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The Morning After: A Post-Eagle Walk in Philly

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Philadelphia had the air of a city recovering from a natural disaster on Monday morning – the shuttered businesses, the detritus, the ubiquitous sense of fellowship and renewed appreciation for life among those on the mostly empty streets.

Newscasters and cameramen walked around City Hall trying to capture remnants of the joyful storm. Finding interviews wasn’t hard – the verdant uniform worn by nearly all pedestrians announced that everyone had “been there,” and they were happy to talk despite their clearly potent hangovers.

“I had some beers, had some wings, it was great,” said a serene, if drained, young woman in full regalia to CBS as I passed by. “Go Eagles!”

Walking south on Broad Street, green objects in the cityscape seemed to shine with a particular and meaningful brightness, from the beer bottles tossed into planters to the teal street-sweeping vehicle driven by a man who gave me a slow nod. The sheer variety of Eagles apparel on display (hats, gloves, scarves, jackets, sweatshirts, and jerseys in a profusion of different fonts and shades of green) gave a sense not of conformity but creative cohesion – a celebratory mosaic. An impromptu economy of Super Bowl LII shirts had sprung up, with men hawking their wares on all four street corners at the busiest intersections.

Some of the aftermath of the post-Eagles celebration

As a football dilettante and New Yorker who has never really devoted the time to get to know Philly as well as it deserves, I had a limited claim to Eagles joy, but the sense of community was infectious. I had come into the city with the vague goal of visiting Hardena Waroeng Surabaya, an Indonesian restaurant in Passyunk, but mostly because I wanted to look around and it was a destination that allowed for a good long walk.

As I got further south, regretting my lack of scarf and gloves, Eagles-decorated or otherwise, the streets emptied out even more, the silence interrupted only by the scrape of Yuengling and Bud Lite cans blowing across the sidewalk and the occasional group of men chanting E-A-G-L-E-S with a certain mechanical exhaustion.

On S. 9th Street, seeking shelter from the wind, I stopped into Dasani’s Market, a family-owned business somewhere between a convenience store and a cafe. After the man in front of me tried to buy a newspaper (they had been sold out for hours despite it being 1 p.m.) I ordered a chai, and the proprietor, who I later learned was Mr. Dasani himself, assured me he would make one fresh.

“Have you had our chai before?” he asked. “I hope it will be a pleasant surprise.”

Waiting at a small red table in the corner and taking advantage of the magical conversational circumstances that made striking up a chat with any stranger a positive breeze, I asked how being in the city had been last night.

Mr. Dasani had watched the game with his family near Temple, and said the crowds were raucous until about 1 a.m., when everyone had headed to City Hall.

“The police helicopters were so loud it felt like “Apocalypse Now,” he said.

We discussed the game, agreeing that the announcers had seemed very pro-Patriot before I felt compelled to admit that I was from New York and thus not a true Eagle. Mr. Dasani assured me that this was acceptable because the Giants had defeated the Patriots in two Super Bowls.

“I think it was Chairman Mao who said, ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’,” he noted as I burned the roof of my mouth on the scaldingly hot but transcendently gingery chai.

We parted and I walked through the Italian Market, which was deserted except for two outdoor grocers keeping warm by trash can fires. I bought some grapes (green of course) and kept heading south. In front of the South Philly Bar & Grill a couple prepared to depart in an Uber as if they were just then wrapping up their night and heading home, but not before a passerby asked them for a light. In a fit of wearied generosity, the woman offered him her lighter to keep.

“Are you sure?” he asked. She gave him an extra cigarette.

Pat’s was a relative hub of activity in the otherwise abandoned streets, a cheesesteak clearly being the only appropriate meal for the occasion, as a sort of Eagleswear for the stomach. I rested for a moment at an outdoor table next to a huge man in a Nick Foles jersey, eating my grapes and consulting Google Maps with numb hands.

Watching passersby, it seemed like the usually impenetrable barriers preventing city dwellers from acknowledging each other had been taken down for a day, and any person in a car could feel confident that if he or she chose to yell “Go Eagles” at a brawny stranger, he would call back, “Yeah, baby. World Champs!” without even looking up.

Feeling not so much refreshed as further chilled, I walked down E. Passyunk Ave, past closed coffee shops and dog boutiques, then turned right into a more residential area. Hardena Waroeng Surabaya seemed to have darkened windows as I approached, and my hopes of finding a meal sunk.

However, to my surprise the door opened, and I was immediately blinded by a cloud of steam fogging over my glasses. The drastic increase in warmth and humidity made me feel that I had entered a new weather system, and when my eyes adjusted to the relative darkness of the restaurant enough to take in the Indonesian art covering the warm brown walls and the asymmetrical haircuts of the young post-grads seated at the tables, it seemed that I had left the world of the Eagles far behind.

Inside of Hardena

Hardena serves Indonesian specialities cafeteria-style, with a plate of rice and a generous helping of any two items for $8. The woman behind the counter offered to give me a rundown of what was being offered that day, and I settled on thick chunks of eggplant sauteed in a homemade citrusy hot sauce and a tofu and egg yellow curry replete with whole boiled eggs.

The food was hearty and delicious, and I relaxed in the peace of the small restaurant, its only soundtrack the gentle clanking of pots and a quiet debate between two young women about the feasibility of polyamory.

An Indonesian woman with two small daughters came in, and the elder tried to assuage her case of stroller jealousy by sitting on top of her younger sister as her mother ordered. The entire clientele became invested in the small drama, and an inter-table discussion of childrearing began.

I wondered if Eaglesism was actually so different from the everyday spirit of Philadelphia, or if it was merely a heightened form of the communal feeling that is made possible by Philly’s small size and rootedness. I always bristle when people describe New York as unfriendly, simultaneously insisting that New Yorkers are perfectly friendly and that the demand that a city be “friendly” seems both dweeby and a trifle totalitarian, but there is something about Philly that makes me reconsider. It would be going too far to call Philadelphians “friendly” or “warm,” but from limited observation they have an unpretentiousness that makes true engagement easier.

A man with dangling earrings got up and prepared to depart on a penny board, but not before putting on his Eagles hat.

As he left, the conversation turned to the game.

 

The Eagles rocky road to Super Bowl LII

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Following a 38-7 sweep of the Minnesota Vikings, the Philadelphia Eagles have gained a chance to end the team’s 57-year championship drought. All they have to do is defeat Tom Brady and the Patriots.

For the most part, however, the past several seasons have been rocky for the Birds. The team entered 2012 with high hopes after finishing with four straight wins in the 2011 season. Despite a promising 3-1 start, the Eagles proceeded to lose 11 of their next 12 games, finishing the season with a disheartening 4-12 record, their worst record since 1998.

Shortly after, on New Year’s Eve of 2012, the franchise’s owner Jeffrey Lurie announced that Andy Reid, the head coach at the time, would not be staying for another season. Sure, Reid had brought the Birds their longest sustained period of success during his run from 1999 to 2012, but there was still a hole in the trophy case for the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

When asked about finding a new head coach, Lurie commented, “It’s better to find the right leader than to make a fast decision. There’s no guarantee I’ll make a great decision, but I’m confident I will.”

So much for Lurie’s confidence. He proceeded to hire Chip Kelly, a former college football coach whose 3-year NFL run with the Eagles consisted of losing a wild-card game to New Orleans in 2013 and missing the playoffs in 2014 and 2015. The tactics that Kelly had used at the University of Oregon did not seem to work in the NFL. After failing to qualify for the playoffs in 2014, Coach Kelly demanded full control of the team from Lurie and went on to make some controversial moves.

Kelly let go two of the team’s best playmakers, wide receiver DeSean Jackson and running back LeSean McCoy. As if he had not fooled around enough already, the head coach then traded quarterback Nick Foles for Sam Bradford, even though Bradford had been out with a torn ACL for the entire previous season. With these bold changes, the Eagles went 7-9 in 2015, and Kelly was abruptly sacked just before the last game of the season.

“The original hiring of Chip was a bold choice,” Lurie admitted. “We knew what the potential pitfalls were … There’s a risk involved in allowing Chip to have that kind of say over player transactions. However, it’s risk/reward. Sometimes the risks don’t work, and in this case, it didn’t work.”

After Kelly’s firing, just before the end of the 2015 season, Lurie didn’t know who would replace him. He did, however, know what he wanted in a head coach.

“We’re looking for someone who interacts very well and communicates clearly with everybody he works with and comes in touch with,” Lurie mentioned shortly after firing Kelly. “You’ve got to open your heart to players and everybody you want to achieve peak performance. I would call it a style of leadership that values information from all the resources provided, but at the same time values emotional intelligence.” The players had a similar attitude; they simply wanted someone “genuine.”

After much thought and searching, Lurie turned to Doug Pederson, a former NFL backup quarterback who had both played for and coached the Eagles as Andy Reid’s offensive coordinator. Pederson seemed to be exactly what the Birds needed.

“I understand the culture and passion of Philadelphia,” Pederson said. “I get it. I experienced that as a quarterback in 1999. I experienced that first hand. And now coming back, I understand what it feels like to win in this city. This city hasn’t won, and their organization hasn’t won in quite some time. It’s my job to turn that around.”

Pederson’s first move was drafting North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz with the second overall pick in 2016. Then, right before the start of the season, 2015 quarterback Bradford was traded to the Minnesota Vikings, and Wentz was named the starting quarterback in his first NFL season. Pederson and Wentz started the year well with three straight wins, but finished the season 7-9.

Despite the losing record in 2016, Lurie was still confident that Pederson was the right man for the job. Unlike with the fiasco involving Chip Kelly, this time, his confidence paid off.

This season has been remarkable for the Birds. In the regular season, the Eagles pulled off an impressive 13-3 record, tying the best record in franchise history. However, just before the end of the season, starting quarterback and MVP candidate Wentz injured both his ACL and LCL in a game against the Los Angeles Rams, which sidelined him from play for at least the rest of the season. The injury was a huge setback for his teammates, coaches, and fans.

However, the Eagles remained strong, with former starting quarterback Nick Foles stepping up to become the starter and finish the season to make the playoffs.

“I still want Wentz to be a part of the process [of the playoffs],” Coach Pederson said. “I mean, he’s a big reason why we’re 13-3 and where we are today. So same way with the rest of the guys that are hurt, I do want them to feel a part of what we’re doing and help their positions where they can.”

Wentz regularly talks with backup quarterback Nick Foles during practice and throughout the course of the day. He comes out on the sidelines before games, and, as team captain, he still goes to midfield for the coin toss.

With the support of both Wentz and the team, Foles has done a superb job as quarterback so far, winning both the Divisional and the NFC Championship, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished by the Eagles since 2004.

Additionally, with the Super Bowl finally around the corner for the Birds, Philadelphia fans could not be more excited. After the Eagles crushed the Vikings in the NFC Championship game, fans dug deep into their seldom-seen stashes of Eagles gear. Car decals, flags, stickers, hats, jerseys—over the past couple of weeks, I have yet to step out of my dorm and not notice some form of fan support.

The obvious question of every Super Bowl remains, however. Who should the rest of us, those who are not Eagles or Patriots fans, root for? As a longtime fan of the New York Giants, this is an especially tough decision for me. There is no way I could support the Pats, but the Eagles haven’t been too kind on New York this year.

Safe to say, I won’t be rooting for either team, but rather against the Patriots.

Have college rivalries gone too far?

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Collegiate athletics play a significant role in the cultures of higher education institutions and their surrounding communities. This is especially the case at the Division I level with higher enrollments, millions of dollars in scholarships and sponsorships on the line, and increased regional influence. The pressure placed on individual athletes and their respective athletic programs to succeed is immense, and the repercussions of failure have tremendous and lasting effects on the lives of student-athletes. The gravity of the situation is evident with the constant controversy over the ethical issues that athletic departments ignore to ensure the on-field success of their teams. Now, taking all of this drama, pressure, and controversy and adding the increased stakes of a rivalry, the nature of the sport changes from competitive fun to all-out war. This is a truly startling part of collegiate athletic culture.

After this thrilling past weekend of NCAA Division I collegiate football, there is no more telling and intriguing phenomenon in American culture than the collegiate athletics rivalry. Auburn and Alabama. Oregon and Oregon State. South Carolina and Clemson. Ohio State and Michigan. All bitter rivalries, all duking it out on the gridiron this past weekend. However, the actions of the fans and players alike have simply added to the already-growing argument that collegiate athletics have moved too far away from their roots and purpose: creating student-athletes. The media attention and heightened emotions of these rivalries only seems to bring these problematic actions to light.

This past week at the Clemson University versus University of South Carolina rivalry match-up, fans on the USC side threw trash all over the field once they were losing in some kind of defensive show of pride. Not only did Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney denounce the acts, but he also pointed out that it proved dangerous for his own players and staff. At the same time, the Ohio State University’s starting quarterback J.T. Barrett suffered a pre-game knee injury at the hands of a sideline photographer, in what seemed to mimic some kind of twisted Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan assault.

However, these nefarious actions have not only just come about this year. In the Iron Bowl, the affectionate moniker given to the annual University of Alabama versus Auburn University football matchup, both sides have participated in their own illicit actions. While the game is notoriously chippy throughout, the fanbases on both sides also take action, most notably with Alabama fans poisoning Auburn’s famous trees in Toomer’s Corner. This trend is not unique to Alabama, and college football rivalry week brings out both the best and the worst in many institutions’ respective fanbases. In all of these examples though, it is one thing to have school pride, but it is another to do so at the expense of personal dignity, ethics, and the welfare of others.

It is of particular interest to note that these “worst” rivalries tend to follow some common trends. For one, the most bitter rivalries tend to occur in regions of the country with fewer professional sports teams nearby, allowing the public to turn their attention and passion towards the collegiate athletics. South Carolina, Mississippi, Oregon, and Alabama are all prime examples of this phenomenon. Although this does not necessarily solve the problem of over-competitive rivalry – as professional rivalries can be just as bitter and malevolent – it does move the attention away from institutions that have their academic reputations affected by something as ultimately inconsequential as a game. Furthermore, these rivalries logically tend to occur at the largest state institutions, where the universities themselves have greater scope of influence and the fan bases have greater friction. It is for this reason that it is hard to write off all of Division I collegiate athletics as too competitive, but nevertheless, the problems exist largely at the Division I level.

These rivalries and their negative consequences do simply add to the growing argument against the current state of Division I collegiate athletics. Although the increase in camaraderie and school spirit is no doubt beneficial, these is a point at which the universities and the NCAA have lost sight of the true meaning of sport. With all of this pressure, it becomes easier to understand why coaches cheat the recruiting system to get a leg up, or cover up terrible actions of both coaches and players simply because they are too valuable to their program. The stakes are high enough already, and the rivalry games only make it worse. Particularly now, with the start of the collegiate men’s basketball season, it will be interesting to see how rivalries like Duke University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill play out. Nevertheless, it is imperative to keep in mind the true purpose of sport, and to and to seriously examine the use of collegiate athletics and their influence as a justification for nefarious actions.

Taking the NFL by Storm: The Cowboys Saga

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What comes to mind when you think of the Dallas Cowboys? For me, it’s “chokes in the playoffs.” Over the past 10 seasons, The Cowboys have played in six playoff games, winning twice, and both of those wins came from wild card games prior to losing in the next round of the playoffs. Tony Romo, the Cowboys starting quarterback for the past 10 seasons, is objectively one of the best quarterbacks currently playing, if not in history. His passer rating, a measure of one’s efficiency and quality as a passer, is the fourth highest in NFL history higher than NFL Hall of Fame locks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Somehow, however, he’s never been able to break that last barrier of getting a Super Bowl win. Perhaps that’s why he’s gotten so much criticism over the years, being called overrated and unable to perform in high pressure situations. In the words of sports commentator Stephen A. Smith, “If you want to mention overrated, then throw him out there.”

         This season may not be helping his reputation, but it’s sure looking good for Dallas.  Dallas is standing atop the NFL with an 8-1 record just over halfway through the season, all without Romo as quarterback. Romo fractured a vertebra during the preseason, and he only last week returned to the team, albeit in a backup role. In the minds of many Dallas fans, that may well be a blessing. Rookie phenoms Dak Prescott, a quarterback drafted in the fourth round from Mississippi State, and Ezekiel Elliott, a running back drafted in the first round from Ohio State, have led the team to the top of the standings. Prescott began the season by throwing 176 pass attempts without an interception, the most pass attempts without an interception to begin a career. He now has the fourth highest quarterback rating in the NFL. Elliott leads the NFL in rushing yards, averaging over 100 yards a game, and he is making a legitimate argument to win both Rookie of the Year, which he will almost certainly win, and Most Valuable Player. The Cowboys are the best team in the NFL right now. So who’s on their heels?

           ESPN rankings of the best teams in the NFL currently put the Seattle Seahawks as the second best team in the league, with the New England Patriots just behind them. I  would disagree with that order, but perhaps I’m just a biased fan of the Patriots. It comes down to the fact that the Patriots lost a home game this weekend to the Seahawks. By that measure, the Seahawks are a better team than the Patriots, but I don’t think that one game paints the full picture for either team. The Patriots started the season with their star quarterback, Tom Brady, suspended for his alleged role in Deflategate, a scandal involving alleged football deflations by Patriots staff. Jimmy Garoppolo, Brady’s primary backup, took over for the first game and a half, and he stood out. However, he injured his shoulder in that game’s second half, and the quarterback role fell to rookie Jacoby Brissett, a third round draft pick from North Carolina State. Even without Brady, the Patriots managed to reach a 3-1 record in part because of their stellar scoring defense. For the four weeks after Brady returned, the Patriots torched the NFL, putting up huge point margins. This whole season, they’ve shown a very balanced team with a good passing game, a good running game a rarity for them, and a decent defense. The Seahawks road to last Sunday’s matchup was not quite as easy as the Patriots’s. The Seahawks have been known as having one of the best rushing offenses in the NFL with highly mobile quarterback Russell Wilson and, previously, running back Marshawn Lynch. This year, Seattle is third-to-last in the NFL in rushing yards per game, in part because of knee and ankle injuries to Wilson near the beginning of the season. Maybe they’ve shown just how tough they are in coming back from a mediocre start to the season, losing to the Los Angeles Rams, a team in the bottom half of the NFL. The Seahawks and the Patriots both have relatively easy schedules remaining, except perhaps for a Dec. 18th matchup between the Patriots and the Denver Broncos, which is always a tough and entertaining matchup. As things stand at the moment, however, it will be the Patriots and Cowboys that finish first in their respective conferences and will hold the one seed going to the playoffs.

           We’ve talked about the best, so we should leave some room to talk about the worst. The Cleveland Browns are 0-10, their worst start to a season in franchise history. I believe the Browns have used six quarterbacks this season, although it could be more. It’s hard to keep track of all of them. They started off the season with Robert Griffin III, the former Heisman Award winner, awarded to the best player in college football. He didn’t last a full game before injuring himself. The merry-go-round spun and landed on Josh McCown. He suffered an injury in his first start. On came Cody Kessler, who actually lasted for a couple of weeks before going down with a shoulder injury. Then, it was Charlie Whitehurst, but he injured himself in the same game as Kessler. Kevin Hogan, a rookie quarterback out of Stanford, came off the practice squad to quarterback for the team for a few weeks until Kessler was healthy enough to start. They’ve even had Terrelle Pryor, a wide receiver, serve as a quarterback a couple times. At least they’ll have their choice of quarterback in this year’s draft, having practically locked in the first pick in the draft already.

           The Carolina Panthers played in the Super Bowl last year. This year, they’re one of the worst teams in the NFL. They’re 3-6 and last in the NFC South. Their pass defense is atrocious after having let one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, Josh Norman, leave after last season. The turnaround is honestly remarkable. This is a team that had a shot at winning the Super Bowl, and they’re now playing like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a perennial non-contender. Actually worse than Tampa. They’re almost certainly not making the playoffs this season, and they’ll be looking at a pretty high draft pick. They better do something good with it.

           The NFL season is more than halfway through, but there are a lot of teams still battling for a playoff spot. Key matchups this Sunday include a game between the Seattle Seahawks and Philadelphia Eagles and another between the Dallas Cowboys and the Baltimore Ravens. It should be a great start to the second half of the season.

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Jose Mourinho is, to put it one way, a very good football manager. “The Special One” is a serial winner; his teams have won eight domestic titles and two UEFA Champions League trophies (as well as innumerable smaller tourneys). Individually he is a three-time Premier League manager of the year, and a two-time winner of the equivalent Primeira Liga (Portuguese) and Serie A (Italian) awards. Recently, in his second stint with Chelsea, he guided the squad to a third place finish in 2013-14, despite their top goal scorer netting just 17 goals, and dominated last season, losing just three matches and coasting to an eight point win over second place Man City. Owner Roman Abramovich rewarded him with a four-year contract, keeping him at Stamford Bridge through 2019. What could this article possibly be about other than to rant about his obvious managerial brilliance? Well, his tenure at Chelsea might just not be that simple.

First, let’s backtrack to September 2007. The young, divisive manager was enjoying a meteoric rise to coaching stardom, having led Porto (yes, Porto) to an unlikely upset of Manchester United en route to winning the Champions League title in 2004, and pulling Chelsea to new heights. Mourinho, fresh off back-to-back Premier League titles in his first two seasons with the club (as well as the first two of his prem-MOY awards), looked to carry his momentum into an era of title relevance. Despite this success, Chelsea endured a tumultuous start to the 2006/07 season, including sitting in fifth place, losing to Aston Villa, and tying Norwegian (woo) squad Rosenborg and lowly Blackburn. This slow start was exacerbated by a blatant, and growing, rift with the management of the club, chiefly Abramovich. The two men had been at odds over a number of issues, centrally the owner’s unwanted input during the previous transfer window, including signing Adriy Shevchenko (who forced Mourinho to change his 4-3-3 shape to play him with Drogba) and Michael Ballack (who Mourinho thought played too much like goalscorer Lampard). There was also a perception that the manager’s ego meant he wanted more power in the organization. Additionally, and crucially, Abramovich and the board were frustrated by the style of play employed by the squad during their slow start.

Fast forward to 2015 and both owner and manager have repeatedly (and publicly) dismissed any similarities between the happenings of 2007; and this appears to be somewhat valid. This time around the club is actually the defending league champion and, more importantly, there appears to be a much healthier relationship between coach and board. Abramovich no longer elicits worry when he visits training sessions, as he used to, but communicates far more regularly with his manager and has remained steadfast in his support of the Portuguese. There are, unfortunately, less promising differences. Chelsea is now 15th place in the league (not 5th), following their worst start to the top flight since 1986. Mourinho also cannot assign blame to the injuries of stars like Drogba, Lampard, Carvalho and Ballack, as he could in ’07.

It is not, however, these differences that prompted the odds of him leaving to tumble from 12-1 to 5-2 and inspire genuine worry in fans. Prominently, in both cases the manager was unhappy with Abramovich’s transfer activity. This year, during the richest transfer window of all time (over £870 million spent), Chelsea’s biggest signings were keeper Asmir Begovic and forward Pedro Rodriguez. For perspective, Man U was able to beef up their squad by doling out more than twice the London club’s £60m summer spending, paying £140 million in the market, only to be bested by their cross-city rivals, City, who spent a slightly terrifying £160m.  Additionally, it is important to note, Chelsea’s attacking, fluid style of football that saw Hazard, Fàbregas and Costa feature has faded to a more defensive, slow and uninspired system. The team has been lethargic from the start, and the pressure is rising on Mourinho. It is starting to show.

Paris St. Germain has now been rumored to be offering the Special One an “escape” from Chelsea at season’s end, a notion that would have seemed ludicrous just 6 weeks ago. Another source says that the manager would have been axed had the club failed to defeat Maccabi Tel Aviv in their opening Champions League match. Off the field Mourinho has seemed on edge, getting into a spat with Everton manager Roberto Martinez, blaming a trainer for a loss after she assisted an injured player, and showing blatant exasperation with players at press conferences, essentially blaming them for losses. He even accused a reporter of playing badminton (you can’t make this stuff up).

Is Mourinho going to leave Stamford Bridge this season? Most likely not; the club has too much quality to stay slumped for long and is led by one of the most insatiable winners in the sport. However the divide and tensions are very real, and, should they develop or grow, they could lead to a less than cordial divorce at the end of the year.

NCAA sends bad message restoring Paterno wins

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On Friday, January 16, the National Collegiate Athletic Association uncharacteristically reversed a previous punishment they had put in place. What made this course of action even more unusual was that this original decision had, at the time of its conception in 2012, seemed to be a definitive response to one of the biggest blotches on the history of college athletics: the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal at Penn State.

Jerry Sandusky was a longtime assistant coach for Penn State’s once-illustrious football program. He was charged in 2011 with 45 counts of molesting ten boys while under the watch of Penn State’s leadership. Fittingly, he received a sentence of 30 to 60 years. The issues arose with the findings that Penn State’s leadership and, in particular, coach Joe Paterno, had been aware of the horrid violations being committed by Sandusky and did little to stop him. As punishment for this, the NCAA decided to do four things in a 2012 consent decree: fine the university $60 million, ban them from bowl games for four years, temporarily remove scholarships for athletes, and remove 112 victories dating from 1998, when the first complaint against Sandusky had been filed. Furthermore, Paterno was fired during the 2011 season due to evidence that suggested he had known about Sandusky’s crimes but had not acted sufficiently upon them.

In a standard situation, such a set of punishments would have indeed closed the case. The fine was enough to have a financial impact on the elite athletic university, and the rest was convincing enough to deter the leadership at Penn State and other universities from ignoring such behavior under their watch. However, Joe Paterno is no regular coach; he is among the winningest collegiate coaches of all time and, most importantly, had the most wins of any coach before they were removed by the 2012 decree. This was the source of the immense debate following the decision. Many of those who attended and are currently attending Penn State see Paterno as a source of pride for the university; furthermore, his years as the coach of the football team are viewed as years of historically-defining greatness and achievement by anyone familiar with college athletics. The removal of the wins, and, therefore, the removal of Paterno from his definitive perch as the greatest collegiate coach ever was seen as a move of unjust disrespect towards Paterno and Penn State. People believed that the punishment had gone beyond punishing for the actual crime committed and had overstepped by tarnishing the image of a beloved icon for Penn State, collegiate sports and sports as a whole.

Paterno’s death in 2012 may have helped add fuel to the fire of protest surrounding the decree. The NCAA seems to have picked up on this and gradually began to take back the decisions it had made. Last September, it restored scholarships and bowl eligibility to Penn State, and now it has restored the 112 wins to Penn State, effectively restoring Paterno’s position as the winningest collegiate coach of all time.

At this point in the proceedings, new questions are being asked by those watching. Were the NCAA’s original punishments indeed too harsh? By extension, were the reversals of the decisions valid?  On the other hand, were the punishments actually appropriate? Did the NCAA reverse the decisions simply because it was overwhelmed by the criticism it had received?

The answer to the question is complex, and there have been many divided responses by fans and sports figures alike. One part of it, however, is actually relatively straightforward in my opinion. The NCAA itself usually isn’t very unpredictable; it is a multi-billion dollar industry with, for the most part, the sole goals of making profit and expanding its brand. It tends to passively allow issues within the system if no one cries out about them. However, once public disapproval emerges, the NCAA usually responds by trying to appease the public. While the reversal of the decision is unusual in terms of the NCAA’s history with punishment, it is still consistent with the idea of appeasing to maintain approval. The only problem for it in this case was that it miscalculated in the beginning; it saw the extreme crimes being committed under the leadership at Penn State and knew that the institution would have to be held accountable. The specific actions that the NCAA took to reach this end, however, did not turn out exactly as planned because of the unusually distinguished place that Paterno has in history. Paterno’s positive effect on history has made him into a legend, and there are few things that provoke people’s emotions as much as disrespect towards legends. The NCAA, in response to the discontent, possibly felt that it had overstepped and probably moved to correct this by reversing its decisions.

The question that always ends up being asked is that of what an institution, if it were morally-bound and not driven by profit, should do when it is faced with a challenge from the public. This is an extremely difficult question in this particular scenario because of Paterno’s unrivaled stature within the world of sports, and I cannot say that I have a clear answer. The NCAA did make some good moves, most notably the $60 million fine on Penn State which is being invested into anti-child abuse organizations in the state of Pennsylvania. The NCAA is not inherently evil; it is capable of doing things that are morally sound. But why is it that more needs to be done to that end? Why isn’t the fine enough to free the NCAA of its moral duties in this situation?

The issue is that Paterno, despite his stature and all he has done for Penn State, college football, and sports in general, still did something extremely wrong. He, along with others involved with the leadership at Penn State, allowed undeniably awful acts to be committed by one of their personnel on their grounds. He still has to be held accountable, even in death, to deter others from passiveness such as his at other institutions and to make them understand that they will be held accountable and punished if they handle people like Sandusky poorly. There needs to be some asterisk to Paterno’s legacy to acknowledge that there was a heinous blemish during his reign along with his accomplishments and contributions. If the NCAA wants to achieve that, which it should to maintain the integrity of leadership within collegiate athletics, it will have to find an appropriate punishment to hand to Paterno and Penn State. Unfortunately, with the reversals of their original decisions, they seem to have realized that they don’t have the answers and that they have been dealt a seemingly impossible task. This leads all of our analysis and speculation to a dark, anticipated conclusion: that the NCAA will, despite its attempts, be stuck doing nothing when collegiate sports need it to do so much more.

Roberto Martinez and the future of soccer

in Columns/Out of Left Field/Sports by
New Everton manager Roberto Martinez is revolutionizing professional soccer.
New Everton manager Roberto Martinez is revolutionizing professional soccer.

While Everton manager Roberto Martinez appears conservative on the outside, his tactics and approach to the game are as unorthodox as former English national team coach Alf Ramsey’s use of the flying wingbacks or Rinus Michels’ invention of total football that is still used by Ajax and Barcelona. Martinez has been trying to make his mark on the game in the same way that these coaches did by using technology to analyze every game, giving him the greatest opportunity to win. But what really makes Martinez special is his willingness to change or adapt his style depending on the situation with which he is faced.

“The Numbers Game” by Chris Anderson and David Sally has an extensive section on Roberto Martinez and his peculiar approach to the game. It is worth splitting the analysis of Martinez into two sections, his careers with Wigan and Everton. Let’s start with Wigan and what Martinez managed to do there. Consider the fact that Wigan was perennially the lowest spender in the Premier League but nonetheless managed to keep Premier League status for a few years. They also managed to win the League Cup last year against Manchester City, which is no small achievement considering the size of the squad at Martinez’s disposal.

But how did Roberto Martinez manage to do so well with so little? There is a movement in global soccer right now to gain and control possession of the ball. Spain and Barcelona show that possession of the ball is necessary in order to win consistently because that is the only way in which you can both score and, at the same time, prevent the opponent from scoring. But Wigan never consistently dominated possession against other Premier League teams while Martinez was in charge, so the Spaniard bucked the common trend. Instead, and this is clear from watching his old Wigan side playing, his approach was to take long range shots and to wait for free kicks in order to attack. This attacking approach was always combined with a willingness to adopt new formations that were rarely seen in England.

Martinez often adopted a typical formation at the beginning of the season with 4-4-2 and 4-5-1 being the most popular, but would try new things as the season progressed in order to surprise the opposition. Last year his Wigan team began playing a 3-5-2 formation with two defensive wingers, which is reminiscent of the way that Juventus likes to play. By refusing to take the ball into the opposition’s box Wigan avoided being struck on the counter attack because their forward line was never too high up the pitch. What’s more, by adopting non-conventional tactics Martinez provided his team with an edge through his opponent’s inability to prepare properly for competing against his team. Martinez knew all of this would keep his Wigan team up, with a bit of luck added in, because he analyzed data daily on his team’s matches and training performances from the touch screen TV in his living room, a necessary purchase for a forward thinking-manager.

That was at Wigan. The success at Wigan brought Martinez suitors from many different clubs who saw what he was doing by keeping the smallest team in the Premier League in the top division and wanted him to aim for greater things with their larger budgets. There were rumors that Martinez would take over at Aston Villa, Tottenham (after Harry Redknapp) and a cheeky enquiry from Manchester United, but none of these came to fruition and Martinez ended up taking over for David Moyes at Everton.

The change in scenery has led to a change of playing style as the former Wigan manager adapts to the greater challenges of being Everton’s manager. David Moyes had been seen as a saviour at Everton due to his perceived overachievement while in charge of the Merseyside club, but Martinez’s success and Moyes’ current failings at United have begun to scupper that myth. Martinez insists that his Everton side is just taking shape and is still learning to play the way he wants them to, but there is already a marked improvement in the way they are playing. The new Everton side is already ahead of last year’s team and could still finish fourth if Arsenal has a few bad games. Everton has increased their goal-per-game average as well as reducing the number of goals conceded.

The percentage of possession per game has also increased while the number of losses has gone down. At this moment, Everton has only lost five games this season, which puts them on par with Manchester City and Liverpool and only one game behind Chelsea. Martinez has managed to make the “overachieving” Everton side of Moyes into an even better side through focusing on a more traditional approach. Possession statistics have increased and have therefore led to Everton both scoring more goals and conceding fewer. The improvement in noticeable in the way that Everton is playing and in the statistics; it is interesting that Martinez can have such a noticeable difference in the playing style of his squad so quickly. The entire squad seems sold on their new attitude to the game and the club has markedly improved due to the new technical approach taken on by Martinez. Moyes was considered to be a technically adept manager but he is nothing compared to Martinez, who uses technology to analyze his team’s performance and watches each game three times before the true analysis begins.

What is clear is that Roberto Martinez is a new style of manager that has adapted to the new technological aspects of soccer successfully. His story is similar to that of Arsene Wenger, who famously managed to take advantage of the transfer market in his first few years because no one else had the information he did. Martinez is currently exploiting a lack of analysis on the part of other managers. It seems ridiculous that no other clubs provide as much information to their managers as Martinez receives and Martinez is smarter than most by using the plentiful information in order to win. His change of tactics and new understanding of the game at Wigan and Everton have led to a very successful early career for the Spaniard and this all should enable him to continue his meteoric rise.

Premier League roundup: Manchester City looking strong

in Columns/Sports by
Manchester City looks to be the favorite to win the EPL (Photo Courtesy of the Telegraph)

 

There has never been an English Premier League season quite as split as the one currently being played out. The table seems to have developed into a mad dash to the top for the title and the Champions League spots, while the bottom has descended into a bar-room brawl for points in order to avoid relegation. The only teams not involved in either of these two battles are Southampton and Newcastle, who both surprisingly sit comfortably in mid-table with few worries about dropping into the Championship but with no hopes of getting into Europe next season. So in many ways, there is plenty to discuss at both ends of the table and nothing will be sorted out quickly.

As February begins, it seems as if the top of the table is being rearranged daily. The three leaders will slug it out for the title while the four teams behind them will compete until the last day for that fourth spot and European football. At this point it really seems as if Manchester City will continue its rampant form, despite a blip against Chelsea, and begin to pull away from everyone else due to a few reasons:

Manchester City is currently the team in form in the league. While I personally do not believe in form (I don’t believe it affects the outcome of matches or that the team that won last week will gain an added chance of winning because of their earlier matches) it is clear to see that Manchester City is the team riding a hot streak. This is because it has succumbed to its attacking talents and chosen to simply outscore any opponent rather than playing a tactical game.

No team in the Premier League, or any top professional division, is quite as reckless as Manchester City at the moment. Manuel Pellegrini has seemingly decided that the best course of action for Manchester City is not to play a possession game but rather to get the ball forward fast and to take as many shots as possible. While this style of football seems a little archaic in the age of Barcelona’s tika-taka, it is working week in, week out.

With the attacking talents of Aguero, Negredo, Jovetic (who really isn’t playing much) and Dzeko, it seems like Manchester City will keep on scoring at this rate for the rest of the season. Having just scored five against a resurgent Tottenham, Manchester City appears to be unstoppable simply by moving the ball quickly back into the box and relentlessly peppering the opponent’s goal. Though Tottenham wasn’t necessarily ever going to be competition for Manchester City, the Citizen’s complete domination at White Hart Lane showed that City will win the title this season.

I say Tottenham isn’t necessarily good competition because its recent form has been against poor teams and it is picking up points it expected to take. Tim Sherwood has seemingly gotten Tottenham to win, but not because of his own genius: Tottenham is still a poor side that will be lucky to come close to fourth spot this season and will end up in the Europa league places again. Manchester City, on the other hand, has overtaken Arsenal and sits atop the Premier League table due to its reckless, yet successful, desire for goals. While its defending has been shoddy at times, Pellegrini has decided, in true Carlos Bilardo style, that the only way to truly win games is to score more goals than the opponent. Manchester City has conceded 26 goals this season which puts it around the same level as a mid-table team but has scored 68 goals, which still puts it 11 goals above high-scoring Liverpool. With results going this way, it seems as if Manchester City will have the title wrapped up by the end of February.

The Chelsea game was an interesting test for City, who didn’t seem able to break down the over-rated Chelsea backline and gave up a few worrying chances. The game has been seen by many supporters and critics as the confirmation that Jose Mourinho is destined to win the Premier League title once again. But is that necessarily true? There are still 44 points to be won in the last few months of the league. That was the point that Manuel Pellegrini made before the match started and his team succumbed to defeat. In a league system, that is what matters.

It would seem that even though Chelsea may have won the marquee fixture between the two clubs it hasn’t shown any real reason why it should be champion over Manchester City. The thing to remember in this case is that typically, the team that makes the fewest mistakes against mediocre opposition wins the title; that is the category that Manchester City is dominating. It is also worth stating that the only team competing on all fronts is Manchester City and that is for a good reason. They squad has depth and quality cover in every position. Even with injuries, they could mount a title challenge.

I’m going to ignore Chelsea because it doesn’t need to be analyzed. It works hard, prevents the opponent from scoring and usually ends up winning by a scrappy goal not scored by its expensive strike force (with the exception being the Eto’o hat-trick against United.) Arsenal, on the other hand, should be discussed a little. The recent draw against Southampton definitely sent alarm bells ringing in the Emirates Stadium. Two days beforehand Arsene Wenger announced that any business in the club was unlikely; Arsenal had missed out on Morata, supposedly couldn’t land Vucinic, and wasn’t going to be able to pry Draxler away from Schalke until the summer (because the player didn’t want to leave until after the World Cup and Schalke had no reason to sell him.)

However, with its injury list growing and two lackluster performances in a row against Crystal Palace and Southampton, Arsenal decided to make a concerted effort to bring in Draxler before February. Given all the talk that had been coming out of Emirates during the first half of January, it seemed unlikely that Arsenal would make a big money purchase. The messages coming out of the club were that Wenger was happy with the squad and wouldn’t pursue a high profile signing this month (but even that was occasionally disrupted by statements suggesting that Wenger was concerned with depth.) But with the injuries and the performances of late, it appeared that Wenger was to make a desperate attempt to bring in Draxler because the Premier League seemed to be slipping away from his control. Panic signings can work out and Draxler is obviously a good player to bring in, but it does give away a lot of information about the mood inside the Arsenal camp.

The Kallstrom signing seems to be a reaction to Arsenal’s inability to get Draxler. If Arsenal had signed Kallstrom a few years ago then it would have been a decent purchase. While at Olympique Lyon, he was a successful and talented player with plenty of creativity. However, I can’t think of a single Arsenal fan that would be inspired by getting Kallstrom on loan. He doesn’t fill the need for a reserve striker or to provide some grit in midfield for those tough games against scrappy teams. His injury in the first training session was alarming; Kallstrom has a history of injury and it seems that this is going to continue. When Arsenal needed a player to come in and replace their own injured player, they seem to have signed an injured player. It is such a stupid thing to say, and I’m sorry that I’ve had to say it, but if you know a player is going to get injured then you might not want him at crunch time. It just seems to be a panic buy that shows just why Arsenal won’t be winning the title this season. And probably why Manchester City will win.

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