Dear Sports Fan at 100,000

This morning I woke up to find that Dear Sports Fan turned 100,000 overnight. That’s right, since May 22, 2011, the first day of this blog’s existence, it has been viewed 100,000 times! The past almost five years have been an amazing time for me. This blog has gone from being a casual side-project to a passion to an almost full-time avocation. I’ve poured a lot of myself into the around 500,000 words I’ve written for this site and if there hasn’t been blood or tears so far, there has definitely been a lot of sweat. I want to thank the close to 3,000 people who have come along for the ride in a really meaningful way by following me on Twitter or Fancred or liking my page on Facebook. You all are the worm that keeps me excited about getting up early and writing. [BAD METAPHOR ALERT]

To celebrate, I’d like to share a little bit about the blog, give some stats and anecdotes from the first 100,000 views and talk a little bit about the next 100,000.

Statistics

How did Dear Sports Fan get to 100,000? Let’s let the numbers tell the story.

As you can see from this first chart, the site’s growth was reasonably consistent for its first three years, from May of 2011 to the spring of 2014.  Then it starts picking up a little speed and grows a little more rapidly. Starting in August of 2014, the site’s growth accelerates like a mile runner kicking towards the finish line. This growth rate continues to get steeper until the last little bit of the graph. Translating those numbers to events, I can tell you that I became much more dedicated to the site in late 2013/early 2014. My dedication was rewarded with more views. More views fed my dedication, and during the Spring and Summer of 2014, as I struggled with the decision to leave my job of seven and a half years, I decided that part of what I wanted to do when I left was write Dear Sports Fan. After I left in August of 2014, I was able to start writing every day. This, combined with a particularly newsworthy NFL football season, sparked the growth you see in the curve above. This peaked with the Super Bowl on Feb 1, Dear Sports Fan’s best day ever with 966 views. Since then, there’s been a natural lull, both in terms of my writing and the public’s viewing. I’m actually thrilled that Dear Sports Fan has maintained its relevance as much as it has during the slow sports time after the Super Bowl.

An even better way of looking at these statistics is through a chart showing average views per day.

One fun thing to notice in the chart above is that every September before this past one has a little peak. This is the peak in interest as the college and NFL football seasons start and lots of people start wondering how football works and why our culture seems so obsessed with it. This past year I was able to take that peak and build on it. Two other spikes that are fun to notice and remember are February 2014, when I wrote a lot about and even traveled to the Winter Olympics in Russia and June 2014 when the World Cup made soccer a brief national obsession.

Top Posts

Dear Sports Fan has 766 published posts. I’ve tried to find a good balance between stock (posts whose subject will last, if not forever, than a long time) and flow (articles whose interest will probably last only a few days.) In the flow category, I do two daily features — a 2-4 minute Sports Forecast podcast where I run through the most interesting sporting events of the coming day and a series of Cue Cards with very pithy synopses of high profile sporting events from yesterday and lines to use in conversations about them. During the football season, I was also writing weekly features previewing (as an imaginary good cop, bad cop duo) and reviewing each NFL football game.

As for stock, I’ve tried to concentrate on explaining the basics of major sports for people who are curious or confused about why so many people spend so much time being so involved with them. For a sample of the types of posts I’ve been writing, here are my top twenty posts from the first 100,000 hits.

No surprise that the series of “Why do people like _____?” posts are consistently quite popular. That’s the most basic question non-sports fans ask about sports fans. Although it doesn’t show up in my greatest hits numerically, I’m particularly proud of my series on brain injuries in football and how to save the future of football and football players by solving the brain injury problem. I also enjoyed putting together my two email courses (so far), Football 101 and Football 201. If you haven’t earned your certificates yet, you should do that before next fall.

What’s Next?

I have two projects that I’m excited about starting. The first is a text message service for hockey or basketball fans and the people who live in, around, or with them. The NHL and NBA playoffs begin April 15 and April 18 respectively. The playoffs are a hectic time. Teams play almost every other night but are not always scheduled in a predictable way. The importance of each game is magnified to somewhere on a scale from vital to earth-shatteringly important depending on the context of the seven-game playoff series. Injuries are tracked with as much interest and as little forthrightness as Cold War era troop movements. It’s a lot to keep track of and I’d like to help out with a text message each morning. The second project will be a series of articles and podcasts describing major sports franchises and what’s unique about being a fan of that team. There’s a surfeit of information out there about sports teams but very little that helps the layperson understand what to expect from a typical Mets fan and how that’s different from a Yankees fan.

Both of these new initiatives are more focused on getting directly involved with people who read, listen to, or otherwise make use of the site. Engagement has been the biggest struggle so far and I’m really hoping this will help. If you’re interested in being a part of one or both of the new features, comment on this post or send an email to dearsportsfan@gmail.com. Let me know if you’re a fan or someone who lives among the fans and which team or teams you follow.

Thanks for all the support,
Ezra Fischer 

The best sports stories of the week 3.9.15

No theme this week, just a selection of wonderful articles about sports that I flagged throughout the week. One of my favorite parts of writing Dear Sports Fan is reading other great writers cover sports in a way that’s accessible and compelling for the whole spectrum from super-fans to lay people. Here are selections from the best articles of the last week on the subject of attitude:

Last Man Running

by Reeves Weideman for the New Yorker

Football is everywhere, right? And the Super Bowl is the biggest sporting event of the year. It’s virtually a holiday! Here’s the story of a small but growing group of people who engage in their own Super Bowl competition: who can make it longest without finding out who won. They’re called “runners” and losing, or finding out who won, is jokingly referred to as “dying” or a “death.” This is a great article.

Most of the runners, however, found themselves waking up each day in a cold sweat. “I feel like I’m being sequestered for the stupidest jury trial in modern history,” one competitor said. “It’s gotten to the point where three things may end me: recklessness, homesickness, or sheer boredom.”

“I’m starting to think that #DeathByGirlfriend is becoming a reality as she gets more fed up with me being anti-social,” one runner wrote on Twitter. A doctor feared going to the hospital, where he would have to make small talk with patients. A stripper in Los Angeles slept through the Super Bowl—most of the clientele was watching the game—but found the rest of her work week difficult: “Starting every conversation with ‘Don’t tell me who won the SB!’ is hilarious but not the best way to make money in a strip club.”

Do You Want Him on Your Team? The Vicious Brilliance of Ndamukong Suh

By Brian Phillips for Grantland

Now that the Super Bowl is won and gone, the biggest story in the sports world is… still NFL football. It’s now time for free agents to be wooed and signed by new teams. The biggest and best free agent this year is a ferocious defensive tackle named Ndamukong Suh. Suh is known equally for being an impactful player and a dirty one. In this article, Brian Phillips pierces through the first level of analysis and tries to get at what makes Suh the type of player he is.

We want football players to be blood-scenting berserkers half the time and upstanding sportsmen the other half; even if you don’t agree that the line is in kind of an arbitrary place, can you imagine how hard that would be to navigate, from Pop Warner on? You’re a big, fast kid who can hit people hard. You’re taken into a room and told, first of all, that this makes you special, and second of all, that your special self is subordinate to a team. You’re told that all your future specialness will depend on how completely you subordinate yourself. You’re told to give everything. Give your all. Leave it on the field. Never stop trying to win. Never stop trying to get better. You’re told that there’s no room for weakness. You’re told that there are no excuses. You’re told to make yourself a weapon. You’re told that the only thing that matters is beating your rivals. You’re told to call me sir. You’re told that what you’re doing when you’re playing defense is hunting. You’re told to seek out any edge, any advantage, any crack you can use for a toehold. If you win, the crowd roars your name. But the crowd will like you only if you’re humble. The crowd is screaming for you to kill your opponent. But do it at the wrong time, in the wrong way, and they’ll turn on you. Be a warrior. Be a killer. But be respectful. Give 110 percent, but hold yourself in check.

As a set of inputs, this is madness. What person’s brain could line that up into anything like coherence?

Death, brotherhood and sacrifice: N.J. hoops star haunted by loss of 24 friends to street violence

By Matthew Stanmyre for NJ.com

Soon, college basketball will take over the sporting landscape as early March transitions into March madness, the NCAA men’s college basketball championships. As such, it’s time for the personal interest stories to start flowing. This story is a particularly excellent example of the genre. It follows Isaiah Williams, a junior guard for Iona, a small school New Rochelle that hopes to qualify for the tournament this year. Williams grew up in Newark, New Jersey, and has struggled during his college career with finding a balance between trying to help his family out of their socio-economic and violent plight, and personally protecting his little brother, Kevin.

Teammates wondered how Isaiah held it together.

“It’s not just like, ‘My best friend got killed,’ which is hard enough to take,” says Iona senior forward David Laury, Isaiah’s closest friend on the team. “It’s like, ‘One of my best friends got killed.’ Two months later, ‘Another one of my best friends got killed.’ Another month later, ‘Another one of my best friends got killed.’ These are kids that he grew up with from around, like, sandbox time. It was just ridiculous.”

The off-campus house Isaiah shares this year with seven students is quintessential college — dirty floors, a Fry Baby in the kitchen and a sign hanging in the foyer that reads “5 O’Clock Somewhere Ave.” He says he’s doing well balancing books and basketball as he works toward a degree in criminal justice and currently sports a 3.0 grade-point average thanks, in part, to Wednesday evening date nights with Menendez at the library.

The biggest difference between New Rochelle and Newark is obvious, Isaiah says.

“Here, you can walk outside around 11 o’clock and you don’t have to worry,” he says. “Back home, once the sun goes down, you need to be in the house. Not even — when the sun’s up, you still not safe.”

Even with Isaiah at school, his presence is felt in the family’s Newark home. His associate’s degree hangs next to the front door. The living room alcove is filled with 26 trophies and dozens of medals. Framed pictures of Isaiah dot the walls.

Errol Morris on electric football

Errol Morris is widely regarded as the premiere documentary filmmaker alive. This week, the sports and culture website Grantland has declared it to be “Errol Morris” week and is celebrating their own invented holiday by releasing a brand new Errol Morris short documentary each day. The first one, It’s Not Crazy, It’s Sports: ‘The Subterranean Stadium’, is a 22 minute slice of life focusing on a man whose love for electric football permeates the life of his wife, family, and friends. I plan to watch and review all of the films this week. For full disclosure, I am a big fan of both Grantland and Morris, so I’m likely to enjoy most of them. I loved this one.

The film begins by focusing on the game of electric football. Electric football is a table-top game invented in the late 1940s and still produced today. Although its prominence in the world of football make-believe and simulation has long been superseded by both fantasy football and football video games, electric football continues to have a passionate following and is still sold today. Since its invention, more than 40 million sets have been sold. Players set up miniature football players on an electrified field. When a switch is flipped, the field electrifies, and the players, whose bases serve as conductors (both for electricity and to provide direction for the player), take off. When a defender makes contact with the player with the ball, the play is over and the setup begins again. By now, of course, you might be thinking that you don’t actually feel that interested in the minutiae of an archaic sports simulation. You’re in luck. No matter what the subjects of Morris’ films are, what he cares about is people.

People are the true focus of this film and the results are spectacular. Morris’ films can be separated into two main groups: the ones where he takes a serious topic and dissects it (like wrongful conviction in The Thin Blue Line, the Vietnam war in The Fog of War, or Abu Gharaib in Standard Operating Procedure) and the ones where he takes a frivolous or mundane topic and enlivens it (like small town life in Vernon, Florida or animal lovers in Gates of Heaven). This is definitely an example of the second. Love and humor are present in the thirty year tradition of gathering once a week in John DiCarlo’s basement to play electric football but as the documentary goes on, you begin to understand that there’s real pathos as well. Morris and whoever created the music for the film do a masterful job of allowing some of the tough realities of these people’s lives trickle into the film. You learn that DiCarlo is a Vietnam veteran who suffers from serious health problems due to his exposure to Agent Orange. The scene-stealing star of the film, a hot-blooded hot-dog vendor nicknamed Hotman (real name Peter Dietz) provides laughs and grins for most of the film and then the best line towards the end. When discussing his regret about never having children, he looks at the camera and says, “I had to play the hand I dealt myself.”

“I had to play the hand I dealt myself.” That line perfectly encapsulates this short film. The people who congregate in John DiCarlo’s Subterranean Stadium are realistic about their lives but also unrepentant. They know better than we do that winning an electric football simulation can only momentarily sooth the wounds of the lives they’ve lived, full of war and drugs and hardship and loss, but they’re unrepentant. The awkward beauty of the mangled card metaphor is that, had Dietz thought about it a little longer, he would have found that the perfect metaphor wasn’t playing cards with all its inherent randomness but electric football where you place the players where you want them and then sit back and watch the action unfold.

How does European club soccer work?

European soccer has a bewildering array of teams and competitions. It’s often hard to understand how European club soccer works, even for people who love soccer. Many of the things sports fans in the United States take for granted about how professional sports works are simply not true in European soccer. As with many elements of sports, almost no one in the sports media ever stops to explain the intricacies of a system that, once you start to grapple with it, is not that hard to understand. So, without further ado, let’s answer the question: how does European club soccer work?

Domestic Leagues

The first stop on our journey through European soccer is the domestic leagues. A domestic league is an organization of soccer teams within a single country that play a schedule of games against other teams in their league each year. In U.S. professional sports, only the NFL is truly a domestic league. The other major sports leagues, the NBA, NHL, MLB, and MLS are all quasi domestic leagues because they have at least one team in Canada. What the heck, let’s annex Canada for the purpose of this post and call these domestic leagues. The similarity between these leagues and Domestic soccer leagues in Europe are create much of the confusion for North American sports fans in understanding European soccer, because the truth is, they’re not very similar at all. Understanding how they are different is key to understanding how European soccer works.

  • There are no playoffs in most domestic European Leagues. Teams generally play every other team in the league twice during the season. At the end of the season, the team with the best record wins. If there is a tie, a single tie-breaking playoff game might be played, but that’s it. This is really different from North American sports leagues, where the regular season is primarily a race for playoff seeding.
  • Domestic leagues in Europe are not solitary organizations. They exist within a hierarchy of leagues in their country. This exists to some extent in North America, most successfully in Major League Baseball, which has a series of minor leagues. The difference is that in baseball, only players move from league to league. In European soccer, teams do! It’s called relegation. At the end of every domestic league season, a few (the numbers vary by country) of the worst teams in each league move down to a lower league while a few of the top teams in each league move up. Teams that are promoted up a league stand to gain an incredible financial boost, from the league, television contracts, endorsements, and fan support. Being demoted or relegated down a league is a sporting and financial disaster.
  • Club teams don’t just play games within their domestic league. They simultaneously participate in other competitions against club teams within their country and internationally. We’ll cover those competitions below.

Here are some of the most famous and competitive domestic leagues in Europe. I’ve organized them into tiers based on how many qualification spots they get into the most prestigious international club soccer competition, the Champions League. More on that soon.

Top Tier Domestic LeaguesLa Liga – SpainPremier League – EnglandBundesliga – Germany

Close but not quite the bestSerie A – ItalyPrimeira Liga – PortugalLigue 1 – France

The best of the restPremiere League – UkrainePremier League – RussiaEredivisie – NetherlandsSüper Lig – TurkeyJupiler Pro League – BelgiumSuperleague – GreeceRaiffeisen Super League – SwitzerlandFirst Division – CyprusSuperliga – Denmark

That’s a lot of leagues, but there are at least 39 others in Europe, from Wales to Macedonia and back again.

While these 54 or so domestic league seasons are taking shape, many of the teams in those leagues will play in other tournaments. These tournaments, generally called Cups or Leagues themselves, have a format that will be familiar to most soccer fans. They begin win one or more group stages, where teams, usually four, in a group play each other in a round-robin to decide which team moves on to the knock-out stage. The only wrinkle to many of them is that instead of a single game against another team, most of these tournaments have teams play each other twice, once at each team’s home stadium. After the two games, the team that has scored more goals in the two games combined, advances.

Domestic Cups

During a soccer club’s domestic league season, they will usually also take part in at least one Domestic Cup. A Domestic Cup is a tournament of club teams within one, a set, or all the domestic leagues within a country. These tournaments can be divided generally between League Cups and Association Cups. League Cups are those that restrict their entries to teams in one or two or a handful of domestic leagues. Association Cups are open to every team in an entire country’s domestic league system. There’s something very attractive and truly crazy about the open-endedness of an Association Cup. If sport is supposed to be the ultimate meritocracy, then why not let a team of semi-professional players with a budget of only a few thousand euros or pounds go up against one of the biggest and richest teams in the world? Miraculous upsets really only happen once every twenty or thirty years but when the do, they’re worth savoring, and they lend the entire tournament an air of romance.

A few of the most famous domestic cups and most widely televised ones in the United States are:

The Copa del Rey in Spain, which is a League Cup with only teams from the top two divisions, plus a select group from the third and fourth divisions, invited. The FA Cup in England. This is England’s famous association cup. The Football League Cup in England. Now called the Capital One cup, this is England’s most famous league cup, open only to teams from the top two leagues.

International Club Competitions

As you might suspect from the interrelated nature of Europe’s politics, some of its best club soccer comes in games between teams from different countries who play in different leagues. The Champions League is the premier international tournament of club soccer in the world. It’s such a big deal, that for most teams, winning a Champions League title is a bigger deal than winning a domestic cup or their league championship itself. This is a little hard to understand for most American sports fans. Once we identify the parallel between the NBA, NHL, MLB, or NFL and a domestic soccer league in Europe, it’s hard for us to imagine that anything could be more important than winning a league championship, but it is.

The Champions League is itself a complicated beast. I wrote a post just about how it works, which I suggest if you want a more detailed description. The short story is that the top one, two, three, or four teams from each domestic league are invited to play in the Champions League. The exact number is based on the overall strength of the league in recent years. In the tiered set of leagues above, the top tier gets four spots, the second tier, three, the third tier, two, and the other 39 leagues only get one spot for their domestic league champion to enter the Champions League. The Champions League happens throughout the soccer season, during and in between domestic league games. So, one year’s Champions League is made up of teams who qualified based on their performance in domestic leagues the year before. The current domestic league season determines qualification for next year’s Champions League. It’s all a little like the famous pre-taped call-in show.

The Europa League is to the Champions League what the NIT is to the NCAA Tournament in American college basketball. It’s a second-tier international club competition. It’s recently become more interesting because the overall winner of the Europa League will get a (close-to) automatic spot in next year’s Champions League. That alone is worth enough to a soccer team and its fans to make this once-mostly-ignored competition more interesting.

Well, I hope this has helped. I’ve found that watching European soccer can be quite rewarding. Its strange elements make me think about how sports leagues are set up and open my mind to thinking about the benefits of different forms of competition. A lot of the soccer is also very high quality — some say it’s actually better than the World Cup. It’s more accessible now than it’s ever been before. Games are televised live, mostly on NBC Sports Network, Fox Sports 1 and 2, and beIN Sports, but also on NBC and Fox. Game times are often mid-afternoon during the week and on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Give it a try sometime and let me know what you think!

Super Bowl XLIX: What happened when the Seahawks lost the ball at the end?

In my daily podcasts where I give a forecast of the next day’s sports happenings, I always start out with the refrain, “Sports is no fun if you don’t know what’s going on!” That might never have been more true than last night at the end of the Super Bowl. A lot of dramatic things happened very quickly at the end of the game and if you weren’t well versed in football’s rules, tactics, and language, it was probably difficult to understand what was happening. Lord knows, the football fans in the room were too busy screaming and hollering to explain it rationally to you. We’ll start with the biggest play of the game, the interception that Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler made to win the game. This play is being called one of the stupidest in Super Bowl history. It was definitely one of the most dramatic.

Let’s pick up the action right after Jermaine Kearse’s insane bobbling catch. This left the Seahawks with a first down on the Patriots five yard line with 1:06 left in the game. First down and five means that the Seahawks have four more chances to get a touchdown by moving the ball into the end zone which is only five yards away. For a review of how down and distance work, read our post on the topic here. Situations at the end of football games are all about down, distance, score, and time. How many more chances do you have to run a play, how far do you need to move the ball to earn more chances or to score, how many points do you need to tie or win the game, and how much time do you have remaining. In this case, the answers were: four more chances, five yards, four points to tie (which means the Seahawks needed to score a touchdown because a field goal would only have given them three points), and 1:06 with two timeouts. At the end of football games, the clock stops at the end of some plays and keeps running at the end of others. The quick run-down is that the clock keeps running if a player with the ball is tackled on the field and stops if a player with the ball runs out of the field or if the quarterback throws a pass that hits the ground without anyone catching it (that’s called an incompletion). At the end of every play, both teams have a chance to call a timeout, which stops the clock, if they have one left. Each team gets three timeouts to use per half.

From this moment on, the teams trading making mistakes (or at least questionable decisions) until Seattle made the final mistake that would cost them the Super Bowl. First — in the confusion following Kearse’s catch, the Seahawks took the second of their three timeouts. This was a relatively minor mistake. A team never wants to use a timeout when the clock is already stopped, as it was in this case because Kearse went out-of-bounds after he caught the ball, but the Seahawks were still in a very good position. 1:06 is plenty of time and four downs is plenty of chances for a team to score a touchdown.

On the next play, the Seahawks handed the ball to running back Marshawn Lynch who ran it four yards, almost scoring a touchdown before he was tackled on the one yard line.

This sets up a second down with one yard to go to score a touchdown and about one minute left on the clock. The Seahawks have one timeout. The Patriots have two. The clock continues to count down because Lynch was tacked on the field.

At this point, you might think that Seattle’s coaches are single-mindedly obsessed with scoring a touchdown and New England’s coaches are thinking of nothing other than stopping them. That’s not quite true. The other thing that each set of coaches is thinking about is timing. If Seattle had scored a touchdown and kicked the extra point, that would have given them seven points to put them up by three. Three is the number of points a team can get for kicking a field goal. New England has a great quarterback, a set of clever wide receivers, and an excellent field goal kicker. Seattle had to have been afraid of scoring too fast and leaving New England time to storm down the field and kick a field goal to force the game into overtime. This is the essentially what had happened to them against Green Bay in their last game when quarterback Aaron Rodgers drove the Packers 48 yards in 1:12 with no timeouts before kicking a field goal to send the game to overtime. Seattle’s ideal scenario is to score a touchdown with as little time left as possible, so that New England cannot do anything on offense. That is why, after Lynch’s run to the one yard line, they chose to let the clock run down, all the way to 26 seconds before running their next play.

And here’s where things went horribly, horribly wrong for Seattle. They decided to throw the ball. You’ve seen the result, but let’s watch it again. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson throws to his right, towards the bottom of the screen, and, instead of his teammate catching it, Patriots defender, Malcolm Butler catches it. When a defender catches the ball, it’s called an interception,(Inter- because the defender has come between the quarterback and his teammate, and -ception because the defender has caught the ball which in football language is often called making a reception.), and his team gets to switch to offense on the next play. By taking the ball away from the Seahawks offense, this single play took the Patriots’ chance of winning from a very, very slim chance to a near certainty.

It’s being widely called one of the stupidest calls in football history. Why? To understand this, the first thing you need to know is that football players are usually a little like mannikins. Before each play, an offensive coach decides what he wants his players to do and he radios the call into the helmet of the quarterback. The quarterback tells the rest of his teammates and then they execute the play as it was designed. Seattle’s players didn’t decide to throw the ball, their coaches did. Running the ball is safer than throwing it. It varies by situation and by player, but this year 2.6% of all the passes that were thrown in the NFL led to interceptions. Compare this to the percent of running plays that ended with a fumble, which was only 1.6%. When you consider that close to half of all fumbles are recovered by the team that fumbled the ball (which means they get to stay on offense) the percentage drops to .7%. By this metric, passing the ball is almost exactly four times more dangerous than running it. Running, especially for the Seahawks, was also very likely to have been successful. Their running back, Marshawn Lynch is almost the perfect player for this situation. He’s powerful, determined, and good at holding on to the ball. In 2014, he fumbled four out of the 280 times he ran with the ball. That’s only 1.4% of the time. In his career, he’s run the ball 2,033 times and fumbled only 27 times or 1.3% of the time. Both are better than average. He also only needed to go one yard. During the Super Bowl against the Patriots, Lynch had run the ball 26 times. Here was how far he got each time: 3, 5, 0, 4, 3, 5, 5, 4, 5, 4, 5, 5, 3, 3, 3, 15, 7, 0, 3, 14, 1, 2, 2, 1, 5, 4. If his 27th rushing attempt had been anything like his first 26, he would have scored between 85-92% of the time.

There are all sorts of more detailed arguments for why the Seattle coaches did what they did, but hopefully this gives you enough background to understand why people are so down on the play they called. This afternoon we’ll investigate what happened after the interception, when the Patriots had the ball on their own one yard line and then there was a penalty and then there was a fight and then the game was over… until then, thanks for reading.

Super Bowl XLIX: Meet the Seattle Seahawks defense

In the week leading up to Super Bowl XLIX, we’re profiling the important characters of the game. We’ve already run posts on Seattle’s coach, Pete Carroll, quarterback, Russell Wilson, and the rest of the Seattle Seahawks offense. Now it’s time to learn a little about the Seattle Seahawks defense.

Michael Bennett, Defensive End

I’m a pretty big football fan and I write about sports close to full time but I didn’t know much about Michael Bennett before this year’s playoffs. Now, he’s one of my favorite characters in the league. Bennett was initially signed out of college as a free agent by the Seattle Seahawks in 2009. He was released before ever playing a game and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed him. He played there for four years and improved every year. During the offseason before last season, the Seahawks signed him to a one year contract and, after they won the Super Bowl, re-signed him for another four years. He grew up in Texas and has a brother who also plays in the NFL, Martellus Bennett. Martellus has been a well-known jokester for a while now, having given himself the nickname, “The Black Unicorn” in 2013. Michael Bennett has been letting his humorous side show this year too. After the Seahawks win over the Green Bay Packers, Bennett commandeered a police bicycle and rode around the field:

During media day this Tuesday, Bennett had a series of great lines, including comments about his wife’s booty and great beards of history as well as doing imitations of some of his more famous teammates.

Bobby Wagner, Linebacker

The Seahawks defense is full of brash characters who talk as brashly as they play. Wagner is the exception. He’s an undersized, soft-spoken middle linebacker who helps the rest of the defense when they gamble to make a spectacular play by using his speed to cover for them. He’s the defensive signal caller which means his helmet has a green dot on the back, the symbol for a helmet with a radio receiver in it. Wagner gets the defensive play calls from a coach and then relays them to his teammates. Wagner will have his hands full trying to counter Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s offensive creativity. Since Wagner came back from an early season injury, the Seahawks have not lost a game.

Richard Sherman, Cornerback

Richard Sherman is now more famous for being controversial than he is actually controversial. It all started a year ago when the Seahawks beat the San Francisco 49ers and Sherman was interviewed on the field after the game by reporter Erin Andrews. Sherman said that he was the best player at his position (an audacious claim, but he is certainly in the top handful of players and, like a surgeon, don’t you want him to think he’s the best?) and then, in answering a question about the last play of the game, when he cliched the win for the Seahawks with an interception, he said that was the result the other team should expect when they tried to throw the ball to a “sorry receiver” like the one he was covering. Nothing there seems all that controversial but it set off weeks of commentary on Sherman and who or what he represents. What he represents in this game, is an extraordinary defender who will probably be able to prevent whichever wide receiver he’s covering from catching the ball. If Tom Brady is brave enough to challenge him by throwing in Sherman’s direction, watch for Sherman to make a play on the ball and try to catch it himself.

Kam Chancellor, Safety

Let’s let our last character, Richard Sherman describe his teammate Kam Chancellor and his role in the Seahawks defense. This comes from Robert MaysGrantland profile of Chancellor: “He just brings that menacing force,” Sherman says. “We’re a bunch of wild dogs, and a pack of wild dogs is pretty dangerous. But a lion running with a pack of wild dogs … that’s something.” Chancellor’s athletic play has inspired a bunch of nicknames. He’s known as Bam Bam Kam, Kamtrak, and The Commissioner. Chancellor was the guy who kept leaping over the offensive line to try to block a field goal a few weeks ago. In this game, if the Seahawks choose to change their defensive strategy to focus on Patriots Tight End, Rob Gronkowski, Chancellor would likely be the one to get the assignment of taking him out of the game.

Earl Thomas, Safety

Earl Thomas rounds out the Seahawks group of wildly successful defensive misfits. At 5’10”, he’s way too short to be as good at his position as he is. But he is. He was drafted in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft by Seattle and has yet to miss a single game. As opposed to his safety partner, Kam Chancellor, Thomas is more likely to go after interceptions than knock-out hits. Off-the-field, Thomas is a conundrum. Seattle Times columnist, Larry Stone described Thomas as the most “paradoxical” of the Seahawks and commented that “after an interview, you don’t want to shake his hand so much as engage in a group hug.” Thomas separated his shoulder in the Seahawks last game but tweeted recently that his shoulder is completely recovered. In what could not have been a coincidence, the NFL blood tested him soon after the tweet.

Prepare for the Super Bowl with Dear Sports Fan. We will be running special features all week to help everyone from the die-hard football fan to the most casual observer enjoy the game. So far we’ve profiled Seattle Seahawks coach Pete CarrollNew England Patriots coach Bill BelichickNew England Patriots quarterback Tom BradySeattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilsonthe Seattle Seahawks secondary offensive characters, and the New England Patriots defenseIf you haven’t signed up for our newsletter or either of our Football 101 or 201 courses, do it today!

How does icing work in hockey?

Dear Sports Fan,

How does icing work in hockey? No matter how much hockey I watch, I continue to be confused by icing. It seems like the refs will just randomly blow the whistle sometimes when the puck gets shot down the rink and then the announcers say it’s icing.

Thanks,
Gil


Dear Gil,

In hockey there are two types of calls that the refs make. There are penalties and then there are infractions. When the ref calls a foul, he or she sends one or more players off the ice into the penalty box for two or more minutes. Infractions are for lesser offenses. They are like the misdemeanors of the hockey world. Of all the infractions, icing is perhaps the most important one. In this post, I’ll explain what icing is and why it is so important in hockey.

Icing happens a player sends the puck directly from their side of the rink all the way past the goal line on the opposite side of the rink without one of the player’s teammates touching the puck and without any player on the other team having had a chance to play the puck. The team that shot the puck down the ice is penalized for icing the puck by bringing the puck all the way back to their defensive zone to restart play. Additionally, the team that has violated the icing rule is not allowed to change players while the other team can. As you might be able to guess from the rule’s description and penalty, icing is a rule designed to slant the game towards the offense by constraining the defense. Without the icing rule, a team trapped in their own end of the rink, frantically playing defense, would be able to blindly shoot the puck the length of the ice to relieve the pressure the other team is putting on them. With the icing rule, a team that does this is stuck with the same (usually very tired) players on the ice while their opposition gets to roll out a fresh set of players to set up on offense.

One thing that’s a little bit tricky about the icing rule is that it is not based on intent, only geography. It makes no distinction between a desperate defensive player who flings the puck all the way from their own goal line and a player skating up the rink on offense who dumps the puck into their offensive zone intending to retrieve it, but lets the puck go just inches on their side of the ice by mistake. Both players would be called for icing but the second scenario is much harder to see. That could be why the rule seems random to you.

Before we go into why the rule is so important, there are two key wrinkles we should cover. First — a team that is on the penalty kill (is playing with fewer players on the ice because of a penalty or series of penalties) is exempt from icing. Down a man, they can throw the puck all the way down the ice with a clear conscience. Second — it used to be that icing would not be called until the team not icing the puck had skated back to their end of the rink and touched the puck. That led to some exciting races, because remember that if a teammate of the player who iced the puck touches it first, it’s not icing. Unfortunately, it also led to a lot of horrible injuries. Normally players will let up a little if they are skating directly into the boards, but if an icing call was at stake, they didn’t. Two players, skating full speed towards unforgiving boards is not good. So, in 2013, the NHL finally adopted the “no-touch” icing rules that were prevalent in other leagues. These rules dictate that when a puck has been iced, the icing team can still race to negate the icing penalty but the end point of the race is the red face-off dot closest to the puck, not the puck itself.

Icing calls are frequently pivotal in a hockey game because, second to fouls that give one team a numerical advantage, icing is the most punitive rule in the sport. Hockey is not nearly as territorial as, say, American Football, but having a face-off in a team’s offensive zone rather than the neutral zone or defensive zone can be a big deal. The fact that icing creates this situation while also giving the offensive team an opportunity to substitute players while the other team cannot, can be a very big deal. If you want to do a little study, watch a few hockey games and keep track of the number of times your team gets a legitimate scoring chance directly from an offensive zone face-off following an icing call, versus any other offensive zone face-off. My guess is that icing will result in a much higher percentage of scoring chances.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Sports Forecast for Monday, December 29, 2014

Sports is no fun if you don’t know what’s going on. Here’s what’s going on:

In today’s segment, I covered:

  • NCAA Football – Texas A&M vs. West Virginia in the Liberty Bowl, 2 p.m. ET on ESPN.
  • British Premier League — Swansea City at Liverpool, 3 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network.
  • NHL Hockey — Detroit Red Wings at Boston Bruins, 7:00 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network.
  • NBA Basketball – Washington Wizards at Houston Rockets, 8 p.m. ET on regional cable.

For email subscribers, click here to get the audio.

You can subscribe to all Dear Sports Fan podcasts by following this link.

Music by Jesse Fischer.

Stumbling to the end… the NFL in 2014

The story of the year in sports has been the downfall of the NFL’s institutional standing at a time when it is still close to its pinnacle in popularity if not expanding. The NFL and the sports media companies that cover it have dealt with some serious issues this year, from domestic abuse all the way to child abuse with lots of other abuses between. At every step of the way, they/we have proven to be rigid, self-impressed, and unable to adequately or elegantly meet the challenges it faces. This year-long travail continued in the news this week with three new stories covering the poor treatment of NFL cheerleaders, a fan who finds himself unable to be a fan anymore, and some insight from ESPN’s ombudsman on his way out of the position.

Buffalo Bills Cheerleaders’ Routine: No Wages and No Respect

by Michael Powell for the New York Times

Mark Bittman wrote an op-ed in the New York Times yesterday where he argued that all of our issues from police brutality to minimum wage to climate change are all connected and should be confronted that way. I imagine he would draw a direct line from the casual and incomprehensible abuse of power between the NFL and its cheerleading teams to the other high-profile social issues of our times. For myself, I can say that I simply do not understand the NFL’s treatment of its cheer squads from a financial perspective. Paying and treating them fairly would have no negative impact on NFL teams’ bottom lines. It would be like a single drop escaping from a bucket the size of Rhode Island. 

The National Football League, that $10 billion “nonprofit” business, is the occasionally repulsive gift that keeps on giving. An all-American empire, the N.F.L. is structured with various and many principalities and emirates, and fixers who cushion the leadership from the unsightly details of league business as usual.

The team’s contractor handed the women a contract and a personnel code, and told them to sign on the spot. The team dictated everything from the color of their hair to how they handled their menstrual cycle.

The contractor required they visit a sponsor who was a plastic surgeon. He offered a small discount if they opted for breast augmentation and other services. Larger breasts, however, were not a condition of nonpaid employment.

The Jills’ subcontractor, Stejon Productions, readily acknowledges that it is a front operation.

The National Football League, as is its practice, has little to say on the question of uncompensated work by these high-profile women. Goodell offered his patented I-know-nothing routine.

“I have no knowledge,” he wrote in an affidavit, of the Jills’ “selection, training, compensation and/or pay practices.”

A contract surfaced that laid out the terms and was signed by Goodell. A league lawyer asserted that Goodell’s signature was affixed by a stamp.

Vijay Seshadri Struggles With Watching Football

by Liz Robbins for the New York Times

Vijay Seshadri is a poet who hurtled into the public consciousness when his poem, The Disappearances was published by the New Yorker in the issue following 9/11. In this small profile, Seshadri expresses feelings of conflict and loss over his Sunday routine which used to consist of football, football, football; no longer. 

I feel a little reluctant to tell you what else I do on Sunday. I feel bad about it now. I feel conflicted. Usually in the fall I would watch football. I was a Steelers fan. My parents still live in Pittsburgh and I went to high school there. I always felt like somehow that was one of the things in my life that ennobled me.

So this year has been very bad for me in terms of the normal rhythms of a Sunday. I can’t really comfortably sit down and watch the pregame shows. It’s weird if you’re a sports fan to have all this karmic weight bearing down on this experience that you approached with a certain amount of innocence.

Inside the ESPN Empire

By Chris Laskowski for Slate

Like many enormous companies, ESPN has an ombudsman, someone within the organization but independent from its normal hierarchy who can investigate disputes and, in the case of media organizations, comment publicly on them. Richard Lipsyte has been ESPN’s ombudsman for the last year and a half but has decided to leave the post. On his way out, he gave an interview to Chris Laskowski and Slate magazine. It’s a revealing look inside the sausage machine of sports news and surprisingly (at least to me,) Lipsyte flips the script and puts the majority of blame for the tenor of ESPN’s “see no evil, hear no evil” coverage on its fans.

The tension here isn’t just between ESPN and its business partners in the NFL, NBA, and MLB. It’s between ESPN and its viewers, who mostly don’t seem to care whether the leagues are doing evil.

Lipsyte says he received close to 20,000 emails during his time as ombudsman. Lots of viewers complained about specific on-air issues—why is this person still on the air, or why does ESPN hate my favorite sport, particularly if that favorite sport is hockey. But what really bothered ESPN’s core audience, Lipsyte says, was “the intrusion of what they called societal issues into what was, in a way, kind of a sacred place. People so often come to sports as this sanctuary from the real world, where they can sit in their living room with their family and not be assailed by anything that will upset them.” For some, that upsetting thing was the sight of football player Michael Sam kissing his boyfriend to celebrate being drafted.

What is the Most Challenging Ball Sport? The Least?

Dear Sports Fan,

What do you consider the most physically challenging sport that involves a ball? The least?

Thanks,
Crystal

— — —

Okay, so bocce is not the most physically challenging... but is it a sport?

Hey Crystal,

I’m glad you said “physically challenging” rather than simply “challenging.” That makes this a much easier question for me to answer because it rules out baseball. Baseball (only nominally a sport as far as I’m concerned) is extremely technically challenging but virtually no one would say it is the most physically challenging sport. I’m glad you specified that the sport should involve a ball because that rules out hockey, ballet, and cycling. All three of those sports are incredibly physically grueling often to the point of seriously damaging the people who play them.

The most physically challenging ball sport has to be water polo. I know I’ve mentioned water polo before so attentive readers may be thinking that I just have a thing for water polo. But seriously — imagine swimming and treading water for 32 minutes.[1] That’s exhausting enough! Now add playing a sport which involves a lot of time treading water without your hands and arms and tons of times when you drive yourself up out of the water to catch, throw, and block the ball. To that add violence. Tons of violence. Here is an article from the Washington Post written during the 2004 olympics that describes this pretty well:

Water polo players launch themselves out of the water to shoot.

Through the murk of the water, you see elbows swung into guts, knees slammed into groins, hands yanking bathing suits into painful wedgies, guys simply swimming on top of an opponent and holding him under water until he fights his way, punching and kicking, to the surface. Technically, none of this stuff is legal, but the refs working the poolside allow a certain amount of leeway.

The least physically challenging sport is actually a harder question because being physically challenging is one of the elements that usually helps distinguish between a game and a sport. For instance, though many of you might think I was going to argue for golf as the least challenging sport, I would say that if you count golf as a sport, you should count bocce! And bocce is much less physically challenging than golf.[2] No need to limber up to hit a ball hundreds of feet in bocce. No “walking the course” for 72 holes over four days. Bocce consists of throwing not that heavy balls not that far towards an even smaller, lighter ball.

One of the best five baseball players in the world.
TIME FOR TEA!!!

If you exclude bocce, golf, pool, darts, and try to find a true sport sport which is pretty easy to play, then I think it’s probably got to be cricket. I don’t know that much about cricket but I do know that test cricket is played over up to five days. During each day “there are usually three two-hour sessions, with a forty minute break for ‘lunch’ and a twenty minute break for ‘tea’.” I am sure cricket takes an enormous amount of skill and it’s hard to argue that baseball (a sport where one of it’s best players looks like this) is more physically demanding… but…. well, what do you think?

Great question!
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. There are four eight-minute quarters in water polo although because the clock stops on fouls and when the ball goes out of bounds, most quarters actually last around 12 minutes. Players will continue to tread water even when the clock has stopped. We hope.
  2. Excluding cross-country bocce, of course!