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Kord-Kutting & Kaepernick

A few days ago on Facebook, one of my brothers “liked” an article showing empty seats during the first week of NFL football. Why? Because he feels that people should stand for the national anthem instead of protesting like Colin Kaepernick and a growing number of players and fans. The article implied that attendance is down because people who think like him are angry, and boycotting the games.

Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King has also proposed a boycott of NFL football but for exactly the opposite reason. Like Hank Aaron and a lot of people, King believes that Kaepernick is getting blackballed by the NFL owners for taking a public stance against police killings of black people that in many cases presented no obvious threat. For example: Tamir Rice, a boy playing with a toy gun, John Crawford, a man holding an air rifle he had just picked up in a WalMart; Philando Castile, a man who properly told the police he had a permit to carry, Walter Scott, who was shot in the back eight times as he was slowly running away from a traffic stop, and many, many others.

Today, Shaun King tweeted a link to this Bloomberg article, NFL TV Ratings Slump Again, with the comment, “Our boycott is working.” But the article, and the embedded video interview with Leo Hindery, Jr tell a different story:

Fewer people watched the opening week of National Football League coverage than they did last year, a decline TV executives chalk up to Hurricanes Irma and Harvey.

Cable news and the Weather Channel almost tripled their audiences in prime time and grew fourfold during the day, according to data from the networks, drawing fans away from football. Thursday Night Football was down 13 percent, and Sunday games on Fox and CBS also declined. Sunday Night Football on Comcast Corp.’s NBC, featuring the arch-rival New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys, was a rare bright spot.

A drop in viewing last year caused consternation at league offices and the major media companies that count on the NFL to deliver the biggest audiences on TV. Executives blamed several factors, led by interest in the presidential election and a poor slate of games. Pro football drew $4.2 billion in regular season ad sales last year, according to Kantar Media and SMI Media Inc.

Eager to get off to a good start this year, the league responded by scheduling more appealing match-ups early in the season. That didn’t work last week, and networks are now pointing to the weather.

King rejects the weather excuse, and I’m sure some people are boycotting the NFL both in support of and against Kaepernick, but if you watch the video, media investor and businessman Leo Hindery, Jr makes a case that cord-cutting among the younger generations is a looming disaster for all sports programming.

“You have a youth generation coming up whose attention spans are shorter, and the devices they use are different, they don’t sit on couches and buy bundles of programming. … The young person today looks at the NFL as over-commercialized, too many advertisements, too little relative action vs alternative, 3 1/2 hours to watch an NFL game tonight that didn’t start until 8:30, most of us can’t stay up until 11:30. … Once you give viewers a choice of a la carte or voluntary programming, only watch what you want to watch, only pay for what you watch. We grew up in an industry that for decades was, ‘you ate what I serve, you pay what I charged’.”

Hindery notes that ESPN has dropped from 100 million households to 88 million in ten years. He expects a crash in sports revenue.

I’m not sure if there is a satisfactory outcome for either of these boycotts. The NFL can’t afford to lose their white apologist viewership or their woke black viewership, and sadly the police aren’t likely to stop shooting people of color. Add in the growing concern over concussions and lasting brain damage in football, and I frankly wonder whether the NFL may be doing Kaep a favor in the long run.

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Oak Tree

James L Dolan is the CEO of Cablevision, Executive Chairman of The Madison Square Garden Company and MSG Networks, and thus primary manager of four sports franchises including the New York Knickerbockers (no one calls them that). Dolan celebrated Black History Month by having MSG guards eject a black former player that has dared to criticize him in the past.

Last night, former Knicks power forward Charles Oakley attended a game at the Garden between his former team and the San Antonio Clippers. I don’t follow pro basketball much, but I had heard of Oakley. While most legendary players get free seats, Oakley and his friends had to buy their tickets. His foursome’s tickets were in pricey courtside seating, on the aisle, near the Knicks’ bench, but apparently not far enough from Dolan.

According to the New York Times reporting, nearby spectators said Oakley appeared relaxed, even sitting for a selfie with a season ticket holder. They did not hear Oakley shouting towards Dolan, though he would hardly have been the only fan to do so, but some did see glances between him and a security guard standing several feet away. One said that Oakley appeared to speak to that guard as he walked by his seat. Then one guard asked Oakley to leave, Oakley asked why, and a scuffle ensued as he protested and was surrounded by guards.

Both John and Patrick McEnroe were photographed among the notables nearby watching Oakley being taken away, while the crowd chanted, “Oakley, Oakley!” Phil Jackson ran into to the tunnel to try to calm Oakley who was being taken to the ground and handcuffed by MSG security and police. Oakley told him Dolan was responsible. Police charged Oakley with three counts of third-degree assault and one count of criminal trespass, all misdemeanors, but he was released with an appearance ticket.

Most media outlets have run with the Knicks’ tweeted statement:

“Charles Oakley came to the game tonight and behaved in a highly inappropriate and completely abusive manner, He has been ejected and is currently being arrested by the New York City Police Department. He was a great Knick, and we hope he gets some help soon.”

The Knicks also alleged that Oakley was drunk before the game, though no spectators have confirmed it.

According to ESPN, later Oakley told reporters:

“What happened is me and four friends went to the game tonight, to watch the Knicks and Clippers. We did sit down, trying to have a good time. Next thing I know I was asked to leave the building,” Oakley said at a New York restaurant after his release from Midtown South Precinct shortly past midnight ET. “I asked, ‘Why?’ and they said, ‘You have to leave because someone ordered you to leave.’ And I’m like, ‘I’ve been here four-and-a-half minutes.’

“I’m a Knicks fan, played here 10 years. I love the Knicks. I love New York. This is my heart. I wish them all the luck and success on the basketball court. I don’t know why I’m not welcome into the Garden.”

Recovering with Heart Medication

I was reminded of this 2012 interview where Aussie serve and volley throwback Pat Cash said of tennis, “It’s the perfect sport to take performance enhancing drugs, with the recovery, strengthening etc, but I think the lack of positive results shows that tennis is a clean sport.”

Cash may have been right for when he was playing, but today a whole slew of sports are finding that players are using questionable substances to help recover between exertions. According a TASS interview of the Latvian manufacturer Grindeks, Mildronate, a heart attack recovery medication which is marketed as Meldonium:

“is widely used in the clinical practice. … During increased physical activity, it restores the oxygen balance of tissue cells as well as it activates the metabolic processes that results in lower requirements of oxygen consumption for energy production, … Mildronate is widely recognized by health care professionals and patients, and this may include athletes as well.”

Mildronate was not approved by the US FDA, or in the European Union, but was widely available in Eastern Europe. After it was rumored to be used by a lot of Eastern European athletes, it was added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s monitored list in 2015. The drug was banned by the WADA starting January 1, 2016.

Tennis player and model Maria Sharapova is the biggest name to have been caught, and claimed she had been using meldonium for ten years on the advice of her doctor. Although Grindeks was widely quoted that the normal course of treatment was 4 to 6 weeks, Sharapova clarified that she took the drug, “not every day,” but in low doses as recommended by her doctor, and that the full Grindeks quote was:

“Treatment course can be repeated twice or thrice a year. Only physicians can follow and evaluate patient’s health condition and state whether the patient should use meldonium for a longer period of time.”

Just this week champion breaststroke swimmer Yulia Efimova was suspended. Other Russians include cyclist Eduard Vorganov, figure skater Yekaterina Bobrova, skater Pavel Kulizhnikov, short-track skaters Semion Elistratov and Ekaterina Konstantinova, volleyball player Aleksandr Markin and biathlete Eduard Latypov, but almost 100 athletes in total have been caught using Meldonium.

According to the New York Times, “One such study, at last year’s European Games, suggested that nearly 500 of the 6,000 athletes competing were taking the drug. That study was also forwarded to WADA and its list committee.”

Even though she is very beautiful, I’ve never been a big fan of Sharapova and her shrieking, but I have been impressed in the last few years by her persistence in the face of getting hammered by Serena Williams. It is sad that her persistence may have been chemically enhanced.

Unhappy Valley

On its Opinion page, the New York Times posted a snippet from the new documentary film, Happy Valley. Standing next to the statue of Joe Paterno, a former PSU math professor displays a small sign accusing Paterno of lying, covering up and enabling a pedophile. That annoys some much bigger JoePa fans who physically intimidate him.

There were almost two hundred comments, which I read through. Many of them condemned Paterno and the football culture at PSU. Others defended Paterno and condemned the Freeh report. One person linked to a Sports Illustrated piece that accuses Freeh of working in concert with the NCAA instead of being independent. I decided to add a comment, but it never appeared. I’ve added comments before, and they did appear, so it may be that the editors simply didn’t like my comments. So I’ll post what I remember of them here.

I attended CMU, in Pittsburgh, but when I moved to Central Pennsylvania, I encountered a lot of people who either worked at, or had studied at PSU. When I met my ex-wife, she was teaching at a satellite campus. She was later forced out by a jealous superior with tenure. My stepkids’ late grandfather – a really good guy – had served on State College committees with Paterno, considered him a close friend and raved about what a great man he was. Many of my coworkers, choirmates and theater friends had connections to PSU.

In time, my work brought me into contact with the 500 lb gorilla that is Penn State in Central PA. I worked on some projects in State College, which were reviewed by both PSU and city officials. Meanwhile it seemed to me that Paterno was trying to arrange that his son would inherit the head coaching position.

Several of my current in-laws attended PSU. A lot of them refuse to believe anything bad about their JoePa. My wife believes that Corbett lost the governor’s race – partially – because of the way he handled the PSU scandal.

I think it is too simplistic to blame this scandal heavily on Paterno, or on football culture. Paterno was not the hero we were looking for, and American football is almost literally brain-dead, but like all state schools, PSU was clearly a very large, byzantine bureaucracy. All the usual rules for surviving and prospering in such places have been deftly parodied and skewered in the Dilbert comics, and one could probably populate a Dilbert strip or a Game of Thrones episode with the characters in this scandal.

Sandusky was clearly able to exploit the culture of power as ably as he groomed his victims and their parents. From today’s news, a lot of frat boys seem to count on being protected by risk-averse administrators after raping freshmen women. Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby and many others counted on the assumption that no one who wants to keep their job in the entertainment business sees anything or says anything.

What does it say when you can as safely operate as a sexual predator on campus as in Hollywood?

Poor Roger Federer

With only the ATP Finals left, an exciting season of men’s tennis is winding down. Anything can happen, but Novak Djokovic just defended all his points at the Paris Masters, leaving a small chance of Roger Federer regaining the number one ranking. Stan Wawrinka won the Australian Open and Marin Cilic won the US Open this year, so the stranglehold on majors by Federer, Rafael Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray seems to be over. Kei Nishikori, Grigor Dimitrov and a host of others are poised to become major winners. Dominic Thiem and Borna Coric are being touted as future stars.

On the women’s side, Serena Williams played just well enough to make the semifinals of the WTA Championships, where she came back against Caroline Wozniacki. Simona Halep had bageled Serena Williams 6-0, 6-2 in round-robin play, and Williams returned the favor, 6-3, 6-0, in the final. The gritty indoor courts played slow, which seemed to help Halep, Agnieszka Radwanska and Wozniacki, and probably hurt Eugenie Bouchard, Ana Ivanovic, Petra Kvitova and Maria Sharapova. Wozniacki later put in a very respectable 3:26 in the New York Marathon, and was greeted at the finish by bestie Serena Williams. Their friendship has done much to humanize each other to the public.

I can’t remember when the women’s game had so many interesting, capable players, but London Times columnist Matthew Syed argued against equal pay for all women athletes in, When equal rights and equal pay don’t mix. To actually read the article one must pay a fee, but in rebuttal, Hadley Freeman wrote Female athletes stealing from men? I call it equal pay, in the Guardian:

Here is a fun little paradox to get you in the mood for the weekend: when is equal pay “sexist”? When it’s for female athletes. Boom! Am I right, lads?

… a BBC Sport survey that found male athletes are awarded more prize money than their female counterparts in 30% of sports. Now, some might feel that 30% is sufficiently unequal, but this commentator feels it is not unequal enough. Not only should men win more money than women, he wrote, but more of them should win a lot more: “To deprive Federer of income by handing it to female players is not far from daylight robbery,” he spluttered.

In response there are now three Twitter hashtags, #FeedRoger, #SaveRoger and #HouseRoger, so at least Federer’s four children won’t have to sell pencils in the streets to Serena Williams.

This is your brain in a helmet

The lady in the cubbyhole next to me lives on a steep, winding road, and just told me a story about finding a cyclist lodged under a guardrail one weekend. She says a lot of cyclists zoom down the hills but on this day the road was not obviously wet, but just damp enough. She took in his super light bike, and when he came back to claim it, he had his arm in a sling with a broken clavicle, and stitches across his brow. He had been wearing a helmet, so he may have avoided even worse injury to his noggin. Or maybe not.

The value of wearing helmets is an ongoing debate among bicyclists and even motorcyclists. After my encounter with a bus – in which my head hit the curb hard –  I can’t help but notice how many of my fellow commuters don’t wear helmets. My replacement bike helmet is made by Bern, a manufacturer with the stated goal of providing protective “lids” for active sports including snow skiing, skating, snowboarding, water skiing and bicycling. It feels very safe, and they even have a $200 carbon fiber model, which is presumably safer.

But in Ski Helmet Use Isn’t Reducing Brain Injuries, the Times asks whether that protection is giving athletes a false sense of security.

… Experts say helmets have reduced the numbers of less serious head injuries, like scalp lacerations, by 30 percent to 50 percent, … . But growing evidence indicates that helmets do not prevent some more serious injuries, like the tearing of delicate brain tissue, said Jasper Shealy, a professor emeritus at Rochester Institute of Technology.

Shealy, who has been studying snow-sports-related injuries at Sugarbush resort in Vermont for more than 30 years, said that could be because those injuries typically involve a rotational component that today’s helmets cannot mitigate. He said his research had not found any decline in what he called P.S.H.I.’s, for potentially serious head injuries, a classification that includes concussion, skull fracture, closed head injury, traumatic brain injury and death by head injury. …

“The helmet does a very good job at protecting against skull lacerations and skull fractures, but it doesn’t seem to have much effect on concussions or T.B.I.’s,” Shealy said, referring to traumatic brain injuries. “Our guess is that this is due to the fact that those injuries are occurring at such a high magnitude of energy that they overwhelm what a helmet can do for you.” …

“There’s no 100 percent prevention of brain injury,” said Alan Weintraub, the medical director of the brain injury program at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo. “Because the more the head and brain are protected, the more risks people take, the more velocities happen with those risks and the more velocities are transmitted to the skull and brain.”

The same questions are being asked about the NFL. Better helmet designs and better pads seemed to coincide with a more reckless style of play, the result being the NFL’s concussion scandal.

Talking Sports

When I was a kid, someone gave me a sports book, probably 1966’s, The Sports Answer Book: from Bill Mazer’s NBC Challenge round. I wasn’t very pro sports-oriented, but I think they realized that I was book-oriented, and hoped to spur my interest that way. Mazer hosted a NYC sports talk show called Firing Line, and was renowned for knowing a lot of stats.

Mazer’s book was wide-ranging and very conversational, and I still remember a lot of random facts and a few stories. Talking about boxing, he said someone once asked him what made a good boxer. “Poverty,” was his reply. He explained that you never heard of a rich kid fighting his way up – they were always the Irish, the Italians, the Puerto Ricans, the blacks – whatever ethnic minority was struggling to gain a foothold.

We had left Long Island by then, so I never actually heard Mazer on the radio. But when Iistening to the almost ubiquitous sports chat these days, I often remember some snippet from Bill Mazer’s book.

Bill Mazer, Sports Fixture in New York, Dies at 92

When Mr. Mazer retired in 2009, he had spent more than 60 years in broadcasting — 20 of them as a nightly sports anchor and the host of the weekend roundup “Sports Extra” on WNEW-TV, Channel 5. Before then he had been a host of sports-talk radio when the very idea of the format was new.