Sunday, November 21, 2010

Weighing In On All The Hitting

Roger Goodell is in a tough spot.  

I feel for The Commish, really, I do.    

Although I don't feel too bad, because really, how bad can you feel for someone who takes a 20% paycut "because of the economy" and still makes $8.8 million a year?  Not too terribly bad, in my humble opinion.

I mean, you have to admit that the guy currently finds himself in a bit of a pickle.  

In recent years, the healthcare and scientific communities have been accumulating compelling evidence linking recurrent concussions and other traumatic brain injuries to the development of devastating neurodegenerative disorders like Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (aka Lou Gehrig's Disease).  Other studies have shown alarmingly higher rates of depression and dementias in retired NFL players than in the general population.  In 2009, partly due to this evidence, House Representative John Conyers Jr. (D-MI) moved to hold Congressional hearings about the impact of head injuries on NFL players.  A somewhat embarrassing debacle subsequently played out before Congress and the American public (or at least all three people in the United States who actually watch CSPAN), culminating with the Co-Chairmen of the NFL's Committee on Head Injuries (Dr. Ira Casson and Dr. David Viano) resigning from their positions.   

The heat is on Mr. Goodell ... the heat is ... on.  

Due to the increasing pressure from Capitol Hill, the media, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) and other sources, the NFL has begun to place a big emphasis on the importance of clean hits on the field.  More specifically, they're working to decrease the amount of helmet-to-helmet contact that players receive and penalize players for any and all malicious hits.  

After the slate of games in Week 6 of NFL play, it became clear that this year the NFL was taking this concept of "unnecessary roughness" to the next level.  Dozens of fines have been handed out this season to a myriad of players deemed to have acted inappropriately on the field.  These fines have ranged from $5,000 to $75,000 for a "repeat offender".  Ouch

Sounds good ... right?

In the words of the ever-wise Lee Corso: not so fast, my friend! 

Don't get me wrong, players absolutely deserve to be protected from intentional, malevolent hits on the field.  But, it's no secret that this has been a controversial issue over the last several weeks ... and for good reason.  I take issue with these fines and attempted paradigm shift for two big reasons.  

Number one: the evolution of the game of football.  

This may sound like a pretty daunting and esoteric subject for this argument, but bear with me.  

Sometime between 1968 and 1975 the game of football would be changed forever by a man still not known by many today.  The Cincinnati Bengals were created as an expansion team in 1968, and Assistant Coach Bill Walsh noted that the team had considerable struggles establishing a strong running game in their first few seasons.  Walsh outlined a game plan to include multiple short, horizontal pass plays, typically within 10-15 yards of the line of scrimmage to ho help open up the running game.  Defenses commented that these plays "nickled and dimed" them, but it evolved into an extremely effective way of working the pass to help set up the run.  Walsh eventually became the Head Coach of the San Fransisco 49ers, and continued to implement the same offensive strategies that he had developed in Cincinnati while in California.  After defeating the 49ers in a 1985 playoff game, Giants coach Bill Parcels famously commented to a reporter "what do you think of the West Coast offense now?", giving the offense its name today.

Over the years many variants of the West Coast offense have emerged, including the Air Coryell offense and the Erhardt-Perkins offense.  However, few, if any, teams utilize a pure version of any of these offenses; and most practice a hybrid of these strategies with others.  

But, I would argue that West Coast offense aside, we have undoubtedly seen a gradual shift in the overall offensive strategy of most teams in the National Football League.  For decades, football was a game of hard-nosed, tough-fought yards which operated primarily under a run first, pass later mentality.  

Those days are long gone.  

When you look at the statistics for the top two teams in each division of the NFC and AFC at the Week 11 mark, the numbers speak for themselves.  Overall, those teams average 225.3 passing yards per game and 121.5 rushing yards per game.  The three teams with the best records in the NFL (Atlanta, NY Jets and New England who each sit at 7-2) have similar numbers, averaging 228.2 passing yards per game and 128.5 rushing yards per game.  In fact, of those 16 teams, there are six averaging less than 106 yards rushing per game.  

It's hard to argue that the NFL is not predominantly a passing league when most (successful) teams average about 100 more yards per game passing than they do rushing.  

However, the point of this long diatribe and history lesson is that all of this passing creates an environment in which receivers find themselves in "vulnerable" positions many times throughout a game.  Every time they go over the middle to catch a pass, or elevate to get a hand on a slightly errant throw by their QB, they are frequently unable to defend or protect themselves from incoming defenders.  And since receivers, arguably, are doing these very things much more frequently today than they were 30 years ago, they will incur more injuries. 

But ... who's fault is that exactly?  Is it the fault of the safety or linebacker sitting in pass coverage in the middle of the field?  Is it the fault of the receiver for not putting their own safety as the number one priority?  Or, is it the fault of the QB for throwing a ball which required the receiver to endanger themselves to make a play?  

The NFL is trying to turn a very gray issue into a black and white one, and I don't believe that's fair to all parties involved.  If defenders are going to find themselves paying $10,000-$15,000 for "launching" themselves at a receiver running a crossing route across the middle of the field, then I would argue that a QB who floats a pass and subsequently endangers their receiver should also have to pay a fine.  I would also argue that certain plays, no matter how perfectly executed, endanger the players more than others.  So, if safety is the #1 priority, then shouldn't those plays be completely banned from the game?  

In reality, when you're moving at the speeds these players move at on the field, it's not always possible to perfectly control every aspect of your body (or to predict what the other guy is going to do with his) ... so why are we expecting players to do that? 

Again, flagrant helmet-to-helmet hits should unquestionably be fined and punished; but we're seeing fines handed down for players "launching" themselves or landing blows to the shoulder and upper chest in a way deemed to be particularly aggressive or excessive by the powers that be.  

Which leads me to issue number two: who is actually making all of these decisions?

I'm not ordinarily an uber-sympathetic listener when it comes to the gripes of NFL players.  Dozens of issues have apparently been brewing in locker rooms across America, which will undoubtedly culminate with some sort of strike, lock out or similar act of contrition following the end of the 2010-2011 NFL season.  Like me, you may struggle to sympathize with many of their complaints and wonder if any of them are grounded in a real-world reality at all.  

But, in this case, I think they have a legitimate point.

Who exactly hands down these fines?  According to Commissioner Goodell, there's a panel of NFL Executives including himself, Ray Anderson (VP of Operations), Carl Johnson (Officiating Director), other front office staff, and former players/coaches like Art Shell and Merton Hanks (who is also, coincidentally, Assistant Director of Operations for the NFL) which evaluates film of the hits and deliberates on appropriate punishment for any identified violations.  At first glance, this may sound reasonable, but many NFL players have spoken up and voiced concerns about the policy.  

One of the most outspoken critics has been Troy Polamalu, strong safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Polamalu believes that current players and coaches should be involved in the evaluation process to ensure that players feel that their voice and and side is heard.  Commissioner Goodell and VP Anderson quickly quashed this idea, issuing statements in which they defended the current process and identified potential issues with Polamalu's suggestion (mainly potential bias between rival teams and players).  Other players have suggested creating a panel with recently retired players and coaches as to avoid any bias, but to still ensure a realistic, grounded approach to each and every situation.  Individuals like former LB Tedy Bruschi and Coaches Mike Ditka and Tony Dungy have been mentioned as possible candidates for such a panel.  

I have to agree with the players that the current system raises some eyebrows.  From a slightly cynical perspective, all these fines create big money for the league, yet they're the ones dolling out the punishments.  It's definitely questionable that there's no unbiased third party involved in the decision making process.  And, although there may be "former" players on the panel, Hanks hasn't played in the NFL for 11 years and Shell (who was an O-lineman) has been out of the coaching picture for about 5.  Not exactly recently removed.  

If the NFL is going to continue to be so aggressive with fines for malicious or aggressive hits on the field, then they must do two things.  First, they have to be clearer about what is acceptable and what's not.  One NFL Assistant Coach commented that the instructional video sent out by the NFL to every team in the league just created more confusion for the players and coaching staff.  NFL leadership can help achieve some clarity by involving recently retired or current coaches/players in the decision-making process.  These players and coaches should have the opportunity to hear the leadership explain every decision and break down every "malicious" play for them - especially when there's controversy.  Money aside, the players deserve to understand why they're being called out for their technique so that they can adequately adjust their play in the future.    

But, the bottom line is this: unless we want to completely change the offensive identity of the NFL today, players are gong to be susceptible to big hits.  The NFL should continue to enforce punishments for flagrant helmet-to-helmet contact, but they should tread very carefully when considering fines for other hits deemed too "aggressive" unless they want to risk altering the sport of football forever.  

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Shining Stars of the NFL

Ok folks, prepare yourself for somewhat of a soapbox post.

As I'm sure you're aware (unless you live under a rock), there has been a lot of talk lately about the inherent violence in the game of football, and significant work by the NFL to contain and limit the number of egregious and malicious hits that players receive on the field.  Following Week 6 of NFL play, NFL Executive VP of Football Operations, Ray Anderson, released a video which was shown to every NFL team depicting inappropriate and appropriate hits in order to educate players on the differences between the two. 

During the course of the video, a clip is shown from that week's Ravens vs. Jets game which highlights Ravens ILB Ray Lewis delivering a hit against Jets TE Dustin Keller.  In the video narration, Anderson narrates the clip by describing the play as "a great player making a great play ...".  

Which got me thinking ...

Now, I'm not going to sit here and try to say that Ray Lewis isn't a great player.  He is an 11-time Pro-Bowl selection, Super Bowl XXXV MVP, two-time AP Defensive Player of the Year, three-time AFC Defensive Player of the Year, and recipient of a multitude of other awards and accolades.  I mean, clearly, the man knows how to play football.        

However, I'm not so sure that Mr. Lewis should be an all-out poster boy for the National Football League.  In fact, I don't think that many of bright & smiling faces that the NFL or private companies often plaster on posters and video game boxes or feature in commercials and advertisements should even be playing professional football, let alone making thousands or millions of dollars on endorsements and ads.   

You may wonder why I'm so critical of these players, but the reason is simple ... they're not role models.  And in reality, many of them are the exact opposite.  

I'll preface this post by conceding that I do live in the real world and have made my fair share of less than perfect decisions (believe it or not).  I understand that NFL players are real people with the ability to make good or bad decisions just like the rest of us.  I do not expect anyone to be perfect, and I truly understand that everyone makes mistakes ... it's just part of being human. 

I also understand that many of these players are thrust into the public spotlight in a way that I could never comprehend (barring any overnight attainment of celebrity status).  A lot of them are treated as celebrities from the moment they step onto their respective college campuses and never look back.  When you consider the tens of millions of dollars in signing bonuses, adoring fans hanging around the stadium pleading for autographs and endorsements by companies like Nike and Under Armour - it's no wonder that these athletes feel (and act) superhuman.      

But, that's no excuse.

Sadly, it's nothing new or ground breaking, but year after year dozens of NFL players find themselves in real trouble with the real law.  So far in 2010, over 40 NFL players have been arrested for a wide variety of reasons.  And I would venture a guess that almost as many have been cut loose with a warning or slap on the wrist simply because of the jersey they wear and how they played the week before (although I do concede that some players are probably targeted by law enforcement due to their celebrity status).  

What a message to society.  

However, I would also argue that society is a huge part of the problem.  We all propagate this current attitude by allowing these athletes to continue to be celebrities and millionaires each time we put on their jersey to watch a game, and each time we simply sigh & shake our head when they get arrested ... again. 

But, I also believe in personal accountability, and the bottom line is that some of these players are either downright bad guys or they simply cannot make a good (aka smart) decision to save their lives.  

The vast majority of arrests in the NFL are for driving under the influence of alcohol (or some other inappropriate behavior under the influence).  I suppose that's a predictable side effect of the party lifestyle that so many players embrace off the field (after all, if you're worth $20 million - what would you do for fun?).  

But it is still completely unacceptable.  

Ask anyone who has ever lost a friend or loved one to the effects of drunk driving or talk to those who run national organizations like MADD or Arrive Alive.  Think back to your days of high school where they would park a completely devastated and unrecognizable vehicle at the school entrance to send a message to high school students.  Drunk driving is illegal for a reason.  Period.  End of story.

What's even more ridiculous is that most NFL teams have a program in place to prevent these exact incidences.  The program is called Player Protect and it guarantees NFL players safe rides home from wherever they are at any time of day (it operates 24 hours/day).  Like a taxi, the player just has to pay for the cost of the ride.  Or, for those players who don't want to utilize the program or belong to teams that don't have it, there are services in most cities in which reliable, licensed individuals are available to pick you up and drive you wherever you want to go for a small fee.  They're really revolutionary programs, and traditionally, they drive yellow cars just to ensure that they can be spotted easily ... good grief.  

No NFL player (or person, for that matter) has any excuse to ever get a DUI.  For the life of me, I really cannot understand why it happens so frequently, especially to millionaire athletes and celebrities.  Even from a purely selfish perspective, you would think these individuals wouldn't want to risk damage to their luxury Mercedes or loaded Escalade.  But it happens, all the time.  

Just recently, on September 21, 2010 (Week 2 of the NFL season) NY Jets WR Braylon Edwards was pulled over (while driving two of his teammates and one other individual) in New York in his Range Rover.  The officer smelled alcohol on his breath and Edwards subsequently registered a 0.16 on the breathalyzer ... twice the legal limit.  Although the Jets publicly admonished Edwards' actions, he has continued to play every game of the 2010 season.

And who could forget the events of March 2009.  Former Cleveland Browns WR Donté Stallworth was driving his Bentley in the early morning hours in Miami Beach, FL.  According to reports, Stallworth was intoxicated (reported BAL of 0.12) and speeding (10 mph over), when he struck and killed a pedestrian in the street (not in a crosswalk).  He pled guilty to second degree manslaughter, served 24 days in jail, and was suspended from play in the NFL for one year.  Stallworth is currently on the active roster for the Baltimore Ravens. 

What excellent examples for those of us in the real world.  Drive drunk and endanger yourself and three other people while in the midst of the most important time of year for your career?  A public slap on the wrist and a starting spot on the team.  Kill someone while driving drunk?  Spend less than one month in jail, sit out a year and find yourself a new team the next season.  

Quite frankly, the hypocrisy of these situations is utterly disappointing to me.  I am fairly certain that if it was you or I in the shoes of Edwards or Stallworth, our outcomes would not have been quite so auspicious. 

I am by no means am an expert on the law, and am a firm believer in the concept of being innocent until proven guilty; however I think few would argue with the fact that athletes in this country are frequently held to a different and much lower standard than the rest of us.  In fact, in the real world, individuals with a felony conviction on their resume have a hard enough time getting a minimum-wage job, let alone a multi-million dollar contract.   

Drunk driving and public intoxication aside, the much more disturbing crimes committed by NFL players are frequently violent in nature.  I could list report after report of players accused of assaulting their wives or girlfriends, or being involved in altercations at bars or nightclubs.  Undoubtedly alcohol and/or drugs play a role in these situations, but they are unacceptable nevertheless.  And, even more worrisome is the historical lack of action on the part of the NFL.  

Take Larry Johnson, who was drafted as a running back in 2003 by the Kansas City Chiefs.  He played in the NFL until September 2010 when he was released by the Washington Redskins.  In his 7 years in the league, Johnson was arrested no less than four times on assault charges against different women.  

Adam "Pacman" Jones is an extreme example, but one that cannot be ignored.  Drafted as CB in the 2005 NFL Draft, virtually his entire career has been tainted by numerous investigations and arrests.  With charges ranging from marijuana possession to disorderly intoxication to involvement with a shooting at a Las Vegas strip club (in which he reportedly slammed a stripper's head against a table), Jones earned himself a one-year suspension for the 2007 season. In 2010, Jones signed a two-year contract with the Cincinnati Bengals.  He's out for the season with an injury, but would otherwise be an active member of the team.  

In a country in which domestic violence has become frighteningly commonplace and a woman is sexually assaulted, on average, every two minutes; the NFL sets a disappointingly low standard by allowing players with records of violence against women to continue to play.  

However, not all the news is bad.  Roger Goodell, NFL Commish since 2006, has taken a tougher stance against "troubled" players than previous NFL leadership.  Goodell has been the first commissioner to suspend players for violation of the NFL's "personal conduct policy" even when official charges were not filed.  In 2010, Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for four games after allegedly raping a college student in a Milledgeville, GA bar.  The woman decided not to press charges, although emphasizing in her letter to the local DA that she was not recanting her accusation.  

During his tenure, Goodell has handed down three season-long suspensions and worked to hold NFL players accountable for their behavior both on and off the field.  Clearly, it's a work in progress, and I would challenge him to do even more.   

This is the bottom line: we're all not doing enough.  Unless we want the NFL to turn into the NBA (no offense NBA fans), we must hold players accountable for their behavior off the field.  The NFL cannot continue to allow players with felony convictions to be on the active roster.  Kids may know the difference between video games and real life, but try explaining to them why players convicted of multiple DUI's, or assault charges (or worse) are still allowed to play professional football ... because I sure can't.  

It is a privilege to be a professional athlete in this country, and we can no longer allow some athletes to abuse the power that they are given.  I have no magical solution for this problem, except to encourage you to use whatever platform you have available to speak out and voice your disappointment at the low standards to which we hold NFL players.  The next time you hear of a player's second DUI or arrest on assault charges - speak up!  Send an email (Official NFL Comment Form), post a comment, or call-in a TV or radio sports show.  

Nothing will ever change if hardworking, ordinary American football fans continue to stand by in silence and allow NFL players of questionable morale character to play week after week, sign their autographs and earn their millions.  

It has never been acceptable for players to break the law or behave in egregiously inappropriate ways, but now it's time for us to ensure that it will no longer be tolerated. 

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Eight College Gameday Experiences That Are On My "To Do Before I Die" List

This is, unintentionally, always a touchy subject.  

In my opinion, college football is one of the greatest traditions in this fine country of ours.  It is also, arguably, the sport with the most tradition and history to offer its dedicated fans.  People are somewhat possessive and defensive of their schools and traditions, and rightfully so ... I know I am of mine.  

Ever since I was a little girl and became borderline-obsessed with college football, I have dreamed of visiting college stadiums all over the country.  Of course, there are specific games I would love to attend (Army/Navy, Auburn/Alabama, Oklahoma/Texas, etc ...); but in general, I just want to physically get myself to certain college campuses on a Saturday in the fall to partake in their gameday experiences.  

This post is by no means meant to represent the "top" 8 or "best" 8 college football experiences in the country ... it's simply the first 8 on my personal list of places to attend games when I have both the time and money to do so (so talk to me in about 10 or 15 years).  And I realize that 8 may seem like an odd number, but I got tired and my "top 10" shrunk by 2.  And, yes, I also realize that I may have left your school off my list ... but please don't take personal offense to my omission.  

I also have to preface this post by saying that there are several college campuses not on this list that I think everyone should see in their lives.  They're not on my "places to see" list, because I've been fortunate enough to have already seen them. If you ever have the opportunity, I think every college football fan should attend games at The Ohio State University, The University of Michigan (despite how it pains me to say so), Pennsylvania State University and the University of Texas.   

I may write a follow-up post in the future about some of my incredible experiences in all of these places, but for now - I'll just tell you to go if you ever get the chance. 

I did a lot of research for this post and learned a ton about these schools and their gameday traditions.  In a way, it made me a little sad that the mainstream sports media doesn't cover stuff like this in their coverage of a game.  Sure, they'll casually mention "Rocky Top" or show a fleeting glimpse of "Script Ohio" on the way to a commercial break; but in general, they do a disservice to college football fans by not educating them on the traditions and storied histories of most college football programs.  I consider myself a lifelong college football fan, and I was completely unaware of a lot of this information (cue the NBC "the more you know" graphic).  

 Without any further adieu, I hope you enjoy and just maybe learn something.  

(List is in no particular order)

University of Oregon
Eugene, OR
Official Stadium Capacity: 53,800 (Attendance usually ~ 59,000)
School Enrollment: 23,000
Mascot: Duck
Colors: Green & Yellow

1. Yes, that's really Donald Duck.

In 1947, the AD at the University of Oregon (Leo Harris) made a deal with Walt Disney himself allowing Oregon to use the likeness of Donald as their mascot.  The deal was made with a handshake, and until Disney's death in 1966 no formal contract existed between the two organizations.  Donald celebrated his 50th birthday in Eugene in 1984, and was made an official alumnus of the University. 

2. What's with those uniforms?

University of Oregon alumni Phil Knight and William "Bill" Bowerman founded Blue Ribbon Sports in 1964.  That little company that could became Nike in 1978 and has gone on to revolutionize the world of sports merchandise.  Because of its University of Oregon ties, Nike has maintained a close relationship with the Athletic Department in Eugene, and Nike produces all of UO's logo clothing and athletic uniforms.

3. It never rains at Autzen Stadium ...

It's tradition at the University of Oregon for the announcer to make this statement at some point during every home football game.  Apparently there are some eerie weather patterns correlating with the Ducks' success on the football field.  I'll leave this one to the die hard UO fans and The Weather Channel.

4. It's L-O-U-D.

After Oregon's home victory over the University of Michigan in 2003, a Michigan Daily Columnist wrote the following: "Autzen’s 59,000 strong make the Big House collectively sound like a pathetic whimper. It’s louder than any place I’ve ever been, and that includes The Swamp at Florida, The Shoe in Columbus, and Death Valley at Louisiana State. Autzen Stadium is where great teams go to die." Enough said. 

University of Tennessee 
Knoxville, TN
Official Stadium Capacity: 102,459
School Enrollment: 27,107
Mascot: Smokey the coonhound (Nickname: Volunteers)
Colors: Orange & White

1. Rocky Top, you'll always be home sweet home to me ... good ole Rocky Top, Rocky Top Tennessee ...

First played during the 1972 Tennessee-Alabama game, Rocky Top was made the official state song of Tennessee in 1982.  More than 100 renditions of the song have been documented, and this song is a staple in Neyland Stadium on home gamedays.  Sure, maybe it can get a bit annoying; but any true college football fan has to get chills in the midst of a close game when you hear 100,000+ singing along with this classic. 

2. Anchors Away

Neyland Stadium sits on the banks of the Tennessee River, and since 1962 Volunteer fans have been avoiding Knoxville traffic on gamedays by anchoring their boats outside the stadium walls.  Today, over 200 boats make up the Vol Navy, adding a unique element to the UT gameday experience only found at two other stadiums in the country (can you name them?)

3. The Pride of the Southland

As a professed band nerd myself, I get excited about marching bands.  The UT band, in fact, was almost enough to make me apply to and attend The University of Tennessee for college ... almost.  This 300-member strong marching band is known for its playing of "Rocky Top" and its gameday traditions like the opening of the T during pregame. 

University of Wisconsin
Madison, WI
Official Stadium Capacity: 80,321
School Enrollment: 42,099
Mascot: Badger
Colors: Cardinal & White

1.  What's with all the jumping ...?

In 1998, the House of Pain song "Jump Around" was debuted at Wisconsin's homecoming game against Purdue.  The song is played over the loudspeaker between the 3rd and 4th quarters to energize the fans and electrify the stadium atmosphere.  The Jump Around tradition has become an integral part of gameday at Camp Randall, as literally every fan in the stadium jumps around in their seat while the song is played.  Interestingly, Jump Around was suspended for a game in 2003 when construction was being done on Camp Randall, because University officials were worried about the structural integrity of the stadium during construction.  After a virtual mutiny by the student body, the University had structural engineers come evaluate the stadium so that Jump Around could continue, safely, at the next game. 

2. Wait ... the game's not over?

A tradition since the 1970's, the Wisconsin band's post-game performance is anything but ordinary.  Originally started as a way to entertain fans as they left the stadium, the Fifth Quarter has evolved into an all-out party after the game.  30,000-40,000 fans stay after the game to hear the band play staples like "On Wisconsin", "You've Said It All" and "Varsity"; and to see what insane antics band members can instigate that week.  

3. Graduating Law Students do what now?

Every fall, at the Homecoming game, law students who will graduate in the coming year have the opportunity to be recognized on-field during pregame.  They toss canes over the goal post during this ceremony, and legend goes that if they catch their cane they will win their first case.  This tradition originated at Harvard and has been performed in Madison since 1910. 

University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa, AL
Official Stadium Capacity: 101,821
School Enrollment: 30,232
Mascot: Big Al/Elephant (Nickname: Crimson Tide)
Colors: Crimson & White 

1. Those awesome hats ...

Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant was the head football coach at the University of Alabama for 25 years (1958 - 1982).  He led the Crimson Tide to six national titles and thirteen SEC championships.  He was known for his tenacious, no-nonsense attitude (great example in this video, and note that sideline reporters have never been much better than they are now), ability to win games and his trademark black and white houndstooth hat.  Today, you still see Alabama fans sporting similar hats in the stands as a tribute to one of college football's all-time greatest coaches.  Additionally, if fans find themselves with time to kill on gameday, they can visit the Paul W. Bryant Museum located on Alabama's campus and open to the public daily.  

2. That's a lot of money!

The University of Alabama Marching Band is an integral part of gameday at Alabama.  Approximately 400 members strong, it has had its nickname of the "Million Dollar Band" since 1922.  Legend goes that during a particularly difficult season (for the football team), the band had to solicit funds from local businesses in order to travel to Atlanta for the Georgia Tech game.  They ended up exceeding their own expectations, and raised enough money to travel in fancy sleeper trains to the game.  Alabama Alum W.C. "Champ" Pickens was asked by a sportswriter during the game (a 33-7 loss), "you don't have much of a team, what do you have at Alabama?", to which he responded "A million dollar band". 

3. A tribute to the state bird of Alabama

The Rammer Jammer cheer has been around since the 1920's.  The cheer is somewhat controversial, and the University has banned its playing/chanting in the past, only to be overcome with complaints from fans.  It is now only played (traditionally, twice) at the end of a victorious game in Bear Bryant Stadium.  

University of Notre Dame
South Bend, IN
Official Stadium Capacity: 80,795
School Enrollment: 11,733
Mascot: Leprechaun (Nickname: Fighting Irish)
Colors: Blue & Gold

 1. Wait a second, that's real gold?!

Notre Dame's gold helmets are a trademark of their uniform.  Every Monday, following a Saturday game, the football team's student managers meet in the stadium to clean, buff, shine and re-paint the football team's gameday helmets for the next week.  Every helmet gets two coats of paint: a gold base coat, and then a top coat containing real gold particles from the golden dome of Notre Dame's Main Building (collected when the dome was re-gilded in 2007).  Fancy schmancy. 

2. Who knew a kilt could be so intimidating?

Formed in 1949, the Irish Guard leads the Band of the Fighting Irish onto the field each Saturday.  With uniforms modeled after traditional Irish kilts, and a 6'2" height requirement to be a Guard member, this group appears as an impressive and imposing front to the Marching Band.  Over 60 candidates try out each year to become members of the 10-person Guard, which serves as the "bodyguard" for the Marching Band and participates in public performances throughout the year.  

3. That whole Catholic thing ... 

As if you didn't know, Notre Dame is a private, Catholic university.  Reminders of their religious affiliation are present throughout their campus and traditions, giving the gameday experience at Notre Dame a unique feel.  
  • Although expansion of the stadium now partially obscures the mural, the famous image The Word of Life by Millard Sheets, depicts the resurrected Jesus with arms held overhead.  From the stadium, the large picture can be seen, earning it the nickname "Touchdown Jesus".  
  • The Notre Dame football team attends mass every home gameday at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on campus. 

Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, LA
Official Stadium Capacity: 92,400
School Enrollment: 25,215
Mascot: Tiger
Colors: Purple & Gold

1. Perfect for Halloween

In October 2007, called Tiger Stadium "the scariest place to play in America".  Over 120,000 tailgaters congregate in Death Valley on home gameday weekends to partake in Cajun classic dishes and plenty of good 'ole alcohol ... and harass visiting fans of course.  Chants of "Tiger Bait" and "Geaux Tigers" echo across campus, and you can't miss the March Down the Hill before each game.  

2. Does PETA know about this?

In 1934, LSU Athletic Director trainer, Chellis "Mike" Chambers and several other staff and students decided that LSU needed a live tiger.  They collected $0.25 from every LSU student, raising $750 to purchase a tiger from the Little Rock Zoo.  Today, LSU is one of a handful of colleges which still has a live animal mascot (care to name some others?).  Mike VI (a Bengali-Siberian hybrid Bengal tiger) became LSU's mascot in 2007 after the passing of 17-year old Mike V. As a side note, it's tradition, that the LSU College of Veterinary Medicine vents white smoke from its roof when a new mascot has been located (I'm not sure if that's funny or borderline sacrilegious).  Mike currently lives in a $3 million habitat on campus with state-of-the-art caretakers and facilities.  On gameday, Mike accompanies the team and cheerleaders on the March Down the Hill, and then is parked in his cage outside the opposing team's locker room.  Intimidating.  

3. Is this college basketball or football ... ?

In 1958, Coach Paul Dietzel decided that LSU would wear white jerseys for home games.  The uniform change became permanent after LSU went on to beat Clemson to win the National Championship.  The tradition continued until 1982 when the NCAA instituted a rule forbidding white jerseys at home.  For 12 years, the LSU faithful bemoaned the new rule, pleading with their Athletic Department to lobby with the NCAA.  When Gerry DiNardo became LSU's Head Coach in 1995, he met individually with each member of the NCAA Rules Committee to ask for an exception to the rule ... and was granted just that.  Since then, LSU has worn white jerseys for home games.  Because the NCAA stipulated that LSU would have to request permission from visiting non-conference opponents to wear their whites, Nick Saban altered the tradition slightly when he was at LSU (now continued by Les Miles).  LSU now wears their whites for their home opener and all SEC home games.  The LSU faithful can rest easy.  

University of Nebraska
Lincoln, NE
Official Stadium Capacity: 81,067
School Enrollment: 24,100
Mascot: Herbie Husker & Lil' Red (Nickname: Cornhusker)
Colors: Scarlet & Cream

1. Just how hardcore are these Nebraska fans?

Each and every entrance at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln is inscribed with the phrase "Through these gates pass the Greatest Fans in College Football" ... and the Cornhuskers know it's true.  Nebraska holds the NCAA record for consecutive sell-out games with 304, as of the start of the 2010 season.  The stadium comes close to reaching max capacity again each spring when 60,000-80,000 fans flock to Lincoln to watch the last practice of the season.  And another 10,000+ attend Fan Day each fall to obtain pictures and autographs with their favorite players and coaches.  They take their football very seriously in Nebraska, but be forewarned that the "Sea of Red" will accompany their beloved Huskers to all corners of the USA.  

2. Gotta love technology ...

In the 1990's the Nebraska Athletic Department was searching for something to spice up the Huskers' pregame ritual.  What they came up with was revolutionary, and has become one of the most anticipated moments in Memorial Stadium on gameday.  Nebraska installed HuskerVision cameras along the football team's route from the locker room to the field, giving fans an up close and personal perspective of the team's growing intensity as they approach the field.  Accompanied by the Alan Parsons Project's classic "Sirius", the 80,000+ Cornhusker fans go crazy as the tension builds and the team takes the field.

3. Everyone loves a good bargain.

When two-platoon football made a resurgence in the 1960's, the Nebraska coaches followed suit.  Assistant Coach Mike Corgan was given the task of purchasing different color pullovers for the defensive unit to wear during practice (previously everyone had worn gray).  The story goes that Corgan got a stellar deal on black pullovers at the local sporting goods store (he was later informed by fellow coaches that no one wears black, so that's why it was cheaper), and a tradition was born.  Only the 1st string defensive unit was awarded the "Black Shirts" and players became fiercely competitive over the honor.  The media soon picked up on the story, and the nickname stuck.  Over the years, the nickname has become synonymous with the hard-hitting, aggressive Nebraska defense and truly exemplifies the Nebraska football philosophy. 

University of Washington
Seattle, WA
Official Stadium Capacity: 72,500
School Enrollment: 42,907
Mascot: Husky
Colors: Purple & Gold

1. And you thought your stadium was loud?

It may surprise you, but Husky Stadium has earned the title of the "loudest stadium in college football history".  In a 1992 night game against Nebraska, ESPN recorded the noise level in Husky stadium at 135 decibels, the highest level ever recorded at a college football game.  Because the stadium is constructed with metal overhangs and minimal endzone seating, an immense amount of field noise is generated.  In fact, it's common for vibrations from the stadium to cause the media's cameras to shake and translate to the live feed on TV.  Although the Husky football team may have struggled in recent years, do not underestimate the impact their stadium and fans can have on a big game.  

2. This cannot be confirmed ...

Apparently, THE Wave, got its start at the University of Washington (who knew?).  A UW cheerleader had the idea for a human wave that moved around the stadium, and at a game on Halloween in 1981, he filled the crowd in on his idea.  They made it work flawlessly, and a great sports tradition was born.

3. Putting the East Coast to shame.

Husky Stadium is one of the three stadiums in the country that sits on a body of water (Lake Washington).  I talked about the University of Tennessee's gameday tradition with the "Vol Navy", but UW fans make the UT naval effort look like child's play (no offense Tennessee fans).  More than 12,000 people will congregate on the lake on home gamedays, and the University of Washington crew team actually operates a shuttle service from people's personal boats to shore for the game.  My hat is off to you UW fans, with your outdoorsy, nature-ways and creative twist on college football tailgating. 

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Rest of the Story

I think the American sports media can go a little overboard with human interest stories. I appreciate the sentiment of humanizing (or, "feminizing", depending on your perspective) sports and adding a different dimension to broadcasts, but they frequently take it a little too far.

Everyone loves a good "feel good" sports story. Hollywood has made millions on movies depicting stories such as the 1980 US Men's Hockey team, Michael Oher, Herman Boone, Vince Papale, Don Haskins (and the 1966 Texas Western Men's Basketball team), Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger and, most importantly, the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team.

Bonus points to anyone who can correctly identify all the movies referenced above ... no "real" prize, just the pride and self-respect of knowing that you're a sports/pop culture guru.

But, outside of these infamous stories, the media (especially on TV) frequently falls short, in my humble opinion. We endure segment after segment on sports shows about players' troubled childhoods, international mission work, community outreach and devastating life tragedies. Of course these stories are important, and of course they deserve a chance to be heard; but I think there are many other stories which illuminate who players are off the field and teach lessons that can be applied to the everyday person with a life in the real world.

Now, please know that this blog is not going to turn into a platform for my pick of human interest stories week after week.  However, in my last post
, I wrote briefly about Aaron Rodgers and I felt like the rest of his story deserved a chance to be heard (or rather ... read).  


Aaron Rodgers was nothing special.

Few would believe that if you look at the presence the 6-2, 225 lb quarterback has on the field today, as the starter for one of the most elite NFL franchises in America.

But it's true.

Rodgers played high-school football at Pleasant Valley High School in a small, Northern California town. Although he put up impressive numbers as starting QB his Junior and Senior year, setting single game and single season records, he was not aggressively recruited coming out of high school. In fact, Rodgers was hardly recruited at all. The University of Illinois offered him the chance to join their team as a walk-on, and he received polite condolences from other D-I schools, such as Purdue, wishing him the best of luck with his "attempt at a college football career".  He did receive offers from smaller programs, such as Occidental, although they would require him to wait at least a year to play.  But, that was it. No magical recruiting trips to sold out stadiums and rivalry games, no wining/dining in college towns across the country, no 5-star Rivals rating and Army All-American Game, and no college scholarship.

Here is where the story ends for most kids. And, to be perfectly honest, I can't blame them. If that was me, or my child (someday), facing graduation with no clear plan for the future, I'm not sure what I would do. I've been in a similar situation in my own life, and I can tell you with 100% clarity, that it's an absolutely gut-wrenching, panicky, consuming feeling of helplessness ... and most people can't handle it. So - they do the next best thing, they pick door #2, they head down the path more frequently traveled, and they choose the safe back-up option.

But, Rodgers chose none of the above.

He knew he was something special. Or maybe he was borderline irresponsible by blindly chasing a dream, or maybe he simply couldn't admit that he had failed. But, for whatever reason, known only to him, he didn't. He enrolled in Butte Community College in Oroville, CA with the sole goal of continuing to play football ... and he did. He led the Roadrunners to a 10-1 record, a #2 national ranking and a victory in their bowl game. He would later speak of this time in his life with a reserved fondness; about how it molded him into the unyielding player and quiet leader that he is today, and taught him lessons he would never have learned sitting on a bench somewhere. Rodgers would do plenty of bench-sitting and behind-the-scenes-learning later in his career, but not now, not at this stage.

Sometime during Rodgers' first (and only) year at Butte, Jeff Tedford, the head coach at Cal, made the 150 mile trek to Oroville to check out a TE on the team named Garrett Cross. That trip ended with two scholarship offers to play football at the University of California-Berkeley: Cross and an unknown QB with a rocket arm named Aaron Rodgers.

Many would say that the Disney-story ends here. The obstacle was surmounted, the goal attained. Cue the James Horner score and role the credits. Right?

I would argue - not quite yet.

From here the story is more familiar. Rodgers eventually filled out his size 12 (or 13) shoes and became an extremely successful and prolific QB in his two years at Cal.  He passed for almost 5500 yards, throwing 43 touchdowns and just 13 INTs, all while leading his team to records of 8-6 and 10-2 in 2003 and 2004, respectively. Although Rodgers' college career had its highs (a 34-31 triple OT victory over #3 ranked USC) and lows (losing out on a 2004 BCS Rose Bowl berth after Mack Brown's pleas to the media to rank the 10-1 Longhorns over the 10-1 Golden Bears); it was undoubtedly an exhilarating time for the young QB, who probably could never have dreamed that he would have such success in a Division I college program.  

Rodgers' college career culminated with him being selected as a first-round draft pick in the 2005 NFL Draft; although he did fall further than projected, eventually being picked #24 by the Green Bay Packers.

A whirlwind, successful college football career, a first-round selection in the draft to one of the most storied programs in the country, and a reported $1.5 million dollar signing bonus ... it's a good time to be #12.

Or is it?

The next 4 years would arguably be some of the most difficult in the QB's life.  As previously mentioned, the reception Rodgers received in Green Bay was far from welcoming, and not just from Brett Favre.  Green Bay fans can be a little ... possessive, and many of them (like Favre) saw no reason to "waste" a #1 draft choice on a QB.  I mean, Favre would continue to be the QB in Green Bay for at least another 5 to 10 years ... right?

After the initial ice melted, Rodgers spent three years throwing himself into the world of professional football.  He spent hours studying film and learning the plays he would someday be expected to execute flawlessly.  His dedication and leadership of the scout team would prompt his coaches to quietly suggest to him on the sideline that perhaps he should take it a little easier on the 1st team defense as to not make them feel too bad about themselves.  

All in all, Rodgers did exactly what he had to do and should have done during this time.  He was a quiet student of the game and leader on the practice field, and most importantly, he kept his mouth shut.  There were no tabloid headlines detailing the drama between Favre and Rodgers, no "tell all" exclusive interviews with ESPN, no temper tantrums on the sideline or in practice about being the backup, and no division of the Packers squad into Team Favre and Team Rodgers.  It's a sad commentary on our society (and our standard for pro-athletes) that Rodgers gets such commendation for keeping his attitude in check and quietly doing his job (all the while earning $1.5 mil plus); but in reality there are few hotshot college QBs that can successfully master the role of backup for an indeterminate period of time.  I mean, had Favre not botched the concept of retirement so terribly, he could theoretically still be playing football in Green Bay today and Aaron Rodgers could still be sitting #2.

Fast-forward through three years, a broken left foot, a few minutes of real-life game time and lots of learning; and in March of 2008 Brett Favre left the facilities in Green Bay, WI as a Packer for the last time.  Aaron Rodgers was officially #1.  

So let the ice return.  

His teammates were cautiously optimistic about Rodgers taking over control of the offense as he had demonstrated his cool on-field demeanor and and athletic potential while orchestrating a near-comeback for the Packers in a game at Dallas in November 2007 while he filled in for an injured Favre.  However, many of the fans were far less than excited.  Rodgers casually shrugged off multiple death threats, facebook groups calling for Favre's return and the pure hatred from a small group of Packers faithful who were really Favre faithful disguised in green and gold (later to be green and white ... and even later purple and gold).  Instead of complaining, lashing out at the fans or publicly clamoring to be traded, he showed up to work, did his job and earned his millions.  Green Bay finished with a 6-10 record in Rodgers' first year as the starter, but 7 of their games were lost by 4 points or less.  The powers that be in Green Bay bought into Rodgers' potential and signed him to a six year, $65 million dollar contract.  

The next year he led the Packers to an 11-5 season and the NFC Championship Game.    

What has been most impressive to me about Aaron Rodgers is his lack of flash and drama and his ability keep his head down and avoid the limelight, despite being in a place that seems to attract so much media attention.  In interviews he appears casual and relaxed and speaks calmly about hosting team BBQs at his house to improve team relationships, attending teammates' weddings and enjoying a mostly quiet life in his new home in Green Bay. 

I recently stumbled upon a YouTube video that I think sums up Aaron Rodgers perfectly.  Amateur video shot after the Packers 2009 Thanksgiving Day victory over the Detroit Lions shows the QB slowly lumbering through the stadium accompanied by Green Bay staff.  After receiving congratulations on the win, he issues a quiet "Happy Thanksgiving" and discreetly nods at the person on the other side of the video camera as he passes by, low-fiving Green Bay fans that he encounters along the way to the locker room.  

A perfect metaphor for how the QB has won the hearts of the Green Bay faithful: slowly and surely, with carefully spoken words and intentional actions on and off the field.  

The ice has melted and Brett Favre is now only a fond memory and part of the epic history that is Green Bay Packers football.  Even the most die-hard fans now sport their #12 jerseys and eagerly await each home game that Aaron Rodgers will lead the Packers in historic Lambeau Field.  However, in this scenario, I would bet that none of them mind the ice and cold, especially their native-Californian quarterback who has undoubtedly come to embrace it.   

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Favre's Three Strikes

I've always considered myself a Brett Favre fan.

Not in a sport a #4 tattoo or buy Wrangler jeans kind of way - but I've always admired him.

I admired his 16 historic seasons in Green Bay and his seemingly infallible relationship with the Packers faithful. I admired his fiery and unflappable demeanor on the field and his casual Southern drawl off the field. I admired his dedication to his family and his public support for his wife, Deanna, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. I have even continued to admire his love of the game and his unfailing passion for the sport of football, despite his continued failings at successfully achieving retirement (more on that later).

However, after doing a fair amount of reading on Mr. Favre this past week, I think it might be time to take off my rose colored glasses.

Now, I'm a firm believer in an individual's private life being just that ... private (even for those who are in the public eye more than us lowly bottom-dwellers). And I am not calling for Brett's head over a few measly inappropriate text messages. But, this news about good 'ole #4 led me to do some investigating into Brett, and what I found did not fulfill the image I have always had of him courtesy of our unbiased, thorough American sports media.

First off - this most recent scandal. Now, even if it's true that Ms. Sterger was a willing recipient of Brett's texts and voicemails, I think perhaps this news (if it's true), at least alters his image as the loving, ever-devoted husband. I don't care if my husband is Brett Favre. He better not be texting pictures of what goes in his jock strap to other women. Period. I don't care if there was an emotional relationship or not, physical intimacy or not, multiple episodes or not. That's just not how a good 'ole Mississippi boy (or any self-respecting man for that matter) treats his breast-cancer surviving wife of 14 years. Strike one.

Author's note: pardon the baseball metaphor, but there's really not one from football that works.

Number two - Aaron Rodgers. You may say, "I thought we were talking about Brett Favre"? Let me digress for one moment. In an effort to be a transparent blogger (I feel like "journalist" sounds much more legit, but I don't think I can really use that title without severely disrespecting true journalists), I will be honest. I've developed a bit of an interest in Mr. Rodgers. My Mom has always been a Green Bay Packers fan (although for the life of me I don't know why - she's never lived in Wisconsin and she abhors cold weather), and I think a little of that Cheesehead loving rubbed off on me. So I've always followed The Pack . . . especially when #4 departed in 2008. I was interested in this somewhat groomed replacement in Aaron Rodgers. I remembered his impressive college play at Cal, and was intrigued by his personality - on and off the field. Plus he seemed smart. Maybe not freakish Peyton Manning smart, but he appeared to be a student of the game, which I really respect.

In all of my reading about Aaron Rodgers I uncovered several disappointing trends in Brett Favre's life. First of all, he was, reportedly, wholly unwelcoming to the young quarterback when he was selected by Green Bay as the #24 pick in the 2005 NFL Draft. According to several reports, Favre was worried that his starting spot was not secure and that the 1st round pick was brought in to challenge him for his spot. Really, this was a little ridiculous. Green Bay was coming off a 10-1 season in 2004, albeit with a disappointing loss in the NFC Wild Card Game to the Vikings. In fact, their last .500 season was in 1999. Hardly a struggling team with a need for a rookie QB at the helm.

However, reports are that it took weeks for Favre to warm up to Rodgers, and that at first he was hardly the veteran mentor that one would expect. Now Rodgers himself notes that things improved, and the two developed a good relationship through the course of their three shared seasons in Green Bay. Although few QBs want to run the scout team, Rodgers even credits his relatively smooth transition to starting NFL quarterback to this time in his career as a backup QB to Brett.

In fact, there are dozens of pictures like the one below floating around on the internet of the two Green Bay QBs, in which they look like more than strict colleagues and even like *gasp* friends.

However, when it was decided between the 2007 and 2008 seasons that Brett would be leaving Green Bay (retiring, not retiring, who knew?), things got a little weird. Rodgers himself admits that after Favre's infamous retirement press conference in March of 2008 (although now not quite so infamous since it happens annually) he heard nothing from his former mentor, teammate and friend. Not a word. Not a text. Not a phone call. Not an email. Nothing.

Now, I'm not a professional athlete, and I don't understand what it's like to move from team to team or leave a world as all-consuming as that; but I've gone through transitions in my life, and I don't just pretend the previous life didn't exist. If I had worked with someone for three years and attempted to groom them to take over a job that was near and dear to my heart - I wouldn't just cut them out of the loop when that time came. Yeah, I'm sure it was hard for Brett, and then came the whole "Green Bay not wanting him back" saga; but in purely examining his relationship with Aaron Rodgers, I was disappointed, and I have to think that Rodgers had to be a little disappointed too. In fact, Rodgers says that the next contact he had with Favre was at midfield after he led Minnesota to a victory over Green Bay in 2009. Strike two Fav-ra.

Author's Note: Really? How do you get "far-veh" from "fav-re"? I do not understand this, nor do I think I ever will.

My last point is a little weak, but I'll make it nonetheless. This whole faux-retirement drama has to stop. The first time, we all understood. The second time, we talked about how dedicated he was and how Brett just loved playing football so much that his life outside of it seemed bleak and dull. We admired his love of the game and his willingness to play wherever he could.

Now it's just ridiculous.

No matter what happens to the Vikings this season, Brett Favre has tarnished his legacy. He could recover from his elbow tendinitis and rally the Vikings from a disappointing 1-3 start to the season to a playoff run (although doubtful, but possible). But, I would argue that the damage has been done. Last year in Minnesota was magical, but it appears that the magic has run out. Favre is sitting at a passer rating of 67.0 right now, and has a TD/INT ratio of 5/7 for the season. Far from spectacular.

Reportedly, Jared Allen and other members of the Vikings squad appealed to Favre during the offseason to return and continue to lead the magical team from last year. But, that team is gone. And I would venture to say that Favre would have been much more of a leader to Minnesota had he realized that his body has simply racked up too many injuries over his 20-year career and it was time for him to pass the torch onto a younger generation of NFL Quarterbacks. Better for Minnesota to have a rebuilding year with a young QB, than a disappointing year with one that forgot that he retired. Strike Three Brett.

Few would argue with the fact that the previously clear issues of Brett's unbridled love for the game, selfless dedication to his team, and unblemished off-the field record are starting to get a little hazy; and his multiple retirements and de-retirements are undoubtedly only muddying the waters.

Mr. Favre needs to tread carefully, or the air will soon clear and he will be left looking like a much more bitter, more selfish, less talented version of the #4 that American so loved for so many years.