Friday, February 21, 2014

It's time to change the conversation we're having about football

The notion that all press is good press is flatly absurd — there is such a thing as bad press.

The Obama administration was torn to shreds for weeks following the rollout of its healthcare marketplace website, which was already inexplicably unpopular because people are lunatics. There’s no way to spin the exposure of Lance Armstrong as a total fraud into good attention; it’s bad for everyone involved.

But for football, the old truism holds up. It doesn’t matter if the NFL is crowning a new champion or seeing one of its star players led out of his home in handcuffs and charged with murder. Everything from Peyton Manning’s sustained greatness to the league’s blatant disregard for the well-being of its players fits neatly into the sport’s ongoing melodrama, even if not in ways the league would like it to.

In Monday’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, columnist Ron Cook took something of an opposing view.
Under the headline “NFL has to get tougher against its ‘criminal element,’” Cook wrote: 

The NFL has had worse weeks, to be sure. The final week of June 2013 comes to mind. … They never like their players to be involved in sordid activities even if it happens so often that they have to be getting used to it. Look at last week.

In a bulleted list, Cook breaks down what a terrible news cycle the NFL is going through and reveals himself to be both hopelessly out of touch and critically under-thinking.

On Feb. 9, Missouri linebacker Michael Sam announced he is gay,” Cook wrote. “NFL officials, coaches and players generally reacted well to Sam’s plans to become the first openly gay, active player in the league, but multiple general managers and player personnel people said anonymously that they wouldn’t draft him because they don’t want to deal with the distraction. That’s just swell.

The notion that a player at the dawn of his career deciding to exhibit the socially conscious bravery Sam did would be the first thing to come to mind under the headline of “criminal element” or pretext of “sordid behavior” is embarrassing. Even though Cook is only referring to anonymous reaction to Sam’s coming out, to give such credence to people who don’t have the courage to attach their names to their bigoted opinions does a disservice to both Sam and the readership, and the item is framed in such a way that it makes Sam look like the bad guy for daring to be who he is. Shame on Cook for burying the lede and attempting to disguise his lack of a coherent opinion on the matter under the phrase “that’s just swell.”

Also on Friday, former star safety Darren Sharper was charged in Los Angeles with two counts of rape by using drugs. He also is a suspect in other rape cases. Sharper was a five-time Pro Bowler and a member of the NFL’s 2000s All-Decade team.

Darren Sharper hasn’t played in the NFL since 2010. For Cook to pick on this in a sport so morally bankrupt and rife with bona fide criminals and real ethical quandaries seems like cherry picking. Darren Sharper is a terrible human being who is almost definitely going to jail for a long time, but he’s not, as Cook asserts, football’s problem the way his next example is.

On Saturday, Baltimore Ravens All-Pro running back Ray Rice was arrested in Atlantic City, N.J., after an incident with his fiancée,” Cook wrote. “His attorney described it as a ‘very minor physical altercation.’

Rice appears to have knocked the woman unconscious and then tried to drag her out of an elevator. There’s video of the latter part! Here’s the thing: This is bad for Ray Rice, but the NFL will not lose a single dollar or second of sleep over it.

Cook goes on to chide Steelers’ safety Ryan Clark for insinuating that some of his teammates occasionally smoke pot, completely glossing over the fact that the team has, over the last five years, retained the services of someone alleged to have committed multiple sexual assaults, someone who drunkenly tried to drive over police officers on the South Side, someone who beat the crap out of his girlfriend just prior to taking his son to be baptized, and someone who went completely berserk on a woman in an area Red Lobster. But no, the gradual decriminalization of marijuana in the United States is surely the bigger issue here.

Selectively picking out incidents as he does, Cook adds further fuel to the wrong discussion — the one that keeps the NFL relevant while ignoring its glaring disingenuousness, exploitation, and total lack of ethics. This is a game that takes children at their most malleable and over the course of junior high school, high school, college, and onto the professional ranks, encourages them to behave like vicious psychopaths, then punishes them when they act as such. That’s the conversation we should be having.

The league thrives on anything that feeds its narrative arc. Everything, from sideline disagreements and the faux player-safety debate to suspendable off-the-field trespasses and the games themselves, goes into quenching America’s year-round thirst for all things football. It’s time to change the conversation.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

This is what a hero looks like

Nobody ever thought it would happen like this.

Common sense seemed to dictate that the first active, openly gay professional athlete in American sports would be someone established — a veteran of his league who knew what he’d be signing up for.

That same common sense said that it would probably happen in the NBA, the NHL or Major League Baseball. Surely, in a sport so simultaneously homophobic despite its raging homoeroticism, football would be the last league on the bus — or at the very best, not the first.

Sunday night, Michael Sam took everything we thought we knew about the eventualities of the openly gay professional athlete and turned it on its head when he came out as gay.

Sam is a 24-year-old defensive end who just finished his senior season playing football for the University of Missouri. He’s a first-team All-American, the Defensive Player of the Year in the Southeastern Conference (college football’s strongest league) and widely considered among the top 10 best players at his position in this year’s draft class. The kid can play.

What remains to be seen is whether or not he will.

Sam’s announcement will almost certainly have a negative impact on his draft stock — being gay doesn’t make you better at football, but it sure scares the hell out of some of the people who run football teams.  He’s probably already been taken off a handful of draft boards, increasing the likelihood that any team that might want him won’t have to burn a pick to get him. Sam might not be drafted, but that’s OK.

There’s no explicable reason other than blatant homophobia Sam won’t be given a fair chance to make an NFL team this summer.

The timing of Sam’s announcement is a maneuver of brilliant calculation, as it greatly improves his chances of landing in a good situation; one in which he’ll be embraced and set up to succeed.

Come the draft, the only teams that will show interest in drafting or signing Sam will be those that either know their coaches and players are mature enough to have him in camp or those that are willing to tell the hateful factions in their ranks that they can be professional or show themselves the door.

The worst case scenario is that Sam won’t get a chance — that owners and executives will collude in their bigotry and keep him out of professional football.

Those who are honest with themselves know the NFL is an ugly, exploitative, and hypocritical business. Through risking his career, Sam has called football’s bluff. He’s made his move. It’s time for football to show its mettle.

Whether or not he plays professional football isn’t immaterial to Sam’s story, but it’s not the most important part. Sam took care of that on Sunday evening when he displayed more unquestionable bravery and unmitigated courage than everyone in the NFL, from the commissioner on down to the gunner on the Rams’ punt team, could hope to collectively muster themselves.

What are the rest of these guys really made of? We’re about to find out.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

How the Pirates screwed the pooch, re: A.J. Burnett

This post is written for the benefit of anyone who can't be troubled to read baseball clippings, and somehow relies on FTC as a primary source for such news.  What the heck, I'll call these theoretical readers by the made-up names of Aaron and [REDACTED].

Aaron and [REDACTED], here's how baseball works, regarding the time the Pirates royally fucked up with A.J. Burnett:

Back in February 2012, the Yankees sent Burnett to Pittsburgh for two garbage players.  They also sent us $20 million.  You see, they had signed him to an $82.5m, 5-year deal, and he hadn't been stellar for them in the first three years of that.  So, with $33m still left on his deal, they figured it would be better to sublet him to us for $13m, than give him the ball and his full paycheck.

At the time, I was like "Oh neat-- a warm body for which the Yankees are paying!"  Nils was like "Yo, I think this guy is going to be pretty good.  He just needs to play in a different ballpark."  And I don't remember what Matt was like (I tried searching through my gchat, and this is what I found:

me: did you see my post on the AJ Burnett thing?
12:05 PM Matt: No
 me: it's up.
 Matt: Ok
end parenthetical digression.)

Then in Spring Training, a month later, AJ Burnett broke his face by bunting a ball back into his eye during a bunting contest.

Then for the next two years, he was really pretty good!  In fact, he was a huge reason why the Pirates stabilized into a contender.  He got a ton of strikeouts, and really bought into the team strategy of throwing more sinking fastballs, thus producing more groundballs when batters made contact.  The one thing he didn't seem to buy into was all the defensive shifts his infielders played.  You see, the Pirates were really good at run prevention this past year, and it was the result of positioning the infielders in non-traditional spots--  spots that the numbers tell us are the most likely places the ball will be.  There were a few incidents where the shift wasn't perfect (no one said it would be), and AJ could be seen blasting his fielders.  There was also the little incident of AJ sucking ass in game one of the playoffs this past year, then throwing a temper tantrum because he wasn't allowed to start the decisive game five.

So, in conclusion: for the past two years, this guy got paid by the Yankees to give us a lot of strikeouts and groundballs, and be kind of an angry dick.  He wasn't in that top tier of pitchers that we might think of as elite aces, but he was absolutely as valuable as a second-tier guy can be.  For more on that, let's turn it over to the numbers.

Fangraphs estimates that relative to a replacement level asshole, AJ was worth 3.0 more wins in 2012 and 4.0 wins in 2013.   3 or 4 wins may not seem like a big deal in a 162 game season, but think of it like this: It fucking is.

The way the playoffs are now structured, there's going to be a perennial cluster fuck for the two wildcard seeds in each league.  2013 was mercifully boring in the National League, but 2014 looks like it's going to be incredibly competitive.  We are built to be a fringe team, and we need every single win we can get.  Just for reference, here's last year's pitcher WAR table, lifted from fangraphs:

You can see that AJ is basically in a class of his own, in terms of shouldering the team's heavy lifting.  2014's WAR table won't look exactly like that (expect more from Cole, Morton, Cumpton, Wandy; less from everyone else, give or take), but it's not going to have a 3-4 WAR guy taking AJ's place.

So back to our AJ timeline...

After we got bounced from the playoffs, he went on the record as saying he was either retiring or returning to Pittsburgh.  Fine.  The next move should have been the Pirates'.  Under the new CBA, teams are allowed to make "qualifying offers" on their free agents, in which they put out a fair price, one year tender.  The player either takes it, or signs elsewhere.  If he signs elsewhere, his new team has to cough up a first round draft pick to the team that lost the free agent.  It's similar to the idea of restricted free agency in football (maybe they have this in hockeyball?  I don't care).

So the Pirates were in a position to make a qualifying offer.  It would have been around $14m for one year.  All the good analysts said it was a certainty that it was going to be offered.  It wasn't.

The Pirates instead spent $5m on perennial loser, Edinson Volquez.  Fine.  Whatever.  We'll cut this guy when he's bad, and maybe, we'll be lucky and AJ will come back instead of retiring?


AJ isn't just not-retiring.  He's not-retiring and now testing the open market.  And you see, he can go off and sign with the Phillies or Orioles, and we have nothing to say about it.  We don't get the draft pick, we don't get the AJ, we don't get anything.  Because we didn't make the qualifying offer.

Why didn't we just do the reasonable thing and offer him a one year deal at $14m?  The world's best guess is just that the Pirates are being cheap assholes again.

The commonly accepted figure is that 1 WAR costs between $5m and $6m on the open market.  That means that AJ wouldn't have had to be as good as he was in 2013 to make $14m worth our while.  Fuck, even if he was the pitcher he was in 2012, he'd still be outperforming that investment.  Also, the great thing about it is that it's ONE year.  I completely agree that you don't want to hamstring your books by giving a ton of money to old bastards-- but again, this is a ONE year deal.  This contract would have been less intimate than the No Strings Attached section of the Brooklyn Craigslist.  If there was ever a problem to just throw money at, it would be the problem of needing a win or two more in the standings, THIS YEAR.

This is the kind of thing the Pirates need to be getting right.  We've tried our hand at getting this shit wrong for two decades; it hasn't been fun.

Nilesh is off today.  Credit for this story goes mostly to him and all the other baseball bloggers that were less lazy than us in posting about it as it happened.