Each week at Foul Play-by-Play, we cover the law-related, sports headlines, including the cheats, cheap shots and alleged criminals in sports. Here are the headlines, "Historically Foul Play," “Statistically Significant Foul Player,” and Cheats of the Week for the week of May 18-25.
The NFL owners adopted a new national anthem policy despite an official vote never taking place, according to Seth Wickersham, which he tweeted is “atypical for such a major resolution.” According to Jim Trotter of NFL.com, there were eight to 10 owners who, before the meetings, expressed support for keeping the league’s anthem policy “as is.” They believed the protests were fading and the league should instead focus on community work being done by players.
Regardless, it seems the resolution has been adopted by the NFL, and players who choose to be on the field for the national anthem must either “show respect” for the anthem and flag or the team will be fined. The resolution is intentionally vague, allowing NFL owners and the commissioners to determine what qualifies as respect on a case-by-case basis. So standing for the anthem with a fist in the air like Chris Long did to show solidarity for his protesting teammates would be a finable offense. Team owners can pass those fines onto the players, which will allow them to control the players. While New York Jets chairman Christopher Johnson volunteered to pay all fines incurred by Jets players for violating the policy, other owners aren’t expected to be as tolerant. And if an owners says “this team will pay anthem protest fines as a team” not too many players will be protesting.
Well the NFL Players' Association is already telling players to save their money for a 2021 lockout, when they next negotiate with owners on a collective bargaining agreement, during which the players could demand a more preferred anthem policy. That works perfectly for me, because I intend to stop watching football if the Vikings don’t win a Super Bowl in the next three years, and not because of anthem protests. I’m tired of watching seven seconds of action followed by 25 seconds of inaction. I’m tired of watching kickers and officials determine the outcomes of games. I’m tired of NFL replay, which will now be used to review ejections. And I’m tired of coaches punting on fourth and inches. But at least a catch is a catch again.
Olympic swimmer Ariana Kukors Smith is suing USA Swimming alleging a cover-up of her former coach's sexual abuse. Kukors Smith alleges that Sean Hutchison groomed her for sexual abuse when she was 13, started touching and kissing her when she was 16 and engaged in sexual activity with her when she was 17. Worse yet, she alleges the national governing body knew her former coach sexually abused her as early as 2005, when she was 16. The lawsuit alleges that officials did not report it to authorities and didn't protect Kukors Smith while shielding Hutchison and the image of USA Swimming.
It seems like a case similar to that of the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky scandal, except we know multiple Penn State employees witnessed Sandusky’s behavior with underage boys. In this case, USA Swimming hired a private investigator in 2010 to look into rumors of a relationship between the then-21 Kukors and Hutchison, who was 39, finding no misconduct after the two and others denied the relationship.
The Houston Astros cut suspended minor leaguer and former top prospect Jon Singleton because he couldn’t resist smoking cannabis. As an advocate for cannabis legalization and former holder of a medical cannabis prescription, I understand Singleton’s struggle. While cannabis withdrawals are minimal when compared to say opioids or even alcohol because the plant isn’t chemically addictive like tobacco or alcohol, a psychological addiction can occur. It’s not unlike an addiction to gaming machines.
When something makes you feel good, like getting into the bonus on a reel game, it triggers a release of dopamine by your brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centers. This release happens naturally all the time, even during exercise. Cannabis triggers a considerable dopamine release, so unlike nicotine, which is chemically and psychologically addictive, the cannabis user is addicted to good feelings achieved through cannabis consumption. So you and the cannabis user are actually addicted to the same thing. Only the triggers are different.
Just because it’s all in your head doesn’t make it easy to kick a psychological addiction, especially for those with addiction in their family history. I’m speculating here, but I’d bet that’s the case for Singleton, who substituted alcohol for cannabis after a stint in rehab following his second failed drug test -- the penalty for which is a 50-game suspension, unpaid. That’s almost $715,000 of Singleton’s $2 million annual salary, a figure considerably higher than what most minor leaguers make thanks to the Save America’s Pastime Act, which Major League Baseball snuck through Congress in 2016 to keep minor league baseball players exempt from federal minimum wage laws.
Most minor leaguers at the upper levels of the minor leagues like Singleton make $2,150 per month, according to a class-action lawsuit brought by minor leaguers challenging MLB’s minor league pay schedule. Given a 23-week regular season, that’s an annual salary of $12,362.50. A 50-game suspension for smoking pot would cost these players $4,415.18. As someone who’s lived on less than $8,000 a year, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you enjoy sweating through summer nights sleeping in your van, waking up wet in a borrowed tent failing miserably to withstand overnight thunderstorms, or living with your parents. But if you had to live on less that eight grand a year, I would recommend the van and then the tent over the parents. I don’t know your parents, and I’m sure they’re very nice people, but it doesn’t change the fact you’ll be sick of them within a week.
Lower-level minor leaguers who test positive for cannabis wouldn’t be able to afford a van. Their average salary is $1,100 per month, and an A-ball season is less than 12 weeks long, so a 50-game suspension for smoking weed would leave these 18- and 19-year-old kids with a measly $873.53.
Because of Singleton’s perceived potential, he was lucky to hold onto the money he did. He was the Astros’ top-rated prospect after the 2011 season, according to Baseball America. But he struggled mightily in his first 114 games in the bigs, never getting his batting average over .200.
Finally, the kicker: had he stuck in the bigs, he could have smoked all the pot he wanted. He would have been required to pay a small fine for each failed test, but he wouldn’t have been suspended and he wouldn’t have lost a single game check. The MLB Players’ Association negotiated for that in the collective bargaining agreement, but the MLBPA does not represent minor league ballplayers.
So the reason for both the harsh cannabis policy and poverty-level salaries in minor league baseball is the minor leaguers’ lack of bargaining power, which they could remedy by starting a union of their own. So why haven’t they? There are far more of them than there are major leaguers, and a walkout would collapse the minor league business model because the owners of those teams don’t pay their players’ salaries. MLB teams do. Are 6,500 minor leaguers just keeping their heads down with hopes of realizing that major league dream?
I think if a kid wants to risk his shot at a career in Major League Baseball to smoke weed just let her do so. I understand the employers’ interests in protecting their investments, and that they have the right to do just about whatever they want with regards to drug testing. Hell, if they wanted to they could make every player take a breathalyzer test before each plate appearance or a urinalysis between innings. But being barred from a new profession for roughly two months is more damaging to a young prospect’s career than unwinding after a brutal roadtrip with a joint, or substituting weed for booze when the team goes out after a big win. This policy does not protect the employers’ assets; it turns them into liabilities.
If you’re going to randomly test your employees for drug use in the name of protecting them and the game, stick to the performance enhancers like amphetamines, cocaine, and steroids, and the real drugs of abuse that are physically addictive, like amphetamines, cocaine, opioids, and alcohol. If you’re worried about players playing the game stoned, you need not worry, because cannabis is a hell of a performance inhibitor.
Our intramural softball team in college was called Bozeman Toast because we all burnt bud before gametime. There might have been one or two sober softballers out there, but they weren’t any good sober, either. The rest of us were toasted, eyes bloodshot and feet barely under us. I don’t think we ever won a game. We allowed 15 runs in the first inning of a game once just kicking the ball around the infield and misplaying fly balls in the outfield. Once our collective buzz wore off, though, we got back in the game and lost by one. But an at-bat in slow-pitch, intramural, co-ed softball isn’t as scary as an at-bat in professional baseball. I imagine a 95-mile-per-hour fastball or 12-to-6 curveball would be the ultimate buzzkill. Your brain and body just aren’t prepared for that while stoned.
And that’s not even the worst cannabis-sports story of the week, either. High school football player CJ Harris dreamed of playing for the Auburn Tigers, but his recurring seizures threatened that dream until his cannabis medication stopped those seizures. Now that medication will keep him from pursuing his dream, because per NCAA rules, athletes are not permitted to have any tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive substance in cannabis, in their systems. The cannabis oil Harris takes for his seizures contains less than 0.3 percent THC, according to the label, which means it doesn’t get you high. This is something the NCAA can easily fix by changing the language to allow for the use of non-psychoactive cannabis medications. Whether they will is unlikely.
National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell weighed in on the Supreme Court’s recent decision that the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 is unconstitutional, opening the door for states to legalize sports betting.
U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah, has been speaking the the NFL and is planning to introduce federal sports betting legislation. Goodell wants Congress to create uniform betting standards that, at minimum, include:
Unlike Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the Professional Golfers’ Association, the NFL has not expressed an interest in receiving a direct cut of legalized sports betting action. Instead, sources say the league is more focused on monetizing data and video rights, and for good reason.
While MLB, the NBA, and PGA Tour are lobbying for what was one percent of all money wagered on their games and have since lowered their demands to .25 percent of all wagers, the NFL is laughing at .25 percent because it amounts to Roger Goodell’s pocket change.
$1.7 billion was bet on both college and professional football at Nevada sportsbooks last year. Half of that is $850 million, and .25 percent of that is $2.125 million. The NFL doesn’t get into bed with anyone for a couple million dollars. But there’s billions of dollars to be made selling analytical information to gamblers gambling on games that are decided by fewer and fewer points each year.
According to research by Eldorado, the 2015 NFL season had the lowest median margin of victory in history. Games nowadays are more than twice as likely to be decided by three points than games played from 1922 to 1973. Over at marasoft.com, you’ll find that almost 24 percent of all NFL games played in the last 20 years were decided by three or fewer points, and roughly half of all NFL games are won by underdogs. So the sport can be a nightmare for even the savviest of sports bettors, and gamblers will take any bit of information they can get to gain an edge.
So many elements go into determining the outcome of a football game that having a means of producing and distributing gambling-related information is way more valuable than a quarter of one percent of all money wagered on games. So while MLB, the NBA, and PGA Tour are negotiating over what amounts to Roger Goodell’s pocket change, the NFL is looking to exploit the vast amount of data its sport produces by owning the method or math it chooses to turn that data into information it can sell to clueless gamblers as a subscription service.
This was a big deal when it came to determining the legality of fantasy sports betting. Fantasy sports gamblers who win most often aren’t simply luckier than the losers. They employ an algorithm that considers all the things they feel affect the outcome of sporting events. The NFL, I think, aims to own the algorithms and sell the answers those algorithms provide.
After being arrested with 126 grams of cannabis and $92,000 in cash two months ago, former Boston Celtics forward and NBA champion Glen “Big Baby” Davis was again arrested last Friday for felony assault with intent to cause great bodily injury. According to TMZ, after almost hitting a man with his car, Davis allegedly slammed the man on to concrete when confronted.
Milwaukee Bucks' rookie Sterling Brown was stun gunned by police back in January. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett was worried about the video’s release this week and potential public backlash that could result because Brown was not combative prior to being tased.
An officer who was doing a business check at a Walgreens stopped to question Brown about a parking violation at about 2 a.m. on Jan. 26. Brown gave his name and showed an identification card. The officer called for assistance, and half a dozen squad cars responded...for a parking violation. Eight officers ended up on the scene...for a parking violation; three were disciplined, with the first on the scene reportedly being suspended for a full two days. Two supervisors who later arrived, escalating the situation, were suspended for 10 and 15 days, and several other officers were reprimanded.
Brown's arrest did not result in criminal charges, and he played in a game later that day with bruises on his face. Brown intends to file a civil rights lawsuit against the Police Department, which is something that most Milwaukeeans involved in similar situations couldn’t afford to do. I guess it’s a good thing those Milwaukee cops don’t watch Bucks basketball, because had this happened to anyone else, we probably wouldn’t have heard about it.
The saddest thing about this is that there are so many unjustified shootings by police of black men and women that I’m just glad this officer reached for a stun gun instead of a real gun, and the thought that “at least they didn’t kill him” has even crept into my mind is troubling to me. Wyatt Cenac has been doing some great work investigating police brutality for his show Problem Areas on HBO. One episode looked at the importance of providing police with and reinforcing the use of non-fatal means of ending confrontations. But you also have to combat the training to which police officers are subjected that instills a sense of them being at war rather than at one with their communities. To remedy this, a good place to start would be requiring police officers in training to communicate with non-police minorities prior to earning the privilege of carrying a badge and a firearm.
With all the bad news out of the way, let’s for a minute consider how lucky we are to be alive for this era in sports, because we’re seeing things that haven’t been seen in generations. The Vegas Golden Knights are playing for a championship in their inaugural season for the first time since 1950, when the Cleveland Browns won the NFL Championship in their inaugural season. And that’s not even the most historic story in sports, because Los Angeles Angel Shohei Ohtani is serving as both a formidable starting pitcher and hitter for the first time since Babe Ruth did it roughly a hundred years ago.
I know you and our listeners want to hear some Ruthian stats, so here they are, in a segment we call “Historically Foul Play,” because these numbers are so unbelievable their most reasonable explanation is foul play.
So not only is Ohtani doing something unseen for 100 years, he’s arguably doing it better than Ruth did. While he’s never going to pitch almost 25 percent of his team’s total innings on the season like Ruth, he is going to get more than 20 starts and is on pace to get a similar number of plate appearances as Ruth did at the same age. If he stays healthy, the Babe Ruth of Japanese baseball might end up the new Babe Ruth of Major League Baseball.
Let’s keep the statistical analysis going and find a player whose stats indicate foul play in a segment we call ‘Statistically Significant Foul Player.’
Foul Play-by-Play, its hosts, nor its partners practice nor condone the accusatory promulgation of foul play by athletes for the sake of the hot take. Cheats are innocent until proven guilty. That said, in this case of the statistically significant foul player, I’d like to admit into evidence the following significant statistics indicating foul play.
Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo is third amongst active players in hit by pitches with 106 over his seven plus seasons. He’s led the league in hit by pitches twice, taking 30 for the team in 2015 and wearing 24 last year. There’s a 2.6-percent chance a Rizzo plate appearance ends with him on first base with a bruise.
Rizzo is just one reason why umpires should enforce the rule that players have to make an attempt to avoid a pitched ball. I mean, a lot of those free bases should probably be called balls and the at-bat continued. I’m not calling the defendant a cheat. I’m just sayin’ the statistics are significant indicators of foul play. I trust the jurors will make the right decision and find the defendant guilty of foul play given the evidence. I rest my case.
Bronze medalist: Infamous NFL bully and Pro Bowler Richie Incognito allegedly threw a tennis ball and a dumbbell at someone at a Florida gym on Wednesday and was placed on an involuntary psychiatric hold by police, according to TMZ Sports. The alleged victim claims Incognito was rambling about the government and screaming at him to “get off” his “bleeping playground.” That’s just rich coming from a man who lost a job for bullying a teammate. He makes this list because he was also named the second dirtiest player in the NFL by The Sporting News in 2012.
Silver medalist: Admitted steroid user and former Mets and Phillies star Lenny Dykstra was arrested early Wednesday in New Jersey while possessing cocaine and ecstasy. The arrest was the result of an Uber ride gone bad. The Uber driver told police he picked up Dykstra and when he refused to change the destination Dykstra initially requested, Dykstra allegedly brandished a firearm, pointed it at the Uber driver’s head and threatened to kill him. The Uber driver said he sped into a parking lot next to the Linden police station, honked the horn and fled the vehicle. Dykstra, 55, was charged with making terroristic threats and a number of drug offenses.
Gold medalist: Chicago White Sox catcher Welington Castillo has been suspended 80 games for testing positive for erythropoietin, a performance-enhancing drug that stimulates the bone marrow to produce more red blood cells. The resulting rise in red cells increases the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood, in turn, increasing the endurance of the user.
The Minnesota Twins’ poor history of scouting and signing Asian players shouldn’t prevent them from offering the Nippon Ham Fighters the $20-million maximum posting fee for a chance to negotiate a contract with pitcher/hitter Shohei Ohtani.
Twins scouts have dropped the ball in Asia, resulting in the firing of their international scouting director. They’ve been paying ByungHo Park $3 million annually to play mostly minor league games, and they’ll do so for the next two years. He’s appeared in 62 MLB games and might not see the majors again, making Park a worse mistake than Tsuyoshi Nishioka.
Nishioka appeared in just 71 MLB games, finishing with a .503 career OPS and 22 runs worse than a replacement-level player on defense. He made $6 million over two years, but was kind enough to opt out of the final year of his contract to go back to Japan, saving the Twins $3.25 million.
But both Park and Nishioka are hitters. The Twins have had at least some success scouting and signing Asian pitchers who have found success in the majors. Chih-Wei Hu, a right-handed pitcher from Taiwan, might not be with the Twins anymore, but struck out nine batters in 10 innings for Tampa Bay in 2017. The Twins traded Hu for Kevin Jepsen and new chief baseball officer Thad Levine probably wishes Terry Ryan hadn’t.
Most scouts see Ohtani’s arm playing better in the bigs than his bat, but Ohtani wants to develop his bat. While the Texas Rangers and New York Yankees can offer Ohtani a slightly larger signing bonus than Minnesota, Ohtani will reportedly give preference to a team that will allow him to both pitch and hit in the big leagues. The Yankees won’t likely be willing to allow Ohtani on-the-job training in the hitting department given their abundance of young hitters.
Since any team who signs Ohtani wouldn’t likely risk his health playing the outfield, any National League team looking to sign him is working at a disadvantage. Texas would have the most at-bats to offer Ohtani, with Carlos Gomez a free agent, but this shouldn’t deter Minnesota from posting the maximum $20 million for the right to negotiate with Ohtani for 30 days. They’d only pay the posting fee if they end up signing Ohtani, and Texas will likely post the maximum amount anyways.
The Twins shouldn’t hold back from posting the maximum of $20 million because Ohtani is that type of pitching talent. His triple-digit fastball is enough to make him an effective reliever in the bigs, but his nasty splitter and slider are reportedly just as good, giving him legitimate ace potential. Scoring an ace in his prime for a staff that desperately needs one would be worth the $20-million posting fee. And it wouldn’t cost the team much more to pay Ohtani’s salary next year.
Under the current collective bargaining agreement, Ohtani can only agree to a minor league contract that is subject to signing bonus pools, which would make his salary about $545,000 next season. That would make the entire cost of Ohtani in his first season around $24 million, which is less than the Twins would pay Yu Darvish, who is eight years older than Ohtani. A team’s available signing bonus money and its ability and willingness to sign Ohtani to a long-term deal will be what seals the deal.
The Twins will have just $21.2 million on the books for 2019 if they don’t pick up Ervin Santana’s team option. The Rangers have nearly $54 million on the books for 2019 if they don’t pick up Cole Hamels’ team option, plus $18 million owed to Prince Fielder. The Yankees have $85 million on the books in 2019 if you include Brian McCann’s sunk contract of $15 million. So the Twins are in the best position to offer Ohtani the most in a long-term deal, and while they can’t sign him to a long-term deal immediately -- even secretly -- Ohtani’s representatives from CAA sports will be very aware of this fact.
While the Twins have plenty of designated-hitter depth, they likely aren’t committed to any of them. To the surprise of some, Kennys Vargas was left on the Twins’ 40-man roster. Vargas was slightly better than a replacement player at the plate and playing first base, but he’s out of options and will be fighting for his job in Spring Training. The Twins won’t hesitate to subject Vargas to waivers, especially with Robbie Grossman on the roster.
Grossman was third amongst designated hitters in on-base percentage in 2017 and is arbitration eligible for just the first time at 28 years of age. But even he would take Ohtani’s potential at-bats since Ohtani swings from the left side of the plate and Grossman is considerably better against righties than lefties. Grossman likely has some trade value since he’s under team control for the next three years, but finding a trade partners looking for a designated hitter who’s a defensive liability will be tough. Regardless, only Texas is in a better position to offer Ohtani at-bats, and the Twins could simply waive players in order to do so.
Since Ohtani can only agree to a minor league deal, the Twins can afford to be wrong on Ohtani. They don’t have to sign him long-term after next season or at all. He won’t be eligible for salary arbitration until after the 2020 season, so Ohtani’s betting on himself big time by not spending another year in Japan, which would likely net him a $300 million deal as a free agent following next season. Given Ohtani’s injury history, that should provide a warm, security blanket for Falvey and the Twins. The Babe Ruth of Japanese baseball is well worth the risk.
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