryan Pontbriand was a talented high school offensive lineman who attended Rice University on a football scholarship. He settled into the smallest niche spot in football, becoming a standout long snapper. Tasked with delivering the ball for field goals and punts, a long snapper needs to be reliable, precise, and perfect. At their best, long snappers are an afterthought and a foregone conclusion. One mistake, and they find the spotlight.
Pontbriand was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the 5th round of the 2003 NFL Draft, the highest selection of a long snapper in NFL history. He left Rice with a degree in mechanical engineering. Pontbriand had 8 quietly great seasons in the Dawg Pound, and the league threw him a bone with Pro Bowl selections in 2007 and 2008. In 2011, two poor Pontbriand snaps in a span of three weeks resulted in Browns losses. Both were in situations where they would have obtained the lead after the two minute warning in the 4th quarter. Pontbriand was, unceremoniously, released from the team.
I looked at Pontbriand’s Twitter and laughed when I saw a LinkedIn account in the bio. Is there some sort of NFL networking at hand, where they keep tabs on each other’s car washes and restaurants online? Would Pontbriand ask Kelly Holcomb or Josh Cribbs to write him a nice recommendation for his professionalism in times of adversity? But when I clicked, I learned that Pontbriand is a full-fledged member of the workforce. He was on the San Francisco 49ers in the preseason, but moved on to a job with a Texas energy company. Because long snappers get comparatively modest salaries and live from one snap to the next, Pontbriand had a contingency plan and looks to be financially stable. He is the exception, not the standard.
There’s two ways for NFL players to enjoy comfortable post-professional circumstances. One is to traverse Pontbriand’s path, and utilize football scholarships as a chance to obtain a sought-after degree without spending a penny. When the athletic career is terminated, the degree is a sprawling parachute of lifetime financial comfort. But so many athletes see school like Cardale Jones, as an obligatory and unnecessary burden instead of an opportunity. How do you short-circuit the cycle from poverty to wealth, back to poverty that engulfs athletes? The second way to preserve wealth is to teach future pros exactly how to manage their earnings, to make the money made on 1-2 major contracts last for a lifetime.
Let’s be frank: Schools don’t care what kind of an education players get. They’re a source of revenue, merely a symbiotic back-scratching arrangement between player and program. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that; but it’s wrong to operate under a pretense of seeing the athletes as students, instead of a means of profit and prestige. Many players wouldn’t be in college without their athletic abilities. They have poor test scores, or grades, and might not want to be in college at all. But they want to play football.
College football can’t be a one-size-fits-all prescription, because many players don’t want to take the educational medicine. We need to divide athletes into groups, and offer them tailored options to best benefit the rest of their lives. There’s a fundamental schism between players who want to take classes, and players who don’t. Let’s embrace that, and make academics an optional facet of playing college football. Want to take advantage of the allotted educational openings? Proceed in the present manner.
If a player doesn’t want to go to school, that’s fine too. College athletes who are considering leaving school early and entering the draft can consult with NFL scouts to gauge their draft stock. This tells players if they are cut out to be pros, and shapes their decision to enter the draft or return to school. Coming out of High School, players are already thoroughly scouted and assigned a grade of 1-5 stars based on their talent and potential. They are measured in many of the ways future pros are. Large football factory schools always fill their rosters with highly-ranked players, while smaller schools draw less coveted athletes. If they’re rated in high school just like in college, why can’t the players consult with a board of college scouts and find out if they’re pro material?
In this system, players who won’t make the pros and don’t care about school can simply elect to play football only. This will improve the schools, raising admissions standards and offering more spots in classrooms for attendees that actually want to be there. At the same time, it frees the players (who as adults should be able to make their own choices) from the burden of studying and allows them to focus on improving athletically. Players with on-field talent should not have to work harder in the classroom to play, because it is not a privilege to play for the school. Big-time athletics is a cash cow, profiting on athletes regarded only as a means. When players have to earn the right to be exploited, who benefits?
Players with a distaste for school but a shot at the pros could then be presented with another alternative: helpful tutelage in the art of being an athlete. The NFL already throws a Rookie Symposium, in which cautionary tokens Mike Vick and Adam “Pacman” Jones preach a “Do as I say, not as I do,” message to the fledgling flock of pros. But how much can these players, many with a contempt for learning, soak up in just one weekend?
Instead, why not spend the years toiling away in irrelevant classes on educating future pros on how to handle their business? Develop courses in money management, communications, and business. Teach these players how to handle their finances, and where to find financial professionals. Show what makes an investment valuable. Help them hire a qualified agent, learn to budget income and set up a portfolio. Teach them how to speak to the press strategically, so that players can control their message and serve as a media advocate to their most valuable asset: themselves. Include courses on marketing, on game theory. Create a curriculum that gives players the tools to stretch the temporarily bountiful NFL earnings into lasting stability.
It’s impossible to expect the young and rich to make calculated business decisions when they have no formal training. Professional Prep should be a separate program, really no different than a Pre-Law or Pre-Medicine major, a useless course load for those not following the professional path, but an invaluable packaging of information to those progressing into the intended arenas. The track should use a simple pass or fail grading system, to incentivize actual learning as opposed to competing for a primary letter of the alphabet, as well as unburden schools from the academic output of big-time athletes, statistically lower than the student body, and prevent some of the purported chicanery of fabricated transcripts.
What we come out with is choices for players: Those settling on a Jonesian trope, the ones who “ain’t come to play school,” can choose their own adventure: No classes, or tailored programs less about rigorous studying and learning than about implanting life skills and lessons into future pros. Those who can balance the team and the textbook capitalize on the free college education offered to them. And the colleges boost their academic stats, retain academically troubled athletes on football teams, and ensure that their cash cows are still grazing on the green pastures of dead presidents.
Certainly, the stratification of athletics comes with some caveats. This proposal isn’t a panacea, but it’s an improvement; no plan is going to be perfect. I’m open to suggestion on how to handle athletes in lesser sports that hate school. On one hand, if the university needs them for a team, it should be an individual choice to graduate or not. At the same time, it’s easy to recognize that there isn’t much of a professional future in swimming, track and field, or golf, among many other sports. It would be the professional equivalent of advertantly swallowing a poison pill to refuse the free education. I think that, at this point, men’s football and basketball are the only sports with the professional infrastructure to support this plan. Also, BCS schools are the only places where talent is concentrated enough to employ this, so I would limit the availability of this track to the major schools. It would work as a recruiting advantage to maintain the hegemonic hierarchy of the NCAA, and is no less unfair than ensuring automatic bids for the power conferences, a practice in play today.
Also, some will still demand more benefit for players, a salary either contingent on a University’s income in the sport, or distributed among all Division 1 athletes, hammer-and-sickle style. While I identify the exploitation of college athletes, nobody is making athletes get a degree. Basketball wunderkind Brandon Jennings eschewed college for a foreign professional league until he was eligible for the NBA draft. Simply put, players who want to be compensated with cash can join a league that pays players. It’s a choice to enroll in college, and they are knowingly choosing to forgo income.
I realize that choosing to bypass classes to prepare for life as a pro will backfire in many cases. There’s no utopian predictor of success in college athletics or beyond that. We let students accrue hundreds of thousands in debt to grab a philosophy degree, even though it’s a statistically morbid move. But it’s their decision to make. Anyone saying that the players will mess up the decision or shouldn’t be allowed to choose is degrading their adulthood and denying the right to choice. Mill’s harm principle holds (and I paraphrase) that one should not interfere with the free will of another unless the action will cause harm to others. It is not acceptable to intervene if a person is only harming his or her self.
Offering a professional preparatory path will help to cull the alarming number of pros with no more dough, while freeing them of classroom obligations. And those who hate class and only want to do what they were recruited for can rest their brains until they get between the hashes. All around, we’re giving college players choices. If I said there was a way to improve the college game, strengthen the universities academically, and reduce the number of impoverished ex-athletes, everyone would jump all over that. You might even call it a no-brainer.