Week of December 3, 2021

The College Football Arms Race Just Went Nuclear

The amount of money in college football, whether it is spent on facilities or coaches or food, while players remain unpaid for their brain-destroying labor, has long been obscene. But the last week or so got wild.

Michigan State extended its coach, Mel Tucker, to a 10-year, $95 million contract. To be clear; this is Tucker’s third season as a head coach. His records are: 5-7 (at Colorado), 2-5, and 10-2. That’s a combined 12-7. $100M. At Michigan State. Ok.

Well, Tucker evidently set the market. Because over the weekend, USC went out and hired Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma. A coup in and of itself. But the amount USC committed is staggering:

10 years, $110M. Plus $1M for the Oklahoma homes, $6M for his new home, and unlimited use of a private jet. WOW. 

Editor’s Note: The Oklahoma houses thing has been debunked but I still think it’s funny so I am leaving it there.

And then LSU hired Brian Kelly away from Notre Dame, for a reported 10 years, $95M. 

And baby, we are just getting started. How will Oklahoma and Notre Dame respond? What will they pay? And what will the teams they pull from pay to their next coach? It’s wild. And it’s kind of insane. And very gross. 

I can’t say I’m exactly thrilled that USC might become USC again, but ultimately it’s probably good for west coast football and the Pac-12. The conference hasn’t had a team make the playoffs since 2016 and it hasn’t really had a team get close. The playoff and social media also seems to have greatly changed recruiting – Oklahoma, Ohio State and the SEC now routinely take the vast majority of California’s best players, because those players want to play in the playoff, and those schools are the ones to get you there.

Sometimes, you need a great program to raise the tide for all boats. Plus, they are fun to hate. Eff SC, ya know. -TOB

Peng Shuai

The following is a tough and sad story, but a great example of the power of a team of journalists pursuing all the angles. 

The lede, ℅ Amy Qin and Paul Mozer: 

When the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai accused a former top leader of sexual assault earlier this month, the authorities turned to a tried-and-true strategy. At home, the country’s censors scrubbed away any mention of the allegations. Abroad, a few state-affiliated journalists focused narrowly on trying to quash concerns about Ms. Peng’s safety.

First and foremost, there is what has been accused, and there is Ms. Peng’s safety (there is some debate as to where she currently is and the Women’s Tennis Association has tried and failed to communicate with Shuai without the government). The ramifications of this story ripple globally.  The Winter Olympics, in Beijing, is fast-approaching, and the W.T.A. has just suspended all tournaments in China. 

Many feel this conference call with the IOC was staged with Beijing no doubt overseeing it.

Closer to home, fans are finding ways around the censorship. In another story from the NY Times, Amy Chang Chien and Alexandra Stevenson reported:

 To evade the censors, Chinese tennis fans have started to use obscure references to call more attention to Ms. Peng’s silence. Instead of identifying her Chinese name and specifying the details of her allegations, some people have used vague references like “a tennis player” and “the spat.”

There was a seemingly unrelated post about art that used the expression “hitting an egg against a rock.” It echoed a line in Ms. Peng’s original allegation, in which she wrote that going up against someone as powerful as Mr. Zhang was like “hitting a rock with an egg.”

While the Chinese government’s approach to problematic statements in the past has been to simply make them (and the people who make them) disappear from its state-run internet, they can’t do that so cleanly with Ms. Peng. 

On China’s social media platforms and other digital public squares, the censors’ meticulous work has left almost no sign that Ms. Peng had ever accused Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier, of sexual assault. Like a museum to a previous reality, her social media account remains, without new updates or comments.

These tactics have worked for China in the past, at least at home. In recent years, officials have relied on heavy censorship and a nationalistic narrative of Western meddling to deflect blame for issues including the outbreak of Covid-19 and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

This time, though, the #MeToo accusation from a lauded and patriotic athlete implicating a top leader has no simple solution from Beijing’s propaganda toolbox. Any new narrative would most likely have to acknowledge the allegations in the first place and require the approval of top Chinese leaders.

And in a third NY Times story, Matthew Futterman shed light on the man at the helm of the Women’s Tennis Association, Steve Simon, and why he and his league were willing to take a stance against China (and its money) in a way no other sport has done, including the N.B.A.:

Simon’s refusal to accept China’s authoritarian stance on human rights once it directly affected one of his players stands in stark contrast to several high-profile leaders in sports who have repeatedly bent to the desires of the Chinese, including Adam Silver, the commissioner of the N.B.A., and Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee.

Simon has been concerned about Peng’s physical safety but also believed, as did the members of his player council and others he communicates with regularly in a player chat group, that the silencing of Peng and her sexual assault allegation amounted to a direct attack on the principle of equality upon which the WTA was founded.

Excellent work by The New York Times. All three stories are worth a read. – PAL 

Sources: China’s Silence on Peng Shuai Shows Limits of Beijing’s Propaganda,” Amy Qun & Paul Mozer (11/30/21); “‘Where is **?’: Fans in China Elude Censors to Talk About Peng Shuai,” Amy Chang Chein & Alexandra Stevenson (12/02/21); “Putting Principles Before Profits, Steve Simon Takes a Stand,” Matthew Futterman, (12/02/21)

A Reminder: Don’t Trust the Billionaires

This week, the MLB owners locked out the players. My buddy Kevin asked me yesterday to explain the lockout like he’s a child, and here’s what I came up with:

“Well, we don’t really know exactly what they’re in disagreement over. But most expect that the players want a salary floor for each teams so teams can’t tank, and a higher luxury tax ceiling so teams will spend more. The teams want the opposite.”

To elaborate, though: this has been building for years. As Michael Baumann succinctly puts it:

Under the just-expired CBA, players generally made more money as their careers progressed: Rookies make the league minimum or close to it; players with three to six years of experience get gradual raises through arbitration; and players with more than six years of service time become free agents. Only these established veterans have the freedoms afforded workers in almost every other sphere of American commerce: the freedom to choose the organizations for which they work and to sign the largest deals they can find.

Basically, there was a wink and a nod going on for years – the teams paid players cheaply until they were about 30, and then pay you a lot if you’re good. Then they got smart and realized – ahhh, we players actually get worse after 30 and we don’t have to pay them so much and salaries flatlined. Consider that Alex Rodriguez got $25.2M per year in 1999, and 20 years later Bryce Harper signed for $25.3M per year. Revenues keep rising, but player salaries are falling behind as a share of revenue. Teams are doing all they can to reduce player earnings:

Teams have refused to promote talented young players specifically in an attempt to delay their free agency. They’ve used artificial salary depression early in players’ careers as leverage to convince those same players to sign away their most lucrative earning years for pennies on the dollar. And teams like the Pirates and Orioles have used the guise of rebuilding as an excuse to run rock-bottom payrolls, lose 100 games a year, and turn a profit by cashing revenue sharing checks. 

So, how is this going to shake out? It’s hard to know. The MLB Players Union is generally the strongest in sports, but workers always have an uphill climb. However, as Baumann points out, they have a strong negotiating tool:

The other major negotiating advantage the union has is that the league wants to expand the playoffs. That’s where the most lucrative TV money is (a league presentation to the union last year put the value of postseason baseball at $787 million in national TV money alone, a number that would only increase with more games), and since players don’t get paid their normal salaries during the postseason, it amounts to almost pure profit for the league. But because a revamped playoff format would represent a change to working conditions, the league needs the union to agree to the change. In exchange, the MLBPA would naturally want the league to make concessions.

If the owners want to expand to 14 playoff teams, as has been floated, they’re going to have to make some concessions. In my opinion, players should fight for fewer years of player control – get players to arbitration and free agency quicker so they can get paid while they’re still in their prime. They also need to fight for a salary floor to avoid tanking and less punishment for exceeding the luxury tax.

However it ends up, one thing is for sure: it’s going to be an annoying winter reading about this. -TOB

Source: All the Questions—and Answers—About the Most Important Details of the MLB Lockout,” Michael Baumann, The Ringer (12/02/2021)

For Klay, An Almost Three-Year Wait is Almost Over, But Not Soon Enough

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been 2 ½ years since Klay Thompson last played in an NBA game. When he tore his ACL in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, he had 30 points in the third quarter. Had he not gotten hurt, it’s not outlandish to suggest the Warriors win that game, and perhaps Game 7 as well. But he did and they didn’t. 

About a year and a half later, Klay was working his way back for the start of the 2020-21 season when he tore his achilles. He was 29 the last time he played; he’s almost 32 now. In that time, the Warriors got bad – Steph and Draymond got hurt; Steph and Draymond looked cooked; Kerr seemed to lose the team; they traded for a ball dominant point guard who didn’t mesh with the team, and traded him for a Charmin-soft former #1 pick wing who had largely been seen as a bust; the team drafted a big man who many declared an immediate bust…and then the team suddenly got very good – Steph is better than ever; Draymond, too. They developed young talent, like Jordan Poole, drafted a guy in Jonathan Kuminga who everyone loves, and that soft former #1 pick suddenly looks like a beast. 

At 18-2, the Warriors are the best team in basketball, again, by a wide margin, again. And like an old surprise wrestling visit, you can hear Klay Thompson’s entrance music firing up from backstage, as he’s begun scrimmaging with the team and even playing a rehab stint in the G League. 

But he’s not back yet. And even though he’s close, it’s still difficult for him. Last weekend, after the Warriors beat the Blazers, Klay sat on the bench, a towel draped over his head, for 35 minutes. Here’s Marcus Thompson II, on what Klay has gone through to get here:

He began hunched over in his seat, his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped together as he stared at the hardwood in front of him. The remnants of fans not yet cleared out of the arena began chanting his name. “Thomp-Son! Thomp-Son!” His head nodded to their cadence. He pumped his fist to a yell of “Klay, we love you!” from the rafters, tapped his heart in response to another adoring shout. Eventually, he returned back to still, gazing at the court. Perhaps visualizing himself on that very floor, which he has yet to christen.

You just know he can feel the ball slide through his hands as he transitions from catching to shooting. See the defender flying at him, obscuring his view of the rim and forcing him to rely on technique and muscle memory. You know he can almost taste the adrenaline rush of anticipation as the ball spins in the air.

But he can’t actually experience it. Not yet. It’s still just a vision, one crafted from memories and so profound within Thompson it weighted him down right there on the bench. For 35 minutes, he sat.

This is what it looks like when the thing that gives one purpose is snatched away. For Thompson, it was then placed close enough to smell but too far to grasp. And he is just genuine enough not to hide in these moments. Vulnerable enough to share this aspect of his trying journey. While he may not be doing such intentionally, Thompson’s willingness to be this transparent allows a fan base to suffer with him. And there is no better preparation for his triumphant return than being able to sit with him in his low moments. Mourn with one who mourns, then rejoice with one who rejoices.

The first line of that last paragraph really hits: “This is what it looks like when the thing that gives one purpose is snatched away.” It’s a thought we all can relate to, or at least imagine. For almost three years, Klay has been denied the ability to do the thing he was born and raised to do. To do the thing he loves. He’s been betrayed by his body twice – the same body that made him so great at it. Three years is such a long time, in the prime of his career, too. Hurry back Klay! -TOB

Source: Klay Thompson Has a Vulnerable Moment After Warriors Win,” Marcus Thompson II, The Athletic (11/27/2021)

PAL: Good pick, TOB! I’m back on the Dubs wagon, watching most games, and I can’t wait to see Klay back in action. 2.5 years is a long time to be away from the thing you’re supposed to do. Every story about this guy makes me root harder for him. 

A Round of Golf With Kenny G

Fascinating article. Many of you already know saxophonist Kenny G is a really good golfer (at one point a +1 handicap). In this story, Paul Thomson drew what must have been the best assignment The Ringer handed out in recent history: play a round of golf with Kenny G at the uber exclusive Sherwood Country Club. 

As Thompson highlights, Kenny G approaches his golf in the same manner he approaches his profession: 

For Kenny, the allure of golf is not the pressure of those high-stakes situations—the reactivation of nerves that would inevitably dull after thousands of live performances—but the monastic approach to practice that it requires. Kenny practices his saxophone, without fail, for more than three hours every morning, working on specific aspects of his playing each time: tonguing one day, hitting perfect high notes the next. 

Kenny’s mind does not stop with the tinkering with technique. With his saxophone, the dude still wakes up and practices 3 hours every day…he’s been doing that for 50 friggin’ years. His expectation with the saxophone is perfection; he’s slightly less demanding when it comes to his swing: 

Like any golfer, he says he has realistic expectations for how consistent he can be (“I’m going to hit bad shots—the pros hit a lot of bad shots”); also like any golfer, his voice suggests he doesn’t quite believe this.

And finally, after decades of playing at incredible clubs and with pretty much every famous person, he’s got stories to tell. 

He also tells an incredible story about Tiger Woods: Once, Tiger and Kenny were playing here when Tiger, who had reached a green under regulation, missed what appeared to be a half-hearted putt. When Kenny asked if Tiger had missed it on purpose, the superstar admitted he had. “He said he doesn’t like to make eagles on practice days,” Kenny recalls, shaking his head at the embarrassment of riches.

Such a fun read, and I can’t wait to watch the new Kenny G doc on HBO. – PAL 

Source:Kenny G in Deep Concentration,” Paul Thompson, The Ringer (12/02/21)

Videos of the Week

You have to watch the slo-mo

Tweet of the Week

Song of the Week

Like what you’ve read? Follow us for weekly updates:

Email: 123sportslist@gmail.com

Twitter: @123sportsdigest

I’ve been noticing racism in society and I’m here to report it.

-Anna Kone