Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Want to know now? Tough.

Last week, Greg Baum wrote an article in the Age (http://www.theage.com.au/afl/afl-news/for-the-sake-of-all-ablett-must-reveal-any-decision-20100720-10ji5.html) saying that if Li'l Gary Ablett has agreed to join the Gold Coast Suns he should announce that decision publicly, allowing everyone – especially Ablett himself – to focus on football rather than his probable departure. Now it seems that by declaiming that football should be the focus in an article about someone potentially leaving his club, then you shoot your argument in the foot. But that aside, there's a few fatal flaws in the logic that fans are entitled to know a player's decision as soon as it's been made.

No one is implying that Ablett's made his final choice already. I fail to see how he could have given the Cats are among the favourites for the 2010 flag and a premiership could play a major role in whether he stays or goes. He may be a long way from decided, or pretty sure in himself but to cliche horribly, five weeks are a long time in footy. Let's say for argument's sake that Ablett is 50/50 on joining the Suns next year. In the next five weeks, Geelong could fall away badly as their older brigade are exploited for a perceived lack of mobility and suddenly he's 75% of the way to the Gold Coast. The Cats could steamroll everyone on their way to another premiership and before you know it, perhaps the decision is 40% in favour of the Gold Coast. Geelong has everything to lose or gain here and it's not Ablett's fault. If it's the case that Ablett still isn't 100%, and I think it is, then of course he shouldn't make a decision and he's a fool if he has.

Other players are unquestionably facing similar circumstances. West Coast ruckman Dean Cox is only 28, and has potentiall five years of high-class footy ahead of him yet finds himself in danger of being superseded and may well head out the door. Adelaide's Nathan Bock is also the subject of rumours, one of which is that he has signed already with GC17 and has garnered publicity from teh Adelaide and national media for his “distracted” performance on the weekend.

The most publicised incident of this “one foot out the door” attitude in recent times could equally go to the NBA's former poster child LeBron James for his insipid last home game in Cleveland, or to the Brazilian Robinho in the EPL, who quit on Manchester City as the English winter approached. Warmer climes and changed lifestyles had such a strong appeal that both played like they were preoccupied, and both had the results one would expect. Both ended up wearing the scorn of fans for their perceived lack of stomach, suspicions confirmed in LeBron's case with his “LeDecision” to join Dwyane Wade in Miami.

But do the paying public have a right to know immediately the results of an athlete's decision is? Of course not. It's complete bunkum to suggest that we as a public are foremost in the minds of our professional sportsmen. Athletes can say their primary concern is the fans until they're blue in the mouth, but in truth their first priority is themselves and personally, I have no truck with that. Careers are short and the demands on both the body and spirit would be tremendous. A player may be a certain starter with one coach, only to be completely disregarded by another for no good reason. Playing time can be plentiful or sparse depending on the whims and natures of their head coach.

The franchise is responsible for player remuneration, and they are charged by their fans to prioritise sustained success. Because of this, their first priority should be paying players who help them win, irrespective of statistics or reputation. If a player does not perform, then they should not be rewarded with raises, security or even a place in the squad. The club is concerned first and foremost with itself. As fans, we tend to identify with players who exemplary in one of two fields: work ethic or skill. For a team however, often fielding only players with a good work ethic isn't rewarding – the combination of talent and hard work is required so a hard worker and “good club man” is cut. So, if a club's first priority is to itself and they hold most of the trumps, why shouldn't a player's first priority be to him or herself?

We as fans tend to support teams rather than players. More and more recently we find the club is all-important and the Jason Akermanis/Western Bulldogs row illustrates this perfectly. He was viewed as allegedly putting his own interests above those of the club and put through the wringer because of it. But it's hypocritical to sack a player for the sin of self-indulgence: if the club will do what's best for it's long-term success, why should Akermanis be pilloried for attempting to ensure his own long-term success? Everyone on that Bulldogs side is looking after “Number 1”, just in a different manner to Aker, a more subtle way. (Do you expect subtlety from a man with peroxide hair and a black goatee?) Each Bulldog individually prioritises “Number 1” through the results of corporate success – the adoration, money and recognition that a winning team brings.

Each player's first loyalty is to himself, but the difference is in what shape that loyalty takes. For one guy, that could manifest as wanting more money. For others, it may be media or marketing interests, fame, recognition, new challenges, lifestyle, winning, security, his or her legacy and even plain and simple fan adoration. The athlete who values fan adoration is always going to be drawn to devoted supporter bases or large market teams. Those who value money are going to chase larger contracts. Those who want money, fame, girls, lifestyle at the expense of personal legacy go to Miami. With the publicity and coverage each decision receives, we pretty soon can open a window into the very heart of each player and deconstruct them, pigeonhole them into “Driven by money”, “Driven by lifestyle” et al. If this is the case, why wouldn't you keep your cards close to your chest? Why should someone risk teammate and fan ire, not to mention the match payments simply for coming out and saying “This summer, I'm going to take my talents to ...”

Friday, July 23, 2010

Who cares if you can speak when everything you say is crap?

This week's AFL news has consisted mostly of one issue: AFL identities who feel they have something to say being pilloried for saying it. Jason Akermanis – by most accounts a good man, if a little too self-indulgently fond of the talky-talk – has played his last AFL match after collecting his pink slip from the Western Bulldogs, while coach Kevin Sheedy has been gagged by the brains-trust at the AFL's newest franchise Greater Western Sydney for his caustic assessment of arch-rival Mick Malthouse and successor Matthew Knights.

Both Aker and Sheeds have the cred. They've walked the walk over long careers: fifteen and forty-plus years respectively, and both are entitled to feel that they can and should talk the talk. But here's the trick: do we want to hear what they have to say?

I'm sure that these icons of the game will be remembered more for their on-field achievements than for their media (in)abilities. And they should be: Sheedy was the archetypal back-pocket plumber while Akermanis was nearly nonpareil as a sublimely skilled midfielder. Both are multiple-premiership winners and occasionally have had innovative and interesting observations about the state of Australian Rules Football. But on the whole, they like many of their counterparts have absolutely nothing new to say and we find ourselves assaulted either by boring, boring column inches or half-baked ideas (now known in the industry as “pulling a Grant Thomas”).

We cry out for articulate athletes. We desperately hope after a big match that someone snatches a mic and cuts a WWE-style promo: we love to see emotion as it comes out on the sports field because we identify with that joy, anger, frustration and despair. But given the climate of fear under which our sports stars now live, all we get is “We're just taking it one week at a time” or “We are focusing on our structures”; sporting banalities equivalent to the nod and mumbled “sorry” offered when you accidentally bump into a stranger on the street. You mumble “sorry” because you've been subconsciously programmed to do so but sports stars don't have the luxury of subconscious training. Under the instruction of team management, players say only what they are 100% sure will not be offensive, revealing or fuel-for-the-fire. Image Is Everything and this age of constant information in which we live means that nothing falls under the radar any more. Everyone has just enough information to draw their own half-baked opinions and, for better or worse, half-baked opinions aren't what generate commercial success. Any comment must be considered carefully or remain unspoken; it's easier and safer to spurt cliches so that's what athletes do. Better that than expose themselves to being hung-drawn-and-quartered in trial by media. The average athlete's media independence is now practically nonexistent and players are not the slightest bit empowered by clubs in their dealings with the press. We love truth as we love emotion, so we want to see unbridled superstars taking their chances when picking up a mic – the suits do not. The age of Akermanis is ending, and it may signal the media-empowered player is joining the flamboyant one on the AFL's endangered species list.

Should we care what these faux-journos have to say? I'd go as far as to say that unless someone writes something heinously or consistently offensive – and make no mistake, Akermanis' column on gays playing AFL was just that – then Aker, Sheedy, Grant Thomas, Bob Murphy and L'il Gary should be judged by exactly the same standards as those with journalism training. The ultimate test for an article, or indeed a column, is the response it receives: if it's crassly or poorly written then it should receive little or no response. Everyone now has voice and the most important thing now in the world is to be heard whether you have something to say or not. This is trap into which Sheedy and Akermanis have fallen – spouting what's on your mind just to be heard – and a trap into which the world, with it's MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube is also rapidly falling.

I couldn't care less what most AFL players see fit to say. Take for example Li'l Gary. His column each week in the Sunday Herald Sun is possibly the greatest waste of four minutes reading time I have ever encountered. I have read lettuce with more to say on Aussie Rules than him. Each time I've braved his prose, I find myself thinking that my life could have been seriously enriched by reading four minutes worth of anything – the back of a chewing-gum wrapper, the contract for second-hand sale of a 1955 caravan to a new owner, Mark Latham's autobiography, anything – else. But fool me once, shame on me ... fool me twice and I deserve to pay the stupidity tax.

A few weeks ago I was stopped by two rappers in New York City. They shoved CD-singles into my hands and told me they were raising funds for a national tour or something. I should have given the CD back and kept walking but I didn't, and then came the request for money. There were two of them and one was nearly as big as I am, so I paid them $6 and chalked it down to the Stupidity Tax – I deserved to lose my $6 because I knew what to do and didn't do it. Reading Gary Ablett Jr's Sunday Herald Sun column is much the same: you pay four minutes as stupidity tax and think I'm never making that mistake again.

But Li'l Gary doesn't have much media training. He's not genuinely outgoing nor is he at ease with cameras or computers: his best talents lie in chasing around a lump of leather and air. He's been given a voice, but should not use it – he has nothing to say. Neither do Sheedy or Aker have much journalism schooling, it's all been on-the-job education. Nothing more is to be expected of all three other than what they've produced because they often pipe up when they've nothing to contribute. They are nothing more than a representation of the late-noughties' quest to be heard. What they must realise however, is that there's nothing wrong with keeping quiet when you have nothing helpful to say.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Dawson Quandary

The other day, disgusted as I was as usual with the televisiual feast that Videotron's cable service had to offer, I delved into my movie collection and busted out the “The Club”, a 1980 film based on the play by the same name by David Williamson. It delivered quite a few highlights: a bemused Tom Hafey acting as an assistant coach to Jack Thompson; Rene Kink's “performance” as Tank O'Donohue and especially being able to spot Ray Shaw, Peter Daicos and Ronnie Wearmouth as it's best to remember them.

After the movie I jumped online briefly and the first footy headline I happened upon was “Knights-mare continues”, a stinging rebuke aimed at Essendon's performance against the West Coast Eagles. Eagle Mark LeCras slotted twelve goals, four-to-six of which were on beleaguered and probably overmatched Don Heath Hocking. Why four-to-six? Because Knights says four were kicked directly on Hocking, while pretty much everyone else says young Heath shopped six.

You can absolutely watch “The Club” substituting the Essendon hierarchy with the main characters and it makes perfect sense: a proud club that's down on it's luck with a coach who's struggling to get the most out of his men. (Except of course the subplot about The Club President punching a stripper, no-one's alleging anything of that sort here).

In that great example of Australian footy machismo, The Club coach Laurie Holden is slammed by all quarters for refusing to move his captain Danny Rowe off a hot player (Wilson) while The Club is copping a thrashing. Rowe has a stinker, The Club loses the match and Wilson is the best player on the ground. When talking with head-case rookie superstar Geoff Hayward, Holden describes his thinking in the following manner:

GEOFF: I don't want to play the devil's advocate, but you've done some pretty bad coaching yourself lately.
LAURIE: Such as?
GEOFF: Such as not shifting Danny off Wilson last week. He was getting thrashed.
LAURIE: I know.
GEOFF: Wilson was leaving him for dead.
LAURIE: (irritably) I know.
GEOFF: Then why didn't you shift him?
LAURIE: Because he was desperate to keep trying. He's never been that badly beaten before. I know it was the wrong thing to do but Danny's been the backbone of my team for eight years and I felt I owed him something. Besides, I doubt whether there's anyone in the team who could've done any better.

Matthew Knights and Laurie Holden both fell victim to the Dawson Quandary – when to move an overmatched player off a hot superstar. We can assume Knights was aware of Hocking struggling. And they're not the only two coaches to have been pilloried for arriving at the Quandary: Hawk Zac Dawson was left to stand a rampant Anthony Rocca in 2006 and the Pie forward kicked 10. Dawson, 19 at the time, weighed approximately 80 kilograms opposed to the 105 kegs sported on the 29 year-old Rocca frame. That decision and subsequent media frenzy nearly caused the young full-back's career to disintegrate on the spot and it's only in the last eighteen months that he's found redemption after barely sniffing the Senior side again at Hawthorn and finally finding his way to St. Kilda. His coach, Alastair Clarkson, said he left Dawson there to get experience; but you've gotta ask yourself when this becomes simply flogging a dead horse.

Do we hang Knights immediately or congratulate him for sticking to his guns and his show of faith? I guess it depends on his assessment of “where” Essendon are. From all accounts, Knights won the top job in 2007 with an optimistic view of the Bombers' playing list that appealed to the coaching search panel; his assessment was that major changes wouldn't be needed in order for Bombers success. His direct opponent for the job, current Richmond boss Damien Hardwick, deigned it necessary to blowtorch most of the playing group and build from scratch. In essence, the decision came down to Knights' short-term optimism and the promise of results within two-to-three years versus Hardwick's crystal ball pleading youth development and therefore future hope.

I'm not a big fan of fan-pressure forcing out coaches, but fans basically demand one of two things: results or hope. Results speak for themselves – games won, and a team in the throes of competing for a title. Hope for the future is probably an even easier “sell”: fans can stomach the word “rebuilding” for two seasons if the promise of results is there – even three years in some cases. But as the proof of the pudding is in the eating, results must follow hope and if wins are scarce after year three the coach finds himself in very warm liquid. Knights won the Senior Coach job promising results, not hope, and as such his (let's be generous) choice to leave Hocking on LeCras is either naive or negligent coaching. If, however, the Dons' recent form downturn has shunted this year from the “win now” category to“development” his decision is less damning.

I'm not privy to the goings-on behind closed doors at Windy Hill and so, like the rest of the world, I have no idea if 2010 is now pigeonholed under “results”, “hope” or “strange and cruel hybrid leaving the fans and media second guessing everything the coach says and does”. I hope for Knights' sake that Essendon FC knows this year's category: because if the players, administration and coach aren't on the same page the only way this can end is with an “I-told-you-so” smile on the face of Damien Hardwick and a dole-queue grimace on that of Knights.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Follow the Yellow brick Road

Thierry Henry's arrival in MLS marks the “Out of the Closet” moment of perhaps the worst-kept football secret of the last three years. Anyone who's observed the game over that time can't have failed to notice his open statements that playing football in the US was intriguing while MLS has been keen to lay its hands on anyone resembling a big star in order to grow their brand.

Let's not beat around the bush, it's a terrific coup for US soccer. Henry now beats the well-worn trail as David Beckham and Arsenal teammate Freddie Ljungberg did before him. Both have had some measure of success: Beckham's Galaxy has been consistent playoff teams, where Ljungberg's Seattle Sounders came close to topping the Western Conference in their debut season last year. But are these gentlemen stars of World Football really here for the soccer?

The simple answer is of course not. How could they be? Henry has made the move down (as did Beckham) from La Liga Champion to a mid-level MLS team and Ljungberg came from the EPL; the very peak of Association football to bang-on middle of the road. Make no mistake, these decisions are all about lifestyle and a pay cheque so large that team owners thank their lucky stars that MLS pays half. The move of an ageing superstar to the US soccer scene is driven primarily about money, lifestyle and future job opportunities: Ljungberg is a model, Henry has done some commentary and charity work and as for Beckham ... good grief.

MLS contributes 50% of these marquee salaries because it needs the boost. As the “fifth” league, it competes with LaCrosse, Indycar, NASCAR, tennis and even shuffleboard or curling for attention. Getting a bonafide superstar at an age where he's still of international class is a major win for the MLS, even at an overinflated price tag. And Henry is not shackled with being the first to walk this road. He's not the Football missionary sent to convert the heathen horde to the Beautiful Game; that path has been trod to varying degrees by Pele, Romario, Georgie Best and Paul Gascoigne. It's also telling that the most success at this has been achieved by “Brand Beckham”. Because he's joining a revolution and not starting one (MLS's words, not mine), Henry can now focus on doing what he does best: scoring goals. His languorous pace is not gone. His clinical eye for goal is still sharp – only twelve months ago he scored 26 goals in all competitions as his side won the Champions League on Barcelona's way to an unprecedented sextuplet of major trophies. He could easily have joined a midtable top-flight club, been an effective line-leader and maintained his European profile.

Henry's landing spot, the New York Red Bulls, have been the perpetual underachievers of the MLS, yet to make it to the championship series after being a foundation team created at soccer's US rebirth fifteen years ago. The Red Bulls optimistically rate tenth in the tri-state area in terms of team identity and popularity, behind every single NFL, NBA, baseball and NHL franchise. Even the New Jersey-based Nets or the Devils rank higher in the average New Yorker's consciousness than any soccer team.

But here's the catch. Thierry Henry has lived under a microscope since he was seventeen. Before his American Jaunt, he played for Monaco, Juventus, Arsenal and Barcelona: four of the biggest and toughest – and most visible - heavyweights of European football. His life has been subject to English and Spanish voyeurism since boyhood. And he spent the vast majority of his career in London – a city where the Quest for Celebrity has grown to a level that's more painful to watch than a kick in the groin. Then he followed London with Barcelona, a city so egocentric about their football (and footballers) that the only privacy he got in his three years was probably when he entered the smallest room. Is it any wonder he chose New York, a city where maybe 1 in 10 people has any idea about their faltering football team, and he can be an ordinary Joe and walk down the street unmolested by autograph hunters? If his ego needs a boost, New York has nearly 25 million people crammed into its Metropolitan area so if, as rumoured Henry likes to be the big fish in a small pond, there will still be those crucial pockets of adoration enough to soothe his ruffled ego.

It's different with Beckham. For better or for worse, Team Beckham has actively promoted a lifestyle and (shudder) brand (imagine kids born into “Brand Beckham”) that completely removes all trace of a normal life and replaced with living out a perverse iteration of the Oscar Wilde-ism: “The only thing worse than being being talked about is not being talked about”. They have made their bed and – failing Posh joining a cult and let's not rule that out, if only in hope – we're the ones cursed to lie in the bed Brand Beckham created for as long as we all shall live.

You get the feeling though that celebrity didn't sit that well with Henry. Sure, he liked the attention and adoration – who doesn't? But the public furore and inarticulate screaming that came first with his divorce (from English model Nicole Merry) and the “Hand of Frog” obviously rankled, especially for such an eloquent man who had tried to act always in a sporting manner. Now, whether this sportsmanship was an act or not is not the question, nor really does it matter. But the more the thought strikes me, the more it resonates: Henry had tired of having his entire life questioned publicly and perhaps though it time for an image reboot. Popular opinion of Beckham before his LA Galaxy move was of a washed-up player whose legs had gone; a guy more interested in pleasing his celebrity wife and her plastic Hollywood friends than in playing a perfect cross in to an open teammate. But his US exile has rehabilitated Beckham's image to such an extent that he's now congratulated and not derided for his innate marketability; he's now a guy who happens still to be very, very good at some aspects of the game. Focus has shifted from what he couldn't do back onto what he could. British culture now celebrates rather than attacks Brand Beckham, and Henry, a very smart and articulate man, has seen and observed.

To use an old adage: If you want to hide a tree, where better than in a forest? That's what Henry has seen and enacted. He became public enemy no. 1 last year for his blatant handball against the Irish in their World Cup qualifying playoff – and the public conveniently forgot that Ireland was not guaranteed a win, only a chance to go to extra time. After the match, he was ridiculed for what was seen as faux-sportsmanship. But, if you ask any average New Yorker about Thierry Henry's most famous moment, most would just reply with “Who?”.

So welcome to MLS, Thierry Henry. In footballing terms, Beckham has proved you don't lose top-drawer talent as a result of geography; he's also established that slowing down doesn't really matter, class is always evident. Henry has class both on- and off-field in spades. New York is a fantastic city, and if he wants a post-football career in the media he now has both location and personal advantages already in placed.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Steinbrenner's greatest legacy

This week, the North American sports fraternity mourns George Steinbrenner, former owner of the New York Yankees who passed away of a heart attack aged eighty on Tuesday.

Beginning in 1973, Steinbrenner's reign at the top of the Yankees proved tempestuous, going through growing pains for over two decades. It didn't pay too long to be the Manager of the Yankees - “Manager George” changed them with the same frequency as most of us change antivirus softwares – he employed 20 bosses through his first 23 seasons. General managers fared little better as the Yankees discarded 11 over a thirty year period. His teams started off winning sporadically, but over time fortunes improved and last season he saw his Yankees win their seventh World Series under his tenure with a 4-2 win over the Phillies. Along with those seven titles came 11 American League Championships. Famous initially just for his involvement with the Yankees, Steinbrenner was launched instantly into public consciousness soon after taking over for his tendencies to overvalue the benefits of personal grooming: shortly after purchase he took down the numbers of all the Yankees whose hair he decreed as too long. Other times reprimanded or even benched stars like Goose Gossage and Don Mattingly for having hair, beards or mutton chops not to his liking. Steinbrenner was the archetypal Meddling Owner and the forerunner for such fantastical owners as Mark Cuban and or Dana White*.

Unquestionably though, he became most famous of all for being George Costanza's boss on Seinfeld.

Voiced by series creator Larry David, the Steinbrenner character was portrayed as a random, constantly rambling buffoon who placed more importance on Calzones, Tyler Chicken and the merits of a good, hot soak, than he did the fortunes of his baseball club.

This was my first introduction to George Steinbrenner and to be fair, my defining knowledge of the man is of the parodies he engendered. So his passing got me thinking: Which sporting identities could be parodied in such a way as to become sitcom characters? Given that – let's face it – most secondary sitcom characters have only one defining characteristic or joke and are rarely afforded time or want for character development (cf. “The Todd” in Scrubs; Seinfeld's own Evil Genius Newman; any character in Big Bang Theory or Two and a Half Men – the list goes on), so each would really only need their own physical, mental or emotional idiosyncrasies and a profile large enough that the viewing populace could reasonably recognise them without assistance.

The first that leapt to mind were:

The 1987-88 Washington Bullets (Players, NBA, err ... Washington Bullets)
Well, really only two of them. The Bullets in 1987-88 sported the equal-tallest player in NBA history, Manute Bol (7'7), and the shortest, Muggsy Bogues (5'3). Call 'em what you want: Little & Large Show, The Odd Couple, Manute & Minime ... Coupled with Muggsy's origins in the toughest part of Baltimore and his mile-a-minute speech patterns; Bol's indeterminate age (he honestly didn't know how old he was), stories that he killed a lion in a coming-of-age ceremony in Sudan and courtside pratfalls make this comedy gold! Actually, why isn't anyone making a sitcom about this right now?

Terrell Owens (Player, NFL, Free Agent)
Perhaps the most naturally-gifted Running Back of the past twenty years, TO has already made a parody of himself without needing Hollywood's help. Not the only prodigy to do such (Stephon Marbury's gradual decline into insanity springs instantly to mind), TO's outspokenness, cross-promotability (I'm sure I just invented that word) and utter inability to get along even in the medium-term with anyone in authority just screams sitcom.

Jerry Buss (Owner, NBA, LA Lakers)
Real-Estate billionaire, adopts Playboy-style life, buys a sports franchise; Daughter poses for Playboy herself, joins her brothers in running the franchise then dates Supercoach; Jerry decides to play high-stakes poker. Actually I've got this wrong – this isn't sitcom (though it could be), this is Days of our Lives!

David Beckham (Player, MLS, LA Galaxy)
So what if we're picking on easy targets! Beckham's very life is a soap opera crammed with so much comic gold it's impossible to know where to start. He's actually fits the model of the sitcom character already – the beautiful jock who's perhaps just a couple of kangaroos loose in the top paddock. Add to this his American-Idol-reject of a wife and, to borrow a Seinfeldism, “That's gold, Jerry, GOLD”! Sadly this may never happen as it's eminently possible we've not seen a soccer player this aware of his own marketability before.

Don Nelson (Coach, NBA, Golden State Warriors)
Zany, off-the-wall basketball tacticians, thy God is “Nellie”. After creating a legacy as an innovator while coaching in Milwaukee, Nelson has become th all-time leader in NBA coaching victories. But he's done it amidst rosters no sane man would assemble, the occasional feud with his former-BFFs – he's apparently never left a job on good terms – and the occasional lawsuit thrown in, you can just see him as Crazy Uncle Don, who begins and ends each sentence with “The Power of Christ compels You to DO AS I SAY!”. Nelson comes in to address the quarter-time huddle “The Power of Christ compels You to DO AS I SAY! The next play is an alley-oop to Mullin, run it quickly from the sideline as we don't want him picked up by an athlete. The Power of Christ compels You to DO AS I SAY!

Kevin Sheedy (Coach, AFL, Greater Western Sydney)
Don Nelson's Australian counterpart! With antics like tying the windsock down at Essendon's home ground; coining the phrases “Marshmallows”, calling a trio of field umpires “Martians”, Sheedy could be the madcap Grandpa – I'm sure you, like me, would have to check Williams Shatner's availability. Picture Shatner waving his jacket over his head on beating the West Coast (http://www.bigfooty.com/forum/showthread.php?t=662764&page=2). Now reverse the image, and see Sheedy screaming “KHHAAAAAAAAN”! Perfect, eh? (smug smile)

We'd love to hear your suggestions: please feel free to let Balanced Sports know!

* I know White's really the President & minority owner of the UFC. A little poetic licence, please.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

An Open letter to Gary Ablett Jr.

An Open letter to Gary Ablett Jr.

Dear Gary,

As your impending decision approaches, I would like to offer a different perspective: that of a Geelong fan living in North America. I'd also like to draw some parallels between your situation and that of a hoops star of a different breed, LeBron James, the basketballer who recently found himself in similar circumstances.

I'm sure you know of LeBron: he's arguably the best player on the planet, the runaway winner of the past two NBA MVP awards. His team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, have steamrolled through the league for the last three seasons much as the Cats have done in the AFL. Unfortunately for him tough, they've not experienced the same finals success as Geelong. Over the past year much of the media publicity surrounding the NBA has not come as a result of his or his team's performance, but because at season's end, James's contract expired and he became a free agent along with several of the best players in the league.

After an unprecedented media frenzy, LeBron's “people” scheduled a nationwide hourlong special on ESPN last Thursday where he would announce his decision. After much speculation, LeBron did as the pundits expected and chose he felt were better opportunities for the future – one with better weather - the Miami Heat. And he did it for the same money that Cleveland was offering.

I can't help but see some similarities in your respective future career choices.

As a Geelong fan, I'm obviously on tenterhooks awaiting where you'll play next year. To be honest, I couldn't fault you for going to the Gold Coast – especially for the money reportedly on offer. I can't even fault LeBron for his choice. But what I ask is that if you choose the Gold rather than Surf Coast, you don't insult your fans, your hometown, and teammates like LeBron James.

I'm not talking about choosing another city in which to continue your career. But by making his fans, teammates and club the last to know, popular opinion has swung against James so strongly that everyone now regards his ESPN special as misguided, at the very best; most agree that it was perhaps the most self-centred thing that a “team-oriented” athlete could do; some even posit that the TV special has tarnished his legacy

Most people in North America knew that LeBron was sorely tempted by Miami and it was probable he would depart Cleveland. His camp misjudged the situation however, and the hour-long special came off as self-promotion rather than explanation. The best comparison I can make was that inviting your partner onto “Jerry Springer” only to tell them you were having a baby with their sister. Sure Cleveland was upset that he'd been “unfaithful” – but the manner the news was delivered made the city want nothing to do with him ever again except boo.

If you leave, Gary, fair enough – you're completely entitled to look after yourself and your future. But if the decision is GC17, please don't tell us why. We don't have many articulate athletes and those that are get shackled by team rules and the expectation that all any player will say is “Man-Talk”: the same hackneyed cliches. We cry out for articulateness. We scream for someone who will publicly say more than “We're taking things one week at a time” or “We're excited about the prospect of playing Team X, Y or Z next week”. But this is different. This is a situation where ONLY hackneyed cliches will work.

You see, it will be seen by Geelong as a breakup. Some breakups are predestined because the parties were unsuited at the start. Other times, both parties realise it's time to go in their own directions. After two (hopefully three) premierships, a hatful of awards and recognition as one of the great teams of the modern era, perhaps you feel it's time to strike out separately.

Delivering the break-up speech, it's impossible for the “breaker” to look good by the words you choose, but you can come out looking much, much worse. After “I've decided we shouldn't see each other any more”, the “breakee” often doesn't take in a lot more due to shock. And we are, as a public, similar. Please don't let the media circus that this situation will undoubtedly generate go to your head and allow you think your motives are important to us now. In time, these factors will become completely apparent and we'll make our peace with them.

If you choose the Gold Coast it won't be a betrayal, nor should it be seen as one. But if a decision is compounded by a lack of class as LeBron's was, it seems like betrayal. We can forgive an affront, but following a breakup with an insult creates different wounds that rarely heal completely.

Choose well, Gary. We have enjoyed you for eight years, and I hope you finish your career in Geelong. The level of public interest and media coverage surrounding your decision is unprecedented in Australia. But please learn from an older, more experienced and more cynical market as you look at all your options.


Matthew Wood

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Once and Future King

LeBron James will play for the Miami Heat in 2010-11, alongside a video-game roster of superstars and for a coach who may leave the club to “spend more time with his family” to be replaced by NBA Coaching Godfather Pat Riley.

Last night The Once and Future “King” announced his choice of team for the next five seasons after a year of utter madness in NBA circles due to his impending free agency. At times during the season – most notably at home in Game 5 of the Eastern Semifinals where he performed listlessly – it seemed as if he was distracted by the choice in front of him: Home; the Opportunity to become a Global Icon; South Beach; Russian Supermodels or Following the footsteps of your boyhood hero.

Each potential location presented its own perks: an Ohio native, James grew up supporting the Cleveland Cavaliers and almost single-handedly brought them back into basketball relevancy. New York City is the single greatest market in the World, allegedly James' favourite city: a city in which he would save basketball by winning, and be worshipped for it forever. In Chicago lay young All-Stars Derrick Rose & Joakim Noah and the potential to bring another “max” free agent. Also, Chicago was Michael Jordan's realm, giving LBJ the chance to emulate his boyhood hero. The New Jersey pitch revolved around young talent and a crazy Russian owner willing to spend big to win; whereas Miami efforts relied heavily on lifestyle (read: Cuban Supermodels and Great Weather) and established superstar Dwyane Wade.

In sixteen words at 9.27pm EST – LeBron told the world “This Fall, I'm going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat”. And with that one sentence, he ripped the heart out of his followers in Cleveland and to a lesser extent, those worldwide. With that one sentence, LeBron's legacy changed forever.

The most quotable media release on Thursday before “The Decision” was “He doesn't want to be 31 with bad knees and no title”. Over the last two seasons it became obvious that LeBron was frustrated at the Cavs' inability to win it all and felt that he needed help to do so. So, Cavalier management bent over backward to surround him with a vast array of “suitable” second bananas and supporting cast to soothe his troubled soul: Mo Williams, a washed-up 37 year old Shaq, Antawn Jamison, Anthony Parker, Jamario Moon – each rubber-stamped by James himself. The organisation mortgaged its future on these players and from a basketball-economics standpoint won't recover until Jamison's contract comes off the books in 2012.

In order to keep the best player in the game happy, Cleveland danced to his tune – and this, coupled with the wins, the adoration and the speculation seems only to have fueled James' ego and self-awareness. And what this decision says about LeBron James is that he is overconscious – scared, even – of his own legacy.

It's completely understandable that LeBron wants to win, and win now. But very rarely do superstars – especially players of this era, and those who skipped college even moreseo - win early in their careers. Often it takes years to reach the pinnacle of the NBA: and the most appropriate example is LeBron's childhood hero Michael Jordan. During the late 1980s, Chicago's roster developed slowly to the point where they had matured enough both physically and mentally to win the 1991 NBA championship. They then went on to win six. And it should/would have been eight.

Because LeBron is so aware of his standing (a process not helped by the intense speculation generated by free agency) and so conscious of his legacy, his legacy demands that he wins and wins now. So he placed demands on his front office in order to help him do so, who obliged. Given the constant tinkering and the roster didn't get the growth from within it needed to progress, only a mishmash of stars making coaching exceptionally difficult.

We've also learned that perhaps the most talented player ever doesn't want the responsibility of leading a franchise. That he's departed Cleveland rather than competing with Wade to recruit other free agents to join him in Cleveland is telling – he wants to walk straight into a winner and not bother with the leadership involved in building a team. Only two players have hads that instinctive leadership and it translated into instant pro success: Magic Johnson and Russell. Bird learned quick and early, while for Jordan, Chamberlain, Barry, Hayes, Moses and Erving it all took significantly longer. But given his astounding abilities, whichever team he plays for will always be a contender – and that unwillingness to take his own road implies he is scared to take responsibility for winning a championship himself.

By choosing South Florida LeBron tacitly admitted that he is a follower. And that's OK – he's 24. Very few people are effective leaders at that age and most grow into that role. By signing with the Heat, it also implies that he doesn't want to work at (can't be bothered?) turning into a leader and is content to submit to the preeminence of Dwyane Wade, making him the world's best-ever second banana. Now, this may work well or not, but I get the feeling that the most talented player we've ever seen should be the Leader on his team.

And – let's not forget this – LeBron was undecided until at least Wednesday. After both committed to Miami, Both Bosh and Wade said they had no idea where James would sign and I think that they honestly didn't know. Each just seemed happy that they had each other. The biggest domino was the last to fall. As the market played out, LeBron's options diminished and he found himself painted into a corner where his realistic options became: Rebuild in Cleveland, Create in Chicago, Self-Promote in NYC or Follow in Miami. And he chose follow. No matter what, his legacy will always be tarnished by this: the Greatest should never follow, they should always lead.

There are laudable aspects of James' decision-making process. After Dan Gilbert's puzzling and bewildering email tirade (see here: http://www.nba.com/cavaliers/news/gilbert_letter_100708.html) and the public knowledge that LeBron has not answered or returned his messages for two months, we can credit The Once and Future “King” with foresight. Gilbert's business sense amongst NBA owners is nearly nonpareil, but his quick temper seems to have bested him here. He had every right to be mortified by James' methods, but his rebuttal overshot the mark and it may brand him with the same chalk as some of the NBA's other loopy owners. Just think: Who's going to risk crossing a man like that? No one, better to just avoid the situation altogether.

Public statements have been made by all of James & Bosh confirming their willingness to accept less money to move to Miami – a decision by a Superstar (or three, in this case) for which we've been hoping for years. We love a story of sacrifice, it's built-in to us. Miami's top trio should be applauded for taking less to play together and win: in fact, given the Heat's lack of trade chips to orchestrate a sign-and-trade, it was the only way they could fit all three under the salary cap. LeBron initially comes out well as making a sacrifice for the sake of the team.

But to examine LeBron's a little deeper reveals the real crux. “The Decision” has revealed only the opposite: it's categorically proved LeBron's self-involvement. I don't mean in a basketball sense or even in a team sense: LeBron absolutely should do what's best for himself and his family. But his actions concerning “The Decision” special on ESPN were all at once self-conceited, misguided and cruel. Being an Ohio native, LeBron knows and has experienced the agonies of Cleveland sports fans (look up “The Drive”, “The Shot” and “The Fumble”). But “The Decision” – floated and arranged by his camp – turned what could or should have been a touching farewell into a savage circus. As Bill Simmons wrote (http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=simmons/100708), if you're going to cut the heart out of your hometown, you don't do it in a one-hour television special. Whatever happened to grace, or class? “The Decision” as an idea was so badly conceived that it turned LeBron from “Guy who just wants to win” into “Misguided, Shameless Self-Promoter”.

Cleveland fans are now well-entitled to look upon his last game in the Quicken Loans Arena – his lackadaisical Game 5 against The Celtics – as a harbinger of the cruelty to come.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Liberatore Conundrum

Now as Steven Baker's 9-game suspension stands, what effects will he show? Short-term, of course, we won't be seeing him until finals – that one's easy. But the long-term ramifications as he moves into his thirties are a lot less clear. But, given the nature of his past transgressions (clear king-hits) and the recalcitrant nature of his offending, Baker seems to be the latest victim of the The Liberatore Conundrum.

1990 Brownlow Medallist Tony Liberatore was an effective player right until the end of his career. The only player to win the Best & Fairest Medal in all three VFL/AFL divisions (Under-19s, Reserves & Seniors), his triumph was perhaps greater because he accomplished all this as the shortest player in the league at 164cm (5'5 ½). But as his career progressed, we saw less of the ball-magnet rover and more of the dour tagger willing to do anything to stop his man.

Amidst the scratching allegations, the Paul Kelly controversy, the 12-week knee reco recovery, and his bordering-on-farcical statements since entering coaching, Liberatore's fine career has been pulled almost inextricably into the mire. Rather than being remembered for his triumphs, Liberatore will now be remembered for the shit he pulled on his opponents as his career wore down in the late 1990s. This is the Liberatore Conundrum: a player's legacy is tarnished by acts they commit in the last years of their career.

Baker has made the most of what talent he has. A midfielder with the Geelong Falcons U18s, on coming to the AFL he found himself in the bottom half of the talent pool and has survived for ten years on his stopping jobs. Given the Saints plans for Robert Eddy and the presence of the younger McQualter and Dempster, it can be argued that Baker is fighting for his career which is a very dangerous place to be for a stopper.

As a player reaches his late twenties or early thirties he is often provided a little more perspective on his career to that point, and his life after football. This means a player can look back and see nothing but football from the ages of 18 to 30. Knowing that retirement age in the AFL hovers around 31, he can begin to either embrace life after football, or refuse to relinquish what he's fought so hard for over so many years. The importance of AFL, and of remaining on a list can become all-consuming. And if football is still all-important – for reasons of love or fear - then perhaps that player can justify straying outside the rules to do one's job and secure a place in the seniors next year. This is the Liberatore Conundrum – where a player is so determined to maintain their place in a team and on a list that they focus on stopping their opponent no matter what the rules say; they perfect the art of “not illegal” tactics and occasionally stray into fair or foul.

Being sucked into the Liberatore Conundrum can happen as the result of a single brain-snap a la Barry Hall, it can also be a lifetime achievement award where one final offence occurs and public opinion is changed forever. Another who fell victim to the Conundrum was Jared Crouch. He received more scrutiny for his frustrating tactics in the last two years of his career than he had in his previous 10 years. He didn't however willingly submit to the Conundrum, but was forced in by his arch-rival Jason Akermanis' public statements.

Steven Baker probably knows that his time at the top level is running out, that he has perhaps two or three good years left. He also knows his next contract could be his last. But is he aware of his legacy - how he will be remembered? There's a fine line between a player who would do anything to win, and one who would do anything legal to win. And with these last suspensions, Baker may embraced the Liberatore Conundrum in all it's shortsighted glory.

As a sporting public, we remember our heroes both in their heyday and as they retire. But will your defining memory of Barry Hall be of the punch on Brent Staker or of his work in the 2005 Second Semi Final in Perth? I thought so.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Past, present and future crimes

Now this post should be monitored carefully, since I am an unabashed Geelong fan. But since the name of the blog is "Balanced Sports", let's do our best.

No ifs or buts, Steven Baker is a highly effective tagger: he does jobs consistently on players who have been gifted with more natural footy-finding-and-using ability than him. The conundrum with Baker - as with many taggers – is that he often finds it difficult to stop himself from stepping over the line which separates what is legal from what is not. The frequency with which Baker cross this line means he's no longer just a stopper. He is also a thug. So how much did Baker's rep have to do with his current 9-game suspension?

The AFL has tried to rid itself of behind-the-play violence for as long as I can remember. The first concrete steps came in the mid-eighties in two separate but related measures: the admission that the then-VFL couldn't keep its own house in order with Victoria Police charging Leigh Matthews for assault after he broke Neville Bruns' jaw in 1985; and subsequently the introduction of video review in 1987. As a result, behind the scenes violence has dramatically decreased and the AFL has become a much more family-friendly league.

Since that time, Australian football has evolved. Now no longer does a match involve 18 separate one-on-one contacts on the field but where given the importance of team performance, player roles have contracted to fulfilling their own individual tasks within a framework of the team as a whole. Midfielders are now either offensive, or defensive. Players who are charged with stopping an opponent are liable to do many things to irritate and niggle their prey. Times were that your team enforcer might be able to “deal with” these pests themselves, but as the AFL has put paid to that, they have legislated also to protect the ball-playing protagonist rather than the stopper.

But there are two separate issues here and Baker rides the crux of them. As a stopper, he and many others have frequently stepped outside the law to beat his man: holding, pinching, jumper-punching, subtle kneeing are all familiar sights to the AFL fan. The other side of the coin is that with his 2007 conviction for “king-hitting” Jeff Farmer, Baker has form for completely disregarding the laws of the game and acting in a manner which on the streets would earn him a criminal record. There are fair taggers, and foul. There are also fair players, and foul. Though his footy tactics are arguably no worse than his tagging compatriots, his prior tribunal history has stamped Baker a violent player and this undoubtedly played on the minds and notepads of the Match Review Panel in grading his offences.

The grading of the offences is a curious point however, and whether the contact was negligent, intentional, reckless, slightly overzealous, a little bit naughty or directly as a result of alien control is beyond the ability of a mere mortal to calculate without generating unwelcome conjecture. The AFL's grading systems was designed to remove subjectivity from the tribunal process; unfortunately all it has done is shove those opinions to one side of the process. The opinions are then still used.

Baker deserved to be sanctioned for the punches delivered – they were captured on video and guilt was indisputable. What was also indisputable was his 155 carryover points, adding two weeks to his time on the sidelines. He is a player who polarises opposition supporters and even those of St. Kilda – the epitome of a player no-one likes but is undeniably effective.

More interesting is the charge that Baker knowingly made forcible contact with the injured hand of his opponent Steve Johnson. It would be naive to suggest Baker didn't know it was injured: whether it is an actionable offence is more the discussion. Given the furore when St. Kilda captain Nick Riewoldt had his injured shoulder bumped off-the-ball by Brisbane's Mal Michael & Chris Scott, Baker would surely know the implications of such a petty and ungentlemanly act. Given that subjectivity still plays a role in the tribunal proceedings, it's unsurprising that the Match Review Panel essentially came up with a new charge with which to sanction Stevie B; it's also completely understandable that when presented with three cases and then an allegedly-separate fourth case, rationality finds differentiation difficult.

It may be that Steven Baker's past sins amounted to more than just 155 extra demerit points. But his conduct is to blame, not the MRP. Courts of law take into account recidivism – the AFL Tribunal should be no different.