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No Football, No Trump? Why Professional Sports Matter Now

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

As controversies about the "reopening" of America loom over our lives, nothing seems as intrinsically irrelevant -- yet possibly as critically important -- as how soon major spectator sports return.

If sports don't trump religion as the opiate of the masses, they have, until recently, been at least the background music of most of our lives. So here's my bet on one possible side effect of the Covid-19 pandemic to put in your scorebook: if the National Football League plays regular season games this fall, President Trump stands a good chance of winning reelection for returning America to business as usual -- or, at least, to his twisted version of the same.

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Why We Still Need Baseball So Badly

The worse it gets, the more I need baseball. The worse what gets? Well, what have you got? Watched the evening news lately? Some days, the promise of a three-hour break from what novelist Philip Roth called “the indigenous American berserk” draws me like a fountain in the desert.

Roth, of course, was a great baseball fan. He even wrote a 1973 book called “The Great American Novel”—a ribald saga about a New Jersey minor league team whose owner rented the stadium to the War Department, forcing his team to play the entire season on the road. If not Roth’s best, it has moments of antic hilarity. He told an interviewer that he had more fun writing it than any of his other novels.

When I was a kid, baseball was unquestionably the most important American sport. Nothing else came close. Debating the relative merits of Mickey Mantle, Duke Snider and Willie Mays—Hall of Fame center-fielders for the three New York teams—consumed much of my youth.

In my neighborhood, which team you supported was a more reliable indicator of personal identity than race or religion. We didn’t know from politics, but we all knew Monte Irvin. (My dad played semi-pro ball with Irvin, and he never quit talking about it.)

We also played baseball every day in warm weather. Also wiffle ball, stick ball, stoop ball, etc. To be a boy back then was to play baseball. You didn’t have to be an all-star, but you did have to know the game. Somebody said they didn’t understand the Infield Fly Rule, what they were telling you was they basically didn’t understand anything.

These days, not so much. Indeed, a whole genre of “baseball is doomed” articles appear regularly in the sporting press. The latest is called “Why No One Watches Baseball Anymore” by Dave Zirin, sportswriter for The Nation. I know what you’re thinking: The Nation has a sportswriter? Along with all those articles about “the inspiring energy of progressives?” Yeah, and a lively, provocative sportswriter at that, if a bit dogmatic for my taste.

There’s no doubt that major league baseball is less central to American culture than it once was. But then no one sport is anymore. Zirin cites polls showing that only nine percent of Americans call baseball their favorite—the lowest since Gallup started asking. In Monte Irvin’s heyday, it was in the 30s.

When the Pirates’ Bill Mazeroski hit a walkoff home run to win the 1960 World Series, so many kids were covertly listening on transistor radios that a subdued roar went up in my high school. That wouldn’t happen today. World Series games are played at night, and young people pretty much aren’t into it. Gallup says only six percent of Americans under 34 favor baseball.

Eleven percent favor basketball and soccer.

I love basketball too; soccer sometimes. Football only intermittently. Here in SEC country, the local team plays a dozen games—three they can’t lose, three they never win, and six maybes. No sooner does one disappointing season end than everybody yaks obsessively for eight months about the next. Meanwhile, I’ve watched 100 Red Sox games. I think it’s a game for people who don’t like sports as much as drinking parties.

But that’s just me, although football’s slipping in popularity too. But here’s the thing: You don’t need to know one thing about football to watch it on TV. Baseball, you do.

Zirin says that his problem with baseball is that “the games are too damn long.” He cites the recent Red Sox-Yankees series in London, England as an example. Both games lasted around four and a half hours. “Though a typical game falls more in the three-hour range,” he writes, “this is too damn long.”

To me, it’s just right. Three blessed hours of taut competition in which he who shall not be named, won’t be. Perfect. The problem with the London games was playing in a soccer stadium whose aerodynamics made pitchers unable to control breaking balls. So it became Home Run Derby.

Seventeen to 13, for heaven’s sake. That’s a slow pitch softball score. The English crowd seemed enthralled, but it wasn’t big league baseball.

Speed things up? Absolutely. Put in a 30-second pitch clock; limit hitters to one, maybe two time outs per at bat. Stand in there and hit.

The dramatic effect of defensive shifts could be altered by requiring two infielders on either side of second base. More situational hitting, fewer second basemen swinging for the bleachers and striking out.

Mostly, though, major league baseball needs to sponsor more youth leagues. You play baseball, you learn to love it.

Zirin also confesses to being a Mets fan like my brother Tommy, making the yearly transition from “Let’s Go Mets” to “Fire the Manager and Burn the Stadium.”

Usually in July, come to think of it.

IMAGE: Former New York Yankee Yogi Berra stands at home plate before the final regular season MLB American Leugue baseball game at Yankee Stadium in New York in this September 21, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Mike Segar/Files

Danziger: Risk Of Brain Damage

Is it smart for the president to start a feud with the country’s top sports league?

High School Football Players Across The U.S. Join Kaepernick, Refuse To Stand For National Anthem

Published with permission from AlterNet.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick declared last month, explaining why he chose not to stand during the national anthem on August 26. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Since Kaepernick spoke these words, his protest has caught fire across the country, with NFL players from Miami to Seattle to Boston showing solidarity by kneeling or raising their fists in the air during the song. Meanwhile, players from other sports have joined in, with soccer star Megan Rapinoe kneeling during the national anthem, telling American Soccer Now that the gesture was “a little nod to Kaepernick and everything that he’s standing for right now.”

But getting far less attention are the high school football players across the United States, who, inspired by Kaepernick, are refusing to stand during the national anthem to protest racism and inequality. Many of those leading the protests are black and brown students who have grown up with images of young people who look like them being shot and killed by police.

Coaches and most members of the South Jersey Tigers high school football team, Woodrow Wilson, knelt during the national anthem on Saturday. “I am well aware of the third verse of the national anthem which is not usually sung, and I know that the words of the song were not originally meant to include people like me,” Tigers coach Preston Brown told NBC 10 on Saturday.

The third stanza states, “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” As the Intercept’s Jon Schwartz pointed out, Francis Scott Key wrote those words during the war of 1812, in direct reference to U.S. slaves who fought for the British, “who accepted everyone and pledged no one would be given back to their ‘owners.’” Schwartz continues: “So when Key penned ‘No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,’ he was taking great satisfaction in the death of slaves who’d freed themselves. His perspective may have been affected by the fact he owned several slaves himself.”

The Tigers’ protest is captured in the following video:

On Friday, numerous players for Watkins Mills High in Montgomery County, Maryland also kneeled during the national anthem. “We just wanted to make a statement that America is not what you think it is,” said junior quarterback Markel Grant.

Players from Maury High in Norfolk, Virginia to Auburn High in Rockford, Illinois have taken similar action. While these young people are certainly not the first to use their roles as athletes to protest racism and injustice in the United States, they are part of a fresh wave of resistance amid the ongoing movement for Black Lives Matter led by young people in cities and towns across the U.S. In some cases, individual players are making the decision to stage small protests of one or two, as in the case of Lincoln, Nebraska player Sterling Smith, highlighted in thisnews report.

Rodney Axson, a high school player at Brunswick High School in Ohio, reportedlydecided to kneel during the national anthem after he witnessed his teammates using racial slurs to degrade opposing players. The 16-year-old says he faced severe backlash as a result, including anti-black racial epithets.

Unfortunately, Axson’s case is not an isolated one. According to a local media report, the announcer for a Friday football game at McKenzie High School in Alabama’s Butler County suggested that those who do not stand for the national anthem deserve to be shot. “If you don’t want to stand for the national anthem, you can line up over there by the fence and let our military personnel take a few shots at you since they’re taking shots for you,” said the announcer, Pastor Allen Joyner of Sweet Home Baptist Church.

Mike Oppong, a player for Doherty Memorial High School in Worcester, Mass.,says he was initially suspended for a game for refusing to stand during the national anthem, but this punishment was revoked after public outcry. He told reporters, “We are disrespected and mistreated everywhere we go on a daily basis because of our skin color, and I’m sick of it.”

Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.

Photo: Screenshot.

Broncos Win Super Bowl, Manning Mum On Future Plans

By Steve Keating

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (Reuters) – The Denver Broncos upset the top-seeded Carolina Panthers to win Super Bowl 50 on Sunday, giving quarterback Peyton Manning the chance to call a fairytale ending to his storied career.

The 24-10 win over the Panthers marked the third Super Bowl triumph for Denver and second for 39-year-old Manning, who was playing in what many expect to be his final game.

Manning, a five-time league most valuable player, added yet another line in the record books as he became the NFL’s oldest quarterback to play in a Super Bowl and first to reach 200 career wins.

It was the top ranked Denver defense, however, that can claim credit for the victory after holding the league’s highest-scoring offence to a single touchdown and 10 points.

The Denver defense was led by a rampaging Von Miller who forced Panthers quarterback Cam Newton into two fumbles that led to touchdowns and ultimately earned the outside linebacker Super Bowl Most Valuable Player honors.

“It just shows the type of team we have. It’s not just about offense, defense or special teams,” said Miller. “We came together as a whole.”

Manning, who has kept fans guessing about his playing future, refused to reveal his hand after the game as a shower of golden confetti fell on a capacity crowd of 71,000 at Levi’s Stadium.

“I got some good advice from (former Indianapolis coach) Tony Dungy. He said don’t make an emotional decision,” said Manning, who joins younger brother Eli Manning as a two-time Super Bowl champion. “It’s certainly been an emotional week for everybody.

“This has been a very emotional week, an emotional night, and I’ve got a couple of priorities. I’ll take some time to reflect. I’m going to drink a lot of beer tonight. Von Miller’s buying.”

Manning, who holds the record for most career touchdown passes, did not add to his total in what was his fourth Super Bowl, completing just 13 of 23 attempts for 141 yards.

Instead the Broncos leaned on a relentless defense that kept regular season MVP Newton in check, sacking the quarterback six times, intercepting him once and forcing two fumbles.

PARTY WEATHER

As if it had been specially ordered by the NFL just for the Super Bowl’s golden anniversary, Mother Nature delivered perfect party weather with blue skies and unseasonably warm temperatures hovering around 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 Celsius).

While the Panthers entered the game almost a touchdown favorite the majority of the fans filing into Levi’s Stadium were decked out in Broncos orange.

The Broncos scored on their opening drive and never trailed, Brandon McManus connecting on a 34-yard field goal to leave the Carolina trailing for the first time this post-season.

Newton, as he does every game, began by saying a prayer then blowing a kiss to his mom, but it was the only thing that was routine as he was kept under constant pressure.

The Panthers quickly found themselves in an even deeper hole when Newton was stripped of the ball by Miller and Malik Jackson scooped it up in the end zone for a touchdown and 10-0 lead.

With the exception of 73-yard drive to start the second quarter that was capped by Jonathan Stewart’s massive leap from the one-yard line into the end zone, Newton was unable to get the Carolina offense in gear.

Manning was also unable to fire up a sputtering Denver attack, managing four first downs in a bone-jarring first half.

After Jordan Norwood’s electrifying 61-yard punt return, the longest in Super Bowl history, set up Denver on the Carolina 14 Manning could not get the ball into the end zone, settling again for a McManus field goal and 13-7 lead.

Carolina’s problems continued when Graham Gano’s 44-yard field goal attempt bounced the upright on the opening possession of the second half. Denver would not make the same mistake as McManus connected from the 30 shortly after.

Trailing 16-7, Carolina started the fourth quarter by forcing Manning to fumble and turning it into a 39-yard Gano field goal.

But Miller would end any hope of a Carolina comeback when he knocked the ball out of Newton’s hand on the Panthers four-yard line where the Denver offence took over, C.J. Anderson powering his way over from the two for 24-10 lead.

(Editing by Frank Pingue)

Photo: Denver Broncos’ quarterback Peyton Manning hands off to C.J. Anderson (22) in the fourth quarter of the NFL’s Super Bowl 50 football game against the Carolina Panthers in Santa Clara, California February 7, 2016. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Football And Gaming, What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

They worship at the high altar of football. They’re everywhere. I don’t give a fig about football, but the cult surrounds me. In the offseason, the devotees were stomping the floor over Tom Brady and a football’s air pressure. They demanded to know my opinion on the matter. That I had none amazed them.

The season is in full frenzy, and with it, a new controversy: the explosive growth of gambling on fantasy football. Run by such corporate giants as FanDuel and DraftKings, daily fantasy sports are Internet-based games where one assembles a virtual team of real players and bets on how well it will perform.

Football and gambling — two great American addictions working together. What could possibly go wrong?

Lots, mainly because of the supreme confidence of the zealots. They claim to know all the players and coaches, their weaknesses, their strengths, their girlfriends, their concussions. They know exactly which part of his hamstrings LeSean McCoy of the Buffalo Bills pulled and what that means for the game. So if anyone can get rich betting on football outcomes, they can, so many think.

A 2006 federal law banned online games of chance but left a loophole for fantasy sports betting, viewing it as a game of skill. My friends who’ve played say they are competing with so many people and there are so many unknowns in the sport that winning is basically, excuse the expression, “a crapshoot.”

In any case, few anticipated the boom in online sports betting and enormous profits to be made (for the “house,” as always). For the month ended Sept. 15, the fantasy sports industry spent more on commercials during the games than pizza and beer companies.

Whether such online fantasy sports are about skill or chance, they are most certainly about competition for the gambling dollar. Many states have banned the game, including, to no one’s surprise, Nevada.

The 2006 law was championed by former Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa. He recently criticized the carve-out for fantasy football as a mistake. “My intent in initiating the law was to constrain a growing gambling ethos in America,” Leach said. Right. Iowa is home to over 20 casinos, making it the 10th-biggest gambling state.

When one puts big-time sports, gambling and online moneymaking together, fraud is inevitable. The FBI and New York attorney general are already looking into the possible use of inside information by employees at these online sports sites to wager at another.

A socio-economic question: We keep hearing about the financial squeeze plaguing America’s middle class. Where is all this money for sports coming from?

Americans are being charged huge amounts to watch professional football in person, watch football on pay TV and not watch football on pay TV. (The huge sums that sports channels extort from the cable companies get tacked onto the monthly bills of all subscribers.) Never mind the $75 team sweatshirts and the $50 branded throw blankets.

Now there’s all this online betting. The average spending per fantasy player is $465 a year, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. If you put $500 a year into an investment yielding 5 percent, you’d have $7,418 after 10 years. Think about it.

When I ask the guys — and they’re mostly guys — why they care so much about seeing big men crashing into other big men over four glacially slow time periods, they say, “You’ll never understand.” And they’re right.

What anyone can see is that football is a quasi-religious passion for many — and that the opportunity to bet on one’s deeply held convictions about the game may be dangerously seductive. Small wonder the calls are getting louder to regulate online fantasy sports. In the meantime, tie these guys down.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

Photo: via Flickr

Judge Tosses Tom Brady’s ‘Deflategate’ NFL Suspension

By Joseph Ax and Nate Raymond

NEW YORK (Reuters) — New England Patriots star quarterback Tom Brady’s “Deflategate” suspension was thrown out by a federal judge in New York on Thursday, following a seven-month standoff between the National Football League and its players union.

U.S. District Judge Richard Berman vacated NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s decision in July to uphold Brady’s four-game suspension over his alleged role in a scheme to deflate footballs used during a January playoff victory.

Goodell’s ruling, Berman found, was plagued by “several significant legal deficiencies,” including a failure to notify Brady beforehand that his alleged conduct could be punished by suspension.

“The court finds that Brady had no notice that he could receive a four-game suspension for general awareness of ball deflation by others or participation in any scheme to deflate footballs,” Berman wrote.

The ruling is unlikely to be the last word on the matter, which has dominated sports radio, made national headlines and inspired nicknames like “Deflategate” and “Ballghazi.” The NFL can appeal Berman’s decision, a process that will take months to resolve.

Neither the NFL nor the players union immediately commented on the decision.

In the meantime, Brady can take the field on Sept. 10 when the Patriots open their season against the Pittsburgh Steelers at home. He had been suspended until an Oct. 18 clash against the Indianapolis Colts.

Brady was suspended over the footballs used in the Patriots’ 45-7 postseason victory against the Colts that sent them to the Super Bowl, where they defeated the Seattle Seahawks 28-24.

Before the case went to federal court, Ted Wells, a lawyer hired by the NFL to investigate the incident, found it was “more probable than not” that Brady was “generally aware” that two low-level Patriots employees had conspired to let air out of the footballs, which can make them easier to grip. Wells’ 243-page report formed the basis for Brady’s suspension.

But Berman said that was not enough to justify the suspension and criticized Goodell for saying that Brady deserved the same penalty as a player who used steroids.

The judge also said Brady’s lawyers were improperly barred from cross-examining the NFL’s general counsel, Jeff Pash, who helped lead the Deflategate probe, and were unfairly denied access to certain investigative notes.

The NFL and the players union had engaged in settlement talks for weeks with Berman, who urged them to find an acceptable solution. But a deal never emerged, even though Berman said this week they “tried quite hard.”

Photo: New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady exits the Manhattan Federal Courthouse in New York, August 31, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

U.S. Judge Questions NFL’s ‘Deflategate’ Case Against Brady

By Joseph Ax and Nate Raymond

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A federal judge on Wednesday fired tough questions at a National Football League lawyer about whether New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s four-game “Deflategate” suspension is supported by the evidence.

The hearing in New York before U.S. District Judge Richard Berman, who is overseeing the players union’s challenge to the suspension, was followed by several hours of private settlement discussions with the judge that included Brady and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

Neither Brady nor Goodell would comment on whether any progress had been made when they left the courthouse separately around 5:30 p.m. (2130 GMT), more than five hours after the open hearing ended.

A union representative declined to comment. The NFL did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Earlier in court, Berman pressed NFL lawyer Daniel Nash to cite direct evidence linking Brady to an alleged scheme to deflate footballs in a January playoff game.

Nash acknowledged that there was no “smoking gun” but said there was plenty of circumstantial evidence – including a series of texts between Brady and the Patriots employees accused of letting air out of the balls – that Brady was aware of the deflation.

Brady, 38, sat stone-faced throughout the proceeding, even when a few light remarks from Berman drew laughs from the rest of the courtroom.

Berman also met briefly with each side before the hearing to gauge whether a settlement could be reached before the Patriots’ season begins on Sept. 10.

Unless there is a deal, the two sides are scheduled to appear before Berman again on Aug. 19 for oral arguments on whether he should uphold or vacate the suspension.

Goodell suspended Brady, one of the NFL’s biggest stars, following an investigation into the footballs used in the Patriots’ 45-7 playoff victory over the Indianapolis Colts. That win took the Patriots to the Super Bowl, where they defeated the defending champion Seattle Seahawks, giving Brady his fourth championship title.

Brady has denied knowing about any plan to deflate footballs, which can make them easier to grip.

At the hearing, Berman asked Brady lawyer Jeffrey Kessler why the quarterback refused to turn over any texts or emails to NFL investigator Ted Wells, whose report was the basis for Goodell’s suspension. Brady also had his phone replaced and destroyed, a point Goodell emphasized in rejecting Brady’s appeal.

Kessler, however, said Brady had followed the advice of his lawyer in declining to hand over his communications, and added that the quarterback routinely destroys his old phones to avoid unwanted leaks to the media.

“This is the most overblown issue in the history of my over 40 years of litigation,” Kessler said.

Brady’s presence drew a throng of reporters and photographers outside the courthouse in downtown Manhattan, as well as a handful of fans wearing Brady’s No. 12 jersey.

Some called Goodell a “liar” as he walked in. As Brady entered, another fan yelled, “Give ’em hell, Tom!”

Trevor Schramn, 20, was wearing a “Free Tom Brady” T-shirt and said he had come to “support our boy.”

“The Patriots are winners, and people are always going to hate the team on top,” he said.

The NFL has already fined the Patriots $1 million and stripped the team of its first-round draft pick in 2016 and fourth-round selection in 2017. The litigation in New York only concerns Brady’s suspension.

New England opens its preseason on Thursday night at home against the Green Bay Packers. While Brady’s suspension does not take effect until the regular season, the team has not announced whether he will play on Thursday.

If the suspension is upheld, second-year backup Jimmy Garoppolo, who played sparingly last year, would likely start at quarterback in Brady’s place. In a twist, Brady would be eligible to return on Oct. 18 against the Colts in a nationally televised game.

(Additional reporting by Steve Ginsburg)

Photo: New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady exits the Manhattan Federal Courthouse in New York August 12, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid