Tidbits – September 5
In this edition – Lance Armstrong vs. Mikhail Gorbachev; New Orleans; SI’s pro football preview.
1) Not exactly a sports story, but since I heard it mentioned on Mike and Mike this morning, what the heck. USA Today has published a list of the twenty five most influential people of the last 25 years. Greenie mentioned it because two sports figures made the list – Lance Armstrong, at No. 8, and Michael Jordan at No. 17. At first I thought this was a list of Americans only (Bill Gates is No. 1 and Ronald Reagan is No. 2), and then, as Greenie made his way down the list, I heard “Number eleven, Mikhail Gorbachev.”
To which I would respond: are you fucking kidding me?
I know these lists are just for fun, and they are going to mix in celebrities, entertainers and non world leaders (Oprah Winfrey is number three). But, Lance Armstrong is ahead of Gorbachev? For full disclosure – my area of specialty in political science is Russian politics (and, shameless plug, I even wrote a book on the subject), so that’s my bias. But, we’re talking about the man who (sorry, Reagan fans) is more responsible for the end of the cold war than any person on the planet, and that ranks him below a cyclist? Ridiculous. Among the other people who rank behind Armstrong – Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton.
More to the sporting point, how Armstrong ranks ahead of Jordan is also beyond me. Not only was Jordan responsible (along with Magic and Bird) for revitalizing the NBA, he is certainly more responsible than any other individual for the true globalization of the sport. Armstrong was a repeat champion in – let’s face it – a niche sport, certainly less renowned globally than Tiger Woods and not in the same stratosphere as Jordan in terms of global sporting influence.
Lance is inspirational to a lot of people, I know (my own opinion is that he’s gotten a particularly favorable ride from the media), and those wrist bands were ubiquitous for a few months, but no way he should sniff the top 25 list.
2) When the 2006 NFL season unfolded, and the Saints emerged as the story of the year, one thing that always disturbed me tremendously was the whitewash of the reconstruction of the city (or the lack thereof). If sports media want to steer clear of the story altogether, that’s one thing. But, to hail the Saints as symbolic of a city’s re-emergence is to step into a political battle that ESPN and the like are ill-equipped to battle. Two years after Katrina, it’s shocking, frankly, how little attention the destruction of an American city has received. New Orleans remains depopulated and devastated, a shadow of its former self. Of course, if you’re not venturing out beyond your five-star hotel and the immediate environs of the Super Dome, you wouldn’t know this. But, then, you shouldn’t pretend otherwise.
To its credit, Sports Illustrated included a moving piece a couple of weeks ago about the challenges facing reconstruction in the city, by Alexander Wolff, who did venture beyond the shadow of the Superdome, and notes some of the especially troubling dimensions of the Katrina aftermath:
As unifying as the Saints are — around town you’re likely to see black fans in Drew Brees jerseys and white fans in Reggie Bushes — Katrina highlighted the divide that cleaves New Orleans. Both the poorest residents and the members of the Katrina diaspora are primarily black. As the Saints thrive in a smaller, whiter, richer city, many African-American evacuees who want to return and rebuild can’t. Before the storm the Lower Ninth Ward, poor as it was, had a high rate of home ownership, as families passed down houses through generations. Now most of those homes are gone, memorialized by weed-obscured slabs. FEMA won’t provide a trailer until a site has power and potable water, and city services are only beginning to make their way across the Industrial Canal to the Lower Ninth and New Orleans East. If white professionals like the Thorntons give up on it, there may indeed be no city — but without its ethnic flavor, New Orleans would be unrecognizable.
When city planners speak of “a smaller footprint” to be served by a drastically reduced tax base, they envision cutting loose much of the city east of the Industrial Canal — and in that many black New Orleanians hear “ethnic cleansing” or see a Trojan horse for an opportunistic landgrab. Before Katrina, there were 117 schools in the city; this year there will be 82, 42 of them charter schools. The New Orleans Recreation Department, whose services are essential to the one third of the population living in poverty, lost most of its facilities and 90% of its staff after the storm and is only now ramping back up thanks to donations, funding from nonprofits and settlements from FEMA and insurance carriers.
Wolff also describes the federal government as “almost criminally” indifferent and intransigent.
3) Just a couple of brief notes on the SI NFL preview issue. Peter King has ranked the top 500 players, an ambitious effort. He never explains the methodology – there doesn’t seem to be a scoring system, per se, just a list of guys that King kept adjusting, depending on which coach or personnel guy he’d just spoken to. His top five players: Peyton Manning, Brady,Tomlinson (as a Giants fan, I refuse to call him LT), Julius Peppers and Jason Taylor. There is a “sabermetric” movement in football, that attempts to make performance-based analysis, using up-to-date statistical methods, central to evaluating players, spearheaded by folks like KC Joyner and the Football Outsiders. It’s a more complicated project than baseball’s, and much less well developed, but it’s a useful stab at trying to put performance and statistics in their proper context. King has not shown, as far as I know, any inclination toward such approaches and ignoring such efforts completely makes it hard for me to take these sorts of lists seriously. But, he’s Peter King, so the list will get plenty of attention.
Speaking of King, he and a few other writers divviedup the team scouting reports. King’s beat included the Bears, and it’s a bizarre two-page entry. There is not a single mention of the departed Thomas Jones, the team’s leading rusher the past two seasons with over 2,500 yards, or of his replacement, Cedric Benson. You’d think that a report on a serious Super Bowl contender would include at least one word about the running game. Instead, apparently overly consumed with his insider status, King spent several sentences describing three plays during a recent practice that are supposed to augur well for the Bears passing game this year. One play featured Devin Hester going in motion and spectators getting excited about that (the play ended up going elsewhere) and another resulted in an overthrown pass to a rookie tight end.
King is either especially good at reading tea leaves, or this is the most inane and trivial way to prognosticate about a team’s fortunes one can imagine.
One another note from the issue: an anonymous scout quoted for the Cowboys report has this to say about Terrell Owens: “T.O., you know, he just wants to catch the ball and win. It’s not as if he’s smoking stuff and drinking and getting into trouble with women.”
Scouts can be a breath of fresh air – they focus on performance and not on all the other crap. And, there’s probably no player in pro sports in the past five years about whom the coverage has been more skewed toward utterly trivial nonsense and away from his actual performance on the field than Owens. He needs to get over last year’s case of the dropsies, and obviously he’s abrasive to alot of people, but the guy never really does anything but play and play at a high level.