Friday, July 17, 2009

The Continental Football League

My fan has spoken. He asked for another installment of The (Old) Sports Guy; he's got it.

As a sports fan, my interests are rather basketball-centric. Even when I was paying attention to other sports, it was my favourite by a long shot. These days, I don't even pay attention to anything else.

Back when I wrote about sports, I had to follow the boring sports. At the time, I even semi-liked them. I don't know what I was thinking. Although I suppose if I were thrust back into sports writing, I'd be a pro and force myself to watch some other sports.

Recently, a friend came over to the big city, family in tow, to watch a BC Lions game. Can you imagine? I mean, sure, if you happen to be here already and you've got nothing else to do, why not take in a game? But to purposely go out of your way and pay good money to watch the CFL? I don't get it.

So this oldie but goodie goes out to him. (He also, coincidentally, happens to be the fan clamouring for more, or speedier, blog entries.) It's one of the very earliest Sports Guy columns, dating back to 1993 or 1994, back when it was in the West End Times.
The Sports Guy

by Guy MacPerson

Don’t get me wrong. I like the CFL as much as the next fella. The problem is, the next falla could take it or leave it.

You can’t give away tickets to CFL games these days, and yet the league is acting like it’s the most popular sport on the planet. Vancouver, Hamilton, Ottawa and Toronto are all struggling to stay alive and the league believes it has such a valuable commodity on its hands, it decides to expand.

I can understand why the head honchos would want the CFL to grow. They’re trying to kickstart their faltering league. They know Canadians only truly appreciate something when it has been test marketed in the Excited States. What I can’t figure out is why on earth any tycoon who wants to remain a tycoon would want in. If the teams can’t draw well up here, where there’s a tradition of 3-down football, what makes them think they’ll do any better down there?

Last year, Sacramento joined in on the fun. This year new franchises will pop up in Baltimore, Shreveport and Las Vegas. There’s even talk San Antonio, Orlando and Nashville might join in. There has been no groundswell of support for Canadian football south of the border. In fact, when CFL games were shown on NBC during an NFL strike a few years back, they were practically laughed off the air.

Most Americans, and too many Canadians, feel that Canadian football is nothing but a pale comparison to the real thing. The players aren’t as big and strong as NFLers, and in their eyes might makes right. Of course they’re wrong. The CFL’s a totally different game – wide open, high scoring, exciting. Tex Cobb could beat Sugar Ray Leonard every time but that doesn’t make him a better boxer.

Is there enough talent out there to warrant such expansion? Chris Flynn and his family might say yes. But people who have seen Flynn throw would say no way. As long as there are rich guys, there will be expansion. Everyone’s doing it. The APSL will be adding cities to its league this summer. The APSL? Hands up those who’ve ever heard of it. Well, Vancouver already has a team. Now the American Professional Soccer League will be expanding to Seattle, Toronto and Houston. The National Basketball League will be growing, too. Not the NBA, but the NBL. The one situated in Canada. Maybe it’s the climate. The league’s Edmonton franchise obviously believes enough talented unemployed professional athletes are out walking the streets. They are advertising in newspapers for players.

The Western Hockey League has had inquiries from seven cities but have decided to hold off on expansion until they’re satisfied there’s enough talent to maintain the quality of play. Finally a group with sense. Mind you, this is the same bunch who hold best-of-9 playoff series.

I think more people should watch the CFL, and I think Americans could grow to respect it for what it is. But we haven’t given a lot of good Canadian cities a chance. What about Halifax? Easterners love their sports. And the Maritimes, to me, are Canada. When I think of Canada, I think of a small fishing village in Newfoundland. Halifax may or may not be in Newfoundland. That’s not for me to decide. I’m a sports columnist. But I do know this: they all talk the same and they deserve a team. There have got to be other possible cities, only I failed geography so I don’t know them.

Expansion to the States, though, is not a bad idea, per se. Americans worship football, from the high school level on up. Medium-sized American cities can’t afford an NFL team. They might very well rally around their very own CFL team. But how are we going to feel when the Grey Cup is held in Shreveport between Sacramento and Baltimore? No one in Canada is going to watch that. Nor is anyone from outside the cities involved. And the grand finale will be played in front of a stadium filled with people all related to each other.

As Yogi Berra might have said, nobody watches the CFL anymore – it’s too popular.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Silken Laumann: Official spokeswoman for Benadryl

A couple posts ago, my regular two readers were somewhat surprised that members of the fourth estate would name Silken Laumann as a particularly bad interview. She's been a media darling for eons. What was it about her they didn't like? Well, while rooting through the (Old) Sports Guy archives, I came across a column I wrote a year earlier. Remember when dear Silken got in a bit of an ethical brouhaha at a rowing event? Her legions of fans rushed to her defense. I don't know about the rest of the media (who reads such drivel?) but I, being the clear thinker I am, looked at the situation more rationally. No doubt others did, as well, which may have soured her on us. Or vice versa.

I have to say, I have no opinion on Silken as a person at all. While we went to the same university at the same time, and she was in one of my classes, I didn't follow rowing. All I knew was that she had very lovely breasts. A sexist comment, to be sure, but I was a college-aged young man and she never wore a bra. I always appreciated her entrances and exits into our English class.

But as a journalist, I had to take a long hard look at the facts of the case. Here is that column from March 30 - April 6, 1995:

The Sports Guy

by Guy MacPherson

In sports, if a penalty or foul is committed, the offending player is penalized and the opposition is awarded compensation. Whether the foul is intentional or not is inconsequential. An advantage is gained and a price must be paid.

In hockey, an unintentional high sticking gets the same result as one done with purpose. A player who tries for a steal in basketball and accidentally nudges his or her rival off balance is just as guilty as one who fouls out of frustration. Their intentions may be honourable but you know where good intentions can lead.

Canada’s sweetheart, Silken Laumann who won the nation’s hearts with a bronze medal performance in Barcelona, found herself on that road to hell last week when she and her three teammates were stripped of the gold medals they won in quadruple sculls at the Pan-Am Games in Mar Del Plata, Argentina. Laumann was guilty of the egregious crime of taking a banned substance. Nothing like anabolic steroids that fellow Canadian athlete Ben Johnson was reviled for, but the seemingly harmless cold medicine Benadryl Decongestant Allergy.

Now we know how those Chinese swimmers did it. With all that Asian flu going around, they were doped up on cough and cold medication.

Maybe not. But the problem is that Benadryl contains an amphetamine-like drug called pseudoephedrine, which is often used for its stimulant effect by less-scrupulous jocks.

By all accounts, Laumann was an innocent victim. Suffering from congestion and facing a long plane ride to Argentina, Laumann consulted her doctor about taking Gravol to help her sleep. He suggested Benadryl, which would clear her ears for the flight.

She also checked with the Canadian team doctor while in Argentina. Doc gave her the go-ahead. After winning the single and the quad sculls, she reported to the doping control office that she took the cold remedy. She was up-front all the way.

“I believe I did everything in my power to make sure what I was taking was not a banned substance,” she was reported as saying. “I asked the qualified team physician. I checked at the mission... Again there were no questions about Benadryl. I ask myself, ‘What else could I have done?’”

Well, there’s always research, for starters. That might have taken five minutes.

She gets full marks for honesty but loses points for knowledge of the subject. All Canadian athletes are given a booklet which lists banned substances. Granted, you’d think doctors would be informed enough to be trustworthy. (That’s assuming sports team doctors know more than any G.P. I’ve ever visited.) I find it amazing that not one of the physicians she consulted asked which of the Benadryl products she was using. Only one of them contains Pseudoephedrine. But still, she had the information available herself. And as they say, ignorance of the law is no excuse.

Laumann admits to some negligence on her part. “If I had looked at the ingredient label, that would have helped,” she understated. “But I’m not a chemist.”

No, she’s not. She’s an athlete. And athletes can’t be expected to read or make decisions on their own. The ingredients are clearly marked on the package. But if you can’t have clout and be pampered, you may as well go into journalism.

Laumann is getting support from all over, including her teammates, fellow athletes, and even royalty – the head of the IOC’s medical commission, the artist formerly known as Prince Alexandre de Merode.

And garbage sports competitors are rushing to her defense. Synchronized swimmer Carolyn Waldo said, “If two doctors told me it’s not a banned substance, I’d trust the doctors’ opinion.” I can’t imagine what kind of drug could ever aid a synchronized swimmer, except maybe one that makes them terminally happy and keeps their nostrils shut.

Was Laumann treated harshly, as she herself said? If she is suspended from rowing for even the shortest period, then yes, I’d say she is being treated harshly. I agree with Rowing Canada that she was the victim of a professional mistake. Who’s to blame is irrelevant. And Pan-Am officials ruled that the concentration of the drug was consistent with the amount usually found in cold remedies and that the situation was the result of an error.

But is she being treated harshly if she loses the gold medal and is let off with a warning? I don’t think so. Canadian doping officials say that pseudoephedrine is among the most innocuous of banned substances. Sure, next to anabolic steroids, it’s innocuous. But it didn’t become banned because it was hard to pronounce. As a stimulant that can improve performance, it has been used too frequently by athletes for non-decongestive purposes.

Laumann may have gained a slight, albeit unconscious, edge in her race. Most likely she didn’t. At least, not twelve seconds’ worth – the margin of victory the Canadians beat the Cubans by. But we can’t prove that. All we can prove is that her body contained a drug that is known to enhance one’s athletic accomplishments. The amount, and how it got there, is insignificant.

If an athlete were to show the smallest trace of steroids, it wouldn’t matter how compelling the story is, we would be quick to jump off the bandwagon. It wouldn’t be fair to the “clean” rowers from other countries she competed against if Laumann were allowed to keep her medal. If she got away with using Benadryl, then another athlete might figure she could snort Dristan nose spray. It might eventually reach the point where athletes were wantonly rubbing Vic’s Vapo-Rub on their chests before competing.

Silken Laumann’s bandwagon, thankfully, is still full. While technically guilty, she’s innocent of the much more heinous crime of callously pursuing victory at any cost. We know it. The games people know it. The ad men know it. Everybody knows it.

Don’t cry for Silken Laumann. She made a mistake and she’s paying for it. She’ll live to race another day and we’ll still see her on TV trying to sell us things we don’t want.

But I bet Benadryl won’t be one of them.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Helmets: What are they good for?

On CBC radio the other week they were talking about the problem with cyclists. Finally, I thought, those damn cyclists were going to get their comeuppance, the way they take up space on the road, forcing you to wait behind their slow asses or veer into the next lane to get around them, the way they use the left-hand lane to turn left just like cars do.

But no, the people were upset about cyclists not wearing helmets and doing things like riding on the sidewalk. I had to turn it off. I've long been a proponent that cyclists should have no rights whatsoever – for their own safety. It's the way I ride a bike. I agree helmets should be mandatory if you force the cyclists onto crowded streets and make them drive like cars. But take away one and you can take away the other.

I wrote about this in 1995. And it went something like this...
THE SPORTS GUY – June 22-29, 1995

by Guy MacPherson

Attention all cyclists: You have 15 months to crack your head open on the pavement without the fear of penalty of law. As of September 1996, the wearing of helmets will be made mandatory for anyone riding a bicycle. Is it a good thing? Oh, probably. But that doesn’t mean I like it.

I’m sure it will grow on me, just like the seatbelt law did. Thanks to Big Brother, I now buckle up each and every time I get into a car. It makes things awkward when I only want to vacuum the interior, but I just don’t feel safe otherwise.

It’s odd that these laws are passed for our safety and not a peep is heard from opponents. The federal government tries to pass a law banning certain firearms and making registration of all other guns mandatory, and every kook out there takes it as a violation of their rights as neighbours of the shoot-’em-up U.S. of A. In Amerika you can ride free as an uncaged helmetless bird on a motorbike, for heaven’s sake. Where are the Reform nuts on this issue?

And, irony of ironies, the helmet law is announced the very week that the feds have instructed police to stop charging people with possession of drugs. The citizens are permitted to mess their brains up with narcotics, but not with their bikes. Go figure.

I like riding slowly, carefully, defensively, with the wind blowing through me, er, scalp. I realize I may be tempting fate, but I’ve been riding lidless for 25 years with no great harm to my person. I am aware of the dangers: a human skull can be shattered by an impact of 7 to 10 kilometres per hour; helmets reduce the risk of head injury by 85 percent and brain injury by 88 percent. That’s why I’m never in too much of a hurry on my bike. I ride on the roads when I feel it’s safe and take to the sidewalks when there’s too much vehicular traffic. I will never agree to follow the same rules cars must adhere to. The way I figure it, the chances of me getting scrunched by a bus are greater than me scrunching a pedestrian.

I will always cede to a pedestrian the rights he or she has on the sidewalk. And at all times I establish eye contact across a crowded street with any human who might cross my path. I never assume drivers know the rules of the road. For instance, I will not take a left turn from the left lane. That presupposes too much on the part of the driver. For one thing, you can’t establish eye contact unless you have eyes in the back of your head, and for another not every driver is competent or pays full attention. One mistake by a reckless driver could cost you your life and him a small dent. I will always take the crosswalk to cross. Riding, of course.

In Europe and Asia bikes can go pretty much anywhere they choose. They can ride on the sidewalks in busy downtown foot traffic, they can fit as many people onto the bike as they like, and they are not forced to wear helmets. Is there a higher percentage of head injuries? I don’t know, but I doubt it. There’s too many of them to think so. They have the right attitude, and that’s that cyclists have no rights at all. Old people don’t cower and topple over when a cyclist approaches on the sidewalk. They walk straight ahead, knowing that the bike rider will get out of the way. And on the road, the cars are king. That’s the way it should be. Might makes right.

Of course, there’s the argument that the taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill when careless cyclists wind up with fractured skulls. No more, I suppose, than when a big fat guy who smokes and eats cholesterol straight out of the can winds up with a heart attack or when he develops lung cancer. I went to school with a kid who was fooling around with explosives in his basement and accidentally blew off his hand. Why should we have to pay for that?

The argument is ridiculous. We obviously don’t live in such a puritanical society. People make mistakes, accidents happen, and we should help our fellow citizens when they screw up. Wearing helmets will not stop screw-ups. Defensive driving will go a lot further to preventing accidents and lessening brain damage than wearing helmets.

I would encourage everyone to wear one, but respect their decision if they shoose not to. I choose not to. Just like I choose not to own guns, do drugs, smoke or eat right – all things that the government implicitly condones. The law should be made like the old NHL helmet policy (here’s the sports analogy for those of you who were wondering when I’d get to it). Anyone entering the league past a certain date must wear helmets. Before that, it’s up to the individual. For now, let’s set it at 25 years. Those who have been riding their bikes for 25 years or longer have the option of whether they want to wear a helmet or not. All others must don them.

Children definitely should grow up wearing helmets. Just as they are not permitted to smoke or drink. The smart ones will continue to wear them through adulthood. Then we can breed a society of helmet heads that will healthy and productive lives until they die naturally of drug overdoses.