North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Posts Tagged ‘football

From the Vault: Michael Sam Is A Big Deal (2014)

leave a comment »

Editor’s Note: With today’s news that Michael Sam has signed with the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes, it seemed like a good time to run this previously unpublished column I wrote for The Good Point back in 2014! It never ran, maybe my take was too hot? I can’t remember why it was rejected. 

On Sunday, the Brooklyn Nets signed Jason Collins to a ten-day contract. This is the time of year for those: the post-trade deadline, as teams make a push to get into the playoffs. On that level, Collins’ signing isn’t any bigger than, say, Glen Davis signing with the Clippers.


But, for reasons I’m sure you already know, Collins’ signing is much bigger news.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by M.

May 22, 2015 at 11:32 am

Things We’re Not Interested In: The NFL Draft

leave a comment »

With the NFL Draft plastered across the TSN networks for three nights this week, it’s a busy weekend for Stuff I Don’t Care About. It’s a fun time, folks!

See, the NFL Draft is an exercise in hype and hyperbole, the kind of thing they could bang out in an afternoon if they so wished, but it stretched out to Pantagruelian proportions and covers a few nights of TV. And really, what for? To watch a bunch of young adults put on a jersey?

While I won’t begrudge them a moment in the spotlight, it’s worth pointing out the only interesting story to come out of the draft in recent years is when Michael Sam was drafted –  in the seventh round, no less – and planted a kiss on his boyfriend.

Last year, I wrote a column about Sam – I don’t think it ever ran, either –  and how he was a big deal. From my unpublished notes:

When Sam plays, LGBTQ people will be watching. Some, I’m sure, will be inspired to keep playing their sports without keeping an important part of their life hidden; others will start paying attention because of Sam. When Cuban said he a player’s sexuality shouldn’t matter, he was right: it shouldn’t. But in this environment, where Arizona is flirting with allowing businesses to openly discriminate, it does.

In the year-and-a-bit since I wrote that, things have gotten messier, but maybe clearer, too. Sam spent part of the NFL season on Dallas’ practice squad and never played in a game, while Indiana recently passed a law that allows businesses to discriminate under the guise of religious objections. One business managed to parlay that law, and it’s resulting backlash, into gobs of capital. (I’m sure you know Mencken’s line)

At the same time, there has been pushing the other way, too. Sam hasn’t faded away like most practice squad players: he was recently on Dancing With the Stars and there’s still talk he may play in the CFL, if not in the NFL. And there’s Bruce Jenner’s coming out as trans a little while back, important in it’s own way but also relevant to this discussion. Remember, Jenner was a hell of an athlete back in the day.

But back to the draft: last night, Shane Ray was taken by Denver late in the first round. And as Outsports noted, there’s a lot of similarities between Ray and Sam. Funny how that works, eh?

Which sort of gets me to the second-biggest problem I have with pro football: it’s hypocrisy. This is a sport that lets people get away with being awful human beings. They can beat their kids until the police get involved and still have careers; be a big enough star and they’ll even try to sweep your abuse under the rug. Players get arrested, players sometimes even go to jail. But when Sam comes out, it’s a distraction. It’s also a load of horseshit.

But so is the draft, which is literally three hours of talking, handshakes and posing. It’s unbelievably dull. And, frankly, it’s annoying that TSN is airing it over playoff basketball.

Written by M.

May 1, 2015 at 11:12 am

How John Madden and Pat Summerall got together

leave a comment »

Here’s a short post from the pile of “Stuff I wrote/pitched elsewhere that was passed on.”


Back in 1981, CBS Sports was a mess. This was before they were broadcasting baseball, the Olympics or March Madness, the days when they had NFL football on Sunday, the Masters in the spring and NBA basketball sometime at night. And the on-air presentation wasn’t much better either: maybe you’ve seen some of these broadcasts, which look barebones even by 1980 standards: a few cameras, the bare minimum of on-screen information. And lots and lots of Brent Musberger, their star commentator and host.

That year, CBS Sports lured away a young producer from ABC Sports named Terry O’Neil. Starting as a researcher, O’Neil had worked his way up through ABC Sports and learned how to produce a sports telecast under the legendary Roone Arledge. When he jumped to CBS, he went from a network with Monday Night Football to one that aired a made-for-TV NFL Cheerleader competition. As he writes in his memoir, The Game Behind the Game, CBS was woefully out of touch.

“Their production people had not been introduced to the fundamental techniques of attracting and holding audience. They hadn’t developed personalities among CBS’s star athletes, didn’t heighten interest by reporting real news, didn’t preview their coming events with live cut-ins during a broadcast day.” (pg 82)

And more to the point, they were bleeding young talent: both Al Michaels and Bob Costas fled the network after being repeated passed over for promotion. But things were changing: shortly after they hired O’Neil, CBS landed college basketball, which remains one of their core properties. They renovated the way they presented games, overhauling graphics and the way on-air talent reported during and between events. But O’Neil’s biggest move was about to come.

At the time, CBS’s top broadcasting duo was Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshier. The network had decided to break it up for the start of the 1981 season, but wasn’t sure who would go where or make up their new top team. Van Gordon Sauter started pushing for a new color guy, at the time working on regional broadcasts and best known for starring in Miller Lite ads: John Madden. But, as O’Neil relates it, Madden had a quality you couldn’t fake:

“Madden showed promise. At that point, he was not the funny, outrageous Madden America now reveres. He was not doing the ‘boom, bap, whap’ routine yet. But he had something honest, real. The quality was had to define, which made it all the more appealing.” (pg 92)

But the question of who would call the top-market games was still up in the air: Sauter was pushing for Vin Scully, O’Neil for Summerall. Each represented a different way of broadcasting: Scully was a talker, who could (and still does) illustrate a scene with words; Summerall was the opposite, the Raymond Carver of broadcasting, using five words where another would use 15.

“With football’s faster pace,” wrote O’Neil, “there was no time for word pictures and with recent advances in coverage, there was no need. Now add Madden, who had plenty to say and frequently used the full 30 seconds between plays to say it. The combination would be too much. The viewer, I told Sauter, would be wrung out by halftime.” (pg 93)

Eventually, CBS split the difference for 1981: each would partner with Madden for four games and by the end of week eight, CBS would make the final call. And they’d go with Summerall and Madden.

It wasn’t a universally loved combination. Joe LaPointe of Knight-Ridder wrote a column condemning the decision, calling Scully the victim of behind-the-scenes politics. Even if he wasn’t, Scully was biting mad and left CBS for NBC Sports seven months later, becoming their lead baseball voice. And by Super Bowl XVI, one of the most iconic broadcasting duos was set. They’d broadcast together for the next 20 seasons. O’Neil, after a messy spat with Musberger and CBS management was gone by 1987.

Written by M.

April 23, 2013 at 9:00 am

The Bills were never coming to Toronto anyway

leave a comment »

I try to run a positive blog here; there’s a lot of negativity around Toronto sports sometimes. But it’s not always feasible. This is one of those times.

Last Friday, the Buffalo Bills reached an agreement with the state of New York and Erie County to remain at Ralph Wilson Stadium until 2020. A lot of money changes hands in this deal. Some $130 million is earmarked for Ralph Wilson. It’ll be nice to renovate the stadium, long considered one of the NFL’s worst. And it gives an idea of stability for the Bills, whose post-Ralph Wilson future looks sometimes shaky; once he’s gone, what happens to the team?

But it’s a slap in the face to Toronto, where a group has long coveted the team coming across the border and is just winding down a five-year agreement where the Bills played a game at the Rogers Centre. It’s hard not to get the feeling Toronto was used to leverage a better deal from the state and county governments. After all, it showed the NFL would allow games on the other side of the border. Honestly, it’s hard not to be a little miffed at the way this all went down.

After their final appearance in Toronto, Bills center Eric Woods called the game a joke. First thought: he was describing his team’s defence, which was blown up by Seattle in a 50-17 loss. Second thought: way to kick Toronto on the way out, knowing you’ll probably never have to face those people again. Third thought: he’s right. The Toronto Series was a joke. The crowds were never there, the stadium was dull and lifeless and the team stank every season. As I recall, they won exactly one game in Toronto. And it cost more to see one of these games than it would to see the Bills at Ralph Wilson, too: tickets this year started at $48; they’re 500-level seats, natch. Tickets can be had for this Sunday’s game for $30. Lower bowl seats, too.

Maybe the comparative failure of this series is why his comments haven’t dominated sports media in this town. A quick scan of the Fan’s headlines from the past week shows his comments coming up exactly once. I don’t remember it ever coming up once when I listened. Maybe that’s part of the reason why Toronto doesn’t seem exactly torn up over the Bills extension.

I’ve long held the opinion that the NFL is never coming full-time to Toronto. There’s a bunch of reasons why: Toronto ratings don’t mean jack to American networks and by extension would damage national TV deals; the Rogers Centre is too small by the NFL’s standards (and it a bad football stadium, to boot); the impact it’d have on the CFL, more than occasionally useful for developing NFL prospects; the logistical problems of building a new, NFL-sized stadium in the GTA (Where’s it going to go? Who’s going to pay for it? Who is going to use it the rest of the time?). An extension to the Toronto series is possibly forthcoming – a recent Toronto Star story says it could come “early next year” – but with Rogers heavy focus on the Blue Jays, I can’t say I’d be surprised if this one languishes away.

So what then to make of the Bills decision to double down on Buffalo? It makes sense from a practical standpoint – Ralph Wilson, for all it’s flaws is probably a better football stadium than the Rogers Centre – and it makes sense from the TV deal side, too: I’m sure CBS would rather have a team playing home games in a city where they have a station. But I can’t shake the “Toronto was used” feeling. The games here weren’t a success and I can’t help but feel they weren’t supposed to be. Did the Bills ever want to leave Buffalo? To Toronto, where there’s no ready stadium, no ready ownership group and a fanbase that never filled the Rogers Centre?

I said it before, I’ll say it again. I don’t buy the Bills in Toronto. They were never going to come here. The difference is, it’s now in writing.

Written by M.

December 25, 2012 at 11:20 pm

Why the Argos win on Sunday matters

leave a comment »

It’s November and everything feels all strange and flipped up. When I listen to the Fan, they’re talking Jays. When I put on TSN, they’re showing basketball. And when I think back to last weekend, I remember the Argonauts defeating the Montreal Alouettes in a road playoff game.

And the biggest news out of Leaf-land? Some guy with far too much money in Barrie paid over $5,300 for something the Leafs took a crap in. You’d think they’d throw in a copy of Game Seven of the 1993 Conference Finals too, if that’s what he was after. Sometimes no real news is the best news.

Remember when Grantland called Toronto the worst sports city in the greater Milky Way Galaxy? How quickly things have changed. On the back of their huge trade, the Jays have positioned themselves as contenders in the crowded AL East. With the play of DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson, the Raptors have shown there’s maybe a future to this crop of youngsters. Without the Leafs playing, Toronto’s other hockey team has been showing up on TV and they’re tearing it up: on Saturday, they beat up on the Hamilton Bulldogs. And Nazem Kadri’s picked up eight points in his past four games. I don’t think the Marlies will ever threaten the Leafs TV ratings, but playing so well on a TV broadcast will certainly help spread the word that there’s good hockey to be seen at the Ricoh at a fraction of the price of a Leafs game. More parking there, too.

But the biggest news of the weekend is about the Argos, that team which keeps getting written off, even by yours truly. When they went into the playoffs, I suggested they had backed into a spot thanks to even worse play by Hamilton and Winnipeg. I noted how they allowed more than they scored through the season’s end. But they beat Edmonton in a fun game, mostly thanks to a crazy second quarter where they scored 31 points and managed to intercept a shovel pass from Edmonton QB Kerry Joseph.

Still, I was a little skeptical after the win: Edmonton wasn’t a great team. They finished in the bottom of the Western Conference and only made the playoffs thanks to lacklustre seasons from Hamilton and Winnipeg. The Montreal Alouettes were a much better team and they’ve done the Argos in during the playoffs before. One of my first posts here was a dispatch from an Argos/Alouettes playoff game in 2005: the Argos blew a first half lead and lost while people in the upper deck went insane. I remember a crazed Montreal fan screaming and trying to pick fights while people threw plastic horns at him before security stepped in.

There’s been other times. In 2007, Toronto dropped conference final game at home to a surging Winnipeg team. And in 2010, they were blown out by Montreal, 48-17 (I don’t think I wrote about this game). There’s not many good omens to a Toronto/Montreal playoff game. And when Montreal got off to a good start, leading 17-7 near halftime I figured it was over. After all, the Argos scoring to that point looked like this: field goal, rouge, safety and another rouge. They blew a first-and-goal from Montreal’s one-yard line, getting stuffed on three consecutive runs. Not an inspiring first half.

So what happened? How did the Argos turn things on in the second? Their offence started coming together and their defence held Montreal steady: after scoring a touchdown in the second, Montreal was held to one field goal, despite getting into Argo territory multiple times. They got as close as Toronto’s eight yard line, but settled for a field goal. In the fourth quarter alone, they turned the ball over three times. They got really damn close, dropping what would’ve been a game-clinching TD late in the fourth, but just couldn’t do it. The Argos somehow held on, despite the odds and recent history.

It sets up what should be a dream senario for the Argos and their fans. They’re playing Calgary for the Grey Cup on home turf. It’s the 100th Grey Cup, which means there’s going to be pomp and excess on a level only Toronto could really handle without looking crazy. Noted football fiend and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford will probably be at the game in some loud, media-unfriendly capacity. I hope to hell he goes full-Nixon and tries to draw up a play for the Argos.

Toronto’s long been chided for not caring enough about it’s CFL team. There’s probably some truth in that, but one could argue that every Toronto team not named Maple Leafs doesn’t get its proper share of attention. Here’s a chance to change that. Not many teams get to play for the CFL’s title on their home turf. And Toronto hasn’t had a champion in any sport in eight years. Even if you’re not a CFL fan, this weekend is a special one in Toronto sports.

Written by M.

November 20, 2012 at 2:46 pm

Keep the Tiger-Cats in Hamilton

with one comment

A few weeks ago, I went to my first Tiger-Cats game, which was a bit of a memorable experience.

Truth be told, Hamilton’s kind of a rough town. My buddy E and I made a wrong turn off the QEW and ended up taking a back way through the city, snaking through the downtown as we tried to find Ivor Wynne. We passed sketchy looking bars, boarded up buildings and more then a few skullets. And we eventually found the place.

And damn, what a venue.

Ivor Wynne is old, it’s beyond outdated and it’s amazing in ways I had no idea stadiums could be. It’s smack dab in the middle of a residential area, bordered by a school and a bunch of houses. There are no overpriced bars nearby and no $20-an-hour lots. Hell, there’s no lots really at all – most people pay $10 or so to park on a lawn. You just walk right up into the stadium through a few gates. It’s great.

Basically, it’s the anti-Toronto.

Inside, the fans are something else. Raw, passionate, vocal, probably drunk. There were furry hats, foam claws and chanting, always chanting. Some dopes tried to start the wave; it didn’t catch on. Here’s a small sampling of the customized jerseys I saw:

  • Eat em raw
  • Argos Suck
  • Toronto Sucks
  • Pigskin Pete (although he’s some kind of mascot, so maybe he doesn’t count)
  • CFL Rocks

Add to these a huge wack of old jerseys, some looking close to 30 years old, that almost every fan seemed to wear. While there was a tent that sold a few Ti-Cats thing at the stadium, it was pretty obvious that most of these fans had worn them for years. There were a few that looked pressed and cleaned and others that had been worn so much the colours and numbers had faded. Those that didn’t have a jersey wore some variation of the Ti-Cats yellow-and-black scheme.

I didn’t see a single person in a business suit. I didn’t see anybody spend the game on a blackberry. I didn’t see any of the corporate stuff I seem to always see in Toronto.

It was really a tremendous crowd, easily one of the best I’ve ever been been a part of.

And it would be a real shame if they lost their team.

There’s been a bit of talk lately about the Tiger-Cats moving from Hamilton. Ivor Wynne is old, and while it’s not altogether without charm, it lacks the modern immediacies owners would like. There’s seats only on two sides, really; the luxury boxes are few and look fairly small; the seats are all wooden benches; so forth and so on.

Which means the team – and owner Bob Young, in particular – are prepared to move the team to a city willing to bend over backwards for them.

It’s not that the Hammer isn’t building them a new stadium. They are, actually – the city is planning to build a new stadium to be used for the 2015 Pan Am games – but it doesn’t meet the exacting demands of the Cats ownership.

One report suggested that Young wants the new stadium closer to highways, on the mountain. Hamilton city council has voted to start building at a west harbour site.

Another report says that the issue has quickly became political, with terms like “pro-city” being thrown around, as mayoral rivals come out of the woodwork and argue for capitulation.

It really seems like the fight is going to other levels. It doesn’t seem to be so much a sports topic any longer as it does inside baseball, an extension of old grudges. Which is certainly a shame.

This wouldn’t be as bad if the owners wasn’t so vocal about moving the team and cities weren’t making it known how much they’d like the team. There’s been offers from Oshawa to Quebec City to Moncton, New Brunswick.

I have been to all of those cities and lived in Oshawa for three years. They are all good towns, but have nothing approaching the level I saw in Hamilton. In the Hammer, the fans were loud, great and made the game a hell of an experience. I’m used to Toronto crowds that tend to only get loud for T-Shirts, free pizza or, occasionally, Vince Carter. Their fans are really something.

And while I can’t say I’m a fan of the Ti-Cats, I can’t imagine how this must feel: not only is their owner talking about moving the team, not only has council chosen a spot Young has repeatedly said he doesn’t want, but other cities are openly trying to court your team.

Don’t forget, Hamilton isn’t really a place with a lot going for it. It’s still a blue collar town; from where I sat at Ivor Wynne, I could see the smokestacks over at the steel mills where I imagine most of the people in attendance knew somebody working or worked there themselves. I got the impression that for a lot of fans, going to football games was something they did once in a while, a way to blow off steam and let go after a long workweek.

But then, isn’t that what most sports really are? They’re about being entertained, having fun and not having to worry about paychecks or rent or bills. They’re not supposted to be about stadium arguements or hearing pleas from afar luring your team away.

Which is something I think is being lost in the arguments. The fans are there and probably always will. It doesn’t matter where the new stadium is. They will find a way there. They already find a way to their current one, where parking is on lawns (don’t worry about the flowers, pull up a little further ahead) and the seats are benches in a stadium almost as old as time itself.

The Ti-Cats are one of the oldest professional teams in North America and have some of the best fans in pro sports. It would be a shame if the city of Hamilton lost them both over municipal politics.

Written by M.

August 21, 2010 at 11:35 am

Posted in cfl, football

Tagged with , ,

The Best Sports Books of the Decade

with 2 comments

The 2000’s were a pretty good time for sports books.

In the late 90’s, there was a real kick in detailed biographies of sports legends – I personally blame David Maraniss – which resulted in some really great books in the early part of the decade. But as the 2000’s progressed, the trend shifted towards bloggers putting out collections; some (like Will Leitch’s book God Save the Fan) were better then others, but it seemed that the majority of books coming out were reflective in nature, written as a response to something rather then an interest.

For example, look at all the books that came out in the wake of the 2004 World Series. And look at all the ones that hold up only five years later (only Bill Simmons’ collection of columns and a quickie reissue of Golenbeck’s Fenway come to mind).

Still, there was a lot of good reading. My personal top 10 follows. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by M.

December 16, 2009 at 9:57 pm