Category Archives: Sports

Pay College Athletes

No March Madness tournament would be complete without at least one school being caught paying its players in violation of NCAA rules. This year, the Memphis Tigers allegedly did the honors. In a piece syndicated by Inside Sources, I argue that the NCAA should allow colleges to pay their players for three main reasons:

The first is fairness. College players are unpaid laborers who generate millions of dollars for others.

The second is that big-time college sports are, in fact, a business. There is nothing amateur about the NCAA’s $1.15 billion in revenue, its marketing deals, college coaches’ and athletic directors’ salaries, or the amount of time many athletes put in to compete at a high level.

The third reason is practical: Black markets exist. Some star college players will always be paid, no matter what the NCAA says. It should be above the table so schools and the NCAA can keep a better eye on it.

Read the whole thing here.


Ben Reiter – Astroball: The New Way to Win It All

Ben Reiter – Astroball: The New Way to Win It All

In 2014, the Houston Astros were the worst team in baseball. That summer, Reiter wrote a shock Sports Illustrated cover story hailing them as 2017 World Series champions. Could a team enduring a third consecutive 100-loss season really turn around that far, that fast? They did, and right on schedule. The Astros won the 2017 World Series, just as Reiter predicted three years earlier. Reiter’s book is about how it happened.

Jeff Luhnow became Houston’s general manager before the 2012 season, after showing impressive under-the-radar acumen in the St. Louis Cardinal’s front office. Luhnow and his team clearly had a strategy in mind, and it went above and beyond the Moneyball approach Billy Beane pioneered in the early 2000s to turn his budget-conscious Oakland Athletics into perennial contenders.

Traditional baseball strategy relies on gut instincts. Beane was the first executive to lean heavily on sophisticated statistics, trusting them over the eyes and instincts of veteran scouts to decide which players had potential, or which strategies work best during a game. Luhnow’s approach is a more of a marriage of analytics and scouts.

The break between the Moneyball approach and Luhnow’s approach isn’t nearly so stark in practice. But keeping that in mind, it is a useful narrative device for sussing out what turned Houston around so quickly—and apparently for the long haul.

Indeed, the Astros made it to the World Series again in 2019, falling to the Washington Nationals. And their roster looks like it will remain strong for the foreseeable future. But at the same time, some of the bloom has come off the rose since Reiter’s book came out. In the 2019 stretch run, the team acquired a relief pitcher, Roberto Osuna, who was serving a suspension for domestic violence. A team executive responded to criticism of the move by shouting loudly after an important playoff win how glad he was they picked him up—directly at a crowd of female reporters. He was soon fired, though their have been complaints about the front office’s culture becoming arrogant and not an entirely healthy work environment.

As of this writing, the Astros are also being investigated by Major League Baseball for violating the game’s sign-stealing norms during their championship 2017. it is acceptable, though technically illegal, to steal the other team’s signs with your eyes only. It is against baseball’s written and unwritten rules to steal them with outside technology such as binoculars or cameras, which the Astros allegedly did. It will be interesting to see if the Astros can overcome their scandals and possible hubris and maintain a dynasty that has the potential to become one of baseball’s most dominant.

John Eisenberg – That First Season: How Vince Lombardi Took the Worst Team in the NFL and Set It on the Path to Glory

John Eisenberg – That First Season: How Vince Lombardi Took the Worst Team in the NFL and Set It on the Path to Glory

I read this shortly before the Packers began the 2019 season, their first under new head coach Matt LaFleur. This book takes on an added poignance with quarterback Bart Starr’s recent passing at age 85. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, just a well-told story about the beginnings of one of the sport’s major dynasties.

The team was dysfunctional at every level after finishing the 1958 season with a 1-10-1 record, still the worst in team history. Head coach Scooter McLean, though generally liked by his players, was not much of a coach or an administrator, and was fired. The Packers’ unique ownerless structure was also hurting the team. As a shareholder corporation, the team was run by an executive committee of mostly local notables who had few compunctions about meddling with personnel decisions and other football matters. Retired Hall of Fame running back Tony Canadeo was an exception on the committee, and without him Lombardi might never have been hired.

At the time Lombardi was the New York Giants’ offensive coordinator. In his mid-40s, he was a bit old to be considered for a head coaching job at that point, and though he wasn’t overly excited about relocating to the NFL’s equivalent of Siberia, he knew it might be his only shot at running his own team. One of his conditions was a weakening of the executive committee, and absolute say over personnel matters.

As Lombardi looked over game film, he saw that he was inheriting some talented players. Packers scout Jack Vainisi, who would die in 1960 at the age of 33 of a heart attack, was an unheralded genius who drafted eight Hall of Fame players who played for Lombardi. Players like Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke, Paul Hornung, and Jim Ringo had occasional flashes, but previous management did little to develop their talent. Lombardi’s famous discipline changed that virtually overnight.

Having set the stage, the book then goes week by week through Green Bay’s first season under Lombardi. They beat the Bears in the opener, the perfect way to ring in the new era. An early winning streak was followed by a longer losing streak, but the Packers still finished with a  7-5 record, their first winning season in years, and a six-win improvement in just one year. Lombardi’s Packers would go on to win five championships over a seven-year stretch, including the first two Super Bowls.

Again, there is nothing groundbreaking here, but Eisenberg has produced a quality work of history about an important part of pro football history. Better, its intended audience is all football fans, not just homer Packers fans.

NFL Trivia

From p. 65 of Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback book:

At one point the same lawyer represented Barry Switzer, Jerry Jones[,] and Larry Lacewell of the Cowboys. The lawyer’s name was Larry Derryberry. They once dined together. At the table: Barry, Jerry, Larry[,] and Larry Derryberry.

Great Moments in Umpiring

umpire strikeout call
From pages 20-21 of Bruce Nash and Allan Zullo’s amusing 1988 book Baseball Confidential:

Steve Lyons, White Sox — Lyons says that when he was a rookie, he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry after he questioned Jerry Neudecker over a third strike. “I said, ‘man, that pitch was high.’ And he said, ‘You don’t say that to me. You ask me if that pitch was high.’ So I said, ‘All right, was that pitch high?’ And he replied, ‘Yeah, it was. But I still called it a strike and that means you’re out.’ I ended up laughing all the way back to the dugout.”

A Theory on NFL Draft Picks

As an NFL owner (I own one share of Green Bay Packers stock), I like to keep an eye on my team. So I regularly read Vic Ketchman’s daily Ask Vic column on the team website. One of my questions appeared in today’s column (Mike Spofford is temporarily filling in while Vic takes some time off):

Ryan from Arlington, VA

Mike, here’s a theory on why the league keeps its formula for awarding supplemental picks secret: It prevents GMs from gaming the system by making transactions based in part on how it would affect potential supplemental picks. Plausible?


Read the whole thing here. Among other things, I learned that Aaron Rodgers has thrown only one interception in his entire career that has been returned for a touchdown — the fewest in the league during that span (Tom Brady has thrown two).

Pitchers and Catchers

Today is a glorious day. Pitchers and catchers are reporting for spring training. The dark, depressing days in the calendar between football and baseball seasons are almost over.

This blog’s favorite team, the Milwaukee Brewers, don’t hold their first official workout until tomorrow. But many players have already shown up, whether out of a veteran’s offseason boredom or a prospect’s desire to make a good impression on the higher-ups. Either way, the boys of summer are getting ready, and opening day can’t get here soon enough.

Packers vs. Bears

Tomorrow, the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears will face off for the 187th time — the most any two teams have played each other in NFL history. It is the NFL’s marquee rivalry. The Packers have won 13 NFL championships, the most of any team. The Bears are second in NFL annals with 9.

The Packers have fared better in the Super Bowl era, winning 4 Lombardi trophies to Chicago’s lone victory in 1985. Then again, the Bears hold the edge in head-to-head play, with a 92-87-6 record, including playoffs.

The players are very much aware of their rivalry’s intensity, and seem to revel in it. Chicago’s best receiver, Brandon Marshall, said this week at a press conference:

“I don’t like the Green Bay Packers. I’m not going to use the word ‘hate,’ but I really dislike the Packers and their players,” Marshall said. “But you know what? The talk has to back it up. We’ll go out there and do everything we have to do to get a win.”

Marshall leads the NFL with 103 catches through 13 games. The Packers somehow kept him in check when they met earlier in the season, allowing only 2 catches for 24 yards. He has clearly taken it personally, calling tomorrow’s game the “biggest game of my career.”

Packer defenders have given Marshall plenty of reason to take umbrage, particularly Charles Woodson. After their last game Woodson, who will not play tomorrow due to injury, said of Jay Cutler, Chicago’s talented but interception-prone quarterback:

“Heard some talk out of the Bears: Packers secondary not working coverage, bigger receivers … we heard about it,” Woodson told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols after the game. “We understand that Jay is excited about his new weapons, but it’s the same-old Jay. We don’t need luck; Jay will throw us the ball.”

Cutler threw four interceptions that day, all but ensuring a Bears loss. No doubt he has been putting in extra time this week studying film and making sure his receivers know their routes, and his linemen know their protection schemes; tomorrow’s game should be a fun one. Cutler hasn’t historically played well against Green Bay, but when he’s having a good day, he drives his team up and down the field almost at will.

But enough about tomorrow. It turns out that 80 years ago, in 1932, this rivalry once had championship-level implications due to a quirk in the rules.

Recall that the Packers and Bears are the NFL’s two most decorated franchises, with 13 and 9 championships, respectively. Every week, Green Bay’s PR staff puts out a Dope Sheet packed with information about the Packers, that week’s opponent, their history together, roster information, and endless statistics. On page 5 of this week’s Dope Sheet I found a tidbit that there is an argument that maybe Green Bay should really have 14 championships to Chicago’s 8:

On the heels of its three straight NFL championships [1929-31]… the Bears stole from Green Bay a fourth straight title (which at the time was determined by league standings). Chicago barely finished atop the league standings, which unlike today did not count ties. Had the league counted ties in standings, the Packers would have won. The next year, 1933, the  NFL began determining its champion with postseason games.

This was also the last time the Packers have led the all-time series. The Bears have held the advantage ever since — 80 years and counting.

They Did it

This was an eventful weekend for Brewers fans. First, the good news. They collected their 81st win, guaranteeing a non-losing season. With 4 games left, they are very likely to finish what earlier looked like a dismal season with a winning record. Could happen tonight, even.

The bad news is that they were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs when they lost 7-0 to the Houston Astros, who are indisputably baseball’s worst team.

Good and bad, as with everything else. Besides, as Cubs fans have been saying for well over a century — there’s always next year. I’ll savor the end of this one, but already next season can’t come soon enough.

The Battle for Mediocrity

The Brewers’ playoff chances are down to 0.1 percent, according to But that’s ok, because the team is on the cusp of a milestone victory. One more win guarantees a non-losing season. Two more would make for a winning season. Not bad for a team that was 12 games below .500 at one point earlier in the year.

There are five games left in the season. All are against weak opposition, so this feat of mediocrity appears eminently doable. As a fan, if playoffs aren’t in the picture, a non-losing season is a decent consolation prize.