What would you do for a dream? How far would you go to achieve a lifelong goal?
Those are the questions thousands of athletes ask themselves every single day. From Alaska to Maine and all points in between, minor league and semi-pro players are making enormous sacrifices to stay on the field, rink, or court.
This recession has hit America hard over the last few years, but economic struggles are nothing new for the players who toil in obscurity and put their bodies on the line for very little reward.
The Tulsa Talons play in the Arena Football League and the average Talons’ player takes home $400 per week. That adds up to $7200 for a complete 18-game season. These are men with college degrees. Most of them have families but most of them don’t have second jobs because of the time required for practice, travel, and games.
What would you do for a dream? Would you walk away from the cushy desk job and the 401k package to throw yourself full-speed at another human being for 400 bucks?
I asked one Talons player why he does it. “I love football,” he told me. “I can’t imagine giving this up.”
The Talons players have almost no chance of ever making an NFL roster, but out there on the practice field they were smiling and laughing throughout every drill and after every play. They looked joyful. They looked like kids. How many of us can say our jobs make us feel like kids again?
Acting as Commissioner of a professional sports league cannot be an easy job. It requires business savvy, knowledge of the law, negotiating skills, and the ability to wade through piles of criticism while maintaining a tough, confident appearance. Most of the job responsibilities aren’t glamorous, and the hours are long. Commissioners are rarely praised and often vilified. For the most part, I think the four Commissioners, David Stern (NBA), Roger Goodell (NFL), Bud Selig (MLB), and Gary Bettman (NHL), do a pretty decent job. But every fan wonders what it would be like to be in charge. We’d all love to take the ownership reigns of our favorite team for a week, but how does one attempt to change an entire league? Well, like this for starters.
NATIONAL BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION
The first thing I’d address as NBA Commissioner is what I like to call the “redundancy factor.” The league’s biggest problem is that 75 percent of its teams are almost irrelevant. This is a league that revolves around seven or eight franchises at the most. The conversation, the media, and the telecasts, focus on these so-called elite teams like the Lakers, Celtics, Spurs, Mavericks, Heat, and Magic. The rest of the league is barely worth talking about and that has to change. The gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” has to close for the NBA to become an all-around better product, because when only a few teams have an actual shot to win a title before the season even starts, then why is the regular season interesting? Where’s the drama? Right now, we’re all just biding our time until the playoffs start. In my mind, the best way to solve this problem is contraction. I know it’s a dirty word, but it’s time. Too many small market teams (Milwaukee, Utah, Sacramento) acquire star players only to see them bolt in a couple years for one of the big cities. The teams that can hold onto stars are eventually forced to trade them away because the players have too much power (i.e. Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams). Getting rid of six teams would help bring the league back into a better competitive balance. Talent wouldn’t be spread so thin, and increased parity is the result. In other words, a more interesting, compelling NBA than what we have right now. It gives me no pleasure to do it, but I’m taking the ax to these teams:
It’s Christmas Eve, but it’s not too late. There’s still time to pick up a few things for your kids. And no, I’m not talking about the Wii controller, the latest Xbox game, the flatscreen TV, or the new laptop. I’m talking about the gifts that will make memories for years; the gifts your kids will really appreciate when they get older.
My best presents weren’t the Legos or the Gameboy or the sweatshirt. As I look back on my childhood Christmases, my favorite gifts were the ones that forced me outside. I remember the Nerf football, spongy and shining out of the box, that survived hundreds of sessions of pick-up football in the cul-de-sac until finally it was nothing more than a bare block of foam. It’s paint gone from all those incompletions scraping off the asphalt, it’s shape altered by the times the neighbor’s dog got a hold of it.
I remember the hockey sticks for my brother and the goalie pads for me. Gifts that turned our driveway into an imaginary rink. Gifts that transformed my brother into the overtime goal scorer, and me into the netminder who preserved a shutout with his spectacular glove save. Believe it or not, that hockey gear is still in my parents’ garage, and still gets use from time to time. Simple gifts that gave me my favorite times with my brother and inspired in me a love of hockey that I still possess today.
America was once thought of as a tough, gritty nation. A country of sweat and hard work. Our men were men, and nowhere was that better reflected than on the football field. Names like Butkus, Kramer, Nitschke, Bednarik, and Ditka were known for their blue-collar mentality. Guys like that would clothesline their own grandmother if it meant getting a stop on fourth down. Mess with them, and you got messed up. They relished every hit because contact is at the very core of football.
Now I’m afraid the NFL is trying to change the nature of its great game. This week, the league issued a statement saying players will be suspended for “head shots” and “devastating” hits. The announcement came on the heels of a particularly hard-hitting weekend. Steelers’ linebacker James Harrison sent two Browns players to the sidelines with head injuries. Falcons’ defensive back Dunta Robinson leveled Eagles’ receiver DeSean Jackson and both men sustained concussions. Patriots’ safety Brandon Merriweather went helmet to helmet with Ravens’ tight end Todd Heap, snapping Heap’s head back and leaving him prone on the turf for several minutes.
Yes, these hits were vicious and violent. Yes, there is a chance one of these collisions could have life-altering consequences. But the NFL overreacted and failed to even define what constitutes a “devastating” hit. Robinson’s hit was certainly devastating, but it was clean. The league disagreed however, and fined Robinson $50,000. Merriweather will also have to pay fifty grand for his hit, and Harrison will be docked $75,000.
Nobody wants to see serious injuries or concussions that could lead to brain damage. But in case the NFL wasn’t aware of this, nobody is playing football against their will. Every player on every NFL roster is fully aware of the risks and potential for bodily harm when they step onto the field. Contact is at the very heart of football, and if players didn’t expect it or want it, they’d take up golf or tennis or bowling.
Dolphins’ linebacker Channing Crowder summed it up perfectly when he said, “A garbage man is going to stink after he gets out of work, because he deals with garbage all day, right? If you play football, you have a chance to get hit in the head. You’re going to get a concussion because you have on a helmet and people are going to hit you with their helmet. So if you don’t want to get hit in the head, don’t play football.”
Brian Urlacher is known as one of the sports true tough guys, and the Bears’ linebacker echoed the sentiments of Crowder. “It’s freaking football. There are going to be big hits. I don’t understand how they can do this after one weekend of hitting. And I can’t understand how they can suspend us for it. I think it’s a bunch of bull (crap).
“You know what we should do? We should just put flags on everybody. Let’s make it the NFFL — the National Flag Football League. It’s unbelievable.”
This new policy is much easier said than done for the NFL. How do you change a defensive player’s mentality? A player is taught to do whatever it takes to separate an offensive player from the football or prevent him from making a catch. Does the safety need to run full speed at a receiver then pull up at the last second? In a league where split second decisions make the difference between stops and touchdowns, can you really expect these guys to forget their training, forget their instincts, and contemplate the consequences of a hit. It’s ridiculous.
Oklahoma City sports radio host Jim Traber likes to rant on what he calls, “the sissification of America.” Well, here’s exhibit A for you, Jim.
The people who want to make football less violent are the same people who want to take fighting out of hockey. Sorry, no can do hippie. Fighting is part of the game, always has been. Hockey players are men who stand up for their teammates by dropping the gloves. It’s the way scores are settled and there’s nothing dirty about it. Every team has players known as “enforcers” who know their roles and know how much that role means to the energy, enthusiasm and overall attitude of their team. You can tinker with other rules all you want, but you can’t take fighting out of hockey because you would be changing the sport at its core.
I don’t see boxing changing its rules. I don’t see the UFC doing anything drastic to protect its fighters. Why? Because these are violent sports. It’s what the fans expect and want to see, and again, the participants know exactly what they’re getting themselves into.
Why doesn’t the NFL look into changing the overtime rules, or the absurd rule that allows coaches to call time-out right before a kicker attempts a field goal? Why doesn’t the league re-examine pass interference or how a receiver has to possess a ball all the way to the ground? Better yet, how about rethinking health insurance and benefits for players after they retire. Right now the NFL only provides medical coverage for five years after retirement. Why not invest some of those billion dollar profits into better insurance or toward improving helmet technology?
Cheap shots and deliberate head to head hits should continue to be fined. Go ahead and suspend players if you want to send a stronger message. But please NFL, don’t ask these players to dial it down a notch. Don’t change the fundamental thing that makes football great. America is a tough country, let’s play our football the same way.
Anyone who has ever met me realizes pretty quickly I’m a die hard baseball fan. From the beginning of spring training until the lingering days after the last game in the World Series, it’s almost all I think about. When postseason starts, I get a little sad. Okay, I get a little sadder. My original depression starts when my team gets mathematically eliminated, which – depending on the year, can be several weeks before postseason. That’s another story though.
Life as a baseball fan gets a little boring in the early fall when your team hasn’t made it to the World Series in over 100 years and likely won’t for another hundred. So, how do you fill the gap between October and Spring training? The logical answer in Oklahoma would be football. There’s only one problem though, I hate football. I tried to like it. I really, truly tried. And I failed. So, now I’m trying something new.
I found out a few months ago that Oklahoma City has a brand new hockey team. I began to research information about the sport. I first found that the only calendar day in the summer when nothing happens in baseball, something happens in hockey. This was looking good to me…then:
1. Hockey starts about the time that baseball ends, and ends about the time that baseball starts;
2. We have a local team, and;
3. It’s not football.
Hockey is my new off-season sport.
I looked around trying to figure out the rules and this website is the best one I’ve found. I still wanted to know more about the sport, however, so I set out to dig deeper. I found some local fans who play hockey for fun and went to one of their games. A few days later I sat down with the captain of the team and two players (who happen to be husband and wife) to ask some questions. Nick is the captain; Paco and Pook are married:
How did you get started playing hockey?
Nick: The only reason I got into hockey was I married a Canadian. In a land where football is king, really hockey is the same thing as football. You have to be that skilled, but you’re doing it on two knives on ice. That’s why it amazes me that people say “I don’t like hockey” because it’s really like football on ice. I’ve hit a lot of home runs, but I think the best thing I’ve ever experienced was getting my first goal. I was shocked that I made contact with the puck, to be honest.
Paco: I’m from Sayre, Oklahoma – out West. When I was about 10 my parents built a roller rink in the town. About a year later we’re going to skating conventions in Las Vegas and there’s information about roller hockey. Eventually I convinced my parents to buy skates for me and my brother and we started our own roller hockey team.
Pook: Mine is actually totally different, I went ice skating with my friend in Thailand. I’m from Thailand. This guy came up to me and said he was trying to get a girls’ hockey team together. I played for a while in Thailand and then I came over here to go to school. When I finished school I wanted to play again and I met Paco on a hockey team.
Everything seems to happen so fast, I had a hard time figuring out what was going on. One second everyone would be going one direction, and the next second everyone is going in completely the opposite direction at full speed. How do you work together as a team when everything changes so quickly on the ice?
Nick: It’s really fast, in other sports like baseball, basketball or even football you have time to think. In hockey, you either have the puck or you don’t, it’s so fast paced you can’t think you have to rely on instinct. It’s hard for me because I can barely skate. I played almost every sport growing up. I like to think of myself as halfway athletic; I got most of my school paid for playing baseball. Hockey is one of those sports that you can’t play just because you can walk. Baseball, basketball, football, you’re basically running to get around. Hockey is a different beast – there’s an art to it.
Paco: I think a lot of it has to do with playing together, hockey is the only sport I’ve heard of that talks about chemistry with other players. You have to know who is going to be where and when.
Pook: Sometimes you think [a teammate] is going to be somewhere but they aren’t and you have to figure out quickly what to do about it.
I noticed the teams are co-ed. How does that work out?
Nick: What’s funny is this is our second season; we played in the summer and the winter. We had another woman in the summer, she was in her 50’s and she’d been playing for 20 years. She could skate and stick handle and she was really good. The women tend to hold their own; we haven’t had any problems. I’ve seen two other teams with women too. In our league, it’s a non-contact league because we’re all beginners. We don’t have a separate league for women and men so whoever wants to get out there and play can.
If someone reading this wanted to get involved in hockey how would they do that?
Nick: For an adult, the hardest part is getting out there. The first time I ever played hockey was in Canada against my wife’s 9 and 10 year-old cousins. The hardest part was swallowing my pride and getting out there, listening to them laugh at me – and they did quite a bit of laughing at me. There are some good websites out there like OKChockey.com and Dailyhockeydeal.com
or you can visit one of the local ice rinks and tell them you want to play.
As a kid, the best part of Oklahoma is they have a “learn to play” program called “Kids First”. Just take them to a rink and tell them you want your kid to learn how to play hockey. They’ll give them the equipment for free and let them play for 30 days, teach them the rules and let them try it out. If they want to play after that you just pay for the equipment (about $200 for kids) and they’ll put them on a team. If you don’t want to play then you just give the equipment back. It’s pretty easy for kids to get started.
For those of us who are still a little too scared to play, you can always just watch the games. The OKC Barons season opener is Saturday (TODAY!) and as I’m typing this, tickets are still available. It’s also going to be broadcast on the radio.
Showcasing Red Dirt culture ~ authored and managed by contributors with connections to the great state of Oklahoma.