Monday, 20 August 2007

Let The Game Begin

Imagine this. It is a couple of weeks before the start of a new Premiership season and David Beckham has been arrested, charged with animal cruelty. He says he didn't do it, but the four guys charged with him have confessed and implicated him. He faces a five year prison sentence and a huge fine.

Meanwhile, Rio Ferdinand has been arrested so often in the past few months, he has been banned from playing for a whole season, John Terry is suspended until October after serving a jail term for having an unlicensed firearm and the brightest young star in British football, the one everyone wanted to sign at the end of last season, is refusing to sign a deal until he is offered better terms by the club that thought they'd got him back in April.

It couldn't happen here, could it? You'd like to think not - even if I am writing this on the day that Lee Hughes got out of jail after serving half his sentence for causing death by dangerous driving. Now substitute the names of Michael Vick, Adam 'Pacman' Jones and Terry 'Tank' Johnson and you are just scratching the surface of the fun and games that has been the off-season in America's National Football League.

Of course, having an off season of 6 months does help when it comes to finding time to generate scandal, but in all of the above cases the player concerned managed to do the damage during the season itself and has spent his time fighting afterwards. Indeed Johnson, at the time a defensive lineman for the Chicago Bears, had to get permission from a judge to even play in the Superbowl in February - before nipping inside for two months, a consequence of the firearms offence and a parole violation. Jones, many think, has been harshly dealt with, as the Tennessee Titan's cornerback hasn't actually been convicted of any serious offence - he's just been arrested for a heck of a lot of minor ones.

But it is Vick who is in the biggest trouble. One of the finest quarterbacks of his generation, he has - again as I have been writing this - concluded a plea bargain in which he will admit breeding and training dogs for dogfighting, and allowing them to fight on his land. He faces 5 years in jail and a very big fine. Which is actually a lot better than the federal racketeering charges - basically, a charge that he funded the dogfighting operation and the betting on it - he would've faced without the plea bargain.

Moreover, having served his time, Vick is very unlikely to play football again. This is partly due to the stringent code of conduct brought in by the NFL and their new Commissioner Roger Goodall. Step out of line with Uncle Roger and you are looking at a 10 game suspension, minimum. Moderation has never been a big element of American sport, but I doubt anyone would have anticipated the Goodall revolution. No offense too trivial, no suspension too long, seems to be his motto. And that is for things which happen off the field.

Of course, if you take 1800 young men and pay them upwards of £1m each per year [on average] then you are bound to get one or two bits of misbehaviour. Goodall can never have expected someone to do something as grim as he did. At the same time, the other 1799 can hardly have anticipated a man so puritanical, they are expected to make Snow White look like a slut. Imagine the outcry here if a Premiership player got a 10 match ban if they were convicted of a motoring offence? Jermaine Pennant would just be an expensive footnote in football history, that's for sure.

All of which leaves the Atlanta Falcons without a quarterback, the Titans without their number one kick returner and the Bears without the cornerstone of their defensive line. Out in Cincinatti, no fewer than 9 players have been arrested in the last 12 months and the entire team must be on tenterhooks. The only team cheering will be the Oakland Raiders, who finally got number one draft pick JaMarcus Russell to sign his contract less than 48 hours before the pre-season games began.

With all of this buildup, this has to be one of the most exciting NFL seasons ever. I've not even considered the chances of the Indianapolis Colts retaining their title, of the Bears recovering from their SuperBowl humiliation, and the damage that may have been wrought upon perennial favourites Tampa Bay by their signing of the mercurial Randy Moss, but I can't wait for it all to start.

Monday, 13 August 2007

The Point George W. Jumped The Shark

For those of you not familiar with it, the phrase 'jumping the shark' refers to the point at which something or someone performs an act so far beyond the bounds of credibility that you can never take the seriously again. There's a fuller - although still incomplete - explanation here.

Where George Walker Bush is concerned, of course, there are many reasons to think that he lost the plot a long, long time ago. However, for the past 7 years or so he has at least been saying the sort of thing that his own people want to hear. If he wasn't, why the heck did they re-elect him? But his most recent piece of nonsense surely goes so far beyond intelligable that even the most gullible American must be raising an eyebrow at it. And for me, the point where even the idiots in your own country think you are an idiot is the point where nothing you can say or do, ever again, will get you my respect.

What, you may be wondering, has Dubbya done that even I will now agree that the only reason to keep him in office is the fear of what he might do without hundreds of minions watching his every move? Well, it is a simple thing. He's appointed Cal Ripken Jr as a Special Envoy to the State Department.

I have nothing against Cal Ripken Jr. He is a nice man, a very nice man. A man so nice that everyone cheered when he broke one of baseball's most coveted records, that for the most consecutive games. But that is also the point. He's a baseball player. Which, frankly, if you are looking for someone to go around the world spreading goodwill for your nation, is not the best place to start.

The only point in appointing a celebrity to any political - or, in this case, quasi-political - post, is the hope that they will use their celebrity as a form of endorsing you and your organisation. Which means that, if you are going to appoint someone most people have never heard of, you might as well appoint, well, me.

Baseball is a game which was invented by Americans (yes, I know that there are some disputes about its origins, because I've read this), which means that it tends to be played in places where there has at some point been a heavy American influence. Like North America, Latin America and Japan. Admittedly, in the latter case the influence was markedly different to the other two locations, but despite this, all of these places are by and large pretty friendly to the USA. Which means there is no point sending a celebrity Special Envoy there.

If there were other countries in the world that were big on baseball, but not friendly towards the USA, then appointing Ripken to this role might make sense. But the only country that is, is Cuba, with whom the USA has no formal ties with anyway, other than to occupy a corner of it as a glorified kipnappers hideout. They are hardly going to send one of their favourite sons out there.

Conversely, in the places where America does need a bit of celebrity product endorsement, no-one is going to have heard of Ripken. Or most baseballers. It's a bit like us sending a cricketer as a celebrity amassador to the States.

Ripken has been keen to stress that his role isn't political. But if it isn't, what is the point of doing it? He could be a fantastic envoy for baseball, spreading the word to countries that don't play the game, because then all he needs to do is say "Hey, it must be a great game, because I played 2,632 consecutive matches". Without the political element, his role is meaningless, but without being a celebrity in the countries he is going to, he might as well be another faceless politician.

Cal Ripken Jr doesn't need Special Envoy status, he'd be better able to do what he would be really good at without it. The man who gave him the role, though, really does need a special bus.