Thursday, September 5, 2013

First. Podcast. Ever.

Yes, you read that right--we're on the air! Ok, not really, not live, but hey, my good buddy Mason and I recorded a whole 70 minutes (80 with music breaks) of sports talk. Click here:

Not perfect by any means, but it's a start, and we'll hope to improve on that stuff as the fall goes on. I'll give you a rundown as best I can (these are de-facto chapter marks, not the actual length of the segments):

04:20--College football opening weekend review
18:25--Homerism/announcer favoritism on broadcasts
26:50 MLB pennant race
45:10 Survivor Football picks
52:10 Sports Media picks of the week
1:03:50 NBA League Pass picks
1:12:50 Mike Budenholzer situation
1:20:30 Closing thought on NFL Concussion Lawsuit/"League of Denial"

Twitter Links

Tyler: @SpringsOnSports
Tyler's Survivor Football Pick of the Week: Houston over San Diego
Tyler's Sports Media Pick of the Week:

Mason: @masbury12
Mason's Survivor Football Pick of the Week: Indianapolis over Oakland
Mason's Sports Media Pick of the Week:

Kevin (guest): @mcduffin_cheese
Kevin's Survivor Football Pick of the Week: Miami over Cleveland
Kevin's Sports Media Pick of the Week:

Andrew (guest): @NaturalSprings

This Week's Closing Thought: League of Denial & NFL Concussion Lawsuit
If you believe in coincidence, you might believe that the NFL settling its $765 million dollar concussion lawsuit with 4500 former players last week merely happened to come one week after ESPN, the NFL’s right hand, backed away from an official partnership with PBS on a forthcoming documentary about the concussion issue. You might also have once believed that Santa Claus shows up on Christmas and gifts tend to appear under your evergreen tree shortly thereafter; for that, you would be forgiven. But make no mistake here: these were not events with mutually exclusive outcomes. To allow that documentary, entitlted, “League of Denial,” to be brought to television in October during an ongoing lawsuit would be toxic to the league’s credibility on health issues and potentially impactful with regard to in-season ratings. With ESPN’s stamp on its information and PBS Frontline’s renowned journalistic integrity and editorial control, there would very likely have been no more room for the League to dodge the important questions concerning its former players and how much or how little they have been compensated for the damage to their health caused by a career of subjecting one’s head to thousands of pounds of force with great regularity. So the NFL did what it tends to do: it leaned on the right people, and in doing so, saved itself a lot of trouble. Let’s not forget that the NFL is a non-profit organization, and it would have an awful lot to answer for if we suddenly decided that it was responsible to us, citizens of the United States, based on the fact that it refused to acknowledge that the nature of its game inevitably caused damage to its participants. No, the NFL likes the idea of coincidence: concussions, CTE, ALS, Alzheimer’s and dementia, after all, just happened to befall many a man who played football. Unfortunate, but just a coincidence, wouldn’t you say?

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Don't quit on me yet!

I know I said I'd have a post up by Monday, and it wasn't for lack of trying. I've got an 80 minute podcast recorded and saved on my computer, I just haven't been able to get it to uploaded on SoundCloud. I'm at work now, but I'm gonna keep trying, should have it up by tomorrow. Thanks for your patience!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Back in business this weekend!

Yes, I know, it's been far too long since the last time I posted, but I do have good news: I'm starting up again this weekend, and in a big way! Besides a bit of writing, there's gonna be a post on Sunday or Monday that includes the FIRST EVER Springs on Sports podcast (with a special guest, no less)! College football, NFL concussions, and lots more on tap--heads up!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Non-Sports Post: Dr. J on Memphis and the Grizzlies

Like many other people in this town, I had to smile last night as I watched the Memphis Grizzlies advance to the NBA's Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history. It took a long time for the Grizz to get where they are now, and almost anybody you pass on the street would tell you exactly how hard-earned an achievement it was.

One of those people is Dr. Leigh Johnson, a native Memphian and professor of
philosophy at Rhodes College, a small liberal arts school of about 2,000 students located just a few miles east of downtown proper.  As a recent graduate, I am a bit sad to admit that I never had the pleasure of taking one of her classes, but I know a little bit about Dr. J through her writing. She maintains a blog through which she expounds on a wide range of topics, and last night, she took the time to appreciate the Grizzlies' role as a key cog in the resurgence and emotional renaissance in this much maligned city. I've excerpted her post here, but I encourage anyone trying to understand what the Grizzlies' success means to its fans to read it in full (link below).

From Dr. J:
Memphis could always have done a lot of things easier than we did.  But we've always elected, voluntarily or otherwise, to do it nice and rough.  Why?  Quite simply, because if you go down to the [Mississippi] river, you're gonna find some people who live.  And real living, for the vast majority of us, is hardly ever nice and easy.  There are precious few places in this country where people so deeply and existentially understand that just living is rough-- just getting up every day hoping that it's better than the last, just finding some place to work and to make ends meet, just manufacturing the means to suffer or combat a million both tragic and mundane injustices, just finding a warm (or cool) and safe place to lay your head at night, and just finding some people to eat and laugh and love and dance with while you try to do your best at living.  It's something that requires all the heart, grit and grind a person can muster.
Heart, grit and grind don't pay the bills, though, and I'll be the first of the million Memphians to testify to that. [Tina Turner's] "Proud Mary" says that you don't have to worry 'cause you got no money, people on the river are happy to give. But, truth is, Memphis is poor and not a lot of people have a lot to give.  Memphis has very real and abiding problems with violence and crime.  Memphis is and has always been deeply divided, a microcosm of the very same race and class issues that deeply divide our country as a whole.  Memphis fights with itself, which means that it loses every battle it wins, and wins every battle it loses.  
My dear friend…once told me that "you can't really say that you love a city until it's given you reason not to."  Of course, I know of all the reasons that people say that Memphis is unlovable. And they have no idea the love they're missing out on by not believing in this underdog."  
I've always been an unapologetic fan of the underdog… [and] I'm a self-appointed ambassador for Memphis. Locals will tell you, sometimes with gratitude and sometimes with exasperation, that Memphis is a place that won't let you go, keeps bringing you back, whether you want it to or not.  
Given the right conditions, which have only just arrived, Memphis has more to give than anyone ever imagined. And I'm even less surprised that, as we say here, ERRYBODY is jumping on board.
Welcome aboard the Memphis bandwagon, y'all.  The most soulful, passionate, crazy, infectious, tasty, libidinous, musical, gritty and, to be honest, sexiest wagon around.
Full post here:

I recognize that the Grizzlies are just a sports team, and if they were not a good team, as they were for a long time, their existence wouldn't mean much to Memphis. That said, their success is a beacon for all of the people in this town, and Dr. J does well to get at that feeling, one that's so palpable this week.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Media Monitor: How ESPN May Have Unintentionally Exposed Incompetence at UCLA after the Steve Alford hiring

UCLA hired Steve Alford to be its next mens basketball coach yesterday, and the move has been met with mixed reactions from industry observers. According to
New UCLA head coach Steve Alford can bring the
Bruins back to the highest heights, but how will his
style of roundball play in Westwood? (Photo from
ESPN college basketball writer Jason King, Alford is "the right fit," someone who is "capable of bringing [the luster] back" to the once-great-now-struggling program. Others, like Mark Whicker of the Orange County Register, are not impressed by "the spectacularly mixed bag [of success] he brings to Westwood." A particular point of contention in the argument seems to be the on-floor philosophy that Alford favors. In addition to the needless-to-say goal of winning a national championship, there are also concerns about whether or not an Alford-coached team will draw greater attendance to Pauley Pavilion than the squads of recent years.

From ESPN's Andy Katz, who reported on the UCLA hiring:

"[UCLA athletic director Dan] Guerrero made it clear that he wanted to have a coach who played an exciting style, would help fill the seats at Pauley Pavilion and represented the university and student-athletes well. Alford has a good chance to make all of that happen if he coaches in a similar fashion at UCLA as he did at New Mexico.

'Steve is the perfect fit for UCLA… and brings an up-tempo and team-oriented brand of basketball to Westwood,' Guerrero said."

Glossing over what exactly Katz means by "if [Alford] coaches in a similar fashion at UCLA as he did at New Mexico," Guerrero's statement comes with a very big red-flag that is visible if one merely takes a moment to probe it.

From ESPN LA writer Peter Yoon:

"[Alford is] also a defensive-minded coach who isn’t known for lighting up scoreboards. New Mexico was No. 172 in the nation in scoring this season with 67.4 points per game, so if it’s an entertaining, wide-open style you’re looking for, Alford won’t be bringing it. "
Assuming the stat Yoon cites is correct, the scoring numbers of Alford's squad this season rank about halfway down the list of the 347 basketball teams in the NCAA's Division I. That sounds more like middle-of-the-road than leader-of-the-pack. And that's not all.

As pointed out in a Tweet by Yahoo! Sports blogger Jeff Eisenberg that was quoted on, the notion of an "up-tempo" offense doesn't jive with New Mexico ranking 239th in the country in possessions per 40 minutes in 2013.

I would not characterize myself as someone who knows a great deal about
UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero has some
explaining to do. (Photo from
basketball, but when I read about a team characterized as "up-tempo" in one place and "defensive-minded" in another place, alarms begin to sound in my head (especially knowing UNM's ho-hum scoring average). Those terms aren't usually found in one team's description, unless maybe we're talking about the "Havoc"-wreaking VCU teams coached by Shaka Smart that make their hay by forcing turnovers. Stats are all well and good, but they don't always tell the whole story, so I wanted to try to understand Alford's scheme at UNM a bit better before deciding whether the stats belied the team's actual objectives and abilities. I've seen New Mexico on television maybe twice this year, so I don't have a great grasp on their playing style, but I was curious to know how the man UCLA hired could really build a team that is both fast-paced and stout on defense.

[All of this, of course, makes no judgment on whether or not an "up-tempo" brand of basketball is "an exciting style [that] would help fill the seats at Pauley Pavilion." Winning should bring fans regardless, and if it doesn't, there's a bigger problem afoot in L.A.]

If you Google "steve alford offense," there are a number of prominent search results:

1) A page on describes Alford's "2 Out 3 In Motion Offense" as a "unique" system that "allows the post area to become open for isolation plays and opens up dribble penetration and backdoor cut plays." Even I know that nobody gets backdoor-cut into oblivion on a regular basis, especially not in a power conference. (Spoiler alert: How many times has John Thompson III's Princeton-style offense taken Georgetown to the Final Four? Once in nine years? That's what I thought.)

2) touts a DVD that features Alford's instructions on a "cutting and screening motion offense." The synopsis of the DVD says that "Benefits of motion offense are shot quality, low turnovers…and getting to the free throw line." The goals of these tactics are said to be "easy baskets, open shots and free throw attempts," all of which sound like the objectives of a conservative team that doesn't shoot particularly well and picks its spots carefully.

3) An analysis of the 2-Out/3-In Offense on notes that "the offense does not lend itself well to the fast break…Teams that employ this offense will want to avoid getting into high-scoring games and instead focus on wearing down the opponent."

The three links above took fairly little time to find, and if you're a Bruin fan, that ought to have you concerned. The evidence is clear, at least at first glance, that Guerrero either failed to research the kind of tactics Alford will use in Westwood, or that he lied about such tactics to the school's fanbase, or that he simply confused them for the tactics of another potential coach that he might have researched in the process. Any way you slice it, Guerrero's apparent inability to grasp Alford's methods (an admission embarrassingly and unwittingly made in print for everyone to see) does not speak well for his capacity to adequately steer a coaching search or evaluate candidates.

I am sure it was not ESPN's intention to make Guerrero look bad, and quite honestly, they didn't. Katz was quoting what had already been said, and Yoon was merely providing a statistic on recent performance, but when the two pieces are juxtaposed, it is very easy to draw a logical conclusion. That's good journalism, I think--though some people believe that journalists have an axe to grind which guides their reporting, this case is proof that more often than not, a public figure only has themselves to blame if they have egg on their face in the news.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Real Quick: Rhodes College baseball photos

Two weekends ago, I traveled to Atlanta to watch the Rhodes College baseball team play a three-game series against Oglethorpe University. I was fortunate enough to be allowed to watch the games from the dugout and to spend time with the Rhodes players off the field during team meals. I took a lot of photos from my phone, so the quality of the whole set isn't spectacular, but I've put most of my candid shots into a Google photo gallery that can be accessed here.

My feature article on the baseball team came out in the March edition of the school's student newspaper (printed today), and I'll post a few notebook-style observations here that didn't make the final draft of the feature. If you're a baseball fan, you'll be interested in this brief sub-surface look at a D3 team. Enjoy.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Memphis Grizzlies’ owners: “We have a greater opportunity than ever before”

If you’re looking for a snapshot of what the Memphis Grizzlies’ future holds, just ask minority-share owner Duncan Williams. He’ll paint you a picture. 

“We’re going into [the Grizzlies’] 12th year [in Memphis], and I have a nine-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter,” Williams said on Tuesday. “And I can tell you, they don’t buy any jerseys except Grizzlies jerseys.” 

Williams’ anecdote highlights the two-fold impact of Memphis’ only professional sports team in a light-hearted but enlightening way. Since moving east from Vancouver in 2001, the Grizzlies organization has woven itself into the fabric of the Bluff City in a way that outshines traditional standbys like Ole Miss and Tennessee football, and even, in some ways, Memphis Tigers basketball.

“Being a sports fan and a longtime Memphian, I can’t think of any better thing to be involved in,” minority-share owner Edward Dobbs said.

On the court, the franchise has risen from the dregs of the NBA barrel to earn playoff appearances in each of the previous two seasons. Off the court, the organization and its charitable foundation were recognized internationally by Beyond Sport as “Sport Team of the Year” for 2012, a testament to the depth of the team’s commitment to serving its community.

Earning the honor of 'Sport Team of the Year' is not easily done—it took a lot of hard work, and at least one of the Grizzlies new minority-share owners recognized that much of that effort had already been put in before they came on the scene last November.

“We were very fortunate, in coming in as a new ownership group, that we had a team that had a real identity,” Jason Levien said. In addition to having a stake in the team, Levien is also the Grizzlies’ CEO.

“They called it ‘grit and grind’: it’s about winning, selflessness, putting the team first… Our motivation is about winning, about sustained success, about having the kind of players that make this community proud, having the kind of team that makes this community proud, and doing things on and off the court which reflect positively on Memphis. We think we’re headed in that direction, and we feel very excited about it.”

Williams, Dobbs, Levien and former Grizzlies guard Elliot Perry spoke to a lunchtime crowd of a few hundred on Tuesday at the Holiday Inn on Poplar Avenue. The New Memphis Institute, as part of their “Celebrate What’s Right” lecture series, sponsored the luncheon panel of minority-share owners. Grizzlies Charitable Foundation director Jenny Koltnow moderated the discussion, and AutoZone founder Pitt Hyde, another Grizzlies stake-holder, provided the opening remarks.

“We have a greater opportunity than ever before,” Hyde said of the team’s ability to have success and affect change in the city. “It is important to all of us to make sure every seat is filled—it’s important for our image, it’s important to the team to show your support. As business people or people involved in any part of our city, you can always buy tickets, whether you’re a basketball fan or not. Give them to customers, give them to friends, go yourself—I think you’ll find that it’s easy to get addicted to the Grizzlies.”

As Perry pointed out, the addiction is sometimes a two-way street for Grizzlies players.

“What is a little bit unusual about this team is, I played on many teams in the NBA, and the players [on those teams] were not this engaged in the community,” the former University of Memphis star said. “You would have one, maybe two players who realized how to use that platform, but we can go down the list of seven, eight, nine guys who are really engaged in this community.”

That community, by the way, is growing. Levien noted that the team has recently expanded its broadcast radius into Nashville and Little Rock in order to solidify the Grizzlies’ presence as “the team of the Mid-South.” Additionally, the gameday experience at FedExForum is also being improved in a variety of ways to make sure ticket sales can be maintained and (hopefully) increased.

“One thing we really want to do is create a more exciting [game] experience,” Levien said. “Folks come to the game for two-and-a-half hours, and we want to have a better dining experience [for them]. We spend a lot of hours talking about that – what food options there are, what kind of entertainment there is for kids and families that are coming to games. We’re spending time looking at all those things to improve the quality so that we can be an even bigger and better asset for the community.”

As far as progress on the court, Levien and Perry both feel that the Grizzlies have improved their stock through recent trades.

“We feel as though, with the moves we made in the past month, we’ve added substance here,” Levien said. “We got a player in Tayshaun Prince who won an NBA championship [with the Detroit Pistons in 2004]. We got a young player we’re very excited about, Ed Davis, who is a terrific guy to watch because he’s such a great athlete, a young guy who we think is on the way up in his career. He won an NCAA championship at the University of North Carolina [in 2009]. We got a very strong outside shooter, a guy who I think has a lot upside as well, in Austin Daye.”

“I’m very optimistic about the team,” Perry said. “It’s always hard when you trade a guy like Rudy Gay, given that he was such an instrumental part of the team. I think the sky is the limit for him and he really will flourish in Toronto, but ultimately I know that if anything happens here, we have a good enough team [to withstand that adversity].”

Asked about the long-term methods for keeping the team competitive, Levien emphasized the use of advanced statistics to evaluate the team, seizing on a trend which has quickly infiltrated the NBA after being incubated in Major League Baseball over the last two decades. Recently-hired vice president of basketball operations of John Hollinger is someone Levien considers “a founding father of basketball analytics” because of Hollinger's innovative work on hoops statistics while at ESPN, and his presence in the front office, along with new director of player personnel and basketball development Stu Lash, should be a boon to general manager Chris Wallace. Levien also mentioned the creation of a decision-making system which will help guard against the kind of ill-advised, panic-stricken transactions that are too often made right on the heels of a bad loss, a devastating player injury or an ugly statistical report.

Dobbs, one of the latest additions to the minority-share ownership group, said that his initial meeting with Levien was all he needed to hear to be sure the team was on the right track.

“When I first met with Jason, I was really struck by his vision of what the team was going to be, not only from the standpoint of wins and losses, but what the team was going to be in the community and to the fans and people coming to games,” Dobbs said. “When you put all of those things together, it was almost like I couldn’t say no [to having an ownership stake].”

“I’m thrilled to be part of it. It really is a dream come true.”

What are your thoughts on the Grizzlies' prospects this season and in coming years? In what ways have you seen them benefit the Memphis community? Feel free to comment below.

[Photo caption: Edward Dobbs, center, a minority-share owner in the Grizzlies, talks about his involvement in the team as part of the New Memphis Institute's "Celebrate What's Right" luncheon at the Holiday Inn on Poplar Avenue.]

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Mark Emmert, John Feinstein, Harvey Specter, and the future of the NCAA

In a column dated February 20th, Washington Post writer John Feinstein decried the NCAA's shameful inability to police itself while fighting a losing battle against corruption in revenue-earning sports like football and men's basketball. The key points of Feinstein's criticism are well made, and they gave me pause for a moment to consider the lengths to which a wide-reaching governing body has been forced to go in order to maintain control. 
What do Harvey Specter and Julie Roe Lach have
in common? Maybe more than you think.

Feinstein called the debacle "Keystone Kops vs. Inspector Clouseau." To me, it looks a lot like the plot arc of season 2 of Suits. The frequent assaults on an organization's integrity have made it weak, and some of the people in charge of holding the line feel compelled to use under-the-table tactics to preserve what they have. Julie Roe Lach is go-getter Harvey Specter, and Mark Emmert is law-conscious head honcho Jessica Pearson.

If you're a fan of the show, think about it, and you may find the analogy not so far gone. The rising tide of illegal benefits provided by success-hungry boosters, opportunistic agents and others trying to make a buck off of collegiate athletics has backed the NCAA into a corner from which it can see little daylight.

What is upsetting is not that that one official was willing to sacrifice cash to know the truth (always a bad proposition), but rather that the choice to do so seemed like the most effective one available. We have reached a boiling point beyond which it may be impossible to realistically supervise and appropriately punish all of the schools that commit these violations.

Feinstein asks "What can be done?"

His article provides, directly and indirectly, three potential options for reeling in a system gone haywire. I’ll detail them here and provide a little of my own perspective on his suggestions:

1) Have the NCAA retake control of football conferences, hypothetically beginning with the 2014 football season. The license given to conference commissioners over the terms of the previous two NCAA presidents, Feinstein argues, have allowed control of the college football landscape to pass from its primary governing body to individual leagues. The compacting conference structures have wielded unchecked power over universities eager to find ways to pay for (and thereby continue) their non-revenue sports; however, a freeze on conference structures would give everyone a little more stability in the short term and allow administrators time to thoroughly evaluate what league they would really fit into and why. Feinstein glosses over this option because he probably does not believe it is not viable: the present structure is seems too expansive to overhaul in that way. Here's an excerpt from his column:
“If the NCAA controlled football and if there were rules in place that prevented schools from jumping conferences haphazardly, the current chaos would never have started.

A private organization has a right to make rules. If the members agree to those rules, they must follow them.

If rules existed making it impossible for any school to change conference affiliation without approval from an outside committee, the lawsuits presidents might threaten in order to jump from, say, the ACC to the Big Ten, would be meaningless.”

2) Consider the Mike Krzyzewski "have/have not" plan, where multiple organizations govern different spheres of college athletics based on whether or not the sport of note makes money (or fails to). Coach K’s idea, as quoted by Feinstein, involves “an organization that does what’s best for college football, one that does what’s best for [men’s] college basketball and one that does what’s best for non-revenue sports.” Given his experience, I tend to respect Krzyzewski’s ideas, though not every coach-recommended idea is a good one (see the recent proposal to accelerate the NBA draft deadline). However, I am curious as to whether having just two organizations, one to oversee basketball/football and one for other collegiate sports, could still be effective.

In thinking that through, I recognize Coach K’s point that “the needs of each are too different for us to keep acting like they’re the same thing;” in light of the fiasco at hand, the bar for properly overseeing football and basketball, to say nothing of 37 other NCAA sports, looks impossibly high. The goal is to be more effective in enforcement, but do you really need to dissolve the entire NCAA to do that? Maybe so—after all, today’s world is one of specialization. But couldn’t there be a revenue-earning division and a non-revenue earning division of one organization? If it were just a two-pronged operation (in terms of enforcement), different sports could have the opportunity to move between the revenue and non-revenue divisions depending on their financial viability (which we can’t truly predict at this juncture). I’m just posing the idea here.

3) Feinstein’s “First, we eliminate all the presidents” plan, whereby each sport gets its own commissioner, “someone who is of the sport and from the sport and familiar with the particular needs and nuances of [it].” Personnel-wise, this makes sense: currently, “seventeen of the 20 members of the NCAA executive council are either college presidents or chancellors,” men who Feinstein characters as “lack[ing] a sophisticated understanding of all of the forces at work in modern athletics.” That said, if “the presidents should be completely removed from the process except (perhaps) to help in fundraising at their schools,” you can see the knee-jerk backlash headline coming from a mile away: “College sports now governed by National Coalition Against Academics,” or some form of wordplay better than my own. It could potentially erode public trust in amateur athletics—yes, beyond its current strained status—and precipitate, in the worst scenario, an ill-advised Congressional intervention (heaven forbid) on behalf of the presidents.

I am not saying that changing the NCAA leadership to a more athletics-oriented set of officials is a bad thing—indeed, it may be the right thing to do. But you can’t knock out all of the presidents without some eyebrows being raised. Keep a few of them, maybe five or eight, just so that there is some semblance. A new executive council in that mold would have to withstand a fair amount of criticism in the early going, but over time it could very well prove to be the right group to legislate and supervise collegiate athletics in the 21st century.

What do you think the NCAA should do? Feel free to comment?


Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Top 5 Sports Movies You Need to See (Or See Again)

It is, again, that time of year where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—and, honestly, all of Hollywood—thinks they get to tell us what is worth our time and what is not. In light of that observation, I decided I would do something unusual (for me) and make a list of my own. Mind you, I do not enjoy this sort of piggybacking-on-the-hype, but every now and then, I let myself to do it. 

I have seen plenty of sports movies, and there are have real merit which don’t get enough publicity. I will not claim to have seen every worthwhile sports movie out there, but I am going to list here a few that are a) recent, and b) undoubtedly deserving of your time.

But first, a disclaimer.

Let’s be real: everyone loves Remember the Titans, MiracleThe Rookie, and Friday Night Lights (I mean the movie, though the TV show certainly has its loyal brood of fans). We love these mostly because they are stories of heroism or agony that are based in fact, even though we are aware that the producers probably took license with some of the details. As for fiction, personal tastes vary. Depending on your favorite sport, you may spend the occasional Saturday morning re-watching the Mighty Ducks trilogy, the Major League series, or even the Bring It On or Air Bud franchises (for which the “sports movie” categorization is highly questionable). In the list that follows, I will do my best to include movies that don’t fall under either the heading “I will watch that anytime” or “Oh, look what ABC Family has on at midnight! Let me grab a Coke, I can stay up.” Additionally, the ESPN 30-for-30 documentary series has been declared ineligible here because of the overarching quality of those films.

So, without further ado, the best five sports movies that you really ought to see:

Warrior (2011) 
Directed by Gavin O’Connor
Written by O’Connor (story/screenplay), Cliff Dorfman (story/screenplay) and Anthony Tambakis (screenplay)
Notable Actors: Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, Nick Nolte, Jennifer Morrison

Before they appeared in The Dark Knight Rises and Zero Dark Thirty respectively, Hardy and Edgerton gave truly gritty performances in Warrior as brothers separated by circumstance who end up entering the same mixed martial arts (MMA) tournament by chance. Hardy plays a Marine gone AWOL whose training helps him stay sober, and Edgerton plays a debt-plagued teacher who sees the tournament as way to finally get his family out from under the bank’s thumb.

Warrior is popular with a lot of the under-30 crowd, but it would probably resonate with older folks as well, given how much it deals with supporting one’s family and battling inner demons. The fight scenes are as authentic as you can get in a fictional film—according to IMDB, both Hardy and Edgerton were seriously injured during production because of the brutal violence involved. I am not an MMA fan myself, but the narrative of sacrifice, triumph, dedication and family bonds is so compelling in Warrior that they could have been competitive gymnasts and I still would have watched. I genuinely felt for all of the four main characters at the end, and any film that can make a person feel that way deserves a DVD rental.

He Got Game (1998) 
Directed by Spike Lee
Written by Spike Lee
Notable Actors: Denzel Washington, Milla Jovovich, John Tuturro, Ray Allen

Lee may be better known for directing Washington in Malcolm X, Mo’ Better Blues or even Inside Man, but the pair are just as good in this basketball-centric drama about a convict who must try to convince his blue-chip prospect son to play hoops for the governor’s alma mater. The realities of the college recruiting process are shown at their extremes, and while the circumstances may seem exceptional, the message is not: He Got Game sounds like a prescient “cautionary tale” about how far people will go to ensure the profit-minded success that is fueled by collegiate athletics. Forgiveness, trust and the complicated bonds between parents, coaches, and kids are all issues highlighted in the film. Allen gives a very reasonable performance for an athlete with only a small amount of actor training, and Washington is his tried-and-true hard-shell self with a glimmer of inner compassion. The diversity of characters, as in Lee’s other movies, makes this movie engaging beyond the hoops narrative.

Undefeated (2011)
Directed by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin
*Won the 2012 Oscar for Best Documentary

Mostly on the basis of one article written by reporter Jason Smith (who I mentioned in my previous post), Lindsay and Martin decided to move to Memphis for one year to document the life of O.C. Brown, a talented offensive lineman at Manassas (Tenn.) High who was struggling to improve his grades to be eligible for a college football scholarship. Though the design of their original idea had commonalities with the storyline of “The Blind Side,” Lindsay and Martin’s scope grew when they found out that Manassas had never even won a playoff game.

Despite the widespread poverty affecting the school’s surrounding neighborhoods and facilities, a dearth of athletic talent, and the incredible circumstances that befall the team before the season starts—two starting players shot, one starter arrested—volunteer coach Bill Courtney refuses to allow his team to give in to the hardships of living under duress. Lindsay and Martin take care to document every high and low of the Manassas season, including the stories of violent linebacker Chavis Daniels, fatherless lineman Montrail Brown and the talented-but-undisciplined O.C. Brown, tying them all together through the leadership demonstrated by Courtney under impossible circumstances. What follows is a tale as incredible any “Cinderella” story from the NCAA basketball tournament, except that most of these men and boys will never be recognized under the bright lights of college athletics. I have not shed tears of joy or sadness for any movie in a long time, but I did both while watching this film unfold in the theater. It is an incredible journey that makes you appreciate the perseverance of humankind and the unspoken love that teammates and coaches hold in reserve for one another when “the going gets tough.”

Finding Forrester (2000)
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Written by Mike Rich
Notable Actors: Rob Brown, Sean Connery, Anna Paquin, F. Murray Abraham

Here’s another basketball movie that is about much more than basketball. With an intricately woven plot that brings much more to the table than one would expect, Finding Forrester focuses on the relationship that develops by happenstance between reclusive author William Forrester (Connery) and high schooler Jamal Wallace (Brown). Wallace, an aspiring but undisciplined student, comes under Forrester’s tutelage after the writer catches him trying to burglarize Forrester’s apartment when dared. Wallace inadvertently leaves his backpack, and when it is dropped down to the street unceremoniously from Forrester’s apartment window, Wallace finds that Forrester has taken to editing the journals in Wallace’s backpack, critiquing the boy’s writing. What follows that strange start is a meandering chronicle of Wallace’s first year at a prestigious New York prep school, where he plays basketball very well and improves his writing with Forrester’s help. It is only months later, when Wallace is accused of plagiarism and on the verge of being expelled from school, that he figures out where exactly basketball falls on his list of priorities (and on the school’s list).

In his debut performance, Rob Brown does well across from a giant like Connery; despite starring in the ESPN-made biopic The Express and taking supporting roles in Coach Carter and The Dark Knight Rises, Brown remains one of the most untapped young actors of the current age. As much a tale of growing up as of basketball, Finding Forrester makes a point of challenging its characters’ integrity and confounding the stereotypical perceptions that they have of each other.

Cinderella Man (2005)
Directed by Ron Howard
Written by Cliff Hollingsworth (story/screenplay) and Akiva Goldsman (screenplay)
Notable Actors: Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger, Paul Giamatti

Many men saw unfathomable lows during the Great Depression, but James Braddock is one of the few who truly rebounded from rock bottom, riding nothing but a strong pair of hands and unshakable determination. For all that we hear about the great boxing legacies of Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali, Braddock’s story might be the most improbable of the three, a man who had to temporarily retire from the sport due to inescabable poverty and painful injuries before being given a random chance to resurrect his career. Zellweger and Crowe are genuinely frustrated as a pair who love each other but can’t stand the things that their circumstances have forced them to do, and Giamatti’s turn as loyal trainer Joe Gould is a beacon to all who have ever had an intense belief in themselves and others but not had the courage to see it through. Generosity, courage, humility and the luck of the draw all play a part in this plot, one which will remain an example of American diligence in the face of long odds for decades to come.

Honorable Mention: Space Jam (1996)
Directed by Joe Pytka
Written by Leo Benvenuti, Steve Rudnick, Timonthy Harris and Herschel Weingrod
Notable Actors: Michael Jordan, Bill Murray, Wayne Knight, Charles Barkley

OK, so Space Jam isn’t really in the same league as the previous five, but it was a lot of fun for those of us who were appropriately aged at the time of its release. Factor in the preposterous box score of the Monstars-Looney Tunes matchup, the cute-as-a-button scenes with Michael Jordan’s kids interacting with everyone’s favorite cartoons (spoiler alert: they are not his real-life children), and the surprising amicability of Jordan throughout the movie (especially considering what we know about him now), and you would have to agree that Space Jam is a pretty remarkable B-movie. And who could forget the soundtrack! Probably not worth buying on pay-per-view unless you have kids, but it is definitely up there along with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in terms of movies that do their best to mesh 2-D characters with human actors. 

So what movies do you think are watching again and again? Comment below if you feel compelled.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

“Meet the Press” panel wrap: Memphis media figures encourage next generation

If at any point in the last few years you have asked the question “What good is journalism anymore?’, you ought to know that you are not alone. In fact, it is a question that journalists themselves ponder a lot, and they have strong answers to support their ideas.

L-R: Jason Smith, Richard Thompson, Michelle Diament, Brooke
Thomas, Louis Goggans, Wendi C. Thomas.
On Tuesday afternoon, a number of prominent Memphis journalists convened in the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library for a “Meet the Press” session with high school and college journalism students. The event helped kick off the Scholastic Journalism Week initiative of the Journalism Education Association, a non-profit organization that supports journalism teachers and advisers nationwide.

“Scholastic Journalism Week is a time to recognize journalism at high school and college levels,” panel moderator Otis Sanford said. “I worked at daily newspapers [including The Commercial Appeal] for 35 and a half years, and I still believe that there is plenty of passion in journalism.”

The panel of six journalists represented a variety of ages and positions, from veteran Commercial Appeal columnist Wendi C. Thomas to youthful FOX13-TV news anchor Brooke Thomas (no relation). There was even a reporter who reports on the industry of journalism itself, Mediaverse’s Richard Thompson.  Each of the six panelists found their own way into their field.

Jason Smith, a Commercial Appeal reporter who covers the University of Memphis men’s basketball team, spoke candidly about how he once lost his college scholarship after one semester and spent five years figuring out what to do next.

“You talk about somebody whose life was going nowhere—I was a security guard, I tried construction with my brother… It was about 1999, and I just said, ‘You know what, I don’t like this.’ So I am here as evidence that at any time in your life, you can drop what you are doing. If you want to go in another direction, you can do it.”

Smith, whose father still works as a reporter for FOX13-TV, scratched his own television itch through classes at the U of M before having a professor,  convince him to try the print side of journalism.

“I never thought I was, but he said ‘You’re a decent writer. You know, with newspapers, you get a little bit more of an opportunity to dive into stories. You get a little more time,’” Smith recalled. “And…I believed him. You had inches and inches and inches of newsprint to tell a story, and I thought you could delve into it more.”

For Memphis Flyer reporter Louis Goggans, the journey started much earlier.

“When I was in elementary school, my father purchased for me a 12-month subscription to Vibe, a music and entertainment magazine,” Goggans explained. “I am a big rap music fan…I just read the articles—the way they were so vivid and detailed made me feel like I was right there when they were interviewing the artists. From there, I just developed an interest in print journalism, started reading other magazines, and started writing.”

 “I don’t have a particular beat [with the Flyer], so I write about a wide variety of things, which is kind of my goal,” Goggans said. “I like to branch out and reach a large age range and people of different races, and [my position] provides me the ability to do that.”

Brooke Thomas, the television anchor, said that in spite of her tough schedule, she appreciates the opportunity she has to do what she does.

“I have the most ridiculous hours in the history of working,” Thomas said, laughing. “I get up at 1:30 every morning and try to get to work between 3:15-3:30 a.m.”

In addition to anchoring the 4:30-6 a.m. daily newscasts, Thomas spends another four hours thereafter reporting from the field every day. She usually finishes by 10 a.m.

“Anyone can sit in front of a teleprompter and read…but I think you have to be a good reporter to be a good anchor.  I don’t know which job I like the best,” she said. “I am lucky that I can do both.”

“I feel like my experience shows how much the industry has evolved,” says Michelle Diament, one of three native Memphians on the panel (Smith and Wendi Thomas being the others). Diament is the co-founder of Disability Scoop, the nation’s largest news source covering autism and development disabilities.

“Ten years ago when I was an intern with The Commercial Appeal, I really was adamant that I wasn’t going to do anything with the [World Wide] Web,” she said. “That was not my interest. Today, that’s basically all I do. I think there are a lot of possibilities, and things are kind of settling down after a tumultuous period, but there’s a new door opening with every door that starts to close.”

One of those possibilities is being a watchdog for journalism in a way that simply wasn’t possible before the advent of the Internet. Thompson, who has been writing his Mediaverse posts since leaving The Commerical Appeal in 2006, seeks to provide useful insight into the local news cycle while providing a valuable forum for discussing how news everywhere is shaped.

“People in this town hate the media, but they love it as well—they devour everything [news-wise],” Thompson added. “And because of that, I think the purpose that I serve, and what makes me go forward, is that people need to have access to information about how their news is created and the people who bring them their news.

“Everyone in [this room] produces content. If you have a Facebook page or a Twitter account, you’re a content producer. In many ways, to your friends and family, you are a journalist, even if you don’t view yourself as such. Part of my passion is to help people recognize that they too have a responsibility, as journalists, to the people who they inform, and to help them connect those dots.”

“I can’t really imagine doing anything else,” columnist Wendi Thomas said. “And I am definitely still interested [in what I do]. Things are changing—I am Tweeting as I’m sitting here, posting things online…but we are still storytellers, and that is what I enjoy doing, particularly for stories that are not often told in mainstream media. So I definitely think there is a future [for serious journalism].”

Goggans agreed. “Personally, I feel like, if it wasn’t for journalism, a lot of people out here would be ignorant. We go behind the scenes and disseminate a lot of information that otherwise, people wouldn’t know about. I think that’s cool, that everyday people are reading about things that they wouldn’t otherwise know about. That keeps me pumping.”

The “Meet The Press” panel was organized by The Teen Appeal, a city-wide newspaper produced and written by Memphis high school students eight times a year under the direction of Sanford and others in the Journalism department at the U of M.  For more information on Scholastic Journalism Week, visit For more information on The Teen Appeal, visit  
UPDATE: Louis Goggans actually gave me a shout-out in a post about the event for his "Calling the Bluff" blog over at the Flyer.  I am in his debt for that--it was very kind of him.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

New Bears coach Trestman has to prove staying power

The new coach of the Chicago Bears will have a lot to answer for in 2014. And no, that isn’t a misprint—I said 2014, and I meant it.

As ballyhooed a hire as Marc Trestman has been in the immediate reactions by a variety of outlets (save for the comments from ESPN’s Kevin Seifert, who was evenly feast-or-famine), there are reasons for Bears fans to have concerns about the beyond-immediate future of their offense. Consider Trestman’s tenures with the teams he has coached. Here’s a chart from a post at SB Nation’s Windy City Gridiron by Kay Paradiso that shows his years and offensive ranks as a coordinator in the NFL:

Rushing Yds
Rushing TDs
Passing Yds
Passing TDs
San Francisco
San Francisco

What do you notice about that chart?
1) No team is listed for more than three years.
As Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times notes: Trestman went to the playoffs in his first season with the Browns (1988), 49ers (1995), Lions (1997), Cardinals (1998) and Raiders (2001). He also won a national championship in his first year as quarterbacks coach with the University of Miami (1983) and went to a bowl game in his first season at North Carolina State (2005) and to the Grey Cup in his first season with the Alouettes (2008).” That’s a lot of early successes and quick departures for a guy who’s seen postseason football with eight different teams.  Assistant coaches are often at the mercy of their head coach’s performance and the opportunities offered to them elsewhere, but it’s not unreasonable to ask why he moved around so much before finding what seemed like a long-term fit in the CFL.  Trestman had signed an extension to remain in Montreal through 2016 before being offered the Bears job.

2) The rushing attack for those teams, as measured in yards, only ranked better than 16th-best in one season, and it averaged around 20th.
After signing a four-year, $32 million contract prior to the 2012 season, Matt Forte played much like he has before, rushing for over 1,000 yards and catching 44 passes to rank among the Bears’ top two receivers.  Forte’s reception total was the lowest of his career, but that figure should improve under Trestman. I won’t pretend to be a scholar of the West Coast/Walshian/horizontal attack philosophy, but if yards-after-the-catch is as prominent a goal as it has been for players under Andy Reid, Mike McCarthy, or Mike Holmgren, I agree with Paradiso that Forte and Brandon Marshall ought to have a field day every week.

That being said, it is hard to know how many touches Forte will get on the ground. Potash notes that in 2005, Trestman switched offenses in the middle of the season at N.C. State, a change that turned the 2-4 Wolfpack into a bowl-winning team 7-5 team.   Toney Baker and Andre Brown were the beneficiaries of Trestman’s mov to a run-heavy attack, racking up 1400 yards on 253 carries combined.  However, Trestman’s lead running backs in Montreal have been inconsistent. Although Brandon Whitaker lead the CFL in 2011 with 1,381 yards on 226 carries and former West Virginia stud Avon Cobourne racked up similar totals in 2009, the in-between years didn’t see any Alouettes crack the 1,000-yard mark. Ryan Karhut, a former Alouettes lineman, noted an emphasis on pass protection under Trestman, and it is possible that such focus on passing could come at the expense of brilliant rushing exploits by Forte, who is a talented runner in his own right despite his middle-of-the-road stats.  Forte still has a few more youthful seasons in him before he turns 30, but whether or not the Bears maximize the full complement of his talents will be up to Trestman.      

3) The passing attack, in yards and touchdowns, regressed from season 1 to season 2 in Trestman’s time with Arizona and with Oakland.
Granted, the ’03 season in Oakland was probably doomed once Rich Gannon went down in Week 7 with an injury (though the Raiders had been 2-5 up to that point), and it’s very hard to replicate MVP-and-AFC-championship-caliber numbers with Rick Mirer at the helm (no offense to Rick). Similarly, Jake Plummer missed four games with an injury in the middle of the ’99 season, and Football Outsiders will tell you that the ‘98 Cardinals were a huge statistical anomaly that set far too high a bar for the following year anyway. Still, it’s a tad disconcerting that Jake Plummer’s TD:INT ratio regressed from 17:20 to 9:24 in an encore performance when he threw about 2-3 fewer passes per game than the year before.

In Trestman’s defense, he does sound like a “coachable coach,” someone who tries to adapt to their surroundings to have success. He guided two old quarterbacks, Gannon and the Alouettes’ Anthony Calvillo, to MVP seasons, though the latter was great even before Trestman coached him. Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, Alouettes wideout S.J. Green, and Karhut have all spoken to Trestman’s ability in calling plays and shaping his offensive philosophy around the tools available to him – indeed, his success going from the NFL to the CFL should be evidence enough of that. But for former Oakland Raiders receiver Tim Brown and others skeptical of Trestman’s capacity for managing a locker room, years two and three in Chicago will be the real litmus test for knowing whether Trestman can provide more than flash-in-the-pan success for the Bears.