Friday, July 31, 2015

Media Day

We are nearing August, when football training camp begins in earnest and the Wildcats begin the 2015 season, or as I call it, HATRIBUTION '15.  This week, Big Ten coaches will meet with the media to address hard-hitting questions about whether or not they are excited for football to start.  Big Ten officials will field questions about expansion, because in the rapacious Enormous Ten, the goal is to capture as many television markets as possible in the United States and abroad.  Expect Jim Delany to strut around asking reporters if they had ever seen such a big ten in their lives and who has a bigger ten than him.

Pat Fitzgerald is scheduled to speak Friday.  Those who can't wait can read Skip Myslesnski's interview that addresses the uncertainty on the roster, not only a quarterback but up and down the depth chart.  Fitzgerald doesn't give up much and Myslenski is reigned in instead of the florid, lyrical Myslenski that injects training camp stories with much-needed elements of the introduction to Conan the Barbarian movies.  Though I am writing this before Fitz has spoken, BYCTOM moles have obtained a transcript of his remarks, and he is expected to delight the crowd with references to Our Young Men.
Pat Fitzgerald expects fireworks after last year's revolutionary speech 
when he scandalized the football media by vowing to take things one 
game at a time, drawing heckles from disbelieving football personnel used 
to taking things two or three games at a time. Jerry Kill denounced 
Fitzgerald as a sick, sad man and Kyle Flood leaped through a plate glass 

Yesterday, Illini football coach and man who doesn't need your advice about opening that pickle jar just give him a second ok Tim Beckman spoke to reporters. Let's check in on Beck Man.

Usually, this is a time for Beck Man to stand astride a podium, cape fluttering in the fan he has brought, while he denounces Northwestern and issues boasts and taunts from the anti-Wildcat underground, but this year Beckman immediately found himself dealing with reports about player abuse allegations.  The Chicago Tribune recently spoke to 50 Illini current and former Illini players about the allegations.  It is clear that Beckman will continue to face questions that he'd rather not answer when he should be preparing for a Soldier Field hat defense.

Big Ten media days are a pointless, ridiculous exercise in nonsense.  None of the coaches will say anything particularly noteworthy about his program and none of them want to be there when they could be screaming at teenagers to run into inanimate objects in the sweltering Midwestern sun.  On the other hand, media day means that we draw ever closer to football season and the attendant miseries.   


What happens when a group of race car conman billionaires takes over a sports team, attempts to rocket them to glory, turns into a global cabal of Steinbrenners, and hires someone to film it?  The end result is The Four Year Plan, directed by Mat Hodgson about the rise of Queens Park Rangers to the Premier League.

The film covers the 2007 purchase of Queens Park Rangers by a consortium of billionaires including F1 racing honchos Bernie Ecclestone, Flavio Briatore, and Alejandro Agag and Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, rescuing the club from bankruptcy.  The investors were interested in QPR because of its history (founded in 1882), location in West London, and presumably a whimsical name that brings to mind an ambitious episode of Walker Texas Ranger where he traverses the Atlantic to jump kick English cattle rustlers.  Their goal: to raise QPR from the second-tier Championship to the lucrative Premier League.

FLAVIO: We need to work on our set piece
ECCLESTONE: We should set a piece of this stadium on fire and collect 
the insurance money
BOTH: ho ho ho ho ho ho ho

The face of the operation is Briatore (referred to exclusively in the film by his colleagues and angry, chanting detractors as "Flavio"), an anthropomorphic radish who spends most of his time at QPR plotting to fire all of the managers.  Scandal has dogged Briatore wherever he has gone; he spent several years dodging prison from numerous fraud convictions in Saint Thomas and, if Wikipedia is to be believed, spent portions of the 1980s as an Italian Elmore Leonard character:
In 1986, in Milan, Briatore was sentenced to 3 years for fraud and conspiracy for his role in a team of confidence tricksters who, over a number of years, set up rigged gambling games using fake playing cards. The judges described these as elaborate confidence tricks, in which victims were invited to dinner and then "ensnared" in rigged games that involved a cast of fictional characters and realised enormous profits for their perpetrators.
Hodgson's cameras follow Briatore as he stalks about the club.  He denounces managers as idiots.  He disparages players in the stands with Director of Football Gianni Paladni.  He orders substitutions from the owner's box.  He walks around in hilarious European rich person puffy jackets presumably invented to prevent a disgruntled peasant from stabbing him with the jagged edge of a stale baguette.  Briatore, who goes through no less than five managers in his first two years with the club, comports himself like a ludicrous and incompetent dictator. 
Gianni Paladini enjoys a soccer game. Paladini comes across in the movie as Briatore's lackey, but 
had actually been a powerful agent who had purchased a stake in QPR in 2003. In fact, in 2006, he 
was involved in a bizarre incident where he claimed that a minority owner had hired a gang of "hard men" 
to intimidate him into selling his stake during a match.  You should read that whole article as it is 
completely fucking insane and something that Hodgson doesn't mention at all in the movie.  
Flavio Briatore is the angry man gesturing behind him.
In an related note, that is pretty much how I watch all sporting events

The best part of the movie by far is when QPR fans revolt.  They chant "FUCK FLAVIO."  They angrily sing "we want our Rangers back" to the tune of La Donna e Mobile while scuffling with police, their blood-curling aria echoing through the streets of Shepherd's Bush.  Briatore tells a group of fans that he will sell the team and leave it to rot while obsequious hangers-on beg him to stay.  He demands names.  What Flavio Briatore would possibly do with the names of people who boo him is unclear; I like to imagine he will use his billions to set up a fake sweepstakes luring them to his private island where they will be hunted for sport, not by Briatore, but by a group of Robert Muldoon-like characters he has flown in while he hovers over the island in a helicopter denouncing them as shitty, incompetent hunters using the speaker system from Apocalypse Now.

The other major figure who emerges is Amit Bhatia, an investment banker and Mittal's son-in-law.  Bhatia comes across as a slick but enthusiastic bean counter who acts as the more reasonable counterweight to Briatore.  He becomes the central face of ownership after Briatore steps down, tainted by an F1 match-fixing scandal.  Shortly after, QPR poaches manager Neil Warnock and rockets to the top of the table.  Yet, even the team's greatest triumph remains mired in allegations of cheating.  The Football Association launches an investigation into an illegal transfer.  The FA threatened fines and a points deduction that would strip QPR of its championship and automatic promotion to the Premier League.  It is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the film that the most touching moment of catharsis is not the team's  locker room celebration after clinching the championship, but Paladini jubilantly sprinting through the stadium screaming "NO POINTS DEDUCTIONS!"

The film is an odd window into a deliriously dysfunctional sports organization.  Again, Hodgson remains upfront that the funding for the movie came primarily from the ownership, which he depicts as operating with operatic absurdity (it never acknowledges the various scandals and corruption allegations floating around Briatore and Ecclestone and their role in Britatore's exit).  Though the movie has the rhythms of an underdog sports movie, we rarely see the players and have little sense of what is going on on the field.  We keep track of the team's progress by seeing them moving up and down the table and through montages of the owners celebrating or angrily calling for the manager's head.  Managers get more screen time, but come across like teenagers in the first 20 minutes of a slasher film, given veneers of personality before they are inevitably axed.  Hodgson is more concerned with showing how Bhatia saves money by purchasing less ostentatious food and floral arrangements than why QPR has gone from mid-table embarrassment to champions.  But that perspective is more compelling than the traditional narrative, not only because it is a part of sports not often captured, but also because Flavio Briatore comes across as irresistibly loathsome.
Manager Neil Warnock celebrates the 2011 championship.  Ecclsteone quickly sold his share 
to an ownership group headed by Malaysian airline magnate Tony Fernandes.  Fernandes 
fired Warnock into his first season in the Premier League, but QPR continued to scuffle 
and was relegated back to the Championship after only one season

The Four Year Plan resonates because it illustrates the helplessness of sports fans when it comes to ownership.  The movie depicts a team saved and backed by the unexpected largesse of deep-pocketed owners, but kept in chaos by volatile, impetuous, and incompetent management.  Capricious owners have been around since the concept of owning sports teams was invented, but the almost unimaginable expenses and profits associated with modern professional sports and the globalization of leagues has amplified effects.  Fans of teams with meddling, boorish, incompetent owners have no recourse other than futile chants and angry arias.  The exception remains the Green Bay Packers, and I hate them so much that I hope their team is purchased by a Habsburg who moves the team to Jacksonville and changes the name to the Muskie Haters.


If there is one thing more arbitrary and absurd than professional sports ownership, it is the NCAA.  We are only about a month away from the season opener against Stanford, quarterback-related anguish, silent home snap counts, and hat vengeance.   

Friday, July 24, 2015

Words, Words About Sports

The Cubs have made it to late July and they have managed to go through nearly 60% of a baseball season without dissolving into a Cubbish morass of ineptitude.  They have hit baseballs in the right direction.  They have thrown baseballs at a regulation strike zone.  Most of the outfielders have managed to show up with regulation baseball gloves and not oversized novelty gloves and propeller beanies.  It's a new world.

The Cubs remain in contention for one of the dozens of available wildcard playoff spots this season because of the sudden influx of young, talented Cubs.  Anthony Rizzo has matured into one of the best hitters in the National League.  Jake Arrieta is pitching like a legitimate ace.  Kris Bryant was an instant all-star, Addison Russell has become an excellent fielder, and Starlin Castro is being the best Starlin Castro he can, which means he is swatting ineffectively at baseballs with a pool noodle.  And every time one of these guys starts to falter or slump they bring up another bat.  This week, it was Kyle Schwarber, a neckless stump-person who treats baseballs like they are a nameless bar hooligan in a Steven Seagal movie.

Cincinnati detectives at a crime scene where two baseballs were brutally schwarbered

Schwarber had a brief cameo as a DH-- he nominally plays catcher the way Russell Crowe is nominally the front man for 30 Odd Foot of Grunts-- but came up this week after a thumb injury to Miguel Montero. And, in a series with the Reds in which the teams played baseball nearly ceaselessly for 24 hours, Schwarber exploded. On Tuesday, he blasted a ninth-inning home run to tie the game, knocked the go-ahead dinger in the 13th, and then exploded into a supernova firing bats across the cosmos.

For the first time in years, the Cubs are fun. That is not to say they are a juggernaut. They play in the same division as the red-hot Pirates, and the St. Louis Cardinals continue to grimly march towards the division crown, replacing injured pitchers like a gritty Midwestern hydra regenerating heads so it can devour Ancient Greeks the right way.

"Seeing that Heracles was winning the struggle, Hera sent a large crab to 
distract him. He crushed it under his mighty foot."
I would read a book of myths as told by a Wikipedia Editor

Even though the Cubs are headed towards almost certain Cubs disaster, summer is infinitely better with a relevant baseball team that has not yet crushed us.


The Chicago Bears, on the other hand, appear to be moving towards the season with the graceful dignity of Peter Lorre from the first five minutes of Casablanca.  They have installed a new GM, a new coach, a new offense, and will run a heretical 3-4 base defense.  Fortunately, the hands at the wheel are steady, with the McCaskey family committed to running a professional football team in their image, which is currently confused, vacuous mustache staring.

George McCaskey's hero is Ludwig von Reuter who also has a mustache and runs things into 
the ground

The greatest lightning rod for Bears criticism remains quarterback Jay Cutler.  Cutler is entering his sixth year with the Bears, during which he has become as popular in Chicago as a crooked politician dumb enough to get caught.  Cutler arrived with a reputation as a big-armed malcontent who was just good enough to disappoint you.  This was welcome in Chicago's barren quarterback wasteland where fans cheered Rex Grossman for his mastery of the fling-it-up-to-Bernard-Berrian play, where Kyle Orton became a folk hero for managing to look competent nearly as often as he looked like he had grown a beard so he could walk into one of those dingy Chicago bars identifiable only by a faded Old Style sign and order one for him and one for his beard, and where fans cheered Rex Grossman again as he replaced Kyle Orton and this had been going on with a series of interchangeable Grossmen and Ortons since time immemorial.

Cutler had a few seasons of promise and excuses.  The Bears fielded a five-man OSHA complaint as an offensive line and a squardon of interchangeable undersized punt returners at receiver.  When the Bears turned their receivers into a fleet of hulking dreadnoughts and approached competence on offense, the defense turned into a performance art piece about launching oneself gracefully at the air behind a running back. Nevertheless, Cutler has failed to transcend the team's shortcomings and torpedoed the offense with infuriating interceptions.  Every quarterback throws baffling interceptions from time to time; Cutler throws picks so ill-conceived that they appear almost spiteful.  Bears fans have given up on him.  The team gave up on him last season when they benched a healthy Cutler for Jimmy Clausen, a quarterback who had failed to look like a functioning NFL player for even a single snap in his short, miserable career and also he has a baby head.

Cutler has also committed the unforgivable sin of making a large amount of money.  He signed a seven-year $126 million contract, although it is important to remember that NFL contracts deliberately obscure, misleading, and fictitious.  It is not uncommon to see NFL contracts include rich parcels of land in Frisland or Poyasian bonds.  Cutler's contract binds the Bears for a shorter period of time and money than indicated, but it's not negligible.  It is too onerous to release Cutler and has rendered him untradeable, and new general manager Ryan Pace seems to regard his quarterback like an elderly person will regard a tribal bicep tattoo in the year 2070.

The Jay Cutler/Ryan Pace relationship reminds me of a version 
of What About Bob, but instead of being charming and ingratiating, 
Bob sits sullenly in the corner, texting pictures of his boat shoes

Jay Cutler also has an unpleasant reputation.  In this ESPN article ranking the NFL quarterbacks (behind their insider paywall), Cutler is invoked like a chain-wielding wraith portending quarterback doom before finally revealing himself at #20 as a bunch of nameless NFL people call him a jerk.  His air of hostile indifference is well-documented.  It does not bother me if my team's quarterback is a churl because I don't imagine I'll ever have to interact with him, but I can understand how a guy theoretically paid a bit less than the GDP of Nauru who looks at any given moment like he might walk out of the stadium before a gleeful opposing cornerback has the chance to finish sauntering into the endzone with one of his errant passes might antagonize fans.  At the very least, Cutler's mediocrity and toxic reputation means we don't have to see him attempt to act in terrible commercials.  His only onscreen role seems to have been as himself in a fantasy football sitcom, which is a shameful miscasting; Jay Cutler was born to play the dismissive sheriff who doesn't believe in chupacabras until it's too late or someone credited as "guy who won't move yacht."

The Bears will, barring an unexpected miracle, be a dreadful team to follow.  They are in the midst of a complete rebuild.  They face a brutal schedule.   Doug Buffone has passed away, leaving an entire metropolitan area of braying, nasal mustard enthusiasts bereft of anywhere to complain about Jay Cutler for hours at a time.  The entire enterprise will be a joyless slog.  And yet, one year one hopelessly miserable team rises out of nowhere to get obliterated by the Patriots or the Packers in the playoffs and it might as well be the Chicago Bears, sucking all around them into their black hole of mediocrity and dysfunction.  It is not likely, but we just sent a probe towards Pluto, discovered a vaguely Earth-like planet 1,400 light years away, and the Chicago Cubs might sneak into the playoffs.