Sunday, December 30, 2007

Random Musings at Year's End

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto comes as no surprise. Indeed her murder serves as a reminder of the seething socio-political-sectarian struggles within the Islamic world as a whole. Even if the United States or Israel did not exist, the tensions we behold now on our TV screens would still be taking place.

How her death affects our involvement in the internecine struggles for power in Pakistan, people forget that America has long had an involved relationship with Pakistan. Ever since its creation in 1948, America has been a sponsor of Pakistan’s successive dictatorships. This came about when India maintained a policy on non-alignment during the Cold War with the former Soviet Union and Communist China under Mao Zedong. Presidents from Truman to Nixon viewed India’s neutrality with suspicion and courted Pakistan as an ally in the ideological struggle. Indeed, when India and Pakistan fought one another in 1971 over the independence of Bangladesh, America supplied arms and military advisers to Pakistan.

The problem is: the fact that America is so heavily involved in Pakistani affairs merely serves as fodder for the rise in Islamic extremism. Just as America’s support for the late Shah of Iran fueled the rise of the Iran’s fundamentalist revolution in 1979, so too does our involvement in Pakistan adds seasoning to the boiling pot of revolution. In many ways, we are trapped. Increasing our presence in Pakistan merely fans the flames. Total withdrawal from Pakistan would hasten the takeover of Pakistan by the same Talibanic elements that launched 9/11 on America.

* * *

I watched the New England Patriots finish the 2007 regular season undefeated at 16-0. Seeing the Patriots come back from a 28-16 margin to defeat the Giants 38-35 brings back memories of the 1972 Miami Dolphins. The 1972 NFL season was the first season where I became aware of NFL football. I was nine years old then and remember falling in love with the Miami Dolphins team. I remember fondly, Bob Griese, Earl Morrall, Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, and Garo Yepremian (the first soccer-style kicker in NFL history). But having seen the Patriots become the first NFL team to go undefeated in a sixteen game season, I have to believe that they are the greatest NFL team of all time. I may be premature with my forecast but if the Patriots win the Super Bowl then they will go a long way in cementing that claim of being the greatest team that ever lived.

You cannot compare NFL eras. The game has changed so much since 1972. (Indeed it was the last season where the goalposts were located on the goal-line and kickers kicked off from the forty-yard line). In terms of overall size and speed you cannot compare the 1972 Dolphins with the 2007 Patriots. But the 2007 Patriots possess talents, styles, and tactics that not even the 1972 Dolphins could have counter-acted even if their players were the same size as today’s Patriots are.

The 1972 Dolphins beat their opponents through attrition, combining a devastating running game with a phalanx-like defense. (The 1972 Dolphins were the first NFL team ever to have two 1,000 yard rushers in their backfield: Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris, with Jim Kiick gaining over 500 yards rushing as well). The Dolphins were so ball-control minded that there were several games where quarterback Bob Griese would make less than ten pass attempts. (Unheard of in today’s game).

I don’t see how such an offensive style could work against the 2007 Patriots.

Bob Griese was a splendid quarterback and a magnificent leader but he lacked the same superstar quality that a Tom Brady has. Griese never generated the numbers that a Joe Namath or Sonny Jurgensen or even Johnny Unitas generated during that era. Brady has proven since 2001 that he can generate the same numbers and even more.

Also the 1972 Dolphins No-Name defense didn’t possess the aggressive turnover abilities that the 2007 Patriots possess. In terms of ball-hawking, the Patriots get the nod in my opinion.

Simply put, the 2007 Patriots have too much offense and too much defense. They are the total package and should be revered as such by true football purists.

Fans may complain that the Patriots are boring but guess what the 1972 Dolphins were just as boring in their style of winning as the 2007 Patriots are. Actually watching both teams in action reminds me of what the late President Kennedy once said on the subject of success, “The ancient Greek definition of happiness was the full use of your powers along lines of excellence”.

The 2007 Patriots are the living embodiment of what President Kennedy was alluding to that day in 1963.

* * *

I’ve always hated New Year’s Eve. I can only recall one, maybe two New Year’s Eves where I have truly enjoyed myself. Mostly what New Year’s Eve reminds me of is how lonely and isolated my life has truly been. Recently, I’ve taken to going to the movies on New Year’s Eve but this year no movie tickles my fancy.

And so……

I will usher in 2008 in a more banal fashion.

I will work a normal work day and do absolutely nothing.

Hubba, Hubba, Hubba.

* * *

Oh yes: my predictions for 2008.

1) The insurgents in Iraq will launch a major offensive on or near the same day President Bush will give his State of the Union address where he will say that the surge worked and that real progress is being made in Iraq and that we cannot pull out now. Not only will it embarrass President Bush it may also throw a monkey wrench in Republican candidate John McCain’s Presidential campaign since he is basing his candidacy on a more vigorous application of America’s military strength in Iraq. McCain has made political capital on the success of the surge. A major (and successful) insurgent offensive could damage McCain’s credibility.

2) The Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary will not decide the nominations for either party. The contests in South Carolina, Florida, and Super Tuesday will be the real deciding contests in the 2008 Presidential races for both parties.

3) Do not discount the G.O.P. in the 2008 Presidential race. Despite the setbacks in Iraq and the rises in energy and food prices, and the collapse in the housing market, 2008 will not be a banner year for the Democrats. There is ample room for failure on their parts as well.

4) Like the actor Val Kilmer once said in the movie The Doors, “hatred is a very underestimated emotion” you will see more hatred than you will ever see in 2008—in all aspects of life—and we as a people living on this planet Earth will suffer enormously for it.

Let us pray.

Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

College Football: How to Remove the B.S. from the BCS

It is college bowl time again football fans and once again I am renewing my losing battle against the current BCS system that decides (rightly or wrongly) which college football team is the best in the nation.

My major complaint against the present BCS (which, year-by-year, requires constant tinkering, which merely confirms its fundamentally flaws and biases) is that it relies on a suspiciously convoluted computer ranking system that factors in strength-of-scheduling along with other factors. The BCS has done a great deal to perpetuate the stranglehold of the major college football powers while denying smaller colleges like Rutgers University (last year), Boise State, etc. from competing in the BCS championship even though those teams compiled undefeated records.

I would like to propose a new system (which would never see the light of day simply because it is much fairer than the present system) for determining which college football team is the best in the nation. The system I propose is inspired by the present British soccer league. In 1992 the major British soccer teams created the Premier League whereby the best 20 teams in the country would play one another for the soccer championship. The other teams would be divided into lesser divisions whereby they would vie with one another for promotion or relegation status. Any team in the Premier League that did poorly would be relegated to a lower level whereas the top teams in the lower divisions would move upward with the potential for playing for the championship.

My proposed system for NCAA football would do the same. My proposal would eliminate the traditional conferences like the Big Ten or Big Eight or PAC-10 and replace them with four super conferences composed of twelve teams a piece. The conferences could be composed either regionally or (more interestingly) a mix of teams from all four regions of the U.S. If the latter model was selected then one could see a super conference composed of Boston College vying with USC, Alabama, Notre Dame, and Michigan for a shot at the BCS title. The twelve teams in each conference would play a twelve game schedule where each team plays its conference rivals once. The conference team with the best record would earn a shot at the BCS championship. If there was a tie between two teams for a super-conference title then whoever won the head-to-head competition would get the nod for the title. Four super conferences mean four super conference champions. The four super conference champions would play one another on Christmas Day in order to decide which two teams would compete on New Year’s Day for the BCS championship. The losing teams on Christmas would also play on New Year’s Day to decide third and fourth place rankings and/or money.

And what about those teams which have losing records in the four super conferences? Those teams with losing records would be relegated to the next lower division whereby they would serve for a year in the hopes of improving their record and gain promotion back to BCS status meanwhile the top teams in the next lower division would be promoted to BCS status and have the honor of competing for the BCS title the following season.

The advantages to my proposed system are as follows: it would eliminate the built-in biases and vagaries perpetuated by the present BCS system that reward the major colleges while discriminating against the smaller colleges. Those teams competing in my proposed super conference system would be required to face top-notch competition every week whereas in the present college system, a powerhouse like the University of Miami could fatten its record by beating small colleges like Temple or East Carolina by ridiculous scores like 85-0. My system would eliminate such mismatches. Powerhouses like Michigan and USC would be forced to play for high stakes every single weekend. The challenge of winning the BCS title would be greater but would also eliminate the unfairness of the present system. The championship would be determined not by a computer or in corporate board rooms but on the football field where it belongs. My proposed system would also provide smaller colleges that prove themselves on the football field to vie for the BCS title. It would bring new excitement, new competition to college football. It would vastly improve the quality of TV coverage of college football. Every Saturday would be fraught with BCS title ramifications as the four super-conference teams played against one another.

My present system also eliminates a bulky unwieldy college football playoff system. Weeks ago I saw a proposal for an eight team college football playoff system. Mine simplifies the system. It also would go a long way towards restoring the status of the traditional college bowl games. I would eliminate the present BCS title game and have a round robin system whereby the Rose, Orange, Sugar, Cotton, and Fiesta Bowls would take turns hosting the BCS title game on New Year’s Day. The other lesser bowl games could be used by the lower division teams in my proposed system to decide which teams would earn promotion or relegation which would make those games more important to watch.

My proposed system would not interfere with student-athletes taking their exams in early December. Under my proposed system the regular season would be over by Thanksgiving. The BCS competitors could rest and lick their wounds, complete their exams before playing one another on Christmas and New Year’s for the title.

My proposed system is not inconceivable. Actually one university has been playing under my proposed system for decades. Every year Notre Dame University has a schedule where they challenge the best teams from all over the country with mixed results. My system would require all the major football powers to do the same. One interesting by-product of my proposed system would probably make the possibility of a team going totally undefeated much harder but if a super-conference team did go undefeated then it would show the true strength of that university.

The main point of my proposed system is that college football champions need to be decided on the grass, mud, dirt, snow, and freezing rain by student-athletes and not inside some computer bank or in some smoke-filled conference room filled with men-in-suits carrying brief cases.

On any given Saturday….

Monday, December 10, 2007

Oprah: Power Behind the Throne?

I must confess that I’ve never been a starry-eyed worshipper of Oprah Winfrey. Why? I do not know. But for some reason I’ve never been seduced by the image she shows to the public.

Her foray into Presidential politics on behalf of Democratic candidate Barack Obama comes as no surprise to me. It merely confirms what I’ve always suspected about Oprah: that she’s never been content with being the maven of afternoon TV or the ultimate hostess of American culture. Nay, Oprah has always aspired to being a mass media power broker, a 21st century Walter Winchell with the power to make or break celebrities (and now politicians) with a casual word of endorsement.

The footage of Oprah on the hustings fascinates me. Is she really banging the drums for Barack Obama? Or is she really campaigning for herself? In other words does she truly want to help Obama enter the White House or is she more concerned about making herself the ultimate determinant of whom, we, the People, should vote for in every election? Is she really concerned with the future of our country or is this the latest in a series of arrogations of power she has performed on the American consciousness in the past several years? Is she no longer content to become the maven of what books we should (or should not) read? Now it’s politics?

These are legitimate questions voters must ask themselves when they see Oprah strutting her political stuff. Is Oprah truly qualified to decide who is worthy of the White House? (Indeed is any talk show truly qualified or entitled to dictate to the American people whom they should vote for?)

Advocacy is one thing but blatant partisanship alters the equation with regards to her role in American mass culture.

Another question nags at me, does Oprah really want Obama to enter the White House or is she testing the waters for the day when she will campaign for the nomination for the office of President of the United States? Such an idea cannot be discounted. She has all the ingredients for her own future Presidential run. She’s a popular household name accessible to billions of people every week day. She commands a devoted fan base and she is rich enough to finance her own Presidential campaign without breaking a sweat. Does Oprah really only want to be the kingmaker (or in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s case, Queenmaker) of American politics or does she want to be the Queen herself? For those who scoff at the notion just remember in 1980, Ronald Reagan, an elderly former B-movie actor and former Governor of California won the Presidency and went on to achieve apotheosis in American politics. If Reagan could achieve that much what’s to stop Oprah?

But the question remains: is what Oprah’s doing truly a good thing for America, now and in the future?

The jury is out on that question and, personally, I have my doubts. Voters beware.