Nobody Asked Me But … Here’s how I’d fix the end of NBA games

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This week, basketball fans witnessed the odd spectacle of a coach complaining that a foul was not called on his player.

In context, in sort of made sense. Spurs star Kawhi Leonard tried to foul the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook in the closing seconds of the fifth game of their playoff series. The Spurs trailed, and if they fouled Westbrook, they would regain possession and have a chance to tie the game. In this case, despite Leonard’s mugging of Westbrook, no foul was called (and Westbrook scored on the play). After the game, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich groused the call was “pretty obvious.”

Fouling for possession at the end of the game has become so routine that we don’t consider the strangeness of the ritual.

Consider the purpose of the foul in the structure of basketball. The game is, ostensibly, not a contact sport. Given human nature, play can get rough. Fouls are in place to regulate the violent impulses of players. And generally, defensive players try not to foul—or try not to be called for fouling, a difference—and complain when they are. The offensive player then goes on to take one, two or three free throws, depending on the game situation

But after the free throws, the offensive team surrenders the ball, whether they score or not. And that quirk of the rules is exploited at the end of games, when coaches hedge that regaining possession is worth more than the chance that the other team scores. As a result, the last minute of any close NBA game is gummed up by a procession of fouls, free throws, times outs and more fouls.

It’s not just an aesthetic problem, though, but a distortion of the game. It’s hard to imagine this was envisioned in 1924, when the rule establishing that the fouled player take the free throws was first established.

The exploitation of the rule follows the law of unintended consequences, an economics principle that holds that actions of people—and especially of government—always have effects that are unanticipated.

In the real world, my libertarian instincts are tempered by the knowledge that power is asymmetrical, and people and institutions that hold it will take advantage of those without it, unless their are rules to hold them in check.

In sports, however, where the playing field is (literally and figuratively) even, I’m much more laissez-faire. Sports should have as few rules as necessary to protect the integrity of the game and the safety of players, and they shouldn’t be tinkered with to correct some new wrinkle in strategy. I hated the illegal defense rule in basketball, think picks should be legal in the NFL and cringe at the idea of banning the shift in baseball.

In the case here, the losing team is relying on a loophole in the foul rule to do something they can’t through skill or defensive strategy: regain possession. By closing the loophole teams would be forced to steal the ball or get it back through a defensive rebound. In all likelihood, the team with the lead would keep it, just as they do now, but the games would end faster.

Fouls in basketball serve a necessary purpose, and getting rid of them all to restore sanity at the end of the game makes no sense. One option would be to give referees discretion about when they call them, and if the player is clearly fouling t regain possession, they could ignore it. But that puts even more control in the hands of the imperfect refs, and could give players incentive to commit rougher fouls in order to get them called.

Unfortunately, I think the solution is another rule: Any foul committed in the last minute of the game results in four free throws (or, if they’re not in the bonus, a two-and-one-and-one). By increasing the penalty for fouling, the calculus for coaches and players would shift. Fouling for possession would no longer be the default strategy, but one weighed against the cost.

I’m not fixed on the details. Maybe the number of free throws should be three, or five. Maybe it goes into effect with 90 seconds left, or 45. But it would be a clear improvement over the current end of game drudgery.

Ranking Sports: The Best NBA Team Names

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Welcome to the latest installment in an (extremely) occasional, and occasionally controversial, series ranking the best team names in pro sports. Earlier editions ranked the best names in baseball and the NFL. This time, we’re doing the NBA. As before, I’m using three basic criteria:

  • Originality. How unusual or creative is the name? Is it unique, or a generic name used by other teams?
  • Geographic specificity. Does the name reflect or honor the team’s city or region? Would it sound weird if the team was relocated (a major problem in the NBA – stay tuned)?
  • Unmaketability. I like names that aren’t designed to sell merchandise. The more off-beat or quirky the name, the better.

And for the NBA, I’m adding a fourth category:

  • Basketballishness. Basically, how well does the name fit the sport? Basketball names should evoke action and movement. The Fairbanks Glaciers would not be a good basketball name.

Lastly, this is not science. I’m ranking them according to my preferences. I’ll weigh some categories differently depending on the team. Disagree with my choices? Cool. Leave a comment, or even better, compile your own list and I’ll run it here. On to the rankings:

30, Toronto Raptors

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The NBA has a lot of generically bad team names, but only one objectively awful one. The Raptors came into existence in 1994, hot on the heels of Jurassic Park, the Steven Spielberg blockbuster featuring velociraptors, a nasty sort of dinosaur. Naming your team after the flavor-of-the-month movie means selling out your long-term identity for a quick marketing boost, and should be beneath an NBA team. A worse option would be the Toronto Terminators, but not by much. It’s too bad, because Toronto otherwise has interesting team names: the whimsical Blue Jays, the strangely spelled Maple Leafs and even the CFL’s Argonauts (which is actually a great name). Maybe some enlightened future owner will see the light and change it.

29, Brooklyn Nets

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It’s not a horrible name so much as a deeply peculiar one. Naming your team after a piece of equipment suggests either a profound lack of imagination or misunderstanding the purpose of a name. A team name should create an identity, forge a bond with your fans and inspire them and your players. Naming your team after string does none of those things. It’s like naming a team after furniture.

28, Washington Wizards

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This feels a bit unfair, since the Washington Bullets, under owner Abe Pollin, changed their name for the noblest of purposes, to disassociate the team from the gun violence that plagued their city. But did he have to pick a new one that was so lame? There’s something particularly pathetic about the name, as if it was selected by a panel of kindergartners. Wizards cast spells and recruit hobbits to find rings. They have nothing to do with basketball or Washington. Here’s a hint for would-be team namers: Alliteration is rarely your friend.

27, Sacramento Kings

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The first in a string of inoffensive, yet totally boring and nondescript team names. The Kings have bounced around from city to city, and their name hasn’t made sense in any of them. Since when is monarchy a good thing? Why did we fight a revolution?

26, Atlanta Hawks

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The NBA doesn’t have as many bird names as baseball and football, but Hawks may be the worse of all of them. Completely generic, the Hawks could play in any sport in any city.

25, Golden State Warriors

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Another bland name with no distinguishing characteristics. The “Golden State” part is at least interesting; maybe more teams should adopt the state’s nickname. The Empire State Yankees has nice ring to it.

24, Cleveland Cavaliers

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The Cavaliers, if I remember my history, were English nobility loyal to King Charles I during the English Civil War of 1642 -1651. What this has to do with basketball in Cleveland, I have no idea. I’d give them points for creativity except the University of Virginia beat them to the moniker. A naming choice driven mostly, it seems, by alliteration.

23, Milwaukee Bucks

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Another name chosen pretty much at random (team records say it was the result of a contest, with R.D. Trebilcox of Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, the winning entrant). I’m not aware of any other Bucks out there, so it’s modestly original, but I’m also not aware of any other teams named for animals celebrated for getting shot, decapitated and their heads hung on the walls of redneck bars.

22, Los Angeles Clippers

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The Clippers used to be in San Diego, where the name at least made some sense: a clipper is a sailing ship, and San Diego is a nautical sort of city.  But like a lot of NBA names, it became an oddity after the team moved. (Yes, I know LA is also on the ocean, but yachting is hardly the first thing you think of). And unfortunately for the historically inept franchise, the name lends itself to various “clip joint” jokes. But it’s still better than the Buffalo Braves, the team’s first name.

21, Los Angeles Lakers

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One of the NBA’s most decorated teams, the Lakers have labored under one of pro sports’ geographically weirdest names. Los Angeles is literally lake-less, unless you want to count the Silver Lake Reservoir (or the La Brea Tar Pits). The name traveled with the team from Minneapolis, Land of 10,000 Lakes, in 1960. Do they deserve credit for not changing it? Maybe, because the alternative could have been far worse. But even if they were still in Minneapolis, it’s not a particularly rousing name. I award one bonus point for rhyming with “fast-break makers,” as per the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

20, Orlando Magic

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The Magic isn’t as bad as it first appears. The name nods at Orlando’s Disney empire, and Magic Johnson gives it some basketball cred. I don’t even object to using a singular noun to describe a team. But Magic is just so cheesy.

19, Memphis Grizzlies

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Yet another misplaced team. The Grizzlies began life as the Vancouver Grizzlies before they moved in 2001. In a strange twist, they’re actually the second iteration of the Memphis Grizzlies; the first was a short-lived pro football team. Since there is some history, and because Grizzlies once could be found on the plains, the name isn’t quite as out of place as others.

18, Phoenix Suns

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Sure, it’s hot and sunny in Phoenix, but lots of cities get sunshine. The bigger problem is the ponderous nature of the sun. It’s a massive ball of burning gas hanging in the sky, which is not very basketballish. Technically, the sun is moving through the galaxy at 500,000 mph, but it can’t exactly turn on a dime. (It’s also unclear why the name is plural – what other suns are they talking about? Alpha centauri?) Phoenix’s WNBA team, the Mercury, has a much better name.

17, Denver Nuggets

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It’s hard to imagine a team willingly naming themselves the Nuggets, so they get credit for being creative, original and, in the context of Colorado’s gold mines, regionally specific. But maybe the only object less mobile than a sun is a lump of rock. Wikipedia tells me the franchise began life as the Denver Larks, before changing their name to Rockets. It pains me to say it, but Nuggets is an upgrade over those.

16, Dallas Mavericks

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I’ll admit to my inconsistency here: the Mavericks name, chosen in a 1980 fan contest, was at least partially influenced by the TV show (and James Garner had an ownership stake). So what makes it so much better than Raptors? Maverick, at least, has some regional meaning – a maverick is cowboy-speak for an unbranded calf – and a maverick personality fits basketball better than, you know, a dinosaur. And the name just sounds better. This is not an exact science.

15, Utah Jazz

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I wrestled with what to do with the Jazz. If the team was still in New Orleans, it might be at the top these rankings. “New Orleans Jazz” has everything: regional specificity, originality and basketball flair (does any art form suggest basketball, with its improvisational energy, more than jazz?). But they’ve been in Salt Lake City since 1979, and the name, as someone once quipped, makes as much sense as the New Orleans Tabernacle Choir. It’s hard to think of a city less jazzy than SLC, making the name not just strange but wrong. I have them ranked in the middle tier, but not with a lot of confidence.

14, Indiana Pacers

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Not terrible, but not great either. Evoking Indianapolis 500 pace cars, and the local harness racing industry, the name ticks the right boxes, and it at least suggests movement. Maybe it’s the association with the hideous AMC hatchback, but Pacers falls flat for me.

13, Chicago Bulls

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The Bulls are a perfectly satisfactory name. The name draws from Chicago’s stockyards, and sounds right. Bulls aren’t the most nimble animals,  but they’re more mobile than the team’s Chinese translation, the Red Oxen.

12, Houston Rockets

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Another solid name. It’s got a local connection – “Houston, we have a problem” – and Rockets are fast and dangerous. A bit generic, but not bad.

11, Charlotte Hornets

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Taking their name from a bit of Revolutionary War lore (Lord Cornwallis allegedly referred to the city as “a veritable hornet’s nest of rebellion”), Hornets are quick, fierce and have a sharp sting, all good basketballish qualities. It’s a much better name than the unfortunate Bobcats, which the city was saddled with for a few years.

10, San Antonio Spurs

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I give the Spurs lots of credit for originality. It’s not an obvious choice – it does fall into the equipment category – yet fits the region, and as a verb, contains a lot of action. And like a lot of good sports names, is short enough to fit nicely into a headline. The team started life as the Dallas Chaparrals, which also wasn’t bad, although a bit obscure.

9, Miami Heat

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Another singular name, and much better than its upstate rival, the Magic. Yes, lots of places are hot, but the short name packs a lot of punch. It suggests both temperature and attitude, which fits Miami well. It also suggests intensity, which is maybe not a Mimi trait, but good to have in a basketball team. And while I’m not grading logos, theirs is one the the best marriages between name and image in all of sports.

T7, New York Knicks and Boston Celtics

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Two names that just go together. They’re both TNEEG-SDANAs (Teams Named for a European Ethnic Group that Settled in Defined Areas of North America, like the Vikings), they’re either hard to pronounce (Kanicks?) or mispronounced (ask someone in Ireland to say Celtic) and have nothing to do with basketball. Yet they’re historic, colorful and have persisted for decades, long after their region’s denizens stopped being identified by their Dutch or Irish roots. Needless to say, no one was thinking about selling jerseys when they chose these names.

6, New Orleans Pelicans

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Another bird, but instead of a sharp-beaked raptor (ahem), New Orleans went out of the box with pelicans, a big, dopey looking bird with a goofy bill. It’s very local. The team says it chose the name because “it represents the culture and resolve of the Gulf Coast region while also symbolizing Louisiana’s most pressing initiative of coastal restoration and wildlife conservation.” That sounds like a lot to ask for in a team name, but its still interesting and colorful. Pelicans also have a wingspan up to 12 feet, a very useful trait in basketball.

5, Minnesota Timberwolves

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A classically good name. Wolves are relentless and can run forever, and adding “timber” attaches it to the woods of northern Minnesota. And a much better choice than its predecessor Lakers.

4, Oklahoma City Thunder

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I was tempted to punish the Thunder for erasing the name of one of sports’s great names, the Seattle Supersonics. But this ranking doesn’t have an ethics component, so I can’t dock them for their trickery and deceit. And it is a great name: it evokes big storms rolling across the prairie, and thunderous dunks. Yeah, it’s a bit commercial, but I can live with it.

3, Portland Trailblazers

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Trailblazers suggests pioneers, creativity and Lewis & Clark; ‘Blazers, it’s shortened version, evokes speed and dash. An excellent name.

2, Philadelphia 76ers

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76ers combines a name that’s distinctly local, completely unmarketable, and a lot of fun. Like the San Francisco 49ers, it’s a name that’s perfect in Philly, and would make no sense elsewhere. And while it’s not overtly basketballish, I’d argue the patriotic red, white and blue color scheme is reminiscent of the ABA’s old circus ball, and “Sixers” just sounds fast.

1, Detroit Pistons

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This one has it all, a near-perfect synthesis of originality, regional specificity and basketballish action. Yes, the team was born in Ft. Wayne, but Pistons have an even stronger connection to Detroit’s auto industry, and are an inspired alternative to something like coupes or hotrods. And the fast, driving power of a piston is an exact match for the speed of basketball. Even the motion evokes dribbling. Pistons does pretty much everything a team name should, and does it with panache.

Clinton, Sanders and Kissinger: Thoughts on a Democratic Debate

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If there was one moment in the Feb. 11 Democratic debate that crystallized the difference between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton for me, it was when Clinton name dropped Henry Kissinger, noting with pride that he approved of the job she did at the State Department. For most progressives, Henry Kissinger is a war criminal who has successfully evaded prosecution. If Clinton wanted to present her liberal bona fides, she undermined them with that off-hand remark. But for Clinton, Kissinger is a respected figure, an icon of the Washington establishment that she has been part of for decades.

Here’s the thing: even though Clinton is very much a creature of official Washington, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Governing is about making comprises and cutting deals. Ideology is important, but not if it gets in the way of progress. Clinton may be chummy with venomous snakes like Kissinger, Lloyd Blankfein, and Jamie Dimon, but I also believed her when she says she will fight for the rights of women, children and minorities. Her strategy is that of the insider, making small deals that will yield incremental improvements. In our current political landscape, that may be the most effective way forward. I remember when Obama was fumbling through the creation of Obamacare, and thinking Clinton would be much better at the horse trading it required.

Sanders, on the other hand, is an ideologue who has lived a political life on the fringes. I doubt he’s ever been invited to the same parties as Kissinger, which is why Clinton looks so compromised next to him. It’s hard to see him cutting small deals. He wants to burn the establishment to the ground, and given what he’s up against, he probably would fail. But were he elected, he would set a tone that could have lasting impacts. Through his appointments and executive actions, he could introduce fresh and radical new views into government, and begin the process of a slow political revolution. Voting for Sanders would be like a vote for Obama: you’re not electing a manager but an attitude (the same would be true of Cruz voters). But while Obama wanted to build a bridge, Sanders wants to storm it.

Ultimately, Sanders vision is so threatening to the establishment that I fear he is unelectable. The forces of Wall Street and corporate America will spend everything they need to to thwart him. The establishment can live with Clinton (as evidenced by their considerable support of her campaigns) and may in fact prefer her to Cruz.

Clinton and Sander represent two very different political philosophies, but both could be effective agents for change. I’m an independent and can’t vote in the New York primary (a subject for another day) so I won’t have a say in this debate. But whatever the outcome, we could do a lot worse.

Very Short Review: Snowpiercer (2013)

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I’m late to the cult of Snowpiercer, which had a brief appearance in theaters three years ago, but has had a much longer life in online chat rooms. It’s not hard to see why. Like The Matrix and The Hunger Games, movies with which it shares both aesthetic and thematic qualities, Snowpiercer asks Big Questions while serving up stylish and riveting action. The plot is more metaphor than actual story: in the near future, efforts to halt global warming have plunged the world into a deep freeze. All life is extinct, save the passengers on super train that circles the globe once a year. Like the world of the Hunger Games, society is divided between the haves, who live in decadent luxury at the front of the train; and the have-nots, the grimy rabble packed into the rear of the train, subsisting on a diet of protein Jello. The absurdity of the situation is more or less addressed as the movie unfolds and a band of rebels, led by the reluctant, brooding Curtis Everett (surprisingly effective in a non-Captain America role), battles their way car-by-car to the front of the train to seek retribution, or at least redistribution. Despite these narrow confines of story and setting, Snowpiercer succeeds through the vivid, crisp direction of Korea’s Bong Joon Ho, and has enough wrinkles to keep it interesting. The movie’s climax, a confrontation between Everett and the elegant Ed Harris as the train’s creator and engineer, does lurch into some tedious philosophical territory but that’s a failure only of Snowpiercer‘s ambition. The strong cast also features Tilda Swinton as a bizarrely accented enforcer of the social order, and John Hurt as a decrepit Obi Wan Kenobi guiding the rebellion.

67 Things I’ll Miss About London (and 9 Things I Won’t)

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After nearly four years living in London, we returned to the U.S. today. Here’s what I’ll miss:

1, Pub lunches with the family

2, the Jubilee Line

3, Match of the Day

4, Nunhead Cemetery

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5, “flytipping”

6, Two hours to Paris

7, Borough Market

8, Graham Norton

9, the Jamaica Wine House in the City

10, riding fixed wheel cycles at the Herne Hill Velodrome

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11, Yannick Bolasie

12, day trips to Brighton

13, adventure playgrounds

14, canoeing on the Dart

15,  the Oval tube station

16, running through Dulwich Woods

17, “could do”

18, Ocado

19, Peckham Plex

20, Holmesdale Fanatics

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21, The Heber Parents Disco

22, the Evening Standard

23, watching my daughter rider her scooter down Crystal Palace Road to school

24, lunch at White Cross Street market

25, Paolo Ucello at The National Gallery

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26, wolfing down pasties on the train home

27, sunset at 10 in June

28, the view from the top of Canonbie Road

29, “faffing about”

30,  running along the canals in Birmingham

31, The Richard Serra at Liverpool Street Station

32, watching the moon through the skylights of our flat

33, weekends in Vienna

34, blue plaques

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35, Cambridge

36, blackberry picking in Dulwich Park

37, climbing Ben Nevis with my son

38, date night at Franklin’s

39, “can’t be arsed”

40, Foyles Bookstore

41, sunrise from our flat

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42. Haunch of Venison Yard

43, “Stand in the Rain and Stand in the Sun, We are South London’s Number One”

44, Ye Olde Mitre, London’s oldest pub (allegedly), in Holborn

45, the canals of Paddington Basin

46, Southwark Tigers Rugby

47, The Olympics

48, St. Pancras Station

49, “a right barney”

50, The Walkie Talkie, the Cheese Grater and the Gherkin

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51, Bath

52, Forbidden Planet

53, Christmas Curry

54, lunch at an Oxford college

55, concerts at Shepherd’s Bush Empire

56, “sorted”

58, Bird-in-Bush Road

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59, track & field on television

60, the V&A

61, Thanksgiving dinner on Sunday

62, Joel Ward

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63, heated towel racks

64, Snowdonia

65, Peckham’s car-park bars

66, SE22

67, “pootling”

Here’s what I won’t miss:

1, Elephant & Castle

2, roundabouts

3, TV tax

4, the Northern Line

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5, trying to find a bin

6, cling warp

7, “hiya”

8, the 176 night bus

9, Theresa May

 

 

 

Nobody Asked Me But … Here’s How to Fix College Sports

55f21740eef90.image(Inside the luxury suites at Texas A&M’s Kyle Field. Photo: Sam Craft, The Eagle)

College sports in America are broken.

Consider the recent events at the University of Missouri. As most people know by now, president resigned after protests from students over his administration’s handling of racial incidents on campus. The key event in his ouster was the decision of Missouri’s football players to join the protest and their threat to boycott Saturday’s game against Brigham Young University. It wasn’t their moral authority that forced the issue but their financial clout: A forfeit would have cost Missouri $1 million. Whatever you think about the Tim Wolfe’s resignation, he wasn’t brought down by the cause of racial justice.

Further evidence of the disconnect between college sports and the universities they are purportedly part of:

* Texas A&M spent $485 million to expand its football stadium to seat 102,733, according to the New York Times. The renovation was funded in part by boosters who collectively paid $125 million for the rights to rent 12 luxury suites for seven or eight home games a year.

* The University of Louisville is reeling from accusations that an assistant coach used prostitutes to recruit high school students to its men’s basketball team. “I knew they weren’t college girls,” one recruit told ESPN.

* Thousands of athletes, along with other students, at the University of North Carolina, took part in an 18-year academic fraud that allowed them to receive grades without attending class or complete course work. The scandal led to the resignation of Chancellor Holden Thorp, while Roy Williams, men’s basketball coach since 2003, received a contract extension through 2020.

All of this is further proof, if any was needed, of the influence and power college sports has over universities, and the perverse relationship between academics and athletics at its core. From criminals recruited to campus, local police turning a blind eye to athlete misdeeds, college exams that ask how many halves are in a basketball game and $100 million coaches, universities are beholden to the prestige and money of big-time sports. The tail is not wagging the dog; it’s killing it.

Fortunately, I have a solution. It’s radical, and radically simple. It preserves much of what there is to like about college sports – the pageantry, the traditions, the intense competition – while eliminating much of what is rotten.

Football and men’s basketball become professional franchises owned by the university, and the athletes become its employees.

Teams would continue to play in the facilities on college campuses, wear the same uniforms and school colors. Athletes would draw wages and be eligible for the same tuition benefits as other employees. Some will pursue degrees and others won’t. They can take jobs in the off season, and earn money in whatever legal way they see fit. The NCAA would no longer have jurisdiction over those sports; there would be no need for recruiting rules or for minimum academic standards. Misbehavior would be dealt with by law enforcement, not coaches.

Not all athletic departments could afford to pay their athletes wages. This plan would probably be limited to the “Power Five” football conferences and their basketball equivalents. Those that couldn’t pay would opt out, and step their programs down to FCS (Division I-AA). Since most athletic programs run at a deficit, that’s where they belong, anyway.

Athletes could unionize, a movement that’s already begun at Northwestern, and universities could sign collective bargaining agreements putting in place mechanisms like salary caps and drafts to maintain competitive parity.

Other sports would remain under the current system, although ideally athletic scholarships would be eliminated and replaced with four-year grants based on financial need. Eventually, other revenue-generating sports – women’s basketball, hockey etc. – might choose to professionalize.

Owning what would essentially be minor-league franchises would be a departure for universities, but it’s not unusual for colleges to run profit-oriented businesses. Dartmouth College owns a hotel, Stanford owns a driving range and North Carolina has formed a joint venture with a pharma company to develop an AIDS cure.

By making that change, much of what is odious about college sports disappears. It’s not perfect, but it addresses the four main points any solution must:

1, It keeps the money flowing. Any realistic proposal has to accept the world as it is; the calendar can’t be turned back to 1940, when the University of Chicago dropped football to pursue a purer course. The massive revenue streams – universities share $11 billion from selling the right to broadcast the men’s basketball tournament – will be preserved because the product would be the same.

2, It compensates athletes for their labor. One of college sports’ biggest injustices is the financial exploitation of the athletes, who earn millions for their institutions and receive scholarships in lieu of pay. As Taylor Branch puts it, saying scholarships are fair compensation is “like saying that any worker who gets medical coverage doesn’t need or deserve a salary.” Athletes should be able to freely negotiate the terms of their employment, a fundamental right of workers everywhere.

3, It doesn’t force everyone to be a student. Not everyone belongs in college, but, because of collusion with the NFL and NBA, the system forces anyone interested in a career in basketball or football into university courses. Many athletes have no interest in academics, and are ill prepared by their high schools for college work. To maintain their eligibility, universities funnel them into the easiest courses and invest million in tutors and study centers, yet subject “student-athletes” to punishing travel and training schedules.

4, Most importantly, it severs the athletic enterprise from the university, and eliminates the need for the pretense that football is just another extra-curricular activity, like the glee club.  When a football player spends four years at Oklahoma State without knowing how to read, it damages everyone associated with the school. When Rutgers shrinks it doctoral programs, yet pumps $27 million into sports, it tells faculty and students what’s important. Big-time sports are incompatible with the mission of a university, and it’s presence weakens the institutions, financially, pedagogically and morally.

I covered both college sports and higher education for years, so I think my reasoning is sound, but I wanted someone to check my math and I ran my plan past an expert on higher education. One flaw he identified is that gifts from boosters to athletics would no longer be tax-deductible, which could dry up a major source of income. Boosters could still, of course, contribute to the rest of the university, and it’s not clear that donating to build a university-owned stadium would run afoul of the IRS. It’s also not clear that athletics programs would need to spend as lavishly on facilities to woo recruits when they could attract them with better pay.

The professor’s other critique was that he couldn’t see universities giving up on the fantasy of the student-athlete; that professionalizing colleges sports would be admitting the hypocrisy inherent in the system. He may be right, and in the short term, this proposal is more of a thought experiment than an action plan. But the current path is unsustainable, and it may be courts or lawmakers that force a solution on universities if they fail to adopt one themselves.

Very Short Review: The Martian (2015)

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The Martian is the rare movie that’s better than the book. In this case, it’s mostly because the book is so mediocre and the film makers (it was directed by Ridley Scott) manage to solve the problems its writer, Andy Weir, could not. The story is a simple one: Astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) is left for dead on Mars, and he needs to stay alive for more than a year until he can be rescued. The book does a great job of explaining how this could happen, and patiently walks us through Watney’s forays into Martian agriculture and transportation. Told mostly through his journal updates, Watney narrates his ordeal with humor and a breezy, can-do attitude. But the book lacks any attempt to convey the inner life of a man stuck millions of miles from home. He never despairs, he never pines for missing friends or lovers (and apparently doesn’t have any), he’s never angry at the hand fate dealt him, and so never becomes more than a glib sketch of a person. And this is where the movie succeeds. In only a few brief scenes, perhaps less than a minute of total screen time, Damon flashes the emotions of a man who has every reason to rage against his predicament, and becomes someone we can understand. The movie also smartly introduces the rest of the cast – Watney’s fellow astronauts and the NASA ground crew – much earlier than the book, which abruptly lurched from a Robinson Crusoe-like narrative to a rescue mission with lots of characters. As a result, some scenes of Watney’s travails are cut and new ones, featuring Jessica Chastain as the spaceship’s commander, are added. Those alterations are mostly positive (save for an unnecessary coda set back on earth) and help the movie build momentum on Earth, in space and on Mars towards a satisfying and moving climax. Much like Apollo 13, the movie celebrates the resourcefulness of NASA’s engineers and feels overly promotional (I’m sure the real-life NASA administrators loved it). Given the billions of dollars spent to save one astronaut, I would have liked to hear from an ethicist arguing whether the money could be better spent on a malaria vaccine, say, that could save millions of lives. But The Martian isn’t that kind of film. It’s a rousing adventure that reminds us how, in capable hands, effective a story-telling medium movies can be.

Very Short Reviews: Noah (2014) and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

We rented these movies this week, and they have a lot in common. Both are based on old stories (one somewhat older than the other) that didn’t particularly need to be made into movies. And while neither film is very good, at least one is interesting.

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Noah, from Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan), is wild, feverish mess. It imagines the story of the flood not as a gauzy allegory, but as a vivid, painful ordeal. Noah is the descendent of Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, just 10 generations removed from Eden, and the world as filmed by Aronofsky looks about 300 years old: raw and strange. Angels still walk the earth, but they are encased in rock, a punishment from the vengeful Creator (You Know Who). The Creator also visits the dreams of Noah (Russell Crowe), who foresees the drowning of humanity, most of whom are the wicked descendents of the original Bad Man, Cain. Noah and his sons get to building the ark, and on the eve of the deluge, animals start showing up. Aronofsky skips the two-by-two procession of beasts that is the staple of children’s books, and in a few arresting sequences, shows thousands of critters slithering and shoving their way aboard. It’s when the men – led by their very evil king, Tubal Cain (Ray Winstone) – try to get on the boat does the action movie break out, and lots of smashing and explosions ensue. Crowe doesn’t exactly look like a semitic hero, but he broods furiously, particularly when he’s torn between his understanding of the Creator’s intent – that all men must die, his family included – and an unwillingness to sacrifice what he loves. Unfortunately, Aronofsky, or the studio heads, doesn’t think theological questioning is dramatic enough, so we get a distracting subplot about Tubal Cain tempting Noah’s son, and a predictable fight in the bowels of the ark. Along the way there’s lots of stilted dialogue, some impassioned urging from Noah’s wife (the strangely cast Jennifer Connelly)  and a bland, passive performance from Emma Watson, the wife of Noah’s son upon whose pregnancy the fate of humanity rests. Hermione Granger never had days like these.

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Noah is inconsistent and often clumsy, but at least Aronofsky has a vision. It’s hard to tell what Peter Jackson’s vision was for The Hobbit, aside from the most cynical. The movie picks up where the last one left off, with Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf aiding a troop of dwarves in their quest to reclaim their lost kingdom (and not coincidentally, the mountain of treasure left behind). While the second installment is somewhat brisker than the sluggish first, it suffers the same fatal flaws of bloat and lack of character development. We simply don’t have a reason to care about these people (if hobbit and dwarves are people) or their mission. Few of the dwarves ever develop a personality beyond caricature, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) has no discernible motivation and as other characters – elves, humans, orcs, were-bears – parachute in, the plot is stretched thinner and thinner. J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 book is a slight, diverting adventure, with none of the weight of his later Lord of the Rings. Jackson’s attempts to invest this story with significance fall flat and worse, undermine the power of his magnificent Rings trilogy. Anyone who watches all the movies in chronological order would be baffled by Gandalf’s slow realization that Sauron had returned in The Fellowship of the Ring, since he’d already confronted him two movies earlier in The Desolation of Smaug. The movie also suffers from the same action-movie affliction as Noah, with an extended sequence of dwarves in barrels rushing down a river seemingly designed with a theme-park ride in mind. It’s not all tedious – there are some well crafted sequences in the lair of Smaug the dragon – and Jackson again uses the New Zealand scenery to maximum effect. But when your mountains are more captivating than your characters, you have a problem.

Nobody Asked Me But … Here’s How to Fix Penalties in Football

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(Since I’m blogging in London I’m calling it football, not soccer. Sorry, ‘merica).

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(photo courtesy Clark Parker/TheTokyoFiles.com)

I was a (very) casual football fan for years but since moving to the U.K. three years ago, I’ve paid much closer attention to the sport. And while most of it is just fine, I’m troubled by the role played by penalties.

Penalties are highly entertaining and, because they’re awarded by the referee, incredibly arbitrary. Many penalties that should be called are not, and many are called that shouldn’t be. Players flop and dive with abandon, hoping to win one. It is not one of the game’s more attractive aspects.

The problem is the disproportionate role penalties can play, given their capricious nature. While an NBA referee will blow some calls, costing a team one or two points, they tend to get evened out in a game where both teams are likely to score in the hundreds. In the English Premier League last year, teams averaged a 2.7 goals a game (that’s a combined 2.7 goals) and more than 60 percent of the matches were decided by one goal (or were draws). In that context, penalties can, and often will, decide the outcome.

Penalties aren’t automatic (just ask Jason Puncheon) but they’re close: players convert on 85 percent of them, on average. That’s better than the NBA’s average free-throw rate.

Here’s how to fix it:

1, Let the punishment fit the crime

Penalty takers are so successful in part because of who takes them: very often the team’s best scorer. There’s no rule specifying who takes the penalty, so naturally the most gifted shooter lines up. This both pads the scoring statistics for strikers (bizarrely, the records don’t distinguish between earned goals and penalties) and undermines the whole logic of the punishment. If the penalty is an attempt to compensate teams for lost scoring opportunity, then shouldn’t the player who lost the chance take the shot? In other words, shouldn’t the punishment fit the crime?

A minimum fix to the problem of penalties would be to require the fouled player to take the shot. If he’s too injured to take it – unlikely, given that he may not have been touched in the first place – then he should come off the field for a substitute. It wouldn’t make a big dent in the success rate, but at least justice will be served. (The same logic applies to free kicks, as well.)

2, Move the penalty mark back two yards

Sports need to adapt to changing conditions, and can’t be too rooted to traditions. If baseball can raise and lower the pitchers mound, football can tinker with the penalty mark. Another two yards will give the keeper a fraction of a second longer to block the shot, and help even the odds. If that doesn’t work, move it back four yards.

3, Stop counting penalties in the scoring statistics 

This is more of a philosophical point than remedy, but it would help remind fans (and the wildly celebrating players) that scoring a penalty kick isn’t the same as scoring a goal. A few weeks ago Wayne Rooney scored his 50th goal for England to become the nation’s all-time leader … on a penalty. It shouldn’t count. While the outcome of a walk is the same as a single (going back to baseball), they’re not the same and aren’t treated as such in the stats. Last year, Sergio Aguero of Manchester City won the Golden Boot with 26 goals. Only in the fine print does it say he scored five of them on penalties.

4, Institute retroactive red cards

This isn’t a new idea, but it’s a good one. To crack down on diving, football should institute a tribunal that examines video after the game. If a player is found faking a foul, he should be given a red card for his next match. (Some noble fans argue the game should be paused to assess the foul as they occur. You can sign their petition here). The NBA has a very mild version of this in place to clamp down on flopping. Stiff penalties for diving means there will be less of it, and referees, having more confidence that they’re making the right decisions, will be more likely to call the legitimate fouls. It may not reduce the number of penalties, but it will make them less arbitrary.

Looking: Agnes Martin

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Agnes Martin, the subject of a retrospective now at the Tate Modern, was born in Saskatchewan in 1912, and spent much of her adult life in rural New Mexico. It’s easy to draw connections between her bare, minimalist paintings to those stark landscapes, although she may have been more influenced by the zen philosophy she studied at Teachers College than by the Canadian prairie.

Her early works – paintings of biomorphic shapes, and found objects – show the influence of O’Keeffe, Miro and Johns, but she quickly found her own language of the rigid grids and bands she tinkered with for the rest of her career.

One of her most successful works is A Grey Stone (1963), a vast canvas that immediately strikes the viewer as a wall of, yes, grey. Get closer, and you see it’s a grid of tiny rectangles, hundreds or thousands of them, etched faintly into the dark paint. (Get even closer and you set off an alarm. Sorry).

A Grey StoneA Grey Stone, 1963

Gray Stone (detail)
A Gray Stone (detail)

Martin’s precision creates the illusion of machined perfection, but it’s made by hand, and it has the imperfections of the hand made. The slightly varying lines make the work organic and natural, and the pattern here suggests animal hide, snake skin, human cells. It’s bulk and texture suggests an immense beast, like a rhinoceros or Brontosaurus, while the fine lines reveal the creature’s intricate engineering. Stepping back, we can see the painting’s surface is not uniform, but one that varies slightly across its expanse, like a faint clouding. A Grey Stone is both a work of brute force and exquisite delicacy.

Martin’s paintings can be appreciated for their creativity and subtle beauty in their own right, but it’s in comparison to her abstract expressionist peers that her work really become remarkable. Led by Jackson Pollock –  a Wyoming native who like Martin descended from the high plains – a generation of painters freed paint from the restrictions of line and shape, and reveled in riotous colors and exuberant energy. Martin went in another direction, and her paintings are a study in restraint, calm and discipline. When she experimented with color later in her career, her work goes astray and veers into the merely decorative. (One group of broadly striped painting in pale blue and salmon unfortunately suggests a line of beach towels).

Some of Martin’s most powerful works come when she pared her palette down to minute variations of white. In a collection called The Islands, 12 white-on-white paintings hang together. The grouping invokes comparisons to Mark Rothko’s collection of black-on-black paintings done for the Menil chapel in Houston, and it’s possible that Martin was inspired by them. But despite the obvious similarities, the works have a much different feel: while Rothko’s breathe and pulse with life, Martin’s are cool and distant.

Island VIIIsland VII, 1979

One typical, but outstanding, work in the group is Island VII. A field of white with faint horizontal lines etched in pencil, the painting is sectioned into seven bands of alternating width, and almost imperceptible changes in tone. In some cases, the bands are separated by a single line, in others, two lines in parallel. The closer you look, the more nuanced the work becomes. The white paint clumps, and is thicker in some parts than others. The painting is both uniform, and irregular. And as Martin creates a tension between the detail within the painting and the whole of the painting, she does the same with the single work and the collection of The Islands as a whole. Viewed from afar, they are identical squares of while. Up close, each is distinct.

Not all artists benefit from an exhaustive retrospective, and Martin falls in this group. Unlike some artists, whose work evolves dramatically over time, Martin’s consistency and discipline over the decades means the variations over time are gradual. Seeing them all is overwhelming, and the affect is numbing. Martin, I think, is best hung in isolation, or in a collection of her contemporaries, where her bold and distinct choices are most obvious.