Sunday, March 13, 2011

Hail to the Cheaters!

Something really bugging me on the eve of College Basketball's big dance. Every year, seems like at least one big name baseball player is caught using performance enhancing drugs, and it is almost like the nation spins into crisis. The game is tainted, we can't trust the record books, civilization as we know it may cease to exist. But year after year, big name college programs get caught breaking the rules and at least half the people out there spend their time making excuses for the players, coaches and programs. I don't get it.

It is such a maddening double standard. Cam Newton spent most of last season under a cloud of suspicion, but yet somehow the officials determined that it was his Dad that was at fault and Cam could continue leading the Auburn Tigers towards a National Title. And just before playing in their BCS bowl, several Ohio State players were found guilty of violations -- but instead of handing out proper and fitting punishment and keeping these kids out of the bowl game, they're suspended for the first 5 games of the 2011 season. A few weeks ago, we learned that Jim Calhoun will be suspended for a few games next year for recruiting violations, yet there he was last night celebrating a victory in the Big East Championship game and talking about the "other stuff" as if it were a legitimate hardship. And then there's Jim Tressell, who will sit out two games next year for violations.

It is a separate conversation to discuss whether or not you agree with all of the rules and regulations that the NCAA places on sports programs. Certainly, and in spite of what most programs and the NCAA would like you to believe, universities wouldn't place the importance that they do on football and basketball if there wasn't money to be made. And you could argue that the free education that many players don't really value (or take advantage of) is nowhere near enough compensation for what the schools get in return for exploiting these kids. It's not a black and white issue to be sure.

But what is black and white is that time and again, coaches and players break rules that are documented and for the most part, we turn a blind eye to the issue. Worse yet, when it is a "big school" that is likely to bring lots of fans to a bowl game or a tournament, the punishment is hardly swift. If Ohio State were playing in a the Motor City Bowl instead of a BCS bowl, don't you wonder what would have happened to those players? And if UCONN weren't a big cog in the best basketball conference in the country -- on the verge of a possible tournament run -- do you think Calhoun would have been let off so easy? And Newton -- what a mess. I think one thing that bugs me more than any other is the way these kids are taught that as long as you're good at a sport, you can escape consequences. Do you really believe that many of these athletes that take money or cars or clothes are so naive that they don't understand that they are breaking the rules?

The classic excuse -- Oh, every program is a little bit dirty -- just smacks of B.S. You know, if I'm driving on the interstate and start driving 85 because I'm passed by 3 cars doing at least that -- I don't think the state trooper that stops me for speeding is going to accept that defense. And it may well be that the 65 mph speed limit we have in Illinois is too low and it should be 75, or 80 or whatever. That doesn't excuse the fact that I know it is 65 mph and if I decide to drive even 66, then I'll have to live with the ticket that I might get.

We've set such a dangerous precedent in our sports minded culture that if you can do amazing things in a sport that you're above the law. We have more examples than we can count of players that want you to believe they are honorable citizens, but prove the exact opposite with their actions. But make it to a Super Bowl and it's "He's put his life in order and learned from his mistakes." Unless, of course, you're a baseball player that has used steroids or HGH....then I'm not sure the chair is punishment enough.

I'm as sports obsessed as anyone and the NCAA tournament -- the first two rounds especially -- are perhaps my favorite sporting event of the year. I'll still be filling out a bracket and entering a pool and I'll still be parked on my couch Thursday through Sunday watching basketball like my life depended on it. And, I'll still be excited next September when the weather starts to get a bit cooler and college football is in full swing. And I'm already eagerly anticipating opening day on March 31, even though it's likely to feel more like football season here in Chicago. But each year, it gets just a little bit harder to live with all of the behind-the-scenes stuff that we know is there but try to ignore. We did that in baseball, and look at how that has turned out.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Like It's 1991....

If there is one thing in life that can dominate my brain to the same extent that the approaching baseball season currently is, it is a new album from R.E.M. I'll spare you the recap of their career that feels obligatory when you're about to talk about a new album from the 2000's era of the band's career -- and I'll also dispense with my attempt to prove my chops as a true R.E.M. fan. Let's just say that I've been captivated to one degree or another by almost everything the band has done since the lightbulb when off for me during that family vacation in 1988 where a cassette copy of "Life's Rich Pageant" and "Document" played endlessly in my walkman and I finally understood what several of my friends had already figured out. That to my 15 year old sensibilities, this was a band that would change and ultimately shape my view on the world. Truth be told, it was actually a Warren Zevon album, "Sentimental Hygiene" that had me going back to re-listen to the cassette that a friend had made for me.

But never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that the band that held my attention like no other...that had me saving every dollar I could muster to head up to the mall and buy all of their albums...that had me trying to learn to play guitar just like Peter Buck...that had me trying to decipher the meaning of lyrics like "man ray kind of sky" and "shoulder's high in the room"...would still be making music that I'd want to listen to when the calendar turned to 2011. And that I'd feel like that 18 year old freshman at Eastern Illinois University that begged a friend from the dorm to drive him the 16 miles over to Mattoon, Illinois to the closest record store to buy "Out of Time."

But here I am, 38 year old, a dad and supposedly responsible adult who is looking for any excuse to grab the ipod to listen to the new R.E.M. record on. I haven't truly hated any record they've ever made -- even "Around the Sun" has its moments -- but it has also been a long time since their music has stirred my emotions the way I think "Collapse Into Now" is at the moment. I say *think* because I do recall that my initial reaction to "Reveal" wasn't completely dissimilar, and over time, that one has faded for me. "Accelerate" was a breath of fresh air for all of us longtime fans, but -- though I love that record -- there are a few songs that are pretty thin and don't hold up a few years on. "Collapse", though, feels like one that will stick.

"Discoverer" is a perfect track to kick things off -- it has the same aggressiveness as "Living Well Is the Best Revenge", and the minute you hear Stipe chime in with "Hey Baby / This is not a challenge / It just means that I love you as much as I always said I did", you can't help but smile. It's one thing to make a comeback album like "Accelerate", but it's quite another to keep the momentum going. Things get even better with "Uberlin" and "Oh My Heart", which instantly sound like the R.E.M. of the 90's without feeling like cheap rip offs. "It Happened Today" follows and might be my favorite song on the set. Of course, if this truly is the best album that R.E.M. has made since the late 90's, my favorite song on the album will be subject to change on a daily basis for the next few weeks. Unlike any of the post-Berry albums, there isn't a bad song on the album, though "Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I" does come a little closer than any of the other songs.

As with "Accelerate", the band has the good sense to fight the urge to make this an overly long album. I really hate the trend that started with the CD and has grown worse in the digital age -- that bands feel the need to give you quantity over quality. The result is that there are very few albums that come out that capture my attention the way some of R.E.M.'s classic albums did. "Collapse" is a tad longer than the previous album, but at just over 40 minutes seems fairly brief by today's standards.

I used to worry that R.E.M. was no longer making the kind of albums that everyone seemed to want to talk about. It bugged me that they had gone from that band that you liked to be cool to that band that it was cool to hate. I felt like you always had to talk in caveats when discussing their recent output -- "Yeah, it's no (fill in your favorite album here) but it is still not bad." As I listen to "Collapse", it strikes me that I'm not thinking about the fact that this is their best post-Berry album or their best in probably 15 or 16 years for that matter. I'm not thinking about the fact that both Stipe and Buck are over 50. I'm not thinking about the fact that this may or may not be as good as whichever album is your favorite. I'm simply thinking about the fact that even if they aren't quite what they were in 1991, they are still a pretty great band and this is a very good album.

Thanks for reading....

(There are so many reviews that are more worthy of space than mine.....a nice way to sample what real critics are saying is to check out Metacritic here).