Sunday, December 13, 2009

Should the fans vote for NBA All-Stars?

I have seen a lot of recent articles decrying the fact that Tracy McGrady is currently second among guards in the fan voting for the NBA All Star game. This outcry stems from the fact that McGrady has yet to play a game this year, having had knee surgery earlier this year. If he does in fact play in the All Star game, the contention seems to be, the process of fan voting will be proven to be a fraud, as it does not reward the best players in the league.

However, nobody seems to be questioning the fundamental assumption behind this line of logic. Does the NBA All Star game exist to serve as a reward to the best players at their positions, or does it exist for the entertainment of the fans? I would argue that it serves both purposes, but it is tilted far more towards fan entertainment. This being so, as long as a player is proven more popular(in this case, through fan voting), then I see little reason not to include them in the All Star game. If Tracy McGrady plays in the All Star game, it won't be because he is one of the best at his position, it will be because he is the most popular among the fans.

As the fans pay for player's salaries, I see no reason not to let the fans have their say. Although some will argue that the voting system is flawed, as not all NBA fans vote, and some vote multiple times, there currently exists no better method to ensure that the fans can enjoy an exciting game featuring their favorite players. Say what you like about the democratic systems and its low voter participation, but it is the only way to show what the fans want. Other methods, such as coach polls or media polls, would ensure that the darlings of the media and coaches would end up in the game. While some would argue that the media can better judge player talent and skill than the common fan, that is both a very patronizing view(interestingly enough, it is advanced by the media), and it still wouldn't address the fact that the All Star game is designed to showcase the players that the fans want to see.

The players who are the best at their positions are rewarded with rich, long-term contracts and endorsements. Most players would likely rather have the millions of dollars that contracts and endorsements bring than an All-Star game berth. While some players are certainly disadvantaged in terms of All-Star recognition due to their low national profiles, their contracts more than make up for this. Joe Johnson is a great example of this. Prior to 2008, he was not selected to the All-Star team, but he was widely regarded as one of the best talents in the league. He received a 5 year, 70 million dollar contract in 2005. While that the lack of All-Star recognition stung Johnson somewhat, he certainly received the recognition that he cared most about.

Ultimately, the All-Star game is more about rewarding the fans with an exciting game than recognizing players. While it would be great if the best players were always the most popular, this is not the case. Therefore, I will see no issue if Tracy McGrady makes the All-Star game this year. He certainly doesn't deserve it in terms of his performace, but the fans deserve to see the players that they want to see, and to suggest otherwise is an insult to the fans.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Should Golf and NASCAR be considered sports?

Ask the average sports fan if they respect football or basketball player's athletic ability and dedication, and they will no doubt say yes.  But ask the same question about golf or NASCAR, and you will usually get a snicker.  The fact is, most sports fans don't respect golfers, NASCAR drivers, and a whole host of other quasi-sports athletes.  Are these sports inherently easier?  Do they deserve less respect from the public?

A typical NFL training camp consists of all day sprints, bench presses, and endurance and agility drills.  These drills are extremely tiring and taxing, and as a result, NFL athletes are generally perceived as "real" athletes.  However, Tiger Woods, a golfer, has a similar routine, doing 7 mile runs, 3 minute sprints, and weight lifting at high weight and rep levels.  He is said to hit 350 on the bench press at times; he also does 25-50 reps at lower weight levels.  His workout routine is every bit as demanding as an NFL regimen, and the fact that he is the best golfer on the planet shows that golf takes some level of athletic ability, as he is undoubtedly golf's best athlete.  Can golf still not be considered a real sport when it requires demanding workouts and athleticism?

If you think so, consider this; Woods also spends 6 to 8 hours at a time on the driving range, and a similar amount of time practicing his putting.  If you have ever been on a driving range, you know that minutely analyzing and perfecting your shot for even an hour, let alone 6, can be taxing and boring.  The fact that Woods can sustain this level of concentration for extended periods of time indicates high levels of dedication.

So perhaps Tiger Woods is an aberration? Consider Jeff Burton, a NASCAR driver. NASCAR is routinely derided for not being a “real” sport. Jeff Burton has 9% body fat(not quite world-class athlete level, but good), and spends hours each day on exercises that involve stretching, weights, and body weight exercises. He credits his fitness with a significant portion of his NASCAR success. In fact, the majority of sprint cup drivers engage in physical training one way or another.

Think that their workouts are not as intense as NFL workouts? You would be correct on that point, but consider this: drivers routinely spend 4 hours in a race car driving 190 miles per hour in the dead of summer. Temperatures can get to above 120 degrees, and there is very little relief with all the safety gear that drivers must wear. NASCAR drivers must also spend years gaining and perfecting their skills before they can even race professionally, a major hurdle to overcome.

Ultimately, if sports did not require dedication and skill, we would not pay to see the competition, and athletes would not receive millions of dollars. Regardless of whether you define a sport as relatively easy or relatively difficult, there are athletic challenges to overcome in any sport. With the ever increasing levels of competition, every sport requires physical fitness, and even in sports such as NASCAR where it is not emphasized in the media, it is a major factor. Ultimately, it is a disservice to the hardworking athletes to say that the competitions that they engage in are not sports.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Should a team lose their way to the top of the draft?

I read an interesting article about losing in order to get the first overall pick in the draft on Jorge Says No!, and it got me thinking.

There is a certain amount of twisted calculation that goes into a team's thought process towards the end of the year. Teams such as the Pirates and Nationals(to stick with a baseball analogy), are typically out of the playoff race at this point, and have to decide whether to keep playing and attempt to keep the support of the fans, or lose games and try to get a higher draft pick. Ultimately, people make the assumption that getting the number one draft pick will help the team, whereas winning games will hurt(relative to losing). Is this the case? Does losing games and ultimately gaining a high draft choice help a team?

To analyze this, I will look at teams that receive the #1 overall pick, and their average records over the 5 years, following a 2 year gap(for example, for a pick made following in 1998 season, I would look at the record from 2001-2006). This is because it typically takes 3 or more years to call up first overall picks. I will look at the time frame from 1994-1998.

1994 California Angels

In 1995, the then-California Angels picked Darin Erstad, a college baseball star who was also a starting punter. Over the following 5 years, the Angels had a .489 record. Although better than their 1994 record of .409, this was not a major step forward for the franchise, as they averaged a middling record. In 1994, their total attendance was 1.5 million a drop of 500,000 from 1993. The figure increased by 250,000 the following year. This shows that a team takes a significant fan support penalty when they lose games in an attempt to gain a high draft pick. For the Angels, at least, it was a gamble that produced moderate, but not spectacular results. They may have been better off with a better record in 1994.

1995 Pittsburgh Pirates

In 1995, the woebegone Pirates finished with a .403 record, earning them the right to take Kris Benson with the #1 overall pick in the 1996 draft. Although not quite a bust, Benson did not live up to expectations(his wife aside). Over the 5 years from 1998-2002, the Pirates averaged a .433 record. Clearly, gaining the first draft pick did not much improve their prospects. Their attendance in 1995 was 905,517, a whopping 25% drop from 1994. Post 1995, attendance would be significantly lower than previous years, despite the growing numbers of baseball fans. The total attendance figures for 1991 have only been surpassed once in the years since. The losing season in 1995 clearly eroded fan support, and lowered ticket sales long-term.

1996 Detroit Tigers

In 1996, the Tigers finished with a 53-109 record(.327), one of the worst seasons in franchise history. They took Matt Anderson with the first overall pick in the 1997 draft. Their attendance did not drop significantly from the previous season, and increased 2.3 times in the 5 years from 1999-2003. Unfortunately, their winning percentage over this period was .386. Although it was better than .327, the Tigers were still a league basement dweller, and did not become appreciably better.

1997 Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies finished with a .420 record, and were awarded the right to draft Pat Burrell, who would go on to become a solid player. From 2000-2004, they would average a .498 record, a significant improvement which unfortunately still left them with a middling record. Although the move seems to have made an impact on the franchise, especially coupled with their other picks and moves, it was not a franchise-altering one. Their attendance dropped significantly, as 300,000 fewer people attended games in 1997 compared to 1996. Their attendance would bounce back slightly the next year, with 200,000 more attendees, and would on average increase 1.4 times in the period from 2000-2004. Overall, they did not gain much by having the first overall draft pick, and lost significant amounts of fans; it took until 2003 for attendance to hit 1995 levels.

1998 Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Much like today, Josh Hamilton was prominently featured in the sports media in 1999. He was drafted by the Rays after a .389 finish in the franchise's first year. The Rays, as an expansion franchise are a unique case. Typically, a team performs poorly their first few years. However, fan enthusiasm is usually very high when a team first relocates, but that enthusiasm will usually wane after the first season. The Rays were no exception, and their 1998 attendance is the highest in team history. All 2.5 million fans that attended quickly saw how bad the Rays were, and decided to stay home next year. Their winning percentage from 2001-2005 was .392, basically equal to their 1999 performance. Their attendance dropped off quickly, hitting 1 million in 2002. It is hard to make judgments from this data though, because it of the expansion.


It looks like most teams that are given the first overall draft pick face significant attendance and fan morale penalties as a result, penalties which can carry on for years afterwards. There also is no franchise-altering increase in winning percentage in the years during which the draft pick(or picks) made that year should be contributing. However, although the change is not earth-shattering, some franchises saw moderate increases in winning percentage.

It doesn't look like losing in order to gain the first draft pick is a good strategy. It doesn't increase fan support, and it doesn't really increase winning percentage. Although it could be good if there is a can't-miss, surefire major leaguer, how many scouting reports have been wrong over the years?

[Inspiration from Jorge Says No!]

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Are NBA Scorekeepers Fudging the Books?

[Via Deadspin]

Deadspin has a very interesting article up. Essentially, it says that NBA referees make, on average, 20 mistakes a game, which means that they award 20 points of statistical categories incorrectly(for example, they could mistakenly award 10 assists, 5 rebounds, and 5 blocks to the wrong players). The article also says that scorekeepers intentionally award 40 further points per game incorrectly. They do so when they dislike certain players, or want to help their team:

Anyway...on top of that ~20 errors per game, you have over double that in intentional errors. By intentional errors, I mean events that never happened (eg. loose ball rebound is deflected out of bounds by visiting team, instead of correct call - team rebound home team - you award the rebound to a home player in the viscinity...or fake blocks - among the easiest things to make up, next to steals and assists)...or events that are awarded to the wrong player (rebounds, steals, turnovers are the most common). The intentional errors are organizationally sanctioned/encouraged - they increase national media coverage/interest and increase your franchise's and player's visibility. There is also league pressure to protect/enhance the stats of the elite players. For example, I would guess that Stockton got between 1 and 2 assists per game for free. Partly because I disagreed with the blatant stat manipulation (that I did) and partly because I'm a Laker fan, I gave Nick Van Exel like 23 assists one game. If he was vaguely close to a guy making a shot, I found a way to give him an assist. Afterwards, I fully expected someone to talk to me about it. Indeed they did. A senior management guy - "great job Alex, that'll get this game on Sportscenter tomorrow morning!" We (VAN) lost badly, of course.

This is very interesting, and will doubtless generate many conspiracy theories. However, there are some caveats to this.

For one, there are only a certain amount of statistics that can be awarded per game. Only a certain amount of points can be scored, and it is almost always clear which player scored. Therefore, points are not being inflated. Rebounds also have a hard limit on them. All the scorekeepers can do is award the rebounds to the wrong player, or credit a rebound that a player pulled down as a team rebound. However, the total number of rebounds in the game will always be the same. Therefore, there isn't much potential for inflation or deflation here.

The category that can be fudged the most is assists. The article references Nick Van Exel's 23 assist game, but there are plenty more examples. Basically, assists can be credited very freely, as they are somewhat subjective. But, the player that receives the assist has to be somewhere near the play, and most players that are credited with large numbers of assists(Chris Paul, Steve Nash, etc) are players who are critical to their teams, and are generally around plays. Steals and turnovers fall into this category as well.

Blocks can also be fudged fairly easily, but they are difficult because of how rare they are, comparatively. Mark Eaton is the only player to average more than 5 blocks per game in a season, and nobody else is even close. Blocks can be fudged(Dwight Howard's 9 in the finals might be suspect), but blocks are usually the last category in a stat line, and are rarely very high. So, while a player can look slightly better if the blocks number is fudged, it won't make them look that much better.

Field goal percentage would be very hard to fudge, as shots made and shot attempts are fairly clear cut. Shot attempts can doubtless be altered to a slight extent, but not in any meaningful way.

So, while this is very interesting, and closer scrutiny should be paid to scorekeepers, especially in the wake of Tim Donaghy, I don't think that it is as huge as a story as it initially appears to be. Overall, the numbers would trend towards superstars, as the home scorekeepers would seek to make them look better. However, if players are having statistics inflated at home, and deflated on the road, it would tend to average out. I think that the players that would be hurt the most would be role players, who would see some portion of their statistics credited to superstars in order to market to ESPN.

The article makes mention of John Stockton getting 1-2 extra assists per game. While this is significant, it does not affect his Hall of Fame career. Essentially, it seems like this manipulation makes players who are already good look slightly better, and players who are not considered good look slightly worse.

While the league should begin to have unbiased third parties review game tapes, and fine their scorekeepers for excessive errors, this issue is not as major as it first appears.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Is Brett Favre Relevant(As a Player)?

Brett Favre has been many things to many people over the course of his career. Irrelevant has never been one of them. Whether driving for a game-changing score, or contemplating retirement, Brett Favre has always placed himself in the spotlight. Whether his media attention is deserved has been debated much over the past 2 years. However, few seem to question his relevance as a player. The assumption seemed to be that if he returned to the league, he would do so as an above average starter who could elevate a team's level of play. How fair is this argument?

Brett Favre has had a fantastic career, and will go down as one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game. However, what we will analyze here will be his ability now. Can he contribute meaningfully to team?

In 2007, Brett Favre played his last season with the Green Bay Packers. He had an amazing season, throwing for 4155 yards with a 95.7 quarterback rating. He also overcame his interception issues, throwing 28 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. In the offseason, Ted Thompson(one of the best GM's in the business) decided to name the younger Aaron Rodgers the starter ahead of Favre. Many questioned this move at the time, thinking that Favre was far superior. However, Rodgers put up very similar numbers in 2008 to Favre's 2007 numbers. He threw for 4038 yards with 28 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, and a 93.8 rating. Keep in mind that he was a first time starter, which generally reduces statistics.

What many overlooked was that Green Bay featured some of the best receivers in football. Donald Driver and Greg Jennings form a very talented duo. Coupled with a strong offensive line and defense, the Packers are set up to make a quarterback look good. The development of these players and units drove Favre's statistics upward from 2006 to 2007(in 2006 he had 18 touchdowns, 18 interceptions, and a 72.7 rating), and had a similar effect on Aaron Rodgers.

When he signed with the Jets, most people forecasted that Favre would be an improvement over Chad Pennington, who had only thrown for 196 yards per game the previous year. While Favre did throw for more yards and touchdowns than Pennington on a per game basis, he also threw more interceptions, and finished the year with a lower passer rating. Judging from the angry Jets fans by the end of the year, Favre was not the savior that he was thought to be. A mediocre group of receivers, led by Jerrico Cotchery and Laveranues Coles, was to blame for his poor season. In fact, Chad Pennington, when matched with an offense that suited his skills, had a breakout season, ending with a 97.4 passer rating.

From looking at his predecessors, who played to his level, or to whose level he played to, it appears that Brett Favre is a mediocre quarterback at best. He plays to the talent of his team, but he cannot make a team better by himself. On a team such as the Vikings, with no dominant receiver, he would likely appear to be mediocre. Although he would be a slight upgrade over Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfelds, he would not be worth the one year contract and headaches that it would create.

Ultimately, the media hype of Brett Favre seems amazing in light of his current playing ability. Although he is not a bad player by any means, he is no longer able to carry a team on his back. As Jets fans would tell you, Brett Favre is simply not worth the effort, or the wait.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Are NFL Rookie Salaries out of Control?

The absurdity of rookie salaries seems to come up every year. Remember last year, when Jake Long's 57.5 million dollar deal with Miami made him the highest paid offensive lineman in the NFL-before he played a single snap? The casual fan sees absurd numbers such as this one, and assumes that the league is tilted against veterans. Many have called for a rookie salary cap, or other limitation on these absurd contracts. However, what is generally ignored is what happens to the largely invisible players who are picked after the first and second rounds. Are their deals as large?

When teams draft rookies, they are allocated a rookie signing pool. This pool is determined based on their amount of draft picks and their relative positions. The salary pool is a fixed limit that franchises must be under, just like the salary cap. It rises and falls in tandem with the cap. The pool was specifically instituted to prevent rookie salaries from outpacing veteran salaries. Significantly, all of a team's rookies fall into the same pool. So, the less money Jake Long gets, the more that is theoretically available to sign Phillip Merling(their second round pick).

An NFL Players Association study shows that the average rookie salary pool in proportion to the overall salary cap decreased from 7 percent in 1995 to just under 4 percent in 2008. So, while there is more money overall(revenues and the salary cap have increased in that period as well), it means that in relation to the average veteran, the average rookie is making less than they did in 1995.

So when a player like Jake Long receives a 57 million dollar deal, it pinches into the already diminished rookie salary pool. In fact, when he signed(with a cap number of 3 million dollars for 2009), it left only 3.5 million to sign the 8 remaining draft picks, including 2 second rounders and a third rounder. While clearly not deserving a deal on the same level as Jake Long, these players gave up money so that the franchise could afford to pay Jake Long a record contract.

Why is this? It is likely because first rounders can hold out and carry out the threat if needed, whereas others cannot. The current Michael Crabtree saga is an example; as a quick fill-in, he is demanding a contract larger than that of Derrius Heyward-Bey, who was picked several slots higher. If he is not signed, there will be a fan outcry, the 49ers will lose prestige, and if he does choose to hold out for an entire year, he will likely be picked highly next year. First round draft picks, because they are well-scouted, also generally have the option to force a trade, as many teams covet them. Now, if fifth round pick Scott McKillop tried the same, he would likely never play in the NFL again. With far more bargaining leverage, the team is able to offer comparatively smaller contracts to lower round picks.

Given these factors, a rookie salary cap is a bad solution. What is needed is a slot-specific salary cap, governed by a similar formula to the one used to generate the rookie salary pool. This cap needs to carry year over year. For example, a player drafted eighth in 2008 should have his contract limited to a certain number(for argument's sake, say 20 million over 5 years). A team would not be able to exceed the length, average salary, or total salary of this deal. Even if a player like Crabtree held out the entire year, he would be restricted to the same number the following year. First round salaries would also need to be adjusted downward. This would prevent first-round players from essentially abusing the system and pushing down salaries for lower draft picks.

To prevent teams from abusing this power, there would need to be a fair balance in salaries. Salaries for lower-round players should be adjusted upward, to where they were before the 1998 CBA, and locked with the salary cap, so any future salary cap rise would also increase these salaries. With this restriction, teams would be allowed flexibility to offer a wide range of deals to players, but would be prevented from paying one player at another's expense, which the current system forces teams to do. There would also need to be a salary minimum, to ensure that contracts are essentially paid on a downward scale over the course of the draft.

I believe that this system will help the NFL. The average fan only sees the greed of first round picks, and does not generally see the lower-round contracts. This will help to stem fan resentment of the NFL. It will also help locker room morale, and keep salaries controllable on the upper end. As first round rookie contracts spiral upwards, they set the pace for veteran salaries, which have also skyrocketed on the upper end in recent years. Rookies also make up 19% of all NFL rosters, but only comprise 11% of all guaranteed money, even with contracts such as Long's, which features 30 million guaranteed. This is a clear tilt towards veterans. The argument can be made that rookies are unproven and thus should not be given guaranteed contracts, but these numbers are skewed upwards by first round picks. This re-balancing would face challenge from the NFL, which is trying to decrease salary as a percentage of cap.

Ironically, while throwing out many flashy, big-money contracts on the high end, the NFL is actually cutting overall salaries as a percentage of the cap. They are then able to call players greedy, and make it seem as though salaries are out of control, generating sympathy for a lower cap number. Ultimately, this measure would cost the league more, but it would make the NFL much more fair for all.

Monday, August 10, 2009

NBA Offseason Improvement Part 1

This was a very interesting and exciting NBA offseason. As the deals look to be mostly wrapped up, this is a good time to look at which teams improved the most for next season. I won't try to rank them, but these teams have taken significant strides this offseason. These are not the only teams that have improved; I will add more later.

Washington Wizards

With a 19-63 record in the 08-09 season, the Wizards had no way to get worse in the offseason. After bad luck gave them the #5 pick, Ernie Grunfeld came up with moves that will ultimately put this franchise on the right track. Trading the pick(which would be used on Ricky Rubio) was a wise move, especially given Rubio's uncertain contract status, and his lack of desire to play for certain teams.

Randy Foye is not a household name, but he is very skilled. He has improved each of his first three years, and put up 16 points and 4 assists a game last year. He gives the Wizards a good alternative to Deshawn Stevenson, who has been very inconsistent. He also will help with defense. Mike Miller(the other pickup in the draft pick trade) is a strong-shooting SF who can step into the lineup immediately. He fills a void, and can rotate with Caron Butler, or start alongside him. A career 40% 3 point shooter, he can space the floor. To get these players, the Wizards had to give up Pecherov(who looks like a draft bust), Etan Thomas(a player with a large contract who was blocking younger players from getting a chance), and Darius Songalia(a valuable spare part who was replaced by Fabricio Oberto), along with the draft pick. All in all, a very good trade.

This team will be very exciting to watch next year. With three all-star caliber players in Arenas, Jamison, and Butler, along with good depth, the Wizards have a shot at going deep in the Eastern Conference playoffs. This will hinge on the development of Javale McGee and Andray Blatche, who will be asked to play key reserve roles. The weakness of the Wizards has been defense in recent years, and frontcourt play will be a major factor in how far they go next season.

I see another potential trade in the works given the backcourt depth and frontcourt needs that Washington has. If not, it will be difficult to get all of the talented guards into the rotation, especially given Flip Saunders' liking for short rotations. I would predict the Wizards to get to the playoffs and advance a round or two into the playoffs next year. Another trade will improve their odds, however.

San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs had an interesting offseason dilemma. With an aging core, they needed to add talent, but do it without massive subtraction. Acquiring Richard Jefferson was a good move, as the Spurs needed to acquire a younger, healthy scorer. Jefferson has played all 82 games the past two seasons, and will help to stabilize the rotation. The Spurs had to give up Bruce Bowen, Fabricio Oberto, and Kurt Thomas. None are game-changing factors, and Bowen's defense has dropped off recently, but they were important reserves, and their absence will hurt. The Spurs somewhat offset this by drafting Dejuan Blair, who had an excellent season for Pittsburgh, and was projected as a much higher pick. Knee injury aside, he can provide a Fabricio Oberto-like presence, and help down low.

The Spurs also signed Antonio McDyess, an interesting move. Although 34 and with multiple knee injuries in his history, McDyess is a 10 point 10 rebound player who knows his role and plays it well, having been to several conference finals. He will be an upgrade over Kurt Thomas, and will be able to start in the event of injuries.

If Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan, and Tony Parker can stay injury-free, the Spurs look extremely promising for next season. Their season will hinge on the health of their core players, and how well Richard Jefferson can integrate with other high scoring players. I don't see the Spurs making any more major moves, but a depth signing is not out of the question. Although not in quite the same class as the Lakers(who also improved this offseason), the Spurs should go deep into the playoffs(at least better than last season), and have an outside chance at a title.

Detroit Pistons

The Pistons have one of the best GM's in the business in Joe Dumars. He put that reputation on the line when he traded Chauncey Billups, and this offseason was supposed to be the payoff. With the headline moves being Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon, it is difficult to be too enthusiastic about the moves. However, questioning Dumars has never been a wise bet in the past.

Not re-signing Allen Iverson was an extremely wise move. He did not help the team last season, and was not a good fit. Ben Gordon, who put up 20 points a game last year on a .450 shooting percentage, will fill the void that Iverson leaves. Gordon is much more of a team player than Iverson, and while he will not be a primary scorer, will be a good complement to Richard Hamilton and Rodney Stuckey.
Signing Charlie Villanueva made Rasheed Wallace unnecessary, and in some ways, Villanueva is an upgrade. Wallace did not seem to put in much of an effort last year, and it showed on both sides of the floor. Losing Wallace and Iverson could be a blessing in disguise for this team. Although it is arguable that the Pistons overpaid for Villanueva, he will fit in well at power forward, and will be able to contribute. He took a big step forward last season, and will hopefully continue that trend.

The main concern with the Pistons is a lack of a center. Signing Ben Wallace will not help the situation at this point(he has tailed off quickly). Chris Wilcox, Jason Maxiell, and Kwame Brown are all horrible options at center. A committee approach or a small lineup may have to be used next season.

John Kuster will be under the spotlight next season in Detroit, and he has his work cut out for him. Integrating so many pieces into a veteran core will be tricky, and his being a rookie head coach will make it doubly difficult. While I see the Pistons being better than they were last year, I can't see them restarting their run of Eastern conference dominance. On paper, a team with Tayshaun Prince, Richard Hamilton, Ben Gordon, Rodney Stuckey, and Charlie Villanueva sounds great, but depth and the center position are large question marks. Integrating Ben Gordon with Hamilton and Stuckey will also be a challenge, although he is used to being a bench scorer. I see the Pistons having a slightly winning record and losing in the first round of the playoffs next year. I believe that the 2010-2011 season is when we will see a marked improvement.

Are Pro Wrestlers Athletes?

If you ask the average sports fan if professional wrestling is a sport, you will get a snicker at best, and outright laughter at worst. The issue has been debated and beaten to death, and most people think that wrestling is only acting, with staged moves and stories. While I am not here to argue this, I do want to ask an interesting question. All sports feature athletes who can compete at a world class level. If wrestling isn't a sport, are wrestlers athletes? While many would not call them athletes, I think that certain evidence is to the contrary. There are a small group of wrestlers who have jumped to the NFL or MMA, and a handful of football players who have made the reverse jump. We will look at their relative performances, and try to shed some light on this question.

Exhibit 1: Brock Lesnar

Perhaps the best known of the crossover wrestling stars, Brock Lesnar has played football and is currently in UFC. Lesnar was an extremely popular and well-marketed wrestler, who was nicknamed “The Next Big Thing”. The WWE invested heavily in him, and he won several championships. Thus, it was a surprise when he decided to leave to play football. While he performed well at training camp, he was ultimately cut from the team, although he did merit an NFL Europe invitation. Although this does not indicate success, the fact that he was able to merit an NFL Europe invitation shows that he was extremely athletic and could compete at a high level. Very few people can play football at an NFL level without years of experience and training, which Lesnar did not have.

After being cut, he decided to move to Mixed Martial Arts, which is seen as more legitimate than wrestling. He was extremely successful, becoming the undisputed UFC heavyweight champion(not many people expected this). Having only been in the UFC since February 2008, this is very impressive.

Exhibit 2: Bobby Lashley

Bobby Lashley was a very successful wrestler, winning the United States championship once, and the ECW world championship twice. He was as feared and respected as a wrestler can be, winning against several superstars. However, when he jumped to MMA, he said “I want to be a champion.” He further said that he did not leave WWE willingly, and was forced out. Even though he was not someone who jumped to MMA for glory and more legitimacy like Brock Lesnar, he has has serious success in MMA.
He won one fight in 41 seconds and one in 24 seconds. Beyond being absolutely ridiculous, it shows that he was able to make the jump in dominant fashion. His record is currently 4-0 in MMA(pretty good I would say).

Exhibit 3: Kazuyuki Fujita

Kazuyuki Fujita was a Japanese professional wrestler(very similar to American professional wrestling) who made the jump to MMA. He steadily rose in New Japan Wrestling, and was soon fighting challenging opponents. Although he didn't have the star power of Lesnar or Lashley, he was a fairly successful wrestler. After making the jump to MMA, he quickly made his mark. He has won the IWGP Heavyweight championship three times, defeating fighters such as Bob Sapp. He lost his third title to Brock Lesnar.
Although he was not an extremely well known wrestler, Fujita experienced success in MMA. Due to recent losses, his record is still an impressive 15-8-1.

Exhibit 4: Bill Goldberg

Bill Goldberg began his career as an NFL player, and made the jump to professional wrestling. He was drafted by the Rams in 1990 and would play for 4 seasons, until he was cut by the Panthers. Although not a dominant player by any means, he was able to compete for a job in the NFL, and saw some game action, recording 11 tackles.
Although he was an athlete able to compete in the NFL, Goldberg made the jump to professional wrestling. He was an extremely successful wrestler, with an undefeated streak of 173 matches at one point. He also won several championships and titles. Although arguably taking place within the framework of a staged “sport”, Goldberg became very popular and successful within the professional wrestling organization.


Ultimately, these example show that professional wrestlers are athletes with the ability to dominate in MMA with little experience in some cases. Brock Lesnar's stint in the NFL also showed that he could compete effectively with little time for preparation. Although only conjecture, it would be interesting to see what he could have done with time to learn the game. The fact that Bill Goldberg, able to compete for an NFL job, jumped to wrestling shows that wrestling requires a high degree of athleticism.

Although perhaps not a sport, it is unfair(and untrue) to say that wrestlers are not athletes. The staged stories of the WWE require a degree of athletic skill to back them up.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Steroid Question

As the steroid debate rages across our professional sports landscape, I find that more and more media coverage is devoted to the subject. Assuming that we are interested in the “scandals” and the drama, sports networks such as ESPN are increasingly airing grand jury testimony and other exposes of various players. I believe the question that is being overlooked, however, is an important one. Namely, does any of it matter?

Steroids have been used for decades in order to boost performance. Nobody can definitively prove when they became widely adopted, just like nobody can prove who used or is using them. Thus, our sports leagues were rife with steroid use during a period of rapid expansion. Baseball revenue has enjoyed double digit growth through the 90's and 2000's, and NFL franchises have enjoyed 5-10% growth rates in the same period. While these are looking at the corporations, the facts are simple: more people are watching baseball and football today, and paying more to do so, than they did before the steroid scandals became public. Arguing that steroids are bad for the sport is a weak argument against these numbers.

Steroids have led to many records being set, and many players enjoyed unprecedented longevity. It is indisputable that steroids can cause harm to a person, and create significant health issues that can shorten someone's life. However, the players that are taking steroids realize this. They take steroids in order to earn more money, set records, and be able to play for a longer period of time. Given that they are adults making a conscious choice, should the leagues regulate steroids? We, as sports viewers, take much pleasure in seeing new records set, and much of this is aided by the steroids that the media vilifies.

The chemists who create steroids are very adaptable, and can quickly synthesize new, undetectable, compounds. Because our detection lags behind those who create the chemicals, we can only catch the people using the steroids that we know about. We cannot find who is using current steroids, unless we save samples and test them down the line, when we discover the compounds of today. Because of this, we can only implicate people after the fact, if at all. This leads to denials, and thorny issues. For example, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz were implicated as steroid users. Does this invalidate the Red Sox championships?(it shouldn't). Should they be stripped of any awards that they have earned since then? Do the Dodgers or Red Sox have the ability to invalidate their contracts? These issues are very subjective, and it would be difficult to resolve the legal and other concerns surrounding them.

This drive to create new steroids to stay ahead of detection also creates many more issues. The steroids that were used in the past were well-studied, and their risks well known. With new, untested, compounds come new risks and issues. Ironically, by testing for steroids and banning them, we could actually be harming the athletes that we are trying to help as they move to new, more damaging, chemicals.

Ultimately, we need a new system to regulate and manage steroid usage. The current system of occasional witch hunts does not work. By slowly revealing the names of players involved, the media networks keep their ratings high, and the issue visible. However, as the issue drags on, the public is becoming weary of the coverage. Congress has gone so far as to hold special hearings in which players lie under oath regarding their steroid use. Does this help anyone? The answer would seem to be no, especially given that very little progress has come out of these hearings. The players that use steroids simply lie and move on to newer chemicals, and the ones that did not continue to not do so.
The current situation benefits the media networks and only the media networks. Sports leagues are dogged by issues, and the public speculates wildly about whether or not their favorite stars are using steroids. Given the issues with the current arrangement, we need a viable solution.

Steroids should be made “legal” in sports, as long as players restrict themselves to safe, well-tested compounds, and reveal what steroids they are taking. As adults, players should be able to make the choice about whether or not they want to pursue the extra few million dollars that steroids can bring, or whether they want to live a healthier, more productive life. Athletes should be given all the information concerning steroids and the relative risks and rewards upfront. This way, athletes can make informed decisions about their own futures, instead of being involved in an outlandish soap opera that benefits no one. Testing should continue, in order to determine whether newer compounds are being used or not.

This system would be beneficial to the fans, because it would allow for records to be broken, and the games to remain viable and exciting. It would also let us know which players are using which steroids, so we would be able to make personal decisions about how valid each player's individual records are. This way, there would be no more speculation about whether a player's record is valid or not, and we would not have to take the media's opinion as gospel; we would be able to create an informed, individual decision.

The system would be beneficial to the athlete because it would screen out the more harmful compounds of today. With no penalties for revealing steroid usage, more players would admit their usage. The court of public opinion would also likely pressure some into discontinuing their steroid use, benefiting their health. The results from any drug test would be released to the public immediately, creating real time opinion shifts.

The system would benefit the sports leagues because there would no longer be a steroid issue. With individual fans able to decide whether or not their favorite players are cheaters or opportunists, the leagues would retain more fans. The leagues would also be able to work closely with players to educate them and be involved in the decision making process of whether or not to use steroids.

As we move forward into a new era of chemicals and genetic tinkering, we need to resolve this issue, and quickly. For example, in the future, if a baby is genetically altered to grow taller than normal, or stronger than normal, should they be allowed to play? Without a defined system for dealing with this, we face potential future bumps in the road, which will only be detrimental to the sports leagues, fans, and players.