Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Gophers football players had a role, too

I've watched all this drama from the Gophers football team unfold the past few weeks from afar. I was out of town when the boycott stuff went down, but that's what my Twitter app is for, to keep me informed. Tuesday, athletic director Mark Coyle announced the firing of head coach Tracy Claeys.

And players were outraged at the administration. Like these guys had nothing to do with what transpired that cost the coach his job. 

You want to unleash some anger, players? Find a mirror. Sure, maybe Claeys didn't handle the situation well. Maybe the administration could have handled it (the scandal, suspensions, boycott, firing) differently, too. But the players played a part in this as well. They're not 100 percent victims.

Some football players were involved in the sexual encounter with a woman that took place Sept. 2. Ten players were suspended last month. Then the entire team decided to boycott football activites just ahead of the bowl game - an act that lasted not even two days and didn't seem to be thought through completely.

Since it was a report from the Office for Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action at the U of M, some have questioned a bias that might exist. I read the report and can understand that. Some have picked a part little details, like: How many players were actually involved in the sexual conduct? Were some players just "around," or did they all line up to have their way with the girl? I don't care if it was 5 guys, 10 guys, 20 guys, 8 guys, 12 guys. Whatever. The number that matters? One. As long as even one player was involved in this situation, that's too many. It's not right.

These matters are delicate, which is why so many don't go all the way to criminal charges (this case did not) or prosecution. But I think there has been too quick of a dismissal about thinking of the victim, the woman, in this case. 

Nitpicking about who should or shouldn't be suspended based on their involvement isn't for me to decide or judge, and to me, it's really not the heart of the issue either. 

Boycott was misguided
That's what's disappointing about this whole ordeal, too. The players decided to boycott football activites because their teammates got suspended. As wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky put it, they wanted to "make the program great again."

Later, in answering questions from reporters, Wolitarsky and the players near the microphones responded "no" when asked if they read the EOAA report. Then, Wolitarsky had this to say when asked if there was worry among players about losing their scholarships. "We're all in this together. What are they going to do, pull 120 guys off the team? They won't have a team if that's the case."

It struck me as a very cocky response that speaks to an attitude that is focused on football above everything else. I'm sure it's not realistic, but it would have been interesting if the administration would have called the bluff and started pulling scholarships.

The stand here was about the football team wanting their suspended teammates to get due process in this case. I understand the point they wanted to make, in that they were frustrated with the lack of information given to them with the administration citing privacy concerns.

I just don't agree that it's the real issue here. I get that there's unrest among players because some of the players suspended allegedly didn't have sexual contact with the woman and their names are now supposedly smeared. And maybe there's a point there. But what about the guys who did have sexual contact with her?

To me, the players not focusing on that part, or hardly at all, shows that it's not the main concern for them. In the various statements, Tweets and comments from players, it's come across as using 95 percent of their chosen statement to focus on the many other issues with what happened (suspensions, administration handling, boycott), then just 5 percent throwing in there that, oh, by the way, you don't condone sexual violence and it has no place on campus. It just doesn't seem entirely sincere.

Reactions to Claeys firing were emotional, still with finger-pointing
Players, with the boycott and reactions after Claeys was fired, gave the perception that they cared about their teammates not being able to play in a bowl game and pointed fingers at the administration. I'm not saying they don't have valid points there. But they're not blameless either.

I understand these guys like their coach and want him around, but it's not like there were zero off-field issues, he took the team to 9-4 with a bowl win and was suddenly fired for no apparent reason.

I don't believe Claeys was let go before of football performance, an opinion that I don't think is an unpopular one. Claeys took over the program after Jerry Kill and took his teams to a pair of bowl-game wins, plus the nine victories this year.

A big sticking point was a Tweet that Claeys sent out after the boycott. Many think he'd still have his job if he would have kept his fingers off the keyboard.

Coyle said in his released statement that Claeys' Tweet after the suspensions was "not helpful."



Coyle also addressed three things with one sentence: "I determined that the football program must move in a new direction to address challenges in recruiting, ticket sales and the culture of the program." To me, that last one is the most important. Find a leader to address the culture.

I'm not here to debate whether the firing was justified. However, I don't think his Tweet was a good choice, and I'm sure others share the opinion. Whatever his intentions were, it gave the appearance that he supported his players in the boycott mode. 

I don't agree with that. Either don't say anything at all, or come out and stand up against sexual violence. I can understand why he Tweeted what he did, but it doesn't mean I agree with it. The support for players should have been talking them out of the boycott.

This isn't about being 9-4, but player reactions didn't reflect that
Now, do I think Claeys or the football players are pro-rape/sexual violence? No. I'm still frustarted with some of the player responses though.

From freshman receiver Hunter Register via Twitter: "Win games, get fired. I'm not a math major, but something just seems odd about that equation."

Freshman defensive back Ray Buford via Twitter: "Wanna learn how to destroy a football program that's on the rise, follow the blueprint of this administration."

Cornerback Jalen Myrick via Twitter: "Fire the coach that stick with his players .. it's sad how this administration doesn't care about the players at all."

The more I think about everything that's happened, the more I realize it's just a big mess. 

This is an entitlement problem
There's this theme that keeps going through my head that isn't some new and radical idea, and I think it applies here: Why is there such an entitlement with certain (no, not all) athletes/football players? Why should they think they can essentially do whatever they want without consequences? The answer is apparanetly because they can play football and wins games. Period. 

As far as athletic ability, I'm not denying these guys have football skills. Their play on the field has nothing to do with the kind of men they are outside the stadium. Being an athlete, scholarship or not, at a university does not make you better than anybody else. Not better than the other students on campus who cheer you on at games. Not better than the students who participate in non-athletic activities. 

So stop acting like it. Stop acting so superior just because you play arguably the most popular sport in this country. Be responsible and accounatable for your actions. As much as college students get dubbed "kids," they are still adults. They have the ability to act like it. 

This kind of entitled, superior behavior isn't just a problem here. I imagine it's all over the country. We've all heard the stories floating around, right? Florida State's football program is a good example. Police were called to a domestic distrubance with a man beating a woman. The officers apparently did not do their due dilligence in the case, except to report it to their sergeant "due to the fact that it was an F.S.U. football player." The sergeant filed the complaint as "unfounded." 

The list goes on and on of how these players get special treatment when it comes to potential criminal cases against them. 

It's all ridiculous. All it does it throw a big batch of lighter fluid on the fire of entitlement for the football players. 

These cases, sticking with the Florida State example, have been reported though I don't think enough has been done to administer consequences. Maybe there's more incidents, too. I just watched the movie "Spotlight," the film that gives all newspaper journalists more fuel as a reminder to do what they love. It centered on cases where Catholic priests sexually assaulted children - and the archdioese covered it up. 

To me, this is the same kind of thing when you start looking at college athletes getting passes for their mistakes. Just because they can play football. That's not right.

There needs to be more accountability at the University of Minnesota right now. I'm not seeing it. Be leaders, be responsible, be respectful. Be adults.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

A good run, despite the Wild losing the game of the century

Dad said he couldn't feel the electricity in the building with less than an hour before game time. He's really only felt it once before at a hockey game, when he went to see the North Stars play the Philadelphia Flyers with Philly in the middle of a 35-game unbeaten streak in the 1979-80 season.

Saturday's New Year's Eve game between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild had to rank right up there though. At least it did for me.


These two teams faced off in the game of the century (maybe that's too dramatic, but I don't care), a battle of two teams that hadn't lost in weeks. The Blue Jackets came in riding a 14-game winning streak. The Wild had a 12-game winning streak, plus a 13-game points streak. According to Elias Sports Bureau, it was the first time two major teams (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL) had met when each had a win streak of at least 12 games. The other cool storyline is that these two teams are forever linked together because they both joined the league in 2000 as expansion teams.

Quick sidebar here. It still would have been pretty cool to have the Wild on their franchise-record winning streak all by themselves in the spotlight. Although, history has sometimes shown that once the Wild are under the naitonal microscrope, they falter and stumble.

Much-anticipated game... recently
Anyway, this was going to be a great game. Looking at the schedule, the Wild usually play on New Year's Eve. Seeing Columbus as the opponent probably didn't grab a lot of excitement, even a few weeks ago. What a difference a couple of streaks make. The game was packed with 19,307 fans, and I heard tickets were going for as much as $600 on some markets.

Luckily, my mom went and got tickets for us on Thursday - before Columbus and Minnesota won their games to extend their streaks and setup the historic matchup. It was the first time we didn't get seats together as a family, but it really didn't matter. We were in the building.

Maybe it's corny, but I always love watching the, as I call them, "pump-up videos" before the game. This was counted to 12 and showed each opposing logo for the teams the Wild beat along the way. Then of course, there were plenty of highlights to show. I was tapping my fingers on my knee with anticipation. Call it pent-up energy since this was my season debut at the Xcel Energy Center.

Since it's a few days later, I'll spoil the ending for you: The Wild lost 4-2.

What went wrong for the Wild
I'll tell you the turning point for me in that game. It was early in the first period when Zach Parise partially fanned on a shot with a wide-open net staring him directly in the face. It should have been 1-0 Wild right there. Not a typical miss from Parise, but there it was. I knew it would come back to haunt the Wild, and it did.

Not long after that, Cam Atkinson scored his first of two goals in the game after a bad neutral zone turnover. It stunned and quieted the crowd. Heading into the intermission down 1-0 wasn't great, but not terrible either. It was the dreadful second period that was the killer.

A couple minutes in, Chris Stewart and Josh Anderson dropped the gloves before a faceoff for the typical five-for-fighting penalties. They went to the box, then Matt Dumba and Matt Calvert went at it. They were sent to the dressing rooms, however, since there's a rule that you can't start a fight right after another fight. This isn't old-school hockey anymore.

So, that left the Wild without a core defenseman for the rest of the game. That wasn't the worst part. A minute after the fights, the Blue Jackets took a 2-0 lead on Jack Johnson's goal. OK, so 2-0. But 15 seconds later, the game became out of reach with Atkinson's second goal to make it 3-0.

Too little, too late for the Wild
Mikael Granlund scored to make it 3-1, but the Wild couldn't get out of the period fast enough. It was 4-1 at the second break with a late-period goal from the Blue Jackets. Jason Zucker scored his ninth of the season just 24 seconds into the third with a fun-to-watch breakaway, which was exactly what his team needed. But they couldn't find a way to get another goal and took the 4-2 loss.

It was a frustrating game because there were so many little things, like passing, that the Wild needed to do better. They were back to not capitalizing on chances they had; I think Jared Spurgeon hit the outside of the post with a shot. Plus that sharp, crisp passing game just wasn't there.

Mom, Dad (in his Fighting Saints hoodie) and me.
Devan Dubnyk gave up four goals in each of the last two games, which is a little concerning, too. Not that I'm pointing a finger at him, for the type of season he's already had.

Perhaps even worse than the loss was seeing the dreaded Wave go around the lower bowl a couple times in the third period. Not surprisingly to those that know me or follow me on Twitter, I did not participate in this outdated act. Instead, I more appropriately put my head in my hands until it went by my section.

Obviously, somebody's streak had to end that night. It was too bad it was the Wild, while the Blue Jackets went to 15 games in a row with a win. But it's really been such a fun thing to watch. There's all this fear about the mid-season swoon, the after-Christmas hangover. Instead, the Wild just kept on winning. January still looms, and the history of swoons there isn't good, but for now, it's been a great ride for the Wild.

What a run.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Wild keep on rolling – at the moment

The Wild have won eight games in a row, ranking second in franchise history as far as these streaks go. A 2-0 victory over the Colorado Avalanche at home Tuesday night was the latest in this string. Their last regulation loss was Nov. 29, and they’re 10-1-3 in their past 14 games, earning points in 13-of-14.

There’s depth to this success, too. Mikko Koivu (12 points in his last 14 games), Jason Zucker, Eric Staal (team points leader with 25 in 31 games) Ryan Suter (18 points, team leader at +22), Charlie Coyle (leads the team with 11 goals). Add your favorite guy to the list. They’re all playing some solid hockey right now.

Devan Dubnyk is playing some kind of amazing hockey in between the pipes, earning his fifth shutout of the season Tuesday when he really wasn’t even tested a ton.

The great thing about the two goals the Wild scored was the positioning of the goal scorers. On Coyle’s goal, it was Matt Dumba with the initial shot from the point, which bounced around Staal’s feet before kicking out to Coyle who easily scored on the doorstep of the crease.

Dumba grabbed a second assist on the second goal, which was credited to Koivu after he was right in front to pound home the rebound. Zucker was right there, too, sprawled on the ice trying to get his stick in there.

I just have a better feeling watching some of these plays develop. These were two goals that were finished off; they weren’t missed opportunities.

But back to the overall success of this team right now. They’re second in the Central Division with 42 points through 31 games, a mark that is second in franchise history by just a point. They started 20-8-3 in 2011-12. They’ve got the longest active winning streak in the league. Darn those Blue Jackets hogging some of the glory.

The home-win streak for the Wild has reached seven games, and they’ve outscored opponents 26-8.

This is all fine and good – and great hockey to watch – but there’s something else nagging me about it all.

Here’s the part in this post where I wave the yellow caution flag. I can’t help it. I’ve grown up around Minnesota sports, so this is what I do.

The holidays are coming up this week, and then January is just around the corner. This team has had a swoon for a few years now, including last year when the team performed with such a lackluster effort that it got its coach fired. A swoon should almost be expected, until the Wild prove they can get through a season without it.

The day after Christmas last year, the Wild faced the Pittsburgh Penguins at home. The Pens scored three in the second period for a 3-1 victory over a Wild team that appeared to have a holiday hangover. I was there with my family for one of the biggest crowds at the Xcel Energy Center last season, announced at 19,234. My dad still uses this loss as a benchmark for how much time he’ll invest into this team. It was a game where the Wild really didn’t show up to play, failing to execute passes, possess the puck or get any offense going.

The year before, the Wild lost the post-Christmas game at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets with a 4-3 overtime game. The Wild are 1-7-1 in their past nine games right after Christmas.

Looking ahead to the schedule coming up here, it’s not exactly full of easier customers like the Avs. There’s Montreal and the New York Rangers for road back-to-backs this week. Then they head to Nashville for that hold-your-breath after-Christmas game Dec. 27. New Years Eve is the setting for what could be a matchup of the league’s hottest teams with the Columbus Blue Jackets (won 10 in a row) coming to town.

We’ll see what happens in the next couple weeks and how the Wild will handle some stiff competition from the Eastern Conference.

The Wild players have proven they can play good hockey. This team has also proven it’s a master at limping into the playoffs after going into a midseason tailspin, then needing to play with backs against the wall. It really is fun to watch this team when it’s playing well. I mean, that’s obvious. I think the real X factor here is Bruce Boudreau. The Wild swooned with other coaches; will they do that with Bruce?

So, as I’ve cautioned in the past, let’s enjoy this Wild ride. Because at some point, it will end.

This was originally posted at WildXtra.com.