BY Art Thiel 04:36PM 02/17/2014

Thiel: What I learned in February sports

Pete Carroll, Michael Sam, Adam Silver, Bode Miller — some fascinating people and deeds flashed in the supposedly slow month of February.

Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson savor the moment. / Corky Trewin, Seattle Seahawks

Heckuva month, February. Aside from the Super Bowl in the first few days, it’s normally the slowest month in the sports calendar. Not so far. I’ve always said any time I’m learning something, it’s a good day. Or, as it might be put in the vernacular of figure skating: Hitting my twizzle. Four worthy things I learned:

  • The twice-fired Pete Carroll is the new oracle of the NFL. Yet he’s done it in a way that is unlikely to be replicated, no matter how willing he is to share it.
  • Some NFL/media reaction to college football player Michael Sam’s public assertion of his homosexuality ahead of the draft confirms that pro sports, once on the cutting edge of the American cultural change (racial integration, women’s pro sports) is so fat and rich that it fears change in the way a retiree fears kids on his lawn.
  • The NHL, with its well-received outdoor games and intriguing Olympic teams, is a growing threat to the NBA’s winter-sports primacy, especially when matched against the NBA’s All-Star weekend artifice.
  • Bode Miller has relinquished his grip on the title of gold-medal Olympic jerk.

Carroll, happy warrior

Upon reflection, the Seahawks’ triumph is nearly singular in NFL history because it revolved around the singular personality of the coach, Pete Carroll. Beyond his obvious traits of optimism, energy and verbosity, his enlightened relationship with athletes appears unique in pro football, perhaps foreshadowed in its humanity a little only by Dick Vermeil and Joe Gibbs.

The week’s media-saturated run-up to the game provided me an opportunity to listen to players explain themselves, their successes and their coach to a non-Seahawks audience that was mostly new to the story lines and genuinely curious about how Carroll could fail twice — once in Boston, once in New York — yet stick with his beliefs long enough until he found the right stage.

To a man, the Seahawks were thrilled with Carroll’s approach that respected the individual and tolerated missteps without hectoring, ignored media/fan rhetoric about big and small games, and never wavered from his principles (the man did have the guts to title his book, “Win Forever”).

As the circumspect Marshawn Lynch dryly observed, “He’s always the same.”

That may not sound like much, but think about it in relation to the best and worst bosses you have experienced. Consistency of successful approach under pressure is an exceedingly rare virtue. It helps Carroll make ordinary players good, and a few good players great.

The NFL always is said to be a copycat league. But there’s no copying Carroll’s charismatic personality. Anyone can steal a play or a drill or a football concept, but anyone who steals a personality is immediately spotted as a phony.

There are numerous ways to win a Super Bowl. No one did it like Carroll. No one will.

Sam I am (gay)

No NFL player, coach or executive wants to go on the record with a pee-in-the-pants panic over the thought of a gay player in the locker room, but when SI.com allowed eight NFL staffers/executives to speak anonymously to offer skeptical views of Michael Sam’s locker-room acceptance, it told me the NFL’s fear of risk obscured any value of the greater good.

Despite official statements from the NFL that Sam would be welcomed, this is a league still not over Janet Jackson’s half-second nip slip 10 Super Bowl halftimes ago. Speaking days before Sam’s disclosure, Saints LB Jonathan Vilma told NFL Network he thought a gay player “would not be accepted as much as we think he would be accepted.”

Another anonymous scout told SI.com’s Peter King: “Unfortunately, this is a lot more okay in society than it is in lots of locker rooms. Some locker rooms are still stuck in the ’50s.”

So when would it have been OK with MLB players of the 1940s to have Jackie Robinson play? When would it have been OK for for Adolph Rupp to have African-Americans play ball for him at the University of Kentucky? When would it have been OK for the American public to have Muhammad Ali speak against the Vietnam War?

The scout miscast the scene: There aren’t “some” fearful locker rooms; there are fearful players in all locker rooms, just as in every workplace. And just as in every workplace, workers learn to adapt, or move on. Life is not Thanksgiving dinner: It happens on its own terms, not when the table is set.

Allowing NFL insiders to hide behind anonymity to undercut the expectations for Sam with guesses just fuels the resistance to change. No wonder Sam wanted to orchestrate the telling of his story.

Same as the old NBA boss

Could be that after the events of the past six years regarding Seattle and the NBA, I’m too jaded to appreciate the current effort. But as I tuned in and out of All-Star Weekend in New Orleans, the only thing that impressed me was between the first and second quarters Sunday, Magic Johnson led the singing along courtside of “Happy Birthday” to Bill Russell on his 80th.

It sorta seemed spontaneous, but probably wasn’t. Everything else seemed as forced and insincere as a smile from Vladimir Putin.

Things went hard south for me during the state of the league presser Saturday with Adam Silver, the new commissioner. Asked about the decades-long NBA problem of teams tanking games, even whole seasons, to have a better shot at obtaining a high draft pick, Silver worked up a posture of astonishment.

“There’s absolutely no evidence that a team in the NBA has (deliberately) lost a single game,” Silver said. “What you’re referring to is rebuilding. I don’t believe for a second that (tanking is) going on.”

Rebuilding? Riiight. That’s why the NBA went to a lottery system for the draft;  not to avoiding tanking, but to help rebuild.

Kinda like what Putin must have said when the International Olympic Committee seven years ago asked whether a sea-level, sub-tropical resort city was really a good idea for a Winter Olympics:

“What? Is Russia! Is always cold!”

A jerk, humbled

In covering the Olympics, perhaps the most sour story about an athlete I encountered was at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, where Bode Miller, who would become the most decorated Alpine skier in history, failed to medal in five events for which he was among the favorites.

After the Games, he claimed on an NBC interview he had “an awesome two weeks” of bar-hopping and “got to party and socialize at an Olympic level.” He was ripped from within the U.S. team and from without, even NBC host Bob Costas editorializing that Miller might finally get what he wanted: “Unceremoniously forgotten.”

Miller seemed to be another classic, tiresome tale of the over-indulged athlete who did not take seriously the rare opportunity afforded by his or her skills and quality training that led to an Olympics.

Then there was Sunday in Sochi where Miller, now 36, tied for a bronze medal, becoming the oldest skier in Olympics history to reach the podium. After years of headlines delightful and dubious, Miller in his post-race interview spoke honestly and then emotionally about a medal in his final race, finally having to stop talking.

The questions from NBC reporter Christin Cooper were about Miller’s feelings at the moment for his late brother, Chelone, who died 10 months earlier from a seizure. Cooper’s persistence drew widespread criticism after Miller, crying, put his head down.

It was edgy, powerful TV, and I understand why many felt uncomfortable. But in subsequent interviews, Miller was plainly unbothered, and even supportive, of Cooper’s questions.

Given the controversial headlines around his life and career over five Olympics, including custody fights over his two children, Miller’s appreciation of the moment and the grace of his subsequent response suggests he made a turn the equal of any in a slalom race.

One of the great careers in U.S. Olympic history closed with sincere answers, not questions.


YourThoughts

  • just passing thru

    Well done, again, Art. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, “February is the cruelest month, for a lover of baseball and football.”

  • Mort McSnerd

    You just wrote:

    “Allowing NFL insiders to hide behind anonymity to undercut the expectations for Sam with guesses just fuels the resistance to change. No wonder Sam wanted to orchestrate the telling of his story.”

    Directly after writing “No NFL player, coach or executive wants to go on the record with a
    pee-in-the-pants panic over the thought of a gay player in the locker room, but when SI.com allowed eight NFL staffers/executives to speak anonymously to offer skeptical views of Michael Sam’s locker-room acceptance, it told me the NFL’s fear of risk obscured any value of the greater good.

    Despite official statements from the NFL that Sam would be welcomed, this is a league still not over Janet Jackson’s half-second nip slip 10 Super Bowl halftimes ago. Speaking days before Sam’s disclosure, Saints LB Jonathan Vilma told NFL Network he thought a gay player “would not be accepted as much as we think he would be accepted.”

    So, what you would have those involved in football do is either keep silent or lie.

    What they stated is likely the truth. The statements of all the top end executives and coaches, who really had no choice in what they said, reeked with insincerity, mouthing words that had to be said but were not believed.

    Sam orchestrated his “coming out” party as a way to get a better deal. Now, if he’s not a high draft choice, his surrogates can claim that it’s because he’s gay.

    Cut him and it’s because he’s gay. Bench him… gay. Don’t make him the next player of the year… gay.

    The guy is radio-active when he didn’t need to be. This is his choice, he needs to live with it.

    Because if he didn’t want to be known by his sexual proclivities instead of his playing ability, he would have kept his mouth shut in college and stayed that way until after he’d made the NFL.

    It was a huge miscalculation on his part… an “in your face” effort to ram his lifestyle down the NFL’s throat to get a better deal.

    SI printed reality. It seems to me, Art, that you’d rather those talking not say anything than tell the truth of ther matter. And frankly, I’d rather they talked.

    The problem is that he’s a good player… but not a GREAT player. He’s the gay equivalent of Tim Tebow and he’s likely not nearly good enough to get past the controversy. If Tebow, OTOH, had Wilson’s QBR, you know he’d be playing for someone, hassle and all.

    • oldfan

      You just wrote:

      “So what you would have those involved in football do is either keep silent or lie.”

      Instead you want Michael Sam to “keep silent or lie” so that you, and people like you, can continue to pretend that homosexuals don’t exist or are the sub-human freaks you’ve convinced yourself they are. By your logic Jackie Robinson should have worn white-face and a blond wig in order to not upset the status quo.
      You seem to have missed Art’s whole point – that like it or not, they do exist (and play sports). You, and the sports world, are going to have to come to terms with it.

      • Mort McSnerd

        What I want is the truth. I’m willing to have anonymous truth rather than bogus, identified lies… like the ones from the upper echelon of the NFL and Sam’s teammates, who, in reality, had no choice in the matter of Sam’s outing.

        What could they say? That they hate it? What would have happened to anyone who told the truth…. to anyone, either on his team or in the NFL, who identified themselves and opposed him being on the team?

        THAT was MY point which YOU either “missed” or didn’t care about.

        I’ll stack my reading comprehension against anyone’s. I understood exactly what Art was saying. You, apparently, failed to understand my response, which boiled down, is this:

        Many of the football executives and coaches lied about accepting him. Other players have commented about a lack of acceptance of gays generally… and the anonymous individuals who spoke on condition of anonymity… the only way they could be truthful… are much more likely to have told the truth than those who lied because they had no choice.

        Had he kept his proclivites to himself… and THEN made an NFL team and THEN come out, his homosexuality would have been much less of an issue up against a proven, professional level playing record. His chances of getting drafted and STAYING would have been much higher, I believe.

        NOW, if he fails at ALL, it won’t be because he didn’t have what it took at the pro level….oh, no. Instead, the only reason he’d get treated like the hundreds of others who don’t make it every year is because he’s gay.

        That’s how his surrogates would spin it. And that likely includes you.

        This isn’t about what I want or don’t want. I was addressing the issue. I’m not playing with that idiot, now or ever.

        And I note that while you got your panties in a bunch over what I wrote, you failed to address any of the substance of it.

        So, when it comes to “missing the point,” feel free to find a mirror.

  • jafabian

    I’m wondering if at some point, and he probably will, if Carroll will write a book about this season or next. Pat Riley wrote one where he discussed how his approach to coaching can be used in the business world and from what I’ve heard about Carroll’s approach he could easily do the same.

    I’m glad Sam made his announcement before the draft and I read how the student body slapped down the Westboro Baptists when the tried to do a protest at UM. Bet they didn’t see that coming! Hopefully the NFL learned something from that.

    I used to think teams might tank a few games at the end of the season to get a player in the draft if said player was a surefire HOFer. I’m not so sure about today. Contracts usually have number of wins tied to bonuses and in the Internet age I just don’t believe that players, wives, family or girlfriends could be trusted to keep quiet for very long.

    I saw the Miller interview and I don’t think Cooper crossed the line. Miller had himself a Richard Sherman moment where things caught up with him. I think he wanted to talk about his brother and his emotions caught up with him, especially right after his event. The fact that his Olympics haven’t gone as he might have hoped probably played a role as well.

    • art thiel

      I don’t think Carroll wants to write a book in the middle of several championships. :)

      Sam set in motion the events by coming out to the team in August. How it stayed so quiet is remarkable.

      Players don’t tank. Teams tank by not playing their best players, under the guise of rebuilding.

      Miller brought up his brother’s death without prompting, although I’m sure Cooper would have.

      • jafabian

        You say that in jest about Pete Art, but its so cool to joke like that and have there be a modicum of truth in it. I don’t think any pro or college team around here has had as much going for it as the Seahawks do right now.
        Bleacher Report suggested the Hawks might take a look at Jonathan Martin. Boy, think of the press coverage if both Sam and Martin were on next season’s team.

    • Kirkland

      Re: tanking: I’d like to see a weighted lottery involving all non-playoff teams. If 14 teams miss the playoffs, give the last-place team 14 balls, he second-to-last 13, and so on. The first team drawn gets he first pick, the next team drawn gets the second pick, and so on; if a previously drawn team gets picked again, toss out the ball and continue until all teams get listed.

      Re: Sam: MLS’ Robbie Rogers was the first active team sport athlete to come out, and he got a completely positive response from players across the league.

  • mindful

    Do the NBA really matter any more unless we all are to old. Soccer going be the 3rd sport in this country in 10 years , Just look at the video game crowd , FIFA is the number one selling game. So if the NBA want to give the middle finger to high market tv, It is cool.

    Just that there entire generation under the age of 30 that gave up on it and went to a different sport. To soccer just listen to the CoD or online game community about soccer.

    Stern forgot about this country and there is a sport out there that can over take the NBA and it will be cool, since he wanted a global sport, but forgot about the base.

    Said same thing on one your other article. NBA going need to watch out for the MLS soon if MLS keep up there smart ways. Once the MLS players making millions and the tv revenues go through the roof in 10yrs , The MLS had stop the mom and kid ways and went to the right age group now,