Thursday, January 25, 2018

Review: Court Justice (2018)

By Ed O'Bannon with Michael McCann

Ed O'Bannon may be remembered as a basketball player who did more for the sport off the court than on it - and he was very good on it.

O'Bannon is still fondly remembered in the Los Angeles area for leading UCLA to a national championship in 1995. It's the Bruins' only such win since John Wooden grabbed 10 of them in the sport's greatest dynasty.

After an NBA and European ball career, O'Bannon settled in as a staff member at a car dealership outside of Las Vegas. One of his friends pointed out that the friend's child was playing a video game - and O'Bannon's image was part of the game since the '95 UCLA team could be used as one of the teams. O'Bannon was excited at first, but then he wondered how the game could use his image with his permission or without compensation.

That led to a lawsuit, which turned into a class action filing on behalf of past and present NCAA athletes. His name will always be attached to the action, which eventually led to a clear legal victory in the case and some changes in the way the NCAA does business. Now O'Bannon gets to tell the story of the case, as well as what happened in the rest of his life, in "Court Justice."

O'Bannon won his initial case and then won an appeal that changed the terms of the damages somewhat, although the overall impact for the moment is somewhat limited for some complicated reasons. Still, athletes are receiving funds connected from video-game sales, and you can bet that more battles are coming now that the NCAA is subject to anti-trust laws in this area.

This is an interesting story that will be remembered down the road, but it's tough to say that O'Bannon is the best person to tell it. He was told going in that the case would go on for years (it did) and he wouldn't see much compensation (he didn't), but went ahead with it anyway because he wanted to right a wrong. More power to him for that. But while O'Bannon obviously learned a lot about the legalities involved, it's clear that he was something of an on-looker. O'Bannon brings along Sports Illustrated legal analyst Michael McCann for help here, and the implications of the case are discussed. But it's really difficult to turn anti-trust cases into "beach reading."

O'Bannon does make some contributions along the way, though. His personal story is instructive in some areas. For example, the NCAA has a rule that says student-athletes are supposed to spend only 20 hours per week on their sport. It's a nice idea, but unrealistic. In these days of teams in the same conference being spread out across the country, it's difficult to stick to anything close to that 20-hour guideline - which means that the job of student and the job of athlete are both full-time jobs. That's why students are essentially told to take less-than-demanding majors so that they have adequate time for sports. It happened to O'Bannon's sister.

O'Bannon's own story has some merits too. He came out of UCLA as a lottery pick by the New Jersey Nets, which did major improvements to his bank account. But he bounced around the NBA, never finding the right spot for a couple of years. O'Bannon ended up in Europe, where he played for several more years, but certainly his career didn't followed the forecast.

O'Bannon and McCann finish with a dozen ideas to improve the system. The subjects are covered at length and worth the consideration of someone in authority. The thoughts on the drafting of college players by professional leagues are particularly interesting. It would be interesting to know what might happen if NBA and NFL changed its rules to follow the NHL mode for eligibility. In hockey, when a player is drafted at 18, he can still go to college and play there while the team retains his rights. In basketball and hockey, once players declare their eligibility for the draft, they become the equivalent of radioactive to colleges and can't return even if they aren't drafted. That's quite a waste of talent, considering several players wash out quickly. 

Sometimes it's difficult to fans to consider the big-picture issues in sports, because they are complex with several interfering factors. "Court Justice" is naturally one-sided in its arguments, and it's frequently on the dry side. That makes it hardly for everyone, but it's relatively quick and gets to the point. Those seeking information on the landmark case will find it educational.

Three stars

Learn more about this book. 

Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Review: The Cooperstown Casebook (2017)

By Jay Jaffe

It turns out this is a really good time of year to read "The Cooperstown Casebook," even if it was published in July.

We're only a few days away for the announcement about which players have been voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and apparently it's going to be a big year for inductees. According to those who keep track of such things, either four or five players are likely to make it to Cooperstown.

Baseball's Hall might have the biggest following attached to it in terms of fan interest. There are so many different positions in football that it's tough to compare candidates, while the Basketball Hall of Fame mixes college and pro play to set up different qualifying standards.

If you're one of those people who can debate on the qualifications of a particular player, then this book probably should be in your bookcase. Jay Jaffe has put a lot of effort into studying the various inductees and candidates over the years. He has crammed a great deal of analysis into more than 400 pages of work.

The first 100 pages or so of the book is devoted to basic background information on what's to come. Jaffe goes over the various ways that players, managers and contributors have been named to the Hall. The process has changed over the years quite a few times in an attempt to create something closer to a perfect system. For example, the Veterans Committee - often stocked with ex-players - was somewhat famous for picking pals of its members. There are some really bad choices, relatively speaking, in Cooperstown as a result. That's blurred the line a little bit over what the standards for entry are, although we seem to be doing a better job lately.

If we have improved our methods of determining who is a Hall of Famer and who isn't, the new statistics that have grown importance in recent years has been a big reason why. Lots of smart people have worked on ways of determining who the best players in the game are, and the toolbox has gotten pretty full. In fact, Jaffe himself invited JAWS, a way of comparing a potential inductee with other players at the same position. There is no perfect way of making such comparisons, naturally, but every little bit helps.

From there, the book gets into the players on an individual basis. Each position gets a chapter that opens with a discussion of a player who certainly is or was (mostly is) in the mix for the Hall of Fame at some point - David Ortiz, Bobby Grich, Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina, etc. From there, all of the inductees get the once-over, as do some players who are good candidates now or will be when they are eligible.

This raises some interesting questions in the discussion. How much does a long, productive career matter? It didn't hurt Sandy Koufax's chances but others weren't so lucky. Does postseason glory help? Clearly it doesn't hurt, but the guessing is that while Ortiz will receive a major boost from his October body of work, Curt Schilling wasn't as fortunate despite a formidable autumn resume. It's fun to see Jaffe pick out players who are better candidates than they appear to be because of some relatively hidden statistics. Grich and Dwight Evans fall into that category.

Certainly this book is targeted at those fans who enjoy baseball history; they might even learn something about 19th century players like slugger Roger Conner. A familiarity with new-wave statistics would be helpful too. If you can pass those tests, "The Cooperstown Casebook" will be a rewarding read that will stay on your bookshelf for a while.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Review: Sometimes You Have to Cross When It Says Don't Walk (2017)

By Lesley Visser 

My instant reaction to the professional work of Lesley Visser is a little different than that of others - perhaps because I'm a former newspaper reporter.

I remember her when she first started in the the business as a member of the sports staff of the Boston Globe in the 1970s. That was one of the greatest collections of talent in newspaper history, and Visser more than held her own. Yes, she was one of the pioneers of the business at the time, but she clearly knew her stuff and wrote well.

It might have been interesting to see what she might have done had she stayed in that role. Instead, she jumped to television, where she was a pioneer too. Broadcast journalism requires a different set of skills, of course, and she did well there. What would have her life looked like if she had stayed with it? Tough to say. Maybe she would have knocked down some different doors.

In reading "Sometimes You Have to Cross When It Says Don't Walk," it's obvious that the move was a career-changing experience, and that she enjoyed herself along the way.

Sports more or less have been a part of Visser's life almost from the beginning. She landed a job with the Globe out of Boston College in the 1970s, a time when women weren't exactly welcomed by players and teams. The title refers to her mother's reaction to her becoming a sports journalist when it figured to be a difficult battle to get through the door.

Visser's best stories in the book concern the battle to gain access. Picture someone waiting outside a locker room for long periods of time until athletes could come out and do one last interview with her. The tales do resemble the movie "Hidden Figures," about women in NASA at times. Visser deserves all sorts of credit for fighting that fight.

Otherwise, though,  this is relatively standard material. Books by journalists often are simple recounts of stories covered and personalities encountered. Visser seems to have become quite friendly with a variety of personalities over the years. There are stories about such people as Rick Pitino, Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, Joe Torre, and co-worker John Madden. There's less distance between reporter and source in such situations, apparently. Visser apparently posed for photos with all of them and then some, based on the illustrations here.

There are plenty of other stories told along the way, often about travel. Visser certainly has worked at almost all of the major events on the sports calendar. It's a little surprising, then, that some of the material feels like filler. Anecdotes and suggestions about food and restaurants around the country, not to mention a short chapter about her hair, don't work so well.

By the way, I think every person Visser has ever met is on the list of acknowledgments. Hope she doesn't have to send them all a copy of the book; she'll go broke.

It's good to have a book like "Sometimes You Have to Cross When It Says Don't Walk" in the stores, even if it's not a book you'll save forever. Visser's account ought to inspire some young girls to follow in her footsteps, which is great. And she's apparently enjoyed the ride since those early days, so it's easy to be happy for her.

Three stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB.