Welcome to the Super Bowl - Richard Sherman

“I don’t hate it enough not to love it.” So said a wag about professional football earlier in the 2013-2014 National Football League (NFL) season. The remark followed a barrage of stories about concussions and the news broke of murder charges against one time New England Patriots’ tight end Aaron Hernandez. The statement well expresses the love/hate relationship the thinking NFL fan (such as this writer) has with the sport. It features many of the world’s greatest athletes in a brilliantly marketed display of imponderable skill and sometimes frightening violence. On the field and off its young stars often behave as rich, absurdly privileged athletes who put their health at stake for their livelihood are wont to do. It’s not always pretty.

The incidence of concussions and the severity of other injuries underscores a fundamental truth about the NFL: if you play, you will get hurt.  Those of us who watch the NFL regularly live with an uneasy contradiction. We enjoy a brutal game which can inflict permanent physical and mental damage on its participants.

The NFL is far and away America’s most popular professional sport. Major League Baseball still lays claim to the moniker of being “America’s pastime,” but audiences for the NFL swamp that of both Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Basketball Association (NBA). In the United States, the National Hockey League (NHL) and Major League Soccer (MLS) are sideshows in comparison.

On the eve of Super Bowl week, one name has cut through all the noise and chatter about the NFL for football fan and non-football fan alike: Richard Sherman.

A week ago, Sherman made an extraordinarily athletic and exquisitely timed deflection to break up what would have been a last gasp, game-winning pass from the San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick to his receiver Michael Crabtree. Watching that play in slow motion is like watching the athlete as Nureyev. With the game on the line, Sherman elevated himself far off the ground while running at full speed and artfully raised one hand to deflect the ball away from Crabtree and into the hands of Sherman’s teammate for a game winning interception. Sherman made a breathtakingly superb play. But the real drama was yet to come. Sherman, to use the vernacular, proceeded to go off on prime time TV. First he made a choke sign with his hands around his neck while glowering at Kaepernick the San Francisco star who had just been victimized – not by his own bad play, but by a superior one from Sherman. Sherman then visibly taunted a disconsolate Crabtree slapping him on the bum and screaming into the ear hole of his helmet. In return, Sherman received a poke in the face-mask from Crabtree. Sherman was penalized for his taunt, but with 22 seconds remaining on the clock, all his Seattle Seahawks needed to do was run out the clock to victory and a berth in the Super Bowl.

Things took a bizarre turn when the game ended. FOX television had angled to interview Sherman live on the field before the players returned to their dressing rooms. The play-by-play announcers introduced broadcaster Erin Andrews standing by in a mêlée of players, team officials and camera people with a dreadlocked, helmetless Sherman for his instant post-game comments. Instead of humbly thanking the lord and his teammates in the well rehearsed and terminally boring patter practised by many professional athletes, Sherman bellowed that he was the best defender in the NFL, that the 49ers were stupid to challenge him and that Crabtree was a chump who got what he deserved. A visibly shaken Ms. Andrews stepped back from the voluble Mr. Sherman and gave the spotlight back to the lads upstairs. It was extraordinary unscripted television. For what it’s worth, Sherman is African American. Ms. Andrews is Caucasian and considerably smaller. In their brief interview, Sherman appeared almost deranged, extremely angry, arrogant and, frankly, more than a little frightening. His appearance immediately sparked a firestorm in the Twittersphere and about 72 hours of blanket coverage in sports and news coverage across the United States, Canada and beyond.

Hours later Sherman penned “For Those Who Think I’m A Thug or Worse…” an article for si.com, the hugely popular Sports Illustrated website. Sherman has been an occasional si.com contributor throughout the season. A calm, reflective Sherman explained his actions as part of the heat of the game, “To those who would call me a thug or worse because I show passion on a football field—don’t judge a person’s character by what they do between the lines. Judge a man by what he does off the field, what he does for his community, what he does for his family.” The next day, Sherman held court in a press conference. He was rational, articulate and basically non-contrite. In contrast to his outburst with the unfortunate Andrews, Sherman exhibited some warmth and considerable intelligence. In sum, this is one complex and often extremely media savvy dude. I suspect he will have the charm offensive in full gear on media day prior to the Super Bowl.

I say thanks to Richard Sherman. He gave us a pull-back-the-curtains-on-the-Wizard glimpse into the NFL. It’s a tough game played by very tough men. However distasteful his triumphal, adrenaline stoked, macho outburst to Andrews was, it’s refreshing that he did not merely fall on his sword afterward in a pathetic, well-rehearsed apology. Sherman said in effect, ‘it’s all part of the game, man – play on!’ By accounts of those who work with him, including Peter King, Sherman’s editor at si.com and a justifiably respected dean of football writers, Sherman actually is an exceptionally bright young man who happens to be a great football player.

Off the field, management of NFL teams, the players themselves and television networks generally manage to present an image of fine young men that’s often at odds with the realities of a brutal, extravagantly financed game. Not all its athletes are stellar citizens. Imagine that. Whatever Sherman’s crimes are, surely they pale in comparison to other events surrounding the NFL this season. The aforementioned Hernandez stands accused of murder. Days prior to the Seahawks’ victory over the 49ers, former star defensive back and broadcaster Darren Sharper was arrested in Los Angeles on suspicion of rape. Reports state that New Orleans police are also investigating Sharper for sexual assault.

Oliver Stone’s feature film Any Given Sunday as well as the feature and seriesFriday Night Lights from producer/director Peter Berg illuminate the realities of football as an essential aspect of deep America from dusty high school fields in Texas to the professional gridiron. In his recent outburst Richard Sherman gave us a strong dose of the raw reality behind the usual NFL marketing and spin.

- This article was originally published by The Journal of Wild Culture. -


An Open Letter to Loaf Fans

Item:  Toronto Maple Loafs fail to make the Stanley Cup playoffs for the 7th consecutive year.

Memo to Loaf fans in the so-called ‘Loaf Nation’: it is SERIOUSLY time to get a life. Believe this: the team will not win a Stanley Cup in your lifetimes; heck, it might not even make the playoffs. A proposed cure – anytime you want to root for the Loafs think of 300 pound+ Toronto Mayor Rob Ford naked. Then move on.

PS If you are a self confessed member of Loaf Nation and you voted for Ford, there is probably no hope for your recovery.

The Pulitzer Goes To...

If you are interested in hockey, player safety and a lamentable silence in most Canadian journalism, rush to read The New York Times brilliant and disturbing series, “Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer”, about Derek Boogaard.

Writer John Branch and a team of  ‘New Media’ story tellers have spun a profound tale about the ill-fated, late NHL ‘enforcer’ Boogaard. Many Canadian sports journalists, and seemingly all broadcasting entities in the country, led lamentably by the  juvenile Hockey Night broadcasts on the publicly owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation,  condone fighting in the NHL.  It’s past time to read a deep account of how one hockey player’s life was ruined by the absurdist, lethal culture of fighting in hockey.

Talkin' Loafs and 'Head Shots'

Hey! It’s been TOO long since we gazed at the Toronto Maple Loafs and their addled fans.

As I write, the Loafs hold a one goal lead over the Islanders, one of four teams in the thirty team NHL with a worse record than Toronto’s. Plan the Stanley Cup parade, girls ‘n’ boys!!!

There must be something in the water in these parts.  Loaf fans have convinced themselves that their team is making a late season playoff run.  Somehow the message escaped resident genius Brian Burke who traded away two starting defense men for prospects in the past few weeks.

From the ridiculous to good old hockey psychosis NHL style: everyone’s talkin’ ‘head shots’ and Sid the Kid’s concussion. Sports ‘journalists’ are wearing out their Blackberry digits wonderin’ jes wat the league is gonna do.  Bottom line, oh dear humans: as long as the NHL and its broadcasting partners (almost exclusively in Canada – led in the first instance on Saturday nights, by what passes for a public broadcaster) promote fist fighting as part of the game, all talk about concussions and better protecting players is sheer hypocrisy and nonsense.

P.S. 25.02.11 Son-of-a-moose!  The Loafs beat les Canadiens last night looking something like a legitimate team.  Hmmmm… 4 points out of the playoffs.  Are they preparing ‘the Leaf Nation’ for an extremely painful season ending, or will they prove me wrong, wrong, wrong? Stay tuned.

Jays' Update

Goodbye Vernon Wells. Now that’s a major league baseball trade!

It’s a daring strike by Alex Anthopoulos.  Mike Napoli is a veteran catcher who offers protection for the emerging, promising, yet completely unproven, J.P. Arencibia.  Napoli can also play first base – which might be necessary if Adam Lind can’t adjust.

Principally, the move is a coup because the Jays are out from under Wells’ gargantuan contract.

If Anthopoulos is savvy, Jose Bautista will become the face of the Toronto franchise. Unloading Wells’ albatross of a deal should open space to sign Bautista, a player who seems capable of leadership off and on the field, to a medium term contract. I’m never expecting another 54 home-run season from Bautista, but he’ll provide steady power and stellar defense whether he’s in the outfield or third base.

Late last year, I wrote about the “hollowing out” of the Blue Jays.  Allow me to re-assess in light of recent developments.  The trading of Wells, a fine player and perhaps a likable chap, but a 32 year-old on a superstar’s contract without superstar performance, is a significant step forward. Further, the addition of Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch means that the bullpen is reconstructed.

Boston is set to run away with the American League East. However, the Yankees are weaker; and so are the Tampa Rays.

Here’s hoping that Anthopoulos and Paul Beeston don’t resume their, ‘we’re in a development year’, blather in the few weeks prior to spring training. The Jays are maybe, just maybe, set to make a run for a playoff position this year.


Woe the Toronto Sports Fan

Bah! Hum-bug!

How numb and uninformed are Toronto sports fans?

Let’s see:

Brian Burke spends millions to build a losing NHL team without centres. Waffle chuckers aside, the ACC still sells out and the pathetic ‘Leaf Nation’ remains loyal with its $$$$ – which is all that counts with MLSE.

The Raptors, another MLSE product, cannot and will not play defense. This does not require great talent. It takes will – which is lacking at an NBA outpost where even quality players excel only while plotting their moves back to a real basketball city.

Finally, let’s look at the Blue Jays.  Alex Anthopoulos gets a free ride from fans, perhaps because he’s Canadian,  young and has a cute family. This, while he has spent the off-season dismantling a winning, entertaining team.  Anthopoulos traded viable Major League pitcher Shaun Marcum for a AA minor league player (also a Canadian).

When will Toronto sports media cotton to the fact that dear Alex’ real agenda has been to assist owner Rogers in cutting costs?  As I wrote earlier, Jays’ fans, contemplate 75 wins this year on the upside.

Hollowing Out the Blue Jays

From our sports desk: a wintery baseball flash report:

The Toronto sports media is oddly quiet about the evisceration  of a team that won 85 games last year in the formidable American League East. As I write this post, the dismantled Toronto Blue Jays squad that will arrive in spring training in just over two months time would be fortunate to win 75 once the regular season begins in April.

Let’s review: Pitcher Shaun Marcum traded for Brett Lawrie, a Double AA player; catcher John Buck signs as a free agent with the Florida Marlins, a team that no one watches; lefty relief pitcher Scott Downs takes his talents to Malibu; closer Kevin Gregg cut loose to free agency… The Blue Jays also added a player in the speedy outfielder Rajai Davis, but he is a minor addition in comparison to the flood of losses of established major league players.

Blue Jays management mollifies by talking about ‘talent accumulation’ and creating a mild buzz about the aforementioned Double AA player, Lawrie , because he’s a Canadian. It’s a public relations mirage.

At the moment, the Jays are a team without an experienced every day catcher, an experienced first baseman or a proven closer.  GM Alex Anthopoulos is the happy face on a movement to limit player costs while waxing smilingly about a brighter future ahead.

Yes folks, your 2011 Toronto Blue Jays: younger, cheaper and worse.

Dome Ball

This Sunday the National Football League will feature two championship games played indoors for the first time in its history.  Yecccchhhhh!

In Indianapolis, the Colts will host the New York Jets; a few hours later the Saints of New Orleans will welcome the Minnesota Vikings. Both stadiums are antiseptic, over sized monstrosities better suited for truck rallies than football.

The spectacle of playing outdoors on actual grass (or ‘frozen tundra’), no matter what the weather has been sacrificed to a high-speed, pass dominated arena ball that, to my eye, looks false. In addition, as a filmmaker, I find the lighting of indoors football on television very unattractive. I know I am no doubt out of step with the times – in the era of video games, the NFL’s new indoor look might not dismay many fans. However, I wonder if the NFL does not risk diluting its product by limiting the range of tactical options that dealing with unpredictable nature demands.

There was a moment in the only good playoff game last week (played outdoors in San Diego) where you could see the wind move a shock of a hair on the head of a concerned Chargers’ coach Norv Turner.  Having just watched parts of a dreadful game from the Garbage Bag Dome of Minneapolis, it took me a moment to even realize it was the wind!  Perhaps the elements might have contributed to San Diego’s kicker missing three field goals that sealed his team’s fate at the hands of the surprising Jets.

btw The Colts will decisively terminate the Jets’ dreams and rattle the amazing rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez. And dog willing, the Saints will end the season of the anti-Packer Favre.

The (bent) Hockey News

No Vincent? It says here that Team Canada will rue the exclusion of Vincent Lecavalier from its Olympic squad. Five years ago, the still young Lecavalier was clearly the best player on the ice when his Tampa Bay team beat Calgary for the Stanley Cup in a very tough series. He may be having an off year in the pathetic, fight polluted NHL, but my bet is that he’d still rock in international competition. If Steve Yzerman really believes that Patrice Bergeron is a better player, Canada’s hopes for the Olympics may be still-born. Oh, and if you think Quebec is under represented on the basis of merit on this Olympic team, you won’t get an argument from me.

Loaf Nation update: The team still bites. ‘Nuff said. But how weird is it that Toronto ‘sports journalists’ are barely noticing that the NBA Raptors are steadily becoming a competent basketball team? Oceans of ink and otherwise sensible people’s airtime is still wasted on the Loafs. In fact, the Loafs seem more popular the worse they get. Go figure. Toronto as North America’s official Loser-ville, anyone?

Finally, I am so glad I don’t have to hear another word about “our” junior team for about eleven and a half months. The pom-pom waving in The Globe And Mail and on TSN really became unbearable.


The Vindication of Thompson & McCarthy

So I was wrong. Again.

Slightly less than two months ago (on this very site), I wrote off my beloved Green Bay Packers after an inexplicable loss to the execrable Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Since then, the Pack has been quite arguably the best team in the National Football League posting six victories against one last-play-of-the-game loss to last year’s World Champions. Yesterday, with a game remaining on the regular schedule, Green Bay clinched a playoff berth.

Many commentators (including this one) had argued that Green Bay VP Ted Thompson and Coach Mike McCarthy were mistaken in trading Brett Favre last year. In early November, with Favre leading the Minnesota Vikings to the NFC North lead and the Packers languishing in mediocrity, it appeared that 2008’s gamble on young quarterback Aaron Rodgers had backfired. Now…not so much. Yesterday, in addition to clinching a playoff spot, young Mr. Rodgers became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for more than 4,000 yards in each of his first two seasons as a starter. The kid is a legitimate superstar.

Meanwhile Brett Favre was last seen arguing with his coach on the sidelines and the Vikings have lost two of their last three games. Stay tuned. Green Bay fans could be in for a very special post-season.

Truculence & Head Shots

Brian Burke is enough to bring a smile to my face on the grayest of November days. His “truculent” Loafs are once again the worst team in the NHL. His coach Ron Wilson is showing signs of serious brain wear. But that’s not ‘Burkie’s’ greatest achievement these days. No, it’s his response to the truculence of others that gives pause.

Burke’s acolytes among Toronto sports “journalists” are now commending him for taking charge in a recent NHL General Managers’ meeting. The panelists and scribes now assure us that there will be action against dangerous “head shots” because of the efforts of Burke and like-minded NHL hockey brainsters.  Puh-leez!

Perhaps taking a blind-side run with an elbow or cross check at an unaware opponent might merit a tougher penalty in future. How much does that really matter in a league that encourages fighting? Would any neurologist suggest that allowing, indeed inciting,  a 220 pound man to grab his opponent by the sweater and punch him in the face does not constitute a dangerous head shot? The blindness of the sports “journalists” in this regard is mind boggling.

The networks, with public broadcaster the CBC in the lead with Don Cherry basically waving pom-poms every time he sniffs a fight, are all complicit.  I shudder to think of the hypocritical sanctimony the CBC, TSN, The Score and Rogers Sportsnet will affect the first time an NHL player lapses into a coma or worse after a fight. In the meantime, the GMs and the broadcasters are equally hypocritical in feigning concern over head shots unless they’re delivered with a fist.  Ask Steve Moore whether he thought Todd Bertuzzi delivered legal fist shots to his head.


Buck Me Frettly

OK . I admit it. The Green Bay Packers made a grave mistake in not welcoming their grand diva Brett Favre back on whatever terms he wanted in August 2008. True confession time – I’ve been a Packer fan since I was a boy. In that point of a previous millennium, ‘The Pack’, under legendary coach Vince Lombardi was defeating the likes of the New York Giants for NFL championships. Last summmer I agreed with Packer management who did not guarantee Favre his starter’s job after a bizarrre five month on-off-on-and off again dalliance with retirement.

Yesterday, Favre sliced and diced his former team on its own turf, Lambeau Field. Combine yesterday’s performance with a game in Minnesota last month and Favre hurled seven touchdown passes in two Viking victories over the Packers. OUCH!!

The Packers’ choice to lead their team, Aaron Rodgers played another terribly   inconsistent, sometimes flashy, but ultimately losing game.  Rodgers, as if haunted by Favre interceptions of the past, repeatedly held on to the ball too long allowing the Vikings to sack him. The fourty year old Favre meanwhile gamboled about like a teenager while showing arm strength and accuracy easily the match of his glory years with the Packers. Burnt out? Finished? Prone to giveaways? Uh…not so much.

The Vikings just may win the NFC championship and head to the Super Bowl under a rejuvenated Favre. Packer GM Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy were one game from The Big Show with Favre as QB in the 2007 season. If Favre was still their starter today, they would have a stronger team. The moral of this story appears to be that sometimes superstars, even when they behave erratically, must be indulged.


The Marvels of Testosterone

The worst start in the history of the franchise. That would be ZERO wins in seven games to date. That’s what big Brian Burke’s injection of “pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence” has wrought for the pathetic Toronto Maple Leafs hockey club. Pugnacity, male hormones and idiotic fighting on skates aside, the ‘Loafs’ just plain bite. Their goalkeeping is sub-standard. They have no scorers. (Woe to them if the next promised saviour Phil Kessel turns out to be another Jason Blake.) They have a defenceman Tomas Kaberle who would star for most teams, but Burke and his coach Ron Wilson spent the best part of a year denigrating Kaberle for his sophisticated approach to the position. Kaberle now appears confused. Last year’s promising rookie Luke Schenn is this year’s dull-witted, slow-footed sophomore. Maybe the startlingly handsome Schenn’s modeling assignments during the off season wore him out.

It has been a rude awakening for The Loaf Nation. The collective boy crush that the ‘sports media’ of Toronto had on Burke during the pre-season led many to predict that the Leafs were playoff bound for the first time in five years. A Toronto daily even ran a feature with admiring photos of Burke  surrounded by the supposed worthies with whom he has filled the executive suites at the ACC. Perhaps that brain trust will produce a win before November.

I’d bet that the likes of Don Cherry is delighted that almost all Leaf games feature a contrived display of fisticuffs at some point. NHL management is no doubt quietly satisfied that such displays often lead the highlight package in what passes for sports broadcast journalism. (Gary Bettman is sufficiently cynical to know that selling fighting is in fact a critical part of marketing the NHL.)

Hey, let the testosterone flow! This hockey fan will eschew the Loafs and the absurdist,  fight-riddled NHL while looking forward to some real hockey when the women’s Olympic tourney begins in February.

The New Ballard? J.P. - It's no contest!

Those familiar with these musings will recall that last month I posed the existential question: ‘who is most likely to qualify as Toronto’s next Harold Ballard – Brian ‘Testosterone’ Burke of the Loafs or J.P. Ricciardi of the Jays ?’

As the Jays limp towards the golf courses of October for which they have been clearly pining since early July, the answer is clear. It’s J.P all the way.

Ricciardi the fellow who managed to finish fourth last year in the A.L. East when Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett combined for 38 wins, has simply outdone himself in 2009. Alex Rios? Gone..for nothing. That’s NOTHING as in nada, zilch, S.F.A. B.J. Ryan? A  franchise cornerstone who is out of Major League Baseball three years into a multi-year contract. Vernon Wells? Well unfortunately the Jays still have him, but he’s a burnt out husk; the most expensive failure playing everyday in major league baseball. It says here Wells will never again actually amount to more than the fourth outfielder on a good team.

Ricciardi has been kind of circumspect this year. I miss the days when he would come on the radio to routinely insult Jays’ fans for their lack of intelligence. Remember last year when he went off on a caller who wondered why the Jays would not go after Adam Dunn when they were still close enough to compete for the Wild Card? J.P. dismissed that fan and insulted Dunn for “not really liking baseball”. This year to date Dunn has disliked baseball enough to hit 38 home runs. That is 8 home runs more  than the spent Wells and the similarly unproductive Lyle Overbay combined.

You are a terrific judge of talent and character, J.P.!  For all of this and more, I happily reward you the title of Toronto’s Next Ballard. Only you could reduce Blue Jays’ attendance to 11,000; only you could dangle Roy Halladay in July like stale bait when the Jays had the same record as the still competitive Minnesota Twins. Take a bow, Dude. Then get back to Boston on October 4 and never return. Please. Pretty please.

The Next Ballard: Ricciardi or Burke?

It’s tough to be a sports fan in Toronto.

After an explosively successful start to the 2009 season, the Blue Jays collapsed into mediocrity or worse. The principal reason for the swoon is that two very highly paid players Vernon Wells and Alex Rios failed to provide the performance or leadership that fans in Boston and New York have come to expect of their stars.

Wells and Rios were signed to lucrative, long-term contracts by J.P. Ricciardi, Jays’ Senior Vice President, Baseball Operations and General Manager. Ricciardi believed the two together would be the big swingers on a competitive team – he believed the same thing in vain for 3-4 years. This week the Jays pulled the plug on Rios by literally giving him (and his bloated contract) to the Chicago White Sox. No such luck with Wells who is simply the highest paid failure in Major League Baseball.

As if the annual demise of the Jays wasn’t bad enough, we have another Leafs’ season just ahead of us. As August nears its end, the hockey mad Toronto media will drone on and on and on about the prospects for this season’s Toronto Maple Leaf team. The “Leaf Nation” will learn just how much the team has been improved! Don’t count your chickens, Loaf fans!

Brian Burke became President and General Manager of the team promising “proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence” (does that means he wants a team that fights but also sleeps together?) The fact is that in Burke’s first year, the Leafs were simply terrible.

It is true that Burke has added an impressive number of defensemen this off-season. Sadly, he did so while marginalizing and insulting Tomas Kaberle his one defenseman of all-round talent. Burke has also put the team’s fate not-so-firmly in the hands of Vesa Toskala, a goaltender who has yet to deliver. More fundamentally, the Leaf roster is singularly lacking in goal scorers. So, expect low scoring, violent hockey. It says here that if the Leafs don’t find someone who can score, they will fail to make the playoffs yet again. Only they will be more boring in doing so.

Toronto fans recall the ‘bad old days’ when Harold Ballard ran the Leafs. Ricciardi, certainly, and Burke, potentially, have no reason to feel superior. In fact Loaf fans, Harold was a Maple Leaf executive when the team last won the Stanely Cup in the 1966-7 season. Rest assured that J.P. Ricciardi’s name will never be asociated with a championship baseball team in Toronto. And I would be AMAZED if Burke’s name ever gets etched on the Stanley Cup along with a Maple Leaf team.