The Thinking Man's Sports Reference

The source for all your sports philosophy and ethics discussions. From steroids to spousal abuse, we'll break down all the issues in sports that inspire some non-athletic thought. We're not picking winners, and we're not scouting the next LeBron James - this is your home for debating the ideas, ethics and morals that comprise today's professional sports landscape. For more on our mandate, see the very first post.

Save the children? Not like this.

On Friday, September 15th, Bridgeport Central High School football beat the crap out of Bassick. The final score was 56-0. This should not have been news. Yet I - despite living approximately 866 miles from Bridgeport and having no rooting interest in Connecticut High School football - heard all about it.

The athletic league that these teams play in has a new "score management policy" this year, stipulating a one-game suspension for any coach whose football team wins by 50 points or more. Presumably this rule is intended to keep a team from running up the score unnecessarily and embarassing their opponents.

Well, it didn't work. Here's your game summary: Coach Dave Cadelina's Bridgeport team runs the opening kick back for a TD. They force Bassick to punt, then run that back for a TD. After another punt, their first offensive play from scrimmage is a long pass for a TD. Bing, Bang, Boom! 21-0. Backup tailback Ramon Mignot runs for two touchdowns. Pow! 35-0. It's still the first quarter.

Cadelina and the refs agree to keep the clock running constantly for the rest of the game, and the coach benches all his starters and some of his second-stringers. By halftime it's 49-0. In the third quarter, the third-string running back hit pay dirt from 24 yards out for the game's final score.

What would the board have had Cadelina do differently? Certainly he shouldn't tell his kids to ease it up; nevermind the horrible implications with regard to sportsmanship, people can get hurt in football games if they play half-speed.

To take it a step further, who gains anything from this rule? Is it any less embarassing to lose 49-0 to third-stringers who deliberately avoid scoring than 70-0 to a team that uses its best players and gives their all? I would think not.

I find it absurd that this rule was ever put in place. Since when do we need to protect kids from losing? Certainly I understand wanting to discipline coaches for deliberately embarrassing opposing squads, but is the problem so bad that a rule needed to be put into place?

If so, I would argue that Connecticut should go to work on their conference alignment and configure a schedule that isn’t filled with completely lopsided matchups. I have always been under the impression that there is a classification system for high school athletics designed to group teams with similar talent levels, and I would think this system should keep ridiculous blowouts to a minimum.

We go too far to protect our children in cases like this. A blowout loss can be a learning experience, or at the very least a character-building one. There’s no need to shield kids from the emotional pain of losing big – yes, it’s difficult, but that’s life.

Freedom of the Sporting Press

It's entirely possible that Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams - the reporters famous for breaking the BALCO steroid scandal and writing Game of Shadows, the tell-all exposé about Barry Bonds - will soon be writing their articles from lockdown. They were recently sentenced to 18 months in jail for refusing to reveal their sources in the case.

For those of you unfamiliar with the details of the case, the primary source for all of Fainaru-Wada and Williams' scribblings was leaked grand jury testimony, which (according to my understanding of the rules) is supposed to be sealed. In this case, all indications have been that the witnesses (Jason Giambi and Bonds among them) were given a guarantee that their testimony would be kept secret.

The reporters have been stalwart in their refusal to disclose their source, as has the court in its insistence that said disclosure is a matter of importance. There is an appeal in process, but - as I said - it is quite possible that Fainaru-Wada and Williams will do time. Is this right?

In a word, yes. In three words, I think so. I heartily embrace the freedom of the press, and I usually agree that protecting one's sources is the appropriate action. In this case, though, oughtn't be a factor that someone violated a very important code in our justice system to break a story about a game?

Sure, Bonds and Giambi - and sooooo many others - are guilty of cheating and misleading sports fans all over the world. But in the grand scheme of things, beyond sports, what harm have they really done? On the other side of the coin is someone whose law-breaking has much more far-reaching implications.

If leaking grand jury testimony is allowed to go unpunished this time, a dangerous door is opened. Suppose a similar leak in a mafia case led to the murder of a witness. I'm certain a public outcry would demand the identity of the source.

The case of Watergate also jumps to mind, though, and I do worry about that - specifically, it would be a lot harder to expose a government scandal if sources were not secure in the secrecy of their identity.

At the end of the day, though, I think that sort of scenario is the exception to the rule, and in fact it is much more dangerous to open a door to the insecurity of grand jury information than to questionable protection of journalists' sources. After all, the writers can always choose to spend the time in jail rather than expose their source, and hopefully a scandal at the level of Watergate would inspire such surreptitiousness.

More on the Steroid Controversy

I was thinking of an interesting question regarding the steroid controversy today. As groundwork, let me take the paradigm case of Albert Puhols. Puhols is a guy I have always been willing to assume is not on 'Roids. He is huge, but he just seems to have that body type, and he has always just seemed too clean-cut to be roided up. Maybe I am just naive.
But make the leap with me for a moment and assume he is clean. Now, Albert Puhols' income is based in large part on his image (read: Endorsements). That means that the difference between him being on 'roids or not on 'roids is a swing of millions of dollars. Literally millions. Even the slightest suspicion of 'roids costs him money. Conversely, if Puhols could create certainty in the minds of the public that he was clean, it could be a huge financial boon for him.
Given this, why doesn't Puhols (whom we are assuming for the moment is clean) pay an independent company to test him three times a week? (or every day, whatever) Then he could turn around and issue those results to the media, and people would KNOW he was clean. Any player who did this would instantly become my favorite player in the league, and I imagine other fans feel the same way.
In discussing this issue with people, there are two common objections to this point. The first is that he feels that the need to do this is an invasion of his privacy. The second is that he has too much pride, that he feels he is above the need to do this.
The first objection has some legitimacy if the question is whether MLB should FORCE players to undergo this kind of testing. Everyday tests seem invasive and over-the-top. But, if Puhols is VOLUNTARILY testing himself, then the privacy question should not apply. He is, in this narrow way, selling his privacy at the price of a reputation, a trade which it seems to me a professional athelete should be happy to make.
The second, pride, is really no objection at all. If Puhols feels it is demeaning to submit daily urine tests, fine. How much more of an affront is it if people think he is cheating when he isn't? Shouldn't his pride be in the body he has made for himself without the use of artificial substances?
The argument is even more extreme, but to my mind more clear, for something like Cycling. They already test those atheletes on a daily basis, so it is clear that they are not on 'roids. But, it is impossible to test for things like blood doping and HGH.
However, what if an athelete (call him Lance, whom I know is retired now, but he could have done this during his wins) were to pay an independent testing company to follow him around 24 hours a day for three weeks before the race? He goes to the bathroom, they follow him. He goes to the doctor, they follow him. I mean EVERYWHERE. Then they continue to follow him during the race, to make SURE he isn't putting anything into his body. That way we KNOW he is clean.
I won't rehash the same arguments I just made for Puhols, but they all apply. Are these measures extreme? Of course they are. But these are the highest paid, most scrutinized atheletes on the planet. And although extreme, these methods are one way to ensure the sanctity of their reputations.
I just get so sick of these atheletes bitching about how everyone is so suspicious of them, and how they don't deserve it, and how the media is treating them so horribly. If any of them are reading this, follow my advice for a guaranteed stellar reputation. Provided you are really as clean as you say you are.

The Student-Athlete: Unpaid Labor?

Rhett Bomar, erstwhile Oklahoma Sooners QB, was recently dismissed from the team for accepting full time pay from a car dealership where he worked... well, considerably less than full time. Sounds like Bomar would hop over to the dealership on his way to practice to clock in, then go play some football, come back and clock out.

At the end of the day, very little about this story surprises me, other than the unfortunate fact that Bomar and his roommate (starting guard JD Quinn) got caught. The fact is, NCAA rules violations like this happen all the time and usually nothing comes of them. With so many schools to deal with and so many "student"-athletes to monitor, there's no way the governing body could successfully keep tabs on even just the players in the two majors (basketball and football) much less all college sports participants.

What the story did do is make me retread an argument I've had with myself countless times over the last several years. Specifically, whether college athletes should be compensated for playing - by their schools, not illegally at a car dealership. And it continues to be an interesting and many-faceted issue.

Some facets: (Pro A) The NCAA and its schools make money - boatloads of it - from the exploits of their "student"-athletes, so why should the athletes not reap some of these benefits? (Pro B) Perhaps a yearly stipend for athletic participation would discourage folks like Bomar from accepting money they don't deserve. (Con A) You think Title IX inspires controversy? Just wait until 'Bama pays each football player ten times as much as the entire women's soccer team. (Con B) Paying these kids would rob college athletics of the "purity" that makes it so appealing to many fans - though that purity is sullied more and more with every Rhett Bomar and JD Quinn.

Some would say that scholarships are the greatest form of payment a "student"-athlete can receive, and obviously the scholarship system is firmly in place. It's hard for me to see that as salary, though - simply put, the average football or basketball scholarship student has no interest whatsoever in academics, so the scholarship money is tantamount to a ticket for approximately three study-free years on campus.

Frankly, though I truly believe college athletes deserve some further compensation, it's difficult to conceive of a way to do it properly. I've toyed with some theories - attach earning potential to grades, give every D-1 college athlete an NCAA-designated amount, determine "salary" by the revenue a particular sport generates, etc. - but each has significant and serious problems.

In the end, I guess I'm saying no to compensating college athletes for their services. Too bad more college athletes can't say no to those who offer it illegally.

Let's get the Steroids on the table...

I was thinking about Floyd Landis (Tour de France winner, for anyone who thinks cycling is a sissy sport) and David Ortiz today. I want to start with the assumption, for this post, that they are both on 'Roids. (or HGH, something like that) From my understanding of this blog, discussion of whether they actually are on something falls under practical sports discussion, and thus is verboten. My question is, assuming they are, philosophically, should we care?
First take the paradigm case of cycling. When Eddie Mercks was winning 5 Tours in a row, there was no such thing as HGH. It is safe to say that he was dominant in a totally clean way. Landis, then, is a cheater, right?
My question is, can't an argument be made for looking at HGH, blood doping, and yes, even steroids, as a form of technology that assists in bringing riding times down? Given the advances in bike technology, support technology, training technology, etc. that have come along since Mercks day, riding times are already far advanced from what was possible then. Why should we look at body enhancements as anything but another form of technology benefitting the riders?
I can hear the cries of "But it's artificial, and it's dangerous!" starting already, so let me put that to rest right now. Weight lifting is artificial. Protein shakes are artificial. In baseball, Pine Tar gives you artificial grip. Batting gloves give your hands artificial protection. Artificial is no indictment when it comes to professional sports.
And dangerous? You mean dangerous like 2 300+ pound dudes running into each other at speed? Like standing still while someone throws a hard object inches from your body at 100 mph? Dangerous like an event that pushes your body so hard that 50% of the fittest cyclists in the world can't finish it? Sports are a dangerous pasttime, especially at the highest levels. And all these atheletes know what they're doing when they put that in their body.
We allow, indeed encourage, other forms of technology in cycling and other sports. Why should we balk at allowing technology that effects an athelete's body?
In baseball the case is less clear. First of all, there is less technology involved than in cycling. This makes my previous argument less applicable. However, it still makes a case.
The other argument with regard to baseball is a historical argument. Baseball is such a statistically driven game that it seems unfair that modern players should get the obvious statistical advantage that steroids bring. The purity of the game seems much more important in baseball, even to me.
But that purity is an illusion. We already have distinct eras in baseball, the dead ball and live ball eras. When Jackie Robinson stepped onto the field, another era was born.
Maybe what we need to do is just admit that we already live in the Enhancement Era. MacGuire, Sosa, Canseco, and especially Bonds have ushered that era in irrevocably. Let's embrace it. Let's at least face the fact that enhancement technology has outpaced and will continue to outpace our ability to test it. Then maybe we can stop arguing about it so much.

MLB Beanball Wars

Being a Chicago White Sox fan, the Art of the Hit Batsmen is a topic near and dear to my heart. There are those who will tell you it is a dangerous and outdated practice that Major League Baseball desperately needs to eliminate. Others - Sox manager Ozzie Guillen perhaps foremost among them - would argue that it's an intimate part of the game, allowing players to police themselves and maintain order and respect between teams.

If you're not sure what I'm talking about, this is your opportunity to learn something about the history of baseball. It's an old and simple tradition: you hit our guy, we hit your guy. Certainly there are nuances beyond that - sometimes the situation doesn't allow for immediate retaliation, dependent upon score or inning; when there is a clearly unintentional beanball it's not necessarily beholden upon a team to retaliate; etc. - but the basic rule holds today as it did in 1900: you hit our guy, we hit your guy.

I've heard former players say that after their pitcher hit someone, the first batter in the next inning would go to the plate expecting to take one in the rib cage... or the kidney... or perhaps right on the keister; point being they knew they would be beaned. Earlier in this 2006 season, Guillen took a rookie relief pitcher to task in the dugout for not appropriately retaliating.

But the tradition has been muddled by the man: Major League Baseball, under the guise of "cleaning up the game" has given the umpires the power to warn and/or eject pitchers, managers, and anyone else involved in what is perceived to be a beanball war. Notice my language - given umpires the power - because therein lies the problem: there's no particular rule regarding retaliatory beanings, it's essentially whatever the ump feels should be done.

The results are predictably disastrous. Some umpires throw out pitchers without a warning, as soon as they're perceived to have hit somebody intentionally. Others judiciously warn both benches as soon as any player has been hit. Occasionally you'll see a game where the ump waits too long and a brawl erupts.

Then there are umpires who embrace the beanball tradition: if a player is hit, they will give the other team a chance to retaliate before warning both pitchers and benches to ensure things won't spiral out of control. The upshot of this is there's no telling what will happen when somebody gets beaned.

The good news is, there's an easy solution; and the infrastructure is already in place. The warning/ejection system could work, it just needs to be consistent. Specifically: under no circumstances should a pitcher/team be warned or ejected after only one batter being hit. As soon as there is a retaliatory beanball, warn both teams. After that, deliberate beanings garner an ejection for the pitcher and whoever else the umpire thinks deserves the heave-ho.

Clearly there's still some room for interpretation, as there always will be in any sports scenario where officials are asked to legislate the intentions of athletes. Simply put, there is no way to objectively determine whether a pitcher absolutely intended to hit someone. Still, with this quick fix pitchers would at least know where they stand, and wouldn't have to worry about being ejected without warning.

On the flipside, umpires would retain control over the game without erasing a tradition as old as baseball or robbing the players of their autonomy and ability to stand up for each other.

It's not perfect, but it would be a hell of an upgrade.

NFL Rookie Holdouts

Matt Leinart, Donte Whitner, Jason Allen. Three more names on an annually augmented list of first-round NFL rookies who hold out of training camp for a bigger contract. This is a problem for the league, especially since it is often the poorest, most destitute teams who are handcuffed by the players their marketing departments have already labeled the "Future of the Franchise".

Even if we set aside the obvious lack of perspective [should fans be somewhat insulted that 22-year olds are scoffing at $10 mil. in guaranteed money? a question for another post, methinks] this stinks. The draft is designed to give bad teams the best young players, and that design is undermined when those players come late to camp - or sometimes not at all - and go through their first season with limited knowledge of the system.

This is potential disaster in the case of someone like Matt Leinart, who was slated to be Arizona's number two QB right away. As Josh McCown might tell you, playing behind Kurt Warner is a full-time job. Leinart has also been touted as the "most NFL-ready" prospect, which comes with expectations attached.

Allow me to set the scene: Leinart strolls into camp after the fourth preseason game and hasn't seen enough practice time to get on the field before the regular season starts. So when Warner goes down with a strained pinky finger (or a sore cheekbone, or maybe a hangnail on his thumb) it's not Matt Leinart, QB of the Future who takes the field, it's John Navarre, QB of Michigan Past.

The ghost story awaiting Cardinals fans in that scenario would not be pretty, but after decades of this sort of thing I think they have the strength to handle it. What it ultimately does is hurt the league - Leinart is a gigantic superstar waiting to happen, given his already well-established celebrity and the most exciting young wide receiver tandem in the league.

So what can be done? Frankly, it's easy. The NBA serves as a great example of how to handle rookie contracts - they are determined by draft order. Period. There are rules that limit the amount a player can sign for based on where they were drafted.

It's a mystery to me why the NFL hasn't followed their lead on this one. For a league that is supposed to be the strongest relative to its players' union (they still don't offer fully guaranteed contracts to anybody) it's remarkable that they allow a bunch of guys with literally zero NFL experience to hold teams hostage for an extra couple million.

It shouldn't happen. And at the end of the day, the people who really miss out are the fans. Hey, NFL, get your act together - end rookie holdouts!

Welcome to Sports Philosophy 101

Hello, reader. You may know me as Kolsky, you may not know me at all. I'm here to make you aware that at this moment - the moment of the creation of this post, not your reading of it - a wonderful and exciting thing is happening. Sports fans and critics - of all shapes and sizes, all colors and creeds, etc. - now have a place to gather for their sports-related moral or philosophical quandaries. Welcome to the Thinking Man's Sports Reference. Bookmark it.

Here will reside a reference for any and all sports issues that fall under our purview. In the coming week or two I will be assembling a roster of regular contributors from various walks of life. We, both individually and as a group, will discuss any and all issues in sport that we feel have interesting philosophical or ethical implications.

The general rule (or the First Rule of Sports Philosophy, if you will) is that anything other than game or player analysis is eligible for discussion. In other words, we're not interested in your take on the foul call at the end of the NBA Finals, and we don't want to hear who should be playing in left field for the Cubbies. This is a place for analyzing the underlying aspects of sport, not the sports themselves.

Perhaps that falls short of completely explaining my intentions for this blog. To better illuminate you, I've prepared the following examples...

Good Sports Philosophy Topics

  1. Why MLB All-Star situation is a stupid clusterfuck. We could address the ridiculous voting (almost every AL winner will be a Red Sox or Yankee) or the ridiculous rule that every team must have an all-star representative.

  2. What does it say about America that White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen got more national attention (and criticism) for using the term "fucking fag" to describe an asshole reporter than Phillies pitcher Brett Myers did for publicly battering his wife? Because he did. And Myers was on the mound the day after his arrest.

  3. Why we should add instant replay to the important moments of every single professional sport. It was some of the World Cup players taking dives that led to penalty kicks that brought this issue to mind.

  4. Whether the fact that Kerry Wood's shoulder has no structural damage is a good thing for the Cubs or really just proof of the obvious structural damage to his psyche. This one's right on the cusp, but sports psychology fits the blog too; just as long as we don't start breaking down Wood's pitching mechanics.

  5. Whether a sports columnist ought to be on hand in pro clubhouses to "face the music" with the players and coaches he craps on in print. Obviously this idea was inspired by the Guillen v. Jay Mariotti fiasco. Yes, I think Jay's an asshole moron, but that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with this philosophical debate.

Bad Sports Philosophy Topics

  1. The Cubs on-field performance (or lack thereof). We will not debate how the Cubs (or any other team) might improve; we will not waste time criticizing Jim Hendry or Dusty Baker for on-field decisions or roster management. The "ownership must change to save the franchise" discussion is right on the cusp, but I think it's playable for now.

  2. Whether Jay-Z is really releasing another comeback album. This is not an entertainment blog. 'Nuff said.

  3. Deciphering the bizarre drafting habits of the Seattle SuperSonics. First of all, they are completely illegible. Second of all, this qualifies as discussion of basketball, not basketball philosophy. The principles of building a championship-level basketball team is, potentially, an eligible topic.

  4. Whether David "Big Papi" Ortiz is the best clutch hitter in baseball. Again, this is game talk, not philosophy talk, and there are more than enough Red Sox blogs to go around. You can go kiss some Big Papoose on one of them. And for the record, it's Joe Crede.

  5. Brazil's chances of winning the World Cup. If you don't get the credo yet, maybe just forget about it.

Hopefully we understand each other, because I expect you - yes, you the reader - to play an important part in this experience. If this blog is really to live up to its name, we will want to address any and all possible philosophical issues, and appropriately tag and catalog them such that folks can refer to us (after all, we are a reference) when they come up against a moral quagmire of the sporting kind.

Comment on our posts. Suggest potential topics. Hell, submit your own ideas (I'll accept TMSR submissions at I'm completely open to handing a post over to a reader if he or she eloquently elaborates on a sports philosophy or ethics thought. In all honesty, you're just as qualified to discuss these issues as we are.

As far as the roster of regular contributors, we will freely post on things we find relevant, and we will attempt to keep our writings at reasonable length (by which I mean around 600 words or so). I'm also developing a plan for us to publish the occasional round table discussion between several of our regular writers, but the first of those is probably a little ways off.

Now that the mandate of this blog has been fully laid out - and I've exceeded my proposed length limit by hundreds of words - I'll yank the drawstring and close things up. I'm excited about what's happening here. I'm not sure it's a new field of sporting analysis, but I hope it's able to comprehensively address some issues in sports that are paid little mind in the major sports media.

Now I'm off to build my team. I leave you with the following quotable from Ozzie F. Kolsky, my new puppy: Grrrr... RUFF!