World Cup/Avery Brundage; Bob Waterfield/Norm Van Brocklin; Derek Jeter; Willie Mays; Klay Thompson//Kevin Love/Lebron James; Madison Bumgarner/Tony Cloninger
THIS COLUMN is going out early because I will have a busy Wednesday, around a three-hour visit to the dentist. Iíll resume my usual schedule next week.
NOW, THE soccer world is reeling from injuries, especially concussions, in the World Cup. All this time, I thought soccer would be the safe alternative to football, and it is, on the junior level. But at the top level, male macho takes over. Thatís never a good thing.
There were serious injuries as the World Cup came to its end, and the structure of the sport is being questioned, as well as the style of play. This is not like the NFL, which has belatedly discovered its vulnerability to lawsuits from former players. Now, when a player is knocked out in a game, he is examined by a doctor on the sidelines and, usually, kept out of that game and at least one following one.
Soccer has no way to do that. Play is never stopped, for injury or any other reason, and the squad sizes are severely limited. There were situations in the climactic World Cup games where players could not be replaced because there were no substitutes available. The players didnít want to come out, anyway, although one who insisted he could continue, took a few steps and then fell down. Clearly, he was not fit to continue.
In any sport, there is nothing to say that rules or playing conditions cannot be changed. American football adopted unlimited substitution so that specialists, like punters or field goal kickers, could be used and so star offensive players, especially quarterbacks, didnít have to play defense. The game is better for that change. There were some quarterbacks, like Johnny Lujack and Bob Waterfield, who were also good defensive backs Ė but would you have wanted to see Norm Van Brocklin on defense?
Without changing the continuous play, soccer could make some adjustments. Increasing squad size would be one, so an injured player could be replaced. A player who deliberately rammed his skull into anotherís should be immediately ejected. Iíd even outlaw the heading of the ball because repeated headers can lead to concussions. Injured players should be required to get a medical clearance before playing again.
Donít expect FIFA to make these changes. That organization is concerned only with making money, at which it succeeds to an obscene level. Iíve excoriated the International Olympic Committee because itís been tone deaf Ė Avery Brundage lobbied to continue in 1972 after 11 Israeli athletes had been assassinated, and the Games went on Ė but the IOC is angelic compared to FIFA.
So, reform has to come from within the sport.
Meanwhile, more Americans than ever watched the World Cup and enjoyed it, especially since the American team got to the round of 16 for the first time, but that doesnít mean a great deal for the future of the sport in this country. Most Americans will return to the sports they most enjoy, football and baseball. Basketball is in the mix, too, but its support is more limited.
The problem is that Americans have this insane desire to organize sports for youngsters, instead of just letting them play.
When an early round of the World Cup was held at Stanford in 1994, I was interviewed on an Australian television program, and the host and I were discussing why there was a disconnect in the United States between youth soccer and the professional version. His contention was that, in the countries where soccer is big, youngsters play it, or a version of it, in the streets or backyards, without adult supervision, because they love it. In the U.S., youth soccer is played on pristine fields in suburbia as mothers of the players Ė the famed ďsoccer momsĒ Ė transport their sons and daughters back and forth. And, those playing usually go to different sports in high school.
I agreed with that because we had seen youngsters playing in the streets on our European trips. One time in Paris, we saw youngsters who had no ball using rolled up socks and kicking them.
Not until Americans leave kids alone to play games will soccer ever have a real chance in this country. Iím not holding my breath on that one.
THE LATEST rumor with the Warriors is that they will include Klay Thompson in any trade for Kevin Love. Iíd hate to see them give up Thompson because I think theyíd regret it soon, but it is another sign that they want to have a serious chance at a title this next season.
Thatís sound thinking because, in this era and in all sports, there is no sense to think of the future. With salary caps and absolutely no player loyalty, no team in any sport is going to build a dynasty. Derek Jeterís retirement, as the last player from the great group coming up from the Yankee farm system in the mid-Ď90s, is a reminder of that. The Yankees of that era were the last dynasty team and, with all the money in baseball now, they no longer have the kind of financial advantage they once owned.
There was another reminder of that when Lebron James returned to Cleveland. James had left three years ago because he didnít think the Cavaliers were making much of a commitment to winning. He enlisted Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade and they all signed with the Miami Heat. In three years, they won one league championship and got knocked out in the playoffs the other two times Ė but if James had stayed in Cleveland, the Cavs wouldnít have been close to a championship.
James is a native of Ohio so he has personal history there, and just getting him back will greatly improve the Cavs. He is certainly one of the greatest players in NBA history, and Iíll leave it to those who follow the NBA closely, as I havenít for years, to evaluate him against other greats. I still remember the first time I heard about him. I was talking to Garry St. Jean, then the general manager of the Warriors, and he told me that I wouldnít believe what James could do when I saw him in the NBA. ďHeíd be an All-Star right now if he were in the league,Ē he said.
THE ALL-STAR exhibition will be on tonight. I wonít bother to watch it because Iíve seen it when it was the one meaningful All-Star game in American sports. (The Pro Bowl has always been a joke and the NBA All-Star game is a layup drill because nobody plays defense.)
As Iíve written before, the first baseball All-Star game I saw was in 1961, at Candlestick, and the National League won it in the bottom of the 10th with a rally involving Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Roberto Clemente, all now in the Hall of Fame.
None of them would even have been in the game as itís played today. Now, itís like a spring training game, where the regulars are gone by the fifth inning. Come early if you want to see the real stars.
There have been several reasons for the change. One is that thereís no longer any real rivalry between the leagues. When Chub Feeney was president of the National League, he used to give the NL All-Stars a pep talk before the game about the importance of holding up the reputation of their league. Now, with free agency, players shift back and forth between leagues and there are inter-league games every day. The novelty is gone. And, equally important, fans in a city represented by a team in one league get to see the stars from the other league. They donít have to wait for the All-Star game.
For years, there were rules against players from opposing teams having pre-game conversations but those rules are long gone. Players talk to players on opposing teams all the times. Their chief loyalty is to the agents who negotiate their contracts.
At the same time, baseball officials decided it was important to get all the players into the game; one game even had to be ended as a tie because there were no pitchers left.
Players still regard it as an honor to be named to the All-Star team, but as a game, itís lost its punch.
WHEN MADISON BUMGARNER hit his second grand slam of the season, it brought up the other pitcher who did it, Tony Cloninger, who got both of his in a 1966 game at Candlestick. I saw that game and remember the Cloninger slams, of course, but I have no memory of who was pitching for the Giants that day. Of course, there were several of them!
Although I think the National League should join the rest of the baseball world and adopt the DH, I do kick a kick out of the Bumgarner homers. Matt Cainís, too. Theyíre both strong and just take big swings. If a pitcher hits the right spot for them, they can hit it out.
APPARENTLY, I wasnít precise enough when I wrote about the sports events I had missed because a reader told me it was easy to see the Kentucky Derby; he and his wife had gone back there two years ago.
That wasnít the point. I was talking about going back as a writer and describing all the pageantry and feeling of the Old South that surround the event. Thatís quite different from just going as an observer. As far as the race goes, I can watch that on television.
There have been only three occasions on which I went to sports events without a press credential. One was the 1984 Olympics, which I wrote about earlier. The other two were on family trips, Wimbledon in 1978 and the French Open and a couple of horse races in Paris in 1990. All were thoroughly enjoyable, to all three of us. Otherwise, Iíve avoided watching or reading about sports when Iím on vacation.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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