Stories indexed with the term ‘professional sports’

Column: Michael Sam’s Saga

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Last February, University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam publicly declared he was gay – a first for a likely NFL draft pick. Last week, the St. Louis Rams drafted him in the last round – another first. But I believe the trickiest terrain is still ahead.

When Michael Sam told his University of Missouri teammates he was gay before last season, no one seemed to care very much. No one tweeted the news to the public, and Sam had a great season. It’s a safe bet that NFL teams – who know what kind of gum their prospects chew – already knew he was gay, too. But when Sam came out publicly, it changed the equation.

The NFL has already had gay players, so that isn’t new. But publicly declaring you’re gay is new – and so is the onslaught of media attention.

After Sam came out, he dropped from a projected fourth- or fifth-round draft pick to the seventh and final round. There’s no way to prove this, of course, but it’s hard to believe part of the reason wasn’t homophobia – though that term isn’t accurate. As the saying goes – often attributed to Morgan Freeman – “It’s not a phobia. You are not scared. You are an asshole.” [Full Story]

Column: Chasing the Brass Hoop

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Nik Stauskas grew up in Mississauga, Ontario – a Toronto suburb better known for its neighborhood hockey games than for a Lithuanian kid spending thousands of hours shooting on his parents’ backyard hoop.

This year, Stauskas was named Big Ten player of the year. It worked.

Glenn Robinson III took a completely different route to the NBA: His father is Glenn Robinson Jr., also known as “The Big Dog,” and was the first pick in the NBA draft twenty years ago. If Stauskas had to work to get attention, Robinson had to work to avoid it.

They became strong candidates to leave college early for the NBA draft, which is their right. This week, both decided to make that jump, and file for the draft this spring. Stauskas is projected to be a high first-round pick, and Robinson not too far behind.

Good for them. They’re both nice guys, hard workers, and serious students. If a violinist at Michigan was recruited by the London Symphony Orchestra, no one would begrudge her for jumping. I might have done it myself.

But I do object to the pundits and fans claiming if the NBA dangles millions of dollars in front of a college player, “he has no choice. He has to go.”

This bit of conventional wisdom is based on one gigantic assumption: that the pursuit of money eclipses all other considerations, combined. [Full Story]

Column: Hank Aaron’s Impressive Run

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

This week marks the 40th anniversary of one of baseball’s signature moments: Hank Aaron hitting his record 715th home run, to surpass Babe Ruth’s 39-year old record. But to appreciate how special that was, you have to understand who Hank Aaron is – and what he faced.

You’ve heard of Babe Ruth, who might be the best-known American athlete of the last century. Ruth loved the fans, and the fans loved him right back.

That’s why, when another New York Yankee, Roger Maris – a nice, humble guy – started closing in on Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in a single season in 1961, he became so stressed by Ruth’s fans rooting against him that his hair started falling out.

When Hank Aaron approached Ruth’s career home run record, he had it worse, for two very simple reasons: 714 home runs was the baseball record, a number even casual fans knew. And second, unlike Maris, Aaron is black. Of course, that shouldn’t matter in the least – but it mattered a lot in 1974. [Full Story]

Column: Bill Ford Sr.’s Legacy of Loyalty

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Editor’s note: A shorter version of this column was published in the March 12, 2014 edition of the Wall Street Journal.

In the course of his 88 years, William Clay Ford, who died Sunday, captained Yale’s tennis team, earned an engineering degree and chaired Ford Motor Co.’s finance committee, which is enough for any lifetime.

But he will likely be remembered mainly as the owner of the Detroit Lions, during five woefully unsuccessful decades. Since he took over the franchise in 1964, the Lions have won exactly one playoff game, and remain the only NFL team to miss out on all 48 Super Bowls.

Ford’s critics claim he was a snob who didn’t care about the average fan, a fat cat who was more focused on profits than the playoffs.

False, and false. [Full Story]

Column: A Few Wild Guesses for 2014

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Because my last 700-word commentary completely covered every subject in the sports world that occurred in 2013, my editor thought, “Hey, why not preview the year in sports in January?!”

Why not? Because I have no idea what’s going to happen, that’s why. Nobody does. That’s why we watch sports: We don’t know how it’s going to end. It’s also why we shouldn’t watch pregame shows: everybody is just guessing.

Nonetheless, if The Chronicle wants to pay me to make wild, unsupported guesses – then doggonnit, that’s what I’ll do. Just one of the many duties that come with being a hard-hitting investigative journalist.

Let’s start at the bottom. That means, of course, the Detroit Lions. [Full Story]

Column: Looking Back at 2013

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

The year in sports, 2013, started out with the Detroit Lions missing the playoffs, and hockey fans missing the entire National Hockey League season.

The NHL hadn’t played a game since the Stanley Cup Finals that spring. The lockout started the way these things usually do: The players thought the owners made too much money, and the owners thought the players made too much money. And, of course, both sides were dead right.

On one side, you had NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, widely considered the worst commissioner in sports today – and maybe ever – who gets booed by the fans whenever he shows up. On the players’ side, you had union chief Donald Fehr, who led the baseball players union to cancel the 1994 World Series.

Well, you can guess what happened: a game of chicken between two stubborn leaders bent on self-destruction.

Fortunately, a government mediator – yes, you heard that correctly – saved the day, and hockey resumed. All of it only goes to prove my theory: hockey is the greatest sport, run by the dumbest people.

Things picked up after that. [Full Story]

Column: Hockey Fans Ask – Now What?

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Most sports fans are happy just to see their team make the playoffs. But Detroit Red Wings fans have been able to take that for granted for a record 22 straight seasons. The last time the Red Wings didn’t make the playoffs, not one current NHL player was in the league. Some of the current Red Wings weren’t born. Nine current franchises weren’t yet created.

But the record seemed doomed to be broken this season.

To start, there almost wasn’t a season at all, thanks to the contract dispute between the players and the owners, who both thought the other side was making too much money.  And, of course, both sides were right – setting up a game of chicken between self-destructive lunatics.

When a federal mediator finally brought them to their senses in January, they had just enough time left to play a 48-game schedule – which actually seemed about right. But the Red Wings came out flat-footed, falling so far behind they had to win their last four games just to sneak into the seventh of eight playoff spots.

In the first round, they faced the Ducks of Anaheim – formerly the Mighty Ducks – which is already an affront to everything that is holy about hockey.

Amazingly, the Red Wings beat them in seven games – quite an upset. Their reward: an even tougher opponent, the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks, who earned at least one point in their first 24 games, which is a record.

But for hardcore hockey fans – and really, are there any other kind? – this series was a reward. [Full Story]

Column: Playing Hockey with the Pros

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

A few years ago – okay, a bunch of years ago – I bit on a bet I never should have touched.

I was writing for the Detroit News, and a top minor league hockey team called the Detroit Vipers played at the Palace. So, I got to thinking: just how big is the gap, really, between the pros, and beer league players like me?

Good question. And even better if I didn’t try to answer it. But, being the hard-hitting investigative journalist that I am, I had to go down to the Palace and find out. Bad idea.

I called the Vipers, and they said, sure, come on down to practice. Now, I couldn’t hear them laughing themselves silly when they hung up – but I bet they were. I should’ve known I was biting off more than I could throw up. [Full Story]

Column: 2012 in Sports – Good, Bad & Silly

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

2012 was a remarkable year in many ways, and the sports world was no exception. Here’s a look back on the sport year’s best and worst – and just plain silly.

Just a few hours into the New Year, Michigan State and Michigan both won January bowl games over ranked teams in overtime, and both finished with 11 wins – Michigan’s best record since 2006. A good start to the new year.

Not all the news was happy, of course. We said goodbye to some legends. Budd Lynch, who lost his right arm in World War II, announced Red Wing games for six decades, right up to his death this fall, at 95.

Another Bud, VanDeWege, ran Moe’s Sports Shops in downtown Ann Arbor for 46 years, turning thousands of Michigan fans into friends. He passed away at 83.

We also lost the great Bob Chappuis, another World War II hero whose plane was shot down over Italy, behind enemy lines. He hid for weeks, then returned to lead Michigan to a national title. Along the way, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting. Try to sing his praises, however, and he’d wave you off. “Everybody says we’re heroes,” he told me, with a twinkle in his eye. “But what kind of idiot wouldn’t jump from a burning plane?”

The most watched funeral was Joe Paterno’s, the longtime football coach at Penn State. His life ended on Jan. 22, but the debate over his legacy is very much alive. [Full Story]

Column: Remembering Budd Lynch

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

His parents named him Frank Joseph James Lynch – but everybody knew him as Budd.

He passed away this week, at the age of 95. No, you can’t call that a tragedy, but you can call it a loss – one that thousands are feeling.

In a week that included no Big Ten teams being ranked in the top 25 for the first time, the amazingly idiotic NHL lockout and, far worse, Jerry Sandusky’s sentencing, I’d rather spend my few minutes with you today honoring a man who lived as long as he lived well.

Lynch was born in Windsor, Ontario, during World War I. He got his start in radio in Hamilton, Ontario, but World War II interrupted his young career in 1939, when he volunteered for Canada’s Essex Scottish Regiment. Five years later, on D-Day, he stormed the beaches at Normandy, and survived unscathed. But a few weeks after that, a German rocket took his right arm.

When Lynch returned, he worked for the Red Wings, back at the old Olympia Arena – which was still pretty new at the time. Over the next six decades, he held a variety of jobs, but they all involved a microphone, the Red Wings, and his smooth, redolent voice. He saw his job as “simply relaying information to the crowd, not to act as a cheerleader.” He was a pro’s pro. [Full Story]

Column: College Football Beats the Pros

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Last Saturday, the Michigan State Spartans beat the Michigan Wolverines in the most anticipated rivalry game in years. But that was overshadowed just one day later by the Detroit Lions, who pulled off one of the great upsets of the NFL season, when they … beat someone. Anyone. Doesn’t matter. At football!

Hard to believe it was just two years ago the Lions became the first NFL team to lose all 16 games. And now, here they are, standing tall at 1-5.

That’s why their victory was such big news. I hear from my friends who have real jobs that it was bigger talk around the office water cooler than the Michigan-Michigan State game – and that’s saying something.

It just proves my theory that Detroit really isn’t Hockeytown. It’s a football town. Whenever the Lions so much as show a pulse, the locals go loco.

But I’m still not biting. Not just on the Lions, but on pro football itself. [Full Story]

Column: Playing Footy

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Players on both sides of the Michigan-Michigan State game will tell you it’s the hardest hitting game of the year. No one can doubt the guys who’ll go at it tomorrow are some of the nation’s toughest men.

But the best athletes I’ve ever seen, and perhaps the toughest, I found on the other side of the world, playing Australian Rules Football – or “footy,” as they call it.

American football is dominated by specialists: huge linemen, speedy receivers and tiny kickers – all with their own, very specific jobs. But in Aussie Rules Football, all 18 players on a team have to be able to catch the ball, run with it, pass it with either hand and kick it with either foot – all on the run. And when an opposing player gets it, they have to chase him down to make the tackle. That’s why footy players all look the same: big and strong, lean and mean. [Full Story]

Column: The Slow Wheels of Justice

John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

The gears of justice grind slowly, but they do grind, and sometimes they actually get their man – or woman, as the case may be.

The sports world saw its share of slow-moving justice this week, from the global to the local.

New York Yankees’ third basemen Alex Rodriguez has already admitted he used steroids, but only after his tests were leaked to the press. He’s still playing, and is now one just home run away from hitting 600. Twenty years ago this would have been big news – but since suspected steroid users Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds crossed that threshold, the luster is lost. About half of those polled said they simply don’t care – and they polled New Yorkers. If they don’t care, why should we?

Rodriguez cheated himself out of his own celebration. Seems about right to me. [Full Story]