All posts by Justin Block

Sports Figures Who Turned Over A New Leaf In 2012

2013 is here, but there were some things in 2012 that I still can’t shake. Honey Boo Boo, Nate Silver’s ’72 Dolphins performance, and a KimYe baby were all moments that rocked me to my core in 2012. We can all be thankful for the lack of a Mayan Apocalypse, and enough good health to make it to 2013. Last year was a productive one for myself and everyone involved with JLBSports, and it’s sad to see it go. A few sports figures are also disappointed to see 2012 slip away, but are surely excited with the prospects and future accomplishments that 2013 will undoubtedly bring. This bunch wasn’t in a great place at this time last year, but have now positioned themselves at the top for the year to come.

Robin van Persie
If not for Falcao, Robin van Persie would be regarded as the best striker in the world. He’s gone from being an injury-prone, trophy-less What-If type of player on Arsenal, to a healthy, in-form starter on first place Manchester United. He’s notched over 30 goals this calendar year, and has supplanted Wayne Rooney has Sir Alex Ferguson’s top option at forward. Here’s to the best striker in the EPL finally putting it all together at age 29, even if he is a Manc.

Adrian Peterson
I’ve run out of superlatives to describe Adrian Peterson and his 2012 NFL campaign. He tore his ACL almost a year ago, and he’s come back better than before. A torn ACL at age 27 would end many running backs’ careers, or at the very least, limit explosiveness. Instead, Peterson came back from his injury 2-4 months ahead of schedule, and has gone on to light up scoreboards (and my fantasy team too. Taking him in the 4th round lead to a comfortable championship for me this year). His 6 yards per carry mark is the highest of his career, he’s already set career bests in rushing yards and all-purpose yards. With a 2,000 yard season in the back, AP has been an All-Day back, and the best player in football in 2012. Oh, and he’s doing it on a team that’s second to last in the NFL in passing yards. Christian Ponder has given Peterson no help at all, but he hasn’t needed it. History suggests that Peterson won’t be able to carry the Vikings to a Super Bowl, but at this point, nobody would be surprised if he did.

Jamaal Charles
Peterson has received all of the SportsCenter attention for his tremendous 2012 season, but Jamaal Charles has turned in his best season as a pro after a torn ACL ended his season in 2011. Playing for the 2-14 Chiefs, he turned in 1,500 rushing yards, all while playing within the NFL’s WORST ranked passing offense. The Chiefs might’ve gone winless this year without him.

Peyton Manning
This time last year, nobody was sure if Peyton Manning was ever going to play football again. Manning, along with Peterson, are now the top two contenders for Comeback Player of the Year, and the NFL MVP award. Manning leads the league in QBR, set a career high in completion percentage, and has thrown for the most touchdowns since his (then) record breaking 49 touchdown season in 2004. The Broncos are undeniably the NFL’s best team right now, and are primed for a deep playoff run.

The Indianapolis Colts
From worst, to, well, the playoffs. Andrew Luck having a banner rookie year was expected, but the playoffs? Jim Mora definitely wouldn’t have picked these Colts to make the playoffs in 2012. They have, however, been extremely lucky. They had one of the easiest schedules in the NFL this year, only having to play three playoff bound teams, the Packers, Texans, and Patriots. The Colts have also had some immense luck (pun intended), as their -30 point differential is the worst of all playoff teams, and their -12 turnover differential is the 4th worst in the AFC. They may regress next year, but Chuck Pagano and Co. thoroughly deserve this magical ride.

Carmelo Anthony
2011 was one to forget for Carmelo Anthony. His Melodrama got him sent out of Denver, and into a Knicks cauldron that didn’t fit. In 2011, never gelled with Amare Stoudemire (the Knicks have a losing record with them in the starting lineup), and Mike D’Antoni never wanted him in the first place. 2012 has been a career revival for Anthony. Against the Miami Heat, he scored 41 points in the Knicks’ first playoff victory in over a decade, and followed that up a few months later by setting a single-game Team USA Olympic scoring record with 37 points against Nigeria. Those Team USA camps seem to do something to players—LeBron saw Kobe’s work ethic in 2008 and got better—it seems like Anthony saw LeBron’s leadership and do-it-all team mentality during the Olympics, and has applied it to his 2012 NBA regular season thus far. As the Knicks leading scorer and engine of the offense, he’s lead his team to the 2nd best record in the Eastern Conference, and a few “MVP, MVP!” chants from the Garden faithful as well.

LeBron James
In the span of one month, LeBron James exorcised all of his demons. He basically played every minute of the playoffs for the Heat, played one of the best games in playoff history against Celtics in Game 6, hit every clutch shot he needed to hit throughout the entire postseason, took a crap on the “Who’s the best player in the NBA? LeBron or Durant?” debate, and won his first NBA Championship with 60% of Dwayne Wade. He’s no longer the most hated player in the NBA, because it’s not fun to root against a guy who doesn’t fail anymore. As much as I loved hating on LeBron, it’s kind of nice now to sensibly sit back and enjoy the greatest basketball player of our generation do night-in and night-out what nobody else has done before. I still puke at all of his Samsung commercials though.

The Los Angeles Dodgers
This organization went from being torn apart and broken thanks to a divorce case to having the highest payroll in baseball and Magic Johnson in the stands. They’re being dubbed as the “Yankees West”—a term that would’ve been appropriate for the George Steinbrenner Yankees, but not for the suddenly tight-belted 2012 Yankees, who are dead-set on getting under the luxury tax. The Dodgers’ projected 2013 payroll stands at $207.9 million, and they’ve taken on nearly $500 million in total contracts within the past six months. Whether or not any of the spending will lead to winning baseball remains to be seen, but Dodgers fans can rest easy at night knowing that their team is serious about winning for the first time in years.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

Overreaction Mondays: The Replacement Refs Era Comes To An End (Hopefully)

“I think it’s getting to a point where it’s pretty horrendous, and it’s an embarrassment.”—Drew Brees

1) 1972 Gold Medal Men’s Basketball game.
2) Armando Galarraga blown perfect game.
3) The Monday Night Football Replacement Ref game.

What do all of these games have in common? They make up the top three biggest travesties in American professional sports. The first cost the United States a Gold medal against the Soviet Union the height of the Cold War, the second was a downer for everyone in baseball, and the third will go down as the moment Roger Goodell was finally caught with his pants down. Between the NFL’s concussion cover-up, Bounty Gate (which is looking more and more like Goodell’s Bounty Hunt), and the Replacement Refs Era, Goodell may be on the worst streak of any American sports commissioner ever.

Going into the season, I honestly didn’t think much of the Replacement Refs. Peyton Manning, the non-Quarterback controversy with the Jets, and Chad Johnson’s wife were the only big training camp story lines, so I chalked up any qualms about the Replacement Refs to a slow news cycle in the NFL. Just good ol’ sensationalizing by the TMZ faction of the sports media. [Editor’s note: Greg warned all of us of this impending doom during Week 1.]

The old refs were pretty bad, so how bad could their picket-fence crossing counterparts be? After all, we spend hours upon hours every weekend lamenting their calls, and claiming that we can do better. This is a job that apparently any fan can do better, right? The Replacement Refs, however, are so bad that it actually somehow puts the old ones on a pedestal. This is the only instance in sports history (to my knowledge) that the regular officials of a sport, who are generally despised and blamed viciously (and often unfairly), are actually being revered, held to a higher standard, and genuinely missed. After the infamous Ed Hochuli call in 2008, I didn’t think that NFL officiating could get any worse, but it did.

It took three weeks, but the Replacement Refs finally blew a game. It’s not like there were a few bad calls that may or may not have actually influenced the outcome of the game. Wins and losses are created throughout the course of the game—it’s usually impossible to seriously chalk it up to one play and say the game was won or lost there. Coaches never ever point to one particular play as the reason why a game was decided. But in Roger Goodell’s NFL, we can finally point to one play.

On the last play of the Packers-Seahawks game on Monday Night Football, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson threw a hail mary into the end zone. A touchdown would win them the game, and anything else would end it in favor of the Packers. Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate shoved Packers cornerback Sam Shields to the ground (no offensive pass interference was called), and Packers safety M.D Jennings caught Wilson’s pass for an interception (he should’ve swatted it down though). Tate fought with Shields for the ball, but it looked more like Jennings caught the ball and Tate caught Jennings. It was a clear incompletion on the field, and even clearer in replays. That was Jennings’ ball.

And then this happened:

One official signaled for an incompletion, and the other signaled for a touchdown. The next time the old refs head to the bargaining table with the NFL, all they have to do is slip Roger Goodell this photo in a manila envelope, and he’ll cave. That one snapshot is the defining moment of the Replacement Ref Era in the NFL—the moment two officials called the game the opposite way, and ultimately got the call wrong, even after reviewing the touchdown. Not only did they look foolish making the call on the field, but they even got the call wrong after having a chance to correct it. This is exactly why they NFL added automatic reviews for every touchdown scored. A safety-net was put in place by the Rules Committee to prevent this, but the Replacement Refs somehow managed to slice that net into pieces. Refs get calls wrong on the field all the time—Replacement or not, they mess up. The missed call on the review was more inexcusable than the call on the field, because they had every chance to fix their error.

But never mind all of the horrible calls on both sides of the fence throughout the course of the game. Russell Wilson’s interception was overturned on a soft roughing the passer call, Greg Jennings got blindsided running his route, Jermichael Finley got mugged all night, and Charles Woodson got away with everything against the Seahawks wide receivers. A total of 24 penalties were called tonight, and every drive seemed to go like this:

Play, play, flag, play, punt.

For 3.99999 quarters, the game was dry, uneven, and frankly boring. Every Packers drive featured Aaron Rodgers getting killed, and every Seahawks drive was a Marshawn Lynch three and out show, all aided by flags thrown left and right. (I hope this game doesn’t overshadow what was a bad performance by the Packers on offense and a worse play-calling job by Mike McCarthy. We’re still waiting for this offense to look like 1/4 of what it was last year.) The “play, play, flag, play, punt” drive formula wasn’t exclusive to this game either—NFL games are 10 minutes longer this year thanks to increased penalty calls and general confusion from the Replacement Refs. Games not only feel slower, but they actually are slower.

Goodell better not even THINK about fining Packers lineman T.J Lang for this.

Tonight was a watershed moment in NFL history. It was the night that the NFL’s Stalin got egged by his Replacements Refs, and finally had his ego popped. The NFL will be better for what happened tonight (the only way to go is up once rock bottom is hit, right?), but for it to come at the cost of my Packers doesn’t make any Packer fan feel any better. The Packers are now martyrs, but their loss will not be in vain.

The Seahawks were celebrating their “12th man” tonight to honor the great home crowd and community they have in Seattle, but who knew that their 12th man was wearing zebra stripes instead of a lime-green Nike jersey? The players now know, and they’re not fucking around anymore. Your move, Roger.

He’s mad.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

Who Knew That Sports Fans Could Take It This Far?

Sports fandom has been revolutionized. We’ve come a long way from just watching the games, scanning the box scores, and arguing who should be hitting clean-up over a water cooler. I’d estimate that 98% of our fandom is now expressed online—the actual act of being a fan (supporting, following, watching, buying merchandise, discussion) is done through forums, Twitter, Facebook, and whatever other means of social networking fans use to get it off our chests.

With a massive change in how we digest information and express our sporting loyalties, there’s also been revolution in the type of information we have access to. Fans can dig beneath the surface of the games themselves to see analytics behind how efficient Wayne Rooney is with his shots; sabermetrics can tell you what Justin Verlander’s real ERA is (that simple “ERA” stat you see on his Player Card isn’t the whole truth); I even know that Jeremy Lin is a better pick-and-roll shooter than Raymond Felton. Thanks to Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball,” and the underground statistical community that it exposed within sport, fan-driven thirst for relevant knowledge has developed. Don’t tell me what Derek Jeter’s RBI numbers are—what’s his WAR?

Besides the bevy of advanced metrics that has made anyone with a keyboard and internet access a make-shift blogger, there are sites that are totally dedicated to keeping track of player contracts, salaries, and wages. ESPN employs sports lawyers and accountants full-time to give concise and easy to understand industry insight on every labor union dispute, contract signed, and NFL player arrest. We’ve been given enough information to make any sensible person well-spoken on just about every sports story. Bill Simmons touched on this in his column on the Red Sox payroll dump last month: “You could click on the 25th-best NBA blog and probably read an educated, smartly considered take on the Knicks’ decision to allow Jeremy Lin to leave.” Simmons is correct: is probably the 100,000,000th most popular sports website, but my breakdown of the Lin situation could probably match whatever’s columnists filed. I’m not touting myself up, but professional sports writers and I had the same information—it just depends on whether readers preferred my writing style and framing to Ian Begley’s.

Modern fans are smart enough that some of them really belong on a team’s payroll. Why a soccer club hasn’t hired away my friend Zach Slaton to run numbers for them yet is beyond me (although I’m sure he’s comfortable with his gig at for now). Fans turned industry professionals are commonplace now. Bill James and Voros McCraken were once simple fans of baseball—the former is now in the Red Sox’s front office, with the latter having worked in the same front office from 2003-2005. Bloggers with serious analytics on economics, statistics, and accounting are being hired away by organizations, because they’ve got the models and algorithms that can translate into wins. These independent bloggers and writers have the tools to peel back the curtain, and show fans what’s really going on.

More and more often, however, the best bloggers are being hired away, leaving serious gaps in analysis that fans can access. There aren’t any killer basketball or soccer sabermetrics like baseball has, but teams like the Houston Rockets and Manchester City are fully immersed in them—it’s just that the Rockets keep that information to themselves to stave off competition, and City isn’t telling us which numbers translate into wins (they have, however, opened up their data to independent interpretation).

With Darren Rovell tweeting every bit of irrelevant sports business information, and Baseball Prospectus pumping out their annual Holy Bible, there’s an illusion that fans truly know everything that’s to be known, and they don’t. We’re at a weird point in sports fandom where fans know so much about the statistics and finances—crucial “insider” knowledge—of their teams, and that knowledge causes them to over-analyze and assume way too much. More often than not, we simply don’t know better. Just because you have an Insider account, it doesn’t mean you’re actually keeping up with the inside.

It’s weird for a sports blogger to plead ignorance (as I am right now—aren’t we supposed to be know-it-alls?), but when we don’t, it muddles debate and hurts the teams. For the past month, the biggest story in baseball has been Stephen Strasburg, and whether he should or should not be shut down after reaching his innings limit, which was predetermined last winter. His Washington Nationals boast the best record in baseball, and going into October without their ace will undoubtedly hurt their World Series hopes. The Nationals shut him down anyway, wanting to protect his arm (equipped with a newly reconstructed elbow from Tommy John surgery in 2010) from future harm.

Every baseball fan with a pulse has an opinion on the matter, and many disagreed with the Nationals’ decision. Tommy John, for one, totally second-guessed the Nationals: “I would hope the general manager has a degree in orthopedic surgery, or at least kinesiology or physiology, and I don’t think [Nationals General Manager] Mike Rizzo has any of that… But you know what? The golden ring only comes around on the merry go round maybe one time.” I’m sure Rizzo doesn’t have any medical degrees, but I can guarantee that he’s hired a crack-team of people who do. We don’t know what the Nationals doctors know, and even what their stat nerds know about pitcher’s innings limits, age, and injuries. It wasn’t until this week that Rany Jazayerli wrote about why the Nationals made a mistake, but he used over twenty years of statistical research to compile his argument, and even then, I’m sure the Nationals have their own metrics to counter Jazayerli’s research.

Fans thinking they know more than they actually do doesn’t only apply to statistics, but also to their team’s finances. I watched the English Premier League’s transfer Deadline Day unfold, and with every passing hour, everyone on my Twitter timeline suddenly became accountants. Liverpool fans questioned why their team didn’t step up their £3.5 million offer for Fulham striker Clint Dempsey to meet Fulham’s £6 million asking price. To them, a £2.5 million difference was negligible for a rich team that badly needed a striker. That difference would just be made up in shirt sales. He’s vital to cracking the American market. Once again, Liverpool fans should assume ignorance over facts in the matter. I’m sure that internally, Liverpool could prove that paying an extra £2.5 million for a 29 year old striker with an abysmal chance conversion rate was simply not worth it in terms of pound to performance value. We make think that Liverpool and the public share the same information—Demspey’s 17 league goals last season, a $100 jersey price, and a serious need for a new striker seem to equate to an easy, logical buy for the club. If it was that simple, however, Liverpool would’ve pulled the trigger. It wasn’t though, and for reasons that will never be made public, no transfer was completed.

As much as we would like to think otherwise, we’re not as smart as the teams we support. There are some genuine head-scratchers, like the Knicks and Jeremy Lin (really just James Dolan across the board), the Magic’s package for Dwight Howard, the entire Cleveland Browns franchise, and Albert Pujols’ contract, but by-in-large, teams are making the right choices based on an even deeper well of knowledge than fans have access to. It’s not just fans who got smarter—teams did too.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

Inside Sport Management At NYU: Nike Plots Basketball Dominance

When I explain to people what I’m studying at college, it’s never an easy answer. Telling them that I go New York University is the obvious first step, but when I tell that to someone, their first thought is almost always the image of a dirty hipster, prowling the depths of the LES, Williamsburg, or some obscure place that’s not cool yet but will be in a few months, rather than an institution of higher learning. I’m not a film major at the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, and I’m not a future millionaire at the internationally renowned Stern Business School. No, I study Sport Management at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. Within that school exists my program: The Robert Preston Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, Sport Management, and Horseback Riding. I call it the “fake Tisch” or just SCPS. Curious looks always follow-up my ramble.

After explaining what school I’m in at NYU, which takes three more sentences than it should, I’ll always immediately jump out and explain what a “Sport Management” major is—I’m not going to school to be a baseball coach or an equipment jockey. On the first day of class freshman year, my “Introduction to Sport Management” instructor laid it out pretty well. I’m in a program that’s rooted in the same business principles and practices that a Stern business student would learn, but taught with an angle slighted towards the sports industry. I learn accounting, marketing, consumer behavior, business development, law—the whole nine yards—except every example given to teach me these subjects has to do with sports. It’s much easier to learn accounting when the finances of the Yankees or MSG are on the table. Last semester, I actually had fun writing a 12 page paper on organizational structures, because it was on how Liverpool FC stacks up.

From the first minute of class, we’re instantly taught to stop thinking like a fan, and to think like a savvy industry insider. Yet what really makes the material to much fun to absorb is that little fan switch in the back of my mind—it’s never fully in the off position. At heart, I’m a fan of the sports, leagues, teams, and companies discussed in class. Would you rather study the accounting statement of Fortune 500 Company X, or the team you just spent three hours yelling at through your television last Sunday? The skills I’m picking up in my major is allowing me to analyze my favorite teams at a higher level. I’m actually becoming a better fan—there’s no inverse relationship between my business knowledge and my personal fandom of the sports industry.

At SCPS, I’ve been blessed with a truly outstanding faculty. Most, if not all of my Sport Management professors have other gigs outside of the classroom. They’re still working jobs within the industry, mostly in some sort of counseling or writing capacity. Occasionally, examples brought up in class will directly follow a sporting trend that’s worth noting. I’ll be using this column to explain them as best as my notes dictate, and with added analysis from my own perspective.

The first grand idea comes from Professor David Hollander’s Marketing of Sports and Events class. He was giving a lecture on the pillars of marketing, and how businesses should think about themselves. He brought up the railroad industry as a prime example of how businesses fail to evaluate themselves properly. Back in the late 20th and early 21st century, if railroad companies thought about themselves as being in the travel business, and not the railroad business, they would’ve had a chance to adapt to the airplane and car, the two dominant forms of transportation today. When companies ask themselves “What business am I in?” the answer should always be based on the wants and needs of the consumer, and not one specific product.

A more modern example would be book companies. Book publishers don’t think of themselves as being in the book (you know, that physical stack of paper bound together) business, but in the literature business. People want to read, and it’s the job of every publisher to get people to read their products—whether it’s an e-book, audiobook, or a physical book—publishers should be taking the steps to make their products as widely available to consumers as possible.

Since this is a Sport Management class, an example relating to the industry was brought up. Nike has just signed on with FIBA as a presenting sponsor of FIBA’s new international three-on-three basketball tournament. FIBA is trying to get three-on-three basketball into the Olympics as soon as 2016. This leaves the NBA in a predicament. The NBA and FIBA are both in the basketball business, with the NBA promoting organized five-on-five basketball, and FIBA pushing everything that’s basketball in the world. Basketball is already the second most commercially popular sport in the world, and three-on-three basketball is rapidly on the rise in Europe and China. FIBA has had three-on-three world championships before, and FIBA General Secretary Patrick Baumann claims that three-on-three tournaments happen nearly every week in China—a claim that my roommate, a Chinese graduate student who’s in the United States for the first time, backs up. (He owns six Kobe Bryant jerseys and is an avid three-on-three player back home.) The NBA has no competing international product, other than the reach of their own league.

If David Stern and the NBA truly think of themselves as a global purveyor of basketball, they’d be falling behind the eight-ball if they let FIBA, and the new American Basketball League, start dictating the direction of the sport. The newly formed ABL is launching this January, and they plan to use FIBA rules, which means a different ball, shorter 3-point line, and an overall more offense game than what the NBA allows (basically what you saw in the 2012 Olympics). The ABL’s plan is to serve as a feeder league for European leagues, so American players who aren’t NBA quality can hone the international style to seek professional employment in Europe.

Between FIBA’s reach in the ABL, their plans for three-on-three, the NBA’s idea to have an age limit on Olympic players and to potentially create a “World Cup of Basketball,” something’s got to give. If the NBA doesn’t put it’s biggest stars on display in the Olympics, does it cost itself international expansion opportunities? Without a doubt. They’d be harming the five-on-five product internationally, which could help promote an Olympic three-on-three tournament by default. If three-on-three catches on, and NBA quality players compete in a more exciting three-on-three tournament in the Olympics, the NBA will be under threat.

FIBA and the NBA are at war for the future of global basketball. FIBA now offers Olympic basketball, an American league, and three-on-three. There are more NBA fans in China than people in the United States, but if those fans are playing three-on-three more and more, it would only take one three-on-three star to have the sport explode. If the NBA thinks of themselves as being in the business of organized basketball, no matter how many players are on the court, they should be able to deal with FIBA’s threats. Perhaps an NBA sanctioned three-on-three league in Europe or China should be in the cards? If they fail to get a foothold on the burgeoning three-on-three market, they will lose significant amounts of basketball market share oversees.

On the flip side of this war are the apparel companies. Adidas is currently signed on as the NBA’s official sponsor. Since Nike is locked out of that market, they’ve decided to sponsor three-on-three basketball, as well as Spain’s professional league. Nike already has Jordan, LeBron, Kobe, and Durant under their marionette strings. By running to get their products in the hands of international players first, they’re ahead of the curve. Nike is eating on two fronts: they’ve got the five most popular players in the world in their shoes, and they’ve got thousands of international athletes in their uniforms. Adidas may have NBA players outfitted in their uniforms, but Nike seems determined to get the other billion basketball players around the world into their shirts, sweats, and shoes. As usual, Nike is holding the keys to the future. It would horrify David Stern into retirement if Chinese kids started wearing the Nike jersey of some Spanish three-on-three star instead of LeBron’s Adidas sponsored Miami Heat jersey.

Five-on-five basketball is deeply rooted within American sporting culture—there will never be an American three-on-three league as big as the NBA. But whoever said basketball was just an American sport? Nike and FIBA are banking on the rest of the world’s players carrying a different brand of basketball. It’s vital that the NBA thinks more like HarperCollins, and not like Union Pacific Railroad.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

Overreaction Mondays: It’s Only Week 1

Even though I spent 1400+ words lamenting the sport of football, I was pleased to see it back yesterday. I don’t go to church, so NFL Sunday afternoons are the sermons I observe. Being stuck in the NYC market, I have to watch whatever Giants or Jets game is on, meaning I’m stuck with either A) Seeing how many packages Tim Tebow can get involved in while $20 million worth of Mark Sanchez wrestles with a defensive back on the outside, and B) Watching the Giants play horribly until Week 16.

Thankfully, my Packers were on national television against the 49ers, which was by far the toughest matchup for any Week 1 team. The Packers defense got ran off the field physically and mentally, but still made enough stops to make this a game the Packers should’ve won at home. Their defense was good enough for them to finish 15-1 last year because they led the league in interceptions, but against a 49er team that doesn’t turn the ball over on offense, they were never going to win that side of the ball. Unfortunately, 1 yard runs from Cedric Benson (Aaron Rodgers ended the game as the Packer’s leading rusher), and an extremely prepared 49er defense took away the Packer’s big play-action strikes. Rodgers averaged 6.9 yards per completion yesterday, well-below his 8.2 YPC average, and way lower than the 9.25 mark he threw up during his 2011 MVP campaign. I’m chocking this one up to a bad matchup. I’d rather have the Packers play this way Week 1 rather than see them play this same game Week 14.

The Year of the Quarterback continued on too—with every week, it seems like this’ll become the Decade of the Quarterback. 9 quarterbacks threw for over 300 yards, Michael Vick had 56 attempts, Robert Griffin III averaged 12 YPC, and Matthew Stafford is now on pace to throw for 5,500 yards. Looks like the Roger Goodell NFL to me.

Every division except for the NFC West has stellar quarterback play in some regard, but the AFC East may have the most interesting story lines. Even though every sports media outlet is determined to talk Tim Tebow into the Jets starting job, I’m not so sure it’ll happen. If 2011 Mark Sanchez goes out there week-to-week, Tebow will be starting by Week 8, but I think Sanchez is now in “Fuck You” mode this season. Beyond the 3 touchdowns and 70% completion percentage against an expensively assembled Bills defense, Sanchez is definitely playing with a major chip on his shoulder. After the Jets flirted with Peyton Manning, they handed Sanchez a contract extension because his feelings were hurt. Even after that, they still had the nerve to trade for Tim Tebow. Contract extension aside, Sanchez was probably the most disrespected incumbent starter this offseason. Shouldn’t that hurt his pride? Doesn’t he not want to be second-guessed, and not want to be reduced to Tebow’s helmet-boy? Not only as a quarterback, but as a competitor, that should light a fire under his ass. That Bills performance wasn’t just a win to relieve a media-fabricated quarterback controversy, but a genuine personal statement game, even if it didn’t feel like it. Ryan Fitzpatrick and Ryan Tannehill seem eager to anoint Sanchez as the best AFC East quarterback not named Tom Brady, but I think Sanchez will earn that spot, and not gain it by default.

Here’s to Tom Brady’s bloody nose and the subsequent 3-minute segment on SportsCenter (why did Adam Schefter have to come in and play plastic surgeon with Chris McKendry?), and here’s to Sanchez vanquishing his Tebow demons.

Or maybe this is just an overreaction. But hey, it’s only Week 1.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

The Morality of Football: Why It’s Wrong

In my early teenage years, I played a ton of pickup football. My friends and I all love the sport, but we were all either too small for organized teams or preferred getting clunked with baseballs instead of bludgeoned with pads and helmets.

One Sunday afternoon, we played with a mixture of kids—at 15, I was the oldest and biggest, and I was out there tackling kids as young as 11. During that game, I played quarterback to make my height advantage in receiving nonexistent, and I played safety on defense to prevent me from tackling the smaller kids as often. Playing quarterback was great—chucking 20 yard passes to pre-teen kids with wheels was fun. Playing safety, however, ended up being dangerous.

On one pass over the middle, I dove from my safety position to tip the ball and break up the completion. Mid-air, I collided head to head with the intended receiver, an 11 year old who weighed 90-nothing pounds and wasn’t even five feet tall. His entire right eyebrow had ballooned and turned an ugly black and blue, and his forehead had a 4 inch gash. He looked like he had been beaten senselessly in a bar fight, or been mauled by a pitbull. I was unscathed. A bag of ice and an advil was all I needed—he needed a visit to the ER.

The collision had fractured whatever bone is right above the eye, and he needed a dozen stitches. But for him, that wasn’t the worst part. It was August, and Pop Warner football was beginning. Doctors said he’d never be able to play football again, as the eye fracture was too severe.

I felt horrible. In an absolutely meaningless game of backyard football, my reckless dive had cost this kid his football career. It’d be naive to think that he had a chance of being a professional football player, or even a decent high school player, but that accident took away his ability to ever enjoy the game ever again.

It’s been nearly four years since then, and my attitude towards the sport of football has changed significantly. Four years ago, I was riddled with guilt that this kid wouldn’t be able to play. Today, I wonder if maybe I’m more of a hero than a villain. Is it possible that I actually saved a few years of this kid’s life by injuring him enough to take away organized football?

In 2009, Malcolm Gladwell equated football to dogfighting in The New Yorker. It was the first time I heard about “tau,” and it was the first time concussions and head injuries were put to the forefront of football discussion. Gladwell shed light on a deadly issue that’s been slowly infecting the game for decades—a problem that’s now steamrolling to court. Over 3,000 former NFL players are currently suing the NFL and helmet maker Riddell, claiming negligence and the withholding of information linking head trauma and brain injuries to football.

In the past two years, there’s been a disturbing amount of former NFL players committing suicide. People—even athletes committing suicide is nothing new, but the unique situations of these suicides makes them different. Former NFL players Dave Duerson, Junior Seau, and Ray Easterling all shot themselves, with the former two shooting themselves in the chest, and the latter killing himself after suffering from years of dementia. Duerson and Seau both shot themselves in the chest so their brains could be studied by Dr. Ann McKee, the neurologist who was the focus of Gladwell’s 2009 piece and a more recent feature on Grantland.

Dr. McKee studies the brains of ex-athletes and veterans to help understand the health problems that repeated blows to the head can cause. She’s focusing on how chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) occurs in the brains she dissects, and the deeper she digs, the stronger evidence she’s finding between football and brain damage. It’s not one decisive hit to the head or concussion that’s leading former NFL players to develop CTE—it’s the thousands of smaller hits that build up over years of play. Players aren’t getting knocked into vegetable status immediately, but instead have tau proteins accumulating in their brains. Tau is formed in the brain through these thousands of hits and concussions, and it kills brain cells, causing victims to have dementia, memory loss, aggression, or depression—all symptoms of CTE.

CTE isn’t an automatic death-wish for all—not every player is going to end up like Seau or Easterling. Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw has admitted that he doesn’t use stats when analyzing the NFL for CBS, because he suffers from short-term memory loss, likely due to his years of quarterbacking. Retired tight end Ben Utecht, who now enjoys a second career as a singer, doesn’t remember entire sets he’s performed. Whether these former players will develop dementia or Alzheimers later on in life is unknown, but for players in their early 30s like Utecht, the lingering impact of their playing days is swift and troubling.

Football is coming to a head this decade. Dr. McKee’s research continues to grow in scope and influence—the NFL just gave her center $1 million in funds with no strings attached. Earlier this week, they gave the National Institute of Health a $30 million donation—the largest in league history—to fund brain injury research. Roger Goodell has been accused of downplaying, or even hiding the facts of the matter, but he’s finally wising up (it’s about damn time though). The NFL just wants answers. The players want answers. We want answers.

As the dangers of the sport become more known, I, along with many other Americans, will not stand for it. And if fans won’t accept it, then Congress will eventually follow suit too. Congress waged war on performance-enhancing drugs in sports last decade—brain-injuries will surely be the next crusade. Just last month, the insurance company Travelers sued the NFL to avoid paying for defense from the aforementioned player suit. We’re coming close to a day when insurance companies won’t take the risk with any level of organized football, because there are too many long-term health problems associated with the sport. The idea that the sport may become uninsurable is a greater threat to its existence than Congress, the Players Association, scientists and health professionals, or critics.

Dr. McKee testified before Congress in 2009.

Today, the NFL is the richest and most popular professional sports league in the world. NFL games are always the highest rated television programs every year, and its players are international icons. The most woeful franchise in the NFL, the Cleveland Browns, was just sold for a remarkable $1 billion. All 32 franchises are in the Top 50 of Forbes richest sports teams. The league and the sport itself is peaking right now. Every peak, however, has a valley, and head-injuries will be that valley for the sport. The game will have to change, but when it’s inherently violent, no good solution is on the horizon. (Let’s not get into any potential rule changes.)

Every year, it’s becoming harder and harder for me to watch football. I love football, but the morality of it is simply too much to bear. It’s ethically irresponsible of me to root, cheer, and pay for football players to do their job when I know that they’re literally killing themselves on the field. It’s just not right. It’s easy to not think about this now when the sport is so popular, and no players I’ve grown up loving are babbling madmen in wheelchairs, or in a room somewhere pondering what to do with a loaded gun. It’s not pleasant to think that my favorite player, Aaron Rodgers, might kill himself in 20 years after falling into a CTE induced depression, but it’s a legitimate concern I have now. I don’t want my boyhood idols to have a lesser quality of health than me just because I wanted to see them make the next play. It’s become cliche to call football players “gladiators,” but that comparison has never been more accurate. In grand, circular stadiums, men are killing each other for our own entertainment, and their personal status.

Junior Seau was the first player I saw play who killed himself. He was only 43. Although he might have had other problems that lead to his decision to take his own life, it’s not a coincidence he preserved his brain in his suicide for science. For people of my generation, Seau’s death will be the turning point, because he was still playing as early as 2009. Memory of his heroic play in the modern NFL for the Patriots dynasty is still fresh—it causes his death to linger more. When Seau’s mother is crying in front of the media, yelling to God to “take me, take me, leave my son,” I can no longer ignore what football is doing to people on a humanistic and a medical level.

This hurts to watch every time.

The sport of football is wrong. If that makes me a liberal extremist who is overreacting, then I dare you to watch that video Seau’s mother again. I will still lovingly watch my Packers this year, and maybe even attend a few games, but the same joys I once had from the sport are dead. To me, it’s no longer an innocent, good-natured activity. It’s no longer wholesome entertainment. It’s endorsed barbarism in the 21st century. If my continued fandom makes me a hypocrite, then fine—it’s not up to me to enact change. It’s up to the powers that be to put player health over wealth, and for parents to prevent their kids from playing. I stopped one kid from playing thanks to a head-injury—hopefully he won’t be the last to value his well-being over sport.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

Looking Inside the JLBSports Crystal Ball: NFL Predictions Sure To Go Wrong

For me, this has been the quickest NFL offseason ever. At this point last year, my Green Bay Packers were the reigning champs, and I squeezed every second I could out of that. Hell, last season my team was undefeated up until mid-December—I held my balls in the face of every other fan for almost ten whole months. It’s been different this year though. After the Packers laid an egg against the Giants, Linsanity bridged the gap between the Super Bowl and the NBA playoffs, and before I knew it, the Olympics rolled around to preoccupy every second of my sporting fandom. A family vacation even helped to bridge the small gap between the Olympics and the start of the English Premier League. There’s been no sporting lull at all! Sure the Little League World series ate up the last few weeks of August, but that’s what Chopped on the Food Network is for. If I’m going to watch a competition, damn right it’s going to involve food and not 12 year olds.

Alas, the kids are back at school, and stores aren’t selling bermuda shorts anymore—it’s officially football season America. With the start of the NFL season tonight, the JLBSports staff put together our official predictions that are sure to go 110% wrong. The Cardinals have a better shot at a wild card spot than us getting these totally right. But hey, that’s the fun of it all. When things go wrong, it usually makes for good television. How do you think reality TV works? Here are our staff predictions for the best reality show in the world: the NFL.


*denotes wild card team










SUPER BOWL PICK: Packers over Texans (35-28)

The world seems to assume that the New England Patriots will run away with the AFC, and they should. During the greatest passing expansion in NFL history, the Patriots have the NFL’s 1A quarterback in Tom Brady. You can’t win a Super Bowl anymore without a top-tier passing attack. I think Eli Mannning and New York Giants proved last year that good quarterbacks are possible of making that elite leap in the postseason (Aaron Rodgers did the year before), and you need to be able to play a little defense when it matters most. The Patriots had one of the worst defenses in football last year, but it can only get better with 1st round pick Chandler Jones providing some much needed pass rush. That being said, the Houston Texans are entering their second year under Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense, and outside of the Steelers and Ravens mauling everyone in the AFC North, they had the best defense in the AFC last year. Week 14 in New England could decide the top seed in the AFC, and it’ll give everyone a sample of how the Texans can handle a great team in cold weather. I think good crunch time defense and a healthy Matt Shaub will be the difference come January. Expect Shaub to make that elite leap in the playoffs this year.

(I have to get this off my chest too: If Ryan Tannehill doesn’t end up being the worst quarterback in the NFL, the Miami Dolphins will overtake the New York Jets in that division, leaving Gang Green in last. ESPN and the New York media will sensationalize the shit out of Tim Tebow to get him to be the starter by week eight. Things aren’t looking good when Darrelle Revis is already saying this about their quarterback situation: “You’ve got to do what’s best for the team, and I don’t know if we’ve been wise in that department.” You can’t make this stuff up folks.)










SUPER BOWL PICK: Ravens over 49ers (13-10)

I had a tough time choosing the NFC East winner. I really hate looking like a homer, but I’ve had a change of heart about the Philadelphia Eagles’ chances the last couple days. I think Vick will be healthy towards the end of the season and enable Philadelphia to go on a run before losing to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. In the AFC, I really didn’t wanna choose the Denver Broncos to win the division because I’d appear to be on the Peyton bandwagon, but their defense is so good that I expect them to do very well. That being said, I think the Baltimore Ravens will finally get their revenge on the New England Patriots for last year’s traumatizing end to the AFC Championship Game, setting up the all-Harbaugh Super Bowl that the media wanted last year. The big game in New Orleans will showcase two of the finest defenses in the league, but Joe Flacco and the Ravens will come out on top, with all his doubters finally quieted until the end of time.










SUPER BOWL PICK: Packers over Texans (26-17)

The NFC South and West are by far going to be the most fun to watch this season. As long as the Carolina Panthers can give more support to Cam Newton in the passing game, they have the most explosive offensive package in the division and arguably in the NFC. The Seattle Seahawks are on the right track, but it seems to be coming together faster for the San Francisco 49ers, so I gave it to them. The Green Bay Packers win the NFC North for reasons that don’t need explaining if you’ve been watching football. Though my Detroit Lions will contend, I don’t think they have the running game that they need to make a Super Bowl run. They’ve an elite passing attack, but last season was Matthew Stafford’s first healthy year in the league, and that team is in big trouble if his injury-bug returns.

Follow the entire team on Twitter @JLBSportsTV

English Premier League Preview: This Ain’t A Scene, It’s An Arms Race

In a decade, we’ll look back on last season in English football and think, “Right there: that’s when it all went mad.” The madness was spawned by Manchester City, who spent nearly £1 billion in four years to grab the English Premier League title—their first since 1968. Chelsea ended up claiming their first Champions League trophy in the Abramovic Era, despite fielding arguably their worst, albeit it most expensive team, in recent memory. The Blues and the Baby Blues won the biggest trophies in club football last year, all through the might of the all-powerful pound. The astute managing of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United wasn’t enough, and the stingy, yet measured Wengernomics of Arsenal couldn’t mount a serious challenge. Cash ruled everything.

The till hasn’t been emptied either. Chelsea have gone out and spent £80 million this summer, the crown jewel being Belgian attacking ace Eden Hazard. Manchester City only bought one player before splurging only £30 million on five players on Deadline Day. After all of their spending in previous years, nobody—except the always unsatisfied Roberto Mancini—is exactly mourning over City’s slightly tighter belt. United, despite the £340 million in debts laid upon them by the Glazer family, have written checks to secure Shinji Kagawa and Robin van Persie. (It seems like they can live off of that £80 million Ronaldo fee forever.) Out of all of the clubs in the EPL, those three have the only realistic shots at winning the title, simply because they’ve outspent the rest of the pack.

The next tier of EPL clubs are now left trying to catch up. Arsenal had their best two players poached this summer, Tottenham lost star midfielders Luka Modric and Rafel Van der Vaart, and Liverpool remain unable to attract a big-name signing from across the continent. These clubs have, however, made an effort to reload. Arsenal brought in strikers Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud to fill the scoring void left by RVP. Tottenham secured a permanent move for 17 goal hitman Emmanuel Adebayor, hulking midfielder Moussa Dembele, goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, attacking midfielder Gylfi Sigurðsson, and American striker Clint Dempsey. Liverpool ousted four borderline Starting XI players and replaced them with three surefire starters in Joe Allen, Fabio Borini and Nuri Sahin, and the first quick, tricky wing threat the club has had since Yossi Benayoun in Oussama Assaidi. (The ghost of Ryan Babel still haunts the Anfield wings too.)

Looks like an arms race to me.

Arsenal, Tottenham, and Liverpool all know that they can’t compete with City, United and Chelsea. They can’t compete financially, because they’re short of pounds, and they lack the pull to sign the best talent from around Europe. There’s a reason why Hazard chose only between City and Chelsea. There’s a reason why RVP wanted out of Arsenal, and chose between only United and City. A decade ago, Arsenal and Liverpool might have been in the thick for Hazard, and RVP surely wouldn’t have traded shades of red. Players know the ambitions and possibilites of clubs just as much as management does, and the gap between the new “Big Three” of City, United, and Chelsea—the only three teams while realistic title aspirations—and everyone else is massive. Not only spending wise, but in terms of squad depth too. Sergio Aguero, City’s leading scorer last season, is out for a few weeks, but they have £70 million worth of striker options in Edin Dzeko, Mario Balotelli, and Carlos Tevez to provide cover. Wayne Rooney is out for a month now for United, but no biggie—they’ve got RVP.

The gap in talent and spending has been properly reflected in the league table. In 2011-2012, Arsenal finished third behind behind the two Manchester clubs (both finished tied at 89 points), and they were still 19 points off the pace. It was the largest gap between the 1st and 2nd highest points totals since 2005, when Chelsea won the league 12 points clear of everyone.

That’s why this summer, clubs are trying to load up just to fight another season. Without Champions League football, you’re doomed to the scraps of the transfer market, and have no possibility of making the leap to catch the Big Three. Liverpool have agreed to pay nearly £5 million in total fees just to have Sahin on loan from Real Madrid this year, because they know that they need to stock up on all the guns they can get their hands on before they run out of shots to take. Tottenham decided find a manageable, but high figure between within budget limitations to come close to Adebayor’s previous £175,000 per week salary to complete his transfer from City. They’ve even taken former Liverpool targets Sigurðsson and Dempsey away from Anfield by spending a little more, seemingly just to keep them away from the competition. The Big Three is loading up for a fight at the top, and the rest are just battening down the hatches to fight out the storm and survive.

For those other clubs, that golden sky at the end of the storm are UEFA’s Financial Fair Play (FPP) restrictions. These clubs know that they’re just living year to year until FPP starts wielding a commanding influence over spending. UEFA will enforce FPP starting in 2013-2014, meaning teams that compete in UEFA competitions (Champions League and the Europa League) must break even on their balance sheet, or face consequences. Even in that 2013 year though, a deviation of £35 million will still be allowed.

Liverpool owner John Henry and Arsene Wenger have already expressed doubts over the effectiveness of FPP. Given the overall popularity of the sport and the still growing business of it all (no league or country has had the kind of new stadium boom that spearheaded the MLB, NBA and NFL to the top. Also, nobody has figured out how to maximize television and internet profits yet either, which is scary. There’s still billions to be made out there.), Henry’s states before that “clubs seem to be ignoring UEFA’s rules, which may be porous enough to enable clubs to say that the trend of huge losses is positive and therefore be exempt from any meaningful sanctions.” Wenger added that clubs aren’t doing enough now to cut wage bills in time for 2013: “I cannot see it when the wage bill is bigger than the turnover. Frankly, that cannot happen in one year.” Basically, clubs will continue to give FPP the finger until UEFA decides to grow some balls and take real action.

But only clubs that participate in UEFA’s competitions would be subject to FPP—it wouldn’t stop another Man City from being born. Any billionaire can still take a mid-table side, pump hundreds of millions into the squad, and turn them into a juggernaut. While FPP has the potential to curb spending for the current big clubs, it does nothing to account for any future giants.

So outside of the Big Three and Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, and for now, Newcastle, what chance do the other 13 clubs have in the EPL? They have no hope of even nabbing a Europa League spot, and for the clubs that are good enough to not be in relegation danger, the only real joys come out of the occasional upset win. Given the upgrades some teams have made this year, however, those upsets might be plentiful. Sunderland have spent nearly £30 million on Louis Saha, Steven Fletcher, and Adam Johnson: two proven EPL strikers and a City misfit who can be one of the best wingers in the league on his day. Swansea City have flipped the Joe Allen and Brendan Rodgers fees into Michu, Ki Sung-Yueng, Kyle Bartley, and Chico. After two weeks, they’ve led the league in scoring. Everton have also had an early ray of hope, with former £15 million signing Marouane Fellaini scoring two goals, including one in a win over United.

With three legitimate title contenders and a whole host of teams that can grab points against them on any given day, this title race and Champions League race should be the tightest in years. Who’s going to deliver the kill shot this year? Well whoever spends the most money, of course.

I might have been a Fall Out Boy fan in my middle school years.

My table prediction:
1) Manchester City
2) Manchester United
3) Chelsea
4) Arsenal
5) Liverpool
6) Newcastle
7) Tottenham
8) Everton
9) Swansea City
10) Sunderland
11) West Bromwich Albion
12) Fulham
13) Aston Villa
14) Stoke City
15) Queens Park Rangers
16) West Ham United
17) Southampton
18) Wigan Athletic
19) Reading
20) Norwich City

Table projections based on TPI values simulated 10,000 times. (The value of teams based on transfer fees as of August 17th were used as input in a predictive model. Data using fees from 8/17-8/31 isn’t available yet.) As you can see in the far right column, there’s no clear cut 3rd or 4th place team. It’s that tight between teams going for the title and teams going for 4th. Via Zach Slaton for Forbes.

Click to enlarge.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

The Lonely World of the Football “ITK”

I’ve been following European soccer/football/association football/the-British-invented-the-term-soccer-so-whatever since 2008, and last weekend marked my 5th season of English Premier League fandom. Through JLBSportsTV’s videos on football, specifically Liverpool FC, I’ve been engaging in the peripheral world of the sport for five years now. I’ve been actively using Twitter since 2009, and it’s become my one-stop shop for every piece of news I could possibly care about. It allows me to pick and choose what news I want to know. I don’t care about what Rush Limbaugh said yesterday, so I won’t follow a smörgåsbord of political journalists and media outlets. I do, however, care about what company makes Michael Vick’s rib plates, so I’ll follow ESPN sports business reporter Darren Rovell. Although I’ve been engaged in footy news via Twitter, I’ve never taken the interest that far. I like to keep my timeline clean, and my following count at or around 350.

When I opened up shop with this website, I also opened up a Twitter account for it, @JLBSportsTV49. I’ve used it to spread news, plug the website, and engage in friendly banter with other football fans. To help get the account going, I decided to follow back it’s first 200 followers for their early support. Because this site is built off the strength of the JLBSportsTV YouTube channel, which is almost exclusively viewed by football fans in the UK, most of the early followers were just that. With them on my timeline, I was introduced to an entire world of sports “media” I was previously unaware to: agents and front office personnel who share their “inside” knowledge with clubs about transfers. These ITKs (stands for “in the know) are giving us the scoop on the most surprising transfers of the summer market—a period that’s full of hysteria, anger, and the occasional triumph from fans, all of whom become more concerned with the check books of millionaires and billionaires than their own outstanding credit card bills. Why worry about keeping the lights on when Matt Jarvis is worth £11 million and Nuri Sahin thinks he’s Dwight Howard?

But the Jarvis transfer and the Sahin saga are all facts—stories that have been thoroughly covered by the BBC, The Times, and other reputable news agencies. The Twitter accounts of ITKs, insiders, and agents produce news like this, which is totally baseless, salacious, and fear-mongering to a hyper-sensitive fan.

(A day later, this same “agent” would backtrack on his Evra report, stating that the deal will be done in January. By then, everyone will have forgotten about this false news, and the person behind this Twitter account can continue to rack up followers.)

Every day, it at least one ITK or fake agent gets retweeted onto my timeline, and I block and report them as spam. “Kill them all and keep moving.” The problem is, people genuinely put their faith in them, because it feels good to get wrapped up in transfer talk. Evra to LFC? Time to start a Twitter rant about how that’s a crazy move for LFC. Did Suarez approve it? I should tweet my buddy and get his thoughts. It’s all part of a ploy to make you more social, and when you feel social, you feel good. You’ll probably remember who told you that Evra was going to LFC, and since that news made you feel good, you’ll give a follow to that Twitter account.

It’s clear, however, that these accounts are run by people who aren’t on any club payroll, and are certainly not agents. They spread false rumors, or just report on rumors that the mornings tabloids run, but with an inside twist, an inside ethos based on nothing. So why do people open up Twitter accounts to blatantly lie about transfers? Well to gain Twitter followers of course. But why does a person who hides behind the veil of a name like “agent_153” and an avatar of a pair of hands shaking want to gain followers? Nobody will recognize them in person, and what good does 30,000 followers do you if there’s no sense of personal acknowledgement in the real world? And since there’s no money to be made off Twitter, where’s the personal gain?

These people are undoubtedly lonely, and all they have are their Twitter followers and hundreds of mentions a day to keep them cozy. Last night, @agent_153 and @FootballDave01 said they had received news about Edinson Cavani’s transfer and a striker Arsenal is after, but would only reveal the news if their tweet was retweeted—an obvious and pathetic attempt to gain mentions and followers to fulfill a late-night social desire.

The real-life image of a football ITK is this in my mind: a male in his 30s who is divorced, hates his middle-class job, and needs something to do. People to interact with. A sense of place and accomplishment in a single world. A few statistics back up my image. The average Twitter user is 39 years old, and 57% of all users are between ages 30-44. According to the Office for National Statistics in England, people who are 40-44 years old get divorced the most, and three of the four most divorced age brackets are from people ages 30-44 years old. Additionally, the largest cluster of English Premier League fans are 35-44 years old (or 1 in 3), are overwhelmingly male, and are non-season ticket holders who earn £31,000 a year. That unhappy divorced male 30-something who doesn’t make a ton of money seems to fit the bill.

The profile of people likely masquerading as ITKs, insiders, and agents is clear, and kind of sad. These people have had to create a character of important stature who spreads fake rumors to drum up a following built on lies (kind of like Rick Ross, but way less rich). It can’t get much lower than that in the football world, unless you’re an Arsenal fan this transfer window. And even then, at least you have your fellow fan to lean on—all @agent_153 has to keep him up are 43,000 followers and a timeline full of inventive fiction.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

The Passion Of The Lucas

It’s been five years since Lucas Leiva signed for Liverpool from Brazilian club Grêmio. He’s lasted longer at Anfield than most of Liverpool’s current squad, three managers, and an entire ownership group. Brendan Rodgers will be Lucas’s fourth manager in as many years, but through all four of them, he’s been a first-choice option through and through. From Rafa to Rodgers, he’s been one of Liverpool’s most frequent members of the starting XI. He’s won the hearts of Liverpool’s endearing supporters (fans voted him as the Player of the Year in 2011), the trust of management, and the recognition of his country. Lucas is arguably Liverpool’s most important player, if not their most consistent.

It hasn’t always been this way though. Only three years ago, if you asked most of the Liverpool fan base whether the words “Lucas” and “Player of the Year” would ever combine in a sentence, they’d laugh you across the English Channel. Before his breakout 2010 season, Lucas was vilified. In a 2009-2010 season which saw Liverpool—a side that had nearly edged out Manchester United for the Premier League title the year before—crash out of the Champions League, Europa League, FA Cup, Carling Cup, and out of the Top 4, Lucas was consistently blamed for the team’s poor performances. Rafa got the boot at the end of that season, and there would’ve been cheers across Merseyside if Lucas had too.

I participated in the public bashing of Lucas. On my YouTube channel, I blamed Lucas for everything that had gone wrong tactically. 2009 was the year Xabi Alonso departed for Real Madrid, leaving a gapping hole in midfield. Lucas was inserted to pair with defensive destroyer Javier Mascherano, and Liverpool struggled to score goals. In Rafa’s 4-2-3-1, Lucas and Mascherano were charged with holding down the fort defensively, allowing Steven Gerrard to link up with Fernando Torres up front. I only saw Lucas’s faults. Gerrard was leaving Torres isolated, seemingly to make up for Lucas’s inabilities in midfield. Any time Lucas received the ball, the pass was always either side-to-side, or back to the center back. He seemed nervous on the ball—an unsure dribbler. Or at least that’s all I remember of him—memories that are probably flawed. The Lucas-Mascherano axis proved to lack any eye in the attack, but instead of questioning the tactics of the partnership, I, along with many Liverpool fans, lay the blame at Lucas’s boots. It didn’t matter that he was in the starting XI every match as a 22 year old—fans had already passed judgement on a player before his time.

Alonso was gone, Lucas was in his place, and Lucas wasn’t Alonso. Fans joked that he was the “only Brazilian who couldn’t pass the ball.” Lucas had been signed in 2007 as an attacking, box-to-box midfielder. When the words “attacking,” “midfielder,” and “Brazilian” come to mind, people instantly think of Kaka—the best Brazilian midfielder the past decade. Lucas was no Kaka, no Alonso, and offered nothing going forward. So what was he?

It took Mascherano’s sale the next summer for Lucas to blossom. Although he featured in midfield with a rotating cast of either Raul Meireles, Jay Spearing, Christian Poulsen, or Steven Gerrard—whoever didn’t happen to be injured or ineffective at the time—Lucas was a beacon of light during Hodgson’s pitiful reign, and a straight-up superstar during Dalglish’s return. Lucas certainly got better from the previous season, but he wasn’t playing much differently. Lucas took Mascherano’s role in defensive midfield and made it a position of strength in his departure. Without Mascherano flying all over the park to foil the opposing offense, Lucas filled in, and did the same job with less recklessness and less yellow cards. He lacked Mascherano’s insane desire to fire at least one shot from 30 yards every game, while also possessing an intelligence in the passing game. He would single-handedly steal the ball, hold it, and spray it accurately to a more creative player all on his own. Last November, against an unbeaten Manchester City side, Lucas man-marked David Silva (the league’s most unstoppable creative threat) better than anyone had that season in a 1-1 draw that should’ve gone Liverpool’s way.

In 2009, people didn’t realize that Liverpool was playing with two defensive midfielders, neither of which had the passing ability to make up for Alonso’s loss. Instead of allowing Lucas to play his game, he was bemoaned for not playing Alonso’s. Our need for a scapegoat in a very trying season was filled by Lucas, who was unfairly casted as something he wasn’t. The blame cannot be placed on Rafa, who was simply making due with what he had given Liverpool’s dire financial times, and it cannot be placed on Lucas. Blame for that season can be placed upon Hicks and Gillett for running the club into the ground economically, but blame for the nasty, unwarranted scathing of Lucas lays at my feet, and the feet of many other fans. We unfairly judged Lucas, and all he’s done is go out and become a world-class player and a popular choice for the captain’s armband whenever Gerrard is injured. The mettle and drive of Lucas to prove fans wrong is admirable to say the least, and he’s been rewarded with love.

Fans would do well to learn from Lucas. Liverpool players like Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson have received the bulk of the criticism after their expensive fees netted an 8th place finish last season. Downing didn’t have the gaudy goal or assist numbers one expects of a £20 million player (he finished with an ugly zero in both categories), but he did finish top 5 among all Premiership wingers in “clear cut chances created” and top 3 at Liverpool (among remaining players) in “chances created.” As a team, Liverpool had a very poor chance conversion rate and finished with less goals than Norwich, Blackburn, Fulham, and Everton. Scoring was a team-wide problem, not just a Downing problem. Henderson was shunned out to the right side of midfield where he struggled for most of the season, eventually coming on strong once Lucas and Gerrard got injured, taking a spot centrally—his strongest area. There, he thrived in his role as a poised pivot player and a fine recycler into the attack, never really having the creative freedom he had at Sunderland.

In the case of Downing and Henderson, both have been scapegoated because fans weren’t satisfied on the surface. Eyes can be deceiving. They saw Downing’s lack of goals, assists, and man-beating pace as a “lack of confidence.” The same was said about Henderson’s lack of creativity in midfield, even though he was never tipped tactically to get forward. A “confidence” issue for a young player. (How “young” can Henderson be? He has the most starts of any 22 year old in the Premiership.)

Liverpool fans should learn from their mistakes in the handling of Lucas, and support Downing, Henderson, and the rest of the squad. It just takes a little bit of perspective to turn a “Lucas” into a “Leiva“—into “there’s only one Lucas.” To turn a scapegoat into a GOAT. From jeers to cheers. It’s easy to misjudge players when they’re misplayed, but it’s the Liverpool Way to dig deeper and encourage greatness in whoever wears the Red shirt. The same can be applied to any fan in any sport.

They hate what they don’t understand.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49