Sunday, November 29, 2009

Too. Many. Men.

One play. One mistake. That's all it came down to in one of the craziest endings to a football game I've ever seen. After Saskatchewan got stopped deep in their own end and punted, they still seemed to have a great chance to hang on and win. In fact, disaster almost struck for Montreal on the punt itself when Brian Bratton bobbled and then fumbled it, but Etienne Boulay saved the day, diving on the ball. Still, Montreal only had 40 seconds to work with, no timeouts and a starting position on their own 34. There were a few mishaps, but Anthony Calvillo completed two long passes and Montreal was in position to kick the winning field goal, but it was from long range and kicker Damon Duval had struggled all game. The ball was snapped, the hold was good, but Duval drove it well right of the uprights. Jason Armstead ran it out and took a knee, and it looked like the Riders had won.

Not so fast. In a moment reminiscent of the legendary call that ended Don Cherry's coaching career with the Bruins, a flag flew. Saskatchewan was called for too many men on the field, the ball was moved 10 yards closer, and Duval got another chance. He made no mistake this time,giving Montreal a 28-27 victory.

This fits right in with the column I wrote earlier this year about the overemphasis we frequently place on quarterbacks. Both Calvillo and Darian Durant had reasonably good days after slow starts, but neither was the decisive factor. If Boulay hadn't had the presence of mind to dive on that fumble, Calvillo wouldn't have even had a chance to lead that final drive, and if Saskatchewan hadn't had too many men on the field, the drive wouldn't have mattered.

Still, you can bet there will be plenty of stories about Calvillo's veteran leadership, even though he wasn't on the field for the sole play that turned a loss into a win. In fact, the Alouettes didn't even really win, as the best efforts of their players resulted in a loss. It was Saskatchewan's critical error that made the difference. That doesn't mean the rest of the game gets ignored, but it needs to be kept in perspective. The Alouettes played a great game and made a great comeback, but it was a penalty that turned a loss into a win.

Grey Cup live blog!

From McMahon Stadium, it's a live blog of the Grey Cup! Come join in!

Setting up the Grey Cup

Today's Grey Cup clash between the Montreal Alouettes and Saskatchewan Roughriders is all set to kick off in about 40 minutes, and I'm planning to live-blog it right here. I have a brief preview column up over at The Rookies, but I figured I'd use the last few minutes before the game to write a more detailed one here. Without further ado, here's some thoughts on what may be crucial parts of the game.

Quarterbacks: On paper, this one looks like a bit of a mismatch. Montreal has Anthony Calvillo, who just won his second straight Most Outstanding Player award after a season where he completed an incredible 72 per cent of his passes and threw for 4,639 yards and 26 touchdowns while only being intercepted six times. Meanwhile, Saskatchewan has Darian Durant, who wasn't even guaranteed to be their starter this year. Durant has come on in the last few weeks, though, and led a tremendous comeback against the Calgary Stampeders in the West Final last week. Moreover, Calvillo has been historically unsuccessful in Grey Cup games; he goes into this one with a career 1-6 record. I wrote earlier this year that win-loss records are generally a lousy way to judge quarterbacks, and Calvillo played very well in some of those losses, but at other times, he and the Alouettes have struggled under the pressure of a Grey Cup environment. You'd have to think the Alouettes still have an edge here, but the quarterbacking duel may be much closer than the pure stats might suggest.

Running backs: This is another intriguing one. Saskatchewan has Wes Cates, who was a key part of their 2007 Grey Cup win and was their best player last year, but struggled with injury this season and had a down year. He finished with 932 yards on 195 carries. Montreal has Avon Cobourne, who historically hasn't been that outstanding, but had a pretty good year, finishing with 1214 yards on 224 carries. However, that was only sixth-best in the league. It's curious that in what has been dubbed the "Year of the Running Back" by many, two of the teams with the least-renowned rushing offences are facing off in the Grey Cup. Cobourne has had the better season this year, but Cates has potential to do even better, and he brings more to the table in the passing game. I'll give a slight edge to the Riders here.

Receivers: Two vastly different groups here. The Alouettes have gone the traditional CFL route with a group of quick import receivers, including Kerry Watkins, Brian Bratton and Jamel Richardson. Their lone starting non-import at receiver is slotback Ben Cahoon, who's always been one of the top Canadians in the league, but is approaching the end of his career. Saskatchewan, by contrast, features a highly unconventional group of receivers; they have five top Canadians from CIS schools, including Rob Bagg, Andy Fantuz, Chris Getzlaf, Jason Clermont and Adam Nicolson. They've been targeted by some writers for this approach, including Sun Media columnist Terry Jones, who derogatorily called the Riders' receivers "slow, white, Canadian guys."

It's true that the Saskatchewan guys by and large don't have the flat-out speed of Montreal's receivers, but speed isn't the be-all-and-end-all in the passing game; look at how much better Michael Crabtree is than Darrius Heyward-Bey. Saskatchewan has a very talented group of guys who skilled at deceptive routes and not afraid to fight for balls in traffic and take big hits. That's why I give them the edge here.

Lines: Montreal has an incredible offensive line composed entirely of Canadian starters. They've been together for years and have great cohesion as a group. Saskatchewan's O-line is no group of slouches either, but Montreal's is arguably the best in the league. The Riders have the better D-line though, especially considering bookend defensive ends John Chick and Stevie Baggs.

Linebackers/defensive backs: Both teams are pretty strong here. Montreal has the edge at LB with Chip Cox and Shea Emry, but I love the Riders' defensive backs. Cornerback Omarr Morgan will be one to watch here; he's been in the league for over a decade but has never made it to a Grey Cup, so this is a big game for him.

Special teams: This is also close. Both teams have great kickers, Saskatchewan's Luca Congi and Montreal's Damon Duval, and solid return men, the Riders with Jason Armstead and the Als with Larry Taylor. The Als have a slight edge here.

Crowd: The Riders win this one decisively. They have an incredible group of travelling fans, and McMahon Stadium is almost entirely green today. That might be just the edge the Riders need to take home the win here.

Trivia: This is the first time these franchises have faced each other in a Grey Cup, but the cities have faced off before. The Montreal Amateur Athletic Association beat the Regina Roughriders 22-0 in 1931.

Prediction: Saskatchewan 31, Montreal 28

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Vanier Cup live blog!

Join me and the rest of the cast from The CIS Blog for a live blog of the Vanier Cup contest between Queen's and the University of Calgary. Kickoff is set for 12 p.m. Eastern/10 a.m. Mountain/9 a.m. Pacific.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Link Train: Grey Cup Special

I've been planning to bring back my regular Link Train feature for some time now,and the amount of great coverage of the Grey Cup out there provides an excellent opportunity. I'll throw in a few Vanier Cup links as well, as I'll be live-blogging that game (from my Calgary hotel room) with the rest of the gang from The CIS Blog tomorrow at 12 p.m. Eastern (10 a.m. Mountain, 9 a.m. Pacific. I'll be back to regular coverage of other sports as well after Grey Cup Weekend.

Song of the Day: U2 - Mysterious Ways

This has always been one of my favourite U2 songs. The rhythm groove of bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. fits perfectly with The Edge's guitar work and Bono's vocals. Plus, it was played at CFL commissioner Mark Cohon's press conference this morning, which gave me a great excuse to use it here.

League links:

- David Naylor of The Globe and Mail reports that Argonauts' owners David Cynamon and Howard Sokolowski are leaning towards keeping the team, and once again investigating the possibility of playing at BMO Field.

- Vicki Hall of The Calgary Herald has a great piece on former CFL linebacker Jerry Campbell's struggles with concussions.

- Lowell Ullrich of The Province with a story on Ricky Foley being named as top Canadian.

- My page over at, where I weigh in on what makes the CFL and its players unique.

Montreal links:

- Cam Cole of the Vancouver Sun has a nice column on Anthony Calvillo's quest to improve his 1-5 record in Grey Cups.

- Herb Zurkowsky of the Montreal Gazette on Calvillo's historic repeat as the CFL's Most Outstanding Player.

Saskatchewan links:

- Sean Fitz-Gerald of the National Post on Chris Szarka's successful campaign for Regina city council.

- Rob Vanstone of the Regina Leader-Post on how former head coach Kent Austin's impact is still felt.

- Kevin Mitchell of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix on the rise to prominence of Rob Bagg (who I wrote a sports feature on earlier this year).

Vanier Cup Links:

- Neate Sager with a nice post on the importance of Queen's offensive and defensive lines [The CIS Blog].

- Chris Lund also has some good thoughts on the subject [Always OUA].

- Rita Mingo on Osie Ukwuoma's time at the Stampeders' training camp and how it's improved his play [The Calgary Herald].

- Mingo also talks to former Dinos' coach Peter Connellan, who led Calgary to a Vanier Cup victory over Queen's in 1983. [The Calgary Herald]

- Bruce Dowbiggin talks about the Vanier Cup, TSN and the important role The Score's weekly University Rush broadcasts have played in developing the CIS audience (at the bottom of his column) [The Globe and Mail].

Much more Grey Cup coverage to come later.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Hage shows the true CFL values

Tonight's Gibson's Finest CFL Player Awards were mostly about performances on the gridiron, but there was one off-field performance that was also recognized. Marwan Hage, a centre with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, picked up the Tom Pate Memorial Award. The award is presented annually to a CFL player who displays qualities that distinguish them from their peers, including sportsmanship and community service. Hage certainly did that this year; he hosted food drives that fed over 2,300 families, brought 1,000 underprivileged youth to a July 18 game and regularly brought 40 local kids to each home game, giving them a meal and a t-shirt and meeting with them personally. That's really impressive, and it shows the true nature of the CFL and how much some of these guys do for their communities. "I always said that once I established myself as a player, I was going to establish myself in the community," Hage said. He's certainly done that.

Lumsden finding success off the gridiron

Jesse Lumsden isn't here at this week's Grey Cup, but he's having plenty of sporting success this weekend. Lumsden, the former CIS star with the McMaster Marauders and current Edmonton Eskimos' running back, picked up a gold medal with Canadian legend Pierre Lueders in the two-man bobsled event at the European Cup in Koenigssee, Germany.

This isn't quite as unusual as it sounds. Other athletes in individual team sports have made the transition to Winter Olympics events very successfully, many of them as bobsled brakemen. One example is the man who partnered with Lueders to win a silver medal at the 2006 Olympics, Lascelles Brown. The Jamaican-born Brown (insert Cool Runnings joke here if you like) was a stellar athlete growing up, but he didn't start his bobsled career until 1999. He raced for Jamaica in the 2002 Olympics and then gained Canadian citizenship in time for the 2006 Olympics. Even though he wasn't competing for Jamaica, he became the first Jamaican-born athlete to win a Winter Olympics medal.

The move from football to bobsled isn't an easy transition by any means, but Lumsden has done well so far and is in the running for a place on one of the Canadian Olympic squads in 2010. His CFL impact was limited this year thanks to an early injury, but he's talked about coming back next year. It will be interesting to see if he pursues his dreams in bobsled, football or both.

Lions' Mallett earns Rookie of the Year

For Martell Mallett, his rookie season started with low expectations.

"Coming in, I just wanted to make the team," he said. "I just wanted to get the opportunity."

He got the opportunity thanks to the departure of Stefan Logan and injury concerns with Ian Smart, and he made the most of it, rushing for 1,240 yards and six touchdowns on 214 carries. He also caught 43 passes and added 432 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns. Tonight, he was named the CFL's most outstanding rookie at the Gibson's Finest CFL Player Awards.

"Coach Wally and the offensive staff gave me the opportunity, and I just took it and ran with it," Mallett said.

Mallett played college football for the little-known University of Arkansas - Pine Bluff, so he said this award is one of the biggest milestones in his football career so far.

"Coming from a Division I-AA school, you can’t even get a bowl beard, so to win this is great," he said. "I’m completely satisfied."

That satisfaction doesn't have to breed complacency, though. Mallett said he plans extensive off-season training. He's determined not to rest on his laurels.

"I’m looking to do big things next year."

Flory earns second-straight trophy

Montreal Alouettes' guard Scott Flory earned his second-straight selection as the CFL's most outstanding lineman this evening at the 2009 Gibson's Finest CFL Player Awards. Flory had a great year; his line only allowed 35 QB sacks this year, third-lowest in the CFL, and he was effective in both the pass and run game. The Alouettes finished first in total yards, passing yards and rushing yards per game, with 390.3, 288.4 and 119.9 yards in each category respectively. Flory earned his seventh CFL All-Star selection as well this year.

Flory passed much of the credit off to his teammates, though, naming each of his fellow offensive linemen (regular and reserve) in his acceptance speech and giving them most of the credit in his post-award media conference.

"It's easier when you play with guys like that," he said.

For Flory, a Regina native who played at the University of Saskatchewan, it's refreshing to see a lot of young Canadian offensive lineman excelling in the league this year. He said the continued development of Canadian football has played a big role in that, and that bodes well for continued

"There are so many good Canadian offensive linemen in the league right now," he said. "The future looks bright for Canadian offensive linemen."

Flory was asked for his thoughts on the recent debate around reducing the league-mandated number of Canadian starters. He said he doesn't agree with the idea, as that would make it tougher for Canadian players to get a shot at regular playing time.

"I love it just the way it is."

From star to mentor

It wasn’t all that long ago that Jason Clermont was tearing up the CFL statistically. In 2002, he was drafted fourth overall by the B.C. Lions and made an immediate impact, catching 46 passes for 735 yards and six touchdowns and earning the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie award. In 2004, he had a career year, recording 83 catches for 1,220 yards and seven touchdowns. He also put up 1,000+ yard seasons with B.C. in 2005 and 2007. In 2008, he was held to 50 catches for 640 yards and three touchdowns, still very solid numbers, but he was released by the Lions after the season ended. He signed a deal with Saskatchewan nine days later and played this year with the Roughriders.

In terms of pure statistics, the move didn’t pay off. Saskatchewan has probably the best Canadian receiving corps in the league, so Clermont struggled to find time with the likes of Rob Bagg, Andy Fantuz and Chris Getzlaf competing for catches. He only recorded catches in 12 different games this year, and only had six games with more than one catch. He finished the year with career lows in catches (23), yards (317) and touchdowns (zero).

Still, Regina native Clermont said coming home brings its own rewards. “It’s been great,” he said. “I had a baby boy 10 months ago, so it’s great to get to go home, have dinner with my family and sleep in my own bed.”

Some might be jealous of the younger receivers stealing their catches, but not Clermont. He said he loves watching the young Canadians succeed, and their accomplishments are proof of the depth of Canadian talent in the league today. Saskatchewan’s frequently started more than the league minimum of non-imports, and they’ve found great success doing so.

“At some times, we’ve had up to 10 Canadian players on the field at the same time on our offence, and I don’t think we’ve really skipped a beat,” Clermont said.

Bagg credited Clermont with much of the younger receivers’ development.

“He’s obviously been there and been a big influence on all of us,” Bagg said. “He’s won a championship and been a huge player in this game. While he might not be on the field on every down right now, mentally he helps us prepare for every play. He’s a fun guy to be around and a bigger part of this team than people on the outside probably realize.”

The move has also worked out for Clermont from another standpoint, as it allows him a chance to pick up his second Grey Cup ring. For him, one of the few disappointments is not getting a chance to take on his old team thanks to B.C.’s loss in the Eastern Final.

“For a lot of the friends I have on that team, I hoped for their sake that they’d get through and then lose in the Grey Cup.”

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The importance of the Grey Cup

I’m in Calgary to cover the Grey Cup, and will be providing plenty of material on it all week. First off, though, I thought I’d address the importance of this event.As a writer covering both the CFL and NFL, and one who frequently writes for an American audience, I’ve faced my share of skepticism about the league and the Grey Cup over the years. Detractors of the CFL often try to diminish it by direct comparisons to the NFL, and on that playing field, the CFL can’t compete; it doesn’t have the resources to pay the NFL’s massive salaries or stage anything on the scale of the Super Bowl. Those detractors are missing the point, though.

The CFL isn’t trying to be the NFL, and the Grey Cup isn’t trying to be the Super Bowl. Instead, both offer compelling alternatives. Despite having only eight teams, the CFL has a devoted following across the country, and it delivers exciting action that often goes down to the wire week in and week out. The three-down game makes for an interesting product dominated by passing where few leads are safe. There’s no “three yards and a cloud of dust” here. In fact, the NFL’s rediscovery of passing-oriented offences in the past few decades can partly be attributed to the influence of the CFL. Key figures such as Warren Moon and Marv Levy got their start north of the border, and many other American players and coaches started adopting CFL methods. Even with recent moves towards the passing game in the States, the Canadian product is still much more pass-heavy. This season was more notable for rushing offence than many, and even featured one team (the Winnipeg Blue Bombers) daring to operate out of the I-formation instead of the shotgun, but aerial attack still prevailed. The game’s still very different up here, and that’s a good thing. An NFL Lite approach wouldn’t be anywhere as interesting.

The same holds true for the Grey Cup. The game itself, and the festival around it, are not trying to be watered-down versions of the NFL’s Super Bowl Week. Instead, the league has taken their own approach, putting on an event that’s more about history, community and fans than anything the NFL can offer.

The Grey Cup has a long and proud history dating back to 1909, and was originally awarded by the Governor General of Canada, Earl Grey. It’s been competed for and won by everyone from the University of Toronto Varsity Blues to Queen’s University to a team representing the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Toronto base, and was even won by the oddly-named Toronto Balmy Beach team in 1927. If you’ve been to Toronto, you know the beaches there are usually anything but balmy. The Cup even travelled south of the border in 1995, when the Baltimore Stallions beat the Calgary Stampeders. Oddly enough, Baltimore later moved to Montreal and became the latest version of the Alouettes, so they’ll be competing for the Cup again this week. The Alouettes have never faced the Saskatchewan Roughriders before in the Grey Cup, but the two cities have squared off; the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association club beat the Regina Roughriders 22-0 in 1931.Those kind of odd historical notes give the trophy, and the game, its own unique feel. The CFL’s embraced that history and is putting on an event that’s all about the fans. It’s not the Super Bowl, but it doesn’t have to be; as Dave Naylor of The Globe and Mail wrote, this might just be more fun.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

CFL: Western Final Live Blog

Come join us below for the live blog of the CFL Western Final, between the Calgary Stampeders and the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

CFL: Eastern Final live blog

It's an oddly-named Eastern Final this year in the CFL playoffs, as it features the league's westernmost team, the B.C. Lions. The Lions finished fourth in the West Division this year with a 8-10 mark, but earned a crossover berth thanks to finishing ahead of Winnipeg. They knocked off Hamilton last week, but now will take on arguably the league's best team, the Montreal Alouettes. Come join in at 1 p.m. Eastern/10 a.m. Pacific to see if they can continue their run!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Queen's win shows the need for an NCAA playoff

This year in CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sport) football has seen some crazy games. The Ontario playoffs in particular have been excellent, and the Queen's Golden Gaels emerged as Yates Cup champions with wins over the McMaster Marauders and the Western Mustangs. Today, they knocked off the Laval Rouge et Or 33-30 (see my friend and former Queen's Journal colleague Mike Woods' CP story here) to advance to the Vanier Cup, the Canadian university championship. There, they'll take on the University of Calgary Dinos, who demolished the Saint Mary's Huskies 38-14 in the Uteck Bowl earlier today.

In the wake of the Queen's game, Canwest News Service's Peter James made an interesting remark that served as the inspiration for this post. Tongue-in-cheek, he tweeted, "BCS supporters can point to the #CIS to show why their system works. Queen's upset prevented at No. 1 vs. No 2 Vanier Cup."

That's true, as Laval ranked first and Calgary ranked second in the final UFRC-CIS poll of the season. Queen's was fourth. Personally, I had Queen's as the top team in every week after Laval's surprising loss to Montreal, as the Gaels never lost a meaningful game (their sole loss came in the regular-season finale after they'd already locked up the top playoff berth), and I predicted last night on Norman James' radio show that I saw them winning by a field goal thanks to their ability to dominate the trench fights. However, I was very much in the minority; most saw this as an easy Laval win, and figured it would be a victory for Queen's just to keep it close. There's no way Queen's would have been selected for the title game if the CIS used any sort of BCS ranking system.

To me, what this shows is how desperately the NCAA needs a playoff system. Last week's Yates Cup against Western and this week's Queen's-Laval game have been two of the better football games I've seen at any level. Things are so close at the top of the CIS that any team can win on any given Saturday. To me, it makes zero sense to rely on a system of polls, no matter how elaborate. It's the results on the field that matter, and the unpredictability of football means anything can happen; last year, for example, 8-0 Queen's was upset in their first playoff game by the 4-4 University of Ottawa Gee-Gees. We see that south of the border as well, especially in the Pac-10 this year, where the top teams are all tightly bunched and the bottom teams aren't far beneath them.

Most of the time in North American culture, successful developments come from the U.S. and are transmitted north to Canada, often much later. As Robin Scherbatsky remarked in How I Met Your Mother's "Slap Bet" episode (one of my favourites), "The 80's didn't come to Canada till, like '93". That explains this video:

However, in football, it's often been a different story. The CFL proved to be the spawning ground for passing-oriented offences, which have since taken over the NCAA and the NFL to a degree. Guys like Warren Moon and Doug Flutie weren't intially given chances in the NFL thanks to being too black or too short to play quarterback; they came to the CFL, excelled, and forced the NFL to innovate. I suggest that the NCAA should follow this trend and take a page from the CIS playbook. It wouldn't even be that hard to use a somewhat similar system, as most of the major conferences already have championship games; take the winners of those games, figure out a good way to add a couple of at-large berths and run a three-week, eight-team playoff. There would still be issues around which teams were selected for the playoffs, but you wouldn't likely have the status quo where teams can win every game and still come up short. Championships should be decided on the field, not by voters or computers, and the NCAA should take a page from the CIS playbook on this one.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Queen's - Laval Mitchell Bowl live blog

I'll be live-blogging the Queen's - Laval CIS football showdown in the Mitchell Bowl tomorrow (Saturday) at 1 p.m. Eastern with the rest of the crew from The CIS Blog. Laval's heavily favoured, but as I said on Norman James' radio show this evening, Queen's may be able to hang with them. Laval's taken a bit of a step back this year and the Gaels have really come on. In my mind, the key is winning the trench fights, and Queen's offensive linemen (particularly centre Dan Bederman and guards Vince DeCivita and Jonathan Koidis) and defensive linemen (especially ends Osie Ukwuoma and Shomari Williams) did just that last week against Western. If they can pull that off again, my prediction of Queen's by a field goal may yet come true. Come join in the fun at 1 p.m. Eastern/10 a.m. Pacific.

ESPN is missing the point

ESPN's decision to suspend columnist Bill Simmons from Twitter for two weeks [Mediaite] is the wrong move. The suspension wasn't highly publicized, but came out as the result of an investigation by Jason McIntyre of The Big Lead, which prompted editor-in-chief Rob King to write a blog post explaining the decision. Here's King's statement:

"We have internal guidelines designed to inform how we discuss the topic of sports media. These guidelines are important us, because they help maintain the credibility with which ESPN operates.

No one knows the guidelines better than Bill Simmons, and he customarily works within these standards. He also understands, as does everyone else at ESPN, that we regard these guidelines as being equally important when participating in social media.

While it's unfortunate -- and sometimes painful -- that not everyone outside of ESPN chooses to play by such rules, we choose to hold ourselves to higher standards. Regardless of the provocation, Bill’s communication regarding WEEI fell short of those standards. So we’ve taken appropriate measures."

The offending tweet? Mediaite figures it's this one from November 11, "Hey WEEI: You were wrong, I did a Boston interview today. With your competition. Rather give them ratings over deceitful scumbags like you." This is interesting, because WEEI and ESPN have a partnership. It's quite possible that the ESPN policy (described here) would kick in for trashing any media outlet, as that's what its language seems to indicate, but this is not the ideal test case for the subject; even if the partnership has nothing to do with the suspension whatsoever, the optics are not good.

The larger problem here, though, is ESPN's approach to their writers and personalities. It's not that ESPN is necessarily draconian; in fact, King went to great lengths to make that point at the final Blogs With Balls panel in Vegas.

"I’m not trying to run anyone off Twitter," he said. "A lot of the things we’re building up allow people to contribute in the same way they would on Twitter."

To me, that shows the core problem here. It's one that's far from unique to ESPN, as just about every major media outlet has run into this with the rise of the Internet (and even earlier). The problem is that many media organizations, especially those in print, regard their columnists and reporters as invariably associated with them, which is simply not the case these days. Most prominent people in sports media appear on a variety of platforms, from print to radio to television to Twitter. In my mind, it's wrong to think that just because you hire someone to write certain things for you, you're associated with everything they do and need to have control over them.

How can we tell that ESPN approaches their talent this way? As King says in the above interview about the policy, "The second sets out additional guidelines and responsibilities for public-facing employees — those who are easily and commonly associated with ESPN (talent, reporters, etc.). Unfortunately, their relative fame and public personas mean that the way they act and the things they do will be associated with ESPN and its editorial, entertainment and/or newsgathering organization. As such, there are additional responsibilities from a professional standpoint."

I can understand where King is coming from here. Slamming WEEI probably would not look good on ESPN. It should never happen in a news story on or on SportsCenter, and you can make an argument for editing those kinds of references out of the columns of a writer like Simmons; they diminish the reality and the impact of the column, making it a more watered-down version, but it's ESPN's site, so it's ultimately their choice what gets displayed there. The problem, though, is that Simmons criticizing WEEI doesn't mean ESPN is criticizing them. Media outlets all over the place employ columnists for the primary purpose of sharing their views; when such pieces are clearly marked as opinion, it's understood that those are the opinions of the columnist in question, not the larger organization.

The same logic should apply to Twitter even more so. Simmons' tweets (and the tweets of every other ESPN personality) are not published by ESPN. They're published by Twitter, which is a free service. Presumably, he is writing them on his own time, not company time. Thus, there really is no connection to the company.

Now, that doesn't give Simmons or any other employee carte blanche; if they start tweeting about committing crimes or blasting groups along racial or sexual lines, that is a problem. That reflects poorly on them as a person, and poorly on ESPN for hiring them. However, complaining about a radio station does not measure up to that standard; it's a legitimate opinion to have and to express, on his own time, away from company mediums.

The biggest problem with ESPN and other media organizations taking these kind of disciplinary steps is that they insult the intelligence of their audience. No one really thinks Bill Simmons' tweets represent the views of ESPN, just like no one thinks Jay Mariotti's drivel represents the thoughts of FanHouse or Jason Whitlock's views are shared by everyone at Fox Sports. We recognize that columnists and personalities have their own views, which are often poles apart from those of their organization. They should be allowed to express those views, not shut down in the interests of defending their organization from a non-existant wave of bad publicity.

This is rather counterintutive in terms of results, too; I doubt many people cared when Simmons took a shot at WEEI (which he's done before in his books), and I highly doubt that people at WEEI thought ESPN was blasting them. It was a non-story. The heavy-handed approach taken to shut Simmons down is a much bigger story, and it's created a mountain out of a molehill. If I was ESPN, I'd let Simmons back on Twitter ASAP, maybe add a disclaimer that his views don't represent those of ESPN in case there's anyone out there who doesn't get it, and let him get to work. His engagement with fans on Twitter and snappy lines about sports is only further building his brand and helping to promote his column, which coincidentally happens to run on ESPN's website. Take the muzzle off and reap the pageviews.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Yates to remember

(Cell phone pics may not be impressive, but they're all I could get.)

Last week, I bemoaned how many of us in the media often transform quarterbacks from a story into the story of a game. Yet, if you were to pick a game where quarterbacks were the story, Saturday’s Yates Cup clash between the Western Mustangs and the Queen’s Golden Gaels would be a pretty good one. With the head-to-head matchup of Michael Faulds and Danny Brannagan, two 10,000 yard passers and the top two guys on the CIS career passing list, many expected a passing shootout, and they were not disappointed. Faulds completed 25 of 38 passes for 509 yards and one touchdown in a losing cause, while Brannagan completed 27 of 47 for 515 yards and five touchdowns in Queen’s 43-39 victory and was named Yates Cup MVP.

Both passers threw for over 500 yards, which is an incredible feat. There are only nine 500-yard passing games in the history of the NFL, and perhaps a few more in the CFL; I wasn’t able to find those records. The NFL has never seen two 500+ yard performances in the same game, though, and even the USFL’s greatest quarterback duel didn’t meet the criteria; Jim Kelly threw for 574 yards and five touchdowns to lead an improbable comeback by the Houston Gamblers, but Los Angeles Express quarterback Steve Young put up less than 300 yards in that game. 500-yard-plus duels have happened a couple times in the NCAA, including the clash of Houston’s David Klingler and Texas Christian’s Matt Vogler on November 3, 1990, but they’re very rare.

Saturday’s game still does illustrate my point about the game being about more than just quarterbacks, though. Faulds and Brannagan both turned in great performances, but Brannagan got much more help from his team. His experienced offensive line, led by the interior core of fifth-year veterans Dan Bederman, Jon Koidis and Vince DeCivita, gave Brannagan all day to pick apart the Western defence. In the stands, myself and Arden Zwelling of the Western Gazette were discussing how Brannagan barely had to move in the pocket thanks to the superior protection provided by his line. The linemen also helped establish Marty Gordon as a threat in the running game; he recorded 81 yards on 11 carries, which took pressure off Brannagan and kept the Mustangs honest. It helped that Western was missing several key figures on their defensive line, but Queen’s victory in the offensive trenches was a crucial part of their success yesterday.

The Gaels also dominated in the defensive trenches. In the earlier regular-season clash between these teams, Western focused their efforts on slowing down Queen’s star defensive ends Shomari Williams and Osie Ukwuoma, often double-teaming them. This left holes for interior linemen like Kyle MacDonald, who often made them pay. Western went with a more conventional scheme yesterday, and Ukwuoma and Williams took full advantage, getting into the backfield on many plays and pressuring Faulds. Gaels’ defensive coordinator Pat Tracey also dialed up plenty of successful blitzes by linebackers Chris Smith and T.J. Leeper, as well as cornerback Jimmy Allin. The combination of the defensive line winning key battles up front and the backfield penetration achieved on blitzes hurried Faulds into bad throws on several occasions, but he was able to overcome that and turn in an outstanding performance despite an injured knee and a lack of mobility. More importantly, though, Queen’s backfield penetration contained Western’s running game; Nathan Riva is an outstanding running back, but it took him 29 carries to pick up 100 yards because he was getting no blocking and was often hit before getting to the line of scrimmage.

What perhaps proved most crucial were the special teams. The wind made a huge difference, as both Queen’s Dan Village and Western’s Darryl Wheeler struggled kicking into it but excelled with it at their back. However, Wheeler was dealing with a hip injury, and he missed a short-range field goal (nullified thanks to a Queen’s penalty for rough play after a hit on holder Donnie Marshall, which gave Western a first down and let them drive in for a touchdown) and an extra point. The field goal didn’t matter in the end, but the extra point did. With little time on the clock, Faulds pulled off one last great drive and got Western near field goal range, but they needed four points to tie thanks to Wheeler’s missed convert and weren’t quite able to get into the end zone. A field goal would not have been a sure thing, as it would have been from at least 40 yards out and into the wind, but it might have proved a viable option at the end if not for that missed extra point; it also would have allowed Western to try short runs and passes late instead of long bombs. However, there are always ifs; Village also hit the upright on a long field goal earlier in the game, so if that had been a few inches to the left, Western would have needed a touchdown regardless of Wheeler’s missed convert.

Despite being on the losing end of this one, Faulds deserves a ton of credit, as good friend of the blog Norman James points out in this excellent piece. Faulds played the last few weeks with a damaged knee, and was obviously struggling with it as the game went on. On the final drive, he took a hit and had to leave the field, being replaced by backup Donnie Marshall. With the Mustangs facing third and 20 with only a few seconds left on the clock, Faulds begged head coach Greg Marshall to go back in, and hobbled back on to the field. That was one of the most inspiring sights I’ve seen in CIS football; he could barely walk, but you’d need an army to keep him off the field. Queen’s brought tons of pressure again, but Faulds somehow evaded it and launched a bomb downfield. Unfortunately for Western, it landed just inches away from the fingertips of a diving receiver, so the storybook ending didn’t come to pass. Faulds did everything he could, though, and he went out in an appropriate blaze of glory.

Faulds was sanguine in an interview afterwards, even though he could barely stand.

“It’s upsetting that that’s the end of my career, but I knew it was going to come this year anyway,” he said. “Whether it was two weeks ago against Guelph or last week against Laurier, or this week or two weeks down the road, I knew it was going to come to an end. It happened against a good team like Queen’s, and they fought hard.”

The Yates Cup victory was huge for Queen’s players like Leeper, a fifth-year linebacker who had been through the ups and downs of the program over his time.

“I can’t even find words to describe it,” he said after the game. “It’s like 23 years of birthdays, 23 Christmases and a couple of parties all rolled into one.”

Leeper said the team took new lessons and new motivation from their loss to 4-4 Ottawa in their first playoff game last year after a stellar 8-0 regular season.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Coming in, we knew what we had to do a little bit more. It’s a coming of age; there are a lot of fifth-years and fourth-years on this team, so when it came down to that experience, we knew what we had to do. We didn’t have to play perfect; we just had to play good enough.”

Leeper said he was concerned during the final drive, but it was a great way to end it.

“It was pretty scary,” he said. “But that’s the way I want to win, with the defence on the field making plays.”

In the end, this was one of the best football games I’ve seen at any level. It had a tremendous quarterback duel between Faulds and Brannagan, with both making many exceptional throws. It had some huge defensive plays and even a stellar trick play, where Faulds faked a handoff to Riva, gave the ball to Nick Pasic, received a lateral from him and found an open receiver downfield for a touchdown. It also had one of the oldest rivalries in the CIS and a great atmosphere. There are still two weeks of playoffs left, but this one’s going to be tough to top.

However, next week’s game could still be classic, as the Gaels face top-ranked Laval (1 p.m. Eastern, will be live-blogged here). The Rouge et Or have dominated CIS football for so long that many believe this may turn into a blowout, but Leeper thinks the Gaels have a shot. He even took a quote from Terrell Owens’ playbook to make his point.

“Get your popcorn ready.”

[Cross-posted to The CIS Blog]

Bringing back The Whole 110 Yards

Thanks to finally having a bit of time, I've brought back my The Whole 110 Yards CFL column over at The Rookies. My latest installment, a playoff preview, ran yesterday; it might be worth a read if you're interested in looking at how my predictions compared to what actually happened. I'll hopefully have another installment up Tuesday breaking down yesterday's playoff games, and I'll be covering the CFL playoffs here and there all the way through the playoffs to the Grey Cup, which I'm headed to Calgary for. If yesterday's games are any indication, we could be in for a great ride!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Queen's - Western: Yates Cup live blog

Along with the rest of the staff from The CIS Blog and Arden Zwelling of the Western Gazette, I'll be live-blogging the Yates Cup at 1 p.m. Eastern today. Come join in the fun!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Remembering Pat Tillman

Today was Remembrance Day (Veterans' Day in the U.S.), so I've been doing a lot of reflecting on soldiers, wars and history. Ryan Gallivan has a good round-up of some excellent reading for the day, including this tremendous piece from Matt Ufford of Kissing Suzy Kolber fame on his experiences in Iraq, so I encourage you to check that out.

However, there's one other story that always comes to my mind around now, and it's one that truly deserves to be remembered. If you haven't yet, I urge you to read Gary Smith's excellent stories on former Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman. If you have read them, go back and look at them again; they're well worth it.

Tillman gave up a lucrative career in the NFL to go serve his country in the wake of the September 11 attacks and tragically lost his life doing so. What impressed me even more than his decision, though, was the outstanding person he was from all accounts. I love these pieces because Smith doesn't take the easy way out and build Tillman up as some gung-ho patriot who never questioned what he was doing. He illustrates Tillman's doubts and questions about the morality of war, his moments of weakness and his periods of strength, and he goes into the questions about what happened to cause Tillman's death and the Army's role in covering it up. In doing so, he moves beyond the typical lionizing black-and-white portrait of nationalism and heroism, painting Tillman with shades of grey that make him a more compelling character and a greater hero.

Generally, I'm not a big believer in the idea that athletes are or should be heroes or role models, but there are always exceptions. Tillman is one, and an athlete I'm proud to admire. Every day, but on today of all days, we should follow the lead of Smith's second headline and remember his name.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The state of the Canucks

I'll be discussing the Canucks' season so far over at Canucks Hockey Blog this evening with Richard Loat, Hosea Cheung and Guts McTavish. We'll kick it off at 10 p.m. Eastern/7 p.m. Pacific. Feel free to stop on by and check it out!

The significance and drawbacks of stories

An omnipresent but under-discussed element of sports in our modern era is the significance of the story. We often tend to think of stories as just factual representations of what goes on in a game, but the sheer amount of action involved in sports means they have to be both more and less then that. A breakdown of every single play without any kind of cohesive narrative structure or context from the thoughts of players or coaches would accurately relate what went on, but it would be exceptionally long and tedious. Thus, we edit, and we try to relate what we saw in terms of some larger overall angle. This isn't just journalists or bloggers either, but every fan who talks about the game with their friends afterwards; the tendency is always to pick out certain aspects that struck you as the most important and build a cohesive framework of a story from them. This doesn't have to be a bad thing, as it creates much more interesting discussions than a dry blow-by-blow of every play, but as writers, readers and fans, we have to be aware of the storytelling process and careful to think about what doesn't make it into the story as well as what does.

This isn't just a sports problem, either. Think about stories in general for a second. They're as universal as it gets in our world. From the earliest days of the development of language, humans have communicated experiences, views and ideas through stories. Stories precede the written word and existed apart from it from quite some time. They're also a powerful way to communicate information, as studies of cultures with oral histories have shown; these cultures passed their history and traditions down not through systematic listings of facts, but rather via narrative frameworks. Stories began before writing, and in our modern era, they have transcended writing, becoming crucial parts of everything from television shows to video games to feature films.

Why are stories so popular? A large part of the reason is because of their ability to manufacture order out of chaos. Our world isn't easy to understand at the best of times, and recent developments have only exacerbated this. For centuries, mankind has often turned to science and rules in an attempt to explain the world, but recent scientific developments and theories like quantum mechanics, chaos theory, the butterfly effect, imaginary numbers and relativity all go to show that the world is not easily explained. There's a great dialogue on this subject in Terry Pratchett's Equal Rites, when the wizards Cutangle and Treatle are discussing the discoveries one of their new students made in this area:

Cutangle:While I'm still confused and uncertain, it's on a much higher plane, d'you see, and at least I know I'm bewildered about the really fundamental and important facts of the universe.
Treatle: I hadn't looked at it like that, but you're absolutely right. He's really pushed back the boundaries of ignorance.
They both savoured the strange warm glow of being much more ignorant than ordinary people, who were only ignorant of ordinary things."

Humans generally prefer order to chaos, but the Second Law of Thermodynamics shows us that the universe is the other way around. Thus, we need to find an orderly way to explain a tumultous world, and that's where stories come in. Unlike Pratchett's Discworld, where the presence of narrativium means that the world runs according to the laws of stories, our stories often fly in the face of the bewildering reality of our universe, though. Thanks to the chaos involved, it's rare that you see an event that can be absolutely neatly and accurately explained in narrative form, but this doesn't stop us from telling stories. In fact, even just "telling stories" is sometimes used as a euphemism for lying, which tells us a lot about the accuracy of the narrative model.

That doesn't mean that stories are bad, or even that they all share the same problems. Some of our stories and storytelling models have evolved over time, developing depth and the shades of grey I'm so found of. Of course, there isn't time or space to represent every detail and every point of view, but many of our best stories now make reference to what else may be out there and anticipate potential objections, even if they don't discuss them in full. This allows for a best-of-both-worlds approach, providing the coherence of the narrative model while increasing its accuracy.

However, this approach is only taken by a small minority. Most of our stories, whether in newspaper, website, book, song, video game or movie form, still feature clear heroes and villains, start with clear rising action, build to easily identifiable climaxes and then tie it all up with a nice little bow at the end. The problem is that life frequently departs from narrative convention. Villains often have redeeming characteristics, heroes have horrible flaws or do things to lose our trust, the climax or a particular story rarely comes at a proper time and complete and tidy resolutions are an endangered species. There's a reason "he lived happily ever after" is a storybook cliche; few people live happily ever after, and the rest of their existence is difficult to summarize in one sentence. Problems are rarely defeated decisively, once and for all; they generally rear their ugly head again at some point, even if it's only in a minimal way. Moreover, even the past is not definitively determined; as battles drag out in court, new information comes to light and legacies are burnished or tarnished, what is alters what was. This is why most biographies of living subjects end with a status update (the text overlay at the end of the movie), and why many biographies are only written after their subject's death. It's more difficult for the story to change if the subject is no longer living, but it still can be altered as other witnesses come forward and new evidence is unearthed. Yet, thanks to the rigidity of narrative and the fluidity of reality, we generally try to stick to our guns and maintain our stories even as new evidence comes to light that suggests they're incomplete. As Douglas Adams wrote in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy about the titular universal encyclopedia, "The Guide is definitive. Reality is frequently inaccurate."

How does all this relate to sports? Well, sports stories tend to be like any other non-fiction story, changing and mutating as more information comes out. An interesting example of this is newspaper game stories, which are frequently mostly composed even before the event in question ends thanks to deadlines; the narrative framework is picked, the key events to relate are chosen, the story is written and then a few choice quotes from the press conference are plugged in. Of course, this leads to frantic rewrites when unexpected events alter the course of the game. Joe Posnanski has a great piece about what it was like to cover Game Four of the 2001 World Series, which resulted in him writing three different columns thanks to rapidly changing events. We accept this as natural, but it's really quite odd if you take a step back and think about it; writing these kind of stories really is writing about the future in the past tense. Most of the time, it works just fine when events fall into the easily foreseen patterns. On occasions like that Game Four, it makes a poignant point about the issues involved in applying rigid, structured narratives to chaotic situations.

This isn't an argument to ditch the narrative form at all. On the contrary, as anyone who's tried to write a game story or column knows, it's frequently quite necessary. It's impossible to present every detail of a game in a way that makes sense or interests anyone, so we search for angles and try to stick events into a literary framework. There's nothing wrong with this per se, and it produces pieces that are significantly more readable, meaningful and important than say, a full recap of every pitch in a baseball game. However, writers, broadcasters and readers all need to think about the context of a piece and what's not being included, and writers and broadcasters need to tone down their claims to being definitive. There is no one "story of the game" in team sports, as any team sport you can name involves a significant amount of people on both sides competing over an extended duration of time and making plenty of different plays.

In any game, there are usually at least 10 or 12 potential angles you could take to turn it into a compelling narrative. None of these are necessarily more wrong or right than others; they're just different, and having as many different perspectives as possible is crucial. It's not even just the stories in a traditional narrative from that are limited by this, as analytical columns and posts often use narrative elements (such as heroes and goats) and are subject to the same constraints. Single narratives leave much out of necessity and only tell part of the real story, but combining several narratives leads to a much more complete picture of what actually went on, portraying the subtleties and the different perspectives that are often left out. This is why ESPN's Around The Horn vexes me so; it deliberately reduces complex stories and opinions to the most extreme and simplistic 30-second sound bites that can be produced, removing all nuance and subtlety and taking us from the realm of partial truth into Fantasyland.

Why bring this up now? Part of the reason is thanks to my ongoing look at the NFL in my Phoenix Pub columns; I talked about the league's superior use of the power of narrative a while back, and my column later today is going to focus on the overemphasis on quarterbacks in the stories about the league. I've also just finished reading Bill Simmons' Now I Can Die In Peace and Jeff Pearlman's The Rocket That Fell To Earth, two excellent books. In both, one of the key figures is Roger Clemens, who has perhaps been portrayed as more of a stereotypical villain than almost anyone in sports recently. I'm hoping to do reviews of these books on their own this week and discuss the different storytelling techniques they use, and the different perspectives they take towards Clemens in particular. Is Clemens really pure evil, Darth Vader minus the final redeeming transformation, is he just a misunderstood soul, or is the truth somewhere in the middle? In my mind, Clemens is a great example of the successes and drawbacks of the narrative form; there are tons of compelling stories and angles you can use to discuss him, but none of them necessarily give you the whole picture.

What's true for Clemens is true for much of the sports world. There are details, subtleties and shades of grey missing from almost every piece, and much of that's thanks to the constraints of the narrative form. I don't think that's a reason to abandon stories or the elements that go with them, as they make for compelling reading and provide us with important information. Instead, I'd suggest that writers and broadcasters move away from the definitive and try to tell a story, instead of "the story". Readers and listeners should engage with the stories they take in and think about what context is being left out; often, that information can be found in a second or third narrative piece. Stories aren't perfect, but they do provide us a way to make rational sense of a complex world, especially when grouped en masse. We can embrace them, but we need to be aware of their limitations.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

CIS football: Western - Laurier live blog

Join us in the live blog below! Thanks to Arden Zwelling of the Western Gazette for hosting!

CIS football: McMaster-Queen's live blog

Join us in the live blog below!

CIS football live blogs

Just a quick note that I'll be live-blogging today's OUA playoff football games with a cast of characters from The CIS Blog, Always OUA and The Western Gazette, among others. Queen's takes on McMaster at 1 p.m. Eastern/10 a.m Pacific, and Western takes on Laurier at 4:30 p.m. Eastern/1:30 p.m. Pacific. Both games are on The Score, and both live blogs will be posted here. Hope to see you then!

Friday, November 06, 2009

Friday Night Football: Lions - Eskimos live blog

It all comes down to this. The 8-9 Edmonton Eskimos and B.C. Lions face off for the third and final playoff spot in the CFL's West Division. The winner's in, while the loser has to hope Hamilton beats Winnipeg on Sunday. To add even more drama, this is the last game that will be played in B.C. Place until 2011. The action starts at 10:30 Eastern; 7:30 Pacific. Come join me then for the live blog!

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Fantasy basketball, anyone?

I'm starting up a Yahoo! fantasy basketball league with some of my fellow bloggers from The Rookies. We still have a few spots left, so if you're interested in joining us, the league id is 360797 and the password is neilyoung. You should be able to join us here. Our live draft will be Friday, Nov 6 at 5:15 p.m. PST (8:15 p.m. Eastern), but you can also autorank players if you're not able to make the draft. Hope you can join us!

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Defending Daulerio and Deadspin

When I first heard about the Deadspin-ESPN war, I wasn't particularly impressed. Deadspin editor A.J. Daulerio (who I previously interviewed here way back when) is one of the top bloggers out there these days in terms of influence, and he's done a lot of great things with Deadspin, but I didn't think this would be one of them. From his initial post on Steve Phillips and subsequent ESPN horndoggery posts, it sounded like he was only slightly deceived by an ESPN PR guy and decided to go ballistic with unverified rumours as a result. I read the posts on the matter by Chris Littmann and Brian Cook and thought they made good points, particularly on how this might affect the credibility of the blogosphere.

However, time does change some things. For one thing, there's been no all-out war against the blogosphere by the mainstream media. The organizations that have discussed the story (ESPN itself, Time and The New York Times, to name a few) have mentioned Deadspin specifically, not going with the too-frequently-used "a blog" or "a sports website". It's hard to go after Daulerio for ruining the credibility of the sports blogosphere when there's no corpus delicti and no apparent intention of doing so.

Second, but perhaps more importantly, Daulerio's been willing to explain his actions, and he's come off much better by doing so. That's one thing that's always impressed me about him in everything from the commenter debacle to the current situation; he isn't afraid to face criticism and talk about what he's trying to do. He's granted interviews to tons of media outlets and given his side of the story in this one; in addition to the above Time and New York Times pieces, I recommend checking out his interview with Jerod Morris on the Midwest Sports Fans and his interview (and subsequent responses to commenters) with my colleague First Derivative over at The Phoenix Pub. Here's four key points I picked up from those interviews:

1. These weren't unsourced, anonymous rumours:

Say what you like about Deadspin, but they generally do a very solid job of reporting. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, I'd argue they do more tough reporting than most blogs and many mainstream newspapers' sports sections. The Josh Hamilton story is a good example, as are the recent ESPN revelations. Now, Daulerio hurt his cause with his initial comments about just printing whatever was sent in, but that doesn't seem to be what he actually did; his conversation with Morris suggested that he got pretty substantial confirmation for everything that ran. This would be supported by the fact that ESPN has been highly critical of Deadspin's decision to run the stories, but doesn't seem to have disputed the facts they published too much (an important distinction if there ever was one), and Katie Lacey has confirmed the story about her. You can still argue about if these stories should have been published or not, but publishing the truth (or what at least seems to have a solid chance of being the truth) is always, always better than publishing weak, unsubstantiated rumours, regardless of what the subject under investigation is.

2. At least part of this was for show:

Why mention publishing any and all rumours if that's not actually what's happening? I think Daulerio illuminated this in his response to Sculptor in the TPP discussion when she asked about why he didn't preface his posts with a clearer explanation of his motivation and reporting process.

"I think the tone and lack and perceived groundless-ness(probably not a word, but we’re all friends here) is what caught people off-guard the most," he said. "I wanted to add a sense of panic to the equation. It confused a lot of readers and turned off a lot of readers, but at the end of the day, it was fun to watch. (IMO, obviously.) Part of how I do things is theatrical. I like it that way. There’s an element of professional wrestling to how I approach blogging (as I’m sure many of you have noticed, for better or for worse). And in sticking to that WWE metaphor, we all know that even though some of the show is staged, people can still get hurt. Not saying it’s the right way or wrong way, but that’s how I handle things. It’s a risky approach, but so far it’s paid off for the site in terms of increased visibility. You have to weigh long-term v. short-term in most of these situations and I think this one will definitely pay off."

The theatrical is a huge part of this in my mind. By making such a broad proclamation, Daulerio installs himself as a villain on the grand scale in ESPN's eyes, not a pesky annoyance. He talked about the panic he caused, and I think that's a great description for this; everyone in Bristol was probably wondering if they were next. If the standard of proof was as low as he claimed it was, they needn't even have done anything to wind up with potentially career-destroying information out there on the Internet. That's a pretty good Damoclean sword. Moreover, the revelations themselves may not have lived up to the hype, as they were mostly about little-known ESPN types no one really cares about, but they sure drove plenty of traffic to Deadspin and spawned plenty of frantic refreshing, which is good for the site. The WWE analogy is a good one, as they tend to create thoroughly despicable villains, not ones who barely step over the line. If Daulerio's goal was to pull a heel turn, he might as well do so on the grand scale.

3. ESPN does seem to have a double standard:

Something that seems to have been lost in all this is the debate over the Steve Phillips situation, his eventual firing and the existence or non-existence of clear ESPN policies on workplace relationships. Keep in mind that Phillips doesn't appear to have committed a crime (in fact, the affair came to light when he went to the police over threats and stalking committed against him). He certainly made an ill-advised decision to cheat on his wife with a production assistant, but are affairs really cause to lose your job? If so, many professional athletes would be out of work. Phillips wasn't exactly loved as a baseball analyst, which probably led to the lack of tears for him, and you can make a good argument that viewers wouldn't be able to take him seriously any more (if they ever could).

The question, though, is if there is an ESPN policy around workplace relationships, and if so, how is it enforced? If Harold Reynolds was apparently let go for a hug and Phillips was canned for having sex with a coworker, why are there no issues with the romance between senior marketing vice-president Lacey and vice-president for programming David Berson? Moreover, ESPN hasn't exactly shied away from taking a holier-than-thou stance on athletes' affairs (see their coverage of Roger Clemens - Mindy McCready and Steve McNair). Personally, I don't think athletes' affairs are really huge issues, and I'm not particularly concerned with which ESPN employees are in workplace relationships. However, if ESPN wants to moralize about the personal lives of those athletes they cover, they should make sure the same kind of coverage can't come back to haunt them. In the words of the old proverb, "Man who live in glass house should not throw stones."

4. It's just Deadspin being Deadspin:

In my earlier piece on the future of blogs, I wrote that I foresee plenty of room in the blogosphere for just about every kind of sports-based analysis you can think of, as long as there's at least a minor audience for it. The pageview numbers suggest there's a very large audience for stories about the private lives of those at ESPN and other sports media personalities. That doesn't mean I'll be writing those stories any time soon, and it doesn't mean every blogger should follow in Deadspin's tracks, but there is a substantial audience for coverage of the sports media, and I think that is a good thing. I obviously have a bit of an outsider's perspective on ESPN (thanks to their network not being carried in Canada), but they certainly do seem to dominate the American sports media scene. That dominance isn't always a bad thing, and I don't think ESPN is necessarily the evil empire they're often portrayed at; they've done a lot to reach out to blogs, including sending editor-in-chief Rob King and baseball writer extraordinaire Amy K. Nelson to Blogs With Balls, offering a special discount to allow more smaller bloggers like myself to attend the event and even hosting a stellar party for attendees (complete with a partial screening and DVD copies of the excellent 30 For 30 documentary "Small Potatoes: Who Killed The USFL", which I'm planning to review here this week). Still, as I discussed in the earlier post about the future of sports blogs, large sports blogs hold a tremendous amount of power; multiply that by about a million and you'll come up with ESPN's influence. It isn't necessarily bad that they have all that influence, as they've done a lot of great things to promote sports in North America over the years, but it brings up the eternal question posed by Juvenal, "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" (loosely, "Who watches the watchers?"). Deadspin's made a name for itself partly thanks to its coverage of ESPN, and potential ESPN hypocrisy is right up the site's alley. It's far too simplistic to paint ESPN as a villain (especially considering that many of these "horndoggery" cases really don't amount to much; office relationships happen everywhere) and Deadspin as the hero keeping tabs on them, but there's room for both of their perspectives on the Internet, and I think we're better for having both of them.

I don't agree with everything posted on Deadspin. There are many stories there I wouldn't touch, and both writers and commenters sometimes go too far for my liking. On the whole, though, it's an excellent site, and one of my daily reads. I think this situation shows that Deadspin is its own unique entity, however. Under Will Leitch, during a time when the sports blogosphere was still relatively young, Deadspin somewhat epitomized sports blogs. It was a generalist place with strong writing and some unique features. Many of those positive elements are still there, but the site has evolved into something more unique. It's become more about sports media, unique situations and off-the-field stuff, and I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing; many pine for the Leitch era, but both approaches have their merits.

The interesting thing, though, is that the Daulerio approach actually bears a lot of similarities to ESPN. It involves much more reporting than anything on a standard analysis-based blog, and both ESPN and Deadspin have always been interested in athletes behaving badly. In fact, for these kinds of pieces, Deadspin isn't generally competing against other blogs (as few bloggers have the time and connections to pull off these kind of investigations), but rather against mainstream news organizations; remember, this all started because the New York Post scooped Deadspin on the Phillips story (but wouldn't have if Daulerio's PR contact hadn't denied the whole thing). Now, Deadspin's still much farther out on the fringe than ESPN will ever be, but there are similarities between the two organizations (especially if you look back at ESPN's younger days when they were the upstart underdogs).

This doesn't have to be a bad thing, though, and it might just be the natural evolution of the blogosphere. It's promising to see this kind of original content and investigative research on sports blogs, even if the subject might not be what many of us prefer. By contrast, I was thrilled by Deadspin's decision to publish incriminating excerpts from Tim Donaghy's book after it got mysteriously nixed; in my mind, this is a great thing to do on a blog, especially if you have access to the powerful legal resources of an organization like Gawker Media.

Regardless of which kind of content we'd rather see, as sportswriters, bloggers and readers, I don't think any of us outside of Deadspin really have the right to tell Daulerio and his coworkers how to run their site. The blogosphere is not one giant cookie-cutter mould; it would be very boring if it was. There's room out there for the kind of approach Leitch took, and there's room for the current approach at Deadspin. In some ways, the growth of the sports blogosphere has made this aggressive mode of reporting more viable than it ever was, as there's now so much analysis out there that you need some actual news to remain important.

It's also advantageous that Deadspin doesn't really represent all sports blogs the way it used to in the eyes of the traditional media. If this ESPN war had happened back in 2006, I think it might have had the kind of implications for the sports blogosphere that Littmann and Cook discussed, as at that time, Deadspin pretty much was the sports blogosphere to many mainstream writers. Now, it's one prominent site among many, and others are less affected by the decisions made there.

In the end, I don't entirely endorse Daulerio's actions with regard to ESPN. The situation could have been handled better, and initial clarity on his motives and process would have helped a lot. I don't think he really deserves the beating he's taken from the blogosphere, though. Daulerio's the editor of one site, albeit a large and influential one; as long as he isn't claiming to speak for all blogs and mainstream organizations aren't treating him as the de facto blog spokesman, what he decides to publish is up to him and his bosses. Moreover, his posts on ESPN have revealed some real issues, including a potential discrepancy in how they address workplace relationships; they're not entirely rumour, and they may well have accomplished something. He may not be the blog Messiah, but I'm not convinced he's a very naughty boy.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Fear, Loathing and Blogs in Las Vegas, Part IV: The Future of the Sports Blogosphere

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to Las Vegas for the Blogs With Balls convention and had a great time. There was so much that came out of it that was worth writing about, as evidenced by all the great pieces that have showed up in the blogosphere on the conference since then. You can find most of the recap pieces linked at the official conference site here, and you can also look at parts I, II and III of my series if you're interested. I've been working on a final piece from there since then, but haven't had time to put it up yet, and in some ways, that's probably good, as it gave me time to reflect on it. This is the last official part of the Feat, Loathing and Blogs series, but I'll certainly be touching on some of the panelists' remarks and some of the things that came out of the conference more briefly in future posts as well. This series isn't just about conference recaps, but rather where the sports blogosphere may be going, so I hope it's still relevant. As always, leave feedback below or get in touch with me via e-mail, Twitter or Facebook.

Perhaps the most important panel of Blogs With Balls 2.0 was the "State of the Union", featuring Jamie Mottram of Yahoo! Sports and Mr. Irrelevant, J.E. Skeets of Ball Don't Lie, A.J. Daulerio of Deadspin and moderated by Spencer Hall of Every Day Should Be Saturday and SB Nation. These four guys are obviously luminaries in the blogosphere, so it was quite interesting to hear their thoughts on its evolution to this point and where it might be going.

Hall got a good laugh when he opened the panel with the line, "I think the state of the union is strong, strong like an adolescent chimpanzee that has just learned it can rip the arms off everything." There's more to that than just a throwaway gag in my mind, though; it isn't such a bad mental picture of what many sports blogs are like these days. Blogs as a whole, but especially the big ones, have an incredible amount of influence considering how new their medium is. The longest-running sports blogs have been in operation for around 15 years, and very few approach that level. Even sites that have been running for a couple years, like this one, are somewhat old by blogosphere standards. By contrast, consider how long it took for newspapers, magazines, radio and television to gain the same levels of relevance and market penetration that blogs have today. What's even more astounding is that the sports blogosphere is still very young and undeveloped compared to, say, the technology blogosphere. There's tons of room for growth, but sports blogs have really managed to do incredible things in their reasonably brief existence so far.

With that power can come consequences, though. George Orwell once wrote that "Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely", and this is often true in life. I don't think there's necessarily a lot of corruption in the sports blogosphere, but there is a lot of power, and the exercise of that power often has some unforeseen side effects. One example is the Jerod Morris/Raul Ibanez controversy I wrote about this summer. Morris wrote a solid piece looking at the unlikely stats Ibanez had put up at an advanced age and the potential explanations for it. He criticized the idea that steroids were clearly responsible, but mentioned that in our era, it's impossible to definitively rule them out. Several mainstream media outlets took a couple of lines from Morris' piece, completely disregarded the context in which they were written and turned it into a full-blown controversy that was used to blame any and all bloggers for being irresponsible. In my mind, Morris didn't do anything wrong, but his case shows the power even less well-known blogs can suddenly find themselves with, and the unforeseen consequences that can follow. There's the old famous quote about not picking a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel, and that's even more the case with blogs; everyone now has unlimited ink, and some of that ink can have an impact on a scale you never imagined before it was spilled.

Another interesting test case that was discussed was Deadspin's coverage of Josh Hamilton doing shots off of scantily-clad women after his supposed repentance. "I do think there is news value in that," Daulerio said. "Everyone else covered it right after we ran it."

Mottram picked that up, mentioning that the very journalistic institutions that often decry blogs are more than happy to pick their stories up and run with them, sometimes at the same time (as happened in both the Hamilton case and the Ibanez case). He said this allows for plausible deniability by mainstream media outlets, as they're not the scumbags digging up the dirt, but just reporting that other people are doing it.

"These stories reverberate on SportsCenter, on Outside the Lines, but it’s pinned on blogs as evildoers," he said.

Daulerio agreed with that line of thought.

"They’re talking about 'Should we be talking about that?', so I don’t see the point," he said.

There was also a significant discussion of if blogs need journalistic standards, and the answer was largely no. Hall said he doesn't see himself as a journalist, and Daulerio said he isn't particularly concerned with journalistic standards.

"I do a lot of things that are journalistically deplorable," he said.*

*This is interesting in light of the recent Deadspin-ESPN controversy, which many have used to criticize Deadspin's supposed lack of standards. I'm working on a longer piece on that as well, so I don't want to get into it too much right now, but I think in some ways, Deadspin is more journalistically inclined than many other blogs.

The problem with this line of conversation, though, is that there isn't really just one set of journalistic standards. The standards of The New York Times and The New York Post are incredibly different, as are those of CNN, Fox News and Entertainment Tonight. This is why it's silly for people to complain about "blogs" or "the blogosphere", as you never hear people just talking about "newspapers" or judging the Times by what the Post prints. In my mind, each site sets their own standards, and they should be judged by what they do, not what the rest of the blogosphere does. The public at large and the mainstream media may not see it that way at the moment, but here's hoping they will with time.

Hall made another interesting point here, saying that "The ghost a lot of bloggers have lingering over them is Hunter S. Thompson." There's a lot of truth to that statement, as anyone who's read Thompson's work will realize; he went out and shook up the journalistic establishment, frequently crossing and readjusting the lines of the day and paving the way for a new breed of writers in the process. He made use of access at times, but at other times disregarded it and went his own way entirely, and he was never afraid to interject opinion into his work. Pretty much all of those statements could also apply to the sports blogosphere, and in my mind, that's probably a good thing in many cases.

I think Skeets made the key point of this part of the discussion, though, saying that certain settings (and the ones involving access in particular) do require certain standards of behaviour. "When you go into the locker room, you have to play by the rules," he said. In my mind, that isn't such a bad idea. There's plenty of room for creativity and gonzo blogging, but access to players and coaches isn't really going to help with most of it, especially in these days where athletes are constantly surrounded by PR officials and trying to stay on message. It will be tough for the bloggers who can work with access effectively to earn respect and trust and do their jobs if access becomes an anything-goes zone. Most bloggers don't need access in my mind, and much of the best blogging can be done without access, but there are some who can work very well within that framework; I'd hate to see them lose their access thanks to someone else disregarding the established standards for that area.

The last crucial element of the panel discussed the merits of generalist sites versus those that are hyper-specific. Obviously, it's tougher to find an audience without a particular topic, but Hall said he thinks it can be done if the writing's good enough and has a unique spin.

"I think there’s room for generalists," he said. "The problem is it can be very voice-dependent."

Dan Shanoff made a point from the floor about the merits of good writing versus good distribution, arguing that many good pieces go unnoticed while less-stellar ones may receive more traffic thanks to plugs from major sites. Hall said he thinks well-done writing will eventually find an audience regardless of subject, though.

"If people are interested in something, they’re going to find it."

Mottram backed this up, saying that the wide horizons of the Internet make it so there's really nothing that's too obscure, too random or too well-covered already any more.

"With anything people are passionate about, there’s an endless glut of want," he said. "It doesn’t matter how much there is. There’s still room for more."

To me, these last comments really caught the theme of the weekend, and they reinforced what I really believe blogging is really all about. I hate the notion that there's one right way to do things or one legitimate path to blogging success; it's a huge world, and there's room for all kinds of different approaches. I'd rather read a wide array of sites with unique perspectives than have the Internet turn into a cookie-cutter approach, and I don't want success to be defined just by who you know or how long you've been blogging for. That's one thing I really enjoyed about Blogs With Balls; it wasn't a set hierarchy of well-known types lording it over us peons, but rather an open discussion and get-together. It seemed more like cooperation than competition, and in my mind, that's the way it should be; we're all in the same boat. There's plenty of room for newcomers and unique and unusual approaches, and for me, the goal at the end of the day is just to produce something I'm happy with. The blogosphere is ever-changing and ever-expanding, but the possibilities seem wide open at the moment. As Daulerio said, "There’s always something better on the horizon that could blow everything out of the water."

Wisconsin State of Mind

I've spent the past several days in Wisconsin hanging out with some of my colleagues over at The Rookies, which has been a lot of fun. However, it hasn't exactly led to a lot of bloggging time. There have been several longer pieces I've been working on for a while, though, and the extra time has probably been helpful with that, allowing me to mull over and refine them a bit. Thus, expect to see plenty of more philosophical posts over the next little while. Until then, to hold you over, I leave you with the excellent World Series performance of "Empire State of Mind" by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys above, and links to a couple of pieces I did manage to get up over at Canuck Puck, one on how the Canucks should heed Jim Zorn's advice and stay medium, and another one on how their recent struggles might actually bring the team together. (Of course, following that piece yesterday, the Canucks went out to beat the Western Conference-leading Avalanche. Maybe I should write that things are looking up for them more often!) Hope you enjoy the upcoming content.