July 4, 2009

Steve McNair and Companion Found Dead, McNair Apparently Murdered

Former Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Steve McNair and a female companion were found shot to death at her condominium in Nashville, according to CNN. WBIR-10 in Knoxville originally reported a murder-suicide, but has since changed their post to say only that both are dead. The Nashville CityPaper is reporting that homicide detectives are unsure whether it is a murder-suicide or double homicide. Obviously, details are sketchy. The female's identity has not been released but it is not his wife, Mechelle Cartwright, who was in Mississippi.

Speculation is rampant, and I hate to add to it, but I have to point out that Don Aaron of the Nashville Metro Police Department conspicuously did not ask for witnesses or anyone with information to come forward. That would seem to point towards the police having a fairly good handle on what occurred.

McNair enjoyed great popularity throughout his career, especially for his durability and hard-nosed scrambles. He shared the 2003 MVP award with Peyton Manning. McNair remains popular in Nashville and Baltimore, especially for his impact on the community.

McNair had two non-violent run-ins with the law prior to his death. McNair was arrested in 2003 for DUI, and an illegal loaded firearm was found in his car. He was charged again in 2007 for "DUI by consent", after a vehicle he owned and was travelling in was pulled over for drunk driving.

Still, McNair has never been associated with unsavory characters throughout his career. His death at 36 years of age comes as a great shock.

UPDATE 9:20p et: McNair was shot multiple times according to The Tennessean and Nashville Metro Police. Whether the situation boils down to murder-suicide or a double homicide, it certainly does not appear that McNair committed suicide.

UPDATE 11:41p et: According to the Tennessean...McNair was shot multiple times and his female companion, Sahel Kazemi (20) had a single gunshot wound to the head. A pistol was next to Kazemi's body. As noted above, the police are not seeking any suspects, and are tentatively treating it as a murder-suicide.

Though I got a lot of heat for it in the comments, McNair's history of DUI charges appears to be directly relevant. Kazemi was cited for DUI in a car co-registered to Kazemi and McNair just two days ago. Though not in the police report, McNair was riding in the car. In 2007, McNair was charged with DUI by consent for allowing his brother-in-law to drive his vehicle, with McNair as a passenger, while under the influence of alcohol. McNair was apparently not going to be charged for the latest incident, probably because Kazemi was also a legal owner of the vehicle.

No matter what took place that led to the incident, McNair's premature death is a horrible, and apparently senseless, tragedy.

Tour de France: Stage 1

So here’s the plan: I’m going to try to post a recap/reaction every day during the Tour de France. I’d also ask you to keep spoilers for the next stage out of the comments. So, even though the Stage 2 post might not be up until Sunday night, please don’t comment on the results here. Thanks!

stage1-armstrong The first time trial/prologue normally doesn’t tell you much about the race, and today was no exception. It’s great to have the Tour underway, but we’re still a long way from having any idea of who’s going to wear yellow into Paris.

Lance Armstrong can’t be too happy with his performance, but in the long run it doesn’t really matter. He didn’t lose much time at all, and he still has plenty of time to make it up. As long as he’s still feeling good, he should be fine.

Astana as a team is looking unbelievably strong. It will be interesting to see how the team rivalries shake out, but there’s no doubt they’re the most talented team on the course.

As for Contador, he looked amazing, but how much energy did he expend today? Was he trying to make a statement and stomp Armstrong? He’ll have plenty of time to recover, if that’s the case, but it did seem that others were conserving energy rather than going for the win.

The Versus HD broadcast looks incredible. All sports benefit from high definition, and cycling is no exception. It’s easier to tell which rider you’re looking at, and the scenery looks even better than usual.

Rider of the Day

cancellara Fabian Cancellara - He’s a one trick pony, but that trick is really good. He’s a time trial specialist who seems unbeatable in the discipline. He won’t win the Tour, but he’s earned the yellow jersey for the first few stages.

Goat of the Day

ullrich Jan Ullrich - Even though he retired in 2007, Ullrich is still today’s goat. Versus had wall-to-wall Lance Armstrong hagiography leading up to today’s stage, and 90% of it showed Armstrong kicking Ullrich’s ass. He was a good rider, but also a cheater who always played second fiddle to the greatest rider ever. Sorry, Jan, but even in retirement you’re getting embarrassed by Lance

Reasons I love the Tour #1 - The Yellow Jersey

How cool is the yellow jersey? The idea that the guy leading the race gets to wear a special uniform should be extended to other sports. The car leading the NASCAR championship should get a special logo, or the team ranked #1 in college football should have a special helmet sticker. It still wouldn’t have the history of the maillot jaune, but it would be pretty cool.

Happy Birthday USA! Why No Marquee U.S. Sports?

As we celebrate America's indepedence from that not-really-that-tyrannical British Empire, most of us have been blessed with the most American of traditions, the three-day weekend. Okay, this year some of us are in the midst of a 94-day weekend, but let's not get too depressing.

Surely, on this great patriotic holiday, we have developed a great stable of sporting events to watch as we prepare for afternoon grilling feasts and the bombs bursting in air this evening.

No, we get Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest at noon. That's the most American thing we could come up with, and Japanese competitive eating superstar Kobayashi even managed to win that six years in a row. Joey Chestnut won the past two years, but we'll see if we can continue to hold onto the title.

NASCAR, of course, has managed to fill the void. The Coke Zero 400 (formerly the Pepsi 400) runs at one of our two racing shrines, Daytona International Speedway. Brilliantly, the race fires up at 7:30 p.m. eastern time, meaning that it falls during fireworks for the eastern and central time zones. Over 77% of the U.S. population lives in those two time zones, and given that the vast majority of the other 23% is in California, you could definitely assume at least 90% of the NASCAR television audience will have to choose between racing and fireworks.

So what else is on? Wimbledon gives us the ladies and mens doubles finals. If you want to know how American that event is consider that they're officially called "The Championships at Wimbledon". Plus, they're over by the early afternoon. (To be fair, it's an all-Williams womens final, the Bryan brothers are in the mens doubles final, Andy Roddick is in the mens final, and the Williams sisters are in the womens doubles final).

Le Tour de France starts today. We're very friendly to the world's greatest bike race, but most Americans won't care.

Regular season baseball continues, though seven teams are already at least nine games out...from the wild card. The Nationals, not exactly America's Team, are a full 20 games out in the NL wild card race.

At 3:30 p.m., NBC will be showing Motocross. Then they switch to beach volleyball.

Also, the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders and British Columbia Lions go at it at 3 p.m.

The PGA gives us Tiger Woods and the AT&T National this afternoon, which is a strong entry. Much stronger than the LPGA's Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic.

World's Strongest Man. US Wrestling Championships.

Forget all that noise. If we cannot come up with a marquee Independence Day sporting event, I'm going to watch the most brutal, physically demanding, sport on television. Sydney is at Adelaide in Aussie Rules action at 5p.
A glance at the TV schedule today makes that proposal to stretch out the Triple Crown and put the Belmont on July 4th seem much more logical. It won't always fall on Saturday, but most people will be off work whereever it falls.

July 2, 2009

2009 Tour de France Preview: Part 3 - Predictions

With the Tour starting on Saturday, this will conclude our three-part preview of the 2009 Tour de France.  You can also read Part 1 - The Route and Part 2 - The Field.

In the previous installment of our preview, we looked at some of the favorites to win the Tour de France.  Today, I’ll make some predictions about who will actually win it.

I’ll answer the biggest question up front: Lance Armstrong will not win the Tour de France this year.  He’s in great shape, and he certainly won’t embarrass himself, but he’s not going to win.

The favorites for the Tour, according to oddschecker, are Contador (1:1), Armstrong (5:1), Andy Schleck (7:1), and Cadel Evans (11:1).


First, let’s address the insanity of those Contador odds.  The Tour de France is a three week slog through 2,141 miles.  Anything can happen during those three weeks.  I wouldn’t bet on Lance Armstrong in his prime at even money.  

Beyond that, the Astana team dynamics worry me, as I mentioned in Part 2 of the preview.  Contador seems to have issues with someone else being the team leader, and in fairness, he’s earned the title of leader.  I’m just not sure how he’ll respond to three weeks of the Lance Armstrong media circus with the 7-time winner breathing down his neck.  It’s a tough position to be in, and while Contador is an incredibly gifted rider, I’m not sure how he’ll handle that pressure.

As for Armstrong, he has always been the sole focus of his team, and benefited greatly from having a well-trained team of domestiques riding out in the wind in front of him except on a few select mountain stages.  He always rode the most perfectly organized races, almost like a horse in the Kentucky Derby getting a perfect trip from the post.  He seemed to have an uncanny knack for avoiding trouble and only exerting himself when it would have the optimal payout.  As either a co-leader or a supporting rider (depending on whom you believe) this year, Armstrong won’t be able to conserve his energy for most of the Tour and rely on an entire team supporting him.  He seems to be physically ready for the Tour, but I’m not sure he still has that extra gear that allowed him to accelerate up a mountain while everyone else looked exhausted.

andy schleck So who does that leave?  Andy Schleck?  Denis Menchov?  Levi Leipheimer?  Carlos Sastre?  Roman Kreuziger?

Leipheimer won’t get any support from his team (Contador and Armstrong will be fighting over it), Sastre won in a perfect storm, and Kreuziger is still probably a couple years away.

vuelta07st04-menchov450 That leaves Denis Menchov, who finished fourth last year and won the Giro d’Italia this year.  He’s a great climber who should do well in a year that de-emphasized the time trial.  I also like Schleck to finish second, under the assumption that he’s in better condition than last year.  For third, it’s a toss-up between Armstrong and Contador.  I think experience triumphs over youth, so I’ll say Armstrong.

For a long-shot pick, I like American Christian Vandevelde (100:1) who looked good last year and should be improved.

MarkCavendish For the green sprinters jersey, I like Mark Cavendish, who shone last year.  I think Schleck will take the King of the Mountains classification, especially if he’s not contending for the Yellow Jersey.  Kreuziger should take the white jersey for the best young rider.

As for the other question on everyone’s mind (Who will be the biggest rider caught doping?), I’m going to be optimistic and say that this will be the year we don’t see a major doping scandal.

Only 2 more days until Monaco!

June 30, 2009

2009 Tour de France Preview: Part 2 - The Field

Continuing our preview of the 2009 Tour de France, we’ll take a look at the field of riders and let you know whom you should watch.

Armstrong_L5 You may recognize this guy.  He’s actually kind of famous, and now he’s back in the Tour de France.  Obviously the big story of this year’s Tour is the return of Lance Armstrong.  There are tons of questions surrounding his return, not the least of which is “Does he still have anything left?” 

Armstrong has competed in a few events since his return to cycling, but hasn’t won anything.  This isn’t surprising as Armstrong’s modus operandi was always to build up to the Tour de France, and he never won many of the preparation races.

After three consecutive Tours without a former champion in the field (other than Oscar Pereiro, eventual winner of the Floyd Landis scandal-plagued 2006 Tour), this year there are 4 former champions competing (Armstrong, Carlos Sastre, Alberto Contador, and Pereiro), with two of them on the same team.

Par2300823 The dynamics of the Astana team will be very interesting to watch this year.  It features two past winners in Armstrong and Contador, as well as a past podium finishers Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden.  Who is the leader of that team?  Obviously Armstrong is the biggest name, but Contador is a young superstar and Leipheimer has always been on the cusp of greatness.  Will Contador and Leipheimer be willing to put in work to help the old man get to the top of the mountain one last time?  Will Armstrong be willing to take a supporting role?  Astana claims Contador is the leader, and Armstrong is happy with it, but we’ll see how things look on the slopes of the Pyrenees.  Astana may be an All-Star team and place 3 riders in the top 10, or it could self-destruct from internal conflict.  With Johan Bruyneel at the helm, I’d bet on the former.

Other favorites include Giro winner Denis Menchov (a good climber) and perennial bridesmaid Cadel Evans (great time trial rider).  The late mountain stage should bode well for the climbers, but I’ll give you my picks in the final installment of ECB’s Tour de France Preview

June 28, 2009

2009 Tour de France Preview: Part 1 - The Route

I know we’ve been slacking on the posts lately, but I have plans for quite a lot of Tour de France coverage when it starts next Saturday (you’re welcome).

We’ll kick things off with a three part preview of this year’s Tour, starting today with a look at the 2009 Tour route.

The Beginning

Race director Christian Prudhomme always does a fantastic job making each year’s Tour a bit unique.  Often, much of this uniqueness comes from an exciting start.  A few years ago, that meant the Tour’s first visit to Great Britain.  This year, the race returns to Monaco for the first time in 45 years, and makes the principality the host of the Tour’s “Grand Start.”

If you’ve ever been to Monaco, watched a Formula 1 race there, or played Gran Turismo 3, you know that the scenery is second to none.  The Tour prologue (now it’s just an individual time trial) is often fairly boring because no one wants to burn themselves out on the first day.  That’s where the scenery comes into play.  I think I could watch 2 hours of stock photography of Monaco without getting bored.  Add a bike race, and I’m hooked.

This year also marks the return of the team time trial in stage 4.  The team trial is always interesting just because it’s so different from the other stages and it really highlights the team nature of the sport.  This year, it will probably just give Team Astana a :30 head start on the rest of the field.

The Middle

This year is a Pyrenees-first route, and features three huge mountain stages to kick off the second week.  The first one features a departure from sea-side Barcelona and the end of a week’s worth of Mediterranean scenery and a rise into the mountains with a finish atop Andorre Arcalis.  That’s right, the Tour is making a stop in Andorra, yet another tiny European principality.  Here’s what the last kilometer of that stage looks like:

last kmThat should be fun. 

The third day in the Pyrenees features both the climbs up the Col d’Aspin and the Col du Tourmalet, two of the Tour’s great mountains.

The Alpine stages start out with another mountain finish, and the second day features a Switzerland->Italy->France stage that ends in  a blistering descent out of the Petit-Saint-Bernard pass.  If you like horrific bike crashes, this is the stage for you.

The End

The biggest change in this year’s tour route is the climb up Mont Ventoux just a day before the ride onto the Champs-Elysees.  The Tour generally ends with a bunch of flat stages including an individual time trial.  The climbers finish their work with a week left in the race and just try to survive the time trial.  This year, the winner will be in doubt right up to the time the riders reach the top of Mont Ventoux.  For anyone who cares about the Tour de France at all, this is the stage to watch.

Up next, we’ll take a look at the Tour field and which riders to watch this year.

The Real Reason Americans Hate Soccer

Usually when a person dislikes a sport, they simply choose to ignore it. In America, soccer gets a different treatment. American men actively HATE soccer. They deride it as "wussy", "boring", "slow" and basically "European".

Why? Why must we make an effort to show how much we dislike soccer instead of just letting it exist like all of the other fringe sports?

I have a theory, but first I'll run through the established lesser theories.

5) We Didn't Invent It - This is the oft-cited explanation for why soccer has yet to take root in the U.S. The excuse is flawed though. Other than basketball, the sports we "created" are direct off-shoots of established European sports. Baseball is basically a form of cricket. Football is rugby with breaks. Golf is Scottish. Automobile racing is European. This cannot explain why we dislike soccer.
blablblahblahblahThis is Abner Doubleday. We pretend he invented baseball.

4) There Isn't Enough Scoring - This doesn't really add up. A soccer telecast requires two hours to show 90 minutes of regulation play. A hockey telecast requires 2.5 hours to show 60 minutes of regulation play. A football telecast requires 3 hours and a little change to show 60 minutes of regulation. In 2006 World Cup group play, 2.44 goals per game were scored, or about a goal every 49 minutes of telecast time. In the NHL in 2008-09, 5.43 goals were scored per game in regulation, discounting empty net goals. That breaks down to a goal every 28 minutes. In the NFL in 2008, there were 4.38 touchdowns scored per game (including overtime TDs, which are rare), or a touchdown every 41 minutes. Lacrosse would destroy all three. Considering that soccer almost never stops, and hockey and football make you sit through endless commercials (during which scoring is literally impossible), scoring can't be the answer.

3) The Players Aren't Tough Enough - This one has some merit. It isn't that soccer players are not tough. They are in phenomenal shape, take cleats to the legs regularly, and smack heads while competing for balls that have traveled 50 yards in the air. The problem is that the game, like basketball and football, is filled with questionable calls that could go either way. In the NBA, there are stoppages. Players can immediately complain or lobby for a foul. In soccer, the game never stops. There is no time for a player to express that he feels a foul should have been called. Sometimes a player is legitimately hurting, and sometimes a player is showing up an official by indicating he was fouled. To American audiences, it looks like stereotypical whiny European behavior.

Coach K is taking notes.

2) There Isn't Enough Contact - I cannot refute this one. Americans love violence, and soccer doesn't provide the same level of constant violence and danger as our other popular sports.

To this point, we've seen four good commonly cited reasons why soccer is not popular in America. However, we've yet to explain why American men actively HATE soccer. That leads us to my theory.

1) Soccer Is Emasculating - Most of us were not born with the ability to look like NFL players. Most of us do not have the frame to be NBA players. Baseball and hockey uniforms are not flattering to the human form, so we aren't constantly reminded of our own shortcomings. Unfortunately, 95% of us COULD get into soccer shape. The average height on the U.S. Soccer roster is 5-11. The average weight is 172 pounds. Two of our most famous players, Landon Donovan and Ben Olsen are both 5-8 and weight 148 and 140 pounds respectively.

Simply put, they're in the shape we could be in. And our women know this, too. Ask your female and gay male friends. Consider that David Beckham is a sex symbol, and ask yourself why none of our athletes achieve that status. Seriously, Joe Namath?

Add in that Americans are generally less comfortable with their sexuality than many other sports fans in the rest of the world, and the pieces start to fall into place. Who wants to spend a couple hours feeling bad about themselves? With a tip of the hat to our friends at Tirico Suave, our entertainment is based on schadenfreude. "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!", "The Biggest Loser", "Jon and Kate", "Intervention", "Real Housewives", and most every reality show are all about making us feel better about ourselves. Or you could just look at Michael Jackson from 1993 to about four days ago.

Since soccer exposes our own insecurities, we choose to find reasons to mock it and even hate it.

Team USA Soccer Blows 2-0 Lead, Shot at Relevance

For one half, Team USA continued to look like the team of destiny. Despite Brazil outplaying the Americans, the Yanks had built a 2-0 lead going into the break. Victory against the most talented team in the world was certainly not assured, but things had never looked brighter for American soccer.

One half and four Brazilian goals (three that officials counted) later and U.S. Soccer rejoined its place in line behind baseball, football, hockey, basketball, golf and NASCAR. Team USA needed this win to legitimize itself as a world contender. Instead, they're just a team that got extremely lucky (needing simulataneous 3-0 wins to even advance to the elimination rounds) and then played over their heads for a game and a half against Spain and Brazil.

In the soccer world, Brazil just put the Americans back in their place.

In the United States, international soccer will likely return to its "When is the next World Cup?" place.

ESPN had the rights to the Confederations Cup, and still felt the need to shit on the sport immediately after the game. The ESPN Radio weekend schmuck started bashing soccer as soon as the 3-2 loss to Brazil was official. If the network with a cash stake in the success of soccer as a spectator support in the United States can't pretend to care, why would we get excited?

In effect, the U.S. media is doing everything it can to make sure soccer is as popular in this country as the metric system. Until Team USA breaks through and people get excited, that damper will be enough to ensure it remains a fringe sport.

Ricky Rubio Considering Europe over NBA

According to ESPN, Minnesota Timberwolves draft pick PG Ricky Rubio, taken fifth overall, is considering offers from teams in Spain and Turkey over the NBA. Rubio, 18, has played as a professional, for Spain's DKV Joventut, since he was just 14 years old.

Whether Rubio signs with the Timberwolves or not, that he would even consider a European team over the NBA is indicative of the failure of the NBA's policies. The age policy has made Europe a proving ground for international players and even Americans. The NBA's attempts to make basketball a world game have been somewhat successful, but the NBA underestimated the ability of European leagues to retain their own talent.

Frankly, can European and Asian fans relate to the typical NBA player? In the most individual of the team sports, relatability matters. Now overseas organizations are willing to make the cash investment to keep their own talent. If Rubio is the first high draft pick to hold out against the NBA, it may be a sign of things to come.

Pressure to reverse the NBA's age policy should start building momentarily.

U.S. Soccer Tries for First Major International Win

Could the U.S. make the leap from international also-ran to champion? Why not? We are already planning for the new world order now that the we have lost Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson and even pitchman Billy Mays all in a week.

In case you haven't been following the Confederations Cup in South Africa (and you haven't, because the U.S. Open, Wimbledon, regular season and the WNBA probably ate up all your time), the U.S. escaped group play last weekend with a miraculous combination of a 3-0 win over Egypt and a 3-0 win by Brazil over Italy. Then the Yanks took on world number one Spain and blanked them 2-0.

Now the Americans are in the final against perennial soccer powerhouse Brazil. No one can be sure what a win would mean for the sport's mainstream popularity - the ratings this afternoon will tell part of the story - but U.S. Soccer has struggled to earn some sense of legitimacy on the world stage. Victories over Spain and Brazil and a major international championship would surely help.