Thursday, January 13, 2005

Major steps forward for 2 governing bodies

While most of the world has been focused on Randy Moss's antics and Mike Vanderjagt's trash talk(see yesterday's blog). Major League Baseball and the NCAA have taken major steps this week in cleaning up their respective organizations.

NCAA Academic Reform

The first change was on Monday, when the NCAA passes the biggest academic reform in the institution's history since Proposition 48 was passed in the mid-1980s. According to the AP, The NCAA approved a rule change that would penalize a school's scholarships if they graduate less than 50% of their players over a 5 year period, with possible postseason bans for repeat offenders It's significant for 2 reasons.

1. It's the first time the NCAA has placed the responsibility for academics on the school. The NCAA has always kepts statistics on graduation rates, but the schools were under no pressure to adhere to any minimum standard. This led to a difference in how schools punished low-performing (in the classroom) athletes. Some schools simply ignored the problem; others only punished benchwarmers. Only in rare cases were there schools who took the problem seriously enough to punish anyone who didn't make the grade. Now, it's on the school to make sure that athletes are going to class and getting the necessary grades to graduate and everyone suffers if students don't graduate.

2. It makes a fundamental change in the formula that makes it fairer to the schools. The NCAA's formula used to be based on a four year period. In other words, the percentage is based ratio of the number of athletes that graduated to the number of freshmen that entered the program four years ago. This created some problems. Academically-minded athletes (and yes, there are some out there) in 5-year bachelor/masters programs , MBA programs, and similar programs were excluded in the calculation because they took, well, 5 years to finish. Some athletes entered college through sub-standard schools and needed an extra year to catch up to their peers. "Red shirts," students who missed a year for injury or other reasons, never counted. Plus, studies show that college students on the whole are taking longer to graduate. A change to a 5 year period eliminates these loopholes and gives the school a more accurate rating.

Myles Brand, who has recieved criticism (and deservedly so) for failing to stand up to the BCS, enact tougher standards on schools who allow improper benefits, and stop the rapid pace of conference changes, deserves some praise for this, and he's not getting it. He has finally pushed forward a change that will improve the overall academic climate at major universities across the country, and actually force institutions to care about the athletes in their charge. The media response: slap it on the back page or ignore it altogether. Yes, there's more work to be done, but most of the media want to focus on the negative rather than talk solutions. Brand and the NCAA just pushed through a solution, and they should be praised.

MLB's New Steroid Policy

The next big change in sports came when baseball's two great adversaries, the Commissioner's Office and the Major League Baseball Players' Association, agreed to change the policy on steroids. Aside from the tougher penalties, which everyone expected would be part of the agreement, the league and players for the first time approved random testing for steroids. Why is this significant? Performance enhancing drugs have to be "cycled on" and "cycled off" to actually have any "benefits". If you know when you are going to be tested, you know when to cycle off so you can pass the test. If the test is random, you can't cycle off in time. This means the system actually has some teeth to it.

By the way, If you're wondering why the word "benefits" is in quotation marks it's because steroids tend to have side effects that limit sexual performance, increase the chance of cartilage and ligament damage, cause developmental problems in teens, and increase the risk of certain forms of cancer. All of which should make a rational person question whether or not all that muscle or speed is worth it. (Maybe we should advertise it like they do those perscription medications where they have to have "voice-over guy" state all the side effects. Those things scare the heck out of me and make me not want to get a prescription. But I digress.)

Like the NCAA, Baseball still has a ways to go to totally clean up it's problem. Amphetamines and other drugs for attention span, for instance, are still allowed and may be more of a cheating problem than steroids, but the game is one step closer to getting everyone on a level field.

"Tilt"ing the ratings in ESPN's favor

Finally, After much promotion and hype, the new ESPN series, Tilt, which stars veteran actor Michael Madsen as a slick Las Vegas card shark, debuts tonight. I have to admit my natural reaction was to ignore all the hype and dismiss it as an attempt to cash in on the poker boom. But I think this series has a chance to succeed.
First, the writers for the poker classic Rounders are producing and writing the series, Since they've done a good enough job with this subject before and made a cult classic film, they can probably come up with decent scripts for a TV series based on poker as well.
Second, ESPN did a great job portraying the underside of pro football with Playmakers. So good in fact, that the NFL forced ESPN to pull it off the air because it hit too close to home, but the series recieved much critical acclaim.
Third, if poker's dirty little secrets come out, all the better. I've only heard stuff about the poker world, and it's enough to discourage me from trying it as a career. Maybe seeing Tilt will discourage others from trying to play it for a living as well. That's not to say I don't like poker, I just enjoy watching it rather than playing it. (I'm a gin rummy player, myself)

Tomorrow: The Divisional Playoffs

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