Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Tanking Culture

Zach Lowe writes about the rule changes the NBA is considering to confront tanking.

And, yes it is a serious problem.

The NBA sells competition.  But, if say, 25% of the teams are not trying to win, that means that on any game has about a 50% chance of involving at least one team that is not terribly interested in winning the game.  This does not make for a very compelling product, as a look at the ABC Sunday schedule demonstrates( though, to be fair, the Lakers, Bulls and Knicks are less attractive teams for reasons that have little to do with tanking).

This is a bad deal for fans of the teams that are tanking, but also for fans of the teams that are trying.  A quarter of their season is basically glorified exhibition games.  Add in the random way tanking teams are dumping their available players, and the disease spreads everywhere.

So, I am glad the 76ers historic losing streak received national attention, and not being waved off as part of the grand plan.  The people architecting this (not the players, who aren't very good NBA players, but it's not their fault they've been thrown into water over their heads) should be ashamed of themselves and embarrassed.  If I were ESPN, I would run the name of the owners and general manager along with every 76er score and mention of the losing streak.

Professional sports are based on three basic assumptions:
  1. Executives are making a reasonable effort to put a team capable of winning the most games on the field/court/rink.
  2. Coaches coach , as Herm Edwards said, to "win the game" today.
  3. Players, on every given play, are doing their best to win the individual battles on that play.
Violations of these have been severely punished, particularly on the lowest levels.  It is why the Black Sox were banned from the game.  I've never been a big Pete Rose apologist, but something does seem deeply wrong that he is a pariah from the game for betting on his own team to win, while the 76ers management can blow an entire season with little consequence.

Now, there are some exceptions.  Baseball managers don't use their best pitcher in every game until he gets hurt; they plan their usage.  Players may not go all-out once the outcome of a game is no longer in reasonable doubt.  Teams may decide it is better to get a look at some younger players and get some experience rather than squeeze and extra couple of wins in a season.  Batters may sacrifice bunt to try to score 1 run rather than try for a hit.  

At a point past this, we get to the "aren't I clever!" non-competitive tactics, with the intentional walk serving as the barrier.  Here's where we have things like calling time-out while falling out of bounds, fouling when up by 3, taking an intentional safety, letting the other team score to keep time on the clock, taking a knee rather than scoring when ahead, resting players once a playoff position is known, etc.  I've written what I think about these things before.

What the 76ers are doing is an error on the Level 1 scale.  As Lowe mentions, there have been other teams that have done fishy things, but the scale is unprecedented.  David Silver covers it up by noting that there are no apparent Level 2 or 3 violations, which seems to be true, but that's irrelevant.  They are not being given the tools to be successful.

So, why is this happening now, when the rules haven't changed?

Well, the culture has changed.

It used to be, that a GM who ran his team into the ground like this would be the subject of derision and ridicule and be fearing for his job.  Not any more.  The ridicule is reserved for GMs like, say, Joe Dumars, who are inept in their attempts to win.  Fans of teams that aren't even trying to win are lectured to see the big picture.

What we are witnessing is a sports culture that has its roots in video games rather than the playgrounds.  Nobody would "tank" a pick-up game.  But you might blow a season in a "franchise" video game to land a star for next year.

The difference is, nobody expected anyone else to pay to watch the tanked video games, and no player's career is wasted playing in them.

Salute to John Calipari...

Before going any further, let me acknowledge:

  • The idea that the competitors in big-time college athletics (i.e. men's basketball and football) are student-athletes is a joke.  When there's a game on a Wednesday night in the middle of the school year between UCLA and Michigan St. in Madison Square Garden, to take an example I am making up but is based on reality, it's apparent that academics are not a particular concern.
  • One of the most annoying parts of the NCAA set-up is how it makes mega-size stars out of the coaches, who make millions while the players just get their "education".
  • Perhaps the most clearest manifestation of these problems is the men's basketball program at the University of Kentucky under John Calipari, where star players are recruited, typically play for just one year, then move on to the NBA.
Having said all that, it is difficult to deny that this process, however corrupt it may be, produces an extraordinarily entertaining product, and that John Calipari has mastered this peculiar game.

As anyone who has watched any kind of all-star game knows, people who were star players do not naturally play well together as a team.  Particularly stars who are angling for their position at the next level.

What Calipari does, is convince several of the best high school players in the country to come to Kentucky, then he gets them to play basketball in a way that they can compete at the highest level against teams that have been together for years.  And then he does it all over again the next year.

I agree this isn't what college basketball "should be," and it turns the idea of college athletics into a farce.  But I also have to acknowledge the great difficulty of what Calipari does year in and year out, and admire his skill in pulling it off.

There was a time not long a go when I couldn't stand Calipari and rooted against him at every opportunity. But I've softened.  It's not his fault the rules are what they are, and it's conceivable his program offers the best deal for these players. He doesn't pretend to be anything but what he is.  If I had a basketball star son, would I prefer he spend four years at Duke or Stanford than one year at Kentucky?  Absolutely.  But if he's determined to get to the NBA ASAP, Kentucky may be the best place to spend a year.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Teams that can never substantially change their uniforms

After witnessing the atrocity of UCLA's navy blue sleeved uniforms last night, I submit the following list of teams that can not substantially change their uniforms because they are iconic.

By "substantially," I mean go to a different color scheme, or remove what makes them distinctive.  You can have an odd third jersey, add some stripes, etc.  But come playoff time, you better be wearing your traditional colors.

College basketball

  • UCLA
  • North Carolina
  • Duke (their experiments with black and navy notwithstanding)
  • Indiana
  • Kentucky (done their share of screwing around, but basic royal blue / white scheme must be maintained).
  • Syracuse
  • Kansas (I'm considering their early departure as punishment for their messing around this year)
Also, Michigan should wear their maize uniforms for all tournament games.

College football

  • Notre Dame
  • USC
  • Michigan
  • Penn State
  • Alabama
  • Ohio St.
  • LSU
  • Texas
  • Oklahoma
  • Nebraska
  • Florida St.


  • Green Bay Packers
  • Chicago Bears
  • Pittsburgh Steelers
  • San Francisco 49ers
  • Dallas Cowboys
  • Oakland Raiders

Major League Baseball

  • New York Yankees
  • St. Louis Cardinals
  • Los Angeles Dodgers
  • San Francisco Giants


  • Boston Celtics
  • Los Angeles Lakers
  • Chicago Bulls
On a corallary note, once you win a championship in a uniform, you should not change it for at least 5 years (see: the 1999 St. Louis Rams).  The uniform you win your first championship in becomes your iconic uniform, unless it is a genuine atrocity like the 1998 Denver Broncos navy numbers.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Rare self-bragging post

I was a major part of a team that took Honorable Mention in a 2-day "Hacakthon" at Amazon this week.  It required us to come up with an idea to improve customer service (which was from someone else on our team), and implement a working prototype of it (which I did a bulk of), and prepare a 3 minute presentation.  Ours was one of 33 ideas selected for the competition, and 25 presented, some from teams with as many as a dozen people.

It wowed the judges, which was a collection of senior Amazon execs and engineers.

It was good to be reminded that I can "hang" with these other very smart engineers and am capable of delivering something impressive, since the world can so often say the opposite.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Fast (from food) during Lent...

In discussions about how we Catholics should approach Lent, even since I was first aware of the concept, there have been searches for alternatives to a literal interpretation of the "fasting" part of "prayer, fasting, and alms giving."  e.g.  why not "fast" from the radio, or judgment, or television, or the Internet?  why not do something positive instead of fasting?

I'm not here to say that if you do pursue one of those alternatives, you're doing it "wrong," and certainly God accepts and makes use of whatever we have to offer, but here are some reasons to consider incorporating fasting from food as part of your observance.

Being Part of Something Larger Than Ourselves The decline of the Church's influence in the day-to-day lives of the faithful, particularly in matters of sexuality, has been well-documented.

Still, it's interesting to observe that about this time of year, restaurants advertise specials on fish, catering to their Catholic customers, even though the observance of Lenten abstinence is even less defensible on secular grounds than, say, the Church's teaching on contraception.  Churches are more crowded on Ash Wednesday (not a Holy Day of Obligation, and with the "uplifting" message that we are dust and to dust we shall return) than on Holy Days celebrating Mary and the saints.

Sure, maybe there's some novelty to eating something different (and I'll leave aside questions of whether eating out at a seafood restaurant or competing for the most elaborate parish fish fry is truly in the spirit of Lenten observance), but I think it speaks to something else -- we want to belong and be part of this universal Church that stretches around the world and throughout time.

By making fasting from food part of your Lenten observance, we join with the observance of Catholics throughout the world, and the saints who have come before us.  We are reminded that we are part of something larger than ourselves.

Solidarity with the Poor  What I typically eat on the days of "fasting" is still more than the majority of people in the world get to eat on a typical day.  By making do with less food, I am reminded, even if ever so weakly, of the suffering of hunger too many people live with every day.  And this can unlock my heart to the other two aspects of Lent -- prayer and alms giving to relieve them.

Solidarity with Christ's Experience Our Lenten observance echoes Jesus's time in the desert, when He went without food, and then was tempted immediately with food.

Obedience (or Discipleship)  Our Holy Mother Church asks us to fast during Lent, and this is one request most of us can honor without violating our personal integrity.  "Because I said so" isn't always a great reason, but humble obedience to legitimate authority is a muscle I think most of us could stand to develop a bit more.

Constant Reminder  Actual hunger is inescapable.  It is not something we can easily distract ourselves, or that passes, like the urge to engage in some activity.  With hunger as our companion, it is an ever-present reminder of our dependence on God and each other.

I understand the impulse to try to come up with our own novel ways to observe Lent, and this can yield some rich fruit.  But in our search for novelty, let's not forget the wisdom of the Church that has developed over the past 2,000 years.