Tales From the Shtetl: The Masters

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Whenever anyone writes about The Masters golf tournament, it is thrust upon that writer a cosmic obligation to write the following words:

“A tradition unlike any other…. The Masters.” -Jim Nantz

Now that we have gotten that out of the way, I can talk about the tournament itself. This is the most hyped golf tournament in around a decade, and it’s not hard to see why. Tiger is back! It’s only one of the most dominant athletes of all time, plugging away at a fourth comeback attempt. Will he succeed this time around? Probably not. But no athlete is probably so much a part of my childhood as Tiger Woods. And seeing him play, and play well, is no small thing. He has not yet won on tour this year, but he has been in contention. In no sport are the margins between winning and not winning so small as in golf.

Continuing with the more advanced in age, Phil Mickelson won an event (WGC-Mexico) for the first time since the 2013 British Open. He is a three-time Masters winner, and will be in the conversation for contenders this week, partly for nostalgia, partly for his geniality, and partly because he’s playing pretty well.

Next we have the American youths: Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler chief among them. Justin Thomas is last season’s player of the year and PGA Champions, Spieth already has 3 majors to his name, and Fowler, well, Fowler is a Player’s Champion. Which is a darn good tournament, but have always underwhelmed in the majors, especially on Sunday.

The major factor in the hype for this year’s Masters is simple: it has been a long time since golf has seen this much talent, with this many exceptional players of different generations playing well. Last year’s winner, Sergio Garcia, was on very few people’s radars going into the week, yet he came out with the green jacket, and his first major. In a field of 87 contenders, the odds of predicting this year’s tournament are low. So let’s do exactly that, because it is far more fun than bemoaning the fact nobody gets it right.

10. Tiger Woods: Tiger knows this course better than any human alive, with the possible exception of Jack Nicklaus. That counts for a lot in Augusta. And I think he is physically as good as he is ever going to be. But sometimes that is not enough. This field is stacked, and all phases of the game have to be in line to win this tournament. Tiger’s iron play is close, but not there yet. Let’s hope it will be ready in time for the US Open.

9. Rory McIlroy: Rory and the Masters is quite a sad tale. Not on the level of A Little Life, but the luck has just not been with Rory at this tournament. He comes off a thrilling win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which helps greatly. I look for him to have a similar Sunday charge, but only to a top-10 finish, not to the top of the leaderboard.

8. Jordan Spieth: Already an all time great at the age of 24, Jordan Spieth needs no introduction for the golf fan. Two legendary turns have already involved Spieth at Augusta: Winner here in 2015, utter shambles on Sunday in 2016. His play, however, has not been this year at the level of his work from 2015-2017. His best finish is T-3 at the Houston Open, leading me to believe he has some small adjustments to do on his game and mentality before getting back to winning ways.

7.  Kevin Kisner: Kisner has a tendency to play well for 2-3 days in majors, and fade as Sunday wears along. He doesn’t have the driving length of many on this list, and that hurts going into Augusta. But he is an able competitor, and playing well this season, with 2 top-5 finishes. A top 10 at Augusta is nothing to slouch at, should it come to fruition.

6. Dustin Johnson: A lot of Americans on this list, eh? Well, there happen to be a lot of great golfers playing well, who just so happen to be American right now. DJ is high among them. The man is the number one player in the world still, with one win and 4 top-10 finished this year. He’s playing well, but, as theme here, so are many others.

5. Louis Oosthuizen: No matter the year, season, course, or weather, Louis just manages to find a way to put himself in contention on Sunday at a major. He’s a reliable face near the top of any major leaderboard, and I fully expect him to be up there on Sunday.

4. Justin Rose: last year’s runner up seems primed for another stab at a green jacket. A win at the WGC-HSBC, a 3rd place finish at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and a T-5 at the Valspar indicate another likely good showing for Justin.  A consummate professional and gentleman, US Open Winner and Olympic Gold Medalist, Rose would be a fine addition to the ranks of Masters champions. But I don’t think it is happening this year.

3. Bubba Watson: The 2 time winner of this event has had a brilliant 2018, with wins at the Genesis Open and WGC-Match Play. Bubba always has his length and his putting, two key assets for Augusta. He seems primed for a third win at Augusta, but I think two men stand in his way. Two men who are trending toward the title just slightly more than Bubba.

2. Justin Thomas: I feel like Mugatu (a character in the movie Zoolander) saying this, but, “JT, so hot right now.” Last year, he was player of the year, won five times, won the PGA Championship, and the FedEx Cup. This year, he has won twice: the CJ Cup and the Honda Classic. These winning ways are here for Mr. Thomas, but I think he falls just short this week.

1. Jason Day: I feel as though Jason Day has been in contention at the Masters since time immemorial. In any case, he has never won it. This season, he won the Farmers Insurance Open, and finished T-2 at Pebble Beach. He is playing well, to be sure. But what makes me think Jason Day is finally going to win at Augusta? Well, like Sergio last year, sometimes everything comes together at the right time, in a huge moment of catharsis. I think that Day is ready for his moment of catharsis, but more importantly, he’s in a good position with his play. Let’s just hope his back holds out.

Some honorable mentions, and other names I feel could also put in a shift for Sunday: Henrik Stenson, Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed, Brooks Koepka, Sergio Garcia

Tales from the Shtetl: It Had to Come to This

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A sense of complacency and ennui underpins the spectre of college basketball. While the play on the court has been exemplary as ever, and March Madness is nearly upon us, the focus has largely been off the court this season. Scandals at Louisville, North Carolina, Oregon, and, most recently, Arizona, have shaken the college basketball schema to its roots.

But, in the midst of all the scandal, has anything actually changed? And did any new knowledge arise for the people who care about college basketball?

I would posit that the answer to both of these questions is no. UNC had paper classes for athletes. They had protections within the NCAA, good lawyers, and one hell of a technicality, so they go unpunished. Louisville complied with the NCAA investigation, got caught by the FBI, and now they are dead and buried. Rick Pitino is unemployed. Life, for the NCAA, at least, goes on.

But now we have something different: an up-and-coming coach in Sean Miller, caught on tape discussing payments to recruits. And his school supports him (whether it be for contractual obligations if they fire him or just stubbornness- who knows. Cynical ole me has suspicions on the former).

With Miller, we now have a case so blatant to the ills and perils of college basketball, of the entire system of recruiting and cultivation of young athletes, that the entire system begs to be examined more closely. The powers that be refuse to do so, because it will cost them severely to take stock of the system of free entertainment currently under heel.

Any talk of “but they receive an education” is blind to reality that, no, these 18 year olds are not getting anything of financial value out of the 1 PM communications class that they were signed up for, barely attend, and theoretically tutored for.

The NCAA will not change of its volition. AAU ball will not change of its own volition. It does not behoove the NBA to start paying for the development and curation of talent which it has always gotten for free to this point. We are left with the status quo unless the NBA makes a change in its collective bargaining agreement to more closely mirror to less offensive draft schemes of the NHL and MLB, or unless young athletes take a stand. That seems somewhat likely, as the current commissioner, Adam Silver, likes to keep the players happy, and wants to develop the G League as an alternative to college, especially considering the steep learning curve at the NBA level for one-and-done college prospects.

But the last option is a compelling one. In a world where young athletes take a stand against the use of their talents for a system that does not pay them one cent of the NCAA Tournament TV package, which only even reluctantly feeds them for their labor, and continues to uphold megalomaniacal coaches who utilize the athlete’s talent for personal glory, a resistance to that system seems inevitable. With all the social and political movements being led by teenagers over the past few months, perhaps there is room for one more. Lord knows, the ethical considerations of the sport need it.

 

Tales From The Shtetl: The 2018 USSF Elections, Who Tali Endorses

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The biggest question, since Sunil Gulati announced that he would not run for reelection as US Soccer Federation President, is: whose leadership sets up US Soccer with the best chance of success? The USWNT is in a good place at the moment. US youth soccer (men’s and women’s is in a good place). The MLS is growing. The NWSL is fledgling.

That leaves us with the one I, selfishly, care most about: the US men’s national team. Whose leadership ensures that what happened over the past year never happens again? Whose leadership gives US men’s soccer the greatest opportunity to grow and become a world class organization, while not completely devastating the resources and structures at hand?

Kathy Carter’s independent player development model is compelling, as well as her desire to beef up technical development of coaches and players. It’s something US men’s soccer has needed for a long time. Carlos Cordeiro also wants to create a new technical department, but is also committed to increasing commercial revenue. Kyle Martino desires equity and  transparency in US Soccer. Eric Wynalda is trying to drastically overhaul the function of MLS to align with a European club system.

Whose model gives US Soccer the ability to maintain success where it has been successful (women’s national team and youth soccer), and to make the necessary changes where improvements are needed?

America is already a world leader at women’s sports. Equity is still necessary where pay is concerned, but that also requires a commitment to have the same revenue intake (or a system of equitable distribution) from sponsorships and television rights for both the men’s and women’s national teams. What is easier to solve: equal pay or the structural problems that hold back American men’s soccer from other world powers? I think it is easier to solve equal pay. We need a US Soccer president who can address equal pay, then turn toward why the USMNT is lagging behind smaller population nations, such as, Serbia and South Korea in international football. Geoff Cameron was utterly truthful when he noted in his Players Tribune article that the culture of mediocrity and complacency in US Soccer needs to end. Which potential leaders are best equipped to address the pressing issues, and still motivated by success at all levels of the game?

Kathy Carter and Eric Wynalda are the best equipped to handle these issues. At the very least, they seem to understand that they are the highest priority issues, considering the 130 million dollar budget surplus that US Soccer is currently operating with (thus the organization should not be focusing its attention on commercial rights issues, as Mr. Cordeiro would have).

Then the question becomes: does US Men’s soccer, in its entirety need a fundamental overhaul? I do not believe so, because the system is financially sound, and has produced some good players. Player development does need to be addressed, especially at the 18-23 age range. If Kathy Carter is true to her word, and can pursue an overhaul of player development, then she has my theoretical vote.

What happened in October against Trinidad and Tobago cannot happen again. It was a sporting embarrassment, similar to what happened to Germany at Euro 2000. We need a careful examination of what went wrong and why. Germany moved to an overhaul of men’s soccer, at national and club level. That project worked successfully, culminating in Germany winning the 2014 World Cup. I am of the opinion that the changes proposed by Kathy Carter address many of the problems of US men’s soccer (although not all), while leaving in place what functions well.

Tales From The Shtetl: Cheating and Calciopoli

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In 2006, Italy was engaged by scandal. No, it did not involve politicians, celebrities, or societal unrest. This was the Calciopoli scandal, whereby Juventus and several other major Italian soccer clubs fixed matches by having the league select referees which were favorable to them. For more information, see the excellent, but brief overview of Calciopoli and its effect, from Tifo Football.

American sport has never encountered a scandal quite as broad as Calciopoli. But that does not mean to say that scandal has not occurred, of course. I bring up the subject of Calciopoli, and scandal in general, in light of the New England Patriots making another Super Bowl. The reason being, I recall seeing several memes about supposedly questionable refereeing decisions in the Patriots-Jaguars AFC Championship Game, and that lead me to thinking about this particular comparison. Do I hold any stock in the Patriots cheating in this years AFC Championship Game, in line with those memes? Not in the slightest. Do I think Deflategate was overblown? Yes, but full disclosure, I am also a Jets fan, so any opportunity to hate on the Patriots is reason enough for me.

The reason this comparison between the Patriots cheating scandals and the Italian match fixing scandal intrigued me was more as a function and form of cheating, and our collective responses to cheating in sport. I follow Italian soccer relatively closely, and greatly admire Italian clubs, particularly Juventus, who was the keystone club to the match fixing scandal.

So what is the difference? Why am I able to leave Juventus’ cheating in the past, but I still feel hard done by the Patriots?

Well, if you watched the above video, you would see the result of the Calciopoli scandal. All the teams involved were docked points. But Juventus lost two Italian championships and were demoted to Serie B- the second level of Italian soccer. (For those not familiar with promotion/relegation system, it would be like the Yankees being sent down to AAA for a season for selecting umpires that ruled in their favor). There is a sense that justice was served.

Can we same the same with the Patriots?

Tom Brady was suspended for four games, then came back and won the Super Bowl that season. Which, in the context of the actual “crime” of Deflategate, seems well enough.

But then we have the Spygate. And the sense that I have always felt that not only was justice not duly served to the Patriots, but also that the NFL did not allow us in the public to truly ever know the extent to which the Patriots taped opposing teams during practice.

It supports a sense of unease and lack of trust about the sport in general, but also about the Patriots. We do not know what they did in full, it was never disclosed to us in the public. And then the tapes the Patriots used were eventually destroyed, meaning that we will never know what happened. Only Paul Tagliabue, Bill Belichick, and the guy filming the Spygate tapes will ever really know to what extent the Patriots gained an advantage on their opposition during the 2001 NFL Season. And that sense of not knowing does not sit well- it breeds a sense of distrust.

But with Calciopoli, we know exactly what happened, because Italian football conducted a full investigation, with a fair amount of transparency. The Italian national sports newspaper, La Gazzetta Dello Sport, covered the story for months, making sure the public knew every last detail, as it came to light, about what these teams were doing.

I think also having some distance from the events and perpetrators of Calciopoli helps as well. Nearly everyone involved in the scandal has left Italian football, and Juventus had several years in the wilderness. Luciano Moggi, the man at Juventus who engineered the system, is banned from football for life. Now Juventus have been at the top of Serie A every season since 2012. But those who designed the match-fixing have left the club. Any residual hatred of Juventus is likely tied to them being successful, and not as a result of their cheating, or of a conspiratorial belief that Juventus is still cheating.

While the perpetrators in Italian football were banned, Belichick and co. are still with the Patriots and winning championships. The residual distaste for their success (as comes with any successful franchise) is bolstered by a sense that we don’t know to what extent they have cheated, so they still may be cheating. There is no evidence for this sentiment. It is only a feeling. The success of the Patriots since Spygate or Deflategate is not evidence of their cheating. Only the Spygate tapes and the texts Tom Brady and his equipment managers traded serve as evidence of their cheating.

Do we need to move past all of this and embrace the Patriots? No. I do not feel so. They do not feel the need to be embraced, or at least, certainly Belichick does not feel the need to be loved by the masses.

But do we need to at least acknowledge that the achievements of the Patriots are more earned than stolen, and ignore sentiments to the contrary? Yes, because we have no evidence to anything else. Five championships with the opportunity for another is bound to lead to hatred from rivals. It is a bitter, arsenic-laden pill for this tired Jets fan to swallow. But in the interests of being free from as much delusion as possible, we have to admit the merits of the New England Patriots. Just as equally as I admire Italian football, I can admire the achievements of Belichick and Brady.

Tales from the Shtetl: Why Root For Bad Teams?

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I have a coworker named Laura, who is a truly compelling person. She recently graduated with an MBA, is exceptionally gregarious, comes from a large Irish Catholic family, and is brilliant with children. She taught me the phrase and mindset, “set the child up for success.” She is also (perhaps ironically considering the mantra that she gave me) a Cleveland Browns fan. There are untold numbers of otherwise unique and complete people who also spend their time and energy following, supporting, and watching bottom-dwelling franchises.

This is a topic that has confounded me for some time: why do people invest their energy in teams that disappoint them? I had my own hypothesis, but I also asked Laura why she roots for the Browns. “It’s part of my identity,” she said. “Cleveland is my hometown, I’m not going to root for anyone else, and I want to have pride in where I come from. Even if the team is bad, the Browns are still a part of me.”

This sentiment about maintaining a sense of pride in one’s hometown through local sports was echoed by my friend Doug, a Redskins fan. I asked him why he stayed a Redskins fan despite their franchise problems. “I’m very much still a DC-first person at heart…. A lot of it just ties to the fact that I’m a native of the city and I always want to see the teams of this area win. And get the people from here some good times. Especially when we have such a unique status and culture between a predominantly black city and a city with no congressional representation.”

I think of myself, as a Jets fan. I was born in upstate New York, and my father was a Jets fan. We moved to Maryland when I was young, just as I was starting to become interested in sports. And despite the franchise’s incompetence over the past 45 years or so, I can look to the bond I have with my family, galvanized by our shared fandoms, as a source of pride. We feel that our fandom is a special relationship. And it is. It sets me apart, in a smaller minority, from all the Redskins fans and Giants fans and Cowboys fans and Steelers fans in the DC intake of people from all across America. I have a tie to a team with a smaller portion of the fandom market. It allows the failings of the Jets to get overlooked, when compared to the failings of the bigger teams.

I look at the way the Redskins treat their fans and the media, and think, “well, at least my team isn’t THAT bad.” My friend Doug put his relationship to the Redskins’ management woes succinctly: “I root for them to more and more begrudging levels when we consider the racist name, abhorrent owner, and incompetent management. It’s to the point where I root from them with a little more distance between myself and them.” But if I am honest with myself, I have no knowledge if the Jets’ management on a day-to-day level are as bad as the Redskins, since I get to keep their failings at a distance. I root for the team, but I need not consume all the information about them. I get to maintain the sense of loyalty and identity from a safe distance, at an intensity level that is comfortable for me. That is a relatively low intensity level, as I have little expectation of the Jets winning a Super Bowl in the near future. But it does not hurt to dream.

If fandom is, at its most extreme, about identity (and not necessarily about the team and its success) then one’s fandom, as a byproduct of where an individual comes from, is a core part of one’s identity. Moreover, if one’s team is bad, then all the fans of that team who remain are compelled by a sense of loyalty. To leave when the team is at its most vulnerable would be disloyalty, and a departure from the fanbase. One would lose a small part of their identity. And those who stay, may generate the benefits of loyalty through difficult times: a sense of superiority over those fans who have left, and over those fans who bandwagon upon other teams. This sense of moral superiority is only bolstered by a Messianic hope of a change in fortune for the team.

But this is just my thought experiment about the possibilities of what Laura told me. I’m not sure any fan would tell anyone else, to their face, that they possess a moral superiority because they are loyal. However, in light of our political times, we must be keen upon the depths to which identity affects us as individuals. How we hold these aspects of identity so dear, how they are expressed in our values. Fandom, increasingly, is a representation of our identity, alongside religion, race, and class, because it can reflect all of these markers of identity, as well as where we come from and where we live.

I would not overstate the role of fandom within identity- fandom is not universal to everyone. But to be a fan of a bad team, just as being a bandwagon fan, is an action related to an expression of a particular set of values. If we think critically about the way we support our teams, about our relationship to them from the point of view as fans, I believe that we can learn much more about ourselves in the process.