Fri, Mar

A Disastrous Weekend In Sports


GELFAND’S WORLD - Over the weekend, the Pac 12 conference disintegrated and the U.S. Women's National Team lost in the World Cup. More about the World Cup below, along with a tiny bit of political updating.

College Football is definitely in a new century

There was a window in time when west coast football was at its peak.

People of a certain age can remember a year when UCLA and USC were number 1 and number 2 in the standings going into the big game. UCLA lost because of one missed kick, and USC won because their tailback, later to be the defendant in a famous murder trial, scored a long touchdown on an amazing run.

We may also remember a couple of remarkable comeback victories by USC against Notre Dame back when ND was a perennial national championship favorite. We can remember 3 consecutive rose bowls between Ohio State and USC, where USC took 2 out of 3.

There was also a Rose Bowl where UCLA held on to beat Michigan State (who came into the game rated Number 1) in a game where the UCLA safety literally knocked himself cold taking down the opposing fullback on the goal line to preserve the victory. There was only half a minute left in the game, and State was going for two.

Of course it was also an era in which most games did not end with 55 - 52 scores like they do today. The Big Ten prided itself on defense. It was also an era in which segregation was the reality and was basically the official policy of many schools including the Southeast Conference. It took a 1972 game between Alabama and USC to break the dam, although there had been some movement in other, not-so-famous schools before then.

The 20th century of college football started with a game which was much different than it is today, without the massive headgear and pads of the current era, with limits on substituting players, and without television. Not just without television coverage, but without television. In fact, the game goes back long enough that at one time, there wasn't even broadcast radio.

There is even a cultural history in which the television broadcasts of the Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl contributed to immigration from the colder northern states into California. As one commenter explained the other day, back before global warming, winters in Michigan were very long and very cold, and the New Years Day broadcast of the Rose Bowl really rubbed it in. They were miserable and we were basking in the sunshine.

(An aside: One year when I lived in Pasadena, I walked over to the Rose Parade on a typically warm January 1, and watched -- with a little surprise, honestly -- as one woman collapsed and had to be treated for heat shock. I guessed that she just wasn't adapted to temperatures in the high 80s after coming from a place where temperatures in the 30s and below were the norm.)

And for the first half of the 20th century and more, the question was whether any west coast team could beat any Big 10 team, because that was the geographical center of football from the days of the "point a minute" Michigan teams to Knute Rockne at Notre Dame. It took until John MacKay at USC to make it a competitive sport, with a few (very few) exceptions along the way.

So now the Pac8, which became the Pac10 and then Pac12, has disintegrated. We might even say dissolved, although there is yet to be an official pronouncement akin to the end of the Soviet Union. But when the last surviving members are just the two bay area teams along with Washington State and Oregon State, there can't be much more time before the announcement.


Who is to blame?

The first question might be whether "blame" is the right word. Presumably, universities have the right to choose their playing partners the same as bridge players. But there was something grand and glorious that has been lost. Admittedly it was an "us vs. them" competition in which west coast pride staked itself against midwestern supremacy, but it was fun while it lasted.

There is another contributing factor, which is the supremacy of Southeast Conference football over the past decade and more. I wonder if John McKay and Bear Bryant -- when they agreed to hold that 1972 desegregation bowl -- had any idea what was to come.

What we do know is that television broadcasting has become the controlling factor. The SEC has its own television contract, and the Big 10 has been reasonably successful in the same game. People are drawn to watching Alabama and Ohio State and Clemson football.

But if blame is to be recognized, it goes on USC and UCLA. They shocked people when they announced that they were moving to the Big 10 a while back. That took 2 of the 3 or 4 competitive teams out of the conference (my pick for the other two being Oregon and Washington).

So over the weekend, the rest of the competitors (except Stanford) made their announcements about which conferences they would move to.

Football seems to be going through a phase where conferences, just like the big corporations in the previous era, are going through mergers. Whatever the Big 10 becomes, it won't be just 10 teams. We can see similar conglomerates forming in the SEC and the old Oklahoma-Texas league.

The Big 10 will literally exist from sea to sea, from the Atlantic to the Midwest to the Pacific coast. How it will arrange itself into subconferences or divisions remains to be seen, but we can imagine something not too far from the way the NFL holds playoffs between its divisions.

Perhaps this can solve the problem of creating enough playoff spots for the college football national championship. The Big 10 and the SEC could, by themselves, hold three rounds of conference playoffs, with perhaps the top 8 teams in each conference competing, leading to a grand playoff (1 or 2 rounds?) between 3 major conferences and all the rest of the independents.

Or maybe there will be no major independents left.

Remembering when the academic mission was somewhat respected

There was a day when the academic mission and function of universities was respected by at least some folks. The University of Chicago dropped football way back when, even though it had been a competitor at one time. The Ivy League went off on its own and even created a mythology about not giving out athletic scholarships. (If you saw some of those Ivy League rugby teams the way I did, you might be a little skeptical about how admissions committees worked, but that is another story.)

There is a possibility, however slight, for some of the great academic institutions like Stanford and Berkeley to consider going full academic, or perhaps -- this is fanciful but has been suggested by one writer -- creating a league of their own in which the old no-substitution rule is brought back. We can talk about how this would function some other time.

The end of a soccer era and the beginning of another

Two AM till the crack of dawn. That's when the game between the USA and Sweden happened.

I stayed up to watch the first playoff round in the Women's World Cup between Sweden and the USA. Everybody knew that the US had not been playing well, and the question was whether they could put together a complete game.

It turns out that they did -- almost. Their inability to put the ball in the goal continued, although the US team had multiple shots on goal, particularly during the first half. Was it that the Swedish goalie had a great game, or just that the US couldn't get the ball down on the ground and thereby get it past her? Not entirely clear, but we certainly have to give a lot of credit to Sweden's goalie.

But once again, the US women spent 90 minutes without a goal, then 30 minutes of overtime without a goal, and as a result, ended up going into a penalty kick tie breaker. You can find a description of the game and players' reactions here. 

So let's reiterate. One hundred and twenty minutes of exhausting running up and down the field. Holding the opponents to zero goals for the third time in four games. Being tied in penalty kicks in the overtime going into the (possibly) last kick. The US goalie had to stop the next Swedish kick or the game would be over. Even in my exhausted state (it being about 4:30 AM by then) it was a tense and exciting moment.

And the US goalie stepped in front of the oncoming kick and caught it, but it popped out of her arms. She caught it in the air once again. It looked like a stop, which would have resulted in both sides having another kick. But the referee called on the new electronic-video replay system, and under the rules of the game, the ball has to be within the goal to count, and it was, just barely, before that second catch. Goal and game to the Swedes.

In other words, this may have been the closest soccer game ever to have been played and still have a winner, with the victory by a penalty kick that was "by a millimeter," as one of the American players said.

One comment about all the hype about American chances for a "threepeat." Yes, it was mathematically possible, but it was also a rebuilding year for the American squad. Should the coaches have tried to keep more of the previous squad together? It doesn't seem like this would have been useful or even possible. The late pre-tournament injuries to a couple of America's best players was also a factor, although the defensive rebuild obviously worked.

Will the US keep the current coaching staff for the next World Cup or the next Olympics? Would it help to replace them? Hard to know, but whoever inherits this team will have a new generation of players with World Cup and professional experience.

One final note. The amazing American victory in the 1999 World Cup (played in the Rose Bowl, as many will remember) was sort of the mirror image of the loss to Sweden. The US played China to a tie, and then won on penalty kicks.

Afterword on politics and criminal indictments

I seem to have erred the other day in referring to Donald Trump's 75 felony indictments. It's a few more than that due to the later round of charges in the Miami case.

The defense attorney for Donald Trump has been making the rounds of television interview shows (Meet the Press, et al) claiming that the whole thing is a First Amendment case, in the sense that Trump had the full legal right to express his views, whether or not he was correct that he had won the election. Numerous commenters and legal experts responded that Trump can say whatever he wants -- including lie -- but it was his actions in pursuit of the overthrow of the election (and thereby the American tradition of democratic rule) that is in question. The Trump attorney, while speaking on Meet the Press, repeatedly referred to the indictments as coming from the Biden Administration. Host Chuck Todd lightly referred to these remarks as political spin, but this spin requires strong and constant rebuttal. It is a claim, implicit as it may be, that the national government cannot enforce its laws if there is any suggestion of political motivation. The fact is that the special prosecutor comes to us without a lot of political taint, however grossly Donald Trump my try to spin it. Briefly, it is not Biden's prosecution that is going on, but the U.S. government's.

And one last thing. Trump has made a practice of putting a nasty adjective in front of the name of people he is out to smear. He did it with Hillary, and he has been doing it with Biden. Perhaps it's time for turnabout. Let's hear those commenters on MSNBC and CNN refer to the former president as Traitor Trump or Cheap shot Donald or, better yet, Crybaby Donald Trump. Here's a guy who is so petty and vengeful that he chose to taunt the US Women's Soccer Team, and blamed their World Cup defeat on Joe Biden.  This is both a cheap shot and the act of a crybaby.

By the way, the media are starting to anticipate a move by Ron DeSantis to oppose the Big Lie.  Is this the tiny crack in the face of the dam? It doesn't seem like it could or would lead to a DeSantis victory, but it may signify that some of those other Republican candidates are figuring out that they have to mimic all that revenge fantasy that we've been hearing at the Trump rallies.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected].)