THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
By Jack Furlong
Founder, President & CEO
At the time of composing this blog post, Damar Hamlin has been released from the hospital in Buffalo. There are still many unknown variables, but the prognosis at this moment in time is especially remarkable.
The world was silenced that Monday evening in Cincinnati when Hamlin collapsed on the field and had to be resuscitated. It’s not hyperbole to suggest that Hamlin had passed away and was brought back to life by the medical staff who immediately responded to the incident. His continued progress in his recovery is music to the ears of every person with a heart.
It would be foolish to speculate on the medical information that explains why Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest, especially when the sportsmanship of the media has been under fire for some time. Many who have seen the clip of Hamlin colliding with an opponent have noted that the tackle didn’t appear to be dirty or especially violent in the context of normal contact within the sport. At first glance, it did not appear to be “helmet-to-helmet” or worthy of any other penalty, whether from the rulebook or the understood convention of the brotherhood of football players. However, the chain of events (violent contact is followed by a severe medical emergency) and its unique severity (not many people suffer cardiac arrest while on the playing surface of a professional sport) yields a common discussion that needs to be addressed.
Gridiron football is an equal mix of brains and brawn, paying deference to rugby and soccer (the real “football”) while spawning spinoffs to cash in on its popularity. Whether it’s two-hand touch, flag football, or ladies in lingerie, the entertainment value is practically immeasurable, evidenced by the fact that its biggest championship game is practically a national holiday celebrated by people who don’t even watch the sport. The rituals of fans dedicating themselves to the sport have become a religion and a rite of passage, interrupting our regularly scheduled holidays with loved ones for the chance to park in front of the television for a nationally broadcast game.
In other words, combine a chess match with a ballet, complete with a ticking timer (to force action every forty seconds) and the violence and testosterone of an action movie, and the result is football.
However, the tragedy of Damar Hamlin might be the key to force society to open its eyes and pull back the veil: football is our modern version of the ancient coliseum, where young and impoverished souls sacrifice themselves for entertainment of the masses in exchange for their freedom (if they survive).
Although it’s not a blanket case, many players in football come from the lower class, correlating with poverty, a lack of education, and no opportunities to escape. Regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, or religion, football is their ticket to a new life, ripe with paychecks large enough to alter generations of families in exchange for putting their bodies through the violence of the game that could result in permanent damage and, although rare, loss of life. The more we watch, the more we spend, and the more we dedicate to the sport, the more we feed into this archetype that has been in existence for ages.
Scary situations like Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest do have the power to bring people together in amazing acts of sportsmanship. In the wake of everything, both teams on the gridiron that night decided to stop playing. Fans of both teams joined each other in prayer, putting aside rooting interests to comfort one another as they shed tears. Humanity dug into their pockets and turned a fundraiser Hamlin had established for his charity into a remarkable story of its own: what was once an attempt to raise a couple hundred dollars is now approaching the $10,000,000 level.
But why does the world need a situation like this to wake up? Why does a man need to innocently brush against death for the population to see there is a problem with this entertainment cycle? Why does this impetus spark the financial generosity for a cause that probably should have reached its goal many moons ago?
This is not a call for legislation that forces humanity to behave a certain way in accordance with the law. Rather, this is a request that individuals think deeply and critically about the decisions made each day in the name of entertainment. At what point will we reach the determination that football is too violent and can no longer be played as it currently exists? Will it require someone to perish in battle while millions watch in horror? If football changes, will a less violent version of the game keep the same entertainment value and hold the attention of its audience? After all, our culture must stop and watch the details of every car accident; a reduction in football violence might turn the action movie into a romantic comedy.
The priority is Damar Hamlin’s recovery, especially considering that medical professionals do not know (at the composition of this post) what caused the cardiac arrest in the first place. (Imagine if the doctors determine that this could have happened even if he was not playing football.) When he is better, what answers will we have for these questions?
During Week 4 of the 2018 NFL season, Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas suffered a broken leg on the play that ended his season. As he was being carted off the field, he gave the middle finger...to his own bench.
Read that again.
Why would a player do that?
You see, Thomas was holding out for a better contract prior to the start of the season and didn't get it. Therefore, when his season was cut short due to this injury, he no longer had any leverage in trying to earn additional money. Further, who knows if his career has taken a hit based on the nature of the injury? Some teams may not want to shell out money for his contract knowing he suffered such an injury.
The "hold out" for better contracts in the NFL is an interesting topic because it doesn't happen in certain other sports for a variety of reasons. In fact, it doesn't happen much else in life. If you sign a contract, you are obligated to fulfill your responsibilities assigned with that contract unless the other party or parties breach or violate the contract. Just ask any judge.
But in the NFL, there are some factors that make you begin to understand why players might hold out.
First, take a look at the career length of football players. It's very short. The physical nature of the sport does not bode well for people to wish to last long in the league. You're more likely to end your career due to an injury than to choose when it's time to retire.
Now, here's the big one. Unlike other sports, the money owed to NFL players is not guaranteed unless it specifically says so in the contract. So if you are cut from a team, the money stops. That's not how it works in a sport such as Major League Baseball: if a team releases you, they are obligated to pay you the remainder of the contract (with the possibility of a slight reduction in cost if another team signs you).
Therefore, NFL players hold out for better contracts in order to help guarantee that they will be financially secure if something happens to them physically and cannot work. Think of it as a form of insurance.
None of this excuses Thomas. His gesture, although understood, was probably not the best idea. And perhaps he should have taken the smart route and continued to hold out. But it focuses a light on something else: the system that governs the payroll structure of football players contains a flaw based on the ability to hold out, and it has consequences on multiple sides.
Imagine if your NFL team went from being a playoff contender to a hopeless pretender because your best player decides he wants more money. Would you immediately blame him?
The point here is that there is no clear cut answer. There are no heroes. This is more about debunking certain myths and asking people to take a step back and consider the bigger picture, which is one of the staples at understanding sportsmanship.
This past MLB season saw something happen that not many people noticed:
The World Umpire Association (WUA), which is union that represents MLB umps, rebranded as the Major League Baseball Umpires Association (MLBUA), and became the fifth of the "big five" professional team sports to have a major online presence through websites and social media.
MLB umpires join officials from the NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLS as becoming more transparent to the public. Granted, the public will probably go the way of abusing this privilege (see the #RefWatchParty that occurred during the NBA Finals), but the intent to keep the conversation open and ongoing is a fantastic thing.
The union has actually been very active on Twitter (@MLBUA), showcasing good calls by umpires in an attempt to educate the general public on how they work. Possibly the best part of this work, however, is even more highlights for the UMPS CARE charity.
Officials in these major sports take unfortunate abuse from the uneducated public. Players, coaches, and the media have a tendency to speak and act in ways that do not represent the educated point of view of the official. These actions speak to a psychological issue of scapegoating, leaving the officials as the common enemy among rivals.
The officials are tired of being treated as sub-humans. These platforms will allow their voices to be heard. The public would be smart to recognize this and know they are proud to uphold the integrity of the game and do their job.
We continue our discussion on self-esteem by examining one thing: anticipation.
If you've ever heard the saying, "The bigger they are, the harder they fall," then you can relate to this direct connection. The higher the stakes, the harder it is to accept losing. The more we invest, the more we can potentially lose. Ultimately, the more importance we put on winning, the more destructive is losing.
Sometimes, the investment in success comes naturally. If our team makes it to the Super Bowl, where one game of 60 minutes of football determines the champion of the NFL for that season, we naturally put a lot of importance on winning that particular game because we are so close to the championship. But if our team loses, does that mean our team failed to have a successful season? Does that mean our investment in the team reflects upon us and should lower our self-esteem?
What furthers this is the anticipation of losing. When we put so much emphasis and importance on winning, we naturally build up an anticipation of the possibility of not succeeding as well. This anticipation contributes to the problem: we can't possibly bear to lose, for if we do, it will be a catastrophe!
Failure is a natural part of life. Disappointment is inevitable. We can be sad we didn't win. We can be frustrated as well. But perhaps it should never rise to a level where it becomes unreasonable or unsafe.
If you look at the coaching tree that sprouts from Bill Walsh and Mike Holmgren within the confines of the NFL, you'll see a lot of recognizable names.
One thing you may not know, however, is a pretty interesting thought passed from Walsh to Holmgren regarding how to properly coach your team.
Walsh made it a point to tell Holmgren about the importance of moral as it flows from the coach to the player(s). You can spend all of practice yelling at your team, but when practice is over, the most important thing a coach can do is to make sure you tell each player something good about them. The players need to walk off the field with a good feeling, knowing that their coaches support them and that all the work from practice will be worth it.
The sad part is that this type of love is not always remembered by a large chunk of coaches, especially at younger or lesser levels. How many high school coaches berate their kids in order to try to guarantee that championship? How many college coaches run their kids into the ground because they think the sport is more important than the studies? How many minor league coaches use it as a way to weed out the pure professionals?
This is just another testament to the importance of psychology in sports. This isn't to say that practice shouldn't be tough or demanding, but players (especially younger players) need to know that their superiors recognize their hard work. If more players felt this kind of love, imagine how positive the results could be on game day!
If you following the NFL, you may have heard about this little tidbit through the fall of 2017.
Following a victory (yes, a victory) by the Philadelphia Eagles, the fans in Philly were still not pleased with NFL referee Pete Morelli, whose crew had just penalized the Eagles a far significant amount over their opponent that evening, the Carolina Panthers. In fact, it was so much of a sin to some fans that an online petition was created.
Will Philbrick of Little Rock, AR, created an online petition at Change.org to ban Morelli and his crew from officiating Eagles games. Directly from the petition:
"NFL Referee Pete Morelli has a clear and statistically obvious bias against the Philadelphia Eagles. Over the last four games that he has officiated that the Eagles were playing in, the Eagles were flagged a total of 40 times for 396 yards, while the Eagles opponent in those games were flagged a mere 8 times for 74 yards. This is unacceptable and puts the Philadelphia Eagles at a disadvantage. Preventing Morelli from refereeing Eagles games will result in a more trustworthy and honest NFL. This will benefit the entire league and keep all claims of conspiracy to a normal level."
At the time of writing this post, the petition was signed by over 75,000 people.
Okay, you now have permission to take a few minutes to let all this sink in, followed by letting the rage stemming from the stupidity of this subside so you can think clearly.
Let's now go over every aspect of how dumb this is.
1. NFL officiating crews not only change from time to time, but Morelli's crew was completely different in this game following similar gripes in years past. So to say this is entirely Morelli's fault (or the fault of his crew) is to say that a large number of officials who have it out for the Eagles, not just Morelli. That seems absurd.
2. NFL officials are so highly trained and scrutinized that, unless there is some clear debacle at hand (like in the NBA with referees being paid off), claiming that there is a bias shows very little education for how the system works. All NFL officials are graded so stringently that to be this poor, as is being claimed, would mean these officials would not get postseason assignments or would be completely dismissed from officiating altogether. So unless there is a covert mission to infiltrate the professional officiating community by James Bond himself just to do this, followed by a complete extraction from the program after the mission is complete, it seems highly improbable that there is actually a bias.
3. The NFL has been plagued with scandals that are far worse than this throughout the course of this season. Not only is viewership down due to the National Anthem protests, but CTE and head trauma has forced people like me to turn the game off and find something better to do on Sundays. You can also point to domestic violence as an issue that continues to plague the league. No matter how you slice it, the issues that stem from the protests, CTE, and domestic violence are probably a bit more important than whether Pete Morelli's crew might have flagged your team for a call with which you may not have necessarily agreed.
4. Before the Eagles and their fans go pointing fingers at others, perhaps they should be looking in the mirror as a collective whole. I don't think I'm breaking new ground when I say that Philadelphia sports fans carry an unfortunate label as very poor sports. These are the same fans that booed Santa Claus and required a jail and judge placed in the bowels of their stadiums. I know we're casting a wide net in grouping all fans together, which is unfair because there are some Philadelphia fans that are decent; in fact, the same could be said about most fan bases in that the actions of a few should not represent the group as a whole. However, it seems fair to reference how Philly gets a worse reputation than most based on the frequency of incidents.
Now, let's consider some of the more specific points of this ridiculous case.
First, the fact that Change.org is programmed to follow the same bleeding-heart protocol and beg for my help as I scan the page for information makes me never want to sign a petition again...not that I was signing many in the first place. I know the site has to be fair to all users, but you'd think that someone at the company would look at this and say, "Really? Can we just delete this?"
Second, the fact that over 75,000 people actually think this is a real problem is a major indictment on our society. If there were 3,000 signatures, I'd just laugh it off. But 75,000? What are you people doing with your time? How about dedicating it to a cause that actually might make the world a better place, rather than take a stance against perceived poor officiating within entertainment?
Finally, do you really think that Roger Goodell cares about this? This is a man who has laughed in the face of serious issues plaguing his league due to the amount of money the sport makes and the amount of money that goes into his pocket. They don't care about this. They care more that you're just watching and playing into the plan that your eyeballs continue to see the advertisements that provide them with the infinite dollars that make them rich.
If you really wanted to take a stand, you'd turn off the game.
As a precursor, I should mention I try very hard to keep politics out of this blog. To my knowledge, I only brought politics up once on this blog when I discussed the poor sportsmanship immediately following the 2016 Presidential Election. So please keep that in mind as we discuss the following story: we want to focus on the sports and sportsmanship side, not the politics.
Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) is a self-proclaimed fan of the New York Mets and Dallas Cowboys. It's not the most logical combination; it's like how my girlfriend's father, who grew up on Long Island, is a fan of the Boston Red Sox and Arizona Cardinals...makes no sense!
Christie appeared on SNY (the cable home of the Mets) prior to the start of the Grapefruit League season to discuss the upcoming season. In doing so, he made some disparaging comments about the Phillies, their city, and their fans. I won't go into the exact comments, but he not only insulted the Phillies and their fans, but he described the people as "angry, awful people."
In doing so, Christie set of a firestorm of reactions. First, the Phillies responded with a dig that referenced Christie's scandal with the George Washington Bridge and the legal ramifications of closing lanes to get back at politicians who didn't endorse him.
Second, Philly mayor Jim Kenney went even harder at Christie, basically calling him a loser and a bully, citing his failure in his bid for the Presidency and the probability of him finding work following the conclusion of his term.
Third, Mike Trout is at it again. He took a dig at Christie when he said he felt sorry for him being a Cowboys fan.
Okay, boys. Let's all stop being immature and act like adults.
None of these parties is innocent. Christie shouldn't have started the whole thing, especially with his reputation. It doesn't matter if you like or hate him or agree with his policies or not: when you are known as someone who holds the qualities he does and has scandal surrounding him, it's probably not the best thing to stir the pot.
Further, although it is understandable that the parties from Philadelphia would respond in defense after being attacked, they all unfortunately started to give Christie's comments credence by not taking the high road. Let's face it: Philadelphia sports do not have the most pristine reputation.
Finally, I really used to enjoy watching Mike Trout play. He seemed to maintain many of the morals and values of good sportsmanship when he's on the field. But this is his second foul in the category of Eagles vs. Cowboys. Hey Mike: do me a favor and shut up; just go play baseball.
First and foremost, please forgive me for the pun in the title. I'm already ashamed of it.
Shortly after the NFL season wrapped up, a story broke about Kirk Cousins and his true character. On the day before the Super Bowl, Cousins was captaining a team of flag football players playing against a team being led by Doug Flutie. The game was a charity game: the players and the officials were all there out of the goodness of their hearts.
Towards the end of the game, an incident occurred where Cousins thought that one of the officials missed a penalty, namely that an opponent on Team Flutie swatted the ball away from the official spotting the ball, causing a delay in the game and running time off the clock for Cousins to lead his team to try to make up the five point deficit they held at that time. When the official did not throw the flag, Cousins shoved the official...with no remorse.
By the way, Cousins' team still ended up losing.
The official who had been shoved reported that the reason he didn't throw the flag was because the officials were already assessing another penalty against Team Flutie, so Cousins and his team would have received extra time anyway (the same amount that they would have received had the ball not been swatted away).
Then again, this is the same guy who played harder than everyone else at the Pro Bowl, especially after he threw an interception.
Maybe Cousins should try and win a playoff game before he throws his next tantrum.
February 2 is Groundhog's Day, and it may be a pretty dumb holiday. In fact, there are a lot of dumb holidays on our calendar...New Year's Eve/Day comes to mind.
But February 1 is actually an even dumber day in America It's National Signing Day.
This is the day when all the star high school football players reveal which colleges they will attend in order to further their career as a football player. High school kids have "reveal" events that they post on social media; they have press conferences; they basically are thrown into the spotlight with a production that is about as mature as trying to figure out the most unique way to ask a girl to the prom.
Someone is going to have to explain to me why we need this in our society.
I have constantly ripped those who use the exploitation of youth sports to further their goals. I've been critical of events like the Little League World Series and why it needs to be broadcast nationally on ESPN. This is just another example of the unnecessary junk we broadcast...and America eats it up.
It's bad enough that we are harming our youth and forcing them into adulthood with the big reveal of where they sign their letter of intent. Their egos have already ballooned to the size of Montana. They miss out on some of the joys of childhood and teenage years before adulthood hits them in the face with a biggest dose of reality they've experienced. And as a culture, we can't get enough of everything related to college sports. We are now dipping into high school sports on a national level and watching kids who may not even be legal adults yet commit to joining the college team to which we might pledge our allegiance.
Before you know it, we will be celebrating where 8th grade kids decide to go to high school...and then we'll be celebrating 6th grade kids deciding which sports they want to play...and then we'll be celebrating toddlers as they announce which elementary school they will attend...and then we'll be analyzing the decision of parents to conceive a child...and then we'll be dissecting whether or not two people in a marriage will work...
But with all that garbage being such a strong focus, National Signing Day also has one additional unique aspect to it that creates such a false sense of reality that it's time to burst the bubble. The kids who are destined to go to college to play football, as well as their families and friends, are encompassed in a fake reality that this one special person who is announcing his collegiate intent will be the savior they all need to escape the doldrums of the average middle-class life. It's as if their lives were nothing at all until they found this potential celebrity they could worship and pray that he returns with millions of dollars to divide among everyone in his entourage. Both the kid and all around him use it as a day to bask in the glory of their opportunity to show the world that it's their turn to get a moment in the sun. The ideas of personal responsibility and controlling your own destiny have become forgotten in the wake six degrees of separation from a kid who isn't even a celebrity...yet.
No wonder our culture is so messed up.
Youth football is about to look a lot different.
USA Football, the governing body of youth football, announced changes to the game of football for youth so that it might be safer to play. It will be closer to flag football with rules such as only six to nine players on the field per team at a time instead of eleven. Other rules include shrinking the field, eliminating kickoffs and punts, and eliminating the three-point stance of linemen.
The reasoning behind these changes is due to the drop in participation in youth football. It's no surprise that enrollment in youth football programs is down due to safety concerns now that concussion awareness has become widespread. So how does the sport rebound?
Well, the answer is the same as it is generally in a capitalist market if you want to people to buy your product: give the people what they want.
On the surface, making the game safer is a no-brainer (no pun intended). Why would anyone argue over safety concerns for children? Well, traditionalists would argue...but these are probably some of the same people who would argue against the use of helmets in any sport that requires them.
See, the argument is always about safety versus when we begin to train our youth to be "soft." We keep changing so much in the world because people are sensitive to everything these days. It becomes less of a discussion about what will truly be best for our kids and more a political discussion with personal agendas and psychological overtones.
But whereas that argument has its place, football has so much baggage attached to it regarding the new medical evidence regarding concussions and long-term damage to the human brain that reverting back to the side of "don't teach our kids to be wimps" demonstrates nothing more than plain ignorance.
Some experts are predicting that, based on all the evidence coming out about how harmful football actually is to the human brain, the sport will cease to exist within the next twenty years. And if you consider the barbaric origins of the game and the aspects that remain in its current state, maybe that's not a bad thing. Football is entertaining, but the sport has evolved to the point where it is the modern day equivalent of the emperor watching the gladiators fight to the death purely for entertainment.
The bottom line is that football is arguably the most dangerous team sport played in America. If our youth want to play it, they should play it in a manner that does not jeopardize their future. Every other sport has the potential for significantly different rules at the youth level for protection, so why can't football?
This is one of the few times where the argument is clear cut. If you're still hiding behind displeasure of your kid being "soft" if he plays by these rules, then you're simply ignorant to the reality of head trauma.
Baseball player, umpire, coach, fan; professional musician; founder, President & CEO of The OSIP Foundation, Inc.