Changing college sports as we know them

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern

Today–March 26, 2014– is the 35th anniversary of the Magic Johnson/Larry Bird title game in the NCAA tournament. I remember watching that game as a ten year-old kid in Springfield, Illinois. It was broadcast on NBC, instead of on CBS. There was no three point stripe, no shot clock, and no possession arrow. The NCAA logo was some silly interlocking letters arranged inside a circle. The game followed a third-place game, where the two teams that lost in the Final Four still had one last chance to salvage something. In short, there were still five men on a side and the team that scored the most points won the game, but otherwise the modern sports fan would hardly recognize it.

And on the anniversary of that game, which arguably changed basketball itself for the next decade, the NLRB handed down a ruling that Northwestern’s football players can vote to form a union. There are many writers and fans bemoaning the ruling, saying that it will “change college sports as we know them.” To which I reply, change happens all the time in life. The NCAA championship game from 1979 (which is within my living memory) is all the proof anyone needs that change is inevitable, in sports and in life itself.

To those who would bemoan the loss of something in college athletics, I would invite them to consider that the athletes on the floor in the basketball tournament, and on the field during the bowl games and in the regular season, are generating millions of dollars for their schools, yet they aren’t allowed to share in any of it. The schools do award scholarships and provide room and board, but they keep the money and in turn make their professional coaches into wealthy men. They give the chattering heads of CBS, ESPN, and a thousand other places something to talk about and write about and take pictures of. They allow the advertisers to reach a captive audience and sell more product. And what do these athletes get in return? Not what they should, if you ask me.

There will never come a time when the NCAA, in its benevolence, decides to share the wealth with the players who do the work and assume the risks. There will never come a time when a school pays for the long-term medical bills of a player who gets hurt playing a game, while wearing their school’s colors. And there will never come a time when a player who can’t keep up with his academics and his team responsibilities is told that academics are why they are in school. Football comes first, or basketball comes first, and everyone understands this. But it’s wrong and it needs to stop.

It’s ironic that the very first Final Four, or the first time that NCAA schools competed on the same floor for a basketball championship, happened on Northwestern’s campus, all the way back in 1939. I know that that was basketball and today’s ruling applies to football, but that’s not the point I’m making here.

Northwestern–my alma mater–showed the NCAA the possibilities that a championship tournament offered. And 75 years later the Final Four, and the tournament leading up to it, is a money-making juggernaut. But what Northwestern giveth in basketball, it taketh away in football and–soon enough–in basketball, too.

If making money from the toil of players who don’t get to fully share in the pie they create seems fair, I will respectfully disagree with that premise. Million-dollar coaches don’t play the games; the players do. And the false hope of a professional payday–which the overwhelming majority of college athletes will never get to see–is shameful. It’s gone on for too long, and the sooner it comes to an end, the better.

Kudos to Kain Colter and the Northwestern football team, for sowing the seeds that will one day bring about some much-needed and long-overdue changes in college sports.

Here in my car

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A long time ago, back in the late 70s and early 80s, I owned a stack of 45 RPM records, or 45s. It was the equivalent of a single-song download on iTunes, in that you could buy a song–that was played over and over again on the radio, generally–without having to commit to buying the entire album. Albums were a big monetary commitment, and that usually didn’t happen unless there were multiple songs worth listening to. And again, “worth listening to” was something that was determined by radio programmers.

As I’m now slogging through my 45th year on this crazy blue marble, I have wanted to write about 45s for some time. But like a lot of other things, I just kept putting it off. And if I wait too much longer, I won’t be 45 anymore, and the silly connection that I have between age and record speed will be lost. As usually happens, I needed some random event to push things along, and today I got what I needed.

One of my 45s was “Cars” by Gary Numan. The song came out in the summer of 1979, a few days after Disco Demolition and a few months before Disco finally died. It was the first synth song I had ever heard, and it seems weirdly hypnotic to me now. But it took an encounter with the song on an FM radio station this afternoon for me to remember that I had ever owned it in the first place. And today was the first time I had ever heard the song that starts out “Here in my car…” as I was actually in my car. So I grooved along with that mesmerizing hook that was a forerunner for some of the other synth music that would follow in the 80s.

Disco was on the path to extinction when I bought this 45, even if I didn’t know it just yet. And years of the Village People and Donna Summer and Saturday Night Fever had made me interested in hearing something else. Anything else, really. And Gary Numan certainly fit that bill, even if I have no idea if he ever made any music after that. That one song was enough.

Blowin’ your mind like we knew we would

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Super Bowl Sunday, 1986 was certainly the high point of my senior year in high school. I knew that graduation was four months away, and going off to college would happen a few months after that, and then life would all be different. And that’s exactly what I wanted, to be honest about it. But the Bears made sure that the Springfield chapter of my life finished on a high note.

My family always went somewhere to watch the Super Bowl, and in 1986 we went, for the only time I can remember, to my Aunt Francie’s house. The Bears were the team that I had followed since Walter Payton first came to the NFL in the mid-1970s. He was known as “Sweetness” but he never had a team around him in those days. But in the early 1980s, the team started to rise under Mike Ditka. I was too young to know him as a player, but he looked the part of a football coach to me.

The 1985 Bears will always be the standard by which football teams will be measured. They made football fun, in a way that it had not been before and has not been since. Alongside Walter Payton, there was Jim McMahon, Willie Gault, Dan Hampton, Richard Dent, Mike Singletary, Gary Fencik and, the biggest attraction of all, the Fridge, William Perry. Someone had put a refrigerator outside of their house in my Aunt’s neighborhood, and painted the number 72–the Fridge’s number–on the front. All these years later, and I can still remember it like it happened earlier today.

The Super Bowl Shuffle video made them all household names. They lost one game down in Miami on Monday night, but then they never lost again. And maybe the best part of the game was that the Bears overcame an early 3-0 deficit with a stellar performance the rest of the way. Sometimes things go badly at first, and it puts you in a hole that you can’t get out of. But this team shook off the slow start and proceeded to put on a football clinic. It proved that how you start off is much less important than how you finish up.

The Bears probably should have won more than just that one Super Bowl, but it didn’t work out that way. It’s now more than a quarter of a century later, and the Bears are still looking for a companion piece to that year’s title. Who knows when we’ll see another one, but for now we can look back at what a special time–and team–that actually was.

I now live in Chicago, and I’d love to see what it would be like in this city if the Bears ever rise to that level again. Life has changed since then, as I knew it would, but that special few months in late 1985 and early 1986 are something that will always remain in my memory.

Links to my childhood lost

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I watched a lot of TV as a child. Too much, it now seems to me. But what’s done is done, and for better or for worse, it was the dominant medium of my youth.

Two of my very favorite shows in those days were Gilligan’s Island and The Partridge Family. And two of the main characters–one from each show–passed away today. It’s the most unusual death pairing I can think of since Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson.

First, the Professor. He was the straight man to the screwball antics of Gilligan and the Skipper, and I always thought of him as the calm within the storm on the Island. There’s only Ginger and Mary Ann left still with us now, and their times are coming too. But Russell Johnson added something to the show, and I’m glad that he was there. It would have been less of a show without him, somehow.

And then there’s Reuben Kincade. He was kinda sleazy before I even knew what that term meant, but he seemed right at home alongside Danny Bonaduce. They weren’t the prettiest ones on the show, but they were good for laughs, and that’s why I watched the show in the first place.

Time goes on, and more and more of the actors and singers and other artists that I watched and listened to and knew about in my youth will reach the end of the road. It’s worth taking a few moments to acknowledge their contributions when they do. Making people laugh is a great thing, and both of these actors did that for me. And I’m grateful to them for that.

A part of my youth

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I spent some time this morning playing an Atari game that I picked up at a second hand store. It was a way of connecting to the kid that I once was.

Video games were once a huge part of my life. I once spent hours upon hours playing Missile Command and Yars Revenge and a host of other games that cost me $30 and up. A good chunk of my paper route earnings went into Atari cartridges, at least until an even bigger chunk of it was shoveled into arcade games like Donkey Kong and Defender.

I once had shoeboxes filled with the games I had bought for myself over the years. And then one day, they were obsolete. The games had become a lot more sophisticated than my Atari could handle, and I was going to have to either buy a new game system (I think ColecoVision was the next big thing back then) or go without. So I opted out, instead. And I stayed out until I purchased a Wii for my family a number of years ago. I like the Wii, too, but I rarely play it anymore. Video games in the home are something that probably mean more to adolescent boys than anybody else. And that’s as it should be, I guess.

But a few moments of recaptured youth, in the form of the Atari games and its signature joystick, felt pretty good on a Sunday morning. The games themselves haven’t changed, and there’s something reassuring about that.

The early teenager that I was when Atari held its sway over me is long gone, but I was pleased to get some help from him in my living room today. That Yar can really be a handful sometimes.

Oh yeah, life goes on

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It was a typical Saturday of taking my daughters to their various meetings today, but it started, as it often does, at the ice skating rink. And the TV was tuned, as it so often is, to Sportscenter on ESPN. I’m sure that the skate moms aren’t much interested in the day’s sports headlines, but whoever makes the decisions about what to put on in the morning is probably in tune with me, on some level.

The ESPN highlights this morning included the sort of thing that made ESPN so exciting once: a backboard being shattered at what looked like a high school basketball game. When Darryl Dawkins broke two backboards back in 1979, ESPN (which had just gone on the air that September) showed the footage over and over again. These occurrences got more exposure than they would have received back in the dark days when the only way to get sports highlights was on the local news at night. I remember those days, and ESPN caught on, in part, because people want to see sports more than just a few minutes of an evening. People’s appetite for sports, in fact, is nearly limitless.

I say all of this because as thrilling as a backboard shattering dunk once was for me, seeing one as an adult hit me much differently than it did back in the late 1970s. For one thing, it occurred to me that the game in question probably came to an end when the backboard was shattered, or at least there would have been a terribly long delay in clearing the court and hanging a new backboard, assuming that it could be done in an hour or less.

And, on top of the existential threat to the game itself, the cost of a new backboard would have to be absorbed by somebody. Maybe there’s insurance to cover it, and maybe there isn’t. But either way, backboards aren’t free, and the money would have to come from somewhere.

It seemed that a shattered backboard was less of an exciting thing to me at this stage of my life than it would have been to me as a teenager. From the look of it, the fans in the stands were enjoying the sight of shattered glass in their gym. But it created headaches for some people as well, and I realize that now more than I ever would have in the days of Darryl Dawkins.

After my daughter took to the ice for her skating lesson, I went back to the car and turned on the radio. The first song that I heard was the guitar part of John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane,” and the lyrics “Oh yeah, life goes on…long after the thrill of living is gone.” It seemed funny that Mellencamp’s lyrics somehow applied to glass backboards being shattered. My thrill of seeing one–such as I had when Darryl Dawkins did it–has now been replaced by more grown-up concerns about what such an event means to the game and to somebody’s bottom line. Life sure has gone on, just as Mellencamp predicted it would

Consider this a little ditty about crackin’ backboards…..

Farewell, Junie B. Jones

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I was saddened to learn that Barbara Park passed away recently. She had created a character in Junie B. Jones that my two daughters really enjoyed reading about. Whenever a character appeals to a child, that child wants to keep coming back for more. And so it was with Junie B. Jones.

When I was younger, I was a fan of the Great Brain Series by John D. Fitzgerald. I read several books in the series, and if there are some that I haven’t yet read, I’ll have to search them out and give them a read, too. All I know is that they made me want to read, and that feeling never really left me. I’m so grateful that it hasn’t, too.

My girls have several Junie B. Jones books in their rooms, and I think I’ll dig one of them out and read it to whoever is interested tonight. But I’m grateful that this character brought reading and laughter to my girls, and I hope it stays with them throughout their lives, as well. There may not be a better legacy for anyone leave behind.

Thank you, #Batkid

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I’ve not written anything here in a couple of days, not because I’m out of things to say, but because sleep feels pretty good sometimes. I’m also quite confident that I’ll never run out of things to say.

The story of #SFBatkid makes me feel good inside. It was certainly a day that a little boy named Miles will never forget. Hats off to Make-a-Wish, the city of San Francisco, the Giants, and anyone else who helped Miles have a great day today.

Kids are our future, whether we have any in our own lives or not, and they deserve the best that we can do for them. I’m happy that so many people worked together to give Miles a great experience like this. And I’m happy to finally have the Riddler and the Penguin off the streets. What a menace they were!