August 22, 2016
Twenty-eight years ago, I made one of the best decisions in my life as a sports fan. I vowed never to waste a single second watching the Olympic Games.
Mercifully, the latest edition of this dream-crushing money grab ended last night in Rio, where, like all such events before it, an array of heartwarming stories captivated audiences around the world and drew massive TV ratings in the U.S.
It was my misfortune to experience the Olympics like few of the poor souls who bask in this fairy tale every two years. Watching the Olympics up close, the way I did in Seoul, South Korea, is to see an entirely different story than the one NBC just brought to you over the past 16 days.
Please don’t misunderstand. There are genuine moments of triumph like the unfathomable 23 medals accumulated by swimmer Michael Phelps over the past 12 years, truly inspiring feats like those of the two Simones, gymnast Biles and swimmer Manuel, who overcame the odds and won gold medals.
The problem is, for every one of them, there are countless victims of a corrupt system governed by politics and an immoral organization that is far more concerned about the television show than about the young athletes who have sacrificed so much to get there.
My tipping point in 1988 came at the boxing venue in Seoul, where the world waited for an amateur U.S. middleweight champion named Anthony Hembrick to face hometown hero Ha Jong-ho of South Korea. And waited. And waited.
Hembrick didn’t show up in time for his bout, obliterating years of toil and a lifetime of dreams. How could this happen? Somehow, the U.S. boxing team was given the wrong time for Hembrick’s match, so the Korean boxer won on a disqualification. The South Korean boxer benefited by a mistake by the South Korean organizers. Hmmm.
I was standing next to Hembrick when the news reached him that his appeal had failed, and the tears in his eyes were not at all like those of a bachelorette on one of those stupid reality TV shows today. This was real. Hembrick spent most of his life planning for this moment, and the bureaucracy devoured him.
Hembrick was hardly alone. Roy Jones Jr. actually got to fight for a gold medal that year, and he won one in the eyes of everyone but the five judges, who ignored the fact that Jones had landed 86 punches to his opponent’s 32 and had recorded two knockdowns. The winner was Park Si-Hun of ... South Korea.
This year’s boxing scandal brought back those disgraceful moments to me. After two ridiculous decisions favored Russian fighters, several judges and officials were dismissed, amid allegations of bribes. Unfortunately, nothing was done to rectify the victims’ wrongs – just as no one rescued Hembrick and Jones from injustices they have lived with for the rest of their lives.
Much has been made of swimmer Ryan Lochte’s rampage in Rio, but the underbelly of the Olympics is far more disgusting than the drunken acts of an ugly American. The truth is, just about everything behind this veneer of medals and anthems and joyous victors is grotesque.
Of course, TV will show you very little of this underbelly of the Olympic Games because, well, that would be biting the hand that feeds the ratings monster. Why ruin a good thing with the truth?
Two years from now, there will be more heartwarming stories of triumph, more in-depth TV pieces on determined athletes dreaming of gold. In fact, the Games are back in South Korea this time, 30 years after Anthony Hembrick’s dream got crushed.
I won’t be there this time. And I definitely won’t be watching on TV.
Lost in the pessimism hanging heavy over the 2016 Eagles has been the emergence of the team’s best defense since Jim Johnson’s death seven years ago.
This just in, Philadelphia: The kind of defense you love is back.
The naysayers – and there are many – will argue that the 34-9 composite score of the first two postseason wins is meaningless, that many of the opponents’ best offensive weapons were held out of action for a variety of reasons.
The truth is, the Eagles have a defense with the potential to carry the team, and a coach, Jim Schwartz, who is perfectly cast for these players and this city. The feisty former Detroit head coach is a loud, demanding bundle of aggression – not unlike the late Buddy Ryan.
It is also becoming increasingly clear that the defense was much, much better than last year’s abysmal ranking of 30th among 32 teams. Schwartz has already undone some of the three years of damage caused by ex-coach Chip Kelly and ex-coordinator Billy Davis. Kelly thought nothing of keeping his defenders on the field for 40 minutes a game. Davis was just happy he had a job.
If you’re looking for a stat that reflects this change in attitude, you need go no farther than this: The secondary has seven interceptions in the first two preseason games; last season, with many of the same players, it had three in the final eight contests.
Brandon Graham said on my WIP radio show last week that the difference in approach has had a major impact on the entire unit, starting with the fact that a 4-3 alignment fits the talent much better than a 3-4, most notably tackles Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan, middle linebacker Jordan Hicks and safety Malcolm Jenkins.
Despite the aggressive style and undeniable early results, Philadelphia remains perplexingly negative about the team this summer – more so than in any season of recent memory. Maybe the defense will have the knock the snot out of an elite group of offensive starters before the city will believe.
Normally a pessimist myself, I don’t need to wait that long. I’ve got a really good feeling about the Eagles defense this season.
Phillies fans are under assault right now for being too nice, too sentimental, too sweet. Huh? Have we entered a parallel universe? Aren’t Philadelphia fans supposed to be the biggest thugs in sports?
Believe it or not, the warm reception for Chase Utley last week when he returned in a Dodgers uniform received national headlines, but not entirely in a positive way. The fans gave the most beloved member of the best era of Phillies baseball a minute-plus ovation before his first at-bat, and then two curtain calls after home runs.
The negative spin on that reaction was that the fans, in effect, turned on their own team to honor a former champion. Most of these naysayers had no issue with the first ovation, but the two encores – including one after a grand slam – were inappropriate because the home team was the victim, or so they say.
First of all, the Phils are playing for nothing right now, other than bringing along a small army of young players. Wins and losses are all but irrelevant to fans, if not to the players and the coaches. Does it really matter how many games the Phillies win the rest of the season?
Even more significant is the role Utley played in so many lives for so many years. Literally hundreds of kids – including my own grandson – are named Chase because of the way Utley played the game. He won more than a World Series in his decade here; he won the admiration of virtually every fan in this city.
Utley deserved the response of the crowd that first night, every time he got it. The only thing the Phillies fans proved last week is how passionate they are, how willing they have always been to share their feelings in good times and bad.
Chase Utley’s triumphant return was not just a fitting tribute to an extraordinary player; it was a great moment for fans who really care about sports in our remarkable city.
And finally ...
• Eagles tackle Lane Johnson faces a 10-game suspension for taking an obscure banned substance, and Giants punter Josh Brown just got a one-game ban for domestic abuse? And this happened two years after the Ray Rice debacle? Yes, it was a second offense for Johnson, but Brown’s ex-wife cited 20 incidents. And he got one game? This is a joke, right?
• Paul Turner made a catch last Thursday night that should earn him a spot on the Eagles roster. The undrafted wide receiver reached back and pulled in an errant throw with one hand. Turner is neither big nor particularly fast, but he catches the ball. On a team that led the NFL in drops last season, this is a no-brainer. Welcome to the Eagles, Paul.
• It appears that the Sixers are behind schedule on their new practice facility in Camden, but don’t expect them to admit it. Quietly, the team has decided to hold training camp at Stockton University next month, and not at the new $75-million complex. Why the change in plans? The Sixers won’t say – because that would require them to tell the truth. Some things never change.
• The most amusing story of the week was the news that ex-Phillies GM Ruben Amaro was trying to recruit one of his biggest busts here, closer Jonathan Papelbon, to Boston. Did it ever occur to Amaro that he’s a first-base coach, and not a GM, because he gave $50 million to that washed-up, arrogant jerk?
• Jerry Jones is a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That’s right, the Dallas Cowboys owner who has gone 20 years without a Super Bowl and has won two playoff games in that span is nearing the ultimate honor. What a country.