Welcome to the Dow Chemical Toilet Bowl!

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Dec 052011
 

That’s not the name of a real bowl game, but it would be an apt description of the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, which will pit 6-6 Illinois against 6-7 UCLA in a matchup of two teams whose coaches have been fired. This is only one sign of one of the worst bowl seasons in recent memory. Even if the pernicious corruption exposed at Penn State had not taken some of the joy out of college football, this slate of matchups would underwhelm. Penn State is playing, by the way, against Houston in the TicketCity bowl, one of the many matchups that no longer pretends to have any point to its existence beyond corporate sponsorship. Even some of the bowls that used to have identities of their own, like the Peach Bowl, lost them to corporations, in that case Chik-fil-A.

The system is rotten and bad and stupid in every way except that it makes the NCAA, the athletic programs, and ESPN richer, and they’re the only entities that can really change the situation anyway, aren’t they? Nothing is more emblematic of the system’s failures than the national championship game, which will be played on January 9th between two teams that already played each other.

As an Alabama native, let me say: Alabama doesn’t deserve to be in the national title game. They didn’t win their conference, or even their division. Those laurels rest on the brow of LSU, who went into Alabama’s home stadium and defeated them en route to their conference title. So, not only does Alabama not have the resum√©, the matter has, for all intents and purposes, been settled in favor of LSU. The Tide are a very good team, but they had their shot and blew it with bad kicking and bad coaching. If we are to treat college football like every game matters, then there’s nothing more to see here. Somebody else deserved a shot.

The best candidate was Oklahoma State University. By the numbers, OSU looks at least slightly better than Alabama. Of the teams Alabama beat this year, three are ranked in the BCS top 25, while OSU has beaten four such teams. LSU, for reference, has beaten 3 of the top ten. The cumulative win-loss record of OSU’s defeated opponents was 84-48, with 7 boasting winning records. Alabama’s foes had a record of 62-58 and 3 of them had winning records, discounting the game with FCS school Georgia Southern. Of course, Alabama’s opponents got beaten up in the rough SEC, and their lone loss came at the hands of the currently undisputed number one. OSU lost to lowly Iowa State, albeit on the road and after two overtimes.

I can’t weep for OSU, even if I think they deserved a shot. If they wanted to play for a national championship, they could have taken care of business and whipped a lesser team. Nonetheless, Alabama didn’t take care of business either, and they got a rematch, mostly because of a human polling system rife with corruption and incompetence.

So why not have a playoff? It would be simple enough to do; it wouldn’t even require much of a change to the system. Simply kick off the bowl season with two National Semifinal games in the middle of December. Then have the rest of the bowls as usual, leading up to the National Championship game on New Year’s Day (or the next week, if you really want to preserve this nonsense). This allows plenty of time for teams to relax and prepare, for the student athletes to “study” for “exams” (the tired excuse often used by the NCAA), and T-shirts to be printed, unlike many existing proposals which suggest holding the championship the week after the semifinals. This approach simply sets a small playoff as the crown jewel among the rich tapestry of crappy games that the current system supplies.

Of course it would be best to dump the whole system and have a real playoff of 8-10 teams, but with amount of money being thrown around by the likes of GoDaddy.com to bring us fascinating matchups like Northern Illinois (10-3) vs. Arizona State (6-6), that’ll never happen. As we learned from Penn State, the system now mainly exists to preserve itself. The Little Caesar’s Bowl and its ilk will be with us forever, but at least they could change things so it seems like a real champion has been chosen, right?

Nov 102011
 

You’ve heard about the Sandusky affair, I presume.

A man, Jerry Sandusky, who used to be a high-ranking coach of the Pennsylvania State University football team, used a charity organization he founded to gain access to young boys whom he molested. One of these acts was witnessed in 2002 by a coaching assistant named Mike McQueary, who did not stop the act but reported it to head coach Joe Paterno, who did also did not stop Sandusky, but referred the assistant to administrators, who did not report Sandusky to the police but did forbid him from bringing young boys onto campus. Nine years later somebody actually arrested Sandusky, all this came out, and Joe Paterno was fired from the job he’d held for more than 40 years within a few days. Penn State students rioted in protest of the decision.

Think about that. In a world endangered by anthropogenic climate change, where the gulf between the rich and poor is widening even as the human population expands beyond the point where the world can support it, a bunch of entitled teens rioted because a football coach got fired for enabling a child molester.

College sports is out of control in this country. The coaches of the big revenue sports basketball and football are often paid more than the university Presidents who are nominally their bosses. Enormous sums of cash exchange hands on the backs of students who earn none of it. This, at least, is true of the programs that make money. Smaller schools, with weaker programs, bleed money trying to keep up with the big boys. Donors, who in a better world might give their money for more labs, more libraries, more community outreach programs, funnel their dollars into prime facilities that only benefit the scholarship athletes, and vast arenas that serve no pedagogical function whatsoever.

Nobody is happier to tell you how out of hand it is than the people of ESPN, where this evening you could hear Jim Plaschke, Tim Cowlishaw, Bomani Jones, and Kevin Blackistone railing about the loss of perspective on the shout-show Around the Horn. Nor should we ignore the sea of voices from the website of Sports Illustrated, or from the constellation of lesser cable channels, websites, and magazines. Like the Miami corruption case earlier in the year, the Sandusky affair has provided plenty of grist to churn between the millstones of the sports entertainment industry, driving countless page views and filling the many minutes between beer advertisements.

I have yet to see one of them ask whether he is at fault for all of this.

For have no doubt about it, while Joe Paterno’s mistake helped Sandusky escape once, what really enabled the man was football. Football gave him the opportunity to start the charity he would eventually use as a seraglio. Football, and the myth of the hero coach, convinced young mothers to let him “mentor” their sons, with disastrous results. Football opened those doors, and Jerry Sandusky walked in. And who gave college football that power?

The defense of the sports commentariat will be that they are only filling a demand. People want to hear about sports. They want analysis. They want total access. I would say in reply that the system feeds itself. ESPN creates the demand for sports news by hyping the contests, manipulating the storylines, and creating the perception that there’s always more to know. ESPN normalizes the excessive attention lavished on sports, as it must, because unless people pay more attention to sports than they ought, ESPN couldn’t exist.

Jerry Sandusky is an evil man. Joe Paterno did not do enough to stop him and deserved to be fired. So too does McQueary. College sports is out of control. I disagree with none of this. It would be nice, though, to hear men who are well-compensated to shout at each other about sports take a moment to ask whether they and their employer are part of the reason things got to be this way.

But is he the worst owner?

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Oct 042011
 

As has been expected for some time, Clint Bowyer will be announcing at Kansas this week that he is leaving Richard Childress Racing to join the stable at Michael Waltrip Racing.

This seems an appropriate occasion to recall a classic moment from the Bristol race in 2008:

That’s sure to make for some awkward moments in meetings.

Bowyer’s decision

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Sep 152011
 

The Chase for the Sprint Cup begins in Chicago (of all places) this week, but I’m not terribly excited. The only way my driver Clint Bowyer was going to get into the Chase was to win Richmond, and he didn’t. The same things that had been going wrong since Daytona in July went wrong there: he spun himself out, strategy didn’t pay off, and a poor finish was the result. With that his championship hopes were done, although they were realistically over after he spun out racing Montoya at Atlanta the previous Tuesday.

That means it’s time for Clint to consider what he’s going to do next year, which isn’t an easy decision. It’s clear staying at Richard Childress Racing means continuing to get short shrift. Although he’s a very talented driver (and could have made a serious run for the championship last year if not for the penalty after New Hampshire), it’s clear that Bowyer comes last, or next to it, at RCR. Harvick is the favored one, Menard brings his own sponsorship, and hell if I know what Jeff Burton is good for but CAT sure seems to like him. Meanwhile Bowyer, who is at least second best in the RCR stable, has suffered the most from Childress’ ongoing flirtations with a four-car team. There’s no prospect of moving up the totem pole, either, since Childress’ grandson Austin Dillon will be moving up to Cup in 2-3 years to take some of the premium equipment.

Despite some early promise, this try at four teams seems likely to end up not much better than the last. At least one of the Childress drivers will make the Chase this year (Harvick), but overall the team performance has been nowhere near good enough. During the Chase, Childress will make the right move and give Harvick the best of everything in a bid to win the championship, but that’s certainly going to rub Clint the wrong way as he tries to be the best of the rest. That has to make that contract he’s received from RPM look a lot nicer.

There’s the rub, though. As sticky as the situation at RCR is, everything else looks even worse. Richard Petty Motorsports managed to win a race this year, and the equipment they’re supplying Ambrose and Allmendinger is pretty good, but that organization has flirted with insolvency for years. Are they really capable of fielding three good teams? Will the contract be worth the paper it’s printed on? Michael Waltrip Racing is also reportedly interested, but that’s even more of a laugh. Their equipment has been inconsistent and the organization has struggled mightily to win. Clint would be top dog at either of these places, but he’d be the top dog of second-rate equipment.

The crazier rumors suggest that Roush Fenway might try to grab Clint. Their equipment is undoubtedly top-notch, but the most likely scenario there is that Clint displaces David Ragan, which would place him at best third on the depth chart, facing the same problem he has at RCR. Gibbs has also been floated as a possible landing spot, and Toyota does want another front-line driver, but I don’t really buy the scenario. For Carl Edwards they might have expanded to four cars or sidelined Logano, but not for Clint.

It’s a tough decision. Childress has undervalued Clint repeatedly (e.g. making him give up his points to Casey Mears during the last four-car experiment), and because he made Clint, he’ll probably always undervalue him. However, all of the alternatives have serious drawbacks and caveats in terms of team stability and development potential. NASCAR is currently contracting, and it may well be that the best Clint can do is to stay put, no matter how unhappy it makes him. Yet the way Clint and Childress are talking suggests that’s impossible. Of course, Childress has let things get this bad before and still gotten a deal done, but that was with Harvick, who he values a lot more than Clint. It’s not a great situation, and it’s a measure of the straits the sport is in that somebody who regularly makes the Chase and has been a factor for the Championship before can’t seem to find the kind of sponsorship that would guarantee him a ride.

Chase fixing

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Sep 132009
 
Well, the dust has settled at Richmond, and my favorite driver is out of the hunt for the Sprint Cup. Of course, Clint Bowyer was definitively out of the Chase after his poor showing at Atlanta last week. It’s been a tough, up and down season for Bowyer, who I like because he’s talented, unassuming, and gets no respect, not even from his own employers. They rewarded his great showing the past two years by giving his team and owner points to somebody else (Casey Mears, of all people) and sticking Clint with a brand-new car and crew. The overall implosion of RCR has been a major disappointment this season, but Bowyer’s performance, even with the greenest team, has been the best of a mediocre bunch. Still, with Bowyer definitively out of the Chase, and my beloved football starting up again, the question for NASCAR is: what’s to keep me watching racing on Sunday afternoon?

Of course, Bowyer isn’t the only driver I root for. I’ve always liked Stewart, and I’m also partial to the international contingent of Montoya and Ambrose (technically, the most Southern of all the drivers). If I’m going to go with the “no respect” theme, then I should also think highly of the Biff, which I do. And of course there are some drivers I root against. I don’t like to see anybody wreck, of course, but I might let out a small cackle of glee when the Busch brothers, Hamlin, or “cousin Carl” turn in a poor effort. So I have some interest still in how the Chase plays out. The problem is that due to its structure the Chase is played out long before it ends. As I recall, the Homestead race has only had a real chance to decide the championship once, and the past few Chases have been effectively decided by the time the green flag waved in Phoenix. Most Chasers are eliminated from contention long before that: last year Kyle Busch was through after Dover, and Talladega dramatically thinned the list of possible champions.

The other problem, of course, is that Jimmy Johnson seems to always win this thing. It would be unfair to deliberately calibrate the Chase to specifically stop him, although not without precedent. After all, the Chase was basically invented to prevent Matt Kenseth (or a similarly consistent non-winner) from ever taking home the Cup again. Johnson just does too well on most of the Chase tracks for anyone to catch him. He’s not magical, of course, but he’s unflappable, and as I’ve mentioned before, almost fatally unmarketable.

One way to shake things up would be to alter the track selection, especially to thin out the intermediate tracks. Some of those certainly ought to be kept: a Chase without a stop in Texas or Charlotte would be a strange beast, and Kansas always seems to produce an interesting race somehow. New Hampshire’s flat oval is just funky enough to stay. Still, there’s no good reason to ever race at Fontana, and much less reason to go there in the Chase. If the series is going to hoof it out to Cali, then the Chase should visit Infineon. A road race would diversify the Chase tracks and make it a more complete test of the drivers. I think the racing is actually more entertaining at Watkins Glen (or even rainy Montreal), but the fall weather up north might be too much of an issue. Homestead is also a really uninspiring track, a race nobody would watch if the champion weren’t crowned there, and seemingly selected for no better reason than the climate. I think the Chase ought to end at Nascar central in Charlotte, and Homestead’s spot given to a more unique and interesting track. Since we’re talking about my fantasy here, I’d put a Chase race in Darlington again.

Another way to address the Chase’s boring side would be to alter the scoring. This might sound more radical, but the Chase already makes a pretty artificial change to the points. Moreover, the goal of the Chase is not necessarily the same as the season points, so there’s no particular reason to keep that scoring system for the Chasers. With that in mind, here are three alternatives.

Option 1: Not enough pie

Chase scoring comes with a simple scale: 10 points for 1st place down to 1 point for 10th place, no points for lower. I would foresee two improvements from this approach. First, because the number of scoring spots is less than the number of racers in the chase, there will be a desperate fight for every position. Second, because the spread of points is so narrow and there’s no more penalty for coming in 43rd than 11th, one or two bad races will not completely eliminate a contender. The compressed dynamic range should make it easier for those who are behind to catch up with a few good performances, keeping the Chase drama alive until the checkers wave in Miami. The Chase would be “seeded” by treating regular-season points as a race (so 11th and 12th place Chasers get no points) plus one point per regular-season win. The weakness of this approach is that it gives the non-Chasers a lot of spoiler power, and might de-emphasize Chase wins.

Option 2: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

Chasers are supposed to be champions. So in the Chase you get 1 point for winning, and 0 points for anything else. Regular-season wins and points, in that order, serve as a tie-breaker and nothing more, except that the regular-season points champion and the winner of the most regular-season races would get one Chase point each. Again, non-Chasers would have a lot of spoiler power, but that would fit in with the organizing scoring principle. More problematic, though, is that the drama could easily be sucked out of this system. In theory the only way to clinch a Championship would be with six wins in this system (maybe less if you started with a bonus), but in practice, and assuming relatively strong competition, three wins might be an insurmountable lead, with other drivers splitting up the other races. So, a strong showing early on could kill the drama.

Option 3: Only racing against each other

Use any points system you want, but in scoring the championship, only consider a driver’s position relative to other Chasers. Again, this has the effect of compressing the dynamic range of scoring, meaning that the championship points race will be closer all the way up to the end. It would certainly mitigate the influence of a team being taken out of the championship due to somebody else’s wrecks. On the other hand, a team’s own errors would also become less damaging, and the whole thing smacks of grading on a curve.

The Chase has done a good job increasing the drama of the last couple of regular-season races and the first few Chase races. The problem continues to be that the system hasn’t elevated the season’s final few races above their traditional status as irrelevant epilogues to an essentially settled championship run. Shaking up the track selection to emphasize a broader range of skills, and compressing the points range so that the issue remains in doubt all the way to the end, might make the Chase more compelling and interesting to those who, like me (and all those Jr. fans), don’t have their favorite driver in the mix.