Thursday, June 13, 2013

On the Undue Vitriol and Overreaction Towards the Redskins' Name

Roger Goodell’s letter to Congress defending the Redskins’ team name, saying that the name is a “unifying force that stands for courage, strength, pride, and respect," was lambasted by the media yesterday. The columnists represented at ESPN's "Around the Horn" show, as well as DC-area journalists Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon on "Pardon the Interruption" were especially pointed in their remarks (discussions start at roughly the 13:00 mark and the 5:00 mark, respectively). Goodell was labeled a "fool" and "gutless," and accused of not doing his homework for daring to side with the money-seeking franchise and kowtowing to the owners who hired him. Okay, that money-seeking part might actually be true. Just maybe.

The movement to change the team name was started by a letter sent from 10 members of the Congressional Native American Caucus (a collection of 100-plus members of Congress, from a House of Representatives containing 435 members) to owner Dan Snyder, urging him to change the name, citing the hateful origin of the name and the persistent caustic nature of this word to Native Americans: a "racial, derogatory slur akin to the ‘N-word’ among African Americans or the ‘W-word’ among Latinos." That's a fair assessment.

In fact, it's extremely hard to build a case for George Preston Marshall, the owner of the franchise from 1932 to 1969, and bestower of this name. His remark, shown at the top of Dave Zirin's open letter to Dan Snyder calling for the owner to accept his era of change and rename his team, is quite disturbing. As one wanders across the Internet, Marshall's "insight" on integration and other racist statements he uttered are too disgusting to be reprinted here; Marshall is probably the least innocent party in this whole saga. However, none of that malice remains today, nor has it been present for years.

Bob Ryan's remark on Around the Horn while "selling" Goodell's letter--"What is true in 1937 is not true in 2013"--definitely has more than one meaning. Marshall's intended use of the name (he claimed it was a nod of recognition to his coach, William "Lone Star" Dietz), whether racist or not, has changed. Rather, it has fallen by the wayside through the team's changing of hands, as names are wont to do (hello, Disney's Mighty Ducks of Anaheim Ducks), as well as the changing of ideologies. For decades, the name 'Redskins' has been a positive icon, and definitely not actively associated with racism. The team's iconic fight song "Hail to the Redskins," unveiled in 1938, extols the Redskins as something worth hailing, and it has been sung that way by millions of Redskins fans.

A quick sidenote: The focused attack on just the Redskins is interesting. Where's the hatred towards the Blackhawks and their far more derivative logo? Where's the all-out offensive on the Atlanta Braves and their handling of the Native American heritage, especially in light of their spring-training cap debacle earlier this year and use of that logo for decades? Oh, right, it's all perfectly innocuous and respectful enough to avoid meriting a letter and lawsuits. Bomani Jones' succinct assessment on "Horn" was a little too succinct: while there are "all the teams that have gotten rid of their Native American names, and there the Redskins are, refusing," they're not alone.

Less deserving of the caucus' time and stationery, apparently.

Even Dave Zirin's editorial letter over at Grantland doesn't acknowledge Snyder's disassociation with both the Redskins' past and any racism that might have remotely lingered. It wasn't Dan Snyder's fault that the team was the last to integrate, in 1961. In fact, the team seems to show little to no indications of racist tendencies today, save for this much-ballyhooed nickname, or rest assured those instances would be in the media's arguments as well.

I may be drifting into areas I don't fully grasp here. I won't profess an extensive knowledge of racist treatment of Native Americans in the past few years. But it has been widely documented that the Washington football team's name is tantamount to a slur towards Native Americans. In this context, however, it is not meant as a slur, or in any way negative. Goodell's description is accurate:

Importantly, this positive meaning is shared by the overwhelming majority of football fans and Americans generally, including Native Americans. (Attached as examples are recent remarks from Chief Steven Dodson, an American Inuit chief and resident of Prince Georges [sic] County, Maryland, and recently retired Chief Robert Green of the Patawomeck Tribe of Virginia.)
I sure hope for his sake that he included them. I couldn't find copies of these remarks.

One of Goodell's points is that the Washington team name has risen above its original, vituperative meaning in almost every corner of culture. This is ignoring Zirin's point that in South Dakota and other places, this may not hold true, but public perception has changed. A Redskin is now something to be praised (ideally--this wasn't true for most of 1995 to 2011 in the football world), and if not praised then respected. Punch "redskin" (NOT "redskins") into any major search engine, and the first result will revolve around football and Washington, virtually every time. Meanwhile, a similarly conducted search for "cracker" does not yield an entry about the snack wafer at number one.

The amusing side to this debate is the giant analogous leaps in logic made by the advocates. My favorite is as follows: both Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) and Tony Kornheiser proposed the scenario of Snyder and Goodell going to a Native American community and greeting a resident by saying, "Hey, what's up, redskin?" This should never happen, and would not.

However, the idea of perpetuating a racial slur to further your cause is an interesting proposal. The insistence on representatives, interest groups and columnists revisiting this issue is part of the reason that the term "redskin" has kept its dual meaning, instead of being narrowed to the more modern "an employee of the Washington Redskins football team." The problem is not the team using the name; the problem is that it still persists as a slur.

And by the same token, I wouldn't go up to a tall person I'd never met and say "Hey, what's up, giant?" Armed with this argument (now endorsed by members of Congress!) I'm in the process of sending letters to the insensitive New York football team and the callous San Francisco baseball team--San Francisco, that forward-thinking city of acceptance--and ask that they change their nicknames, because of the way that giants are historically depicted in literature. It offends my tall brethren and sisters. Thank you for your concern.

Another mildly interesting note is that there is no accommodating the other side in this debate. Very few columnists are making concessions to the other side. But Goodell, whether by legal obligation or no, made the concession that “reasonable people may view it [this issue] differently, particularly over time.” The fervor and issue which people bring to this case leave no room for the opposition. I see the reason on the other side, but I do not see enough overwhelming evidence to change an institution's name, and deprive this culturally diverse fanbase of their connection with the years of history, as Roger put it. 

Goodell is to be applauded for trying to bring the case into perspective. Yes, the name is not ideal, his argument of positive origins is dubious given Marshall's biased proclivities, and the word should not be used outside of this context, and especially not to insult anyone. Within this football context, however, it is a symbol of respect, of pride, of strength; there is no ill will left in the name in this sphere, and if there is, it needs to be swiftly eradicated. I stand with Roger Goodell on his decision to support the Redskins name.

Hail to the politically neutered Washington Football Team of Divers Football Players, or 'Redthings' Redskins.

I'm not sure this was apparent, but I've been a lifelong fan of this team, from Terry Allen to Alfred Morris.

Monday, May 6, 2013

On A One-Sided Affair: Sharks Dominate Canucks 5-2, Take 3-0 Series Lead in the Shark Tank (and I'm Back!)

Sharks take 3-0 series lead by beating Canucks 5-2
Sharks center Logan Couture, looking distinctly satisfied. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

(Yes, it's been a long time--but I'm going to have another go at this blogging thing, and we'll see how it pans out. This is an opinionated recap, with a few observations here and there.)
[Also, it's ridiculously late, and NHL videos are a pain to embed, but I'll try to incorporate them in the morning.]

What I saw tonight shocked me.

I’ve been a passive follower of San Jose for a few years--beyond passive, even. My stance on the Sharks is the same way it is with most Western Conference teams. I like them but don't feel passionately for them, I read the news on them every day, and I watch them when I can. More like a barely-occasional follower. I like Thornton and Marleau and Boyle as players, and I like the way this team is built on paper. However, the viewing opportunities are limited, and I’m a Capitals fan first and foremost (ROCK THE RED) so the bulk of my time is devoted to them.

With this limited direct contact, I go by what the media says about this team (and, to my shame, most West Coast teams) more often than not, and track the numbers when I can. But what the media has said about the direction of these teams over the season runs completely counter to the message that this three-game battle has proclaimed: the Sharks have arrived. The Vancouver Canucks, on the other side, have devolved into an undisciplined team, taking penalties at will and simply being outmuscled and outwilled by a rather determined team from SoCal.

My studying obligations (for final exams, whose significance will be zero in 20 years) took me away from the game for small parts of the first and the second period, but I was around to see the reaction to Marleau’s high-sticking of Ryan Kesler, and the outrage from the Sharks bench that Kesler stayed on the ice. My limited hockey knowledge brings an NFL analogy to mind, and I’m of the opinion that he would sit out the shift; a very animated Sharks assistant Jay Woodcroft seemed to share my opinion. But Kesler stayed on, and played through a largely uneventful power play.

Refereeing decisions and Kesler trickery aside, this game was littered with cheap shots. At the 14-minute mark in the third, Kesler slashed at the back of Scott Gomez’s head after Gomez was deposited on the ice following a check. The reportedly tame Sedins both threw cheap shots in the 3rd period (Daniel on Logan Couture, Henrik on #15 in front of the net). Vancouver didn't hesitate to buzz the Sharks net after play had stopped, and this led to some chippy encounters. But the referees kept pulling Canucks who lost their cool away from the scrum, and sending a few to the box, Zack Kassian among them.

Most importantly, the Sharks had the grit to respond. Their responses weren’t all about turning cheeks—Tommy Wingels tackling a Canuck in front of the net after a frozen puck stoppage was one of the more memorable images of the night—but it was more disciplined than the guys in white. Logan Couture’s response in the third period will most likely grab headlines and dominate blogs, and it's a great subplot: after taking the punch from Mssr. Henrik off of a faceoff, he proceeded to score 20 seconds later on the ensuing power play, taking the pass from Joe Thornton before pulling the trigger and putting it past Schneider into the far side of the net. This is revenge at its sweetest. Couture, the game's First Star,  had a night to remember all over the place, winning 15 of 18 faceoffs and getting two assists to go with his two goals.

            The Sharks were gaining the offensive zone at will, and had the 38 shots on goal to show for it. The San Jose forwards seemed to be playing at a different gear, especially Joe Pavelski. Pavelski, of whom much ado was made for his goalless playoff drought (14 games), answered the call with 2 goals, the first off a one-timer on a 5-on-3 advantage to open the scoring, and the second a fantastic deflection to make it 2-0.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

On the Brady-Vick MVP Debate

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 15:  Michael Vick #7 of the Philadelphia Eagles throws a pass against the Washington Redskins on November 15, 2010 at FedExField in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Here on the cusp of Week 14, three-quarters of the way through the season, most media outlets are coming out and naming Tom Brady as the leading candidate for NFL MVP, ahead of Michael Vick, Philip Rivers, and a host of other candidates.  Brady has certainly put together a strong case, but the professed margin by which he leads this race is astonishing.  Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports said Wednesday that the race "isn't even close" as far as he is concerned. At ESPN, Mike Sando wrote that Brady could sit the rest of the season and contest for the award: "It's that much of a runaway heading into Week 14." Wetzel went so far as to acknowledge Vick's candidacy, but called the contest between the two a question of "heart v. head"--
emotion over Vick's comeback against Brady's performance.

Awards based on performance should not be based on emotion, so I'm going to throw that aspect out, and dissect the two from an on-the-field perspective. Let's start with the numbers, shall we?

Brady fingersTom Brady has some truly ridiculous stats: after 12 games, he has put together 3,029 yards and 27 touchdowns against four interceptions, all on the way to a 10-2 record. His passer rating is a sky-high 109.5, a number good for eighth-best in the history of the game if it holds. He has done this with a patchwork collection of players, including a stellar receiving corps (Deion Branch, Randy Moss, and Wes Welker), two rookie tight ends (Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski), serviceable running backs in Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis (among the league leaders in names per name), and an offensive line that now showcases three Pro Bowlers with the return of Logan Mankins. He has an active streak of seven games without an interception going into Sunday's showdown with the Bears.

Michael Vick, on the other hand, got his seven-game streak without a pick out of the way to start the season. He has a 6-2 record as a starter (he came on as a back-up in the loss to Green Bay), has a passer rating of 105.7, just under four points behind Brady (not exactly a comfortable margin, as Sando would have one believe). His 15 touchdowns and two interceptions hold up to Brady's ratio. He has had the help of explosive weapons in Desean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Lesean McCoy, a talented but inconsistent Brent Celek, but he has had to deal with an injury-plagued offensive line with only one Pro Bowler, Jason Peters.

Both are dominant quarterbacks who control games and force defensive coordinators to shape their plans around their styles. It is next to impossible to limit Brady's throwing options and stop his impeccably accurate throws. On the other side, Vick has mastered the deep ball this year, adding another weapon to his arsenal of speed and vicious arm strength.

The simillarities end there, however. Brady is, ultimately, a single-threat quarterback. Of all the ways that he has shredded defenses this year, his feet is not one of them.

And now we come to the statistic that, oddly enough, is conveniently ignored by every single pro-Brady argument. Brady doesn't necessarily need to run, as his offensive line is one of the best in the country, but his 28 carries for 17 yards is fourth-worst among starting quarterbacks, leading only Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees.

On the other hand, if I asked you to name the leading rushing quarterback and gave you one guess, most of you would come up with Michael Vick. His 467 yards on the ground are without a doubt comfortably the best--Josh Freeman's 291 is the next-highest total--and this is from a Vick that has taken more to passing, looking for the throw before taking off. His offensive line has been average at best, leading to 23 sacks and countless hits, but has forced him to take his electric playmaking up the field at a staggering 6.3 yards per carry (compare to Jamaal Charles' 6.2).

In short, Vick has shown the playmaking ability of a running back and now as a quarterback, making him valuable as two players, as opposed to the one offered by Brady.

Speaking of which, the debate here is over who gets named the "most valuable player," not the "most best player"--and not just for grammatical reasons. A player has to have the most significant value to their team and make a significant impact. There is no doubt that Brady is invaluable to the Patriots, but he has had an absurdly talented supporting cast.

People write this off as freak coincidence, as players all having abnormally good seasons at the same time. This is partially true, but we're not talking about players who have underachieved and languished for years, with the possible exceptions of Danny Woodhead and Deion Branch. As mentioned earlier, Hernandez and Gronkowski are rookies, Tate is a gifted special teams player who holds the record for NCAA return yardage, and Green-Ellis is in his first year atop the depth chart . As for the veterans, Randy Moss is considered by some as the greatest receiver of his generation, and Wes Welker is regarded as the best slot receiver in the league.

Vick has been doing more with less in Philadelphia. Desean Jackson is one of the best receievers in the NFC but has been a victim of injury, Jeremy Maclin is an athletic receiver yet not quite on par with Welker, and Brent Celek has had one drop or incompletion for every fantastic catch. And the offensive line's woes have already been mentioned; ask yourself, what would happen if these two quarterbacks switched positions? Picture Brady in an Eagles uniform (I know, it's hard for me, too) picking himself up off the turf every other play.

Or better yet, imagine a starting-grade quarterback in place of Vick--say, Kevin Kolb. This imagining led Peter King and the analysts at ESPN to rank Philadelphia third and second in the NFC East, respectively. Insert Michael Vick, and this Philadelphia team is now 8-4, ahead by a game in their division, and headed to the playoffs if it can continue its current form.

In conclusion, both quarterbacks have had fantastic seasons and are deserving of the MVP award. Brady has been phenomenal as usual, making pinpoint passes and exerting his will as a leader and a general on the field, but has done so with a greater talent level around him, including an offensive line that gives him time to deliver those passes. Vick has been more valuable to his team, carrying them to wins with his throwing and running ability, combining efficiency with an unmatched level of ability.

If there is truly a most valuable player in the league, his name is Michael Vick.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

On the Departure of Randy Shannon

While I was watching the final minutes of an intense Oklahoma-Oklahoma State game, ESPN's friendly ticker announced that coach Randy Shannon had been fired after 4 years at the University of Miami, following a 23-20 loss to South Florida. These two pieces of news (the loss and the firing) made Miami one of the biggest surprises in a day filled with intense rivalry games. The firing is the more perplexing of the two, and one has to wonder at Miami's timing.

There are high expectations at "The U," and rightfully so. This is a program with 5 national championships (many argue that that total should be 6) and is known for producing high-caliber NFL talent. But in order to have a top-tier team, top-tier coaching talent is a must. With all respect to Randy Shannon, he proved within his first three seasons that he is not a premier coach in this stage of his career, or at least not the type that the Hurricanes thought they were looking for.

To illustrate, let's compare Shannon's tenure and that of his predecessor, Larry Coker. In Coker's first year, Miami went undefeated en route to a national title, which culminated in a 37-14 dismantling of Nebraska at the Rose Bowl. The next year, 2002, Miami went undefeated in the regular season and went to the championship game a second time, yet lost to Ohio State in a double-overtime thriller (and that's all that needs to be said there). In 2003, Coker's 'Canes went 11-2, and beat their rival Florida State in the Orange Bowl to end the year. The next two years, Miami finished 9-3, and for their bowl games proceeded to beat a rising Florida and be embarassed by LSU, respectively.

In Coker's last year, the Hurricanes opened 1-2, and by Week 4 were unranked for the first time since Coker came to Miami. Four weeks later, in a game with Florida International, a massive fight broke out, which resulted in 31 players suspended, 13 of which were Hurricanes. They went on to win--

Pause the history here. Miami, two years removed from winning the Orange Bowl, is clearly on the way down. A pair of three-loss seasons is barely a cause for concern, but their last bowl game, a 40-3 shellacking by the LSU Tigers, is slightly unnerving. Now, in 2006, this latest version of The U sits at 4-2, out of the rankings (let alone BCS contention), and has just displayed a massive lack of discipline that casts the school as a haven for thugs. Is this just cause to bring about a change of leadership? Not for the Miami athletic department, who stuck with Coker--only to watch the team finish .500 on the regular season. He was fired the day after the season ended, and Randy Shannon was pronounced the new head coach.

Unfortunately for Shannon, after 2006 Miami's recruiting power had diminished significantly, and he has been feeling these effects over the last four years. He coached Miami to a 28-22 record in four years, the most recent being a 7-5 effort that saw Miami take second in the ACC Coastal Division; interestingly enough, this is where they were supposed to finish. In 2009 they finished 9-4, a mark good enough to earn him a contract extension, but this offer didn't quite make sense: while this is a normal indicator of a team on the rise, especially after a 12-11 record over the past two years, Miami went 0-3 in bowl games under Shannon's watch, and those four losses in 2009 included two very winnable games down the stretch (Clemson and North Carolina). Regardless, he turned them into a winning team, and was not given enough time to reap the rewards.
In summary, Coker was released for driving the Hurricanes into a hole, and Shannon for not getting them out of said hole quickly enough to Miami's liking. The athletic department expected another Larry Coker, but Coker I inherited a team that had been winning bowls, the most recent being a Sugar Bowl win over Florida. Coker II (Shannon) received a shell of greatness, a team that had to scrap out a win over Nevada in the Las Vegas Bowl for his first game as coach, and was given roughly the same window to do great things and restore Miami to "national relevance," as athletic director Kirby Hocutt puts it.

It has been said many times over the past two seasons that Miami has turned the corner, and I agree to a point: they are turning the corner. Randy Shannon did his part in helping to restore the 'Canes to glory; however, his players did him no favors this year, most notably his quarterbacks. Stephen Morris' willingness to play Beamerball and Jacory Harris' last second interception today against USF are, in all likelihood, the difference between this team being 7-5 and 9-3 (or at least 8-4; I'll give them a pass on the Va. Tech game). Regardless, Randy Shannon is now the first big spin in the coaching carousel of 2010-11, and probably the most undeserving victim in the madness to come.

University of Miami Hurricanes' coach Randy Shannon.
Picture property of Walter Iooss Jr./SI

Sunday, October 24, 2010

On Deangelo Hall

November 8, 2008. The ticker at the bottom of the evening news said that Deangelo Hall had signed with the Washington Redskins, and I proceeded to tell all of my friends and family that remotely cared about such things. As an avid fan of both the Virginia Tech Hokies and their NFL products, it was a dream come true, except for one teensy little detail--the last thing the 'Skins needed was a cornerback. Oddly enough, most of the media seemed to be as confused as I was, but their confusion revolved around his being beaten like a redheaded stepchild when he was with Oakland--overlooking the fact that one of the best corners in the league, Nnamdi Asomugha, was on the opposite side of the field.

Hall surprised me by performing respectably in '08, but then his $50 million contract came down from the Washington office, right on the heels of Haynesworth's $100 million. This further convinced me that Dan Snyder was in the category of owners that can only be described as "Al Davis-esque, with a touch of Jerry Jones." Hall's play that year was average, the team as a whole was horrendous (but the defense was pretty dang good), and one had to question what talent could be bought with Hall's none-too-paltry salary.

However, up to this point in 2010, Hall has been exceptional. As of this week (Week 7), he is third on the team in tackles (behind London Fletcher and LaRon Landry who, aside from having similar first names, have more than any two players in the league at 68 apiece) and leads the league with five interceptions. Four of those came today in a 17-14 win over the Chicago Bears, a feat that thrust Hall into the record books, when he became only the 19th player to do so. All four picks were the results of good coverage, and the first two were jaw-dropping feats of athleticism, especially his 92-yard return for the game-winning touchdown; however, one could argue that the other two were due to Jay Cutler's inability to pick out the subtle difference between his team's color scheme and whatever the other team is wearing.

Regardless, today's win was completely brought about by Deangelo, and Snyder can be commended for a rare gem of a signing.

A tip of the hat to you, Mr. Hall. And thank you for the incredible show.

If this looks strikingly similar to an article in another of my blogs, it is. I apologize for the mishap.