Friday, June 29, 2012

Now What? Part III

"Now What" has been a series of articles concerning the financial woes and successes of professional athletes after retiring from sports.  Let's recap.  Part I focused on athletes who lost it all, spent/invested unwisely, and could have considered burning their money as a better alternative.  Part II went down the other path, exploring the post-athletic careers of Magic Johnson, Mo Vaughn, and others.  These men put their millions to good use, helping communities and turning a profit at the same time.  The third and final installment focuses on the future.  Will former athletes continue to make headline news with their financial blunderings, or will something change?

Professional athletes make incredible amounts of money.  With average salaries going up every year, being drafted gives athletes the opportunity to make more money than many Americans will make in their lives.  Although most people rightly see this as a blessing, it has also become a curse.  Athletes are seen as rich playboys who spend their money on all sorts of frivolous and unconscionable mansions, cars, and other toys.  Few people see the likes of Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, or Michael Bloomberg in a similar light.  Instead these billionaires transcend their own money, seen as smart and prudent instead of vacuous.  So far, I have delved into the many causes of this irresponsible spending and investing on the part of former professional athletes, but I have not given a forecast for the future or a comprehensive way to solve these issues (education being the only solution I previously referenced).  

Athletes, like presidents, should have both a keen mind and good advisors.  To expect every professional athlete to be schooled in post-keynesian economics, or how global trade effects their annual salaries is a futile task.  On the other hand, it would not be unreasonable for every professional athlete to read a chapter of "Freakonomics" or "Personal Finances for Dummies" every week.  Professional athletes, who have just entered the world of the upper class, should have a rudimentary understanding of taxes, investments, and banking.

We all have certain predispositions from our childhoods, whether we were originally dirt poor or wealthy, that cause us to make certain decisions.  Situations arrise, such as the poor black basketball star who wants to buy his mother the house she could never afford, or the Yale graduate who uses his money to set up trusts for the children he hasn't borne and the wife he has yet to marry.  Both scenarios have validity and neither necessarily constitutes a bad decision.  An athlete should be able to buy his mother a mansion, but simultaneously understand that he cannot buy every friend from his neighborhood one as well.  Limits exist, and as the old adage goes, everything in moderation.  These are lessons every athlete should learn.  Not only should these newly minted millionaires have at least a minor knowledge of money, they should hire the right people to oversee their wealth on a day-to-day basis.  Making your best friend your financial advisor probably won't work unless he recently received his MBA from Wharton.  Hire a team of financial advisors to manage your considerable wealth, it's exactly what most upper-middle class and upper-class Americans do.

Luke Skywalker
In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is depicted as the only remaining hope to save everyone from the evil empire.  George Lucas' first film is titled "A New Hope".  Don't worry, I don't think I've found the one athlete who will save the rest from financial ruin, but I do think Andrew Luck should be the next poster child for "best financial decisions made in a career".  Nothing has been written in stone, much of this is speculation. 

Andrew Luck, son of Oliver and Kathy, brother of Addison, Mary Ellen, and Emily Luck, and the most recent quarterback to be chosen number one overall in the NFL draft, possesses immense talent, intelligence, and upside.  When the Indianapolis Colts selected Luck no.1 overall in the 2012 NFL draft, they knew what they were getting.  They wanted the next Peyton Manning, and from most accounts and predictions, Luck may be a Manning look alike.  He stands 6 foot 4 inches tall, weighs about 230 pounds, throws a football at the speed of an intercontinental ballistic missile with the accuracy of a skilled marksman.  His athletic abilities are only matched by his gifted mind.  Luck was co-valedictorian of his high school class, entertained scholarships to Northwestern, Rice, and the University of Virginia, and chose to attend Stanford University.  

Andrew Luck
By all accounts, the 22-year old is athletic, smart, and a soon to be inductee into the select group of professional athlete millionaires.  Will Luck be smart with his money?  He comes from solid stock.  Luck's father, Oliver, played quarterback in the NFL for the Houston Oilers.  After retiring, the senior Luck received his law degree from the University of Texas, and moved to Germany to practice law.  Following an unsuccessful run at a seat in the United States Congress, Oliver Luck was named the CEO of the Houston Sports Authority.  Next, he took a position as the athletics director of his alma mater West Virginia University.  So, it seems young Andrew has a pretty good role model to look to for guidance in both his athletic and post-athletic pursuits.  Luck has a good advisor, but how about his personality?  According to an article in USA Today, Luck rode his bicycle around the Stanford campus instead of toting an expensive car.  He decided to forgo the NFL after his junior year of college to return for his senior year.  Luck graduated with a bachelors degree in architecture, carrying a 3.48 GPA while studying his other major, football.  

So it seems like this young man has the makings of someone who will not only succeed on the field but off of it as well.  He has a good head on his shoulders, strong role models, a great arm, and most importantly a solid attitude.  If ever there was someone whom young athletes should emulate, it is Andrew Luck.  I predict that, no matter the direction his football career takes, Luck will be successful in many spheres, especially financially. 

Well, folks, this trilogy has now come to an end.  I've profiled financial dunces like Curt Schilling and Allen Iverson, movers & shakers like Magic Johnson and Mo Vaughn, and the star of the future, Andrew Luck.  All of these men have one thing in common.  They all played or will play professional sports.  In fact, they have succeeded or most likely will succeed in their given sport.  The X-factor with these men, and all professional athletes, remains the manner in which they treat their status of "wealthy".  Education, solid role models, and above all else a strong attitude constitute the most important factors of financial success, even for those with the most money.   

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Now What? Part II

Erving "Magic" Johnson co-owner of the LA Dodgers 
In the first installment of the "Now What?" three part series, I explored the problems many professional athletes encounter in their post-sports careers.  Professional athletes usually retire with large sums of money that they must then put to some use.  As was previously discussed, athletes like Curt Schilling and Allen Iverson chose paths that inexorably led them towards bankruptcy and humiliation.  In part II, I will delve into the lives of those professional athletes who have experienced financial success following productive and lucrative careers in sports.

Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player the world has ever seen.  Few people would truly disagree with that statement.  What is the answer to this question: "Who was the greatest point guard ever?"  Not everyone (Celtics fans), would say Magic Johnson, but I would.  Johnson won 5 NBA championships, 3 league MVP trophies, and 3 Finals MVP trophies, and those are only a few of his accolades.  Magic Johnson, by all accounts, had one of the most prolific NBA careers of all time, but it was cut short when he discovered he was HIV positive.

For many professional athletes at the height of a hall-of-fame career, this news would cause them to become recluse.  Instead, Johnson decided to begin his second career, as a businessman.  Not long after retiring from the NBA in 1995, Johnson began searching for investors for an urban rebuilding project he predicted would become a money maker.  Most rejected his proposal, but friends urged Johnson to use his considerable wealth for the venture.  Johnson's proposal was to put in place food, retail, and entertainment stores into predominantly poor, black, and hispanic neighborhoods in Los Angeles.  He believed he understood what the people in these communities wanted.  Where most saw dilapidated  shopping centers, Johnson saw a business opportunity, one in which he could dually profit and supply desired demands to lower-class citizens of Los Angeles.

He showed his business acuity by meeting with gang leaders, the California Public Employees' Retirement System, and other community leaders in order to perfect his investment plans for urban Los Angeles.  He instituted different food and beverage options in the blacker area movie theaters, switching from the usual options to sweeter drinks, spicier hot dogs, and buffalo wings.  Johnson racked up business success after business success, eventually leading him to create Magic Johnson Enterprises, a company Forbes estimates to be worth over $700 million.  He owns 5% of the Los Angeles Lakers and recently joined Guggenheim Partners and Stan Kasten in buying the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Success after a professional sports career doesn't even begin to describe Magic Johnson, he is a  tycoon.  

Mo Vaughn, MVP turned Businessman
If Magic Johnson represents one end of the spectrum and Allen Iverson the other, Mo Vaughn sits comfortably between them.  Maurice "Mo" Vaughn played professional baseball for 13 seasons, accumulating just over $100 million in the process.  He made 3 All-Star teams and was crowned the 1995 American League Most Valuable Player.  Two events, one negative and the other positive, happened in Vaughn's post-MLB career.  First, the Mitchell Report demonstrated that he knowingly took performance enhancing drugs supplied by Kurt Radomski.  Second, he decided to invest in creating better living spaces for poorer New York City residents.  

Towards the end of his MLB career, the Anaheim Angels traded Mo Vaughn and his $70+ million contract to the New York Mets.  Once in New York, Vaughn experienced debilitating injuries that forced him to retire in 2003.  After retirement, Vaughn, the child of a high school teacher and principal, decided to give back to the city he felt he had failed.  Instead of donating money to non-profit charities, Vaughn decided to assist New York City and simultaneously begin his second career.  The former Red Sox 1st baseman created OMNI New York LLC., a company whose main goal is to invest in and repair low-income-housing.  Vaughn partnered with savvy businessmen and others more experienced in the world of low-income housing in order to create a juggernaut of a company that has bought and rehabilitated 1,142 housing units in New York City.  The company has been a success, and in 2009 Vaughn moved to purchase and recondition low-income housing near Boston, another city in which he played Major League Baseball.  

Good deeds can include profit
While former athletes like Curt Schilling and Allen Iverson squander their millions by investing poorly and spending like a teenage girl at Coach with daddy's Mastercard, others like Johnson and Vaughn became successful businessmen in their post-sports careers.  So, why did it work out for Mo Vaughn and not Curt Schilling?  Vaughn found a niche market, diligently researched the venture, and then asked for help from those with more experience than he.  Johnson utilized his knowledge of the day-to-day lives of low-income minorities to eventually provide them with products they desired.  Somehow, both Johnson and Vaughn were able to help communities, as many former professional athletes do, while simultaneously finding a way to make a profit.  Building your own video game studio, so cleverly named 38 Studios, depicts a self-centered man who wanted to first have fun and secondly run a business.  Johnson and Vaughn saw their ventures not as fun, but money-making opportunities that would both benefit the community and create new careers for themselves.  

If professional sports leagues were to write a manual for how to succeed after retirement, Magic Johnson and Mo Vaughn should be included.  In addition to businessmen, former pro athletes have successfully run non-profits (Dikembe Mutombo), become broadcasters, or chose to remain in sports as coaches (Robin Ventura) and administrators (John Elway).  The end of an illustrious sports career does not imply success after the fact, but with so many positive examples, there must be hope for all of them.  
Next time you watch a former profession athlete receive a community service award, provide play-by-play analysis, or buy/rehabilitate low-income housing, remember the numerous ways in which that person could have selfishly slapped the American Dream in the face by squandering their millions, but instead decided to take the opposite path.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Now What?: Part I

Athletes dazzle us with their incredible competitiveness, talent, and will to win.  Following a player from prospect to professional athlete to veteran provides fans with exhilarating and fulfilling memories.  During these careers, most professional athletes earn exorbitant amounts of money, placing them in the United States' top tax bracket as well as the everyday citizen's category of rich.  One question remains: "Once retired, what do athletes do with the money they made during their careers?" This three part series will explore the financial highs and lows of professional athletes after they retired from their given sport.  Part one focuses on athletes who'se retirements have been marred by financially difficulty.

Curt Schilling
Curt Schilling is in trouble.  By all standards, the former Phillies, Diamondbacks, and Red Sox pitcher needs help.  Following retirement from Major League Baseball, Schilling decided to create and run his own video game company.  He called it 38 Studios, named for his jersey number throughout his career.  From an outsiders perspective this venture seemed harmless.  A rich man who wanted to exploit the video game craze, and, more importantly, put his personal stamp on the project.  Unfortunately for Schilling, venture capitalists did not agree with Curt's optimism for the company, refusing to invest millions of dollars in the video game studio.  In response to a lack of funds, Schilling sunk about $50 million of his own into the company.  In his 18-year career, it is estimated that Schilling made just over $114 million.  

Despite putting almost 50% of his MLB earnings into 38 Studios, the company required more money for day-to-day operations.  Thus, Schilling applied for and was subsequently granted $75 million in loans from the state of Rhode Island.  The recent recession has caused strife for most state economies, but Rhode Island has been hit harder than most.  38 Studios recent filing for chapter 7 bankruptcy only deepens an already hurting state economy that, like George Foreman, cannot afford another Muhammed Ali sized punch, lest they fall to to the mat in defeat.  Schilling faces numerous other issues including an inability to pay for his employees health insurance, and failing to pay some employees' salaries.  Overall, I think it reasonable to call 38 Studios a sunk venture in need of serious help.  Schilling screwed the pooch in every way, showing his ineffectiveness as an entrepreneur, CEO, and citizen.  While Schilling could do no wrong on the mound, he did everything wrong when it came to investing his millions and running a company.  

Allen Iverson
Schilling does not constitute the only famous millionaire athlete to incur financial troubles after retiring from professional sports.  Not to pick on former Philadelphia athletes, but no conversation concerning athletes financial troubles can begin or end without including Allen Iverson.  The former 76ers MVP guard has hit rock bottom.  After securing himself as one of the greatest professional basketball players of all time, and racking up over $200 million, Iverson retired from the NBA in 2010.  During that illustrious 15-year career, Iverson supported more than 50 of his closest friends, a family, and his "thug" desires.  "The Answer", as Iverson was known during his career, owes $859,000 to a Georgia jewelry store and $2.5 million on a house in Denver, Colorado.  In addition to simple debt, Iverson's wife has filed for divorce, which could cost the broke former NBA All-Star even more money.  

So, to recap, Schilling took his riches and invested poorly, irresponsibly managed his business, and now wants help cleaning up the mess he made.  Iverson lived above his means, leaving us wondering how a millionaire could be so stupid, and faces more legal issues due to divorce.  These two former athletes shed light on a number of common problems that plague former professional athletes.  Poor investments, frivolous spending, unreasonable loyalties for friends, and familial issues lead to the most prolific falls from grace.  

What can we learn from these regrettable situation?  First, we learn that no matter how iconic and rich a person is, the ability to lose everything remains constant.  The American Dream is built upon every person striving for more and greater life pursuits.  More often than not, one of these chief goals is to attain wealth.  Professional athletes are blessed with special talents, and simultaneously work incredibly hard, thus earning themselves the title of millionaire.  Unfortunately, earning millions of dollars does not imply financial acumen or the ability to make informed and well-calculated decisions.  

So, what are the issues involved, and how can athletes help themselves to avoid financial ruin?  First, athletes need to take their educations more seriously.  Almost every NFL and NBA player attends college, but few take advantage of the gift of education.  Maybe, instead of majoring in fitness and exercise science, athletes should consider taking a few classes in economics.  This might be a smart decision, even if said athlete plans on leaving school early for the pros.  Second, finding smart, experienced, and trustworthy financial advisors to educate, instruct, and assist in investments and money management might prevent future financial collapse.  This advice only grazes the surface, and with so many professional athletes wasting their fortunes every iota is necessary.

In the second and third installments of this ongoing series, I will delve into professional athletes' successes in retirement, the future of post-athletic financial activities, and my take on the whole situation.    

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Back to You, in the Booth

Tom McCarthy
Gary Matthews Sr.

Last night, on the Phillies television broadcast, Tom McCarthy, the Phillies play-by-play commentator mentioned that the Phillies had reached agreements with their the team's top draft picks.  In response, Gary Matthews, one of McCarthy's co-commentator, mentioned that Major League Baseball had recently changed the rules regarding the signing of players from the first year draft.  The two went on to acknowledge that the changes made to the collective bargaining agreement, altering teams' ability to sign players from the draft, would help teams in signing these players.

MLB's new collective bargaining agreement gives teams a maximum amount of money they are allowed to spend on a given draft pick.  This new rule severely limits a team's ability to sign a given player.  Prior to this year's draft, teams were allowed to offer a player any amount of money, in signing bonus form, in order to convince said player to join their club.  Now, teams will be penalized if they exceed the maximum amount that MLB has decided upon.  This significantly affects which players are drafted in which spots.  In addition, the new CBA, creates serious roadblocks for teams attempting to acquire and sign international players, who are not subjected to the first-year player draft.  Recently, many teams have spent large sums of money in scouting international talent, but due to the new CBA, their ventures in Latin American will be curtailed.

Overall, one thing is certain.  No one actually knows how the new collective bargaining agreement will shape the draft, "signability" of players, or the game as a whole.  On the other hand, most pundits agree that, for the time being, the CBA seems to constrict teams, giving them less choice and freedom to exploit the system in order to gain an advantage.  Major League Baseball wants to create as much parity as possible, but, as long as MLB goes without a salary cap, some teams will always have more money than others.  This truism means that smaller market teams like the Kansas City Royals and Tampa Bay Rays will always look for holes in the system, in order to compete with the larger market teams.  As long as Major League Baseball remains salary capless, complete equality amongst teams will never exist.

So, back to the statements made by McCarthy and Matthews.  Without even touching on any of the more important details concerning the new CBA, the draft, or MLB's decision behind changing the rules, Tom McCarthy and Gary Matthews gave millions of viewers misinformation.  The new CBA will not make it easier for teams to sign players, it only restricts their ability to choose a fitting contract for draft picks.  In the far off distant land of economics, we learn first that choice is better than no choice.  MLB is taking away the freedom of teams in negotiating with draft picks.  So, while players may sign contracts quickly, the new CBA does not guarantee that signing players will be easier.

Darling, Cohen, and Hernandez from left to right
McCarthy and Matthews have the bully pulpit at their disposal.  Most fans do not know what the collective bargaining agreement is let alone read about its affects on the game.  Although, based on the views of both McCarthy and Matthews, I'm unsure if either broadcaster read the document themselves. These two men are supposed to represent the knowledgeable baseball elite, but instead they fall very short.  Often, Gary Matthews will give an explanation as follows: "The reason that ball went so far is because he put a good swing on the ball."  I think we can all agree that this comment offers absolutely nothing towards the analysis of the game.  These types of comments are ubiquitous throughout the Phillies broadcasts as well as many others around the country.  Although I think teams could and should find better announcers, such as Ron Darling, Gary Cohen, and Keith Hernandez for the NY Mets, these asinine comments are the norm.  The Mets television announcers provide such eloquence and in depth analysis that the New York Times often publishes transcripts of their broadcasts.

The issue remains that announcers cannot be allowed to say things that are incorrect.  If McCarthy and Matthews do not completely understand new CBA and how it might affect the draft, then the Phillies should have a guest, with knowledge on the subject, come and explain it to viewers.  In addition to speaking without knowing, the Phillies announcing crew will almost never question Major League Baseball's decisions.  I understand that the Phillies are part of MLB and in turn that the commentators work for the Phillies, but to never dispute or doubt anything handed down from Major League Baseball is a travesty to the system.  Instead of actually commenting and analyzing, announcers, at least in the Phillies' case, have lost the ability to share original thoughts.  These supposed experts should use their time on the air to speak intelligently about the issues facing Major League Baseball and explain how it affects their respective team.  Instead announcers like Matthews and McCarthy shy away from criticizing or even questioning the validity of Major League Baseball, thus showing their viewers no perspective, and providing all Phillies fans with banality.

Vin Scully, Dodgers Hall of Fame Announcer
Recently I found myself watching the LA Dodgers broadcast.  Through the TV came the unmistakable voice of Dodgers play-by-play announcer Vin Scully.  Scully not only announces the game with a great voice, he knows everything about the players,  keeping track of the day-to-day business of the Dodgers and Major League Baseball.  He admits when he does not know an answer, and speaks intelligently when calling the game.  Younger commentators should take note of the hall-of-fame announcer and attempt to emulate his conduct.

Often times I will mute the television during Phillies broadcasts because I become so frustrated with the level of broadcasting, but rarely do I actually yell at the TV.  Last night, when Gary Matthews and Tom McCarthy attempted to pass themselves off as experts of the new CBA and its affects on the draft, I lost it.  These men possess a lot of power given their visibility in the Phillies organization, but they choose to spoil it by making incorrect statements and not providing factual evidence to back up their claims.  Even ranked the Phillies TV broadcasters near the bottom in their broadcaster rankings.

Lao Tzu famously said, "Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know."  I don't profess to know about the business of announcing and commentating on games, but from a baseball fan's perspective, announcers like Gary Matthews and Tom McCarthy need to be replaced.  Misinformation, ignorance, and stupidity should never be tolerated, especially from those with so much power.  I challenge the Phillies to realize this problem, and do something to fix it because my frustration level towards the Phillies announcers has reached its limit.

Monday, June 11, 2012

On Sportsmanship

No one denies that sports create a hyper competitive atmosphere in which two opponents square off in order to beat the other.  These situations create tension, cause adrenaline to flow, and stir up emotions like frustration, anger, ecstasy, and relief.

While watching game 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals between the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics, I came to the conclusion that both teams, were they to win, deserved the victory for their effort and tenacity throughout the series.  These two teams had their differences, but in the end, the both teams showed heart and played with fiery competitiveness.  The Heat won game 7 and thus earned the right to move on to face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Finals beginning tomorrow in Oklahoma City.

With about half a minute left in the game and the score skewed in Miami's favor, Doc Rivers, the Celtics head coach, removed his star players from the game.  The Heat allowed the clock to run out, thus beginning a celebration in the American Airlines Arena in Miami.  Instead of walking onto the court and shaking hands following the final buzzer, Celtics point guard and center, Rajan Rondo and Kevin Garnett respectively, left the court for the locker room.  Back on the court, the two head coaches shook hands, as is customary, and the other players gathered amongst a throng of reporters and player personel to shake hands.  Whether these players actually congratulated each other or merely made dinner plans is unknown, but one thing is for sure, Rondo and Garnett were no where to be seen.  The ESPN cameras made sure to follow the two Celtic stars as they left the court and headed directly for the away locker room.

Flyers and Penguins players shaking hands
 following a hard fought playoff series
This sparked a conversation between me and my friend Jake concerning sports and sportsmanship.  Jake, a devout hockey fan and player, remarked that he disliked the post-game activities of the players, and he especially expressed disappointment in Garnett and Rondo for leaving the court without even shaking hands.  He pointed out to me that at the end of every NHL playoff series the players from both teams line up in the middle of center ice and shake hands.  This tradition does not exist for every regular season game or even every playoff game, but is mandatory after a playoff series.  The NHL seems to understand something the NBA does not, that sportsmanship is important.

Professional athletes are role models and should act accordingly.  In Baseball the winning team usually celebrates by shaking each other's hands in the middle of the infield, while the losing team retreats directly to their respective locker room.  As a high school baseball player, we were expected to shake hands with the opposing team following the final out, lest you found yourself being chewed out by the coaches.  In American Legion Baseball every player and coach lines up before the game and recites the official pledge, which states: "I will keep the rules.  I will keep faith with my teammates.  I will keep my temper.  I will keep a stout heart in defeat.  I will keep my pride under in victory.  I will keep a sound soul, a clean mind, and a healthy body."  Imagine if every NBA player had to recite those lines in front of 20,000 fans and millions of television viewers.  It would never happen, but it should.

Every statement in the American Legion pledge speaks to sportsmanship.  First, all players should abide by the rules of the game, also known as, "no cheating".  Every player should have faith with his teammates because teammates should be respected too.  Keeping one's temper under check, having a stout heart in defeat and quelling one's pride in victory all point directly to good sportsmanship.  Players should not gloat when they win or throw a fit when they lose, these are characteristics of immature children, not honest competitors.  Finally, keeping a sound soul, clean mind, and healthy body refer to respecting oneself as much if not more than one's opponents.  So, to recap, according to American Legion Baseball, players should respect their teammates, the other team, and themselves.  I would think that if 16 year olds can abide by these simple maxims that professional athletes could do the same.

At the end of every soccer match the players cheer for the fans.  They say "thank you" to their fans for supporting them in victory or defeat, a gesture never seen in the four major American sports (Baseball, Basketball, Football, and Hockey).  Not only do the players shake hands with each other and thank the fans, often times they will exchange jerseys with the opposing team's players in order to have a momento with which to remember the match.  Don't get me wrong, there is no love lost in soccer, but no matter how hard fought and grueling, following any given match, the players make a public showing of good will towards each other and the fans.

The issues with sportsmanship and professional sports are many, but they are easily ameliorated.  NBA commissioner David Stern should fine both Rajan Rondo and Kevin Garnett for walking off the court before the end of game 7, and issue a separate fine for not shaking hands with their opponents.  After incidents like the "Malice in the Palace" and Metta World Peace's "accidental" elbow to James Harden's head, the NBA needs to portray less of a thug image.  Fining two of the NBA's best and most visible players is a good start, but David Stern should also institute a rule saying that both teams (we are only talking 12 players per team) must lineup and shake hands at the end of every playoff series, similar to the NHL.  It should take place before the customary celebration and trophy ceremony so that the fans, both in the arena and on TV, see that despite the fierce competitive spirits portrayed during the games, the players are peers who respect each other.

The NBA is not the only league in need of a sportsmanship makeover.  Major League Baseball and Bud Selig should direct all teams to shake hands following the end of every playoff series.  The celebratory dog piles seen at the end of every MLB playoff series make for great TV, and are well deserved, but after the dust has settled, both teams should lineup and shake hands before retreated to their respective clubhouses.

Wade and Rajan Rondo
As Garnett and Rondo left the court prior to the final buzzer sounding, the ESPN commentators made quick mention of the Celtics' early exit, but said nothing else concerning the matter.  I assumed that the next morning I would hear SportCenter anchors talking about the unsportsmanlike conduct displayed by Rondo and Garnett, but instead they barely made mention of it.  As a sports fan I was very disappointed.  Usually pundits salivate over their chance to mention a sports star's improprieties, but not in this case.  If a player is arrested for DUI, accused of rape, or in the middle of a divorce, cable news channels pounce on the story, reporting up to the minute details as if martians had just landed on earth, but a lack of sportsmanship goes unreported.

So, let's all remember that a sporting event, while fun, exciting, and important, is just a game.  Nothing is more important in competition than respecting your opponents, your teammates, and above all, yourself.  Parents remind your children, friends remind your friends, and fans remind your fellow fans that we should all show some sportsmanship and be respectful of one another.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Wins and Losses

Losing isn't easy.  From heartbreak losses to nail biters to blowouts, one fact remains: losing is hard.  Ask anyone. The 12-year-old Little Leaguer, the multiple-time Super Bowl champion quarterback, and everyone in between will say the same thing.  Thirty-six-year-old Celtics center Kevin Garnett said it best after game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Heat.  Sideline reporter Doris Burke asked the former MVP, "What fuels you?" to which Garnett responded, "Competition."

When I first began playing truly competitive baseball I was 11 years old.  Up until this point my playing career consisted of having a daily catch with my father in the cul-de-sac outside of our house, and the bi-weekly games played in the local Jewish Community Center league.  Hubris and arrogance aside, most would say that for me, playing in the JCC league was unfair.  An early growth spurt allowed me to tower over most other players, most of whom did not care about winning or losing but wanted more than anything for their parents to take them out for ice cream after the game.  My perspective remained extremely different.  As the best pitcher in the league I loved racking up the strikeouts, forcing my Dad to record the number of pitches I threw and to analyze the stats in order to fix my mistakes during the cul-de-sac sessions.  Many say that competition is a natural instinct, a statement I agree with, but competition is like an unlit match, dormant until a quick strike causes the match to burn itself into extinction.

In JCC baseball my competitive attitude surfaced.  After only a few seasons, my parents and I realized that I needed better competition. After all, it is difficult to keep the competitive fire stoked when half of the batters I faced stood barely above 4 feet and wore long skirts that disguised the bottom of the strike zone.  I immediately moved from the JCC league to the Lower Merion Little League.  Here I was matched up against 10-12 year olds from all over the township, a much greater source of talent that hopefully would feed this recently cultivated competitive nature.  Finally, to play in a league in which my teammates and the coaches all took the games seriously and wanted to win, as opposed to merely "have fun" and yearn for the post game ice cream.  This experience began with "fall ball," which obviously occurs in the fall and not the spring.  Only the truly dedicated play baseball in the fall, right? This led me to believe that the other players would be committed to winning.  To my dismay, few of the  players and coaches interested in winning in the fall resided on my team. My coach viewed fall ball as a counterbalance to the competitive spring Little League season. Instead of playing the best players at their most effective positions, he played everyone where they wanted to play, so everyone pitched, in rotation.

I distinctly remember driving home with my Dad after one game, complaining to the point of anger about playing center field.  Another player on our team with little athletic talent but a strong desire to pitch gave up the lead and lost us the game.  For some reason I exclaimed, "no one else wants to win but me."  Now Dad has never been a sports playing type of person. Despite not being a great ballplayer, he has experienced loss and gave me some good advice.  He said, "Be patient, in the spring you will play for a different team, one where you'll feel more comfortable."  As an 11 year old I didn't truly understand patience, so I continued to complain, lamenting my team's lack of desire to compete and win.  Obviously, losing did not sit well with me.

Skip forward to next spring.  A whole winter of growth and practice behind me, I was ready for baseball to start again.  This time I intended to play for a team with a coach and teammates who shared my competitive desire to win.  Due to the high volume of players in the spring in comparison to the fall, the league holds tryouts to determine at what level everyone should play, the majors or the minors.  I felt confident in my abilities to make a team in the majors, but even still I hoped that the team on which I was placed would be a better fit for my competitive nature.  Luckily, I was drafted to a team coached by a father my parents and I both knew.  Let's call him coach "K," but not because his coaching skills measured up to the famous Coach K at Duke.  He and his son both wanted to win very badly; he had thus strategically constructed a team with experience, talent, and most importantly, a will to win. 

Our team performed well, winning most of our games, and making it to the playoffs.  I was named to the township All-star team along with three of my teammates.  In the first game of the playoffs, we faced a team that had won fewer games than us and against whom we felt very confident.  Most likely due to our over-confident demeanors, and probably a little bad luck, we lost the game, thus moving into the losers bracket.  This meant that another loss would end our hopes of capturing 1st place.  Following that first playoff game I remember feeling frustrated.  I blamed others, my teammates, my coach, and even the weather.  Losing isn't easy.  True competitors, the ones spoken of in stories, never blame their teammates; they look within themselves for answers and push themselves to be better.  This was a lesson I had not yet learned.  After 3 more games we found ourselves playing in the championship game against the second best team in the league.  I was charged with pitching and I promised myself that no matter what happened I would put forth everything I had.  I pitched well for 5 innings.  In the 6th and final inning, with the game tied the other team's best hitter came up.  Instead of using my best pitch, my fastball, I decided that with 2 strikes on the batter I would fool him by throwing a changeup, something I almost never did.  I hoped that the batter would swing through and strike out, thus giving us a good chance to win the game in the bottom of the inning.  Instead, he hit the first and only home run I ever surrendered in Little League.  We lost the game.  

A sign from the Phillies 10,000th loss

Losing isn't easy, no matter level competition.  When a franchise has compiled 10,000 losses at the professional level, losing becomes the default culture of the fans and the organization.  Just ask the Phillies, still the only professional sports team to compile at least 10,000 losses.  I attended the Phillies 10,000th loss, a Sunday night against the St. Louis Cardinals.  That loss felt similar to the hundreds of other losses I had witnessed as a fan.  Each loss stung, but every successive loss brought less frustration and more acceptance.  Fortunately, the Phillies forsook their losing ways, made the playoffs in 2007, and then won the World Series in 2008.  Since 2007, the Phillies have not missed the post-season, a testament to the change not only in the product on the field, but in the attitudes of the players, coaches, front office staff, and even the fans.  For as much as losing is difficult, winning is easy.   Why do Yankees fans bemoan every Yankee loss, thus making a name for themselves as the crankiest and some would say most annoying fans in baseball? Perhaps, to a large extent, because they are used to winning.

Jimmy Rollins and the Phillies are last in the NL East

Losing isn't easy, no matter level competition.  When a franchise has compiled 10,000 losses at the professional level, losing becomes the default culture of the fans and the organization.  Just ask the Phillies, still the only professional sports team to compile at least 10,000 losses.  I attended the Phillies 10,000th loss, a Sunday night against the St. Louis Cardinals.  That loss felt similar to the hundreds of other losses I had witnessed as a fan.  Each loss stung, but every successive loss brought less frustration and more acceptance.  Fortunately, the Phillies forsook their losing ways, made the playoffs in 2007, and then won the World Series in 2008.  Since 2007, the Phillies have not missed the post-season, a testament to the change not only in the product on the field, but in the attitudes of the players, coaches, front office staff, and even the fans.  For as much as losing is difficult, winning is easy.   Why do Yankees fans bemoan every Yankee loss, thus making a name for themselves as the crankiest and some would say most annoying fans in baseball? Perhaps, to a large extent, because they are used to winning.

Recently, Phillies fans have had to deal with the difficulty of losing (28-31 record to this point).  The other day, I read an on-line article on the Philadelphia Daily News sport page.  It concerned the no-trade clauses in Chase Utley and Cliff Lee's contracts.  In the comments section, an obviously frustrated fan claimed that General Manager Ruben Amaro is awful and that his "
raj" needed to end in order for the Phillies to regain their winning ways.  Can this fan write off all of the Phillies recent success, calling for a man to be fired due to one bad third of a season?  I too disagree with many of the Phillies recent moves, but instead of complaining about the past, I hope the Phillies rebuild their underwhelming farm system by trading big names like Cole Hamels, Hunter Pence, and Shane Victorino. 

As my father taught me back in Little League, "patience is key."  Sometimes you have to experience the frustration of losing to properly value the joy of victory.  Winning is difficult to sustain, and often times teams need to prepare to win in the future by accepting failure in the short term.  Little League taught me that losing is grueling, exhausting, and above all else, disappointing.  Competition and the will to win fuels all of us, from Kevin Garnett, to the young Little Leaguer, to every Phillies fan out there.  So with all this in mind, let's take a lesson from our Little League selves: while losing may be difficult, we must respond with patience and discipline.  Instead of bitching and moaning about the Phillies recent losses, including a current 6-game losing streak, let us think critically about the team's issues and how best to resolve them in order to bring back the winning spirit that has fueled Citizens Bank Park and the entire city for the last 5 seasons.  Complaining gets us nowhere; just as Kevin Garnett uses his desire to compete to get himself ready to play every game, Phillies fans should channel their competitive spirit in constructive ways, instead of complaining like petulant children.