Lots of topics to hit on this week, and most of them involve behaviors and/or decisions that border on the insane. There’s been a lot of crazy stuff going on around the sports world, crazy enough to get me to talk about the NBA and Pitt football! Let’s take a look at some of the major stories:
-Albert Pujols signs with the Angels for 10 years, $254 million – and a full no-trade clause. We’ll start with the least-crazy item…I think it was pretty well established that Pujols was going to get at least $20 million per year, and probably at least 7 or 8 years on this contract. I’m somewhat surprised that the annual value eclipsed $25 million, but for a short-term deal I’d have no issue with that – after all, even in his early 30’s Pujols is a great bet to remain a top-5 hitter. No, my problem is the length of the deal, and to a lesser extent giving the no-trade clause. Here’s the list of baseball hitters who in my judgment were all-star-level performers past the age of 39: Ty Cobb, Barry Bonds, Ted Williams. Note that none were first basemen, all (most notably Bonds) were better overall athletes than Pujols, and both batted left-handed. Small sample size, to be sure, and I admit that given his awesome drive it’s POSSIBLE that Pujols will retain effectiveness for ten years…but for that kind of money, is that a wise bet?
Keep in mind, he’s 32 in January (I’m dismissing all the rumors about his age). Think of all of the excellent hitters who were done by age 38….Griffey, Ruth, Aaron, Schmidt, Morgan, etc. etc. The smart money is on this contract being a serious drag on the Angels in years 7-10…of course they probably figure they’ll figure all that out later, for now they have the Great and Powerful Pujols. The no-trade clause seriously impedes their ability to do anything about it as well, however. I don’t blame Pujols, as I never blame a player who takes a contract for as much as he can get – the insanity here is the Angels seriously overpaying for the decline phase of Pujols’ career, a decline that I recently opined might be rather steep.
-Todd Graham bolts Pitt for Arizona State: Yes, coaches leave all the time, and while I think it’s shameful that coaches can do this with no penalty while players are forced to sit a year if they transfer, that’s a topic for another day. The story here, as Dejan Kovacevic so deftly stated, is Graham’s me-first attitude and total disregard for anyone around him – his players, his coaches, even Steve Pederson, his boss at Pitt. He trashed his own QB in the press all season, made excuses for the team’s poor play for about five weeks before finally accepting SOME responsibility, but he topped all of that this week. Word is that AD Pederson denied Graham permission to talk to ASU, but Graham defied that and left anyway – then TEXTED his players to tell them he was gone!!!
I’m not a Pitt fan but I truly feel badly for their players and fans; no one deserves to be treated with so little respect. ASU, good luck – I’ll bet you find that Graham isn’t all you had hoped he would be.
-As the NHL deals with a large, alarming concussion epidemic, they continue to allow games to stop so players can bludgeon one another: I wrote at length this spring about the NHL’s fighting problem, and while I won’t rehash all of that, simply put the league implicitly condones fighting, and has for almost its entire history. Over the past two decades, several high-profile players have had careers shortened due to concussions (Lindros, LaFontaine, and Savard come to mind), while stars like Crosby, Letang, Giroux, Pronger, and others are out now with concussions. The NHL has done good work in raising awareness of potential concussions and putting protocols in place to treat them properly, and while there’s still work to be done on the protocols I applaud the steps taken thus far – but the heightened league awareness stands in stark contrast to the league’s stance on fighting. Why is the league taking such drastic steps to try to curtail blows to the head, yet still allowing and even encouraging on-ice fights? This is inconsistent at best and barbaric at worst – this fine piece of journalism by the New York Times illustrates just how devastating hockey fights can be – not just for the combatants themselves, but for their families. Seriously, if you have ten minutes PLEASE read the Times’ series on the life and death of Derek Boogard, one of the premier NHL fighters over the past decade – who suddenly fell into drug abuse, died, of an overdose, and whose brain had been seriously damaged by fighting. The fact that a major professional sport continues to look the other way on this is both sad and infuriating to me.
-Speaking of concussions, the Harrison-McCoy hit continues to draw attention: Last Thursday, Steelers linebacker James Harrison hit Browns QB Colt McCoy helmet-to-helmet, a hit that even his own coach acknowledges was ‘illegal’. Harrison was suspended for a game, and while I think that was a TAD harsh – McCoy had tucked the ball to run, only to quickly pass it as Harrison approached him – the fact is that Harrison chose to lead with his helmet and aim for the head area, and he has to be accountable for that. I’m much more disturbed by what I’m hearing out of Cleveland, where GM Mike Holmgren has admitted that no concussion tests were ever administered to McCoy on the sideline. McCoy was permitted to re-enter the game, threw a costly interception, then, reportedly didn’t even know what happened after the game.
Holmgren claims that the medical personnel didn’t realize the severity of the hit – fine, then I’ll blame the coaches, particularly head coach Pat Shurmur, who most certainly DID see the ferocity of the hit and the fact that McCoy appeared to be momentarily unconscious. The fact that Shurmur saw all of that and allowed McCoy to re-enter so quickly is shameful and frankly, cowardly – the game meant more to him than the health of his player. Let’s hope this incident spurs the league to adopt more rigorous policies, and that McCoy suffers no long-term effects of the hit.
(As an aside, I know some are tired of hearing me complain about concussions and headshots. I admit to bringing this issue up often, but I refuse to back off as long as preventable injuries keep occurring and as long as there exists a macho culture that insists on minimizing these potentially devastating injuries. I LOVE football and hockey, I want to watch as often as I can, and I admit there will always be risk – but just as NASCAR has drastically reduced risk through research, better car construction, and better safety devices, so too can ‘stick-and-ball’ sports get past their macho cultures and make sports safer for all contestants.)
-Finally, the NBA makes a move foolish enough to be granted space in my column: Longtime readers know I’m no fan of the NBA, and I thought the recent lockout was a prime example of how out of touch billionaire owners and millionaire players can be from their fans. However, once the lockout ended, even I thought the abbreviated free-agency/trading season would be interesting to watch, to see which teams figured out the new contract first. I should also state that of all NBA teams, I dislike the Lakers above all, so my upcoming defense of them cannot be construed as team bias.
The NBA owns the New Orleans Hornets right now, as they search for a new owner – much like the NHL presently owns the Phoenix Coyotes and MLB owned the Montreal Expos for a time (remember the Expos, we’ll come back to them). New Orleans has the best point guard in the league, Chris Paul, a singular talent who would make any contender better. Paul is a free agent after this season and had told the Hornets he would not re-sign, a reasonable move given their messy ownership situation and general lack of talent. GM Dell Demps then did what any competent GM would do – he started floating Paul around in trade offers. The Lakers arranged a trade for Paul that involved the Knicks as well and resulted in a very good return to the Hornets – two very good players, two other players with upside, and a #1 draft pick. For a rebuilding team like the Hornets, such a trade was just the jumpstart they needed – except that the league VETOED THE DEAL. I’m a big believer in the idea that if two (or more) teams agree to a trade, barring OBVIOUS collusion (like, say, dumping babe Ruth for $100,000) that the trade should never be blocked. After all, how many seemingly ‘lopsided’ deals looked a lot differently with the benefit of hindsight?
More importantly, however, the league’s ownership of the Hornets put them in a potentially compromising position – and instead of either forcing Demps to keep Paul at all costs, or keeping clear of the situation and allowing Demps carte blanche to make whatever moves he felt were in the best interest of the franchise, the league did the worst possible thing by allowing the player to be shopped, but then quashed the deal. Would they have vetoed this deal if it was another team trading their best player? Of course not – yet ANOTHER reason this is such a farce. In all my years of watching sports I’ve never seen a pro league make such an idiotic move, and this from a league that has traditionally been very PR-savvy. Commissioner David Stern, between your arrogant handling of the lockout and your ham-handed bungling of this trade, it’s retire-time, before you further embarrass yourself and the NBA.
Next week, we’ll look at what some local sports teams are hoping Santa will bring them.
Dave Glass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.