After 10 years at USA TODAY and a freelance career in which my work has been featured at ESPN, FoxSoccer.com and even the Huffington Post, I’m happy to say I’ve finally found the most suitable home for my sports writing — Popdose.
Wait, Popdose? The place in which they celebrate the holidays by digging up treacly Christmas songs and talking about each other’s mamas?
Yes, Popdose. The site written by people who have lives. The site read by people who don’t spend every Saturday night watching sports. The site run by people like Jeff and Jason who are far cooler than the people a typical sports writer would get to meet in real life.
And even though all of these people involved — even Lifton — are far cooler than I am, they aren’t afraid to discuss unfashionable things. I’ve spent the bulk of my sports writing career on soccer, MMA and Olympic sports, so being unfashionable suits me. While Jeff, Jason and company lament the state of an industry (music) in which “Kidz Rap” is well-financed while perfectly good bands are scraping to find money for guitar strings, I’m lamenting the state of an industry (sports/sports media) in which pundits shout at each other for hours over Tim Tebow while the inspirational people who captivate millions every four years have to do everything short of a bake sale just for the right to pursue their sports in poverty.
After all, no one said life was fair. Art imitates life. And sports imitate art. As much as we’d like to believe otherwise, sports aren’t fair, either.
Take the BCS. (Please, as Micky Dolenz might say in imitating Henny Youngman.) Every year, the college football championship formula gets its share of criticism, both just and unjust. The NCAA has never adequately explained why every other division can participate in a playoff system while the Football Bowl Subdivision (we know it as Division I-A) student-athletes are better served in a bowl system that pads a lot of wallets of people far away from college campuses. On the other hand, the sports punditocracy conveniently forgets the incoherence of the pre-BCS system, in which national champions were crowned by the whims of sports writers and coaches.
And the sports punditocracy — especially the “jockocracy,” in Howard Cosell’s words — too often raises the wrong arguments about the BCS. College linebackers-turned-TV-analysts, acting like they’re auditioning for the role of Bully #4 in an upcoming episode of One Tree Hill, complained that a bunch of computer nerds who never played the game were deciding the national champion instead of a bunch of football coaches being informed by their sports info staff on Sunday mornings that Powerhouse State actually lost late the previous evening.
So the formula was tweaked, giving the “humans” (poll voters who may or may not be taking every game into account) final say over the “computers” (automated rankings designed to take out the biases and, unlike the typical college football coach, account for every single result).
That’s why this year, Oklahoma State failed to qualify for the BCS title game despite finishing second in the computer rankings, suffering its only loss a day after a plane crash killed a couple of beloved campus leaders, and crushing everyone else in its path.
One would think Oklahoma State would have the pathos vote as well as the computer vote. Or that the human voters would decide one LSU-Alabama game was enough this year, and maybe another team deserved a shot at the mightly Louisiana school. But those who “know football” voted for Alabama because, gosh darn it, they just think Alabama’s a better team. Just like figure skating judges who think the Russians are better than the Canadians. Or boxing judges who didn’t see that American’s punch that bounced the Uzbekistan fighter off the ropes. Or dog show judges who keep picking the mop-haired poodles over the kick-ass Australian shepherds.
College football has made progress since 1990, when an 11-1-1 Colorado team that needed a questionable call to beat Notre Dame and the “fifth down” absurdity to beat Missouri inexplicably won one of the recognized polls ahead of 11-0-1 Georgia Tech. But it still combines beauty-pageant judging with big-money politics (ask Boise State). Not a recipe for fairness.
Most other sports pick a champion objectively. But are they fair?
College basketball fans think so. A 68-team tournament gives everyone a reasonable shot at the title, right. Sure, but it also means a 34-1 team that destroys every team in its path until losing at the wrong time might watch someone else win the national title. That happened my senior year at Duke, and while my classmates and I have unforgettable memories, I’m under no illusion that Duke was the best team in college basketball that year. The next year, Duke DID have the best team in college basketball, but it only made the Final Four after a referee was lenient on Christian Laettner and let him continue one of the best shooting performances ever in a college game.
Even with playoff systems that take an eternity, as in the NBA and NHL, the best teams over 82-game regular seasons often end up bounced out. Baseball now makes a mockery of its 162-game regular season with expanded playoffs in which a hot pitcher can undo six months of a great team’s work.
Tennis isn’t fair, with players forced to wear their bodies out through never-ending tournaments to climb the rankings. Boxing and mixed martial arts aren’t fair, with good fighters losing title shots if they’re perceived as dull.
We can rant and rave about all of this injustice. Some people make a good living doing just that on radio and TV.
Or we can just remember this: These are games. Outcomes aren’t predictable.
To get into some mediocre philosophy major’s hair-splitting: We can demand that sports should be just. The BCS, in which teams can do everything they’re supposed to do and still not get a shot at a championship, isn’t just. College basketball probably is — teams know their March games will matter more than their January games.
But fair? That would demand referees with superhuman infallibility. Tournament selection committees that can take raw data and weigh in any extenuating circumstances. Soccer fields with immaculate grass and no wind. Golf courses with no divots.
As the Scots said about golf: “It ain’t supposed to be fair, laddy.”
And so the sports world, like art, imitates life. That gives us plenty to talk about.