Fan Viollence, Jim Harbaugh, Colin Kaepernick, Alex Smith, Brandon Allen, LeBron James
THE FAN violence at the 49ers-Raiders exhibition game last Saturday is more than just an isolated sports incident. We’ve become an increasingly violent society, fueled by the ease in getting guns, and thank you for that, NRA. Night after night, when we turn on the television news, there are stories of shootings, and the victims are sometimes not even the intended targets.
Coupled with this is a tendency to blame the police when they try to do their jobs. When a 19-year-old parolee was shot in the Bayview district of San Francisco, protestors blamed the police. None of the protestors apologized when the bullet turned out to have come from his own gun, not that of a policeman. I’ve been a member of ACLU for many years but it sickens me that the northern California chapter jumped on BART for closing off cell phone use instead of looking at protestors who were disrupting service for thousands of commuters who had no stake in this dispute.
Against this background of easy guys and anti-police views, you throw in a football game between natural rivals and schedule it for 5 p.m., giving many of these fans four extra hours to get liquored up.
What do you expect?
The lack of season ticket holders at the game also contributed. If most of the crowd consists of season ticket holders, it’s much easier to control behavior; you’re not likely to act up if you see the same people around you all the time. For regular season games, the 49ers have enough season ticket holders that they can buy up the unsold cheaper seats to have the games on home TV.
It’s much more complicated for the Raiders. The initial campaign created the impression that, if you didn’t buy season tickets, you’d never be able to see a game. So, fans sent in multiple applications. When those were weeded out, the actual number of season ticket holders was only about 35,000, not much more than half the stadium’s 63,500 capacity.
Then, the politicians refused to properly fund the Oakland Football Marketing Association, which had been set up to sell tickets because there was ample information that the Raiders could not. But without funding, the OFMA was gutted. I wrote about that at the time and one day when I was having lunch at Francesco’s, a woman stopped by my table and said, “You know what’you’ve written about the OFMA? I’m the OFMA. I’m the only one left!”
The Raiders are selling their own tickets now, but the situation has not chaned. Fans know they can buy tickets to any individual game they want to see. Those who buy tickets this way are the ones whose behavior is so outrageous, they get on TV. And, my guess is that they were a large part of the crowd last Saturday.
I remember the first “Battle of the Bay” at the Oakland Coliseum in 1967. It was an important game because there would not be regular season scheduling between the old NFL and AFL teams until 1970. Many fans viewed this as a test of the relative strengths of the teams. Well, maybe not. The 49ers won the game but finished at 7-7 during the regular season, while the Raiders went 13-1 and played in the second Super Bowl.
For a time, it was either the last or next-to-last exhibition game, but Bill Walsh felt it had become too important, detracting from preparation for the season, so he had it second on the practice schedule in 1982, as it has been most of the time since. It wasn’t even on the practice schedule, 1994-98.
Now, 49ers CEO Jed York has asked the league not to schedule it any more. That’s fine with me. There’s no longer any real need for it.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL: A national sports magazine last week proclaimed the SEC as the top football conference in the country and listed the reasons for that without even mentioning the major one: The SEC schools admit any athlete who can breathe. Only Vanderbilt has any real entrance standards for athletes, comparable to Stanford, and you know how many times that school has been in a major bowl recently.
That’s the big scandal in college football, but the emphasis in the NCAA seems to be on clamping down on illegal payments to athletes, such as the Ohio State mess and what’s been going on in Miami with an agent. But this kind of thing has been going on at least since I was a teenager, which is a very long time ago, and probably long before that. There’s no way you can stop it because the alumni boosters who are involved are not under the NCAA’s jurisdiction.
But, the NCAA can work on making certain that athletes get an education. The Knight commission recommended that schools which do not make certain that athletes get an education be made ineligible for postseason competition. If schools like Ohio State, USC and every SEC school but Vanderbilt got that kind of sanction, they’d clean up their act in a hurry.
From time to time, there are well-meaning people who suggest college athletes should be paid That’s impractical. It’s much more important to make an athletic scholarship meaningful. A high percentage of athletes getting these scholarships are from poor families. They wouldn’t be in college at all without a scholarship. So, if they get an education, an athletic scholarship is a real bargain. If they don’t, it’s worthwhile only if they eventually play in the NFL, which only a small percentage ever do. The others are just fodder for the football machine, thrown into the gutter when their athletic eligibility is finished.
COLIN KAEPERNICK: I have no opinion on the 49ers’ second round draft choice because I’ve seen so little of him, so I was glad to hear from Guy Benjamin, whose e-mail is in “Letters” if you haven’t already seen it. I’ve known Guy for 35 years and know him to be very intelligent and knowledgeable on many subjects, one of which is football. Bill Walsh called him in to work with us on “Building a Champion,” and later hired him for his last staff at Stanford.
I do know two things: 1) Kaepernick is a great athlete with a very strong arm; and 2) It’s been very difficult for college quarterbacks who played in offenses different from the pro version to make the conversion. Tim Tebow is trying it now with the Broncos and there are few people in the NFL who think he’ll b a top quarterback in the league. And Tebow was successful at the highest level of collegiate ball. Kaepernick was playing at a lower level.
But, Jim Harbaugh saw enough from the videos of Kaepernick’s play to draft him on the second round, and Harbaugh definitely knows quarterbacks.
Most likely, we’ll see very little of Kaepernick in the regular season. This year will largely be one where he learns by watching, and through practice. Next year, we’ll probably be able to get a better line on his future.
JIM HARBAUGH: One of the things I wondered about Harbaugh was how he would handle the extra media attention as a pro coach. At Stanford, he answered questions only after games and at a Tuesday lunch and there were questions he didn’t answer. Collegiate coaches don’t have to talk about players’ injuries. In the NFL, there are daily reports—because gamblers used to get the information early and take advantage of it.
It’s been difficult for me to get to a Harbaugh interview session because usually, they’ve come after an afternoon session. For me to attend one would mean that I’d have to fight the fearsome rush hour traffic on 880 – and, as the family cook, I’d be way behind in preparing dinner.
Yesterday, though, the Harbaugh session was at noon, so I was able to be there, and it was amusing to watch him fencing with the media. Harbaugh can be plain spoken when it suits his purpose. When I first interviewed him after he was hired by Stanford, he had a great deal to say about the “two-track” system for athletes at his alma mater, Michigan, which meant that many athletes were shuttled into classes where they learned nothing but were able to stay eligible. That was a story he wanted to get out, and he knew I would write it – as, of course, I did. As he told me the next time we met, my column had made him persona non grata at Michigan. He wasn’t at all upset by that, which is why I was amused when all those reports popped up about him going back to Michigan. That was never going to happen.
At yesterday’s briefing, he wasn’t in a mood to give out any real information. For some reason, he got another question about when he will name a starting quarterback for the first game, though there’s no doubt that it will be Alex Smith. “Just before the first game,” he said. Another reporter asked whether having quarterbacks competing might mean that they’d try to do what they’re best at and not practice what they’re not very good at. Harbaugh pretended he didn’t understand the question, in its original form or when it was repeated. He finally said, “You try to put players in the best position to succeed,” which wasn’t what he was asked but is certainly a sound principle for coaches.
WAY BACK MACHINE: As those of you who take The Chronicle know, Sunday’s Datebook has a section on news from the past. Two weeks ago, part of this section discussed a 1986 book by Joe Montana, “Audibles,” in which Joe blasted Ira Miller, Lowell Cohn and me.
Frankly, I didn’t even know this book existed, but I certainly knew that Montana didn’t lie me at the time. We have a cordial relationship now, and that change is not unusual. There have been several athletes who have disliked me for what I’ve written about them during their careers but are able to see post-career that I’m just doing my job.
My favorite story – and excuse me if you’ve heard this before – is about George Blanda. One day in the mid-‘80s, Sam Spear and I were finishing up lunch at the old Fisherman’s Grotto in Jack London Square when Blanda stopped by, after finishing his own lunch. He greeted me with, “How’s my favorite sportswriter?”
Well, that certainly wasn’t the way I remembered our relationship. One time in training camp, after I’d criticized his kicking, he told me, “I should kick you over the goal posts.” I told him, “The way you’re kicking, I’d be wide to the right.”
At any rate, we invited George to join us in a post-lunch drink and he did, and we had a very enjoyable half hour exchanging stories about the good old days. That was the last time I ever saw Blanda but it’s a nice way to remember him.
AL DAVIS’S health is deteriorating, so it’s natural to think that giving up a third-round pick in next year’s draft to take Terrell Pryor in the supplemental draft was done because Davis fears this may be the last season he sees.
Except that this “live for today” philosophy is one he’s practiced for many years. In the ‘90s, several of us were writing that “rebuilding” was a swear word for Davis.
In many ways, Pryor is a natural for the Raiders. He is very fast, and Davis loves speed. He is a project, which has never bothered Davis. Opinions on his ability to play quarterback in the NFL are all over the map, but you can bet Davis thinks the Raiders can make him a quarterback – or wide receiver or defensive back.
BRANDON ALLEN: The A’s rookie first baseman continues to impressive, with two prodigious home runs against the Yankees last night. The sample is very small for Allen, but I like what I’ve seen so far. I think that, offensively and defensively, he’s what they’ve needed at first base since Jason Giambi left for the Yankees. Enough with this good fielding, singles hitters. A first baseman should supply ower.
NBA LABOR STRIFE: Those who know more than I do about the NBA are convinced that the NBA season will be shortened, at best, and may be completely wiped out. When the NFL was in a lockout, it seemed the two sides would come together when both needed the games to resume but the feeling with the NBA is that the chasm between the two sides is almost impossible to bridge.
There are two big problems:
1) The NBA allows the home team to keep all the gate. In other sports, a 60 (home), 40 (visitor) split has been the norm – because that’s what it was in college football when it started in the 1890s.
Allowing the home team to keep all the gate is an obvious advantage for teams in the biggest metropolitan areas – though the Knicks have proven that bad management can overcome that advantage – and hurts the game in a more subtle fashion. Schedules are drawn up to minimize travel costs, which means that teams often play four or five games on the road in 5-7 days. Players are exhausted and far from their best, which is why many fans say, “I never watch the NBA until the playoffs.” I don’t blame them because the regular season is often a poor substitute for the best the players can offer.
2) Individual players make much more impact than in baseball and football. Even the best player isn’t much help to a baseball team if they don’t surround him with the right talent. Giants fans saw that the last years of Barry Bonds’ career when he was walked a record number of times because the Giants didn’t have other hitters who scared the pitchers.
It’s the same in football. The best quarterback can’t win if he doesn’t have good receivers, a good offensive line and a running attack to complement him – as well as a good defense.
But pro basketball has been geared around individuals since the late ‘40s, when a famous billboard at Madison Square Garden headlined: “NY Knicks vs. George Mikan.”
But even if a team gets a great player, it can’t always keep him, as Cleveland learned with LeBron James.
The first problem could be alleviated if owners agreed to have a 60-40 split of the gate, but I see no way anybody could do anything about the second problem.
THE READERS HAVE ALL THE BEST LINES: “Fan violence may be a problem at 49ers-Raiders games but not when the Oakland A’s play the Giants. The A’s fans don’t show up and the Giants fans are too busy on their cell phones.”—Janice Hough, Palo Alto.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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