Week of August 7, 2020

Arnie and His Army at the 1963 San Francisco International Open.


Is College Football On the Brink?

The world is crazy right now, this country especially. Professional sports are back and none of us know if this is good or not – I am enjoying the hell out of baseball, but I don’t know if I should, as the players and employees risk their lives and those of their loved ones so I can sit here on a Wednesday night, watching a 21-year old pitcher on my fantasy team make his MLB debut and throw 99 MPH in front of a stadium peppered with cardboard cutouts of Padres fans, and Padres fans’ dogs. I can assuage my guilt by reminding myself that professional players are paid a lot of money to play, and they are being tested every other day to help ensure safety (the use of test and testing facility resources in order to play these sports is another discussion for another day).

And there is college football. Last week, a group of Pac-12 football players published a list of demands that they say must be met or they will sit out the season. They claim to have hundreds of Pac-12 players on board, which would end the Pac-12 season. The demands are wide-ranging with varying levels of feasibility in both the short and long terms, including 50/50 revenue sharing, extended health care, and COVID-19 protections. The last one is probably the most pressing because as the Ringer’s Rodger Sherman puts it:

[T]here appears to be no discernible plan at all. The players will not compete in a contained bubble, the approach used by the NBA, WNBA, NHL, NWSL, and MLS. There are no uniform testing procedures; some schools had dozens of players test positive for COVID-19 and kept practicing, while some schools aren’t even testing players at all. … During a pandemic, thousands of unpaid athletes, who are predominantly Black, are being asked to risk their health to make money for their coaches and administrators, who overwhelmingly are white. When you say it out loud, it’s bad.

College football has torn me apart inside for quite some time. On the one hand, I freaking love it. I love heading to Berkeley six or seven Saturdays a year, having a beer at the Faculty Club, and dragging my entire family up the hill to the stadium to cheer on the Bears. But over the last decade, as we’ve learned more and more about the danger football poses to athletes’ brain health, and I consider the fact that I don’t think I could possibly let my own kids play the sport… college football also feels really, really wrong. When you add to that the fact players aren’t paid anything other than a free education and room and board, man. It’s bad. And now we want them to play during a pandemic, without any of the safety protocol in place in professional sports? How can we do this?

Many of the arguments against paying players center on how hard it’d be to do (e.g., there are Title IX implications (colleges have to fund men’s and women’s sports equally…how can they do that if they start paying football players; college football and men’s basketball revenue funds every other sport, men and women, so what happens to those sports if football and basketball players are paid from that revenue). 

But so what if it’s hard. Players must be paid. Players need to be paid and colleges/Congress need to find a way around Title IX in doing so. The NFL should also foot some of the bill – they’ve enjoyed their free minor league long enough (plus, money from the NFL could conceivably be paid directly to players, skirting Title IX implications). 

I hope college football survives, but if it does it needs to change. Just because something was done a certain way for 150 years doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do it. Yes, Cal might lose football. And that would suck. I would be extremely sad. But I can’t put my happiness twelve Saturdays a year over the well-being of approximately 13,000 FBS football players all over the country, risking their health and well-being in exchange for nothing more than an education. If they get paid, I think it flips the balance enough for me. Whatever changes happens to college football in exchange for doing the right thing, I’ll live with that. -TOB

Source: College Football Needs to Change. The Pac-12’s Players Are Making That Happen,” Rodger Sherman, The Ringer (08/04/2020)

PAL: There’s so much to love about college football until you stop to think about it. The only reason we’re talking about the potential for college football this fall is money. That’s it. This is only about money, and that money depends on college players showing up to work. 

I hope the players step up to this moment. They have the stage and real leverage. This is the time to pressure the NCAA to move faster than the bare minimum. Yes, it will cost many of them dearly in the form of scholarshipsand a football future cast in doubt. But if they want to really force a change and make a generational impact, now is the time. 


What’s In A Name

By the time you’re reading this, we’re well into the first major sporting event in the COVID era: The PGA Championship is being played in San Francisco, and it’s being played at a municipal course, no less, which is pretty cool. It’s not everyday that hacks like myself have every opportunity to play the same course the best of the best play – many major tournaments are played on private courses or resort courses. 

Harding Park has an especially interesting backstory, and is connected to a president who famously died in San Francisco. 

Juuuuuuust going to plop this down here: 

The golf course being constructed seven miles from the president’s deathbed 97 years ago was soon christened Harding Park, during a bygone era when naming things for presidents was done with little debate or consideration. 

That this most somber of summers should be linked, even tenuously, to Harding and the strangeness of 1923 feels about right.

Harding, a former Republican senator from Ohio, had little in the way of a platform when he ran for the White House in 1920 other than a “return to normalcy.” He was viewed as a tax-cutting, anti-immigrant nationalist who, in the wake of World War I, did not want the United States to be part of the postwar League of Nations. He was rumored to have had affairs (and at least one out-of-wedlock child) and was soon surrounded by scandal throughout his administration. (Curious? Start by Googling “Teapot Dome.”) He was not considered a deep thinker and was prone to rambling. He liked to play golf.

Time is a circle. 

Anyway, While I’ve never played the course, it’s cool that Harding ($65 if you’re a SF resident) is smack dab in the middle of a bunch of super prestigious private clubs, and the muni is considered the best plot of land of them all. After some real low times – budget cuts and lack of love left the once legendary course in such disrepair that its fairways were used as a parking lot for the 1998 U.S. Open held across the street at Olympic Club. Much like its namesake, the course was all but forgotten. 

But the bones of a great course remained, and they brought it back to its oceanside, cypress tree glory for the tournament. – PAL 

Source: A Memorable Golf Course Honors A Forgotten President”, John Branch, The New York Times (08/05/2020)

TOB: My neighbor, Paul, has one of the resident cards and has been bugging me to get one so that we can go. My game is so so so bad that I just can’t stomach the thought of hacking my way up the fairways at such a nice course. But reading this article had me reconsidering. 

Another interesting wrinkle to the pandemic is the utter lack of fanfare around the tournament. Or, being mostly stuck in my house, as far as I know anyways. When the U.S. Open was across the street at the Olympic a few years back, you could not miss it. The logos were everywhere. People were excited. Now, I had no idea the tournament was being held this week until a Sportscenter preview on Wednesday night. “Oh yeah.” Weird.


Big In Japan: Prospect Gamble Pays Off In Pandemic

Last year, Carter Stewart made a bold decision. After being selected 8th overall in the 2018 MLB draft and turning down $2M from the Braves, the 6’ 6” right-handed pitcher decided to not re-enter the draft in 2019. Instead, he signed a 6-year, $7M deal to play professionally in Japan. At the time, it was an unprecedented decision in baseball (we’ve seen basketball prospects go overseas recently instead of playing college ball). Per Joon Lee of ESPN: 

Not signing with an MLB team was a risk, but it gave Stewart an opportunity to prove himself in Japan, skip the years of low pay and uncertainty in the minor leagues, and set up a potential return to the United States on a lucrative free-agent deal.

Things are a bit different these days. Or, as Michael Scott puts it, ‘how the turn tables.’ 

Now, with the minor league season cancelled due to the pandemic, Stewart is competing in Japan, where the virus is much more under control (just over 1,000 total deaths for a population of 125MM people). He’s getting paid a fair wage to play in actual games, work on his game. That would not be the case if he’d signed with a MLB team. 

Also, not for nothing – but he’s a young guy getting exposed to a new culture, learning a new language, picking up cooking, all while learning how to be a professional. Seems like a lot of positives. While I can understand it might get lonely for a young kid that far from home and his family not being able to visit, his dad sums it up pretty well: 

“It’s amazing all these kids that normally would be at school are here or they’re all working at Home Depot and Domino’s,” Pat says. “And I mean not just the baseball kids. I’m talking about all the college kids. But yeah, I mean I think it truly is a blessing that he’s where he is right now, because he could literally be sitting here twiddling his thumbs.”

More money, more baseball experience, more life experience. Win-win-win. – PAL

Source: “Carter Stewart Ditched the MLB Draft to Pitch in Japan; Then Came the Coronavirus”, Joon Lee, ESPN (08/06/2020)

TOB: How long have Phil and I have been doing this damn thing? So long that we have forgotten the stories we have written about. We were chatting on the phone Thursday night and he told me he was writing about this story. “Wow, interesting idea by this kid,” I said. Then after a few more seconds of it tumbling around in my brain I said, “Wait, didn’t we write about this kid when he first decided to skip the draft?” “I don’t think so,” Phil replied. But after we hung up I checked the archives, and here it is: May 24, 2019 – “Smash the Draftiarchy!” (An inspired title, to pat myself on the back). My take at the time, “If he’s good, he’ll be ready to make big bucks. If he’s not, well he made an extra $3 million and got to experience the world. Plus, he doesn’t spend the next few years riding around the country on a bus. Win-win-win!” Phil’s take: “That’s just a big kettle of hoppy common sense.”

The cool thing here is that this week’s article is a follow-up. Carter’s gamble has paid off, big time. To paraphrase the band Pain: He bet on himself and he’s making a killing.

Basketball’s 3-Point Chess Match

Sports innovations always come in waves, with offenses innovating and defenses adapting. The rise of the 3-point shot has completely changed the way the NBA is played: 

In 13 years, from 2000-01 to 2013-14, the NBA’s average 3-point rate (the percentage of total field goal attempts that were 3s) rose 8.9 percentage points, from 17.0 to 25.9. The next season Curry won his first MVP. In six seasons since, the NBA’s average 3-point rate has jumped from 26.8 to 38.2. That’s an 11.4-percentage-point increase in nearly half as much time.

Defenses responded by attempting to make shooters uncomfortable – closing out on shooters aggressively, trying to run them off the 3-point line and force them to take a long-two or a mid-range shot. 

Recently, offenses threw their counterpunch: the one dribble 3-pointer. 

The mentality manifests in a snippet of NBA parlance that coaches, skill trainers, and a growing number of players abide by: Keep a 3 a 3. Rather than drive into the paint or pull up from midrange, it’s better to evade the defender’s closeout or shot contest with one dribble, stay behind the arc, and let it fly. The shot isn’t simple or easy. It has to be launched in a nanosecond against determined opponents with long arms who are keen to invade personal space. Before they close in, the shooter must recapture a rhythm that was momentarily lost.

The numbers back this up, as the Ringer’s Michael Pina notes:

  • Six seasons ago, all 30 teams launched two or fewer one-dribble 3s per game. This season, every single team averaged more.
  • During the 2017-18 seasons, 18 teams took one-dribble 3s as 3 percent or less of their overall shot distribution.
  • Two seasons ago, five players averaged at least one one-dribble 3 per game. That number has ballooned to 20 this season.
  • The Golden State Warriors led the league at 2.7 percent of their shot distribution when they won it all in 2015. Five years later, 2.7 percent would rank no. 29 in the league.

Interesting article. -TOB

Source: The Rise of the One-Dribble 3-Pointer,” Michael Pina, The Ringer (08/05/2020)

PAL: Great example of the tweaks we as fans don’t immediately recognize, where the game is actually changing. This endless battle between offense and defense, right now is separated by a single dribble. Fun to think if it in that way. I think this is the first I’ve read from Pina. Good writer.


Pujols Was a Man Among Boys

I came across a funny stat this week: Albert Pujols’ numbers as a high school senior. Pujols, of course, was a phenom the moment he hit the majors as a 21-year old, finishing fourth in that year’s MVP voting. A few years prior, Pujols and his family moved to Missouri when he was 16 Unsurprisingly, Albert wrecked the league. 

He hit eight home runs in just 33-at bats and had FIFTY-FIVE intentional walks. Fifty five intentional walks against just 33 official at-bats!? That is outrageous. One of my favorite things about sports is imagining the prodigies just destroying the local high school kids, on their way to the pros. Pujols’ numbers may be the funniest yet. -TOB

PAL: The sight of him holding an aluminum bat is terrifying. Imagine playing 3B when he stepped into the box. No thank you.


Video of the Week


Tweet of the Week


Song of the Week

Billy Strings – “Enough To Leave”


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“It seems awfully mean. But sometimes the ends justify the mean.”

Michael Scott