College sports stumble into predictable mess as corruption scandal engulfs nation

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Louisville's Rick Pitino is the most high-profile figure involved in the scandal.

America’s worst kept sporting secret has been sensationally laid bare.

College sports here are utterly unique – where else in the world does a nation take such a vested interest in the trials and tribulations of a university team?

It’s an utterly alien concept and one which is hard for many outside of the US to understand.

The system is great in principle – the best basketballers and football players will make it to the pros.

Students – and let’s not forget that’s what they are supposed to be – are given the full superstar treatment even if for at least 75 per cent, the dream will come shuddering to an end once their degree in Dance Science or Extreme House Painting are finished.

With the attention comes money. Absolutely loads of it. Sponsorships, TV deals, merchandise. It’s a multi-billion industry with all sorts of agendas in play for universities at both ends of the scale.

Just as the likes of Michigan State or Georgia want the funds to make their football programmes even stronger, so too do the smaller schools push for the dollar to help their own students and staff.

That’s the only way to explain why small colleges take on powerhouses at football and get routinely thrashed 70-0 while endangering the health of their completely overmatched players.

Yet, therein lies the problem and the root cause for an FBI investigation which has unearthed severe financial irregularity and corruption at schools up and down the land.

Oklahoma State is one of the big-ticket programs named in the scandal.

Oklahoma State is one of the big-ticket programs named in the scandal.

“I’m just surprised it took people this long to find out,” said one unnamed former college hoops player last week.

Oh, well everyone knows now.

Following the revelations last week, 10 arrests were immediately made which saw four assistant coaches accused of attempting to bribe players to come and play for them. A footwear company executive has also been thrown into the mix while highly respected Louisville head coach Rick Pitino has quit and is being questioned by the authorities.

The backstory is straight out of Hollywood and once (if) the dust settles, it will make a rip-roaring blockbuster.

Think Donnie Brasco wearing a pair of Air Jordans.

Back in 2016, agent Marty Blazer, who founded Blazer Capital Management, was charged with wire fraud after conning one of his players out of $550,000 (Dh2m).

After reportedly being told by the athlete to forget about using his money to fund a film project, the man tasked with guiding the athlete’s future allegedly dipped into his bank account.

It gets worse. When the player confronted Blazer, he apparently extracted the funds from another client and paid him back.

Blazer was also accused of illegally paying others to work with fellow agents and financial advisors.

On August 4, Blazer reached a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s office on a number of fraud-related charges.

As a deal breaker, Blazer teamed up with the FBI to help them work on corruption. Meetings were arranged, Blazer would turn up with a hidden camera and secret mic.

And then, like a house of cards, everything began tumbling down.

Former NCAA and NBA ref Rashan Michel and Auburn coach Chuck Person were both caught in the crossfire – Blazer reportedly had Person agree to accept $50,000 (Dh183,000) in bribes.

During another meeting , a player from Auburn met with Blazer who had Person in tow.

“The most important thing is that you…don’t say nothing to nobody. …But don’t share with your sisters, don’t share with any of the team-mates, that’s very important cause this is a violation…of rules, but this is how the NBA players get it done,” Person is reported to have said. How the feds must have smiled as that beauty came over the wires.

So what started out as a delve into a white collar criminal’s nefarious activities unwittingly led the FBI to uncover a dark side of college sports. For too long wealthy colleges have taken advantage of students to help monetise their own establishments with little regard for their futures.

Remember, most will never make it as pros yet receive no payment for taking part in often gruelling sporting schedules which allow them a free education but ultimately no future.

What a horrible, all too predictable, mess.

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Cleveland Indians’ historic 22-game winning streak has Believeland buzzing

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Forget Hollywood – Cleveland was the place writing a fairytale blockbuster last week.

The incredible, edge-of-the-seat drama unleashed by the Indians rivalled anything Tinsel Town has to offer.

And, although there was an inevitable dose of heartbreak, the adoring crowd rose to their feet and voraciously applauded the superstars of the show.

It was an incredible week of streaks in Major League Baseball. Yet while the once imperious Los Angeles Dodgers – Sports Illustrated’s front page a few weeks ago wondered if they were the best team ever – ended a stomachwrenching run of 11 defeats on the spin, let’s instead focus on the Cleveland Indians.

The way victory against the Detroit Tigers was snatched from the gaping jaws of defeat in the ninth innings was a great story in itself. Yet the fact it helped them score their 22nd consecutive win made it so much sweeter.

Last season’s World Series runners-up haven’t just hit a purple patch recently – they’ve taken permanent residence in one for the last three weeks.

Beating the Tigers on Wednesday helped eclipse the 20-game streak which catapulted the Moneyball Oakland Athletics of 2002 into the history books – and onto the silver screen.

The next target was the record set by the Chicago Cubs all the way back in 1935. That would leave them just four games from the alltime tally of 26 set in 1916 by the then New York Giants. It’s not easy to string so many triumphs together over an energysapping 162 game season.

Such is the never-ending grind of baseball, there won’t be a perfect campaign. Indeed, winning threequarters would be scarcely believable, something Cleveland would have accomplished if their magic stretched from start to finish.

If you need more context, no-one has won more than 16 in row since 1957. That’s 60 whole years so excuse Indians fans for going berserk on Thursday night. This is a team, don’t forget , that isn’t used to wowing the nation.

Cleveland Indians

Their last World Series win came in 1948 and even though it was agonisingly close last year (can it be more heartbreaking than losing in extra innings of Game 7?) before being edged out by a Cubs team hell bent on ending their own hoodo, Cleveland fans aren’t an optimistic bunch.

At the bottom of the ninth, fears were being realised. Down 2-1. One out remaining. But up stepped Francisco Lindor and the scores were level before Jay Bruce (left) showed nerves of steel to steer them home in the bottom of the 10th and spark mayhem in the stands.

“It was like a playoff game,” fan Gary Demshar told me. “And yeah, you could say going on a run like this is a surprise.” “This doesn’t really happen any where,” ackonwledged Bruce, who only arrived from the New York Mets last month.

The 3-2 extra-innings thriller was the first time in this stretch the game hasn’t been finished in nine innings. It finally wasn’t their night when Kansas City turned party poopers, beating the Indians 4-3. The disappointment was tangible.

Yet the players immediately showed their appreciation to a fanbase which has been criticised in parts for not backing their boys with attendances often failing to pack the 35,000 capacity Progressive Field.

There was still plenty of love flying down from the bleachers as they dished out a standing ovation to their finally fallen heroes – and why not?

With a post-season place now guaranteed and the chance of overtaking the 94-52 Dodgers – who remain nicely poised as the No1 team despite as shocking a September as Cleveland’s has been spectacular – to secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs, there’s everything to play for.

Cleveland will undoubtedly push for a World Series return, yet know nothing is guaranteed. Those Oakland As went out in the very first round 15 years ago.

The same could befall the Indians, but their place in history will remain.

NFL

Jerry Jones

Jerry Jones

They say everything’s bigger in Texas – especially when it comes to the Dallas Cowboys. A franchise which cost owner Jerry Jones a mere $140 million in 1989 is now worth an astonishing $4 billion, according to Forbes’ annual list of team values across all sports.

That also rubberstamped the Cowboys’ place as the most valuable team on the planet. It’s the first time an NFL team has hit this mark – and when news came through, Jones must have fancied hitting the town to celebrate.

Dallas beat Real Madrid ($3.26bn), the New England Patriots ($3.2bn), the New York Yankees ($3.2bn) and Barcelona ($3.16bn) to finish top of the pile.

It’s a graphic illustration of why it’s boom time in the NFL – just four years ago only two teams were in the two billion dollar club. Now there are nine with two more just below.

No wonder Roger Goodell is so desperate to show everyone his game isn’t the life-threatening, walking-concussion machine many fear it has become.

MLS

Atlanta United

Take a bow Atlanta United. Fresh off a 7-0 thumping of the New England Revolution in midweek, new boys United broke the MLS attendance record as the city’s sparkling new Mercedes-Benz Stadium was fully opened.

The state-of-the-art $1.6 billion arena also tasted NFL action last night with the Falcons making their first appearance there, facing the Green Bay Packers.

That was poised to be an 71,000 sell-out (there’s an option to increase capacity to 83,000 for events like the Super Bowl) though the 70,425 which took in the 3-3 draw with Orlando on Saturday was the highest ever in MLS. Not bad for a new team in its first season.

It eclipsed the previous high of 69,255 set in 1996 for the LA Galaxy’s debut match, though what’s most encouraging for United fans and those who push MLS forward is that the club’s average of 45,000 is on course to beat the previous best held by Seattle two years ago.

In a city where NFL is king, that’s impressive.

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Boston Red Sox's use of technology the true crime in sign-stealing controversy

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It’s not the type of espionage to get James Bond excited.

Some guys watching a catcher’s signal and then relaying the info to coaching staff who used their Apple Watches to inform players on the pitch?

Normally it’s a grizzled old coach using his eye-sight and experience to unlock the code.

But this is different. Welcome to Sign Stealing: 2017.

It’s gone on for years yet the use of technology has raised the intensity of the hatred between these two proud sporting cities.

The inquiry started at the end of last month after Yankees GM Brian Cashman filed a complaint which included video footage of the Red Sox bench during a three-game series between the two teams at Fenway Park last month.

There, clear as day, was footage of Sox staff checking their watches and then telling colleagues who would then signal to players on the field.

Boston didn’t deny anything.

In fact, they’d been doing it for weeks yet had the temerity to accuse the Yankees of using a host broadcaster to do the same.

That was denied by the Bronx Bombers who were adamant something was amiss. There was an overriding feeling of the home batters being too in sync with balls flying their way.

The ploy works a treat when a runner is on second base.

He can not only see what the catcher is doing with his hands but can also let the batter know what’s coming his way.

Otherwise, timing is key. The information needs to be rushed from the dugout in super quick time. So, enter the Apple Watch!

The evidence in this case is interesting: During the opening game of the series, the first two times the home team had runners on second, they came up trumps. In the second inning, a home run helped the Sox creep 2-0 ahead.

It didn’t work out as well in the other two games though suspicions had already been raised.

What’s the most surprising is the Boston Red Sox, in their infinite wisdom, not only thought it was a cracking idea but they’d actually get away with it.

Is there something in the New England water?

No-one in New York will ever forget Spygate – Bill ‘ We will never do it again ‘ Belichick’s attempt to uncover secrets about the Jets’ tactics.

And now this.

What a shame these two won’t meet again in the regular season.

It’s unlikely, however, the MLB will smash the AL East leaders with serious punishment.

After all, this is the governing body who happily allow drug cheats to keep their records despite everyone knowing they were bashing home runs juiced up to the max on steroids.

Commissioner Rob Manfred, who just so happened to be in Beantown when the story broken initially by the New York Times surfaced (which has convinced the Sox that the Yankee’s leaking of the story was timed to perfection), will seemingly hand out slapped wrists.

“It has been part of the game for a very, very long time,” he said.

Indeed. Snooping around to gain an advantage isn’t new.

The most famous scandal came all the way back in 1951, when the New York Giants overcame a 13 ½-game deficit over the final two months of the season to catch the Brooklyn Dodgers and eventually win the National League pennant. Half a century later it emerged that telescopes were used from the nearby Polo Grounds to gain an advantage.

Information is often passed on nefariously, yet it was the use of technology which broke the rules here.

Binoculars are banned. So too are mobile phones.

It’s sporting dark arts.

Technological doping, if you fancy.

Just like greasing up a cricket ball or taking an extended bathroom break in tennis, players find a way to operate in between the rules.

It’s certainly not on a par with the shocking Cardinals hack into Houston Astros database two years ago which resulted in a a $2 million fine and the snatching of draft picks.

But it has still caused a stink.

“I’ve never thought it’s wrong. Everyone in the game has been involved in it throughout the years,” said David Dombrowski, the Sox president of operations and a man with no shame.

That much may be true though the old adage remains: Don’t get caught, but if you do, don’t use an Apple Watch.

NFL

No-one – not even a sporting powerhouse like the Miami Dolphins – was safe from the devastating effects of Hurricane Irma.

As the terrifying winds and rain lashed the Sunshine State , the Dolphins, who had already seen their opening day clash against the Bucs called off , were headed to Los Angeles to avoid the carnage.

I live in South Florida and followed suit even if many friends stayed put, determined to ‘ride it out.’

Nevertheless, it was the kind of situation which had everyone thinking of their safety.

Training was cancelled on Wednesday to give players and their families time to prepare their houses before the team travelled to California two days later.

“A lot these guys have a lot on their plate — moving their families — and you’ve got people coming in, and your house and your cars,” Jay Cutler, the quarterback, said.

Fellow Florida NFL side ,the Jacksonville Jaguars, also had their plans thrown into disarray. They planned to remain in Houston after yesterday’s match – a city which is still coming to terms with the shocking aftermath of Hurricane Harvey which destroyed large parts of Texas at the start of the month.

“For us, obviously, we need to stay safe,” said QB Chad Henne. “There’s no need to put a plane into the storm, but you worry about the families here and you worry about the community.”

NBA

First the loudmouth father. Then the overpriced shoes and a reality TV show.

Now the rap single eulogy for his kid brother.

Lonzo Ball has packed a lot into his career so far and he’s yet to play a minute in the NBA. Yet , thanks in no part to his often nauseating dad Lavar, everyone knows his name and this latest attempt to self promote just adds to the circus surrounding the 19 year-old Laker.

His debut rap single “Melo Ball 1” is available for your audible delight and features Lonzo spitting lyrics in honour of his little brother who’s had quite a few weeks himself.

If turning 16 years old wasn’t exciting enough , he also became the first ever High School player to have his own brand of basketball shoes – called Melo Ball 1s.

See what they’ve done there? Geniuses , the lot of them.

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