Sunday, July 24, 2011

No, No, I *Strenuously* Object to Oversigning

This is apropos of not much besides a single wayward tweet in my queue this morning, but I think it's time for Big Ten fans to let the oversigning issue go, especially in regards to the complaint that oversigning creates a competitive imbalance between the conferences. Is the charge true? Yes, probably, at the margins; it's better to have 88 players on scholarship than 85, and if the coach gets to cull the worst three on the roster after personal evaluation rather than having to choose based on high school tape, then there is surely some advantage.

But at this point, after beatdown and beatdown and beatdown with only a few morally ambiguous counterexamples, the complaint rings a little hollow. Oversigning is an issue of marginal improvement, not massive programmatic change. The last three or five or even twenty players on Alabama's roster didn't account for the 42 point loss Michigan State suffered. The difference that mattered was the difference in quality between the top twenty players on both teams, and the gap was every bit as significant there as the gap at the bottom. Alabama could have signed 15 players each of the past four years and still won that game by two touchdowns.

In the meantime, some of the worst offenders don't appear to be reaping much in the way of rewards. The 37-player 2009 Ole Miss class set off much of the firestorm. As redshirt freshmen or sophomores, that class lost to Vanderbilt and failed to make a bowl game; as redshirt sophomores or juniors, that class is predicted to finish last in the SEC West.

Oversigning matters because kids are potentially getting cheated out of promises. It matters because letters of intent are currently only one-way commitments, leaving players at the mercy of coaches who themselves are increasingly at the mercy of fan bases calling for wins at any cost. But bemoaning that the Big Ten is *thisclose* to breaking through yet held back by its scrupulously scrupulous practices has more than a little bit of whinyness about it. The three star linebacker in Jackson who signs up to play for Houston Nutt and gets cut next year is the real victim, not Michigan State or Ohio State.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dan Persa is Not Winning the Heisman Trophy

Stop it. It's not happening, and not just because Persa plays for Northwestern. It's also because he's not good enough.

The main problem comes from adding together non-conference and conference statistics. Northwestern's OOC schedule sucked in 2010 (and 2009, and 2008, and 2007). Vanderbilt went 2-10 (and Northwestern may not have won if not for a very sketchy personal foul call at the end). Illinois State was a mediocre I-AA team. Rice went 4-8 in Conference USA. Central Michigan went 3-9 in the MAC. Persa was 85/106 for 1049 yards, 8 TDs, and 1 INT. Those are very good numbers, but against very bad teams.

Against the Big Ten, his numbers were OK, but by no means great: 114/196, 1532 yards, 7 TDs and 3 INTs. That's good for a 132.5 QB rating (the college rating works different than the NFL rating; 100 is theoretically average though average amongst starters has drifted towards 125 in recent years). He also missed three of the top five teams in the conference (Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Illinois) while playing all three non-bowl teams in the conference. He also wasn't all that much of a threat on the ground, gaining only 3 yards per carry in conference play (some of that is from sacks, but still, that's not very good). Against three of the six opponents, he had a worse QB rating than the average QB against that defense.

Let's compare that to another QB who definitely is not winning the Heisman trophy this year. This quarterback went 101/168 for 1142 yards, 14 TDs and 5 INTs. This QB also went 4.3 yards per carry in conference play (including sacks). Guess what: Nathan Scheelhaase of Illinois is not sniffing the Heisman trophy.

Unfortunately for Northwestern, some of their out-of-conference opponents actually have a pulse this year. They miss Big Ten favorite Wisconsin this year (while I'm rubbing dirt on the wounds: Northwestern missed the conference champion twice in the past four years. The combined score the two times they played the conference champions? 128-30. In two games. Stretch back to 2006 and it's 182-40), but they play in the more difficult Leaders division, and face two decent teams this season (don't sleep on Army) in OOC play. You can't just take last years numbers against awful defenses and apply the directly.

If Dan Persa was a Heisman-level athlete, wouldn't Northwestern have performed noticeably worse in his absence? Against Purdue, Northwestern scored 17 points. They scored 27 against MSU, then 20 against Indiana, 21 against Penn State, and 21 against Iowa. Without Persa, Northwestern scored 20 against Illinois (plus another TD on defense), 23 against Wisconsin, and 38 against Texas Tech. The QB play declined, to be sure, but that wasn't really reflected on the scoreboard.

The Argument for the Defense (Rebutted)

Passing yards are usually a good indication of a quarterback’s success or failure. For the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks, this number can vary. 2001 Heisman winner Eric Crouch only compiled 1,510 passing yards, while 2008 winner Sam Bradford threw for a whopping 4,721 yards. 
The last nine Heisman winners have averaged 3,044 passing yards. To put it in perspective, if Dan Persa were to stay healthy in 2010, he would have surpassed that average with 3,355 passing yards.
 Eric Crouch is doing a lot of work there; take him out and the average bumps up to 3235 yards. Persa's (unlikely) projected numbers are still higher. So was Ben Chappell's, along with 18 other QBs.

The previous nine quarterbacks to win the Heisman Trophy have averaged more than 39.8 touchdowns in their Heisman-winning season. That number includes passing and rushing touchdowns—in fairness to the dual-threat quarterbacks. 
Last season, Dan Persa was on pace to finish with 31.2 total touchdowns—just a bit shy of the average. However, 2004 winner Matt Leinart and 2006 winner Troy Smith each finished with 31 touchdowns in their respective Heisman campaigns
31 is not a bit shy of 39. It is not even 80% of 39. Once again, leave aside the questionable projections; Leinart and Troy Smith were special cases on teams that made the national championship game. The Capital One Bowl would be an accomplishment for Persa and the Wildcats this year.
The last nine quarterbacks to hoist the Heisman have combined for 11.8 wins in their trophy-winning seasons. Of that group, only Cam Newton and Matt Leinart led their teams to a national title, while 2007 winner Tim Tebow won the award while winning seven games.
Tim Tebow won nine games, but who is counting? He also set the TD record for a single season. He also had fewer wins than the other recent Heisman winners. 
Dan Persa led the Wildcats to seven wins in 2010, but the team more than likely would’ve added more if their starter had stayed healthy. This season, the Wildcats have their sights set on bigger and better things. Like Cam Newton—who took his team from winning seven games in 2009 to winning a championship in 2010—Persa hopes his efforts help the Wildcats to more wins.
Cam Newton was playing for a junior college in Texas while Auburn was going 8-5 (maybe Northwestern fans forgot that they actually lost that bowl game against Auburn). The difference between Chris Todd and Cam Newton is a mite bigger than the difference between Dan Persa 2010 and Dan Persa 2011.

Northwestern fans: you have a quality team returning for an unprecedented fourth straight bowl eligible season. You have multiple prime time home games this season. You are genuinely starting to piss off Iowa fans and develop a genuine rivalry. Things are looking up. Don't oversell your case. 

Monday, July 18, 2011

ESPN Ombudsman: We Totally Suspended Bruce Feldman, But You Are Ignorant For Calling It That


The recent flap over Bruce Feldman's non-suspension for writing a book on behalf of a guy now suing ESPN for libel has been characterized as (A) a Twitter revolution, (B) an ESPN house of cards, (C) Twitterati gone wild.
In fact, it's all of the above and more. To date, this is the most complicated ESPN issue we've tackled at the Poynter Review Project.
Here are some of our findings, based on a weekend of reporting:
What s strange circumlocution: your findings based on a weekend of reporting? Whose reporting? Yours? ESPN's? Anyway, lets get to it.
 ESPN did not suspend Feldman. Instead managers asked him Thursday to not publish anything online, or go on the air, for what turned out to be roughly 24 hours, while they figured things out.
Maybe I lack the nuance of an ESPN ombudsman, but being asked to not do your job sounds exactly like a suspension.
The sports gossip blog Sports by Brooks erroneously reported that Feldman had been suspended indefinitely, igniting a Twitter wildfire that has yet to be contained.
So, Feldman was suspended, and he wasn't told how long the suspension would last, but it wasn't an indefinite suspension? I know that both of those words are polysyllabic, but they're not that ambiguous.
 Managers gave Feldman the all-clear on Friday afternoon, but Feldman as of Monday morning had yet to tweet or make any public statements, even to explain why he's not saying anything.
Maybe he's pissed. Maybe he's looking for new employment. Who knows? But notice that there was no acknowledgement that the unprecedented bad publicity played a role in any of this.
ESPN officials approved Feldman's authoring then-Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach's autobiography, long before Leach was fired by the university and sued ESPN. 
When Leach filed the lawsuit against ESPN, it's clear to us that Feldman's involvement with the book became an impossible conflict. But Feldman failed to seek and the network failed to provide clear guidance.
I cannot reconcile these two paragraphs. ESPN gave a thumbs-up, but Feldman didn't seek out guidance? Didn't he get the guidance when he received permission from ESPN to write the book? Also, isn't the continued employment of Craig James an equally, if not more, impossible conflict of interest?

Some of these questions are half-assedly answered later in the column.

 ESPN pointed out the error almost 24 hours later in a news release, igniting further argument over the difference between being suspended and merely being asked to take a break. This is more than just semantics. A suspension is a disciplinary action involving human resources, a record in your file and not being allowed onto the company premises for a period of time. Several people on that phone call reported to us that Feldman specifically asked whether he was being suspended and that he was told no. 
Lying low and staying out of the public eye is different than being forced to stay home from work.
This is lawyer-speak. I am well versed in it. When you are a reporter in the public eye, being told to "lay low" is exactly the same as a suspension, whether or not you go through the official HR channels.

The rest of the article is tut-tutting about not having facts, all based around the faulty premise that it is a fact that Feldman was not suspended. This is not fact.

This saga also opens up a question of whether ESPN can be trusted about any reporting in the future, especially when quotes like this enter the public domain:
As the college football season heats up, ESPN must still figure out what Feldman can report on independently. When a reporter has a clear conflict, it's standard in journalism to isolate that reporter from the conflict. Having authored a book in Leach's voice, Feldman clearly can't cover Leach, or Texas Tech, anymore. Leach's former staffers, who are now spread far and wide -- some of them now head coaches -- make for questionable material too. Is the entire Big 12 off limits? Feldman's bosses, King and Millman, are still trying to figure that out, which probably explains Feldman's self-imposed silence.
Why stop at Feldman? Given ESPN's conflict of interest, can any reporter be trusted to report on Leach, Leach's coaching tree, or the Big 12? Given the Big Ten's (And Pac 12's) growing independence from the network, can they be trusted to report on the conference accurately? When you have a virtual monopoly on sports journalism broadcasting in many markets, are those markets completely foreclosed from accurate reporting on a subject because of those conflicts of interest. Oh, and while we are in Conflict of Interest Land,  what about the accusations that Spaeth Communications (employed by Craig James) was providing ESPN reporters with most of their information during the Adam James saga.

Here's a simple rule of thumb: when the entire non-affiliated relevant broadcasting says that what you are going is slimy, you are going to need to do better than finely parsing the definition of the word suspension. And if your ombudsman can't see what every other journalist immediately saw, then why bother having an ombudsman?

Monday, June 20, 2011

So, Should We Ignore All That BCS Stuff?

Jim Delany is none too pleased with southern and western (read: non-Big Ten) domination of the college baseball world series:  

College baseball isn't fair to Big Ten schools, Delany says. And for 10 years, he's fought like hell to level the playing field. He gives himself an “A” for effort.
“But if I were giving myself a grade for getting on base and driving in runs, it would be a very low grade.”
Perception says the Big Ten doesn't care about baseball. But no administrator in America has pressed harder to revamp the system. Delany's biggest ideas:
• Adopt a national start date in March or April and move the season deeper into summer.
• Devalue the RPI, which favors Sun Belt schools.
• Ditch the current method of national seeding and return to regional qualification for the College World Series.
College baseball's answer: No. No. No.
Then, last summer, Delany formally proposed the CWS move from eight teams to 10, with the two new slots reserved for cold-weather schools. Cold shoulder again.
“I've got no more proposals,” Delany told the World-Herald. “I'm out of ideas. What else can we possibly do?”
 In response to Delany's proposals, Sun Belt commissioner Wright Walters had this to say:
The problem is you want your conference to take away opportunities for my teams, to play on the stage our teams created in 1947.
Just kidding! That's what Delany said, with a few minor alterations, about BCS access this past winter when the Mountain West pitched a fit about the uneven playing field.

I supported Delany then, and I support the principal now. The major conferences, Big Ten and SEC foremost among them, drive most of the interest in college football. The stage is their stage, and if they don't care to cut ever-larger slices to conference that cannot fill 30,000 person stadiums, then swell. But the converse applies as well in those rare circumstances where the Big Ten can't compete against the big boys like, uh, Cal State Fullerton and Fresno State. The College World Series is their big stage, and the Big Ten shouldn't be guaranteed a few spots on that stage just because it has teams north of the 40th parallel. 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Phil Mushnick, Professional Concern Troll

Rich Rodriguez will be appearing on CBS College Sports next season, and New York Post Really Old Guy Phil Mushnick that is a very bad thing. Normally I'd link the pertinent sections and laugh, but this deserves the full fisk:

Cbs [sic] Sports Network has hired Rich Rod riguez as a college football game and studio analyst. 
The same Rich Rodriguez who regularly recruited and indulged criminals and assorted bad boys as the head coach at West Virginia and then Michigan? 
Yeah, that one. 
Pacman Jones and the late Chris Henry, for example, starred for Rodriguez at WVU. Both would accumulate rap sheets as thick as playbooks. But such players helped land Rodriguez the gig at Michigan, where the stadium they call "The Big House," began to take on the other meaning.
As Adam Jacobi points out, Pacman Jones and Chris Henry combined for one offense during their time at West Virginia, a fight for which Jones received a suspension. Those two accumulated lengthy rap sheets as professionals. Abolish the NFL! Unless bored football players start assaulting people, of course.

As for the crack at Michigan, once again, as Jacobi points out, Rodriguez's tenure was known for a lot of lulzy things but not for all uncontrolled criminal malfeasance

Mushnick continues:
1. Big-time college football and basketball are as crooked as the lines on a polygraph. American universities continue to serve as see-through false fronts. Few college presidents, ADs or head coaches could beat racketeering indictments.
I think most college presidents can go to sleep easy knowing that they are not going to be convicted of extortion or heading criminal enterprises. (Note to writers: Don't use legal terms the definition of which you haven't the foggiest notion. See also: antitrust).

That many football and basketball players -- recruited at great expense -- have no other business enrolled in the college has been a given since Bear Bryant was just a cub. 
No school's charter, especially the charters of tax-funded state colleges, mentions a thing about football or basketball. They stress education and its benefits to society.
The charters don't mention anything about movies on the quad, free condoms, or music schools either, and they do all those things. And they've been playing football for much longer than most of those activities. The first game was played in 1867; good luck stuffing that genie back into the bottle.

2. The primary underwriters of this racketeering are TV networks. It's their money that drives the armored trucks. TV networks make no moral value judgments as to who gets their money (see: CBS, Charlie Sheen). A dirty conference stocked with powerhouse teams will be generously funded before all others. 
Fox and ESPN recently signed on to pay about $3 billion over 12 years to broadcast football and basketball for the soon-to-be Pac-12. It's easy. You hold your nose with one hand, sign with the other. 
And then, to add to the insidious lunacy, you instruct your broadcasters to shill it up, to see and speak no evil. Why? Would any conference otherwise refuse to cash your checks?
TV networks are evul because Charlie Sheen.
3. Big-time coaches who fall, regardless of why, are "taken care of" by TV. They're hired as analysts, hired for their "expertise," though their expertise on exactly what it takes to succeed is left unspoken.
College head coaches are hired because people know who they are and because every single head coach knows way, way more about football than you do. I know, I know, Ron Zook is clueless and Joe Paterno is old and Ron Prince and Mike Locksley and all the rest, but as much fun as it is to make fun of those guys, they know more about football than almost anyone in the world. This makes them more viable candidates for jobs that call for talking about football than, say, sports media journalists. And Rodriguez isn't even a dope; at minimum, he is one of the architects of the spread football revolution, one of the top offensive minds in college football, and will be a head coach somewhere within a year or two. I think that works for qualifications, Phil.
Colleges typically dangle large cash bonuses to coaches for a certain number of wins, for making bowl games and postseason tournaments. How do such incentives serve anything other than exacerbating the win-at-all-costs corruption?
They give bonuses for graduation rates too. But yes, schools like winning. News at 11.
CBS Sports Network, a fairly new entity, is just working off the same old plan. TV is loaded with college football and basketball coaches who were hired and fired for the same bad reasons. What should disqualify you only enhances your chances. But where do the clean guys go for a TV gig?
Is Urban Meyer dirty? Bob Davie? Steve Lavin?
And 'round and 'round, lower and lower we go. And we call it college athletics. Yahoos, here there and everywhere, lap it up, love it, don't care if it's crooked. Besides, your school's more crooked than theirs!
Take that, yahoos!

So how does American society benefit from all this? What's our payoff for indulging this? What do we get in return for making college basketball and football coaches the highest-paid, by far, state or university employees? 
Beats me.
Ugh one sentence paragraph endings. But leaving that aside, since when must everything exist for the benefit of American society? Besides from hilarious penis joke headlines, how does the New York Post benefit American society? How does Phil Mushnick benefit American society? How do any sports benefit American society? And what a strange standard to set.

BONUS MUSHNICK COVERAGE: believe it or not, this wasn't the dumbest part of today's article:

SO Plaxico Burress exits prison wearing a red Phillies' cap, a hoodie over the cap, sunglasses and shorts (Was it hot out or cold?) claiming to be a changed man. 
Hmmm. Put me down as "undecided."
What could possibly be the point of this little aside? If he genuinely doesn't know, why include it? You could literally put anything in that spot and it would make as much sense ("Is Plato's Republic still relevant in 21st Century America? Hmmmm. Put me down as undecided.")

Obviously, this isn't what he really means. Mushnick is winking at his audience--look how this hoodlum dresses!--and hoping the readers catch on. Replace "SO" with "I'M NOT RACIST BUT" and you'll get the full effect, and yes, if you can blithely state that you can pick a college coach's name out of a hat and find someone indictable under RICO, I can play the race card. Trollface is as trollface does.

Maybe Mushnick would prefer if college coaches just avoided recruiting players that look like Plexico Burress? (One more sentence here. Will not close with one-sentence zinger ending).

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Where the Players Own the Game

Will Leitch in the Atlantic identifies what the magazine thinks is one of the 14 Biggest Ideas of the Year (and by extension, the biggest idea in sports this past year):
The world of sports is able to exist because it treats its labor unlike any other business on Earth. If you are an accountant, a librarian, a car salesman, whatever, when you receive an offer from anyone in the world for your services, you are able to take it. You can work anywhere, for whatever wage you’re able to grab. If this happened in sports, the result would be chaos: every team’s roster would turn over every year, and all the talent would be concentrated on two or three teams (even more than it already is). So much of a sport’s appeal is in the illusion of team history and continuity; unbridled free agency would destroy that illusion. For all the talk of supposed “rich and spoiled athletes,” few other industries can get away with labor practices that essentially amount to high-paid indentured servitude for the players.  
LeBron’s example marks an evolution in athlete culture, one in which players realize their power. You’re seeing this everywhere now, from the NFL and NBA labor battles to the better understanding of concussions and athlete safety. For their part, fans are better educated than they’ve ever been (thanks to the Web) and are starting to side with the players in kerfuffles like labor disputes. Fans used to feel that owners somehow “earned” their money, while pro athletes were just fortunate winners of a genetic lottery. This is the exact opposite of the truth. (Holding on to your job is about 95 million times harder for a player than for an owner.) Sure, guys like LeBron and Carmelo Anthony are seen as mercenaries, but from a business standpoint, we understand their leverage ... and even appreciate and envy it. 
Basketball is a bit unique because the NBA salary cap restricts how much individual players can make. Lots of players are "maximum" level, and if they decide to change teams, every team in the league with cap space will offer them the maximum. In those situations, players use secondary factors, like favorable tax environments or climate, to make decisions.

But the NBA is the exception to the rule. One thing that has always alienated me from professional sports is that players have very little control over their career. Once drafted, the player is stuck with that organization for at least one year no matter what. When they try to get out of that situation, they are portrayed negatively by the media and fans. When they reach free agency, they generally just follow the money--there are exceptions, of course, but they are just that: exceptions. Your favorite player on your favorite professional team is there either because he is contractually obligated, or because they threw the most money at him. It is hard to romanticize that.

That's not to say the system is evil or that players shouldn't chase money (though I absolutely despise the draft process). And it's not to say that college players don't chase money, too. But just as you make a decision as to where to go to college or which team to cheer for, every college athlete makes a decision (mostly) severed from economic considerations to attend that institution. A linebacker is a Packer or Bear or Lion or Viking by coincidence; he is a Badger or a Wildcat or a Wolverine or a Gopher by choice. If LeBron's Decision leads to a professional sports environment where athletes have true attachment to their locales, that is the best news I've heard all year.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Let Agents Pay the Players

I share John Gasaway's beliefs about amateurism and see the NCAA's attempts to define amateurism as "accepting no benefits besides a scholarship from anyone ever) as misguided. I also think there are a few low-hanging fruit situations where athletes are clearly getting a raw deal. Case in point: EA Sports sold about 1.5 million copies of NCAA Football 2011 for XBox 360 and PS3. If they sold the game for $5 more, maybe sales fall to 1 million (assuming an unrealistically inelastic demand curve), but that $5,000,000 could be given back to the players through the NCAA. It wouldn't be a huge amount of money even then (less than $1000 per player), but it would be equitable--every DI player that had his likeness in the game would get the money--and fair--the game gets every single detail about these players correct except the names, so they are effectively already using their likeness. If the NCAA wanted to play hardball on this I have no doubt that the changes would be implemented immediately.

The argument for allowing players to sell their stuff is also easy, although it assumes no second-stage problems. What I mean is this: there was a mini-uproar after the A.J. Green jersey sale suspension, and later during Gold Pantsgate, as to whether players should be allowed to sell their own stuff, with lots of people coming down on the side of "this is America so yes." And as a first-stage approximation I think this is correct. Some players are more valuable than others, and a good way of letting those players benefit without exacerbating the differences between the SEC and the MEAC would be to let the valuable players sell stuff that other people want. Third parties, and not strapped athletic departments, will then foot the bill.

The second-stage problem is, what happens when teams start giving players cheap crap that they can then sell on the open market. Think of the Gold Pants problem, only if the Gold Pants were made of tin. Every Ohio State player gets Very Special Tin Pants with their initials engraved, and those Tin Pants cost the school $10 each. Boosters know about the Tin Pants arrangement and pay $1,000 a pair for them. There is no difference between this arrangement than the boosters giving that money to the players directly, or the boosters giving that money to the school to give to the players. And I'm not sure how to avoid these fake secondary markets for crappy trinkets that will undoubtedly spring up purely as a way of providing backdoor salaries.

The only solution I can imagine is to permit binding agent relationships on the players at any point during their collegiate careers. In other words, players can agree to agents while in school, and those agents can give money to the players once those players have signed. However, the player must use that agent for his first contract in whatever professional league they next play. Now, agents have a vested interest in finding the best players; they won't just throw money at the backup long-snapper on Auburn because he goes to Auburn. Those few players that are actually underpaid can earn something approximating their true value early, and third parties will take on the risk. There will have to be rules protecting against unconscionable agreements and all that, but the details don't seem all that hard to fill in. And despite my protestations that I really could not care less about the MEAC, this rule will help better protect the little conferences; agents will be more interest in talent than name recognition, and if you are a safety at Southeast Missouri State that will definitely go in the top three rounds of the NFL draft, and agent somewhere will throw money at you to sign.