Category Archives: Minnesota Daily

Recently, I met for the first time a far-flung cousin of mine, something like my second cousin once removed. During the course of our conversation, he asked me a question that I’ve been asked many times in my life: “What’s your favorite sport?” I’m generally reduced to stuttering by this query; it seems unfair to me, somehow, to be required to select just one sport as my favorite. If forced to choose, I’ll pick football, but to do so implies disrespect for the other sports I love. Even as I name football #1 aloud, as I did during my conversation, I’m silently naming the rest of my favorites in a five-way tie for #1A.

The only difficulty I have with this is that, in each sport, I generally follow several teams. Listing them all would take most of the rest of my column, but a quick count on my fingers (and toes) suggests that I regularly keep up with at least fourteen teams. Throw in two four-day weekends a year for the U.S. Open and the Masters in golf, plus an altogether unreasonable amount of time to manage fantasy sports teams… and one thing becomes clear to me: I could budget sixteen hours a day to track these teams and I still wouldn’t have enough time.

The intelligent course of action is simple: pick a couple of sports, or a few teams, and let go of the rest. As I get older, proponents of this would say, I won’t have time for much of my fanaticism anyway, and so it’s better to narrow my field of vision now than be disappointed when I run out of time later. To these people, I say: I can’t. I’ve tried. Divorces have been attempted, separations undertaken, and not one of them has yet to work out.

My first try was in 1994, when baseball went on strike. Until that fateful year, I had been a baseball fan first and second and sometimes third; the best any other sport could do was barely on the medal stand. Come ’94, though, I was hitting adolescence and some of my friends were playing golf, a newfound obsession for me, so when the season was trashed I figured it was a good time for me to make a clean break, as well. I swore off the game, swore it was boring, swore that I’d spend my time on the practice green instead of on the baseball diamond.

I couldn’t do it. There’s nothing to do between the Stanley Cup playoffs and the college football Kickoff Classic except watch baseball, and anyway I’ve never been able to improve past “duffer” at golf. It only took a couple of years for baseball to creep back into my system, and now it’s firmly set in stone as one of my favorites.

With the possibility of quitting any sport cold turkey pretty much gone, I tried instead to let sports slowly slip away. After the North Stars left Minnesota, I tried this with professional hockey. I wouldn’t pick a new team to follow, wouldn’t plan ahead to watch a game, tried to flip away whenever hockey highlights came on “SportsCenter.” It didn’t work. I’ve now got two NHL teams to track, and I watch the Cup playoffs religiously. I’ve tried it with golf, but the spectacle of the majors and the Ryder Cup sucks me in every time around. My last-ditch attempt was to at least not let any other sports onto the radar, but soccer snuck in while I wasn’t looking and now I follow four teams in that sport as well.

The only sport left is basketball. I’ve never been the biggest fan on the planet, which may help. I’m not very good at the game; even as a kid, I was never more than a benchwarmer, and even though I played on some very good teams, you have to be pretty awful to warm the bench on an elementary-school team. My favorite collegiate team, the Gophers, has gone to hell with no intermediate stops over the past couple of years thanks to early departures and incompetent coaching. Now that I’ve moved cross-country, it’ll be a lot more difficult to follow the Timberwolves. This is my one chance to pare down, and pare down I shall.

Even as I make this resolution, though, I notice that my new cable setup has lots of obscure sports channels, and NBA TV is one of them. And look! The United States is playing Serbia and Montenegro right now!

Uh-oh.

Several months ago, I wrote the following sentence in the pages of this august publication: “Anybody who says poker is a sport is an idiot.” At the time, I might have been on top of the trend, perhaps even ahead of the curve with my condemnation. After all, with the exception of weekday afternoons on ESPN2, you could toss the figurative brick throughout both the television schedule and pop culture as a whole without hitting poker. I figured the poker phenomenon would eventually peter out, like the swing-dancing craze and Kurt Warner’s deal with the devil.

How naïve I was. How naïve we all were, really. Poker is apparently the game of the people. You can’t now flip through your TV channels without hitting a poker broadcast. ESPN continues to lead the trend; it’s now the flagship network, not ESPN2, that’s flooded with episodes (and reruns and re-reruns ad infinitum) of this year’s World Series of Poker, and the network’s website regularly runs columns regarding the game.

Even Bravo has managed to make space between its 43 daily hours of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” to regularly show installments of “Celebrity Poker Showdown.” Where can we go from here? Tim Russert discussing straight draws on “Meet the Press”? Move over, NASCAR; there’s a new cultural trend in town, and it’s apparently got pocket aces and the chip lead.

You may note in that last sentence my bear-trap-like grasp of poker-related terms. Nobody’s going to accuse me of being behind the curve. Besides, it turns out that I may actually be decent at this particular fad. I base this on one fact: last weekend, I played in my first-ever poker game. Somehow, I managed to beat six of my friends in a not-so-friendly game of Texas Hold ‘Em (for those not up to speed, this is the version of the game played by big-stakes poker players), in the process winning $30. I am now a total poker fanatic.

In the same piece that I mentioned at the top of this column, I wrote about my deep-seated belief that golf is not a sport. Some readers pointed out that they felt my logic was flawed; “You’re an idiot,” is how most of them put it. I’m not ready to concede their point yet, but I can say this: if golf is a sport, then poker definitely is. I can tell because both of them turn otherwise socially-skilled people into blithering idiots, to which the only intelligent social response is to run away at high speeds.

Golf has always caused perfectly normal people who would not utter a peep if they were dying of infected hemorrhoids to regale you for hours with tales of their latest round on the links. They can’t help it, and I’m as guilty as anyone of this trend. If we don’t tell you about the five-iron we hit on 13, we may burst. Modern medicine has yet to grasp that the upward trend in heart disease among the general population may not be linked to obesity, but instead to pent-up frustrations about hitting carelessly-placed bunker rakes with perfect pitch shots.

Poker is no different. No red-blooded poker player can let you mention the game even peripherally without launching into his or her own tales of blood, guts, and crushing losses to surprise flushes; most of these recitations are done with such excitement that the result is part war story, part murder mystery, and part daily bridge column. (“I had two pair, but West flopped a full house, meaning I had to kill North with a sharpened ten-dollar chip.”)

I thought the poker fad would die. I was wrong. It may not be a fad at all. It’s quickly taking a place in the Pseudo-Sports Pantheon, along with bowling and billiards, and thanks to last weekend’s poker game, cynical old me is along for the ride.

Why do I tell you all this? The reason is simple. I absolutely have to tell you about the way I won our poker game. See, I drew 4-2 off-suit, and I would have thrown it in, but my opponent checked instead of raising… Hey! Come back here!

Next month, the United States will send a gigantic delegation to Greece for the Summer Olympics. Among the delegation will be the usual collection of athletes that are famous only once every four years unless they’re involved in a drug scandal (such as sprinters and swimmers); athletes that have an outside chance at fame if they win (weightlifters and wrestlers); and athletes who will remain anonymous even if they run naked through the Parthenon clutching five gold medals (fencers).

There will also be a smattering of those that are already famous—major professional athletes competing for their country. For example, you can rest assured that fifteen or so NBA stars will be wearing the red, white, and blue in Athens. The U.S. Olympic Committee went through a careful selection process to pick the best available team for the Games; many of the players thus selected responded enthusiastically by turning them down thanks to a host of injury- and wedding-related excuses.

Consequently, the Athens team is just now being finalized. The catch, of course, is that the USA will still be the odds-on favorite to win gold. Despite the overseas explosion of basketball, America is still the Goliath of the international game, and should win every international tournament as long as they remember to play defense and occasionally pass the ball.

Should they remember these things, though, and take home the gold, I still won’t particularly care. I can’t find a reason to be personally invested in the fortunes of the United States basketball team, other than that they’re the home team. There is no excitement in winning at basketball for America; we are favored to win, we are expected to win, and the only reason to hope for a win is that the alternative involves losing.

It wasn’t always like this. Like it or not, the only reason the Olympics are popular are because it gives countries a chance to compete directly with each other. For years, the Olympics practically lived off the Cold War; the USA and the USSR competed at everything, the unspoken assumption being that, if we Americans could only beat the Russians at hockey or gymnastics or wrestling, it would prove the superiority of the USA compared to the “evil empire”.

Nowadays, though, the United States is the only superpower left. It’s becoming progressively more difficult to tell ourselves that America has something to prove on the international sporting stage. Now, our mind-set regarding the US Olympic Team is much simpler, exemplified by my attitude towards the USA basketball team: please, just don’t embarrass us.

I’ve got only one reason left to watch international events—beating other countries at their own game. America loves the underdog, especially when the underdog is us. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, about all that’s left in international sports to amuse me is to see Americans beat other countries in sports in which America is not supposed to win.

Chief among these sports is soccer. The rest of the world has long enjoyed dominance over the US in soccer, and it’s fairly obvious that they would darn well like to keep it that way. The sport is an event in the Olympics, but in the grand scheme of world soccer, the Olympics are a fairly insignificant competition—full international teams don’t compete in the tournament. (It’s just as well—the US failed to qualify for Athens.) The major tournament in soccer still is, was, and forever will be, the World Cup.

Despite the rest of the world’s resistance, American soccer is starting to take off. The national team made the quarterfinals of the World Cup in 2002, and they were recently ranked seventh in the world by FIFA—our country’s highest-ever ranking. The times, they are a-changing, and it may not be long before the USA is a serious player in on the international stage.

Qualifying for the 2006 World Cup started just last month; the USA made it through to Stage 2 of qualifying by beating Grenada 6-2 over two games. The second stage of qualifying begins in August, against three teams—Jamaica, Panama, and El Salvador—that would like nothing better than to send the mighty USA packing. It’s like another Cold War on the international sports stage, and America is the underdog. For me, that means one thing: unlike the Olympics, international soccer right now is enormously exciting.

The NHL Draft was held last Saturday, a rite of summer noticed by few south of the Mason-Dixon Line. What wasn’t mentioned from the draft podium, but was almost certainly mentioned in every relevant television report and newspaper column, was the irony of holding a draft four months before the beginning of an almost-certain league work stoppage. At this point, it’s pretty much an article of faith that the stoppage is going to happen, is going to last awhile, and is going to be awful for everybody involved.

Knowing this, of course, there were more than a few NHL teams who were drafting with 2008, not 2005, in mind. Blake Wheeler, a Blake HS standout—who has yet to play his senior season of high school hockey—was taken with the fifth pick by Phoenix. Wheeler, who was expected to be a late-first-round pick, has signed a letter of intent to play for the Gophers, a team he won’t play for until at least 2005-2006. He’s also only 17 years old; he won’t turn 18 until late August, just in time to beat the Sept. 15th deadline to be included in this season’s draft.

There are NHL teams taking outrageously young players with early picks in the draft, despite the fact that we can predict their future accomplishment with about the same success rate as we can predict the future weather. Who does the NHL think they are, the NBA?

The NBA also held its draft last week. A record number of first-round picks were spent on high-schoolers. Dwight Howard, one of these recent graduates, was taken with the first pick of the draft by Orlando. According to the experts, Howard has limitless potential, and may someday be a star in the NBA.

Howard will be seen on NBA benches this winter. Blake Wheeler, who also has limitless star potential, will be seen on Minnesota State High School League (and USHL) benches this winter.

The difference between the draft policies is pretty simple. In hockey, teams can take kids straight out of high school, but once drafted, they can opt to stay in school and play the college game. Those who don’t want to study can head to the NHL’s established minor league system and play there. In basketball, drafted high schoolers head directly to the NBA and are thrown to the sharks; it’s everybody into the basketball pool, sink or swim, and for every Kevin Garnett there is a Kwame Brown, drafted early but overwhelmed by the league and eventually eaten alive.

Meanwhile, fans are complaining about the decline of play in the college basketball ranks, as the best players jump straight to the pros instead of stopping off in college. Likewise, fans continue to bemoan the decline in NBA play thanks to the high school invasion.

I look at hockey, and I wonder: why is this even necessary? Why can’t basketball adopt a hockey-like draft system? Why is it that hockey, supposedly unpopular, supports an extensive minor league system, while basketball is minor-league-less?

Hockey may have labor-related problems, but it offers a pretty quick and simple fix for what ails the NBA. Blake Wheeler will finish high school, then go on to Minnesota, where he’ll be able to live (at least for awhile) like a normal college kid. If he plays for Phoenix, it’ll be when he’s good and ready. Dwight Howard, on the other hand, will go to Orlando, where he’s got to go straight from high school to figuring out how to live on his own and play basketball professionally. Not only that, Howard is now on the worst team in the league, perhaps with the added burden of being the showpiece of the franchise.

I ask: which system is fairer to the player? Which system is better for the fan? Which system is better for the college game? Which system is better for the pro game? The answer is the same in all four cases; hockey’s system is ahead on every count.

This, of course, brings up the most important question, one that should be asked of David Stern and the rest of the NBA brass: why not make a change, when the solution is staring you right in the face? It’s time for basketball to make some changes in how the league handles young players. They don’t even have to look far for the roadmap. Hockey’s got it right already.

Recently, I returned from a six-day sojourn to Tucson, Arizona (otherwise known as “Hell’s Doorway”—it was over 100 degrees every day I was there.) I made the trek to our nation’s southwest, not out of masochism, but for practical purposes: this fall, I’m starting graduate school at the University of Arizona.

New students at Arizona are given plenty of information about opportunities to get involved on campus, the distinct cultural opportunities that the southwest and the U of A campus offer, along with many other enticements for the well-rounded student. Me, I had only a couple of questions: where’s the football stadium? How do I get tickets?

My questions, though, have brought to the front of my mind an interesting dilemma. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” said Abraham Lincoln, and I’ve always interpreted that as a direct command to sports fans everywhere: you get one team for each sport and that’s it. Unfortunately, when picking a collegiate team, I’ve also abided by the “be true to your school” philosophy, which is why I’ve felt justified in suggesting to certain Wisconsin natives that they should be pulled over carpet tacks and dipped in rubbing alcohol for remaining Bucky fans despite their attendance at the U of M.

Now, though, I’ve finished my time in Minneapolis, and come late August I’ll officially be the newest Arizona Wildcat. So, were I to follow my own principles, I should right now be working to clear the “M” from my wardrobe and wall hangings, throwing out maroon and gold in favor of cardinal red, navy blue, and the stylized Arizona “A”.

Yeah, right. Fat chance.

I’ve been far too fanatical for far too long about the Gophers to simply give them up cold turkey. I didn’t spend twelve years of fall Saturdays and winter Wednesdays listening to Ray Christensen on WCCO, followed by four years of watching the games in person, to give up Gopher sports now. I’m officially revising my collegiate sports philosophy: “Be true to your school, unless you have two schools, in which case you can be true to both as long as they don’t really inhabit the same sports universe.”

Convoluted, I know, but I’m willing to split hairs here. Arizona and Minnesota don’t travel in the same circles; the teams hardly ever play each other in any sport, much less in the football/basketball/hockey triumvirate that I hold so dear. Supporting both teams won’t compromise my principles: success from the one won’t cause failure in the other.

I wouldn’t have been able to rationalize this had I attended, say, Michigan. There’s no room in one sporting life for both Minnesota and Michigan; either you hate the one, and love the other, or vice versa. There is no covering your bases, as a sports fan; you’re stuck with your team, your team is stuck with you, and that’s the end of it.

Which is why I’m sticking with Minnesota. They’ve been with me a long time; longer, indeed, than all but four or five relationships I’ve cultivated of my own accord. The specter of a possible important Minnesota/Arizona matchup—say, in the Rose Bowl—is a remote one: Arizona’s never played in the game, and Minnesota’s last appearance was in 1962. Should it happen in the next four years, though, I’ll officially turn into “that guy”: the Arizona student that’s cheering for the wrong team.

Does this make me a bad person? I don’t think so. Rather, I think that Lincoln—and the red-and-white-bedecked pukes that I see in the Metrodome student section at every Gopher-Badger game—would understand my logic.

This is my last column of the scholastic year. I’m not about to get all maudlin and bid you, the readers, a tearful goodbye; I just wish that I was blessed with more space to write today, as I’ve still got plenty of complaining to do. And so, I’m ripping off the greatest television show of our time, “The Simpsons,” and cramming all 22 columns into one.

Glen Mason’s Gophers football teams still haven’t won anything even mildly important. On the other hand, for the 20 years preceding him, they didn’t win anything — important or not — so I’m willing to give him another chance.

Don Lucia still should get paid more than Mason.

Using that same logic, Dan Monson should have to give money back to Gophers basketball fans. I’m starting to wish for the academic probation years again; the Gophers might have been illiterate, but at least they weren’t a laughingstock on the floor.

Gophers football might set a Big Ten record this season: most quarterbacks on the roster without having one who can throw.

Cristian Guzman is the least valuable player in the American League.

I would trade Jacque Jones for a new set of bases.

Meanwhile, Lew Ford is my new hero.

Thank goodness for the American League Central — perhaps the worst division in all of professional sports.

Ron Gardenhire isn’t much of a coach, but everyone likes him. Tom Kelly could coach, but nobody liked him. Consequently, the Twins are now a close-knit team that couldn’t bunt a beach ball. I’m not sure if this is a good thing.

Could anybody imagine a worse scenario than “Joe Mauer injures his knee during the first week of the season?” It’s like he’s reliving the first chapter of “The David Clyde Story.”

If “Hall and Oates” ran a pick-and-roll, the Timberwolves wouldn’t be able to defend it.

I can’t wait for the day when we see this headline: “Mark Madsen misses free throw; five fans injured, two critically.”

I’m happy that the Timberwolves won a playoff series, but let’s be honest with ourselves: They beat a team that, at times, was being led offensively by a guy who buys his shoes at Kids Foot Locker.

Someday, the decline of Western civilization will be traced to Barry Bonds. Either that, or he’ll end up being the fifth face on Mount Rushmore. I’m not sure which. It doesn’t matter; I’m just tired of hearing about him.

If Bonds had done what he’s done, but in Minnesota — or in any of the flyover states — would any of the national media have noticed?

Somebody needs to tell the people who run soccer in the United States that they should concentrate less on making it “exciting” (with overtimes, penalty shoot-outs and all sorts of other crap they don’t have in real soccer) and more on getting some marginally talented players over here.

The Minnesota Lynx had a chance to trade up and get Lindsay Whalen. They passed on it. One chance to make the WNBA even a little interesting in Minneapolis, and they blew it. I hope they enjoy getting outdrawn by peewee hockey games.

I’ve enjoyed the Stanley Cup playoffs immensely, but it’s still somehow wrong to have San Jose and Tampa Bay as the odds-on favorites for the finals. It seems like the Stanley Cup should be contested between cities where water occasionally freezes naturally.

I would pay upward of $100 to get the North Stars moniker and logo back for the Minnesota hockey team.

If the Wild stink again next year, do we still have to pretend the team is “building for the future?” I’m tired of “building.”

I hope every day that the Vikings will trade Daunte Culpepper. I say this partly because I’m not convinced he’s a good quarterback, but mostly because it’ll make my friend Shimul crazy to see that in print.

I realized during the NFL draft that I didn’t really care who the Vikings picked, as long as they didn’t screw up the selection process for the third consecutive season. You know the franchise is in “special ed” mode when not messing up on the way to the podium is the highlight of the offseason.

And so there ends my 22-for-one column spree, and there ends, perhaps, my last column ever. I’d just like to take the end of this column to say one thing: Given the chance, I would also trade Matt LeCroy for a new set of bases. Thank you.

Dear Victory Sports,

You are an idiot.

When I say that, I’m not just singling out one person in the organization (although you, Carl Pohlad, found about the only possible method of making more people hate you; to top this, you’re probably going to have to put out a hit on Bert Blyleven).

The Twins survived the 1994 strike; they survived nine years of mediocrity between 1993 and 2000; they survived Major League Baseball’s attempt to contract them in 2002. Though I now find it hard to believe, they even survived the Rich Becker years.

If it’s true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, the Twins should be the Abrams tank of Major League Baseball by now. Heck, Minnesota even managed to win a couple of division titles with a payroll roughly the size of a year’s worth of Alex Rodriguez’s dinner tips. Though they’ll never consistently fill the Metrodome, the Twins brought fans back to Minnesota baseball, both with a winning team and an assortment of quirky ads and promotions. (I fondly remember a night, two seasons ago, when a big game against the Yankees, Dollar Hot Dog Night and Student Night coincided; the combination of excitement, students and cheap hot dogs led to what will probably go down as the only concourse food fight in American League history.)

My point is this: The Twins survived the dark years. The Twins came back from the brink of elimination; baseball returned as a viable sports option in Minnesota.

But you, Victory Sports, you changed all that.

First of all, who came up with your negotiating strategy? It’s straight out of the Mafia kidnapper’s handbook: Take something that people want and make somebody pay for you to give it back.

As you might have noticed, the strategy didn’t work. The big cable and satellite companies aren’t in the business of letting themselves be gouged. Last season, they paid less than $2 per subscriber to Fox Sports Net, which carried most of the Twins games. Now, you are attempting to make them pay $2 in change per subscriber for just the Twins games (plus 19 daily hours of ESPN News, which you’ll notice that the companies carry already).

It’s even a bit strong to call what you’ve been doing so far “negotiations;” that would imply you’ve been in ongoing discussions with the cable and satellite companies to try to reach a solution. You demanded certain concessions and a certain price per subscriber at the beginning of this saga. Your latest offer included those same demands, with a few changes in the wording.

It’s no wonder the cable companies haven’t picked up your channel yet; negotiating with you is like negotiating with North Korea. I’m not sure who in your organization decided to hire Kim Jong Il’s public relations people, but here’s a tip: It’s not working.

The main problem is this: You are killing the Twins. You’ve pretty much thrown away every bit of goodwill the Twins have built up over the last three years. You’re ruining their push for a new stadium. The people of Minnesota are turning against you and — by proxy — against the Twins.

I remember the last team that kept their games off of local TV for one reason or another. Because of that superbly brilliant move, the team eventually turned a decent fan base into the most apathetic in professional sports, killing any long-term future baseball might have had in that city.

Congratulations, Victory Sports: You’re following in the grand footsteps of the Montreal Expos.

When you’re broadcasting 20 Twins “home” games from Mexico City, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Please stop killing my team.

Sincerely,
Jon Marthaler

The Stanley Cup playoffs begin Wednesday. If the sports world has any sense in its pretty little head, it would squarely focus on the start of these playoffs. Certainly, all hockey news should be about playoff teams angling for position and gearing up for a title chase. But hockey is not currently focused on the playoffs. Hockey is still dealing with the aftermath of, and the fallout from, the Todd Bertuzzi incident. The most-watched hockey video clip, almost a month later, is still Bertuzzi’s disgusting on-ice attack from behind on Colorado Avalanche’s Steve Moore.

The assault has been analyzed from top to bottom and frame by frame like no hockey footage piece since Brett Hull’s skate wandered too near the net, with the widest variety of opinions stemming from the incident in the “What’s wrong with hockey?” category. Journalists all over have floated many interesting theories about the real meaning behind the hit (perhaps the most interesting of which was Jim Kelley’s commentary on ESPN.com that puts much of the blame on the Canadian tradition of “fighting for your place” in hockey).

Why do I mention the incident after it has been so completely scrutinized? It was an extreme case of violence in a sport that has occasionally become a parody of itself because of violence. (What’s the old joke about going to the fights and seeing a hockey game break out?) Thus, everyone has seized this episode as an example of what’s wrong with hockey.

Nobody is worried about what’s wrong with hockey during the Stanley Cup playoffs, though, because nothing is wrong with playoff hockey. Apart from the occasional war, hockey gets cleaner come April for one simple reason. During the playoffs, the penalties for cheating and violence are immediate and dramatic. In a seven-game playoff series, no player wants to take the chance of indirectly causing a goal against his team. A goal can decide a game. A game can decide a series. No player wants to be responsible for his team’s demise.

Therefore, then, what’s wrong with hockey is only wrong during the regular season. During the regular season, the penalties for deviant behavior are not as dramatic or immediate as during the playoffs. Hence, the league and officials must be responsible for the control of the game — and they are not cracking down.

The league has always taken a “turn the other cheek” method of dealing with violence and cheaters in the NHL. Most of the suspensions and fines handed down by the league are lightweight stuff, but that is not the problem. The real problem is that the “turn the other cheek” methodology has drifted down to the on-ice officiating.

Bertuzzi, and most of the rest of the league, believe that they must police themselves because the league is not going to do anything about the dirty play in a regular-season game. It is this belief, in my opinion, that is what’s wrong with professional hockey.

In the aftermath of the Bertuzzi hit, there were many calls for the league to get serious about consequences of such actions. In my opinion, the league could get serious in a better way: The next time Vancouver’s Matt Cooke nearly ends a guy’s season with a slash to the ankle behind the play, or the next time Colorado’s Peter Forsberg flops around like a wounded fish in search of a penalty, the officials need to crack down, and the league needs to back them up.

It is not the big, infamous incidents that are killing hockey. It is the little things: the minor brawls, dirty hits and blatant cheating that the league chooses not to see but I cannot ignore. The playoffs do not need a cleanup in this area — but the regular season does, and it is up to the league to orchestrate it.

Until it does, it can expect more of the same: The most famous clip this season is not going to be a pretty goal or an important save — it is going to be a guy’s head bouncing off the ice. And that means that something is indeed very wrong with the NHL.

Thank goodness that Spring Break was last week. The restorative properties of a week without class were nice, of course. But the best thing about this year’s spring break was one that campus sports fans were profusely thankful for: this year, spring break coincided with the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

I like college basketball fine, but I’ll admit that during the regular season, except for the Gophers, the sport is barely on my radar screen. In a year such as this, where Minnesota was already out of contention for anything by Martin Luther King Day, college hoops are firmly placed on my back burner.

This all changes come that special mid-March Thursday. For two days, millions of fans wholly immerse themselves in all things college basketball. Digger Phelps is our sage, Greg Gumbel our oracle, and Jim Nantz is the honey-tongued voice of the gods. For two days, high-tension, high-intensity playoff basketball begins at 11 am and doesn’t end until 11:30 pm, running almost continuously on CBS.

You may keep your Super Bowls and NBA Finals. To me, these two days are the best sports event of the year. I could give you a hundred reasons why, but in the interest of space, I’ve cut my list down to my top five:

1. Playoff anything is highly exciting, and no sport does playoffs like college basketball. In the tournament, there’s a continuous, spine-tingling electricity running through every college basketball game; it’s like the Super Bowl, Game 7 of the World Series, and the back nine on Sunday at the Masters rolled into one. And they do it 32 times in two days.
2. Everybody has a bracket filled out this week, and on Thursday morning, everybody is convinced in the back of their mind that their picks are the right ones. Because of this, everybody’s cheering their picks on without regard to reason. It’s always highly entertaining to see one of your buddies angry enough to kick the couch after a heartbreaking loss from some obscure school that he couldn’t place on the map.
3. America loves the underdog, and there’s no better place to find one than in a tournament filled with colleges you’ve never heard of. Is there a more satisfying feeling than pulling wholeheartedly for an upset by a vaunted “directional school” and having them come through?
4. The all-day, all-the-time, on-a-weekday format. Sporting events are just more fun if it takes a bit of endurance to sit through them, especially if you have to shirk your class or work responsibilities to be there.
5. CBS commentator Jim Spanarkel. He says more unintentionally hilarious things than anyone else ever allowed on television. I’m starting to think that he has a sheet of paper with a list of vaguely vulgar-sounding basketball clichés, and he just goes down the list checking them off every March.

And so, you may have your oft-overhyped, one-night-long Super Bowls and the occasional Game 7 in another sport. Me, I’d rather watch these two days of college basketball than any other sporting event in the world.

By the time you read this, the tournament will be down to its last sixteen teams. The best two days of the year are over, and I’m heading back to my regular rut—but all is well. After all, there are still a few underdogs left, and I’ve still got some of my picks to cheer for, and what more can a fan ask for than that?

There seems to be a somewhat condescending attitude towards sports among some the academic set. Even the Sport Studies department here is affected—despite their title, they don’t seem to like sports much at all. (I was a student there for one semester). At the top of the sports blacklisted by this group is one of my favorite sports: football.

Football is unique in the sports category in that it’s almost exclusively played by males. Often, football is also the highest-profile sport at high schools and colleges across the country. Consequently, football is the natural whipping boy for those who are sports anti-establishmentarians. The Sports Studies department here is on board; when I was in their program, I was required to attend an evening lecture by the author of a book titled “The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football.” As you could guess, the lecture wasn’t exactly pro-football.

Many of the teachings of this school of thought are concerned with the evils of football and other contact-based, male-dominated sports. Football is a socializing agent for young men, and the academics thus extrapolate scores of awful traits among this demographic from the football experience (including off-field violence, degradation of women, and drug abuse).

This is easy for people to say (especially without empirical evidence either to contradict or to support their claims), and many seem to deeply believe it—except they didn’t play football. I did, and I didn’t learn any of the things that I’ve been told that football should have taught me.

What I learned from football was control. Football is an inherently violent game; I hit someone on every single play of every game I ever played. But the violence took place in a controlled setting, in a manner proscribed by a set of rules designed to ensure safety. If I broke the rules, my team was summarily penalized, giving me an imperative incentive to control my surges of anger during the game. Sure, I hit people, but I learned to control myself while doing it. It’s no surprise to me that I haven’t been in a physical fight since I started playing football. Meanwhile, the guys I know who are most likely to start a brawl are guys who never played football. I don’t think this is a coincidence.

What I learned from football was perseverance. Football is fun. Football practice is not. I spent many hours wondering if the fun I had Friday nights was worth the work I did Monday through Thursday. I know I considered quitting a lot during end-of-practice conditioning drills. But I stuck it out, for all four of my high school years, and in the end I can’t imagine not having gone through it. I learned that everything worth doing in life is not necessarily going to be that much fun. The important thing is that I kept with it.

What I learned from football was responsibility; every time I was on the field, I had a responsibility to the other ten guys out there with me to execute my part of the play. What I learned from football was teamwork; I was one of eleven guys, working together toward a common goal. What I learned from football was commitment; I picked an activity and saw it through to the end, every night until the end of practice, every game until the final gun, and every season until the end of the playoffs. What I learned from football was respect; for my opponents, for my teammates, for my coaches, and for myself.

Respect, commitment, perseverance, teamwork, responsibility, control… What I learned from football was simple: I learned more about being a man in four seasons on the football field than I have in the rest of my twenty-two years combined. The critics of football were wrong: what I learned from football wasn’t evil. It was essential.