Serena Williams has had quite a summer, winning an Olympic gold medal, Wimbledon, and Sunday, her fourth U.S. Open, by defeating Victoria Azarenka in three dramatic sets. 

Serena has now won 15 major championships, which moves her into sixth on the all-time major’s list, and renews the conversation about her place in tennis history.

At 30 years of age, which is very old for a tennis player, she is once again playing far and away the best tennis in the world – for now.  I say that with the utmost respect for Serena’s ability, but with a clear understanding that her career, as great as it has been, is loaded with ups and downs.

I wonder as I have many times before, if Serena’s excellent year portends a rapid performance drop off, an inexplicable weight gain, or another trip into the world of fashion design.

Obviously Serena can do anything she wants.  It’s her life and her career.  Her breaks from play while disappointing have actually seemed to have slowed any descent into tennis burnout, probably extending her career rather than hurting it.

Yes, this tennis wonder woman is an enigma to me and many of her fans because of her reluctance to play as much as we’d like or to our expectations.

But by doing things her way, Serena Williams probably makes a more powerful statement for her career and legacy.

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The upcoming Basketball Hall of Fame inductions will be especially satisfying for me.  Of the 12 players, coaches, referees and contributors who will be enshrined, two of my favorite basketball players, Reggie Miller and Mel Daniels, are included.  Miller and Daniels were the central figures during the two most important eras in Indiana Pacers’ history.

For 18 years, the boney, almost skeletal-looking, jump shooter from UCLA gave special meaning to the old advertising slogan – “Miller Time”.   His deadly, high-arching shot became more thrilling than the most athletic windmill dunk.

Reggie Miller

Although it took a few years, Reggie eventually made Indianapolis fans forget that many of them were resentful and booed when he was drafted by the Pacers in 1987.  The Hoosier faithful were hoping the Pacers would select Indiana University star guard Steve Alford.  The All-American from nearby New Castle had just finished leading I.U. to its fifth national championship.

But Pacers general manager, Donnie Walsh instead wisely selected the skinny California kid who until then was best known as the baby brother of women’s basketball legend, Cheryl Miller.

His first six seasons in the NBA, you might say that Miller was just a good player on mediocre team.  But by 1994 he developed into a great player and a leader on an emerging and talented team.

Reggie Miller gave the Pacers the identity they needed and a national following to go with it.  And for the next 11 years fans bestowed genuine respect by typically only calling him by his first name.  Reggie was that good and that special.

By then he was no longer Cheryl Miller’s brother, but a legitimate star in his own right, who thrilled fans with some of the most memorable clutch moments ever witnessed in the NBA.  His most famous and dramatic games usually came in the playoffs.  His battles against the New York Knicks and later Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls when it mattered most cemented his legacy.

When he retired after the 2005 season he was the NBA’s all-time leader in 3-point shooting.  He scored more than 25 thousand points.

The other Pacer who will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, Mel Daniels, played only 9 seasons and unfortunately never developed a national reputation like Reggie.  But for me, he was no less important and in his own way was just as special if not more so.

Mel Daniels

Mel Daniels was one of my childhood sports heroes.  He was the most important player on Indianapolis’ only major league team.

His signature, fake left, fake right, turnaround jumper was the move I took to the playground as a boy.  Although at 6’9”and 220 pounds he would be considered an undersized center today, he was a rugged competitor, successfully battling men much bigger and taller.  The best way to describe Daniels’ game is that he was the ABA version of Bill Russell, but unlike Russell, Daniels was a guy who could also be a big scorer when the Pacers really needed his points.

Daniels, who grew up in Detroit and played his college ball at the University of New Mexico, was the ABA’s all-time leader in rebounds, averaging more than 15 rebounds per game.  He was the league’s fourth all time scorer, a two time league MVP,  and was selected All-ABA first team four times.  But most importantly Daniels was the glue that made the Indiana Pacers the league’s best team and ultimately three-time ABA champions.

Unfortunately Mel Daniels played during a era when pro basketball was still evolving in the public consciousness.  It was not nearly as popular as it is today.   He also played in the lightly regarded ABA, which was considered inferior to the NBA.   ABA teams and players were barely known outside their local markets and only rarely played on national TV.

Because of that, the exploits of Daniels, and many other ABA stars barely registered.  But as someone old enough to remember his stellar play, his leadership and grit, I can assure you that Mel Daniels absolutely deserves his induction into the Hall of Fame.  The shame is that it took so long for this much deserved recognition.

Still he made it.  And appropriately with another Pacer, Reggie Miller.  The teams’ two most historically important players truly embody Pacers Pride.

 

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The NFL season officially kicks off on Wednesday night with the reigning Super Bowl champion New York Giants facing the Dallas Cowboys.   America’s favorite sport returns, finally!   There is nothing like letting the football season help move autumn along.

On that note, this is my last chance to make a few predictions for the season while every team is still undefeated and most players are still healthy.

Sports Sense predicts:

Cam Newton will be Offensive Player of the Year

Every year it seems there is a surprise team in the NFL.  This year that team will be the Carolina Panthers.  The Panthers will supplant the leaderless New Orleans Saints and will show the Atlanta Falcons that there is a new team to be reckoned with in the NFC South.

Cam Newton

But that will only happen because last year’s runaway rookie of the year, Cam Newton, is big and strong-armed and can pass with the best of them.  He proved that last season by setting the NFL record for rookie passing yards.  The former Heisman Trophy winner was much better than advertised.  He is a legitimate star who will keep getting better.

Tim Tebow will eventually start for Jets

New York Jets incumbent starter Mark Sanchez is competent, only competent and more importantly still lacks the star quality which is what is required to be the man in the Big Apple.  His backup, Tim Tebow, though, has enough star power to fuel the entire team.   But the real question is; when Tebow does eventually supplant Sanchez, can he finally look like he belongs calling signals in the NFL, or will he continue to miss wide open receivers?  I say he takes a big step forward.

Peyton Manning will retire at end of season

Peyton Manning will not lead Tebow’s old team, the Denver Broncos to the playoffs.  Manning will play well but the injured neck which kept him on the sidelines all last season, will be on everyone’s mind including his, every time he gets sacked or knocked down during a pass rush.  Manning could retire at season’s end and return to his home in Indianapolis and lead cheers for Andrew Luck.

Peyton Manning

Indianapolis Colts begin turnaround

Manning’s old team, the Indianapolis Colts will be significantly improved, winning at least eight games, which is a big improvement over last season’s NFL worst two wins.  And Manning’s replacement Andrew Luck will vie for rookie of the year honors but he won’t win it.  On the downside for the Colts: a bad management decision is allowing wide receiver Austin Collie to return to action despite suffering another concussion during the preseason.  Collie could incur another head injury and be forced to retire.

Russell Wilson wins Rookie of the Year

The rookie of the year will be Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.  Wilson, the former University of Wisconsin and North Carolina State signal caller wrestled the starting quarterback spot from former Green Bay backup Matt Flynn, who many predicted would have a breakout year starting for Seattle.  Well at least Flynn is used to holding a clip board.  He’s going to be on the sidelines a long time.  Russell Wilson, while shorter at 5’11” than NFL scouts prefer their quarterbacks to be, simply knows what to do with a football.   Wilson, who has a real feel for the game despite his supposed size disadvantage, will outshine both Andrew Luck and Heisman Trophy winner, Robert Griffin III, who is now the Washington Redskins’ starting quarterback.

Russell Wilson

Regular NFL Referees Finally Earn Respect

While the NFL negotiators and Commissioner Roger Goodell let the referees’ lockout go on too long, it nonetheless served the purpose of showing just how valuable the regular guys in the striped shirts really are.  The replacement refs have served notice that they truly are out of their league with the kinds of mistakes and missed calls they made during the preseason.  I can’t see the owners wanting to squeeze the refs too much longer when the real games will be determined by some guy who officiated games in the Lingerie League.

Super Bowl Winner – Pittsburgh Steelers

I don’t think the New York Giants will repeat as Super Bowl champs because repeating is hard.  The Giants were lucky to even make the playoffs at all last season at 9-7.  But they will win the NFC East and win at least one playoff game.  The Green Bay Packers, who last year finished with the NFL’s best regular season will make the playoffs again, but I think they missed their window last season when they almost went undefeated and then lost at home in the playoffs. San Francisco will be good again, winning the NFC West division but will get a strong challenge from Seattle, which may earn one of the playoff wild cards.   The surprises in the NFC will be Carolina, and Seattle.  Detroit crashes back down to earth.  And Atlanta and Dallas will disappoint their fans again. In the end I see Carolina and San Francisco in the NFL Championship game, with the 49ers going to the Super Bowl this time.

On the AFC side, it’s still predictable and still strong, it’s the usual suspects, I believe Pittsburgh, New England, and Baltimore will have the conference’s best records, with San Diego and Houston winning their divisions, but are not quite on the level of the playoff regulars I just mentioned.  Kansas City will be much improved this season as will the Colts, but neither of those teams will make the playoffs.   The AFC Championship will pit the Steelers against New England with the Pittsburgh Steelers going to the Super Bowl.

In the end I pick the Steelers to defeat the 49ers to win a record seventh Super Bowl title.

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A lot of eyes were focused on State College, Pennsylvania and Penn State on Saturday, as the Nittany Lions opened the team’s first season in nearly 50 years without Joe Paterno as head coach.

Even more though than the absence of Paterno, most want to know how the school would fare under the weight of some of the most serious sanctions ever levied against a major college football program.

The immediate answer is not very well.  Penn State playing at home lost to the Ohio University Bobcats 24-14.

On paper Ohio University was not the toughest test for Penn State, but the Bobcats nonetheless provided a measuring stick to examine the resiliency of a team that will have to find ways other than polls, bowl games, and championships to motivate itself for at least the next five years.

I think most of us agree that Penn State deserved to be severely punished for its role in essentially enabling some of the horrendous crimes against children committed by Jerry Sandusky, and what now appears to be a cover up involving the late football coach Joe Paterno and the school’s administration.

I also think we can agree that the crippling penalties levied by the NCAA have nothing to do with the current coaching staff and players at Penn State.

Rhetorically we’ll continue to ask, is this fair?  The answer is the same as it has been for months.  No, it isn’t fair, not to the players, coaches or the fans that support the program.  But as the old saying goes: “life isn’t fair.”

And knowing that the penalties will not be appealed, the only issue is how everyone involved responds and what lessons can be learned.

I have watched several interviews with new Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien and some of his players in the last few days and have come away with a much better understanding of what may be ahead for the Penn State football program.

Players who have a chance to make a name for themselves, have been asked to sacrifice their dreams to play for championships and perhaps millions later in the NFL in order to maintain a commitment to a university and a football program that has been shorn of its once vaunted status and even vilified.

And you’re asking a talented coaching staff to commit to five or more years of less than stellar play from the team, because there will be fewer top tier athletes coming because of mandated scholarship reductions, and because future recruits will likely want to play at schools not hampered by sanctions.

But what I saw in the eyes of some of the some of the players and the head coach prior to the game was a look of resolve and commitment that I found inspiring.

How that resolve holds up after an unexpected opening day loss though remains to be seen, and may have some wondering if Penn State has any chance this season against its even stronger Big Ten rivals.

For the first time in ages, Penn State’s mammoth 100,000 seat football stadium, which was built by the tireless efforts of Joe Paterno who turned Penn State into a national powerhouse, was not full.

And with JoePa dead and gone, and his legacy in shambles, combined with an opening day loss to a team it would have crushed most other years, the rest of this season and the next five years will probably provide the toughest test of loyalty and patience ever witnessed at Penn State.

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The truth is still the truth, but if it is served up too raw, it has a way of upsetting delicate sensibilities and ultimately backfiring on the truthsayer.

That’s what happened this week to Allen Pinkett, the former Notre Dame star running back from the 1980s and now longtime analyst on the Fighting Irish radio broadcasts.  Pinkett has been suspended from his radio job because he uttered an unacceptable truth about the kind of players Notre Dame needs to have on the team in order to return the school to its former football glory.

Allen Pinkett

“I’ve always felt like, to have a successful team, you have to have a few bad citizens on the team.

“That’s how Ohio State used to win all the time. They would have two or three guys that were criminals and that just adds to the chemistry of the team.  I think Notre Dame is growing because maybe they have some guys that are doing something worthy of a suspension which creates edge on the football team.

“You can’t have a football team full of choir boys. You get your butt kicked if you’ve got a team full of choir boys so you’ve got to have a little bit of edge. But the coach has to be the dictator and the ultimate ruler. Here’s my opinion: You don’t hand out suspensions unless you know you’ve got somebody behind that guy that can make plays.”

Those were the most inflammatory of the remarks Pinkett made in response to questions about the team during a radio interview he did Wednesday on a Chicago radio station.  Pickett was addressing Notre Dame’s readiness in light of the recent suspensions of four Fighting Irish players for violating team rules.

The IMG Notre Dame Radio Network says that Pinkett has been pulled from this weekend’s upcoming Notre Dame-Navy game which will be played in Dublin, Ireland.   A spokesman for the network said the game didn’t need the added distraction that Pickett might bring because of the comments.

IMG added though that no decision has been made regarding Pinkett’s long term future as a commentator on the radio network after Saturday’s game.

Pinkett’s comments set off a firestorm of negative reaction, from former Notre Dame players as well as others around the country, who believe what he said was unacceptable and irresponsible and don’t befit a school with Notre Dame’s rich football tradition.  It also sends the wrong message about the kind of citizenship Notre Dame expects from its student/athletes.

I do understand what I think Pinkett tried but failed to successfully convey.  But Pinkett’s words standing alone are hard to clean up or justify, which is why Pinkett issued an apology.

“In reviewing my remarks from a radio interview Wednesday, it’s clear that I chose my words poorly and that an apology is in order for these inappropriate comments.  My words do not reflect the strong pride and passion I have for the Notre Dame football program.

“I am deeply sorry and did not intend to take away the focus from the upcoming season opener. I especially would like to offer my sincere apology to the current members of Notre Dame’s football team, including Coach Kelly, the entire Notre Dame community, the IMG College Audio Network and the Ohio State football program. As a proud Notre Dame graduate, I wish nothing but the best for our football team and the University.

“I understand that there may be consequences to my actions and accept whatever discipline is imposed.”

Yes, Allen Pinkett is ironically paying the price for saying out loud what many frustrated Irish supporters have been thinking for years – that Notre Dame can’t beat the tops teams anymore because it has a team full of nice guys.

And as we all know, these days, nice guys may not finish last, but they rarely finish first.

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With the NFL now saying that replacement referees will at least work the first week of the regular season if not longer, the impasse between the league and its’ locked out officials has taken its most serious and absurdly unnecessary turn.

I’m still trying to figure out what is the point of the NFL taking such a hardline against its referees.  What is the league trying to prove?  The referees have the most critical front line role in enforcing the rules and integrity of the sport, as well as ensuring players’ safety on the field.

The job the replacement referees have done during this preseason has been uneven at best.  Many of the replacement referees are still unfamiliar with the nuances and differences between the leagues they’ve formerly worked and the NFL, as well as the speed of the game itself, which has resulted in numerous missed calls and general indecision.

From where I sit it seems the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell, would rather devalue the sport than reach a deal, just to make a point with its smallest and least expensive bargaining unit.

The NFL Referees Association contends that the NFL has adopted a “take it or leave it” posture, which of course is the whole point of a lockout.

At first glance it seems that an agreement between the two sides shouldn’t be difficult to reach.

At issue: The NFL wants to add three additional crews, which would increase the number of officials by 21 to a total of 140.   The union though says total compensation for officials would actually be reduced with the added referees.  The league also wants to hire full-time referees – seven at first – a step which league officials say would over the long term improve the quality of officiating.

Technically, NFL referees are considered part-time, making between $100,000 and $200,000 per year.  And most have other jobs during the week.   And while the league wants to change that, the referees union says that pay and benefits would have to increase significantly, and full-time refs at minimum would need to be on par with other sports leagues like the NBA and Major League Baseball whose most senior officials make upwards of $350,000 annually.

Still, properly compensating a relatively small number of officials, whether full or part-time in a league worth untold billions is in no way a problem.

To my mind the onus is on the league to find a way to settle this and settle it soon.  Don’t forget this is a lockout, not a strike.  The regular refs did not decide not to work.

The referees union has the sympathy, if not outright support of the players, with NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith saying this week that the players would consider striking rather than go into the regular season without the regular referees.

Players are extremely concerned about safety and believe the veteran referees are much better suited than their inexperienced replacements to ensure players’ well-being.

I just don’t see how Commissioner Roger Goodell can with a straight face tell the public that the league is doing all it can to protect players and present the best officiated games possible to its millions of fans, when it locks out its most experienced referees.  And chooses instead a motley collection of officials cobbled from high school, college and semi-pro ranks.

This is a no-brainer.  Make a deal NFL.  And do it now. Continuing this foolish hardline stance makes no sense at all and contradicts everything the league claims it stands for.

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I know a lot of football fans may be having a hearty laugh right now at the expense of Terrell Owens who was let go on Sunday by the Seattle Seahawks.

But I say drop the jokes.  So he was cut, big deal.  He’s 38 years old, and will be 39 before the season ends. That’s very old for a guy trying to catch a football – any football player actually. Everyone gets cut eventually.  How long was T.O. supposed to play?

I didn’t hear or read about anyone making fun of the Pittsburgh Steelers  wide receiver Hines Ward when he was forced into retirement at the end of last season.   No problem, he moved on and so did we.   And Ward is two years younger than T.O.

I suppose I’m just tired of the media and fans piling on T.O.  He was good enough to be known simply by his initials.   That ought to tell you something about Terrell Owens.

But oh no, the moment his skills started to decline, the wolves couldn’t wait to try and feast on him and find fault.

Okay, yes, I know he is a Diva.  Lots of wide receivers are.  They can make a mediocre quarterback look good but get just a fraction of the pay.  Reason enough to make any pass catcher act-out.  And for more than ten years, T.O. was probably the NFL’s number one Diva.

Who can forget the whiney “tears” he shed in support of a then inexperienced and beleaguered Tony Romo, after a particularly tough game.  “He’s my quarterback, he’s my quarterback”  T.O. wept to the cameras.

And remember the time he did sit-ups in his driveway as the cameras rolled in order to showcase his perfect six-pack.

Or the time he salaciously insinuated that Jeff Garcia was gay, saying,“If it quacks like a duck….”

Or the time he claimed that Donovan McNabb panicked and hyperventilated, in the closing minutes of the Super Bowl.

Or the time he mocked the Dallas Cowboys by clowning on the painted star in the middle of Texas Stadium.

Or the time he grabbed the Pom Poms from the cheerleaders to celebrate his touchdown.

Or the time he boasted: “Get your popcorn ready.”

I could go on but you get the point.  Okay, he could be a jerk sometimes.  Still, our consolation for tolerating his excesses was that he gave us plenty of T.O. moments.

But the guy really could play football.

We can shake our heads about his character and bemoan how he sometimes cruelly treated teammates and coaches, but he gave all he had every time he suited up.  He also played through severe injuries and rarely complained.

Further, he is not a man without credentials.  Facts: T.O. is second on the NFL’s all-time pass receiving yards list.  And only three players in history ever scored more career touchdowns.

In his prime T.O. was big, fast, and always in shape, and whether you like him or not, he is one of the best receivers to ever play in the NFL.   No doubt he’ll get into the Hall of Fame.

It may be that his preseason tryout with the Seattle Seahawks is the last time we ever see him play, if so I say thanks for the memories.  In all fairness to football’s supreme Diva, he was one hell of a football player, and from time to time he was also an obnoxious ass.

There is only one T.O.

 

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Despite relentless allegations of blood doping, PED use, and now the stripping of his Tour de France wins, the early returns suggest that champion cyclist Lance Armstrong surprisingly maintains a solid base of support, from fans and corporate sponsors.

Yes, there are those, like myself, who believe he didn’t win all of his races clean, but based on the reaction I’m seeing on the Internet, and in comments, and interviews, Armstrong’s good works for now seem to far outweigh the avalanche of accusations against him.

But why is that?  What makes Lance Armstrong so different from other big name athletes who‘ve been suspected of PED use but who have not received a similar benefit of the doubt?

Perhaps it’s Armstrong’s philanthropy.  His charitable efforts have tremendous value and have touched the lives of many people.  His foundation, Livestrong, has raised millions of dollars for cancer research, and is helped by the fact that Armstrong is himself a cancer survivor, which only magnifies the good feelings that legions of people still have for him.

As such it is hard for many to accept that Armstrong, who has done so much good for others and personally suffered and almost died, could have been dishonest about his athletic achievements – it is the classic blind eye.

But there is a glaring double standard at work.  The best and most consistent defense that Armstrong and his supporters make is that he never failed an official drug test.  But neither for instance, did Mark McGuire or Sammy Sosa.

Yet, Armstrong remains beloved by millions despite the persistent cloud of scandal hovering overhead, while the two former record breaking sluggers, who helped resuscitate a struggling Major League Baseball, will likely never enter the Hall of Fame.

They are presumed guilty, duly convicted in the court of public opinion.

One obvious reason is that McGuire and Sosa never benefitted from a cynically skilled public relations campaign like the one that has enhanced Armstrong’s image.  Armstrong’s PR effort which now includes throwing in the towel last week and ending the fight against the USADA, has also shrewdly served to turn the focus on the motives and credibility of the USADA itself, which Armstrong said in a statement on his website, will never give him a fair hearing.

And what about the 10 or more people, many of them former teammates, willing to testify under oath that Armstrong consistently used PEDs?  What do we make of them?  No problem for Armstrong.  End the legal battle against the USADA, accept the punishment, and those traitors will never talk for the record and perhaps reveal even more damaging aspects of Armstrong’s world.

For some of you it’s going to take much more than the current evidence and suspicions to turn your backs on a generous American hero like Lance Armstrong, a man who overcame cancer and miraculously became a champion.  But many of you Armstrong supporters also looked at McGuire and Sosa and had no doubt they cheated the game.

The irony is that most of you don’t have a clue why you feel this way – you just do its human nature.  Lance Armstrong is counting on it.

 

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With his standout performance against Kansas City Friday night, rookie Russell Wilson has probably locked up the starting quarterback spot for the Seattle Seahawks.

I don’t see how he can’t be first on the depth chart now.   Wilson, who started for the first time, was sensational for the visiting Seahawks, who dismantled the Chiefs early and kept pouring it on, winning 44 – 14.

Wilson threw for 185 yards and passed for two TDs in just over two quarters.   Free agent signee and initially the presumed regular season starter, Matt Flynn, did not play, apparently suffering from a sore elbow according to reports.  His ego is probably even more bruised right now.

But just because you spend good money to sign a guy like Flynn, who spent the last four years in Green Bay backing up Aaron Rodgers, doesn’t mean the job should automatically be his.  Performance ought to count for something.

And Russell Wilson has been the one performing.  The Wisconsin standout taken in the third round has been the surprise of the NFL preseason.  But he has been surprising only in the fact that most draft experts and NFL executives don’t put much stock in a quarterback under 6 feet tall.

Wilson, who stands 5’11”, obviously isn’t a prototypical NFL signal caller in stature.   But his credentials are impeccable in all other aspects:  an accurate and strong arm, good decision making, quick feet, and confidence that is combined with the appropriate dose of humility.

If you look at the Internet feedback, Wilson has already won over Seattle fans, who don’t seem to see a little guy, but a potential star who just might lead them to a Super Bowl one day.

It’s starting to look like Wilson’s four standout years at NC State and Wisconsin were no fluke and his skills may perfectly translate to success in the NFL.

 

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It was inevitable that Lance Armstrong was going to lose his fight against doping allegations.  The only question was how and when it would happen.

By giving up his defense against the claims of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, Armstrong will be stripped of his record setting seven straight Tour de France wins and banned for life from the sport of cycling.

There are a lot of ways to look at one of Sport’s most complex and confounding figures.  Lance Armstrong is undoubtedly the world’s greatest cyclist, a courageous cancer survivor, a philanthropist, and a hero.  But he is also an all-time hypocrite and liar.

I have long believed that Armstrong used PEDs.  The evidence is just too overwhelming to think otherwise.   But certainly Armstrong was not alone.  Common sense tells me that just about all of the world’s top cyclists have been using some form of PEDs for many years, and that to successfully compete, one had to use PEDs.

The most troubling part of this for me is the defiantly hypocritical way that Armstrong has gone about his fight against the allegations.  He first suggested that the French had it in for him and had tampered with his blood samples.  He also contended that the world cycling and doping authorities and the USADA were out to get him.  He further claimed that his teammates had jealously conspired to undermine him.   And even now, his concession statement is laced with denials and accusations, with him essentially admitting to nothing.

I say this even as I understand why he has had to lie.  Armstrong became a heroic symbol of overcoming the odds.  He looked death squarely in the eyes and won.  And he challenged and inspired many other cancer victims to do the same.  As a result Armstrong created an image that is bigger than even he thought possible.

His foundation, Livestrong, is perhaps the most successful sports charity ever established.  The iconic rubber bracelets which can be seen on wrists all over the world became a symbol of hope against the odds.  They have also served to inoculate him in the public against mounting innuendo.

Like so many things in sports we as fans and observers are a big part of this story too.  We have an unquenchable thirst for heroes, and the epic stories of their victories in competition and overcoming insurmountable obstacles outside the field of play.

We help create the legendary Lance Armstrong myth by idolizing him and his achievements.  Our affair with his image became even more complex when we saw how much he accomplished while overcoming cancer, and how much he gave back to us in the form of hope and inspiration with his public appearances and charity.

I wish though that by conceding this fight against the USADA that Armstrong would have done the honorable and decent thing and spoke real truths: That professional cycling is a corrupt and tainted sport, one that is rampant with performance enhancing drugs, and that in order to successfully compete he had to find an edge.

But Armstrong continues to cynically play on the public’s adoration of him and obviously feels compelled to craft a fable of his own making even as his gives up the legal battle.

One day when it suits him he may tell us the real story.

 

 

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Size matters in the NFL.  But there are exceptions.  If Russell Wilson was 6’3” instead of 5’11”, I wouldn’t be writing this story.  He’d already be considered a young star on the rise, instead of one of the league’s best surprises in one of pro football’s smallest packages.

By today’s standards, the Seattle Seahawks rookie quarterback is supposedly too short to make an impact at the most important position in football.

Russell Wilson

But come Friday, Wilson will be the starter in the Seahawks next preseason game against Kansas City.  The former Wisconsin star who threw more than 30 touchdown passes for the Badgers last season will get a real chance to prove to the doubters that he’s big enough to make a difference.

Russell Wilson is already convincing the Seahawks, and has played well in the first two preseason games.  But his numbers: 3 touchdowns and just one interception came in the second halves of those games which during the preseason means he was probably not playing against the other teams’ best players.  Still, head coach Pete Carroll has been impressed enough to want to see how Wilson fares against starters.

Two other rookie quarterbacks, the Indianapolis Colts’ Andrew Luck and the Washington Redskins’ Robert Griffin III, have drawn most of the attention this season.  They are much taller and thus deemed more NFL ready than Russell Wilson.  And because of that they were drafted number one and number two overall in this year’s draft.

But don’t be surprised if “little” Russell Wilson, drafted in the third round, turns out to be better than both of them, and maybe even become a future Drew Brees.

I mention Brees, because at a listed height of 6’0” he along with Michael Vick is the shortest starting quarterback in the NFL.   But Brees also just set the all-time NFL passing yardage mark of nearly 5500 yards, coupled with 46 touchdowns passes last season.  In recent years no quarterback has put up better numbers than Brees.

Last year after watching a number of Wisconsin’s games and studying his career, which began at North Carolina State, it seemed clear to me that Russell Wilson was not just good but might be the nation’s top college quarterback.   Based on what I had seen to that point he certainly looked like he was better than everyone else, including RGIII and Luck.  He was poised, accurate, athletic and smart.   The only knock against him was his size.

But height wasn’t the only thing working against Wilson coming into his first NFL training camp.  Complicating things was the fact that Seattle had acquired Green Bay’s backup Matt Flynn, who just so happened to fill in for Aaron Rodgers for a game last season and in the process set several all-time Green Bay passing records.  Flynn was signed by Seattle expecting to be the starter, but while reports indicate that he has played decently, so far those same reports indicate he has not outplayed Wilson.   So true to his word, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll is in fact making good on his declaration that the best man will win the job.

Yes, size matters in the NFL, but a better measure is heart and skill, which Russell Wilson appears to have as much of as anyone.

 

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At what point is enough, enough?  When do the medical professionals, coaches, team executives and other supposedly sensible people in authority step in and protect a player from himself, and perhaps save his life?

Austin Collie

I sure hope the powers that be with the Indianapolis Colts are asking themselves these questions today about wide receiver Austin Collie, who has now suffered what has been confirmed as yet another concussion.

Two years ago, Collie incurred multiple concussions during games that season, capped off by a horrendous hit to the head in a December game against Jacksonville that should have ended any thoughts of him ever playing again.

But two seasons later Collie is still playing, well at least he was up until Sunday night’s nationally televised preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, when a forearm to the head left him woozy and concussed again.

There really shouldn’t be any debate about what the right thing to do is.  Honestly.  Ending his career either voluntarily or by force should be the only option.  But truth be told, that’s real life fantasy football.  It’s probably not going to happen that way.  And that’s too bad – too bad for Collie, too bad for his family, and it’s too bad for football.

I’m sure Collie will do everything in his power to try and get back on the field later this season.   That’s what football players do.  And sadly if history is any indication, the Colts management just like every other football team, will make sure that he gets the proper treatment and tests – the ones now mandated by the NFL – and if Collie is deemed healthy at some point, as he may well be, will allow him to play again.

But that goes against everything we are now learning about head injuries and the long term consequences of playing the high impact sport of professional football.

If there was ever a test case for how to properly handle the continuing incidences of head trauma in the NFL, it’s the potentially tragic case of Austin Collie.  Let’s hope and pray though that Collie, his family and the game of football won’t end up suffering from another bad decision.

 

 

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The punishment levied by the NCAA against Penn State, which includes a $60 million fine, a sharp reduction in scholarships, a four-year bowl ban, and the stripping of all Nittany Lions’ wins since 1998 are easily the most devastating sanctions ever meted out against any university.

The so-called “Death Penalty”, last handed down against SMU 25 years ago, which shut down that football program for a year and crippled it for many more, would not have been as bad as what NCAA president Mark Emmert announced Monday morning in Indianapolis.

NCAA President Mark Emmert Announces Sanctions Against Penn State

That said, I have to admit I am troubled by the implications of these unprecedented and monumentally harsh penalties, which essentially involve the destruction of a football program, and the ruination of a coaching legacy, but ultimately provide no real justice for the victims of Jerry Sandusky’s heinous crimes and Penn State’s complicity and cover up.

The fact is, punishment whether of an institution or an individual, never really provides an adequate response to, or compensation for, the wrongdoing and damage that has taken place.  And the NCAA weighing in, only serves to satisfy the need to hold someone or something responsible without really fixing anything.

I feel the same way about the removal of the Joe Paterno statue at Penn State on Sunday.  The statue was a symbol of what Paterno meant to the university and the football program, and taking it down is merely symbolic of his tragic fall from grace, but nothing more.

Of course Joe Paterno who died from complications from lung cancer in January of this year, could have and should have done more to protect the boys that his former assistant, Jerry Sandusky preyed on, often while on the Penn State campus.

Of course Penn State’s president, along with Paterno, the Board of Trustees and other school officials should have intervened as early as 1998 when they first became aware that a pedophile was in their midst.  But they essentially did nothing.  And for that, the school, and the legacy of the late Joe Paterno must pay a staggering price.

But I nonetheless won’t feel right about any of this until more people everywhere care about the welfare and safety of all children in danger, and not just gawk, gossip about and feel superior to, the perpetrators who committed and enabled the terrible crimes in State College, Pennsylvania.

 

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With a victory Tuesday night over the Oklahoma City Thunder, and now up three games to one, the Miami Heat are firmly in command and poised to win the NBA championship.  But while basketball is a team game, a Heat title will really only be about one player.

The sport of basketball has been waiting a long time for this – a chance to crown King James, one of the most celebrated players in history.  Game five in Miami on Thursday night should be his coronation.

LeBron James

In sports there is often a reference to “whose time it is”.  It now seems that LeBron’s time has finally come.

Disabling leg cramps didn’t stop him from nailing a critical three-point shot in the closing minutes of a heart-stopping game four.  And now it appears all the pressure any athlete has ever faced won’t stop him from completing the championship mission he has been groomed for.

I am neither a LeBron hater, nor an adoring fan, but I do admire his talent, dedication, and sportsmanship, but even more so, I respect his ability to shake off scrutiny that over the years has often been harsh and unfair.  I’ve at times been one of those critics.

Because of his transcendent talent, which has been marveled and written about since he reached puberty in Akron, Ohio, many of us thought LeBron could and should be the next evolutionary step after Michael Jordan.  But we seem to forget that it took seven, sometimes humbling, seasons for Jordan to be appreciated for more than his basketball artistry, and to be defined as the ultimate winner.

Becoming a winner takes time.  Becoming an all-time great with championship rings as adornments can take even longer.

This is LeBron’s third trip to the NBA Finals.  The first time, five years ago while he was with Cleveland, resulted in a sweeping blowout loss to the San Antonio Spurs.  Last year’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks was even more discomfiting because the expectations for Miami were so much higher, punctuated by LeBron’s bewildering disappearing acts in the series’ fourth quarters.   But with each disappointment LeBron has endured he’s obviously grown wiser and now seems prepared to take part in a championship celebration.

I can’t conclude this without mentioning the other two parts of the Big Three – Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

Wade of course is a superstar with a ring already.  Six years ago, he put on one of the all-time great playoff performances to lead Miami to its first NBA championship.  But he has never been put under the microscope like LeBron.  Wade who really has nothing to prove will gladly take a supporting role to LeBron this time around.

Chris Bosh, who severely strained his abdominal muscles during the series against the Indiana Pacers, proved his worth, through his absence, and no longer has people denigrating his role as the third wheel of the celebrated trio.  Nonetheless he too will gladly be a prince at LeBron’s crowning ceremony.

From the time LeBron controversially announced he was taking his talents to South Beach two years ago, this has all been about this upcoming crowning moment.  He’s never had a close out game to win it all and as a result I expect he will play one of the best games of his life Thursday night and leave no doubt about his place among basketball royalty.   It’s LeBron’s time.  Oklahoma City and Kevin Durant will have to wait their turn.

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All along Roger Clemens said he didn’t lie to Congress.   So the jury’s resounding acquittal of him Monday on all charges of course technically supports that claim.

Now whether the jury actually believed Clemens was telling the truth or they simply chose to nullify the charges against him, because they felt government prosecutors over-reached, we may never know.

But one thing seems increasingly apparent: the public, and maybe even that jury, is long past tired of the government wasting millions of dollars going after star athletes for the alleged use of performance enhancing drugs.

Roger Clemens

Do I believe Clemens, one of baseball’s greatest pitchers, took steroids, and human growth hormone to extend his career, and lied about it?  Yes, I do.  But so what!  I wouldn’t convict him because of that, just like I wouldn’t have convicted Barry Bonds, and one day in the near future, would not vote to convict Lance Armstrong.

Prosecuting a select few athletes in “show-trials” when entire sports are guilty of covertly condoning the activity, is a huge waste of time and money.

What was Clemens supposed to say to lawmakers when they asked him whether he had ever used a PED?  “Yeah, I used and so did everyone else.”  Fat chance! Because that’s what he would have had to admit to in order to really get to the heart of the enhancement-drug problem in Major League Baseball.

But why should Clemens be the high-profile fall guy for a sport that deliberately turned a blind eye to the problem of PEDs for years but suddenly got religion well after it made billions glorifying the exploits of the artificially pumped up super stars?

Did it help that the government’s chief witness against Roger Clemens – Brian McNamee – his longtime personal trainer, medicine man, and supposed friend, kept syringes, cotton balls and other materials containing Clemens’ DNA, stored away for years – just in case Clemens turned against him?  I don’t think so!

Who does something like that?  Certainly not a friend.  While I believe that McNamee was telling the truth about shooting Clemens up with PEDs, something about keeping all the so-called evidence never sat right with me.   I’m sure the jury was turned off by that too, and wondered just like just like the rest of us: Why is it that the slimy guy supplying the drugs was free and the “show-trial” star faced a prison term.

I just hope now that the jury has rendered its verdict in his favor, that Roger Clemens doesn’t gloat and point fingers.  He simply needs to be thankful and shut up.

The truth is: Clemens took PEDs, lied about it and I think justifiably got away with it, because in this case, misguided, over-zealous, federal prosecutors, and congressional lawmakers who most certainly had better things to do than to look into PEDs, were more at fault than he was.

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