Sports at Large | WYPR

Sports at Large

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At the end of a relationship, it’s typical for one or both parties to take stock, to dust oneself off, as it were, and try to figure out what went wrong towards a goal of making things better the next time.

In some cases, with the passage of time, you might even consider the wisdom of patching things up and trying again.

If you think of the end of an athletic season in the same way you would a relationship, then, in the wake of Saturday’s desultory 17-3 loss to Buffalo in the AFC playoffs, the Ravens are doing a “where did it all fall apart” assessment of the situation.

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The last nine months or so have been marked with upheaval and a search for what’s familiar and what’s continual. 

Well, in these troubling times, isn’t it good to know that you can always rely on one institution to do the wrong thing when the proper action is called for? 

Indeed, the NCAA, college athletics’ governing body, can always be counted to zig when the moment demands a zag or the opposite.

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I want to start 2021 with a confession: I play the lottery.

Now, this isn’t an everyday thing. I don’t jeopardize my retirement or anyone’s college fund and I only play when the jackpots are especially large. But, like a lot of folks, I want to get rich fast.

Of course, I’m going about it all wrong. If I really want to make big bucks in a hurry  for doing nothing, these days I need to become an unemployed big time college football coach. 

Naomi Osaka hitting a tennis ball with a tennis racket
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It’s customary, at the end of a year, for wags and pundits to sum up the previous 12 months in a crude context, by naming those whose reputations have risen and fallen during that time, the winners and losers, If you will.

Goodness knows the year 2020 provided plenty of candidates for each category, most centered around conduct related to either the COVID crisis or the push for social justice or both.

From this vantage point, the best of the best this year includes names like Kara Lawson, Naomi Osaka, Maya Moore, Sue Bird and Megan Rapinoe.

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There’s very little that many of us will take from this dumpster fire of a year. Most people I know have already purchased a calendar for 2021 in joyous anticipation of ripping the one for 2020 off the wall.

Of course, such a move is only symbolic. The year ahead of us appears primed to deliver some measure of pain and suffering, but, if the fates are kind, 2021 will bring more than its share of joy. And if there is sorrow, we may be able to share it with people we love, as opposed to this year, when so many of us are cooped up alone and afraid.

If there is a positive to be taken from 2020, it is that this may be the year when we as a nation began, on some level, to come to grips with the great national tragedy of our racial and cultural divide. 

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In Washington, a handful of legislators are preparing to say goodbye to public life in the lame duck session of Congress.

Some will make farewell speeches. Others will attempt to assist constituents one last time.

Hawaiian Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard is approaching her swan song after four terms by taking a swipe at transgender athletes.

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In my bachelor days, I would occasionally come upon a carton of milk in the refrigerator that was just about to reach its expiration date. I’d give it the old smell test, and if it passed, even if barely, then I could have a bowl of cereal.

To a degree, what the Maryland men’s basketball team is about to do with a young man named James Graham III is roughly the same. It passes the smell test, but just by the proverbial whiff.

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What a mess!

No, not the Afghan puppy that’s the subject of a series of children’s books, but rather the situation the Ravens and the NFL find themselves in thanks to COVID-19.

Actually, terms like quagmire, morass or just plain catastrophe might be more appropriate than merely a mess.

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If your household was like mine around this time of the year, the life of the turkey we dined on on Thanksgiving Day extended long past the meal of the fourth Thursday in November.

The leftover white and dark meat became turkey sandwiches with gravy or turkey salad, while the bones, added to some broth and vegetables, yielded turkey soup. And, for my money, leftover sweet potato custard was better the day after on its own or, better yet, in a pie crust.

All of this comes to mind as you ponder how those who run college football are doing their damndest to extend the life of the current season beyond what should be a proper resolution.

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All around the sports landscape, champagne corks are being popped and backs are being patted with the news that a woman has been welcomed into the ranks of management.

Kim Ng’s hiring as general manager of the Miami Marlins this past week has set off applause and acclamations, not only in baseball, but all over the world of professional sports.


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The diamond of a baseball stadium is a remarkably competitive place, even in the cold of winter, when there are only echoes of games gone by.

And it’s not just the playing field where competitive fires are stoked. Even in what should be friendly confines, the clubhouses can be repositories for angst and strife.

Then, there’s the press box. The race between reporters for stories about the contests and the people who play them is often as brutal as the contests and the competitors themselves.


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Over a 12 year career, Bobby Orr provided a platform for defenseman play that is the gold standard in hockey. The photo of Orr flying through the air in front of the net after scoring the Stanley Cup-winning goal in Game 4 of the 1970 Finals for the Boston Bruins is a piece of sports lore.

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If we’ve learned nothing over the past seven months, it’s that there truly is no shame in college sports. 

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in March, officials at the highest levels of the nation’s universities, not to mention athletic departments, have contorted themselves into human pretzels, all in the name of getting games going again.

Oh, there have been a few shining moments, like at the very beginning, when the men’s and women’s basketball seasons shut down just short of conference tournaments and the NCAA tournament.


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In recent weeks, baseball fans have seen some of the greatest names in the game’s great history go on to their eternal reward with such notables as Tom Seaver, Lou Brock and Whitey Ford leaving us.

Just last week, we lost Joe Morgan, the centerpiece of the Cincinnati Reds teams that won consecutive World Series in the 70s and was arguably the best second baseman in history.

Though he became a superstar with the Reds, Morgan spent his formative years in a baseball sense, with the Houston Colt 45s, who became the Astros.

Morgan would not likely have recognized the Astros as presently constituted.


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In the midst of the pandemic, Americans have been forced to find forms of entertainment that don’t involve getting in a car and leaving home. 

In the process, many have discovered, or rediscovered, the old fashioned family game and one of the more popular ones is Jenga. You know, the one where kids and their parents test their skill and nerve by trying to slide out wooden blocks without knocking over the whole stack. 

That game has become something of a metaphor for what the NFL is trying to do with its schedule as COVID-19 imposes its will on teams. 

Provided by Milton Kent

While it’s true that the family stands at the core of every success story, in order to truly make a mark, you need someone outside your circle of life to believe in you.

Maybe it’s a neighbor. Perhaps it’s a member of your church or synagogue. Quite often, though, it’s a teacher or a coach, an adult instructor who perhaps sees more in you than you see in yourself.

For two generations of Baltimoreans, that special teacher and coach was Walter Cole, who helped shape and mold the lives of thousands of kids in the classroom and on the track and the playing field. 


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When I was a kid, I remember spending Sundays on the front porch of a friend of my older sisters, listening to old school R&B on their 45s and LPs. That sound nourished my young soul and left impressions and memories that live with me still today 50 years later.

I was especially struck by an album from the Temptations, called “In a Mellow Mood,” a collection of covers of showtunes and standards. I’ve subsequently heard dozens of adaptations of “The Impossible Dream,” but David Ruffin’s delivery of the line “to be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause,” makes the Temptations’ version the definitive one for me.

Like a lot of Orioles fans, I have been thinking of their last three years as something less than a glorious quest and more like that march into hell. A pair of 100-loss seasons in 2018 and 2019 went a long way toward bringing on that kind of thinking. 

But, the now-completed 2020 season may provide hope that good things may be on the horizon. 


Hillel Steinberg via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

  A good parent keeps an eye on what other parents do, but doesn’t let their decision-making impact on the choices they must make for their own kids. 

That’s what seems to have happened with the 14 Big Ten university presidents and chancellors who reversed course last week and approved a plan to get football on the field this fall.

These leaders buckled under the weight of whining players, parents and coaches, as well as a president desperate to win re-election and authorized a slate of games for mid to late fall.


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By all rights, Dak Prescott is the kind of guy that, in a sports context, I should hate.

For openers, he’s the starting quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, a team on the very short list of teams that I despise, for historical and geographical reasons, and darn it, for common sense.

Prescott is quite talented, In four years in Dallas, he’s thrown for almost 16,000 yards and nearly 100 touchdowns. For that, he’ll earn about $32 million this year with the promise of likely $40 million next year, when he’ll be 28 years old.

So, add rich and gifted to young and handsome and famous and you have plenty of reasons for envy. And yet, I can’t hate Dak Prescott. In fact, in many ways, he’s a hero.


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Imagine you’re preparing to impress a first date at the best restaurant in town. Or, better yet, the dates have gone so well over a period of time that you’re ready to pop the question at said bistro. 

You want everything to go just right, but when the moment comes, the restaurant screws up the occasion. Their way of squaring things? Giving you a free dessert. 

That’s essentially the scenario in play with the NFL’s announcement  that its teams will launch the season by playing “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” just prior to the “Star-Spangled Banner” before each opening weekend game, including here in Baltimore next Sunday.


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The shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha, Wisconsin police officers last week reopened deep wounds that had barely begun to close, much less heal, among Black athletes who long ago wearied of seeing the same sad movie over and over again with the same ending.

The anger and disgust those players – women and men – feel erupted as they shut down the NBA and WNBA to make sure their grievances were heard.

That the basketball players and their leagues were at the forefront is not surprising. 


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When the bard posited so many years ago that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, he couldn’t have imagined the idea of 21st century sports.

In Shakespeare’s world, the term student-athlete would have been an oxymoron, like tasty gruel or benevolent king.

Flash forward to today where such linguistic gymnastics are standard fare for the NCAA and its member institutions. 


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It’s hard to think of this miserable time that we’ve all been forced to endure as yielding a winner, as it feels as though in some ways we’ve all lost.

Yet, if it is appropriate to speak of a person in such terms, it would appear that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver would fit the bill. 

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It’s been nearly 20 years since Sean Frazier was a linebacker at Alabama that he’s done anything heroic on a football field. But when the history of how sports were conducted in 2020 is written, Frazier may stand taller than anyone else.

Frazier, who is the athletic director at Northern Illinois, could emerge from this year as one of the first people to attempt to interject reason and sensibility into a time where few of those qualities exist, at least where athletics stand.

It was Frazier, and Lisa Freeman, the president of Northern Illinois, who prodded officials of the Mid-America Conference, the league that NIU belongs to, to cancel all fall sports this year, including football, out of coronavirus concerns. 


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The phrase “speaking truth to power” has been said so frequently of late that it’s bordering on triteness, if not outright cliche.

But when a group of more than a dozen college football players addressed the leaders of the most powerful conference in the land last week about the return of the game this fall, they provided evidence that things won’t be as they’ve been before.

Indeed, speaking truth to power may, in time, be replaced by a new phrase: "kind of not good enough."


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If you’re the type that makes a wager on such things, and you bet that one of the major team sports wouldn’t be able to make it through its first week back from the pandemic without a problem, well, consider yourself a winner.

It only took four days from Major League Baseball’s launch on Thursday for the sport to hurdle into a potential crisis, as 13 Miami Marlins players and coaches tested positive for COVID-19, according to reports.

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Like a steak tied at the end of a rope and thrust just out of reach of a hungry dog, the reappearance of live sports is being laid before us ever so elusively. 

NASCAR, men’s and women’s professional golf and soccer and mixed martial arts have made their respective returns, but those have only served to whet appetites for the main course.  

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Fans of professional basketball have become accustomed to seeing a studious man named Adrian Wojnarowski present the news, good or bad, about the NBA.

Behind a pair of tortoise-shell glasses, Wojnarowski brings scoop after scoop on ESPN about the goings-on in the association, delivered in what has come to be known as Woj bombs.

Well, Woj  provided quite the Woj bomb last week in the form of an f-bomb aimed at a sitting United States senator, no less, the production of which opened a discussion about the conduct of journalists.

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The United States marked the anniversary of its independence Saturday, but Jonathan Irons got a three-day jump on celebrating his own liberty, a celebration that was more than two decades in coming.

That was the day that Irons set foot outside the Jefferson City Correctional Center, a penitentiary near the Missouri state capital for the first time in 22 years. 


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If there is a positive to be taken from this heretofore miserable year, it may be that 2020 is when we learned how powerful images and symbols can be.

Though the dominant icon of the year is bound to be the face mask that we’ve all been forced to wear, there are other symbols that will help to define 2020 in history. 

One of them, a Confederate flag, has gone front and center on the sports stage, and may lead the way to the toppling of another.