End of Football? Jeremy Lin; Moneyball; Mike Montgomery/Johnny Dawkins; Buster Posey
by Glenn Dickey
Feb 22, 2012


EVEN AS it has become the most popular sport in the country, football is sowing the seeds for its own destruction.

Football has always been a violent sport, but the danger has been thought to be primarily physical. As President, Theodore Roosevelt threatened to ban college football, which was all that was being played then, because it had evolved into such a dangerous game. There was almost no passing in the game then and teams put groups of players together (the infamous “Flying Wedge”) to do physical damage to the other side. Changes were made in the rules and practices, so a moderately safer game survived.

Now, a mental threat has surfaced, as doctors have found new and better ways to detect damage from concussions. What’s really scary about this is that it’s starting to show up in high school players, too.

There are, I believe, two primary reasons for these concussions:

1) Performance enhancing drugs on the pro level, and probably college, as well, have produced players who are bigger, stronger and faster than ever, so the inevitable collisions have caused much more damage.

2) Equipment causes injuries, physical and mental. Rugby, which is also a “collision sport,” does not have anywhere near as many serious injuries – because rugby players don’t wear hard helmets and don’t have the body armor – I use that term advisedly – that football players wear.

When I was starting my career in Watsonville, Emmet Geiser, the athletic director (who had had a long career as a football coach), told me that the modern helmets were more dangerous than the old leather helmets. The leather helmets, tight to the head, absorbed blows. The modern helmets accentuate the blows because they accelerate into the head.

In addition, equipment that players wear, like shoulder pads, are made of hard, unyielding material, and they cause injuries, too.

With all this knowledge at hand, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell nevertheless launched a campaign last year to extend the NFL season, which was once only 10 games, from 16 to 18 games, arguing that, with two fewer exhibition games, players would have the same 20-game schedule. Goodell is too smart to believe that argument himself. Because veteran players play very limited minutes in exhibition games, it wouldn’t be the same at all. Fortunately, the Players Association fought successfully to prevent that change in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Meanwhile, the college season has extended from 10 games to 12 or 13, plus bowl games for many teams, and there are many in the media who campaign endlessly for a postseason tournament to decide “a real champion.” Really? That doesn’t even happen in the NFL, unless you believe a team which went only 9-7 in the regular season really was the best team in the league last year. It doesn’t often work in the basketball tournament, either, though “March Madness” is great entertainment. Basketball players, of course, do not have to deal with concussions.

Sometimes, a sport can be so entrenched in a society that it’s impossible to think of it going away. That would certainly be true of soccer, more accurately known as football in the rest of the world, in many areas. One of them is the southern half of South America. When my wife and I were there two years ago, a tour guide in Uruguay told us, “We don’t have to fight a war with Argentina. We have soccer.” Good thing for Uruguay, considering the relative size of the two countries.

But, soccer is virtually the only sport in those countries. That’s not true in our country, with baseball still thriving, college and pro basketball very important, and even soccer and rugby having their fans.

Nor is it a given that football, because of its popularity, will remain. At the start of the 20th century, boxing and horse racing were big sports, but neither is what it once was. When I came to The Chronicle in 1963, Jack Fiske wrote on nothing but boxing, and Eddie Muller did the same for The Examiner. Now, there is no paper in the Bay Area who has a boxing writer, because there are few fights except for the big extravagnzas in Las Vegas.

(That loss of interest mirrors my own. I was a boxing fan while watching televised matches but in 1964, with Fiske on vacation, I covered a match for The Chronicle and realized, sitting ringside for the first time, what a beating boxers took. My interest rapidly declined and hit zero many years ago.)

Ironically, the rise of pro football also turned horse racing into a minor sport – when football started posting point spreads. That made it possible for bettors to bet on a losing team to cover the spread. There are far more bettors who think they know football than those who grew up around horses. So, betting on pro (and college) football games has become huge and race tracks are closing, including Bay Meadows in the Bay Area.

It will be the injury factor that dooms football, because you’ll start to see law suits against the equipment manufacturers, colleges, high schools and NFL teams.

The first to drop football will be high schools. I’m not sure what will replace it. Perhaps rugby, perhaps soccer, which already has substantial youth programs. But football will become too expensive a luxury.

Without the feeder system from high school, it will become harder and harder to sustain big time college programs, and when they start to close down, it will eventually force the NFL out of business.

I don’t expect to see this in my lifetime, but it seems inevitable.

JEREMY LIN: The Lin phenomenon has prompted some strange racial slurs, of the “what could he have been thinking?” variety.

The worst was the headline on ESPN.com when Lin had his first bad game: “Chink in the Armor.” Ohmigawd. There are only two possible interpretations of the headline writer’s thinking: 1) He was terribly prejudiced against Chinese, and perhaps all Asian, people; or 2) He was incredibly obtuse. Either way, he had to be fired, as he was. The headline was taken down 20 minutes after it was put up and ESPN apologized profusely but it was still inexcusable.

Before that, there was an unfunny joke focusing on Lin’s penis in a tweet by Jason Whitlock, a columnist for Fox Sports who said he was showing his “comedic” side. Whitlock wrote that he really wants to be a standup comedian, apparently eager to show that there is another job he can suck at big time.

The Chronicle’s Gwen Knapp used Whitlock’s tweet for a whole column on racial prejudice. I don’t know what was worse, her column or Whitlock’s tweet. Knapp obviously wanted to write on the Lin phenomenon and seized on that silly tweet. It’s called overkill.

There was one funny skit on Jon Stewart’s show when Larry Gilmore, the “Senior Black Correspondent”, complained about Asians taking away basketball from the blacks. When Stewart pointed out that Lin had a 3.1 GPA at Harvard, Gilmore said, “John! That’s an Asian F.”

OSCARS NIGHT is a big one for us, although we’ve seen only one of the nominated pictures, “Midnight In Paris,” through the On Demand part of our U-Verse television system. We enjoyed it immensely, as we knew we would. The scenery of my favorite city, Paris, is enough to watch it, and the story is an imaginative one. It’s not a serious contender for Best Film honors, though it might get one for Best Original Screenplay.

Nancy enjoys watching the stars, especially the women in their stunning (or, sometimes, awful) gowns, and it doesn’t matter that we don’t know the movies and performers because our son and daughter-in-law watch with us. Sarah has an incredible knowledge of films, past and present, so she answers all our questions, sometimes before we even ask them.

So, we have no real rooting interest but I’m hoping “Moneyball” does poorly because it’s a fictional account that pretends to be based on real events.

Here are three areas where the film deviates from the facts:

1) The 2002 team is represented as being put together with a different statistical formula being used for the first time. In fact, the statistics referred to were developed by Bill James and his followers in the ‘80s. The A’s were indeed among the first to use those statistics – but it was when they were owned by the Haas family. They were also leaders in using computers at that time, and there were so many stories written about that, it sometimes seemed they were using them in the dugout. The first A’s general manager to use these formulas was Sandy Alderson. Billy Beane simply followed his example.

2) The 2002 team won primarily because it had three of the five best pitchers in the game: Barry Zito, the Cy Young Award winner, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. They were ignored in the Michael Lewis book and the film because they don’t fit the story line because they were the products of good (human) scouting, not some mysterious mathematical formula. Zito and Mulder were first round draft choices; it was the third time Zito had been drafted but he had gone back to school the previous two times. Hudson lasted until the sixth round because teams feared his slight build would lead to frequent injuries, but he was a great athlete, playing in the outfield and even acting as the DH when he wasn’t pitching. As a pro, he has been dogged by injuries but he’s also been very successful when he’s been healthy.

3) Scott Hatteberg became a folk hero when he hit the home run that won the A’s 20th straight game, an American League record, but in fact, he had subpar power for a first baseman, hitting just 15 home runs while replacing Jason Giambi, who had hit 33, 43 and 38 homers in his last three seasons with the A’s. In four years with the A’s, Hatteberg hit a combined 49 home runs, only six better than Giambi in his best season. The primary offensive force for the A’s that year was Miguel Tejada, who hit 34 homers with 131 RBIs, the third straight season he’d hit at least 30 home runs with more than 100 RBIs. He’s barely mentioned in either book or film because, again, he doesn’t fit the story line.

This movie was made because Brad Pitt wanted it made. I admire Pitt, both as an actor and for the humanitarian work by him and Angelina Jolie. I also admire Beane for the work he did when the A’s had real owners, instead of the current slumlords.

But it will be a farce if this movie wins significant honors.

ONCE AGAIN, last weekend’s games against the Oregon schools showed why Mike Montgomery is an outstanding college coach and Johnny Dawkins is a great recruiter who doesn’t have a clue about coaching.

The two schools both had reasonably easy wins over Oregon State. Stanford always does well against weaker teams.

But against Oregon, Cal pulled out a victory in the closing minutes while Stanford again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, losing a game it had led for almost the entire way.

The Bears had to withstand an incredible shooting night by the Ducks’ Devoe Joseph, who rained in three-pointers, often from well behind the three-point arc, while setting a personal high with 33 points. On one of his long distance three-pointers in the closing minutes, he was actually falling away as he shot. Dan Belluomini, doing the color on the telecast, went crazy on that shot, and who could blame him?

But, the Bears kept their composure in the face of all that long distance bombing and had just enough to win in the closing minutes, as they’ve often done against better teams this year.

One reason for their late game composure is that their coach always has an answer. Every time the Bears come out of a time out, Montgomery has given them a well-designed play which results in an open shot – and, usually, a basket. That’s coaching.

Conversely, Stanford players rely on their athleticism. Dawkins doesn’t give them any direction beyond sending them out on the floor. The athleticism of the Cardinal players works well against inferior opponents but it doesn’t often work against good teams, which is why the season pattern under Dawkins has been a strong start and a weak finish.

Cal is currently tied with Washington for the conference lead but has the tiebreaker because of a win in Seattle over the Huskies. They finish out with three games on the road, and the second one, Sunday afternoon against Colorado in Boulder, will be a real challenge. The Buffaloes are 14-1 at home.

Stanford? The Cardinal is seventh in the Pac-12 and doesn’t have a prayer of being one of the top four schools, who get a first round bye in the conference tournament.

Coaching does make a difference.

AS EXPECTED, the A’s signed Manny Ramirez this week but there’s no guarantee he’ll even wear an A’s uniform. He signed a non-guaranteed minor league contract for $500,000, so if he doesn’t show much in spring training or the 10 minor league games he will be allowed to play – he’s suspended for the first 50 games of the major league season for again testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs – they could just release him without having to pay on that contract.

What was interesting to me was the positive comments by players who have played with Ramirez about his attitude and hard work. Not at all the kind of publicity he got at the end of his time with the Red Sox. Of course, we’ve since learned that the Red Sox were a mess, during and after Manny’s time there. New manager Bobby Valentine has decreed that players will have to ride a team bus to and from spring training games, so they can’t leave early. Welcome to high school, kids. If Valentine thinks that will truly make a difference, he needs a reality check.

Dick Williams famously took over the Red Sox in 1967, when they were known as “25 players, 25 cabs” and forced them to play as a team. But, this isn’t the ‘60s, when managers could do that because players were supposedly bound to the team by the reserve clause. If Valentine doesn’t revoke that edict soon, he’s in danger of losing his team before he even gets out of spring training.

BUSTER POSEY: And how long do you think that “don’t block the plate” edict will last? Giants manager Bruce Bochy is a former catcher and should know better. If Posey is positioned off the plate, all a runner will have to do is slide to the opposite side and reach out his hand to touch the plate.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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