Far be it from me to suggest the start of the NFL season Thursday night should make anybody feel guilty. After all, most of us stopped searching long ago for any type of moral enrichment in the world of professional sport, as we send out our biggest and best to risk body and brain injury on the field, ice, ring, octagon and pitch for our amusement.
I mean, I like to think I’m a reasonably enlightened person, but truth is, the only reasons I won’t watch the NFL is because I don’t gamble, aren’t particularly interested in your stupid fantasy team, have a strong aversion right now to anything that cloaks itself in over-the-top nationalism, and because … well, not much really happens in a football game except for a bunch of meetings interrupted by brief bursts of stuff explained by annoying people. But, hey, whatever floats your boat, you know? It’s not like I sit there and go, “ooh, CTE,” every time somebody flattens anybody. To tell you that would be a lie.
It is true: I have a difficult time watching a sport where people pay attention to anything said by folks like Ray Lewis – nice moral compass, there – or where anybody could even think a boob like Art Briles deserves a second chance. I have better things to do than listen to syllabically-challenged former players talk about ‘the National Football League!’ instead of just saying ‘NFL.’ Generally, I get nervous when a lot of ‘god-fearin’ ‘Mericans’ get together to do anything. Nothing against religion, I’m just not a fan of the end times. Not yet, at least, although a few more months of Trump –
But, no, I digress. I will be fascinated to see how the NFL and its fans react to repeated protests by players over serious social issues of which seemingly 90 per cent of the spectators and 99.9 per cent of the owners and 106 per cent of coaches are either blissfully unaware of or simply don’t care about. The comforting NFL bubble of tailgating and fly-overs and 30-minute renditions of The Star-Spangled Banner and adult males acting badly in the stands may not be the refuge from reality that it once was. As Stephen Brunt and myself heard on our show this week from Dr. Harry Edwards, there’s a hard rain gonna come to this league of largely African-American players and the truth is that unlike the NBA, the NFL is not equipped to handle it. The commissioner, to be blunt, isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer and there are no coaches cut from the cloth of Gregg Popovich or Stan Van Gundy comfortable with players speaking truth to power. Truth to Power? Didn’t they hook up for that 40-yard pass, like, 13 years ago in the Liberty Bowl?
So, by all means, do what sports fans do best: justify your time and enjoy your complicity, and know that if you go to hell the dude at the door will be wearing NFL-licensed merchandise. But allow yourself some time to think about what’s going into the sausage, yeah? And, hey, if players routinely turn the national anthem into a Tommie Smith/John Carlos moment and that leads to the death of the anthem’s playing before sports events? Even better.
THE SUMMER OF SHAP – ER, … STROLL?
These kids, man. These kids. Last summer, it was the likes of Penny Oleksiak and Andre De Grasse writing themselves into our sports history and our sports conscience. Injury ruined De Grasse’s world athletics championships this summer; Oleksiak and the rest of the Canadian team swam to minimal returns at the world aquatics championships … which meant the summer belonged to Oleksiak’s 18-year-old friend Denis Shapovalov and, a little more quietly, another 18-year-old, Lance Stroll.
Stroll’s rise has been at least as notable as Shapovalov’s, despite the absence of similar levels of excitement on the part of the chattering classes, not the least because of the danger associated with being an F1 driver. Sorry, folks: Stroll has come farther than Shapovalov in a short period of time, out of a much shallower talent pool. Decried as being a spoiled rich kid who only managed to land a seat with Williams Martini racing because of his billionaire father Lawrence Stroll’s largesse, called "one of the worst F1 rookies ever" by fellow Canadian Jacques Villeneuve, Stroll last weekend became the youngest-ever driver to start on the front row of an F1 race when he was moved up to second place following penalties assessed to other drivers in qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix. Already the youngest driver to finish on the podium when he came in third at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in June, Stroll finished seventh at Monza. After four DNFs in his first six races he has finished in the Top 10 in four of his last seven ahead of next weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix.
He’ll move on to a bigger and better team at some point in a sport where inexperience has real consequences. But for now, at least, his opponents don’t mind sharing a track with him, and he’s known for something other than being the kid who said he was "pissed off" after messing up in two corners at Monaco because: "every time I play the PlayStation game, it’s always those two corners that I can’t get right … and in reality, it’s still those two corners." Daddy’s still rich, though …
QUIBBLES AND BITS
(*)Perceptive piece by our Chris Johnston on Wednesday’s ‘Declaration of Principles’ unveiled by the NHL and NHLPA and other stakeholders and its impact on the draft, once again raising the possibility of upping the draft age to 19. As always, I’m conflicted by this: an added year away from the pressures of expectations that come from being a professional can’t be a bad thing. On the other hand – as is the case with basketball, although on a different financial level – I’m not certain another year of minimum-wage employment to line the pockets of the junior system is fair. When everybody else is making money off you, I have a tough time telling a player to wait a year;
(*)You know who I need to hear from about Aaron Sanchez? I need to hear from his agent, Scott Boras, who is extremely proactive when it comes to his clients – who in fact has taken a direct hand in recent seasons when it came to injuries to the likes of Stephen Strasburg and Matt Harvey. The overriding concern is, of course, for the health of Sanchez, but my guess is at some point this off-season the handling of Sanchez’s blister issue will become a topic of conversation when we get around to figuring out how much Sanchez makes in 2018. I have to think Boras has been involved in this process – indeed, GM Ross Atkins went out of his way on Wednesday to include the importance of the pitcher’s input in determining when or if he gets back on the mound this month, which by extension would mean Boras – but ultimately we won’t know until it comes time to talk money. This likely isn’t the way the Blue Jays wanted to save a little money …
(*)Here’s your Montreal Expos reference for the day: when the Detroit Tigers’ Ian Kinsler went deep in the fifth inning Wednesday, it was his 15th home run of the season – all of them solo shots. According to Elias, since 1969, only three other players’ first 15 HRs of a season have been solo: Ken Singleton of the Baltimore Orioles in 1975 – Singleton only hit 15 that season – as well as Andre Dawson (1981) and Kal Daniels of the Cincinnati Reds in 1987.
Thank goodness the folks in charge of the Toronto Blue Jays have bigger stones than some of the worry-warts in the chattering classes when it comes to Roberto Osuna, the 22-year-old closer who has taken the torch to 10 save opportunities after 2 ½ seasons of pretty consistent work both in the regular and post-season. As Atkins said on my show Wednesday, the only change in routine for Osuna down the stretch might be limiting him from back-to-back save opportunities in these final three weeks. I’m not sure there’s a big mystery here: manager John Gibbons thinks Osuna’s had difficulty keeping on weight, and it’s pretty clear Osuna needs to streamline his thought process with pitch selection.
I think back to an interview I did with Russell Martin in spring training when he said: "I think he’s still in the process of making adjustments to his routine. He’s still super young and figuring out what he needs to do to stay fresh and feel good for a long season. I can definitely have a little influence on him .,. but he’s his own man." Look: the only thing complicated by this unravelling of form is the negotiations on a contract for 2018. Osuna’s role and future value are unaffected.