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Hickok SportsThoughts

Sports historian and author Ralph Hickok of www.hickoksports.com sometimes meanders on about current happenings in sports and sometimes looks back in languor.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Those Far-Flung Packer Fans

Speaking of the NFL draft, this just in. . .
Through their website, the Green Bay Packers challenged fans to name the team's first selection. Of the more than 7,000 who entered, only 29 correctly predicted it would be California quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
That's hardly surprising, since the Packers had the 24th pick and Rodgers had been expected to go much earlier than that.
What is perhaps surprising is the geographical distribution of those 29 fans. Only 13 of them live in Wisconsin.
The other 16 live in 10 different states, from New York to California, and two other countries, Canada and Denmark.
I can't help wondering if a sampling of any other NFL team's fans would show such geographical diversity.
In my travels, I've often been surprised at how many fellow Packer fans I meet. I've been living in Patriots' territory for quite a long time now. When the Packers and Patriots met in Super Bowl XXXII, I was invited to a pro-Packer Super Bowl party. To my amazement, more than 200 people showed up.
Some are basically Brett Favre fans and others are what you might call long-term bandwagoners, who became Packer fans during the Lombardi powerhouse years. Most, though, root for the Packers because Green Bay is the smallest city with a major professional team.
There's something about the underdog.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Shut the Window, Please, I Feel a Draft

I just can't get really interested in the NFL draft.
There, I said it.
I'm tempted to add that every player chosen is Mr. Irrelevant to me, but that would be merely glib and semi-witty (i.e., worthy of a half-wit) rather than true, so I'll resist the temptation.
Oh, I know, it's an off-season fix for the pro football junkie, it's a profession for people like Mel Kiper Jr., who would otherwise be collecting unemployment, and it's created a cottage industry, mock drafting, a springtime ritual for thousands and thousands of NFL front-office wannabes.
If you thank that's an exaggeration, try a Google search for "NFL mock draft." I just did, and it turned up 306,000 results.
If only all that energy could be put to use doing something worthwhile. . . of course, I could also think such wistful thoughts about all the energy being wasted on blogging, so maybe I better not go there.
The truly remarkable aspect of the draft, though, is that so many professionals spend so much time working on it. I mean all the scouts, coaches, and player personnel people. Granted, like the fans, they don't have much else to do at this time of the year. Still, the amount of work they put into the draft is out of all proportion to the results.
Certain sports pundits are fond of smirking about the practically prehistoric days when an NFL team's scouting department was no more than a Street and Smith football magazine.
The smirk, needless to say, springs from a sense of superiority because the system is so much better now. Prospects are poked, prodded and probed. Their intelligences are tested, their psyches analyzed. their bodies exercised and evaluated, their reflexes rated and ranked.
Yet the results don't seem all that different. I've been following pro football for more than 50 years, which goes back to the Street and Smith days, and I don't remember a bigger draft bust than Ryan Leaf.
And Leaf, it should be noted, was not just a mistake by the San Diego Chargers. Virtually every other NFL team, drafting in San Diego's spot, would have selected him, and all of the pundits applauded the choice at the time.
It hardly qualfies as a scientific sample, but I took a quick look at the players chosen first in each draft from two decades 50 years apart, the 1940s and the 1990s.
Those 10 choices during the 1940s accounted for three Hall of Famers: Bill Dudley (1942), Charley Trippi (1945), and Chuck Bednarik (1949). Three other players had moderately successful pro careers: Harry "Rags" Gilmer (1948), George Cafego (1940), and Frank Sinkwich (1943). The other four played in the NFL for three seasons or less. (One of those was Tom Harmon, the 1940 Heisman Trophy winner, whose career was shortened by serious injuries suffered during World War II.)
The books haven't been closed on the top draft choices of the 1990s, but two of them appear to be future Hall of Famers: Orlando Pace (1997) and Payton Manning (1998). Five have had respectable NFL careers: Jeff George (1990), Russell Maryland (1991), Drew Bledsoe (1993), Dan Wilkinson (1994), and Keyshawn Johnson (1996). The other three are essentially flops: Steve Emtman (1992), Ki-Jana Carter (1995), and Tim Couch (1999). (In Emtman's case, of course, injuries were to blame.)
Not that big a difference, is there? Not enough to justify all the extra work that goes into the process now, anyway.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Age Limits, Historically Speaking

NBA Commissioner David Stern wants to raise the minimum age for the league's draft from 18 to 20. There's been a lot of comment, pro and con, about Jermaine O'Neal's rather off-the-cuff comment that Stern's idea is racist.
Those who agree with O'Neal lean heavily on the fact that hockey and baseball, where black athletes are in the minority, have no age limits. In other words, it's okay for white players to go straight from high school to the NHL or MLB. But, an age limit is imposed in basketball and football, where black players predominate.
It's time, I think, for a bit of historical perspective.
Early entry is a relatively recent phenomenon. Undergraduates couldn't enter the NFL draft until 1984, and then only as hardship cases. It wasn't until 1990 that it became routine for players to leave college early.
From 1921 through 1983, a player couldn't join an NFL team until after his college class had graduated. And for most of that time, the league was dominated by white players. From 1921 through 1933, there were fewer than a dozen black players in the league; from 1934 through 1945, there were none at all. And, after the NFL was re-integrated in 1946, it was more than 20 years before black players began to enter the league in sizeable numbers. (For example, the 1967 Green Bay Packer squad that won Super Bowl I had only 11 black players, just five of them starters.)
During that entire span and beyond, virtually every NFL rookie was at least 21 and most of them were 22. Underclassmen weren't allowed to enter the draft until after black players had begun to predominate.
The story was pretty much the same in pro basketball, except that the history is crammed into a smaller time frame. The NBA began as the Basketball Association of America in 1946.
Now, the founders were all hockey guys. Led by Walter Brown, owner of the Bruins and Boston Garden, they saw basketball simply as another source of revenue for their arenas.
Yet they didn't set up a system of junior leagues and minor leagues, as in hockey. They imitated the NFL by using a college draft. They also adopted the NFL rule that a player couldn't play in the league until his college class had graduated. And they had a very simple reason: Colleges, not junior teams, would be training their players; therefore the NFL pattern worked, while the NHL pattern would have failed.
There weren't any black players in the league, and there wouldn't be until 1950. So the rule obviously wasn't racist.
Players couldn't leave college early for the NBA until 1976. As in the NFL, that was after black athletes had become predominant in the league.
Then there's the idea that all those white teen-agers were flooding the major leagues while their black counterparts in football and basketball were being denied similar opportunities.
The fact is that, since MLB adopted its First-Year Player Draft in 1965, only 19 players have entered the majors without first playing in the minor leagues. And, of those 19, only four did it straight out of high school; the others had all spent two or more years in college, and most of them were college graduates.
Last season, there was only one teen-aged major league player, B. J. Upton, and he turned 20 less than three weeks after his debut. There wasn't a single teen-ager in the majors from 2000 through 2003. So it seems that the system does a pretty good job of keeping teen-agers out of the majors, whatever their color.
As for hockey - well, from 1969 through 1979, a player had to be at least 20 to qualify for the NHL draft. However, a similar World Hockey Association rule was thrown out by a federal court. After the WHA folded, the NHL lowered its age limit so that younger players who had already turned professional with the WHA could enter the league's 1980 draft. The threat of subsequent court action persuaded the NHL to keep the lower limit in the place.
So it would appear, from the historical evidence, that the dichotomy between "black sports" and "white sports" isn't quite so clear as Jermaine O'Neal's bandwagoners seem to believe.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Whose Cup Is It, Anyway?

With the NHL shut down, the Stanley Cup will not be awarded this year.
Or will it?
Some Canadian hockey fans want to see a Stanley Cup playoff without the National Hockey League. After all, they point out, the Stanley Cup was there before the NHL and it was originally supposed to go to Canada's best amateur hockey team.
They certainly have history on their side. Whether the law is also on their side is another and more difficult question that can be decided only by Canadian court system.
And evidently there will be a decision, one way or the other. The Ontario Superior Court has scheduled a hearing on the issue for July 18. Tim Gilbert, the lawyer handling the claim for a group called the Wednesday Nighters, hopes to get that moved into May.
Gilbert wants the court order stating that the NHL does not own the Stanley Cup, that the cup is being held in trust for the benefit of hockey, and that the trustees are obligated to award the Cup every year.
The Wednesday Nighters, a group of amateur hockey players, don't have a plan for awarding the cup if their suit succeeds. They're willing to leave that up to the trustees.
Others have suggestions, though. One is that there should be a round-robin competition among the winners of the Allan Cup, Memorial Cup, and University Cup.
Adrienne Clarkson, Lord Stanley's most recent successor as governor general of Canada, suggested way back in February that the cup should be given to a women's team, for a change.
Here are websites of two organizations that will keep you updated about the court case:
The Wednesday Nighters
Free Stanley

Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Age of Vicarious

I'm not sure if I'm a Red Sox fan or not.
But my very doubt contains the answer, right? If I don't know for sure, I'm probably not.
I live in that much overworked cliche called "Red Sox Nation," so I'm surrounded by Red Sox fans. Most of my best friends are Red Sox fans - although a few, believe it or not, actually root for the Yankees. Heck, most of my kids are Red Sox fans.
For the sake of my children and my friends, I like the Red Sox to win. I even root for them to win. I guess that makes me a kind of vicarious fan. (Could this be the Yawning of the Age of Vicarious in Red Sox Nation?)
I was vicariously jubilant when the Sox came back to beat the Yankees in the ALCS last year. The World Series sweep of St. Louis was almost anti-climactic, but I was still vicariously happy about that.
In fact, I was beginning to think maybe I was a real Red Sox fan.
Then the new season arrived, with disillusion fast on its heels. I realized I'm just not manic-depressive enough to qualify as a true fan.
Sorry, not supposed to say that anymore. Make it, I don't possess sufficient bipolarity to be a true Red Sox fan.
After two games, both losses to the Yankees, the true fans were saying, "Same old Red Sox. No pitching, can't hit with men on." (Yes, I heard that, and variations, from several fans.)
After two more games, wins over the Yankees and the Bluejays, it was pretty clear to all true Red Sox fans that their team was headed toward its second straight world championship.
So I guess I can't be a real Red Sox fan. I've never liked rollercoasters.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Ninth Time Is Charm for U. S. Women

Canada and the United States faced off Saturday night in the gold medal match at the world women's hockey championships in Linkoping, Sweden.
Nothing new about that. In all eight previous championships, Canada had beaten the U. S. in the final game.
This time, though, the American women prevailed to win their first gold medal. Maybe that should be "endured," because it took a while. The game was scoreless at the end of regulation, so they went into overtime.
After 20 minutes of that, there was still no score. Time for a shootout.
Natalie Darwitz, Krissy Wendell, and Angela Ruggiero scored in the shootout and Chanda Gunn made saves of three of Canada's four shots to get the win.
It was the first time the women's world championship was ever decided in a shootout. Fittingly, the crowd of 4,488 was the largest ever for women's ice hockey in Sweden.
Wendell won the championship's MVP award, Gunn was named best goaltender, and Ruggiero was named best defenseman. Jayna Hefford of Canada won the best forward award.
It was a tough loss for Canada, which didn't give up a goal in regulation time during the entire tournament. The Canadians won their first four games by a combined score of 38-0 before being blanked by Gunn.
A half dozen of the women who played in Sweden were on the ice when Minnesota beat Harvard, 4-3, to win the NCAA championship just a couple of weeks ago.
Wendell, Darwitz, Kelly Stephens, and Lyndsay Wall of Minnesota were on the winning U. S. squad, along with Harvard's Julie Chu. Sarah Vaillancourt of Harvard played for Canada.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Gay's Okay, but Tongue Is Out

Leigh Clemons is a professor at LSU. One of her former students started at safety for the New England Patriots in their Super Bowl victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, so she decided to buy a jersey with his name on it.
But the online NFL shop rejected her order.
The problem? The player is Randall Gay, and "GAY" was one of the so-called "naughty words" banned from its jerseys by the NFL.
Prof. Clemons persisted, though. She made a phone call and, after going "through three levels of bureaucracy," she finally got the jersey.
That was good news, sort of, to Barry Gay of Raleigh, NC. He wasn't allowed to buy a jersey with his last name on it. Then, to add insult to insult, when he tried to fill out a complaint form on line, he was told, "You can't use that word or phrase in the last name field" when he entered his genuinely real last name.
There's still no solace, though, for fans of the New York Jets' DB Reggie Tongue. At last report, "TONGUE" was still on the NFL's list of banned "naughty words."

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The Comeback That Went Away

The college basketball comebacks had become routine in both the men's and the women's tournaments.
In the women's semi-finals, we watched Baylor come back from 15 points down to beat Louisiana State. Then we watched Michigan State wipe out a 16-point deficit to beat Tennessee.
In the men's final, Illinois was down by 15 to North Carolina early in the second half and came back to tie the score with 2:40 remaining, only to fall back again.
The next night, after Baylor jumped out to a 32-13 lead in the women's title game and Michigan State then ran off 12 unanswered points, deja vu began to set in. Ho-hum, another comeback.
Of course, it didn't happen. The comeback went away and never came back. Baylor's final 22-point margin was the second largest ever for a women's championship game.
The largest margin, by the way, was Tennessee's 67-44 win over Louisiana Tech in 1987. As an assistant coach at Tech, Kim Mulkey-Robertson was on the other side of that lopsided loss.
* * *

Was the Baylor-Michigan State matchup indeed a turning point for women's basketball? A lot of people seem to think so, and I won't argue, since most of them undoubtedly know quite a lot more than I about women's college hoops.
I'm not sure, though, that simply having two finalists besides Connecticut and Tennessee will suddenly create legions of new fans, as ESPN Vice-President John Wildhack seems to believe.
I'm more inclined to go along with Jere Longman of the New York Times, who points out that both Baylor and Michigan State are from major football conferences and that both were willing to commit a lot of money to women's basketball.
If their success inspires other football-rich schools to invest some cash in women's hoops, the competition that results, both in the recruiting wars and on the court, will be a major long-term boost for the sport.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Who Are the Experts?

King Kaufman, who writes the Sports Daily column for Salon.com, annually conducts what he calls the Pool o' Experts contest. The experts are people who have, in one way or another, put together a bracket of selections for the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
His winner this year: CBS.SportsLine.com users. That was actually the consensus bracket of users who entered the Bracket Challenge contest at the website.
Second was Yoni Cohen, who has become pretty well known because of his college basketball blog, which landed him a spot on Foxsports.com. Kyle Veltrop of The Sporting News was third and Tony Mejia of SportsLine.com finished fourth.
Sportsline lists all of its experts' picks, with the consensus of Bracket Challenge entrants. The visitors were 43-20. Three of the Sportsline experts were 38-25 and the fourth was 36-27.
Some kind of irony is at work here. Presumably, those Sportsline users visit the site to gather knowledge and wisdom that will help them make their picks. But, by some alchemy, they transmute that knowledge and wisdom into a better job of forecasting than that site's resident experts.

* * *

Incidentally, North Carolina and Illinois finished 1-2 in the final AP poll. This was the first time since 1975 that the top two teams from the poll were matched up in the championship game. In that game, #1 UCLA beat #2 Kentucky. It was the last game John Wooden coached.