Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Time for the NHL to stop the fight

NHL players insist that fighting is an important aspect of the professional game. The idea is that players get to enforce those mythical unwritten rules that allegedly keep the game clean and discourage the physical abuse of star players. NHL purists agree and accuse those opposed to fighting in the NHL of having no interest in hockey. If television ratings and revenue reports are any indication those opposed to fighting aren’t the only people uninterested in hockey.

There is no place for fighting in sports. Fights detract from the action and reveal an ugly side of athletics. Fights are also a horrible influence on children who look up to professional athletes whether we like it or not. Charles Barkley made a name for himself by insisting he was not a role model but regardless of his protests he was influential all the same. Being a role model is not a choice one can opt out of. Some players want to be role models and embrace the responsibility but people choose their role models, role models don’t choose their people. Sorry, Charlie.

Compared with the international game featured in the Olympics, NHL hockey is slow, methodical and largely unentertaining. Thanks to such an extended playoff season, the regular season games scheduled by the NHL are simply boring. Players admittedly save their best effort for the playoffs and the difference in action is so dramatic the playoffs are sometimes called the second season or even the real season. It makes you wonder why regular season tickets are so pricey.

So the regular season is an extended exhibition teams use to get ready for a playoff run. Interestingly fights aren’t as common during the playoffs. Teams simply can’t afford to risk losing a game by engaging in fisticuffs that eventually result in five minute penalties. One would think an activity so integral to the game would increase when the stakes are raised. It seems the playoffs prove the case against fighting. When the games matter, fights don’t.

The NHL punishes players who fight by issuing penalties but unlike other professional sports leagues the NHL doesn’t fine or suspend players for fighting unless there are extenuating circumstances. Players are punished for fighting dirty or employing cheap shots to gain an advantage but there aren’t any meaningful sanctions for the typical fight. The actions the NHL deems actionable are typically so brutal criminal charges are at least considered.

Clearly the NHL is reticent to issue a moratorium on fighting because league officials realize that a significant portion of the waning fan base is drawn to the pointless violence. It’s one of the few gimmicks the NHL can hang its hat on. If you eliminate fights you eliminate the fans who enjoy them.

Recently the NHL tried to open up the game a little bit. Rules were tweaked to give an edge to the offense, goal keepers were forced to trim some of the padding from their uniforms to make blocking shots a little more difficult. Additionally the league made an effort to discourage fighting without eliminating it altogether. The result is a lot of whining from players who think the revisions have encouraged dirty play. They claim that the lack of physical accountability for cheap shots has encouraged dirty players to be a little more liberal with their handiwork.

Hockey players have a reputation for being tough guys but they sure do a lot of whining. Furthermore there are a number of players around the league who are too fragile to fend for themselves so teams keep thugs on the roster to fight on behalf of the skilled players who simply can’t take a hit. Instead of fighting why not have the softer players wear skirts so the other team knows not to hit them too hard? It might sound humiliating but not any more so than having somebody else fight on your behalf. At least the guy in the skirt has the guts to admit he’s a pansy.

If cheap shots are a problem the league should address them with the enforcement of rules. They do have officials on the ice who are supposed to maintain order by enforcing current rules so asking those officials to keep an eye out for overly aggressive play and cheap shots wouldn’t be too much to ask. The league could also enhance the enforcement of the rules with suspensions and fines.

Somehow the NFL has managed to secure an impressive market share in spite of some pretty strict rules. In fact the NFL takes a lot of heat for being too protective of quarterbacks and some players have taken issue with paying fines for hits that would have been legal 10 years ago.. Major League Baseball still endures its fair share of fights with at least one big bench clearing brawl each year but the league moves swiftly and imposes severe penalties for fighting. The NBA is a very physical game and tempers flare every night but David Stern wastes no time when punches are thrown. As horrendous as some of those altercations have been, suspensions have been severe. Players still break the rules but they also pay the consequences.

Nobody’s got a perfect league but the NHL is foolishly embracing a concept that dates back to the days when soldiers would drink a case of Black Label and head out to the local pond with a couple of brooms and a few flat rocks. There’s nothing wrong with changing the rules to keep the game fresh and fact, it’s necessary. The NHL’s refusal to adapt is precisely why the league can’t sign a decent broadcasting contract. Nobody’s watching. When you’re losing your audience to fake wrestling, arena football and a bunch of hicks driving cars in a circle it’s time to make some changes.

Hockey purists will say that my opinion is steeped in ignorance and that if I knew the fist thing about hockey I’d see the need for fights. They might have a point, but considering how close the NHL is to extinction I think I’m right on the money. Besides, if the NHL does go out of business those players aren’t going to be able to solve their problems by duking it out. Tim Horton’s has some strict rule about beating up the customers.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Browns need to trade down.

Adrian Peterson could be the next LaDainian Tomlinson. With the third pick in the draft the Cleveland Browns must be salivating over the prospect of drafting such an amazing athlete. They’d be crazy not to pick him. Right?

Except when it comes to the draft there is no such thing as a no-brainer. For every Peyton Manning there’s a Ryan Leaf. For every LaDainian there’s a KiJana. When you look through the history of the draft, particularly in the early part of the first round, there’s a lot more heartbreak than happiness. Remember 1999? Tim Couch was the first player drafted by the new Browns. He was compared to Peyton Manning coming out of college but 8 years later Peyton Manning is the toast of the town and Tim Couch is just toast. He’s out of the league as is his fellow first round counterpart Akili Smith.

The Browns landed another number one pick in 2000 and selected Courtney Brown, a big, bruising athletic defensive end from Penn State. Sure, Brown has established himself as a productive member of the Denver defensive line but he was drafted because he was supposed be the next Bruce Smith. In Cleveland he struggled with injuries and never showed the tenacity of a premier pass rusher.

The Browns look back over their misfortunes and kick themselves. They could have drafted Donovan McNabb in 1999, Brian Urlacher in 2000 and in 2001, when they drafted Gerard Warren with the third pick LaDainian Tomlinson slipped all the way down to number five. DOH!

Surely the front office muckety mucks are kicking themselves over what could have been. Imagine how dominant that team would be! Of course rewriting draft history and making those choices wouldn’t address the issues the Browns have struggled with all along. The organization was run into the ground by Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark. Smart people who had ties to the old Browns were pushed away in favor of the arrogant lackeys who jumped Eddie DeBartolo’s ship when it started to take on water.

The Browns would still have a soft offensive line and key weaknesses in the defensive front. As an expansion team in 1999 they were unable to acquire quality players through the expansion draft and lacked the budget to attract big name free agents. They set their sights on that 1999 draft and pinned their hopes on the arm of a promising quarterback who struck everybody as a more athletic version of Peyton Manning.

Truth be told, Couch might have been a great quarterback if he had landed on a team with a few supporting players. Had the Browns committed themselves to easing the young quarterback into a productive offense rather than throwing him to the wolves as a rookie, Couch would have maintained a sense of confidence. And who’s to say McNabb would have fared better? With no line and an unimaginative offense McNabb would have struggled mightily in Cleveland.

LaDainian Tomlinson is a great player but he’s on a loaded team. He’s surrounded by talented players who make it impossible for teams to focus on stopping him. If a team pulls its safeties up to stop the run, Antonio Gates will be open in the seam. If they slide a cornerback over to cover gates they leave a receiver unchecked at the line. And speaking of the line, how about those blockers up front? LT might be great but he doesn’t have to work for every yard. Would LT be as dominant in Cleveland? Probably not.

Instead of trying to guess right and draft another sure thing, the Browns should see the bigger picture. If they had traded down in 1999 they would have acquired more picks. Mike Ditka was willing to trade everything in order to bring Ricky Williams to New Orleans. With multiple picks in later rounds the Browns could have loaded up on offensive linemen and built a team capable of making anybody look good.

The Browns are not an Adrian Peterson away from contending. Brady Quinn won’t improve their passing game and Joe Thomas is just one man. If the Browns want to get on the right track they need to trade the third pick in the draft and load up on promising blockers who will shore up that porous line. Even if Adrian Peterson sets the world on fire as a rookie, there’s no way he will help the Browns. Bad teams often make the mistake in thinking one star will make all the difference. In the NBA that might be true but in the NFL it takes 10 supporting players to make one guy stand out. After all these years the Browns should know that better than anybody.