Monday, November 23, 2009

Dancing on Notre Dame's Grave

Notre Dame's recent loss to Connecticut (yes that football  powerhouse) caps off another failed season and puts a stake through Charlie Weis' new thousand year reign as Notre Dame's latest designated savior. Weis is 35 and 26 in five years. The program has not won more than 60 percent of its games over the last 12 years and has lost 9 of its last 10 bowl games. I'm not a vindictive guy, but watching the collapse of the Notre Dame program gives me abiding satisfaction as only a midwestern Catholic can feel.  Even famed "touchdown Jesus" can't help. Why?

Hubris and hypocrisy--this is a program that has played by its own rules due to the unique convergence of the Catholic immigrant experience and ND's rise as a representative for many American  Catholics. It carried the torch of identity for an economically disenfranchised and discriminated against religious minority. Now the program represents a much more comfortable and powerful integrated constituency. Neither its players nor its TV arbiters reflect that constituency.

The national legacy enabled Notre Dame to function as the last of the independents on the college scene as Penn State, Florida State or USC have integrated into conferences (its a whole other story about how the Big 10 remains the Big 10 with eleven members including Penn State). Notre Dame's mystique and its national fan base guaranteed a TV audience for games and helped ND stand aloof from the rest of college football. The BSC treats Notre Dame is like a separate conference and compensates them as such in the television realm with its NBC 10 million a year contract.

This unique status and legacy is now distorted into a hubris that infects the program and boosters.  The program's penchant for trigger fingered firing of successful coaches reflects this. Most egregiously the Board of the Regents staged its own coup and fired Tyrone Willingham after three years over the objections of the President and the Athletic Director. This is a University that prides itself on its Catholic heritage and has integrated values into its professional schools in a unique and powerful way, but that does not extend to football. Having disposed of an honorable man, the Board raced off and entered the Urban Meyer sweepstakes. As NCCA lore has it, they lost him as he flew off in Florida's private jet as Notre  Dame's private jet was landing.  Charlie Weiss's failure resulted directly from the Board usurping control, granting him an absurd 10 year contract and assuming that he would be save the program. Now five years in, his winning record is less than either Tyrone Willingham or Butch Davie his fired predecessors. This is moral comeuppance for the arrogance and hypocrisy of the Willingham firing.

Second, this reinforces the point that programs are not great, only coaches. If their jet had landed in time, they might have Urban Meyer and not another failed NFL genius who can't make it in the college ranks. The present fates of Michigan and Washington and even Florida and Texas before these present rebirth reinforces the points. Great programs are great because they have the tradition, media exposure, booster base and money to steal or buy (sorry I meant hire) great coaches who then arrive and make the program a winner. The rise of Oregon and Oregon State or Cincinnati are entwined with coaches and smart leaders who invest wisely and protect their coaches once they hire them.  As the Yankees prove and Notre Dame reinforces, resources are not enough. You need smart leadership investing and directing those resources to align great programs with great coaches. When a great coach retires, is stolen or starts to lose, great programs hire well and sustain their greatness. But there are no guarantees, think of North Carolina basketball between Dean Smith and Roy Williams.

Third, the Notre Dame model is not sustainable. The mediocrity of the program since the Lou Holz years eroded their stellar fan base. The rabid Catholic core is now less Catholic and more integrated with many more dual loyalties to their own institutions and localities. The  model is collapsing under the weight of a decade of mediocre football. Their ratings have plummeted this year and NBC Universal now charges 40 percent less for commercials. The TV contract provides Notre Dame with 10 million per year and treats Notre Dame as if it were an independent conference. No one is sure whether Notre Dame, except for how well its boosters travel, is a gift or problem for a bowl game. Parity and conference loyalties and glamor will continue to erode their arrogant independence.

The rest of ND's teams nestle comfortably in the Big East and win some and lose some, just like everybody else. The football program is a dead man walking but no one can afford to admit it because TV and NCAA and even other schools on their schedule have too much invested in the mystique. When ND, like the Yankees, comes to town, ticket sales go up. Who knows the overweening  Board of Trustees might even strike it right with a good hire. But ND has exposed the raw truth that integrity and winning are not the same.

Even with the stake through Weis, the program might rise again like the undead, but it will remain a hollow man even touchdown Jesus cannot redeem.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Selling your Soul to ESPN

ESPN just kicked off intercollegiate basketball coverage with a 24 hour game blitz. Typical stunt, good publicity and as one might expect done with absolutely no concern for student athlete welfare. What's more interesting about a stunt that hurts students is that schools scrambled to get coveted windows in the event sacrificing sleep and classes for exposure.

ESPN monopolizes college sports. It dominates bowl coverage. It shapes the dreams of players who want to be on highlights. It controls national and regional exposure for teams. It's "windows" are desperately fought over by conferences and teams eager for exposure for their teams and the recruiting advantages that such exposure brings.

The fundamental point to remember in all this is that ESPN does not  care about student athletes. Despite the palaver and player of the game scholarships and pious platitudes and the great NCAA commercials, ESPN wants PRODUCT and ENTERTAINMENT. (Please excuse all the capitals, it's not my normal style, but this is IMPORTANT, blast it.)

Product and entertainment--can ESPN produce good product to gain eyeballs and market share. This translates into profits for ESPN and visibility and recruiting success for the schools and conferences. Fair enough, except for the fact that for ESPN they are not students, barely athletes, only product and eyeballs. Have you noticed the proliferation of football games to every night of the week. And during basketball season, you have Big 15 Monday; Little Midwest Tuesday; Atlantic Whatsit Wednesday.

Mens' basketball and football are the two most academically challenged and vulnerable teams in collegiate sports. Missed class time is disastrous for these teams. One of the strong advantages of the Thursday - Saturday or Friday - Sunday schedules for basketball is that it minimizes lost class time. The great advantage of football on Saturdays is that most teams travel on Fridays and minimize lost class time. Helping under-prepared student athletes get an education requires focus, investment and continuous effort to socialize them into being students and not seeing them or treating them just as athletes. Their futures depend upon their ability to change their identification from athlete to student and from athlete to human being. ESPN does not care about this; ESPN does not care about missed class time; ESPN does not care that they make money off the most vulnerable and potentially exploited population of student athletes. They care about money, profits and maximizing the ratings. This drives coaches and Athletic Directors to care about maximizing exposure and taking the windows that ESPN offers; missed class time and student athlete welfare be damned.

The ESPN monopoly has entered a new phase with its groundbreaking contract with the SEC. This year each SEC teams receives over 11 million dollars off the top, before any season starts, to reimburse them for the rights to ESPN-SEC.  This ginormous contract dwarfs anything seen before and maybe after for a conference. It answers the Big 10's initiative to create its own TV channel dedicated to Big-10 sports. Over the next three years the Big Easy, the ACC, the Big12 and the PAC-10 all come up for TV renewals.  All will flirt with starting their own networks; all will use it as a ploy to pry more money from ESPN; very few will succeed since none have the fanatic market base the SEC has. But ESPN will remain the broker of intercollegiate sports, and the status of missed classes and the vulnerability of at risk student athletes will continue to suffer compared to the chance to get access to ESPN's windows.As I mentioned above, in the "second annual" (espn generates new traditions every week) 24 hours of basketball, schools lobbied and fought to get time slots like 6 AM designed to ensure students were exhausted for the rest of the day, and of course ESPN chose a class day, Tuesday, but teams scrambled to miss class time and get the exposure.

The devil always offers what you most want. College sports programs want exposure, money and glory; ESPN offers all three, all you have to do is give them your soul.

(Images courtesy of &

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Why Can't a Woman Coach a Man?

When my boy's volleyball team got mashed by the St. Catherine's team, the boys had no problem. They just got whupped and knew it. It did not matter to them that St. Kate's team was coached by a tall lean mother of one of the boys. They did not know she was one of the best high school coaches in the state or had played volleyball in college. All they knew was that a better coached and better lead team had beaten them. It said as much how good their coach (that's me!) was and about how good the other coach was then it said anything about the gender of the other coach. Too bad that attitude stops at grade school.

In college and high school sports the percentage of men coaching women is actually rising. The recent appointment of Nancy Lieberman to head the Dallas Maverick's development league team represents a rare exception where a maverick owner will take chances and appoint a woman, a highly skilled, successful and accomplished player and coach, to coach a men's professional team.  It should not be this way--nothing about coaching skills to spot talent, motivate, teach skills, integrate players and skills into a team concept, scout and create game plans or react and adjust during a game suggest women cannot coach men.

All over America women--moms or ex-college or high school players--are coaching boys teams. Sometimes out of necessity--no one else would step forward so a mom desparately is reading books for how to coach soccer or volleyball (what the heck is header anyway?) the night before. Boys are growing up in  world where they are used to being coached by women--except football which remains resolutely an all male bastion given the attractions of its organized mayhem and soul destroying violence.

Women have been breaking, slowly, but surely glass ceilings all over. Men flourish with female bosses. The military succeeds with female generals. Women start more new businesses than men. So why do we face such an interesting assymmetry in elite sports at college and professional level where no women coach men but lots of men coach women. Women leaders in government, business and nonprofits are garnering successes and creating highly effective modes of leading. They expand the talent pool and range of leadership styles. Their successes represent one of the great moral successes of the last fifty years.

So what makes the authority structure of sport immune from moral progress that now infuses so many other areas of life?

It's not completely grim. Women's sports have grown up along side men's sports. Immense explosions of female participation have occurred at grade school, high school and college level sports. Largely driven by Title nine demands, this growth was spawned by top down opportunity. Title 9  forced some significant cross subsidization from the major revenue sports. Most of the energy for progress for women has focussed upon gaining women's teams, creating viable markets for them and slowly moving more women into women's coaching ranks--women coaching women. Many sports simply transferred the dominance of men coaching men's teams into coaching women's teams. In some sports like Volleyball, men migrated from a dying sport, men's Volleyball, to an emerging sport women's Volleyball.

The landscape of women's sports from age 6-22 is transformed. The number of good women's coaches has grown exponentially and strong pipelines are growing within women's sports, but unlike men coaching women; very little cross over occurs with women coaching men beyond grade school. No groundswell of movement occurs, the energies still focused upon growing women's sports and teams.

But the authority structure matters. The patterns of authority revealed in sports echoes and inlfuences perceptions an fans. When men coach women, it sends a strong signal reinforcing deeper authority archetypes. When women coach men, it transforms the possibilities and teaches the players and the spectators that old shibboleths like men won't take orders from women; women aren't strong enough (no one argues smart enough anymore) to earn the respect of men; women can't raise families and devote the time to coaching; women' don't have the experience. It also opens up more lucrative economic opportunities for women given the wealth disparities of men and women's sports.

None of the arguments holds water especially now that strong pipelines of trained, knowledgeable and successful women players and coaches exist. But the resistence will be fierce, not necessarily from players--if the women coaches lead well and they win, players will go along and many of them have been coached by moms and women earlier. The  resistance will come from boosters, fellow coaches, and politically powerful groups. A classic court settlement in 2003 reflected this when a local high school ignored their very qualified girl's basketball coach and hired a less experienced man to coach the boy's high school team after intervention from the school board.

Oddly enough I think the breakthroughs will come at the pro-level and high school level before college with its supposedly liberal biases  (although if you believe this you don't hang around many football coaches). The demand to win fast is too great. The pressures of recruiting open new coaches to negative recruiting all the time, and coaches will use this mercilessly against an "other" coach especially a unique target like  a women trying to coach in a male only club. The politics, the recruiting dynamics, the media vulnerability of colleges all militate against it. Only in very rare cases, like Rick Pitino hiring Bernadette Locke Mattox as an assistant coach at Kentucky form 1990-1994. She contributed to a national championship run. Mattox later coached Kentucky women's program to the NCAA and now coaches in the professional league. But with a few random exceptions, nothing followed. Nonetheless I'd like to see superb women coaches recruit for men against men; I'd like to see how mothers of players would respond to a female coach who could win and develop the player, all other things considered--who would you trust your child with?

If women are to coach men in the high profile sports, it will start in the professional ranks, not in college. If it does start in college it will happen, as it does now and then, in Olympic sports like the picture of the Swarthmore Head coach of men and women's swimming at the start of this piece. It will grow in high schools as much for economic reasons or moving the known experienced coach from girls to boys teams.

The proven talent pool of qualified  coaches exists. The ability to change public expectations already exits. The symbolic power and frame of the change would be appropriate. All we need is courage and vision from the ADs and Owners.

(Picture courtesy of

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Silence at Season's End

It's gone. The emptiness fills the early evening. The TV blanks, the radio silences. The buzz and blooming comfort of the game has receded. Now only silence and blank screens--baseball season is over.

Sports carves out seasons. Sports provides starts and finishes to seasons. During the season, the ebb and flow of competition provides a continuity of life and interest. You follow the game the night before. You check the standings and read the article about the game you watched or listened to the night before. You talk with your family and friends about the Mariners, Royals or Tigers or  Giants. Now into the great silence.

Baseball begins in February and extends to November. The real season extends from April through September. During those nine months, the sounds and sights fill life. It provides a focus for interest, a way to commit to the outside world. A topic for conversation. A source of joy or sadness. It provides a sense of renewal. The games open connections across differences of geography, profession, race and sometimes gender.

The sheer length of the baseball season and its daily unfolding creates emotional and intellectual landmarks. It gives you reason to celebrate or suffer. The rhythm of games generates emotional substratum to life. You can drive listening to games without endangering your life. You can converse or work while watching the careful emergence of a baseball game.

The silence descends like winter. Winter brings death and stasis. It brings an open sense of quiet. No movement; no action; no rising and falling in life. Maybe the silence is an invitation to rest. Maybe it is to be still.

The silence of the season opens up other life. To every time there is a season and to every season a purpose.  The purpose is to remember how much fun and joy the game is itself. The purpose is to remember other aspect of life. Then as my wife reminds me, the silence is a time to get a real life!

(Pictures courtesy of: & best horror

Monday, November 2, 2009

Achilles Choice--II

In the Odyssey, Odysseus travels to Hades and meets the shades of great Greek heroes. In his encounter with Achilles, we hear Achilles' verdict on his own decision to choose a brief life of glory over a long life on earth. "I'd rather slave on earth for another man....than rule down here over all the breathless dead (Fitzgerald translation)." At what point does overcoming pain and injury become a journey to Hades for athletes?

People forget that Achilles died ignominiously shot by the coward Paris from behind. Pain and injury accompanies the physical demands and risks of success at sports. Overcoming them and competing and achieving reflects human spirit and courage. We praise an celebrate overcoming adversity in all aspects of life.

At one level playing sports involves a risk tradeoff  similar to other areas of life. People make decisions to devote energy to an activity because of satisfaction, achievement and goals. They give up other activities; they may fail and their efforts bear no fruit. They may succeed up to a point, and then give it up or pursue other activities. In many other areas of life the probabilities of succeeding at least at a professional level are much higher and the opportunities much greater. This accounts for the huge fall off in athletic participation as people grow older. But in America, college educations can be won with sports achievement and for a very few elect, they might have brief careers as professional players, but most of even the best will be finished by the age of 27.

The numbers of people actually affected by sports trauma narrows to a very very small band of people by the time most of them are 18 and to a miniscule by the time they are 23. Fewer than 400 play professional basketball; in the entire history of baseball there have been fewer than 17,000 players. But the way to get there is littered with injuries and cumulative traumas from repetition. An epidemic of knee injuries plagues youth soccer and basketball especially for young women. The body of a twenty-five year-old gymnist evinces the wear and tear of a 40 year old. Many high school and club players have struggled with pain, injury and damage. Most elite college athletes deal with some significant damage. We just don't know the long-term cumulative impact for most of these sports; linear clarity of impact upon their later health is not always clear. Doctors, however,  know enough to be able to warn athletes of the long-term impact of arthritis or debilitating injuries or repeated attempts to come back from injuries. At this point the role of doctors and parents becomes critical to ensure decisions to continue on are informed and made rather than simply taken for granted.

Unfortunately what modern sport gives athletes is glory, if they are good enough, and a long life full of debilitating injury. A recent NFL study suggests that football players who have suffered number of concussions potentially have a much higher chance of suffering early dementia. This data  meshes with compelling studies by the U. S. military of the cumulative impact of IED explosions on soldiers in Iraq. Proposed rules of engagement limit exposures to three and prohibit soldiers from returning to combat. Football and other sports have not reached such conclusions.

The cumulative impact on cognitive functioning differs in a profound way from the cumulative impact upon bodies. Individuals can adapt to physical injury and limits. Most people maintain their own character intact as they grapple with physical injury. But brain trauma from cumulative impacts erode the core personality and cognitive functions. The way the brain works changes, personality changes, people become shadows of themselves, they arrive at Achilles fate.

But athletes, especially young athletes, did not make a bargain with gods. They play for love, joy and accomplishment. They play for the experience of being with other  athletes. They play for their parents and coaches. A few play for dreams of being a professional. At some point, they grow into adults and make their own bargain with the game and their fate. But as youth, they depend upon others to protect them from the shades and shadow world that could await them. The more we learn, the more we need to be alert to protect the young athletes from the permanent injury to their soul that can await them.

What does it mean for people like me who enjoy and admire athletes and athletic competition? What does it mean to pay money and enjoy athletic contests that can be slowly sapping not just the body but the mind of the players? I have not been able to watch boxing for years. Over 28 percent of boxers suffer serious cognitive disability. I can remember the beauty and glory of Mohammed Ali. I recoil with physical and spiritual dismay when I see what his sport has done to his body and mind. We will not outlaw football; we will not find technical solutions to the mounting hidden epidemic. I honestly do not know how to react to this knowledge. How can I revel in the next explosive hit or block, knowing that each hit, each smash contributes to the loss of a mind?

Modern athletic glory is fleeting. Modern athletes are fungible marketing commodities. Even the greatest gain their momentary glory and their treasure, but they gain not eternal glory but a long life after the glory, a life of slow loss and suffering. This may be a deal for adults, but not for children.