Anthony Varriano

Anthony Varriano

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Solving Football's Place-kicking Problem

I, thankfully, didn’t watch all of the Week 2 matchup between the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers on Sunday. That’s the case more and more these days, when in the past I’d hardly miss a second of a Vikings game. Rookie kicker Daniel Carlson, who the Vikings selected in the fifth round of the draft five months prior to waiving him Monday, missed three field goals to waste a valiant, 13-point comeback led by new quarterback Kirk Cousins in Green Bay. I stopped watching after the first two series of the second half with the Vikings down 20–7, and I couldn’t be happier with that decision given the resulting tie.

The Problem with Place-kicking in Football

It bothers me that games featuring more than 100 athletes too big to be able to run as fast as they do repeatedly colliding into each other to obtain property like they’re at war are often decided by the least athletic of the 53 players on National Football League (NFL) rosters. NFL kickers are like generals sitting a comfortable distance from enemy lines sipping on Gatorade awaiting a request for an air strike from their foot soldiers taking heavy fire only to bomb their own troops on occasion.

Last season, 22.5 percent of all NFL games (including the postseason) were either decided by three or fewer points or featured scoring exclusively by kickers. Almost a quarter of regular season games played in 2016 were decided by three or fewer points. Between 2003 and 2015, 27.9 percent of games were decided by three or fewer points. As of this writing, 25 percent of 2018 NFL games have been decided by a field goal or less, and the average margin of victory in the NFL continues to fall. Whether it’s one in five or one in four games decided by kickers, one game decided by the least athletic player and the player seeing the least playing time is one game too many.

There were more field goals attempted and made last season than in any other time in the history of professional football, according to Pro Football Reference. The result was 3,664 points scored by kickers in 2017, or almost an even third (32.96 percent) of all NFL scoring. That’s an increase in kicker-exclusive scoring of 5.65 percent over the last 50 years.

Kickers have been ruining the game of football at all levels, especially youth levels, since the game’s inception. Finding someone who could kick and punt the ball were always the hardest positions to fill on our youth teams, and while kickers have gotten better over the years according to FiveThirtyEight, the problem of kickers over-influencing outcomes and under-entertaining fans has worsened with the implementation of longer point-after attempts and uneventful kickoffs.

Instead of stand-still kickoffs that were implemented this year, punters should simply punt the ball as they would on a free kick after a safety. Their teammates wouldn’t get a running start to protect players’ health, but free kicks would result in fewer touchbacks and a higher potential for kick return touchdowns — once the most exciting play in the sport now all but extinct. Most importantly, though, free kicks would make place-kickers entirely unnecessary.

My research found kickers were the exclusive scorers in six NFL games last year, and the touchdown-to-field-goal ratio has declined by almost an entire touchdown per successful field goal since 1975. While these ridiculous roughing-the-passer penalties will assuredly increase the touchdown-to-field-goal ratio, achieving the all-time high of 2.5 touchdowns scored per successful field goal converted is not probable unless kickers are removed from the game.

Solving Football’s Place-Kicking Problem

The more fourth-down plays there are in games, the more intriguing those games will be. Games’ outcomes need to swing on one play every series instead of one play every half. Football is not providing enough moments of perceived momentum shifting from one team to the other. Without place-kicking, fans would be on the edge of their seats more often, as the Dan Bailey bailout would be unavailable to the Vikings or anyone else, forcing coaches to utilize more forward passes — the play that saved American football from extinction and made it the behemoth it is today. There would also be fewer breaks in the action for commercials, but what’s the best option for solving football’s place-kicking problem?

Removing place-kickers from the game doesn’t necessarily mean field goals have to go away. While I think goal posts unnecessarily obstruct the views of fans, we don’t have to tear them down (although it’d be cool if they were moved behind the fans so they could go home with souvenir footballs). They are a symbol of the sport after all, and what would college students do on Saturdays after a big win if they couldn’t tear down the goalposts? They’d probably be at higher risk for alcohol poisoning if they didn’t exert that effort.

If the NFL wanted to continue employing place-kickers and make games more exciting, it could simply make field goals worth two points instead of three. How a field goal is worth more than a safety is disrespectful to defenses everywhere, even though your offense gets the ball back after the defense scores a safety. While kicking was highly emphasized when the game was conceived, the field goal’s point value decreased from five in 1883, to four in 1904 and three points in 1909, three years after what many believe to be the first legally completed forward pass.

After more than 100 years without a change to the field goal’s point value, I’d say we’re long overdue. But lowering the point value of a field goal does not affect the risk in attempting a field goal, which is the actual problem. Kicking is a bailout in football. Both punts and field goal attempts bail out an offense incapable of scoring touchdowns. I’ve got no problem with punters. I’ve seen punters make plays, but I’d prefer to watch the NFL’s place-kickers play soccer if they’re capable of running and kicking a moving ball. Removing place-kickers from football would enhance the intrigue of games by forcing coaches to be more creative and take more chances on both sides of the ball. That brings me to Rule 1 of football re-imagined without kickers.

“All teams must attempt a two-point conversion after scoring a touchdown.”

That’s where games should be won and lost — in the trenches between lineman at the goal lines. The men risking the most should determine the outcomes of games, but field goals wouldn’t necessarily have to disappear. They could just be altered. The NFL simply needs to make the field goal attempt a less enticing option for coaches — make the bailout riskier.

I recommend the NFL adopt something like the drop goal in rugby, where a player can drop the ball on the ground and kick it through the uprights on any down. The quarterback could avoid a sack and dropkick the ball through the uprights on second down for three points. That might be a big enough change to eliminate field goals altogether, but punters would eventually get the hang of drop-kicking to make it a less riskier option. It’s not as though they have much else to do during practice.

To up the ante even further, the ball’s placement on the field should depend on how close you get to the goal line. The closer a team gets to scoring, the more difficult a drop goal attempt should become. That’s why I recommend the hash marks running down the middle of a football field get wider and wider as they get closer and closer to the goal line. This might even be enough to keep place-kicking in the sport while minimizing kickers’ control over games’ outcomes.

The new football field in a post-place-kicking NFL.

An American football field is 160 feet wide. NFL hash marks are 70 feet, nine inches from the sidelines. That’s where they’d remain between the 40-yard lines on each side of the field because 50-plus-yard field goals are hard enough. At the 39-yard line, however, the ball would be placed on the hash mark 69 feet, nine inches from the sideline closest to the completion of the previous play. At the 38, the ball would be spotted on the hash mark 68 feet, nine inches from the nearest sideline, and so on. At the one-yard line, the ball would be snapped 31 feet, nine inches from the sideline nearest the last completed play. This would result in some new, creative formations, more fourth down plays as well as some drop goals attempted from truly amazing angles. This would make “four-down territory” even larger, increasing excitement even if it results in less scoring.

Counteracting a Potential Decrease in Scoring

While we’re not eliminating a third of all scoring in football, points will be harder to come by in the game without kickers. A point-after attempt and two-point attempt have almost the exact same expected value, so forcing teams to go for two would result in almost the exact number of points as point-after attempts. But field goals alone accounted for 23.37 percent of points scored in 2017, and teams won’t be trading those field goals for drop goals or touchdowns at a 1:1 or even 1:2 ratio. That said, an effort should be made to counteract a potential decrease in scoring by providing more scoring opportunities.

Football and rugby are unique in that they offer multiple means of scoring points. You only score in baseball when you touch home plate. You only score in basketball when you put the ball through the hoop, and you only score in soccer and hockey by putting the ball or puck in the net. Scoring in football involves either kicking the ball through goal posts or taking it across a goal line (or downing it there in the case of a safety). But why stop at two means of scoring points? That brings me to Rule 2 of football re-imagined without kickers.

“Award one point for each sack or tackle for loss.”

Awarding one point for sacks and tackles for loss would almost replace every point scored by NFL kickers. Based on 2016 totals, there were 1,118 sacks and 2,218 tackles for loss, totalling 3,336 potential points. Kickers accounted for 3,669 points in 2016, and spreading those points around to players playing and sacrificing most makes for a more democratic game. And frankly, defensive players deserve to score more.

Defensive players seldom score, especially big defensive players. An offensive lineman can at least declare himself eligible and catch a touchdown pass. Defensive players have to either force a fumble, pick it up and run into the end zone, grab an interception and run into the end zone or tackle the ball carrier in their own end zone for a safety. And now that defensive players have to defy physics and somehow stop more than half of their body weight from falling on the quarterback during a sack, their team should at least get a point if it’s likely the sack will result in a 15-yard penalty and automatic first down for the offense.

While this rule might result in more coaches challenging the spot of the ball, I’d rather watch a replay of a quarterback sack or tackle for loss to determine if the ball carrier reached the line of scrimmage than watch a kicker come on the field and make or miss a kick sandwiched between commercials. And the NFL is far past due for placing sensors on the ends of the football and on the players’ knees and elbows to determine the exact location of the ball when the ball carrier is down by contact. But that’s another Grandstand Central story for another day.

Imagine the Vikings just scored a touchdown to tie the Packers with no time left on the clock and only the two-point conversion left to be played. With this rule, either team could win or lose the game right there at the goal line. The Vikings could either convert the two-point attempt to win or take a sack or tackle for loss to give the Packers the win. Green Bay could also intercept the ball or recover a fumble and return it for two points as well. That’s a whole lot more exciting than bringing a kicker onto the field to attempt an extra point converted 94 percent of the time in 2017. It’s also more indicative of which is the better team.

Unless the NFL takes place-kicking out of the game, I’m boycotting the league upon the end of Cousins’s tenure with the Vikings or if the Vikings win the Super Bowl — whichever happens first. And I’m not just saying that because of the Vikings’ rich history of kicking woes in big games. They are the franchise who had a kicker who shall not be named go an entire season without missing a kick only to miss one that would have sent them to the Super Bowl. More recently, they had a kicker who shall also go unnamed miss a 27-yard field goal that would have extended their playoff run in 2016. I just can’t bring myself to pay attention to the game of football anymore. The kickers keep kicking my attention elsewhere.

In the poker game of American life, the white man is on tilt, bleeding chips like he’s giving them away—because that’s exactly what the white, American man has been doing for 150 years. White, American men started comfortable and stayed comfortable. Some got lazy, and now the chip leader in the poker game of American life senses his chip stack dwindling at the poker table that is American capitalism.

Income inequality grew in 2017 to the largest income gap ever recorded, but for roughly 200 years the white man was the only person at the poker table that is American capitalism. His chips were safe and regularly augmented along with a glass of lemonade by a slave who did the work responsible for the chip stack while his master played solitaire alone.

But when the white man’s first challenger arrived in the 1820s, he felt immediately threatened despite his massive chip stack and perceived mental and physical advantage over his opponent. White men were threatened by women entering the workplace because they’d work for less and advanced machinery made factory jobs easier for them to do. So when a white, American woman approached the poker table with her modest chip stack in hand, the white man went to work, teaching the white woman about American capitalism by using his superior stack of money to take hers. The white man didn’t take the white woman lightly, but he enjoyed her company and gave her enough time and just enough money to learn the game—opportunities not afforded his male opponents. When civil war broke out in the states the white woman’s chip stack grew considerably, and when slavery was abolished, more new players sat at the poker table that is American capitalism.

When a black, American man brought his meager chip stack to the poker table in 1865, the white man might have lost his means of subsidizing his stack, but he knew he could still steal chips from the black man as he did the white woman. And he did and continues to do so, but less often and at an ever-decreasing rate of success.

In 1910, the Mexican Revolution sparked a wave of immigration in the United States, but the first successful labor movement of immigrants in America took place in 1903, when Mexican and Japanese farm workers unionized. It was the first union to win a strike against the giant, California agriculture industry. Then the first wave of Asian immigration to the United States during the California Gold Rush in the 1950s brought more players to the table, each with a larger chip stack than the last. The white man gained another opponent to bully each player who dared sit at the poker table of American capitalism, but that window of opportunity grew shorter with each new player. 

When your chip stack is bigger than everyone else’s, you don’t actually have to play poker, or any game for that matter, including the game that is the American economy. You just have to use your money to repeatedly force the poor to decide whether they’re ready to lose everything they have, and they seldom are regardless of the amount. That’s not poker; it’s old-fashioned bullying. The haves lean on the have-nots until they break, at which point the white man borrows them money to buy back into the game, with interest, of course.

The rules of both a poker game and a capitalistic economy cease to govern the gameplay when the majority of wealth is controlled by an extreme minority of players. The game has never been fair and still isn’t, but white, American men are scared anyway. While their chip stack hasn’t decreased significantly, there are more players at the table, and the white man fears there will be more coming for his ill-gotten gains. They can sense the table turning, which is why they’re expressing their anger more boisterously than in the past. They didn’t have much reason to complain while they were buying pots with busted, gutshot straight draws and suited connectors that found no similar suits nor connections amongst the community cards. The white, American man was probably only called and forced to show his cards once every few years in the poker game of American life.

The wealth gap between white and black households in America persists, as does the gap between white and black men. And the wealth gap between white and Hispanic-American men is expected to widen until 2020. But that’s not the case for white and black women. While women have and continue to make less than their male counterparts, white women do not make considerably more than black women raised in similar households. So while white and black women aren’t winning pots as big as the white or black men, they are winning similarly-sized pots relative to each other.

The white man has managed to avoid losing chips to the black man, but the white and black women at the table have charmed the chips right out of the hands of the white man. And he’s enjoyed losing to the women so much the white man has only just realized the growing chip stacks of his other opponents at the table, like the Hispanic- and Asian-Americans. Worse yet, the white and black women at the table are starting to call the white (and brown) on their attempts at getting more than just a handful of chips from the ladies. 

Instead of observing the tendencies of his opponents and acting on them, the white man has resorted to bullying the rest of the table with his chip stack, over-betting the pot and forcing his opponents to either risk all their chips or fold. But it’s harder to buy pots with a dwindling chip stack, and the rest of the table has him figured now. The white man doesn’t have the chips to bluff with garbage cards anymore, and while he thinks he’s on a frozen wave of cards you read about, he’s really just scared of all the new action at the table. More players means more cards are out, too, so with every new player at the table, every hand becomes less and less valuable. But that doesn't make immigrants a threat; they can actually pad the chip stack of white, American men, too

"Meat packing plants and lumber mills that rely on refugee employees need many more. Manufacturing and other industries across the country are looking to hire refugees." —Sasha Chanoff, USA Today

Immigrants work the jobs American men and women won't do, and they pay income taxes for doing them, and spend their income in the American economy, creating more jobs and more wealth for everyone. More players means more action, which means bigger pots and bigger swings of fortune. That worries the white man, as it should, because he's the only one who hasn't been playing poker these last 150 years or so.

White, American men have always been unreasonably angry, but how can you be mad after enjoying an economic advantage built on the backs of slave labor for over 150 years? White, American men tilted the economic playing field so much with slavery and ensuing racial discrimination that their advantage persists to this day. But they sense that advantage dissipating with every immigrant that arrives at the poker table of American capitalism, and that pisses them off, but not rightfully so. Simply being entitled to earning more money isn’t reason enough to be angry about that entitlement decreasing ever so slightly. Being the reason for providing that entitlement against your will, as black Americans were and continue to be (as well as women), is reason enough to be angry, and to be angry for however long the table is tilted in the white man’s favor.

The one sport that stands to benefit most from advances in technology is America’s Pastime. My colleague Ben Beecken shares that sentiment and understands baseball’s big problem and how to solve it. But as a semi-traditionalist baseball fan, I’m not ready to take the umpires off the field in favor of robots. Something must be done, obviously, and Major League Baseball owners are apparently pushing Commissioner Rob Manfred to make “bold” changes to address what they believe to be a pace-of-play problem caused by the increased employment of defensive shifts. But baseball doesn’t have a pace-of-play problem; it has a lack-of-action problem that an electronic strike zone can solve without taking umpires’ jobs.

Increased Action Makes Pace of Play Irrelevant

“Time flies when you’re having fun” they say, and that goes for a three-plus-hour-long baseball game, too. Shortening the game or speeding it up isn’t going to make the game more appealing to young people. You need action to appeal to the all-time low attention spans of young people, or they’ll just find their entertainment on that computer in their pocket. MLB isn’t providing that action and hasn’t for a decade or so.

Thus far this season, MLB’s collective batting average is .248 — the 21st-worst league batting average since 1871, according to Baseball Reference. Runs are down to 1956 levels, but on-base percentages, upon which run production depends, have remained steady, according to ESPN’s Buster Olney. But there’s never been more strikeouts in the bigs.

The league is on pace to break the strikeout record set last year, and the year before that, and in each of the eight years prior. That’s a decade’s worth of record-setting strikeout totals, so no one should be surprised by how often professional hitters are failing to hit. And you can’t blame defensive shifts for strikeouts.

This idea that the increased employment of defensive shifts has forced hitters to alter their approach at the plate to increase their “launch angle” and “exit velocity” to hit over the shift is ridiculous. Defensive shifts don’t force hitters to do anything except exactly what hitters have been expected to do since the game’s inception: hit it where they ain’t. If any professional ballplayer could bunt these days, and every one of them should be capable, or if managers valued baserunners over extra-base-hit potential, defensive shifts would all but disappear except for pull-happy, power hitters who aren’t paid to bunt — ever. The defense is the one taking a risk by shifting; most hitters risk nothing except their batting averages trying to hit over the shift and into the stands. We shouldn’t want more hitters bunting, however. We should want more action occurring from hitters hitting — or better yet, driving the ball.

Some of those hitters, like the Cubs’ Daniel Murphy, have explained why they don’t bunt against the shift despite having a gimme single if they can get it in play past the pitcher on the vacated half of the infield. Murphy’s reasoning is that he’s more valuable to his team pursuing extra-base hits rather than occupying first base and waiting for another two teammates to hit singles to score him given his lack of speed. “It’s really difficult to get three hits in one inning,” he told ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick, citing “how good pitchers are now” as a reason.

The Evolution of Pitching is to Blame for Baseball’s Problem

Young fans are avoiding baseball because it’s boring. Hitters can’t hit because pitching is too good. Many hitters, like former MVP and batting champion Justin Morneau, say a hitter can expect one hittable pitch per plate appearance, and hittable pitches are fewer and farther between in today’s MLB than ever before.

Batters aren’t looking to get the ball in the air more often to avoid hitting into defensive shifts. Batters are looking to get the ball in the air more often because there are fewer pitches thrown they are physically capable of hitting hard in the air. There are fewer pitches thrown that have extra-base-hit potential.

Since 2002, swings on pitches outside the strike zone have increased 12.7 percent, resulting in an all-time low contact rate and all-time high swing-and-miss rate.

In 2010, 50.2 percent of all pitches thrown in MLB were in the strike zone, according to FanGraphs. This season it’s down to 47.9 percent, and despite the percentage of swings at pitches in the zone at an all-time high over the 11-year history of this research, the contact percentage on those strikes is at an all-time low. Contact on pitches outside the strike zone is also at an all-time low, but why?

Reliance on Relief Pitchers Contributes to Baseball’s Problem

Before defensive shifts became the norm and launch angle was ever uttered, the approach to pitching had already evolved immensely in MLB. John McGraw had a dedicated relief pitcher on his New York Giants roster as early as 1905, according to the research of Bryan Soderholm-Difatte for “America’s Game.” That tactic became more popular in the 1920s after Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown’s career was shortened considerably having served as the Cubs’ ace starter and ace reliever from 1908 to 1911.

Even though the lengths of MLB pitchers’ careers were shortened by the now-incomprehensible number of innings pitched over a hundred years ago, there are still pitchers calling for starters to go longer in games and ignore pitch counts.

Hall of Fame pitcher Bert Blyleven reminding MLB’s aging audience that starters were expected to finish games as recent as the 1980s should consider how effective he and his peers were the third and fourth time through a lineup instead of calling it evidence that throwing more pitches leads to fewer injuries.

Real research conducted by real physicians found that throwing fastballs, not curveballs, is linked to Tommy John surgery, according to Sports Illustrated’s Ian McMahan. Blyleven made his living with his curveball, which is why he’s a terrible spokesperson for getting rid of the pitch count and treating today’s starting pitchers like it’s 1971.

Over his career, Blyleven allowed an OPS of .679 when pitching to opponents for a third time and a .711 OPS when seeing hitters a fourth time in a game. That’s respectable, but according to Total OPS+, or tOPS+, Blyleven’s teams, on average, would have been better off had Blyleven never pitched to a hitter a third or fourth time. That is, of course, if there was a relief pitcher on the team with a better tOPS+ when facing hitters for the first time in relief than Blyleven’s tOPS+ when facing hitters a third or fourth time in a game.

In 1971, at age 20, Blyleven’s tOPS+ against batters in their third plate appearance of a game was a fantastic 77 (the further below 100 the better a pitcher was in that particular instance). Only Minnesota closer Tom Hall was more effective in his first time facing batters as a reliever than Blyleven was facing batters a third time as a starter. And while Blyleven struggled a bit when facing batters a second time (107 tOPS+), he certainly had a good feel for his curveball when they stepped to the plate a third time.

Blyleven’s struggles the second time through lineups persisted throughout his career, but he actually got better as the game went on because he was throwing mostly curveballs, not fastballs. In 1986, Blyleven allowed an .853 OPS to hitters in their second plate appearance. But in their third plate appearance, opponents’ OPS was down to .733 and back up to .828 in their fourth look at Bert. So Blyleven, besides a knuckleballer, is the last person who should be calling for today’s pitchers to go longer in games because he was spending the early innings “finding” his curveball so he could throw it more often and more effectively late in games while pitchers today are throwing far more fastballs and fast breaking balls than he or anyone else in his era was throwing.

Reliance on Velocity Contributes to Baseball’s Problem

Since the 1980s, when the curveball gave way to the slider as the breaking ball of choice, pitchers have been throwing more fastballs and are understandably less effective against hitters a third and fourth time given that approach, losing their velocity and, in turn, movement. A curveball is difficult to track regardless of inning, but a fastball can be timed in a single plate appearance and exploited in the next. Sliders and cutters slide and cut less with less velocity, which is lost by pitchers faster in games these days due to the volume of fastballs and fast breaking balls thrown.

Since pitchers have been relying on fastballs more so than breaking balls, and rather effectively given the aforementioned statistics, pitchers ought not throw as many pitches as a curveball specialist given the medical research previously cited. Hence the advent of the pitch count.

Managers want to keep their starting pitchers healthy and able to start every five days, and the pitch count provides them with a guide for attempting to do so. But managers’ number one priority is winning ballgames, and throwing four or five electric arms at a lineup instead of one or two increases their chances to win games and preserve the health of their pitchers. But it doesn’t matter how fresh the arm or how electric the stuff if pitches thrown in the strike zone aren’t called strikes.

Reliance on Humans Contributes to Baseball’s Problem

Baseball purists like my attorney and Blyleven think it’s the human element home plate umpires provide that makes the game of baseball great. Each home plate umpire having his (and “his” sadly is the proper pronoun, at least in MLB) own unique, strike zone does make the game great. It sparks dugout chatter and builds camaraderie as teammates badmouth that day’s enemy behind the plate while trying to figure out the one 60 feet, six inches in front of it.

Then questionable calls lead to looks of “whoa” directed at the home plate umpire, culminating in confrontation and eventual ejections followed by the truly inspired, laid-bare performances in response, as if these men, like all great thespians, forget they have an audience. Now that’s drama.

There’s nothing more entertaining in baseball than a player or manager getting their money’s worth after being tossed from a game. Maybe a three-homer game or a straight steal of home could rival Ron Gardenhire’s red-faced rants or the legend of Lou Piniella’s interpretive, dirt dances, but hitting for the cycle pales in comparison. An ejection can invigorate both a team and crowd for the entirety of the game like winning a fight in hockey. The cycle climaxes with a curtain call lasting a few minutes, while the ejected entertainers, also deserving of a curtain call, make for a lonely locker room to find some semblance of solace in a cold shower and comfort food.

Frankly, I think the decline in ejections has been detrimental to baseball and contributed to baseball’s problem attracting young fans, who have gravitated toward the soap operatic drama of soccer instead. Bad actors with no respect for the theatre of sport are taking advantage of baseball’s dwindling drama thanks to a surplus of soccer drama performed by characters like The Zlatan — too unreal for even MTV’s Real World.

The advent of replay has scrubbed the sport of baseball relatively clean when it comes to disputing plays on the bases, and that’s an unfortunate but necessary sacrifice to get the calls right. An electronic strike zone will have a similar effect, removing some of the drama that makes a baseball game both joyous and enraging for all involved.

I like when an incorrect call goes my team’s way as much as the next fan, and I scream at the television when an umpire or official misses one. Officiating-hating is part of the fun for fans of all sports. There’s a problem, though, when pitches outside the strike zone are called strikes in a game where even the best players fail seven out of 10 times. It makes a game ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian calls “the hardest game in the world to play” even harder for hitters.

Reliance on Spin Rate Contributes to Baseball’s Problem

Pitches these days are harder to hit than they’ve ever been. On average, they’re being thrown harder than they’ve ever been. Fastballs, split-finger fastballs, sinkers, sliders and even change-ups are being thrown harder in 2018 than they have since 2007, which is where FanGraphs’ dataset starts. Pitches are moving more, too. Sliders, on average, have more horizontal movement than ever, with a focus on spin rate making pitches move more and making it harder for hitters to recognize pitches.

Not only has fastball velocity increased almost annually in MLB, but almost every pitch is being thrown faster than ever before.

So not only are we expecting MLB hitters to hit the nastiest pitches ever pitched, but we’re expecting them to hit the highest volume of nasty pitches despite an inconsistent strike zone that changes everyday, or twice daily for doubleheaders. The players are quite literally playing by different rules every game, and while Babe Ruth and Ted Williams dealt with similarly subjective strike zones in their eras, neither they nor the umpires of the day had to track an exploding slider or sinking and cutting fastballs thrown in the mid-90s all game, every game. Williams was subjected to defensive shifts, though, and they didn’t ruin the game back in the 1940s and won’t now.

The Solution to Baseball’s Problem

Baseball is a contact sport in that it requires contact between bat and ball to provide audiences action. “Strikeouts are boring. Besides that they’re Fascist,” as Crash Davis correctly claimed in Bull Durham. “Throw some ground balls. It’s more democratic.” Contact equals action, and a lack of contact is a lack of action.

Baseball’s problem attracting young fans is a result of that lack of action, not pace of play. You could shorten games to a two-hour time limit and without contact, the game would still be boring to young people. But the game wasn’t boring when Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire were launching steroid-fueled bombs into the stratosphere back in the 1990s because we had contact — epic contact.

Since ending MLB’s performance-enhancing drug policy is unlikely, using technology already available and already being used to train umpires to provide players with a consistent strike zone will lower chase and swing-and-miss rates, increase contact rates and, in turn, increase action. If baseball wants to attract young fans, instead of Commissioner Manfred altering the rules to limit defensive shifts or defensive positioning, he should consider implementing an electronic strike zone that’s consistent from game to game, umpire to umpire.

The most fun I have watching the lowly Twins is when Logan Forsythe runs out to left field from second base to serve as a fourth outfielder and then running back to the infield. Players are probably getting more exercise than they ever have in the history of the game, and movement is action.

Defensive shifts are the most interesting thing baseball’s had to offer since the Steroid Era. That is until Tampa Bay’s use of relief pitchers to start games becomes the norm so starters can relieve the “openers” and face hitters during their higher-leverage plate appearances the second, third and fourth time through the lineup. But instead of hitters figuring out a starting pitcher in their second or third at-bat, they’re figuring out a new pitcher in their second at-bat. If you thought strikeouts were out of control now, just wait until flamethrowing relievers are facing hitters at their most vulnerable — their first plate appearance — and then starting pitchers come in and make hitters relive the horror of their first plate appearance all over again.

Not only do both hitters and pitchers have to figure each other out throughout the course of a game, but they have to figure out the home plate umpire as well. Pitchers test the edges of the plate to see how wide the umpire’s strike zone is that day, resulting in plenty of pitches thrown out of the strike zone slowing play to a halt. A ball off the plate that doesn’t entice a swing is a complete lack of action, and a ball off the plate that does entice a swing tends to result in poor contact and little action. Until pitchers are forced to throw strikes, why would they? Greg Maddux carved out a Hall of Fame career pitching out of the strike zone, and he didn’t have the velocity or wicked movement pitchers feature today.

So what’s the answer to baseball’s problem? No, not robots, but technologically enhanced umpires. I’m not talking about creating special headgear that projects the strike zone on a see-through visor like Google Glasses and makes blue look like RoboUmp, although that’s a cool option. That way home plate umpires still feel useful and in control of the game, with technology assisting the umpire in calling a consistent strike zone instead of dictating balls and strikes. Technology is a tool humans should use to do work better; it should not be a means to do away with work altogether.

A less cool but effective option would be to put a microphone in the ear or a buzzer in the pocket of home plate umpires that indicates when a pitch is thrown in the electronic strike zone, and the technology is close to doing so accurately. That way hitters come to the plate every game knowing exactly what a strike is and is not, so they swing at more strikes instead of chasing balls incorrectly called strikes, which will result in more contact, better contact and fewer strikeouts despite defensive shifts. It will also give managers one less reason to argue with umpires, which, unfortunately, might be one of the last reasons left. But the electronic strike zone will make a three-plus-hour game more appealing to the short attention spans of young fans.

Before bearing witness to the brilliant magic of Disney’s live-action Winnie the Pooh reboot, Christopher Robin, I was given goosebumps by the trailer for Disney’s live-action remake of Dumbo. If you thought Disney was going to make money with its purchase of Fox’s Marvel Cinematic Universe or UFC, consider the money to made by remaking every classic Disney, cartoon movie.

Christopher Robin wasn’t just good. It was funny and heartwarming and transported me to another time and place like the tree transported Christopher Robin to the Hundred Acre Wood.

You can’t go wrong with Pooh. I’ve maintained that The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen, and Robin retains that humor by keeping Pooh’s character, and all the characters of Hundred Acre Wood, consistently classic. All great reboots and remakes appeal to their longtime fans’ affinity for nostalgia by preserving the characters they grew up loving. I wrote about Solo doing so, and Robin is no exception.

Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore and Tigger might have shed their cartoon bodies for live-action “stuff and fluff,” but they are otherwise unchanged and equally enchanting--if not more so. I actually felt as childish watching the grown-up Christopher Robin as Ewan McGregor looked playing with his friends upon his return to Hundred Acre Wood. That feeling was mutual for much of the United Kingdom’s moviegoers over the Labor Day weekend, as Robin topped BlacKkKlansman at the U.K. box office. It was sixth despite being in its fifth week in the states.

Robin has recouped its $75 million budget and has nearly made as much on top of that as of this writing. The live-action remake of The Jungle Book made almost a billion dollars on its $175-million budget back in 2016. It stands to reason that Disney could use the same template to turn its longtime, cartoon assets into revenue generators once again, and they are. Not only did I see the trailer for the live-action Dumbo remake, but the rebooted Mary Poppins Returns also made an appearance, and while the original was a live-action film, it is indicative of Disney adding some cars to the seemingly endless train of Hollywood reboots and remakes.

In May 2019, a live-action version of Aladdin directed by Guy Ritchie will hit theaters, followed by John Favreau’s The Lion King in July and Milan in March of 2020. There is a score of reboots and remakes reportedly in the works at Disney, which should buoy its books well above water for a very long time. Imagine, a live-action reboot of The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under or, as I pitched to my sister during the trailers prior to Robin, a live-action remake of The Great Mouse Detective. Disney’s options are vast given the improved technology around visual effects, so it doesn’t have to rely on comic book movies to make its money in theaters.


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So you’ve been asked to fill out a fantasy football league at the office, but the last time you played fantasy football Colin Kaepernick was your quarterback. Your disinterest in fantasy football shouldn’t stop you from filling out your office’s league or make you the fantasy equivalent of the Cleveland Browns, like I was that year Kaepernick was my quarterback.

Kaepernick wasn’t bad. He was the 72nd-best fantasy football player in 2013, according to Pro Football Reference, and that’s about where I drafted him, if not later. I was done in by injuries and mediocre running backs and flex players, and since my Vikings only started the season marginally better than my fantasy team (1–7), there wasn’t much reason for me to pay attention to the National Football League (NFL) come November.

But that was before Kaepernick first protested racial injustices during the national anthem, providing the spark that started the President’s furious fingers tweeting and Jerry Jones’s Johnny Walker-fueled, fire-breathing mouth moving, engulfing the NFL in controversy for the entirety of yet another offseason.

The new anthem resolution adopted by NFL owners despite an official vote never taking place and without considering the input of NFL players has received backlash from both players and fans, forcing the league to finally invite the players to the negotiating table. The NFL and NFL Players’ Association (NFLPA) hope to find a solution that appeases the owners, players and fans, which means, given the pace at which the NFL handled Deflategate and the anthem matter thus far, there won’t be a consensus until after the 2021 collective-bargaining agreement is negotiated during a likely lockout.

That means we’re in for another year of players protesting racial injustices during the national anthem, which is just fine by me. Not only do my Vikings have a quarterback under 40 with two good knees and a better-than-okay arm, but NFL players are going to continue protesting during the national anthem — an anthem the NFL exploited for compounding profits by selling it as an advertisement to the Pentagon that doubled as a patriotic advertisement for the league, attracting patriotic fans to the sport. Players weren’t even required to be on the field for the anthem until the NFL sold it to the Department of Defense in 2009, with taxpayers flipping a $5.4-million bill between 2011 and 2013 and another $6.7 million when the National Guard bought the “rights” to the NFL national anthem performance from 2013 to 2015.

Kaepernick didn’t profit from his protests during the national anthem like the NFL did exploiting it. His stance, or more aptly, lack thereof, has cost him mightily, but his woke moves off the field, like donating more than $1 million to 41 charities despite being unemployed, are more impressive than anything he did (or will do) on the field. So those of us more interested in players’ “reality” contributions than their fantasy contributions have a reason to play fantasy football this season.

If you’re like me, you might not be willing to do a bunch of research to try and win something as inconsequential as a fantasy football championship, especially when office bragging rights are the only reward. But you’d like to draft a team that will give you a reason to follow football when your favorite team falls from relevance. That means you can’t go 0–16 like my Kaepernick-led fantasy football team back in 2013.

You’d also like your fantasy team to consist of players you like and respect while also having some success throughout the year. Winning a fantasy football championship with a bunch of woman-beaters and performance-enhancing drug users isn’t all that impressive or entertaining. But winning a fantasy football championship with a roster of advocate-athletes using their celebrity to raise awareness for issues important to them would be worth watching and worth bragging about around the office for the next year. “Remember that time I drafted a bunch of protesters and beat the pants off your thoroughly researched fantasy team?” bears repeating for years if not decades.

I’m here to tell you that a fantasy football roster consisting exclusively of players who have protested racial injustices during the national anthem or have otherwise made woke moves and spat woke game off the field could win a fantasy football championship in any format. There are enough NFL player-protesters out there to draft a competitive, All-Woke fantasy football team.

Not only can your All-Woke fantasy football team win it all, it can do so despite all the efforts of your fantasy league owners who hate protests during the anthem (unless they collude with each other, of course). The “Woke Mofos,” “Advocate Athletes” or “Trump Sons-a-bitches” can win in spite of the limitation of drafting only “woke” players and provide entertainment to woke football fans an unwoke fantasy roster cannot.

For those of us who would rather draft our fantasy football teams with our hearts than our heads but don’t want the misfortunes of our favorite teams rubbing off on our fantasy teams, here is a strategy for woke fans to draft a competitive fantasy football team they can respect and enjoy following during the 2018 NFL season.

All-Woke Fantasy Football Draft Strategy for 2018

We’ll assume your league consists of at least 12 teams, so draft strategy for the following players considers 12 players in each round of the draft. Rankings are based on ESPN’s top-300 lists.

Round 1: Draft Your Woke RB1

Early-round option: Todd Gurley II — RB — Rams

Mid-round option: Alvin Kamara — RB — Saints

Late-round option: Kareem Hunt — RB — Chiefs

If you’ve got one of the top two picks in your fantasy draft, go ahead and draft Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley II. He’s the second-ranked, fantasy player in both PPR and non-PPR formats and has been one of the most vocal advocate-athletes, calling for all NFL players to have fully guaranteed contracts and locking arms with former teammate Tavon Austin during the national anthem in Week 17 of the 2017 NFL season. Austin won’t likely be protesting during the anthem this season, as he is now a Dallas Cowboy.

If your first-round pick is between three and seven, consider drafting New Orleans Saints sensation Alvin Kamara. He was one of nearly 200 NFL players to protest racial injustices during the national anthem in Week 3 of the 2017 NFL season, and is projected to be fourth amongst running backs and 26th overall in receptions for those of you playing in PPR formats.

If you’re drafting at the bottom of the first round, Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt awaits. He too was one of the 200 who protested in Week 3 of 2017 and is ranked eleventh overall in both PPR and non-PPR fantasy formats.

Round 2: Draft Your Woke RB2 or WR1

Early-round option: Leonard Fournette — RB — Jaguars

Mid-round option: Michael Thomas — WR — Saints

Late-round option: Mike Evans — WR — Buccaneers

If you’re drafting at the top of the second round, you could do worse than Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette. He took a knee during the national anthem in front of 100,000 London fans at Wembley Stadium on Sept. 24, 2017, and he’s remained in the locker room during the anthem thus far this preseason. Fournette is a workhorse in an offense with an inconsistent quarterback, so he might outperform the RB1 you drafted in the first round.

If you’re drafting near the middle of the second round, Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans is the 22nd-ranked player in both PPR and non-PPR formats. He’s another Week 3 protester from 2017, as is Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce, who would be an okay selection at the end of the second round.

Round 3: Draft Your Woke TE1 or QB1

Early-round option: Travis Kelce — TE — Chiefs

Mid-round option: Aaron Rodgers — QB — Packers

Late-round option: Zach Ertz — TE — Eagles

Kelce would be an even better pick atop the third round of your fantasy draft if he falls that far, and he likely will. His average draft position is 26.5 in all ESPN formats, and his ranking is 24th overall in PPR formats and 29th overall in non-PPR formats. With little depth for woke players atop the third round, Kelce would be an ideal target.

Round 3 isn’t too early to draft the NFL’s most woke quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers hasn’t protested during a national anthem, but he has been the most outspoken of NFL quarterbacks on political issues. He’s the 58th-ranked player in PPR and 56th in non-PPR, but has been going 27th overall in ESPN drafts on average. Don’t be afraid to use a third-round pick on the most-woke quarterback in the draft, because he’s also the best quarterback in the draft. If you miss out on Rodgers there isn’t much depth when it comes to woke NFL quarterbacks.

If Aaron Rodgers doesn’t fall to you, Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz hasn’t protested during the national anthem, but he did stand up to Fox News after it used photos of him and teammates praying before games for a story about player protests during the national anthem, calling it “propaganda.”

 

Ertz also donates money to youth football programs in need, including a youth football team in Camden, N.J., where the Whitman Park neighborhood’s per capita income is lower than 97.6 percent of American neighborhoods, resulting in 85.3 percent of children living in poverty. Most recently, Ertz and his wife, Julie, donated $10,000 to Philadelphia’s Kensington High School after all of their football equipment was stolen. Ertz’s average draft position is 33.9 as of this writing.

Round 4: Draft Your Woke WR2, RB2 or QB1

Early-round option: Demaryius Thomas — WR — Broncos

Mid-round option: Josh Gordon — WR — Browns

Late-round option: Jay Ajayi — RB — Eagles

Demaryius Thomas’s average draft position has been around 41, making him a good target atop the fourth round. He’s more likely to fall in non-PPR drafts than in PPR formats, as he’s ranked 34th overall in PPR leagues and 39th overall in non-PPR leagues.

Since Cleveland’s Josh Gordon hasn’t been on the field to protest we can’t hold that against him. Although he’s struggled passing drug tests, he’s taken the time and made the effort to learn about his addiction issues, which is an honest attempt at getting woke. Gordon’s comeback is indicative of his wokeness, and he led the league in receiving playing just 14 games with Cleveland quarterbacks heaving balls in his general direction. He’s the 39th-ranked player in PPR formats and 34th-ranked in non-PPR formats but has been selected at around 50th overall in snake drafts.

At the bottom of the fourth round you’ll find Philadelphia running back Jay Ajayi, whose average draft position is also 50th. Round 4 is also your second-to-last chance to draft the NFL’s most-woke quarterback, if Rodgers is somehow still around.

Round 5: Draft Your Woke RB2, WR2 or QB2

Early-round option: Marshawn Lynch — RB — Raiders

Mid-round option: Emmanuel Sanders — WR — Broncos

Late-round option: Deshaun Watson — QB — Texans.

If you don’t get your RB2 in Round 4, Oakland’s Marshawn Lynch should be available atop and possibly in the middle of the fifth round. He’s continued to literally sit out the anthem and should get plenty of goalline opportunities, even though he’s not that good in those situations. He still running through mofos’ faces, though. Lynch had more rushing yards after contact than rushing yards from scrimmage in a game against the Dolphins last year.

 

If you have your RB2 but are missing your WR2, Denver’s Emmanuel Sanders is ranked 57th in PPR formats and 54th in non-PPR formats. Keep in mind, though, that his average draft position has been 74th thus far.

Round 5 is likely your last chance to draft the most-woke quarterback with an NFL job. It could also be your first chance to draft the next most woke quarterback in Deshaun Watson. Watson’s entire team protested the remarks of their owner, Bob McNair, during the national anthem. He’s been going around 52nd overall in ESPN drafts.

Round 6: Draft Your Woke RB2, WR2 or D/ST

Early-round option: Duke Johnson Jr. — RB — Browns

Mid-round option: Duke Johnson Jr. — RB — Browns

Late-round option: Marquise Goodwin — WR — 49ers

If you didn’t get Lynch or Ajayi or Fournette, Cleveland’s Duke Johnson Jr. could be selected atop the sixth round and could stick around into the middle of the round.

Niners wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, who knelt with Eric Reid, Eli Harold and Louis Murphy throughout the national anthems last season, could be available at the end of the sixth round, but has been drafted 77th on average, so target him atop the seventh round if you can.

Round 7: Draft Your Woke WR2 or D/ST

Early-round option: Marquise Goodwin — WR — 49ers

Mid-round option: Jaguars — D/ST

Late-round option: Jaguars — D/ST

Besides Goodwin, there isn’t much for woke players available in the seventh round. It’s a great place to score a bargain QB2 if your league’s owners don’t value the position, with Newton and Watson ranked 78th and 81st, respectively.

The seventh round isn’t too early to start thinking about defense and special teams. The Jacksonville Jaguars feature seven defensive players who knelt during the national anthem in Week 3 last season, and six are regular starters. Jacksonville’s average draft position has been around 73rd overall, which actually places them atop the sixth round, but who in your league is going to draft a defense after filling just their RB1, RB2, WR1, WR2, and QB1? Make sure there aren’t any Jacksonville fans in your league and the Jaguars D/ST should fall to you in the seventh round.

Round 8: Draft Your Woke TE1 or FLEX

Early-round option: Jordan Reed — TE — Washington Racial Slurs

Mid-round option: Jamison Crowder — WR — Washington Racial Slurs

Late-round option: Josh Doctson — WR — Washington Racial Slurs

If you didn’t nab Kelce in Round 3 and went with the most woke quarterback instead, Washington Racial Slurs tight end Jordan Reed should be targeted atop the eighth round. Reed was one of the nearly 200 NFL players who protested during the anthem in Week 3 of last season. He’s ranked 90th in both PPR and non-PPR formats.

If you got both Kelce and Rodgers, Round 8 should be used to draft a FLEX player. Either of Reed’s teammates Jamison Crowder or Josh Doctson are good selections in the middle or end of the eighth round or atop the ninth. Doctson is considerably more valuable in non-PPR formats, going from 94th overall to 82nd overall.

Rounds 9–10: Draft More Woke FLEX Players

Ninth-round option: Kenny Stills — WR — Dolphins

Tenth-round option: DeSean Jackson — WR — Buccaneers

Along with Crowder and Doctson, consider Miami’s Kenny Stills, who knelt during the national anthem as recently as Week 17. Consider drafting Tampa Bay’s DeSean Jackson in the tenth round.

Round 11: Draft Your Woke Patriots Players

Early-round option: James White — RB — Patriots

Mid-round option: Patriots — D/ST

Late-round option: Patriots — D/ST

The most woke defense in the NFL by the numbers belongs to the New England Patriots. Twelve of their active players on defense knelt during the anthem in Week 3 last season, and eight of them are starters. Their average draft position has been 126.8 thus far.

If you’ve already drafted the Jaguars’ defense and special teams units, there is an RB3 to be had in James White, also of New England. He’s ranked 123rd in PPR leagues and has been drafted around 128th in ESPN leagues.

Rounds 12–13: Draft Your Woke D/ST2

Twelfth-round option: Broncos — D/ST

Thirteenth-round option: Brandon Marshall — WR — Seahawks

The Broncos have eight defensive players who protested in Week 3 last year, all of whom started at least one game last season. Their average draft position is 136.9 — the middle of the twelfth round.

It doesn’t hurt to have a pair of defenses on your roster. Sometimes you can win a matchup thanks to one of your defenses having a favorable matchup, and having two defenses doubles your odds of that happening. They can be nice trade chips, too, so target defenses early because there’s only 10 of them that are any good.

Round 13 is when you start taking flyers on comeback players like Seattle’s Brandon Marshall, who caught only 18 balls in five games with the Giants last year after suffering an ankle injury requiring surgery. It was the first time in Marshall’s career that he played less than 13 games in a season, so he’s been reliable in 10 of his 11 years in the league. He’s also just two years removed from leading the league with 14 touchdown receptions and is getting an upgrade at quarterback, leaving Eli Manning for Russell Wilson.

Round 14: Draft the Most Woke Kicker

Early-round option: Stephen Hauschka — K — Bills

Mid-round option: Stephen Hauschka — K — Bills

Late-round option: Stephen Hauschka — K — Bills

The last pick of your draft is almost always reserved for your kicker, although the best kickers have been coming off the board as early as Round 9. Lucky for us, the most woke kicker will be available in the final round of our fantasy football drafts.

Buffalo’s Stephen Hauschka has gone undrafted in most ESPN snake drafts, but finding a woke kicker is damn near impossible. Hauschka has at least said intelligent things as a result of having intelligent discussions with his former teammates in Seattle. He also has a powerful leg. He hit seven of nine field goal attempts from 50 yards or more last year, and Buffalo will likely attempt even more long field goals this season. If your league awards extra points for long field goals, Hauschka could be the difference between a win and a loss in head-to-head formats. His struggles with point-after attempts shouldn’t be a problem given how few touchdowns Buffalo will score this season.

Keep in mind that this is only a guide. Nearly 200 players protested racial injustices during the national anthem in one weekend last season, so there are plenty of players not listed here who are woke and worthy of consideration. These are just the top-ranked advocate-athletes my research revealed, but there’s probably someone out there who isn’t protesting during the anthem but making woke moves off the field worthy of All-Woke fantasy consideration.

We should be taking fantasy football about as seriously as I intend to in our Grandstand Central league. I’ve already devoted more time doing research than I wanted, but at least I now know it’s possible to draft an All-Woke fantasy football team without reaching too far for advocate-athletes. Thankfully, drafting a competitive fantasy football team and drafting players you can respect and for whom you can proudly root aren’t mutually exclusive, so draft a team of Kaepernick copycats before they’re blackballed or the anthem goes away entirely. Enjoy watching players who understand their profession doesn’t define them…who understand their advocacy is more important than the game they play and way more important than the fantasy games we play. Fantasy sports are all so ridiculous, so get ridiculous and rep your wokeness.

Update: Draft and Week 1


My fantasy football draft didn’t go as well as I would have liked. Yahoo Sports gave me a draft grade of “B.” It didn’t get off to a great start, as my first-round target Alvin Kamara came off the board right before I selected at seventh overall. Ezekiel Elliot was still on the board, but being a Dallas Cowboy and chest-grabber of women, I chose New York Giants rookie Saquon Barkley with my first-round pick, who helped the Advocate Athletes to a Week 1 win over 3 Pats 1 Kupp, 156.70–146.65. In fact, the Advocate Athletes could have been the top-scoring team in the Granstand Central fantasy football league in Week 1 had I started the right tight end.

My second-round pick Mike Evans assisted the Athletes to a Week 1 win, but third-rounder Aaron Rodgers defied biology to truly carry the Athletes. Demaryius Thomas outplayed his projection, as did Kenny Stills — my 11th-round steal. My backup tight end Jared Cook is already my starting tight end with Delanie Walker out for the season, but Cook was the top tight end in fantasy points Week 1. That should continue with Derek Carr’s apparent fear of throwing to anyone else on his team.


This was originally published at Grandstand Central.

Not only is Hollywood remaking and retelling the same fictional stories, but stories based in fact are also being retold because we keep repeating history. Exactly nothing has changed since Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was released in 1989 except, maybe, racial tensions becoming more tense. Black Americans are still being killed by racist cops and white supremacy groups are growing in numbers, getting mainstream support from the President of the United States and are killing way more Americans than Islamic Extremists. The Klan is back with a vengeance, and BlacKkKlansman isn't shy about sharing that fact.

BlacKkKlansman tells the true story of a black police officer in Colorado, new to the department and first of his kind, going “undercover” as a Ku Klux Klan supporter to investigate the “organization.” After cold-calling the Ku Klux Klan utilizing “white voice” not unlike black comedians Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Dave Chappelle, Ron Stallworth boasts to his precinct chief that he can speak both “the King’s English” and jive in order to infiltrate the local chapter of the Klan and determine the organization’s intentions and dangerousness while also getting an inside look at the college’s Black Student Union, who invited a Black Panther to speak in town.

The year is 1979 in Lee’s rendition of this true story, but the actual events occurred in 1972. Changing the date allowed Lee to reference then trendy blaxploitation movies and the KKK’s supposed support of President Richard Nixon’s re-election. It might look like 1979 on screen, but if you read just the script’s dialogue, you’d wonder whether it was 1979, 1989 or 2019.

Lee makes multiple references to current events throughout the film, making a comment on our time more so than a comment on the times in which it’s set. Stallworth is accused of naivety by a fellow officer when he says, “People would never elect a man like David Duke President.” Yet people elected Donald Trump, who called some white supremacists at Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally “good people.” Good people, however, don’t discriminate as to whom they are good.

Duke, satisfyingly portrayed by Topher Grace, has a gullibility and all-around lack of awareness about him that somehow makes him not only tolerable but hilariously cartoonish. Duke was obviously concerned with how the film portrayed him, afraid that he’d come off as stupid. Lee didn’t care even though Duke told the real-life Stallworth that he “always respected Spike Lee.”

Duke also delivers a line drawing from current events in one of his many phone conversations with Stallworth, saying he wants “America to achieve its greatness again,” another obvious reference to the President's popular, campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” I suspect Duke and Trump share the same idea as to what constitutes this country’s greatest greatness, and if it’s not pre-Civil War, it’s at least a time when white people didn’t have to share anything with black people except the air they breathe.

Do the Right Thing, like BlacKkKlansman, was inspired by actual events. Black kids were indeed chased out of a pizzeria in New York City. Whether the boycott of said pizzeria actually occurred and resulted in a riot destroying the pizzeria is unknown. What is known and is made abundantly clear in BlacKkKlansman, is that the hostility and contempt underlying race relations in America have persisted if not worsened since 1989 despite BlacKkKlansman taking place 10 years prior. BlacKkKlansman transcends time in that sense, but it doesn’t attempt to transcend race despite an obvious opportunity to do so.

Stallworth is portrayed by John David Washington, who does the character justice by conveying both the gumshoe’s greenness and opportunistic, entrepreneurial spirit despite an obvious internal struggle between the black cop walking the beat and the black man longing for and working toward justice for his black brothers and sisters being killed in the streets by racist cops.

Stallworth doesn’t let anything stop him from pursuing his passion project. He is not the easily distracted Mookie of Do the Right Thing. Stallworth is as motivated as they come, and to him, the fact he’s black doesn’t mean he can’t infiltrate the local KKK chapter. There are more than enough white officers to serve as his stand-in, but it would take the right kind of white officer to infiltrate the Klan. Sure, the Colorado Springs Police Department, like most American police departments at the time, had more than its fair share of racist cops. But a racist cop could still give himself away as a cop despite the depth of his racism.

Enter Flip Zimmerman, a Jewish detective who wasn’t raised Jewish. Zimmerman is aptly portrayed by Adam Driver, who is almost too cool when accused of being a Jew at gunpoint by a member of the local KKK chapter. The Klansman is so concerned over Zimmerman’s bloodlines that he demands he take a lie detector test, but Zimmerman’s partner comes to the rescue just in time. Or does he? Zimmerman later alludes to the fact that he’s never really given his Jewish heritage much thought until now, but that doesn’t mean he could pass a “Jew detector” test at gunpoint, even if he wasn’t raised Jewish.

Despite the engaging performances of Washington and Driver, Lee misses an opportunity to make BlacKkKlansman a little more enjoyable and, dare I say, feel-good, by focusing on growing relationships between characters at the expense of others, and that’s likely by design. Lee doesn’t make many feel-good films, but Do the Right Thing certainly does a better job developing the relationship between Mookie and Sal than BlacKkKlansman does for Ron and Flip. Washington and Driver give fine individual performances, but their time on screen together isn’t ample or dramatic enough for their characters’ relationship to grow throughout the film like Mookie and Sal’s relationship does in Do the Right Thing.

Besides length, there’s really no reason not to give Ron and Flip a few moments to convey the growth of their work relationship. Any good film requires a hero to overcome conflict and grow as a person. The same goes for the relationships between characters. They too need to grow and motivate the action and change of the characters, and the relationship between Ron and Flip leaves much to be desired.

Not once do I remember Flip irate despite the danger Ron’s created for him. He’s the one risking everything while the “Black Klansman” sits safely at the other end of a telephone making friends with the grand wizard of the KKK. In fact, the film should have been called BlacKkKlansmen, because Flip is one half of the Black Klansman and has more at risk than Ron.

At first, Stallworth is completely careless when it comes to his new partner’s life, and there’s never really a moment where Stallworth shares a realization of and appreciation for the white man taking all the risk while the black man remains safe on the other end of a telephone. Just because Zimmerman’s white doesn’t mean the Klan won’t kill him. This missed opportunity for Lee to display the dynamics influencing the relationship between Stallworth and Zimmerman is one that could have contributed to the film’s drama and the characters’ respective growths throughout the film.

But Driver seemed emotionally unavailable and barely vulnerable throughout the film, whether he was undercover or not. He had his guard up at all times, and that could be his interpretation of the character, as an undercover detective should probably have his guard up at all times. Or his lack of emotional range could be due to a lack of chemistry with Washington, which would explain Lee's limiting their relationship's screen time. Washington doesn't give Driver much to work with in Flip's most vulnerable moment, but if the scene in question is not ad-libbed, the script doesn't give Driver much to work off of either.

Driver might be a victim of pigeon-holing on a Napoleon Dynamite scale, where regardless of Driver's role in a film, he will always be Kylo Ren to some people, which isn't fair to him, but a role like that is sometimes inescapable and can be detrimental to any other performance at no fault to Driver except for being iconic. Driver's demeanor as Flip was almost as if he was inwardly lamenting his performance knowing audiences would disconnect themselves from the viewing experience at the shock of seeing a Star Wars character in a Spike Lee Joint.   

For whatever reason, and I'm leaning toward creative choice, Lee focuses our attention on the relationship between Stallworth and his love interest, Patrice Dumas, a militant, student leader he meets on his first day working undercover. Her disdain for “pigs” only grows that evening when she’s harassed by one of Stallworth’s peers while he waits for her to meet him at a bar. Stallworth doesn’t let his secret profession stop him from making a rookie mistake and getting personal.

Lee’s focus on the fragile relationship between Stallworth and Dumas instead of the underdeveloped relationship between Stallworth and Zimmerman robs viewers of a relationship that could have provided them a reason for hope, which is something Lee’s films tend to struggle conveying due to subject matter and history. Black Americans’ relationships with police, or lack thereof, have been and continue to be shaped by a very warranted lack of trust. Police have been and continue to be employed to further hinder black Americans, who in 2018 still feel the financial and social effects of slavery. That doesn’t scream hope, but neither do Spike Lee Joints. Spike Lee Joints mirror reality more so than most filmmakers in history.

Lee’s choice to focus on the relationship between black man and black woman and the struggles they experience despite sharing a skin color instead of focusing on the black man and white man and the struggles they experience working together in spite of their differing skin color might indicate that Lee believes black Americans still need to unify before all Americans unify. In Do the Right Thing, Mookie and Sal’s relationship isn’t cheated like Ron and Flip’s, but Mookie still pitches for his home team regardless of who’s signing his checks.

Mookie’s boss isn’t responsible for the death of Radio Raheem, but Sal’s already short and shrinking temper in the summer and pizza oven heat, and his growing defensiveness and displeasure with race-related questions posed as if he’s on trial for being racist because of the pictures of Italian-Americans he hangs in the pizzeria, escalate the incident to violence before white cops ever get their murdering hands on Raheem.

An argument over music and its volume in Do the Right Thing and the resulting response by police sounds eerily similar to recent smartphone videos taken of police brutalizing a minority amongst a crowd of minorities pleading for the police to stop. Again, not much has changed in 30 years except the number and quality of video cameras and camera operators and an increased means to share videos. The police beatings of minorities are just in high-definition and available to view from multiple angles almost immediately upon the completion of "principle photography." Lee's shot-for-shot videography of the riot in Do the Right Thing could probably be reproduced using smartphones, invoking an even more emotional response given the lifelike intimacy provided by the participants' cameras. 


The riot really begins when Mookie throws a trash can through the window of his employer’s storefront near the end of Do the Right Thing. But he does it because it’s the right thing to do—not because he's taking the side of his people over that of his provider—but because he gives his people and his provider exactly what they need: closure.

Mookie dispersing the crowd with a sentimental soliloquy apologizing for his employer and fellow employees works better on stage than on screen and wouldn’t likely work at all in reality. Would heartfelt words of a pizza delivery boy be enough to soothe you and disperse a riot after your community lost a friend, brother, son and neighbor because the pizza delivery boy’s employer couldn’t stand his “jungle” music? I thought not.

Mookie gave his community exactly what it needed to get over its collective grief in a healthy manner. While looting and destruction of property are crimes, both are a lot healthier than murder or assault of those perceived to be responsible for the tragic death of Radio Raheem. Mookie might have actually saved Sal’s life, but that, like the reasoning behind Mookie’s throwing of the trash can, is not immediately evident to viewers given the emotion-evoking destruction of the pizzeria.  

Like BlacKkKlansman, there was an obvious need for the end of Do the Right Thing to offer viewers a semblance of hope. Mookie coming back to Sal’s destroyed pizzeria the next day to collect his $250 salary and the two of them negotiating a settlement isn’t hope enough apparently. So Lee drops lines from both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. to reinforce the dangerousness of duality—the idea that contrasting concepts cannot both be correct simultaneously. But two different concepts can be true at the same time. Nonviolence is a good approach until someone attacks you, which is the message Lee sent at the end of Do the Right Thing.   

Lee has often echoed the words of Malcolm X and King, Jr. in his work, and BlacKkKlansman is no exception. Stallworth represents the teachings of King, Jr., and Dumas practices the teachings of X, putting them at odds as to which path is most likely to award “all the power to all the people.” In the end, of course, they realize the same things viewers of Do the Right Thing did: two contrasting concepts can be true at the same time, and if there’s to be hope for black Americans to ever overcome the persisting socioeconomic disadvantage resulting from slavery, it’s going to require both nonviolent and violent acts by a unified, black people.

The black community's dismissal of the Asian grocer across the street from Sal's pleading with them that he too is "black" like them so the rioters don't loot and destroy his shop is a great example of the message Lee sends in both Do the Right Thing and BlacKkKlansman. Black Americans can't climb out of the socioeconomic disadvantage resulting from slavery as a group inside another larger group of minorities. No other American minority started with the disadvantage black Americans did, so Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Irish-Americans, etc. can't relate and, therefore, can't help black Americans overcome their socioeconomic disadvantage. And judging from Lee's apparent choices in BlacKkKlansman, Lee doesn't think white Americans can help either. It's something that has to be done  solely by black Americans solely for black Americans.

So almost 30 years after people first saw a race riot explode on the big screen in a Spike Lee Joint, another Spike Lee Joint now shows people exactly how little has changed when it comes to race relations in America. If there’s one obvious changes between Lee’s films spanning almost 30 years, it’s that Do the Right Thing has a more hopeful ending than BlacKkKlansman, which tells me Spike thinks the future is more bleak for black Americans than it was in 1989. If you're looking for a hopeful, uplifting movie this week, see the relatively inconsequential Crazy Rich Asians. I haven't seen it, but I can tell you it will be an almost complete disconnect from reality that won't require your brain to enjoy. Romantic comedies are, by design, an escape. 

Spike Lee Joints, however, mirror reality and are meant to make you uncomfortable with their unrivaled realness and borderline neorealism, making you aware of things previously foreign and challenging your beliefs of what you thought it was like to be black in America, because if you're not black, you only know what you see, hear and read. And no one provides as accurate and unabridged imagery of black lives in America as Spike Lee. If you're looking for a thought-provoking, uncomfortable, cultural commentary of American race relations then and now, this Spike Lee Joint is educational and entertaining enough to be worth the price of admission. 


If you like this, you might like these Genesis Communications Network talk radio shows: The Karel Show, Erskine Overnight, The Lounge, The Debbie Nigro Show

A high-school-educated athlete who missed 83 days of school in fourth gradeserving as President of the United States isn’t as far-fetched as it might have been prior to the 2016 Presidential Election. If Donald Trump has instilled anyhope in the everyday American, it’s that they too can be President someday. George W. Bush had the same effect, but neither were self-made men.

LeBron James, however, is the American Dream incarnate. He went from rags to riches and didn’t even need a loan from his father to do so. In fact, he did it without his father entirely, and that is more representative of an upbringing in everyday America these days, making him more in tune with the everyday American than most politicians have ever been.

The question isn’t whether LeBron James is qualified to be President; it’s when he’ll run and win.

Schools Built: LeBron 1, Trump -1

Upon opening the “I Promise” public school James gifted to his hometown of Akron to serve at-risk youth in grades one through eight, James has been drawing the attention of the President and the support of a lot of people. As of this writing, more than 40,000 people have signed a Care2 petition calling for James to replace Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

While a select few have criticized James for leaving Ohio taxpayers with a $6 million annual tax bill to run the school, Ohio taxpayers aren’t actually paying an additional $6 million per year in taxes. They pay the annual budget for public schools regardless of James’s I Promise school being open or not. If anything, James is lowering their tax burden by $2 million annually and saved his hometown taxpayers from having to pass a school bond to fund the $2 million in repairs and renovations the school required.

Even if he wanted, James’s Family Foundation couldn’t lawfully pay the entirety of the public school’s $8-million annual budget without it becoming a private school, which wasn’t James’s intent. While James attended a private high school, it wasn’t because his mother could afford it. It was because LeBron could ball. James built a public school to serve his people — poor people.

Trump, on the other hand, “built” Trump University, a for-profit, education company that defrauded “students” of both money and an education, costing Trump $25 million to settle lawsuits brought against the “university.” Meanwhile, James spent $41.8 million to send 1,100 Akron students to college.

James showed just how smart and Presidential he is by not responding to the President’s not-so-Presidential tweets after opening the I Promise school. James’s disacknowledgement of Trump’s diss got a rave review from his contemporary in the NFL, Aaron Rodgers, calling it “absolutely beautiful.”Perhaps James is going to let his game and three-part, Showtime docu-series, Shut Up and Dribble serve as his response to the President’s “shut up and dribble” attitude in October.

Trump’s sentiment is a popular one amongst his base, who seemingly want their reality, television entertainment devoid of reality and their reality, television entertainers devoid of humanity. They want live-action, propagandic cartoons that let them ignore the injustices in their country and world, not documentaries drawing attention to those injustices. They and their President seem to be in the minority, though.

Approval Rating: LeBron 53, Trump 39

The President’s approval rating dropped from 41 to 39 percent in the week following his Twitter attack on LeBron, and while that decline could be a result of just about anything the President has said or done of failed to say or do, it’s worth noting because it’s the lowest Trump’s approval rating has been since April. Trump’s all-time low approval rating is 35 percent, and he’s never been approved of by a majority of Americans, according to Gallup. Trump entered office with an approval rating of 45 percent in 2017.

Back in 2016, a Seton Hall Sports Poll found that 53 percent of 762 adult respondents approved of James, and that was before he won a championship for Cleveland. So it’s apparent that Trump’s and James’ approval ratings are moving in opposite directions.

Electoral College: LeBron 279, Trump 259

To run for President, you must be born in the United States, retain a residence in the United States for 14 years and be at least 35 years of age. That’s it. An advanced degree nor any college degree is required of a Presidential candidate. The only college that matters is the Electoral College. On Dec. 30, 2019, LeBron James will be officially eligible to run for President, and everything he’s done has properly prepared him for running a successful campaign as a Democrat in 2020 or beyond.

Think about it. James is a native of Ohio, one of the most important swing states in the nation and one of the best predictors of the eventual winner of U.S. Presidential Elections. No Republican candidate has ever won the Presidency without winning Ohio, and no Republican is going to win Ohio in a race against King James. That’s 18 electoral votes that went to Trump going to James and the Democrats in 2020. If James wins the same states Hillary Clinton did in 2016, he would need just 20 electoral college votes to win the Presidency after Ohio, and he gets them in Florida.

James’s career in Miami, including back-to-back championships and four consecutive Finals appearances should swing the state and its 29 electoral votes from Trump to the Democrats in 2020. Boom, King James is President James in 2021. He’ll just be Presidenting while playing professional basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers instead of golfing alone. Or...

When We Could Reasonably Expect President LeBron

James has said he wants to play on a basketball team with his son, and unless the NCAA changes its rules regarding “amateurism” and college eligibility (or the NBA changes theirs), his son will have to be 19 years old or so. That’s in six years, when his dad will be 39. So if LeBron intends to play until he’s, say, 42, he’d be free to focus all his attention on the country in 2028 — an election year.

If James doesn’t have political aspirations, he’s got a funny way of showing it. Most of us can’t help but look into every little thing LeBron does as something leading to something bigger. His philanthropic choices are obviously representative of what’s in his heart, and that heart is proving to be Presidential in its size and stamina. If James wants the White House, he can have it whenever he’s willing. Let’s hope he’s willing, because he’s certainly capable of leading the free world.


This was originally published at Grandstand Central.

 

All rise. The sports court of public opinion we call Foul Play-by-Play is now in session, the dishonorable Anthony Varriano presiding over this podcast providing play-by-play and color commentary on foul play in sports, on courts and in them. The attorney of record and my co-host is Michael Haase of McLarty and Haase Law in Glendive, Montana.

Headlines

Headline 1: Maryland Football Player Dies of Heat Exhaustion; Wrongful Death Lawsuit Likely Coming Against University

After 19-year-old Maryland offensive lineman Jordan McNair died of apparent heat stroke from performing 110-yard sprints according to ESPN, the university placed head coach D.J. Durkin, strength and conditioning coach Rick Court and some trainers on leave while it investigates whether the staff was negligent. The McNair’s have also hired an attorney, who says a lawsuit is likely and Durkin should be fired.

ESPN conducted its own investigation, speaking to two current Maryland football players, former players and football staffers and multiple people close to the program. Here’s what they shared about the football culture under Durkin and Court:

  • There is a coaching environment based on fear and intimidation. Small weights and other objects were thrown by Court in the direction of players when Court was angry.
  • The belittling, humiliation and embarrassment of players is common. A player whom coaches wanted to lose weight was forced to eat candy bars while watching teammates work out.
  • Extreme verbal abuse of players occurs often. One player was belittled verbally after passing out during a drill.
  • Coaches have endorsed unhealthy eating habits and used food punitively. One player said he was forced to eat until he threw up.

Durkin and Court’s coaching careers are certainly in jeopardy, but couldn’t they be charged with manslaughter at the very least, or is this just a wrongful death civil lawsuit?

Headline 2: UNC Suspends 13 Football Players for Selling Shoes

Thirteen North Carolina football players, including quarterback Chazz Surratt, were suspended between one and four games for selling school-issued shoes. The selling of the special edition Nike Jordan shoes is a secondary NCAA violation, and UNC self-reported the violation in January.

Since these shoes are uniquely manufactured for and distributed solely to UNC athletes, their rareness by His Airness can fetch upwards of $600 on Ebay, according to Joe Giglio.


Meanwhile, the NCAA changed rules to allow “elite” high school basketball prospects to hire agents and undergraduates to return to school if they enter the NBA Draft and aren’t selected. How hypocritical is it that a college basketball player can now hire an agent but not profit from his name, signature or shoes until he signs a contract and doesn’t need the money anymore?

These benefits for attending UNC don’t seem very beneficial. The NCAA has managed to make a benefit a burden. It’s often said possession is nine-tenths of the law. Well, what kind of possession is this if you can’t sell what you possess?

Headline 3: Former All-Star MLB Pitcher Esteban Loaiza Pleads Guilty to Federal Drug Charges

Former All-Star pitcher Esteban Loaiza pleaded guilty Friday to federal drug charges in California. Loaiza acknowledged that he possessed about 44 pounds, or 20 kilos of cocaine with the intent to distribute. He faces 10 years to life in prison when he’s sentenced on Nov. 2. Can we expect Loaiza to be granted leniency in this case since California prisons are still operating above capacity and at increased rates due to healthcare costs?

It might be difficult to imagine what would possess a man who made more than $43 million in Major League Baseball to risk his life trafficking cocaine, but Loaiza’s personal life is riddled with red flags. While few might remember Loaiza starting the 2003 MLB All-Star Game, Loaiza became a celebrity in Mexico after marrying Mexican-American singer Jenni Rivera in 2010. This relationship likely granted Loaiza access to some of the most exclusive parties in Mexico, allowing him to experiment with drugs and meet some of the most powerful men in Mexico.

Those new relationships, both with the drugs and the drug dealers, likely persisted upon his wife filing for divorce in 2012 and then dying in a plane crash shortly after. As an addict myself, and someone who thinks we’re all addicts in some form, whether it be to drugs, alcohol, donuts or God, I can say with conviction that hard times make habits harder to break. For some people it takes a conviction to break those habits. 

What kind of sentence should Loaiza receive if the court has his best interests and the best interests of the state in mind?

Headline 4: LSU Suspends Linebacker who Allegedly Served as Getaway Driver in Burglary

Louisiana State University suspended sophomore linebacker Tyler Taylor indefinitely after being arrested for allegedly serving as getaway driver in a January burglary of a pawn shop. A months-long investigation resulted in Taylor’s arrest on May 31. He was charged with felony conspiracy to commit a crime, felony party to a crime and felony theft. He was released on $33,550 bond.

Taylor’s cell phone records indicated that he was at the pawn shop the morning of the burglary, another person arrested for the burglary gave him up, and Taylor’s mother apparently owns the getaway truck he was driving. Police also have surveillance footage of the burglary, so Taylor needs a legal miracle.

What kind of potential plea deal or sentence would allow Taylor to play football again, if not this season, someday?

Headline 5: NASCAR CEO Arrested for DUI, Oxycodone Possession

NASCAR, the sport of driving, had its CEO arrested for driving while intoxicated and possession of Oxycodone without a prescription. Brian France, grandson of NASCAR founder William France, was arrested at 7:30 p.m. last Sunday for failing to stop at a stop sign.

France was arraigned Monday morning and released on his own recognizance, having been charged with aggravated driving while intoxicated, a felony, and criminal possession of a controlled substance, a misdemeanor. The felony charge is a result of France having a blood-alcohol content of .18 percent or higher while behind the wheel in New York.

France could be suspended and required to complete a recovery program or be subject to drug testing under NASCAR’s substance abuse policy. Brian’s uncle, Jim, has taken over the duties of CEO during his nephew’s leave of absence.  

This isn’t the first time Brian France has been accused of foul play. Twelve years ago the Associated Press reported that a witness saw a silver Lexus owned by France traveling at a "very reckless speed" into a tree near his residence, and the driver "fell over his own feet" while exiting the car. France was never charged as a result, but “the incident did lead to the requirement that the highest-ranking supervisor on duty must be called to the scene of all DUI incidents and that no officer would report off-duty until his or her reports are complete,” according to Auto Week.

France has also been accused of checking into a Betty Ford Clinic for drug rehab by Jack Flowers in his book, The Dirt Under the Asphalt: An Underground History of Stock Car Racing.

How big a blow is this for NASCAR given its struggle to fill the stands lately? And should this motivate the France family to sell NASCAR despite their unwillingness to do so?

Headline 6: Wake Forest Assistant Basketball Coach on Leave after Punching Man who Died upon Impact with Ground

Wake Forest assistant basketball coach Jamill Jones was charged with third-degree assault, a misdemeanor, and was subsequently placed on leave by the university. Jones turned himself in on Thursday after punching a man in the face early Sunday. The man died from injuries sustained upon impact with the ground. Jones was released on his own recognizance.

Sandor Szabo was treated for fractures to the left side of his face and the rear of his skull, along with bleeding of the brain. He was taken off life support Tuesday afternoon. The confrontation in question might have been a result of Szabo drunkenly knocking on car windows in the early hours of the morning.    

There’s certainly another “wrongful death” lawsuit here, although I almost blame Jones less for the death of Szabo than I do Maryland’s Durkin and Court in the death of McNair. 

Historically Foul Play

It’s time for Historically Foul Play, when we go back in time and examine foul play of the past, when DNA evidence made nothing evident because DNA hadn’t been discovered yet.

On August 9, 1905, Ty Cobb’s mother, Amanda Cobb, was arrested on charges of voluntary manslaughter in the shooting death of Cobb’s father, William Herschel Cobb. Amanda said she thought her husband was an intruder trying to enter their home through the bedroom window when she shot him twice. But there had been rumors in town that William suspected his wife of infidelity and had unexpectedly returned home late that evening when she believed him to be out of town.

Cobb would make his Major League debut three weeks later, appearing in 41 games and hitting just .240 with a .588 OPS at the age of 18. It was the only season Cobb would hit below .300 in his 24-year career. His mother was ultimately acquitted in 1906, and in 1907, Cobb went on to lead the majors in hits, runs batted in, stolen bases, batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, obviously, OPS+ and total bases. Seems that was a big weight of Cobb’s shoulders, eh Mike?

Statistically Significant Foul Play

Alright, let’s get statistical and make some informed inferences in a segment we call Statistically Significant Foul Play, where we do an analysis of statistics indicative of foul play.

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 statistically significant foul play, I’d like to admit into evidence the following significant statistics indicating foul play.

Amongst the top 10 players in Major League Baseball when it comes to being hit by pitches, the Tampa Bay Rays have three, including the league leader, Carlos Gomez, with 18. C.J. Cron has been plunked 14 times and Daniel Robertson has taken 13 for the team.

The Rays’ 74 hit batters is seven more than the second-place Texas Rangers and 51 more than the last-place Minnesota Twins. 

I’m not calling the defendants cheats. 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.

Worst Instances of Foul Play in Films Linked to Sports

Mike and I have each ranked films featuring both foul play and sports, with the highest ranked film featuring the most foul play in a film featuring sports. These aren’t sports movies featuring foul play, mind you. These are movies with instances of foul play that have a link to sports, however flimsy that link may be.

For instance, the Matt Damon trifecta would be:

3) Good Will Hunting, in which Matt Damon and the late, great Robin Williams reenact Carlton Fisk’s home run in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. The foul play, of course, is Will Hunting assaulting a police officer, with the most foul play being Will’s pushing away of Skylar.

2) Stuck On You, in which Damon’s Bob Tenor and Greg Kinnear’s Walt Tenor play goalie in an adult hockey league as conjoined twins. They’re also a good golfer and caddy combo, a switch-pitching pitcher in baseball, a terror in a boxing ring, and not bad on the tennis court, either. They’re also Martha’s Vineyard legends for their high school football legacies. The foul play in this one is Bob’s DUI resulting from Greg’s excessive drinking in order to convince his brother to have a surgery to separate them.

1) The Rainmaker, in which a softball bat is the preferred weapon of Kelly Riker’s abusive husband, whom Damon kills with said bat in self defense.

Anthony’s Top Three Films featuring Foul Play and Sports

3) The Naked Gun: Ricardo Montalban brainwashes a baseball player to assassinate Queen Elizabeth II, but Leslie Nielsen goes undercover as an umpire with a generous strike zone and emphatic third-strike calls to “get his man.”

2) A Few Good Men: Tom Cruise thinks better with his bat, and he plays softball while negotiating a plea deal with Kevin Bacon. The most foul play is Jack Nicholson covering up his involvement in the death of a Marine.

1) The Fan: A San Francisco Giants superfan and knife salesman played by Robert De Niro is thrilled to have Wesley Snipes join the team, but his early performance leaves much to be desired. So the fan solves the problem by murdering the Giants’ player wearing Snipes’s lucky number 11. While stalking Snipes, De Niro saves his son from drowning, only to kidnap him and hold him hostage until he gets some appreciation, despite Snipes being unaware of the fan’s criminal contributions. 

As a new Minnesotan, I thought I should familiarize myself with the political process in my new state. I was politically active in Montana, but never attended a caucus or convention because they aren’t held in Montana. Back in 2010, the Republican Party scrapped its caucus after just two years, citing its unpopularity as the reason. The Republican Party and I finally found something upon which we agree completely.

Firstly, caucuses and conventions are never representative of an entire community. They are representative of the people in the community who don’t have to work when the caucuses and conventions are held. Those who work weekends aren’t even available to cast a vote at an organizing unit convention or city convention let alone drive three hours roundtrip on their own dime and pay for a hotel for three nights in order to attend a state party convention.

The lack of minority representation was blatant at my very first precinct caucus and even more so at the organizing unit convention and city convention. Despite my neighborhood being 41 percent black, the attendance at all the caucuses and conventions was probably three-fourths white or so. If that’s not reason enough to scrap party caucuses and conventions, here’s some more.

Precinct Caucus

My first Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party precinct caucus gave me some hope for this thing we call democracy that isn’t actually democracy. I met people in my community who cared for my community as much as me, and while the turnout was a bit discouraging, I vowed to do something about it. I volunteered to call my DFL neighbors to remind them to attend the next precinct caucus so my community wasn’t underrepresented.

While caucus agenda items were accomplished slowly to start, the pace picked up as everyone got the hang of things. We conducted a relatively efficient meeting. I submitted two resolutions to be considered for adoption by the party: one to legalize cannabis, and another calling for an independent redistricting commission to draw district boundaries instead of allowing politicians to employ partisan gerrymandering to make district races less competitive. Both were accepted as written to be considered at the upcoming organizing unit convention, and both were voted to be included in the DFL platform at the state convention.  

I wanted to see the ugly innards of Minnesota politics, so I volunteered to serve as a voting delegate at the organizing unit convention as well as the city convention. I got exactly what I wanted, but it I didn’t want it for very long.

Organizing Unit Convention

The organizing unit convention, again, started slowly. Technical difficulties with audio and video equipment resulted in a late start. Once we were underway, however, I appreciated the speeches delivered by DFL candidates running for various offices, including governor and sheriff. I got a sense of who I liked and collected some reading materials on the candidates.

Then the agenda was slowed to a crawl as something called “sub-caucusing” took place. Sub-caucusing is like a first-grade, organization activity and musical chairs combined. Poster-sized sheets of paper were distributed to delegates looking to start a sub-caucus and recruit enough delegates to earn a vote or more at the DFL state convention. A sub-caucus is an organizing unit. Delegates starting a sub-caucus would write their candidate or cause of choice on the poster paper and announce it to the crowd, hoping to recruit enough delegates to earn a vote or more at the DFL state convention.

Of course, with so many people in one place, there were more than 20 sub-caucuses, each of which was directed to a certain area of the high school auditorium. Delegates then seek out the sub-caucus they prefer and take a seat with the rest of the delegates in their organizing unit. That’s not the end of the game, though. Sub-caucuses who fail to recruit enough delegates to earn a vote at the state convention can merge with other sub-caucuses. The more than 20 sub-caucuses were whittled down to about half that in a half hour or so, combining the names of sometimes three or four sub-caucuses.

I kept it simple and joined the Cannabis Caucus, and we attracted enough delegates to earn a vote at the DFL state convention, I think for the first time. Two members of our organizing unit had experience as either a state delegate or an alternate, and one of them was already planning to attend the convention in Rochester, so we elected them to vote on our behalf at the DFL state convention.

City Convention

The DFL city convention was a mess from the start. We started almost two hours late because of technical difficulties when one loud voice could have kicked off the agenda. Instead we waited for someone to troubleshoot the audio system in the gym at North High School in Minneapolis.

Since we were seated by district and precinct, I struck up conversations with my neighbors, some of whom I remembered from the precinct caucus and organizing unit convention. I asked them for whom they intended to vote, and we were mostly in agreement. I familiarized myself with the candidates for school board and spoke to a few of them. Then I sat around for hours until the school board candidates gave their speeches, which actually influenced my vote.

The rest of the nearly eight-hour day was spent either arguing over the rules, procedure or order of the agenda items. Most people left immediately after the winners of the DFL endorsement for school board were announced. I stuck around after to elect people to city DFL positions to make sure a fiasco like that never happened again. Frankly, I could do without caucuses and conventions entirely if we just put everyone on the primary ballot. Most who don’t receive the endorsement end up running anyway.

In Minnesota, we have five pairs of DFL candidates running for Governor and Lieutenant Governor. The DFL state convention is supposed to weed out the competition prior to the primary election. Party conventions are designed for political parties to unite behind specific candidates, and specifically, candidates the majority of party delegates like most. But when everyone runs anyway, there isn’t much unification occurring.

I knew who I liked for Governor the moment she opened her mouth. Erin Murphy was my candidate after delivering a two-minute speech at the organizing unit convention. She sounded most adamant and passionate about the changes she would attempt to make, and I agreed with those changes. But she wasn’t the candidate with the most progressive stance on cannabis, which is a big issue for me.

Of the three candidates most likely to win the primary, Tim Walz is most supportive of legal cannabis, going so far as to say all those incarcerated for cannabis should be released. Murphy isn’t willing to go that far, nor is she willing to allow home cultivation of cannabis. Walz is, but he doesn’t seem to me like a candidate with the enthusiasm to win a swing-state election for an office as high as Governor, and that seems to be a sentiment shared by DFL voters.

Murphy, with her support from the nurses union, secured the DFL endorsement at the state convention, but she was running third in the latest poll conducted. According to NBC News and Marist, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson had a four-point lead on Walz and led Murphy by 17 points as of July 19. The very next day her running mate, U.S. Representative Rick Nolan, was accused of allowing a top congressional aide resign quietly in 2015 after being alleged of harassing young, female staffers.

The Minnesota DFL primary election for Governor is effectively a three-way race, and since ranked-choice voting isn’t employed in Minnesota primaries (it was in Maine for the first time and Mainers voted to keep it that way), DFL voters won’t have the luxury of choosing the candidate they like best. They’ll have to choose the candidate they think has the best chance against a Republican challenger.

Luckily for the Democrats, the Republican Party is experiencing the same problem. The GOP endorsement went to Jeff Johnson and Donna Bergstrom, but former Governor Tim Pawlenty is still running and could very well win the primary despite losing his party’s endorsement. What was the point of these conventions again? I say forget caucuses and conventions and just put everyone on the primary ballot. Political parties would save some money, we’d all save some time, and the primary election is the best means we have to include as many people as possible in the democratic process, or whatever you want to call it.


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Ugh. Level 3 of the Runtastic Six Pack App gave me my first wake up call during my pursuit of six-pack abs that started in January of this year and was slowed by a broken foot shortly after. Going from Level 2 to Level 3 on the Runtastic Six Pack App is like going from a comfortable, at-home workout to a blood-sweat-and-tears workout worthy of a Rocky montage.

I knew MyPlate’s 10-minute abs workout wasn’t cutting it, and since purchasing my Fitbit Alta, I’ve tried stacking the MyPlate workouts, doing three in one sitting, combining the MyPlate workout with Fitbit Coach workouts, and lately, I’ve strictly completed my training plan on the Runtastic Six Pack app. Upon reaching Level 3 of the Runtastic Six Pack app training plan, I can confidently say that it is the best workout regimen for those in pursuit of six-pack abs.

Level 3 Hurts

I must have been in pretty good shape considering how easily I completed the Runtastic Six Pack app’s workouts at Levels 1 and 2. After completing 30 days of workouts increasing in difficulty, I entered Level 3 with confidence. All that confidence was undermined by Day 1 of my Level 3 training, but only by one exercise in the workout.

I completed three sets of scissor kicks without pausing or adding 30 seconds of recovery time in between sets. Even tabletop crunches came relatively easily, although I added 30 seconds of recovery time between sets two and three. I really felt my abs burning after this exercise, and that burn intensified during scissor legs, which required me to pause about halfway through each set and add 30 seconds of recovery time between sets.

Then I was taken aback by my personal trainer demanding three sets of 26 mountain climbers, but not your typical mountain climbers. Every mountain climber I know plants their foot to climb the mountain, but the Runtastic Six Pack app calls for you to suspend your front foot in midair to increase the difficulty of the exercise by reducing your balance, working your core even harder than the typical mountain climber. By the end of the workout there wasn’t a dry section of my t-shirt left for sweat, and the workout that had taken me 25 minutes or less to complete took 37 minutes at Level 3.

Level 3 Gets Easier, then Harder

By Day 5 of my Level 3 training regimen, I was back down to completing my workout in 27 minutes. I had cut out a considerable amount of recovery time between sets and was pausing my workout less and less. The harder exercises were coming more easily, and then Runtastic changed it up.

The change-up was actually easier for me than the first week of Level 3 training. Three of the four exercises were some variation of crunches, and crunches seem to be much easier for me than any plank exercises. That’s likely a result of me “cheating” myself of slow, controlled repetitions.

Plank exercises demand a controlled completion by design. The plank position is not one in which you can complete any movement very quickly. Crunches, however, can be completed quickly and form can go ignored at times, especially when you’re exhausted. Well, the pace at which I completed my crunches didn’t do me any favors when Runtastic changed up Level 3 again.

Day 11 of Level 3 training included three plank exercises and two types of crunches. This was the day I thought the app was broken or at least limited by its design. Day 11 of Level 3 training includes two sets of Thread the Needles going both to the right and left, but instead of alternating the sets and going to the right and then the left, the workout calls for two sets to the right then two more to the left. I found this to be painful for my forearms and elbows having to support my upper body weight in consecutive sets and felt I'd be better served alternating between right and left. I never did alternate the sets as to complete the training as indicated, but I asked Runtastic blog writer Hana Medvesek if this was a limitation of the app or included by design to work the same muscle groups consecutively, pain be damned. A reply was not provided as of this writing.

Runtastic Six Pack App Thread the Needle Left Part 1

Breaking up the right and left exercises would require the app to play different videos between sets, requiring a more complex design. But while alternating thread the needle exercises might be more comfortable for elbows and forearms, it might not have the same effect as working the same muscle groups consecutively. My suggestion would be to put some sort of padding under your forearm to ease the pain if you don’t have spongy carpet or a yoga mat.

The Second Half of Level 3 Tests Your Resolve

The 30-second recovery time between sets is cut in half on Day 16 of Level 3 training in the Runtastic Six Pack app, and the exercises are harder, too. As I was approaching the end of the Runtastic Six Pack app’s training regimen, I must admit I dreaded doing my workout. What was once a 25-minute workout had ballooned to a 47-minute workout that actually resulted in blood and sweat but no tears – just moans and groans from intense pain. The plank knee-to-elbow crunch exercises resulted in rug burns that made it difficult to complete workouts in consecutive days.

I actually took two days between workouts come Day 16 of Level 3 training because I was sore from my knees to my chest for two days. Obviously, cheating myself of slow, controlled completion of exercises had taken its toll. I was pausing regularly during sets and adding 30 seconds of recovery time between sets, especially for the plank knee-to-elbow crunch exercises.

By the third day of completing these exercises, though, I was down to adding the 30 seconds of recovery time solely after the second set of each exercise and between each set of the plank knee-to-elbow crunches. I had shortened my completion time from 47 minutes to 40 minutes, and was really starting to notice results.

Level 3 is not the End of the Game

Upon completion of workouts in the second half of Level 3, I could actually feel the definition of my six-pack abs with my hands when massaging my abs. I couldn’t see much more than a two-pack, but I could tell my goal of six-pack abs only required a bit more cardiovascular work to be realized.

According to the Runtastic Six Pack app’s body fat visualization, my 10-percent body fat should be low enough for my six-pack abs to be visible, and I’m confident they will be upon completion of Level 3 training on the Runtastic Six Pack app, and I’ll continue completing Level 3 workouts to make sure my six-pack abs remain defined and visible.


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