Sports Law Roundup – 7/21/2017

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I used to write the sports technology roundup at TechGraphs, an internet website that died, and now I am writing the sports law roundup at ALDLAND, an internet website.

Here are the top sports-related legal stories from the past week:

  • Tennis match fixing: The Tennis Integrity Unit, an organization dedicated to investigating cheating in tennis, is investigating cheating in tennis. More specifically, the TIU is investigating four matches– three at Wimbledon and one at the French Open– for potential match fixing. Suspicious betting patterns triggered the investigation into these matches, for which additional information is not yet available to the public. While allegations of match fixing in major tournament matches are rare, tennis is particularly susceptible, given that it is an individual sport, and that most matches involve low-earning players and are not tracked by the general public. Three years ago, FiveThirtyEight’s Carl Bialik wrote an illuminating feature on the data-driven rise in tennis gambling, later cautioning that betting patterns alone were not conclusive evidence of match fixing.
  • Hou-Hugh Feud: One week after Houston Nutt sued his former employer, Ole Miss, for breach of his severance agreement for disparaging statements by school officials, including head football coach Hugh Freeze, Freeze has resigned. Athletic Director Ross Bjork, whose statements also appear in Nutt’s complaint, referred to Freeze’s unacceptable “pattern of personal misconduct” in connection with Freeze’s resignation and said that the school would have fired Freeze, who will receive no buyout on his $5 million annual contract, had Freeze not resigned. While the litany of alleged NCAA violations have been public for some time, the catalyst for Freeze’s sudden departure just a week after he represented Ole Miss at SEC Media Days appears to be new evidence that, on one occasion, Freeze used his university-issued cellphone to contact a Detroit-based escort. Freeze’s call records are under scrutiny as a result of the Nutt complaint, which cites those records in detail but contained no mention of the escort call. (And a note to those who see an opening for Lane Kiffin to return to the SEC in a head-coaching role, Paul doesn’t see it happening for Kiffin in Oxford, so you can bet it won’t.)
  • Simpson paroled: After serving nine years in prison for his role in a Las Vegas robbery, O.J. Simpson received a unanimous grant of parole from the Nevada Board of Parole Commissioners and could be out of prison as early as October. This week’s parole decision hardly could have come at a more perfect time: Norm Macdonald Live returns to the digital airwaves for a new season on Tuesday.

Sports court is in recess.

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Tardy 2016 World Series Preview

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The 2016 World Series started yesterday, and Cleveland now has Chicago in a one-game hole after a 6-0 shutout win last night. The Cubs were clear favorites to win the series entering last night, and while we probably still should consider them the favorites, Chicago fans can be forgiven for seeing lots of doom and gloom on the horizon this morning.

Here’s what the statistical projections on World-Series-winning odds now say:

Chicago remains favored to win game two tonight, but last night’s loss exacted a large toll on their overall series odds. (On the other hand, as one tortured Cubs fan opined yesterday, “In late October, math no longer applies.”)

At least one more game will be played in Cleveland’s JacobsProgressive Field, which has been a weird place to play baseball of late, at least relative to other places to play baseball.

This entire post has been a polite rouse designed to provide a vehicle for linking you to this World Series preview post, which is the best of its kind and the only one anyone needs to read.

The arc of the ALDLAND universe is long, but it bends toward this weekend

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If there are two things I’ve written about with consistency at this weblog they are 1) the Detroit Tigers and 2) the Atlanta Braves’ foolhardy abandonment of their downtown home at Turner Field. Beginning tonight, and for the next two days thereafter, these two ALDLANDic worlds will collide when the Tigers face the Braves in the final three games ever to be played at the aforementioned Turner Field. More than anything, I am grateful that we will be able to attend each of these games, live and in person. These are critical games for the 2016 Tigers, teetering as they are on the edge of postseason qualification, and they are historic games for the City of Atlanta. I have little more to add at this juncture other than that I am very excited.   Continue reading

Catching Fire: Cabrera leads by example

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In an odd way, it’s tough to find an excuse to write about Miguel Cabrera in a season series like this one, because he’s so consistently good that, within his own context, his day-to-day achievements don’t stand out. If, from a coverage perspective, the greats miss out on talent-correlated attention during the season, though, they tend to make up for it during the big moments, like playoff races and the postseason.

The Detroit Tigers are in the final countdown for the 2016 season. Monday was their last off-day until the season ends on October 2. Their playoff odds have tumbled, but they’ve managed to keep pace at about two games back of the second AL wild card spot, meaning that their postseason hopes remain very much alive. The reason those playoff odds are low, though, is because they’re running out of time. Every remaining game is of critical importance, and while the Tigers really need to win each of these games (or, at least, a vast majority of them), even doing that won’t guarantee a playoff berth unless the teams ahead of them falter.

Cabrera knew the stakes last night, during the team’s first game of this crucial final stretch. Detroit already was missing two of its biggest bats– Cabrera’s Venezuelan countryman Victor Martinez and Ian Kinsler, also an important vocal leader– due to a brutal triple HBP run by Cleveland’s Trevor Bauer (Cabrera also was a victim) in a costly win on Sunday, which meant Cabrera would need to shoulder even more of the offensive load than usual.

In the fourth inning, leading by a slim 1-0 margin, Cabrera decided to manufacture a run essentially all by himself, and not by way of a snappy home run blast. First, he stretched his single into a double; then advanced to third on a dangerously shallow fly-out; and, finally and amazingly, scored from there on an infield hit to the third baseman. Cabrera’s Billy Hamilton impression is one of the most impressive baseball moments I’ve seen this year (here’s the video), and he delivered it for the benefit of his teammates at the perfect moment. While it’s impossible to say whether the team’s subsequent offensive breakout– they ended up winning 8-1, with Cabrera also contributing a two-run homer– came as a result of this moment or the team simply (finally) catching up to bad Minnesota pitching, Cabrera’s baserunning in the fourth, which resulted in what ultimately proved to be the winning run, sent an unmistakable message to his teammates.   Continue reading

Ejection Overruled: Evaluating MLB’s attempt to eliminate in-game dissent

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Following up on its poorly received press release in support of federal legislation designed to exempt minor league players from minimum-wage regulations, MLB has issued an edict to managers stating that manager arguments with umpires during games constitutes “highly inappropriate conduct” that “is detrimental to the game and must stop immediately. . . . Although disagreements over ball and strike calls are natural, the prevalence of manager ejections simply cannot continue. This conduct not only delays the game, but it also has the propensity to undermine the integrity of the umpires on the field.” MLB Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre, who circulated the memorandum in question, added that the behavior in question constitutes “an express violation of the Replay Regulations, which state that ‘on-field personnel in the dugout may not discuss any issue with individuals in their video review room using the dugout phone other than whether to challenge a play subject to video replay review.'”

This pronounced proscription (or, at least, curtailing) of in-game arguments between managers and umpires invokes a number of related baseball issues including the i) length of games; ii) pace of games; and iii) scope and nature of instant replay review, to include potential review of ball/strike calls.   Continue reading

Calvin Johnson is only 3/4 done

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All available signs indicate that Calvin Johnson’s NFL career is over. He’s borne a heavy burden for the Detroit Lions for nine seasons, during which he has performed at historically great levels, although injuries have limited his (still above-average) production in recent seasons. Nevertheless, outside of Johnson’s reportedly expressed desire to walk away from the game, there is nothing to suggest that, if he decided to continue his career, he would not continue to play at a very high level.

In fact, FiveThirtyEight’s projections show that if Johnson, who has compiled 11,619 receiving yards, stayed in the game, he could pull down an additional 4,355:

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That would account for twenty-seven-percent of his projected total receiving yards, and if Johnson were to reach that projected total of 15,974 yards, he would finish as the number two all-time receiver, just ahead of Terrell Owens’ 15,934, though still well behind Jerry Rice’s absurd 22,895. (So long as we’re projecting, it’s worth noting, as the article does, that Larry Fitzgerald (17,323) and Brandon Marshall (16,323) both project to finish ahead of Johnson’s projected mark.)

These projections, like many sports projections, are based in significant part on the performance arcs of past players. This is a reasonable methodological approach, and it’s probably the best and most widely used for these purposes. It has a few blind spots that are worth keeping in mind, however. One of those is the health of the individual player. There is no doubt that today’s players take their health and well-being more seriously and with a broader perspective than those of previous generations, including Rice’s. (There always will be exceptions, of course.) The backward-looking orientation of these projections mean that they will miss both new (or effectively hidden) injuries to the specific player, as well as new general trends regarding health and wellness, both of which could limit Johnson’s future production. So too, of course, could his desire to stop playing entirely. Also not directly included are rule changes and general changes in strategy, and here, those– rules that favor passing offense and a strategic shift to emphasize passing in offensive schemes– actually could push Johnson’s actual future output above his projected total.

Still, Johnson is thirty years old, he’s been banged up in each of his last few seasons, and his team’s present trajectory fairly is categorized as stagnant. As the FiveThirtyEight article reasonably concluded, “if Johnson ultimately decides to leave, good for him. If he ultimately decides to stay, good for football.” For fans, sports always will, in relatively equal parts, be about what was and what could be, and, as fun and important as imagining and projecting the sports future is, it’s just as important to realize what we have and have had play out before our eyes. Luckily for us, Johnson made the latter very easy and very enjoyable.

Matthew Stafford among NFL’s most-improved QBs in the second half of 2015

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In early November, after the Detroit Lions dumped their offensive coordinator, general manager, and team president, I wrote that people using those events as an opportunity to suggest that the team would be better off without Matt Stafford were wrong.

Those moves seemed to spark new life into the scuffling Lions, and while they remain out of the playoff picture for 2015, there are some signs that this won’t be an entirely wasted season.

According to data recently posted at FiveThirtyEight,* Stafford is among the most improved quarterbacks in the season’s second half:

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* QBR and ANY/A data compiled through December 22.

Stafford accomplished this without a corresponding increase in throws to top receiver Calvin Johnson, which is evidence that OC Jim Bob Cooter’s new offensive scheme is about more than looking out for no. (8)1. Stafford’s improved numbers also could reflect a positive regression to his true talent level, as well as signal indirect improvement in the team’s offensive line. (On that front, the numbers are a bit mixed, showing minor decreases in sack rate and yards lost due to sacks, while fumbles lost held steady, and fumbles increased in the second half of the season.)

2015 obviously has not been the best season for Stafford or the Lions, but the team would be foolish to part ways with their starting quarterback. A better second half from the former top overall draft pick should help to ensure that he stays in Detroit.

Regarding the folly of believing the Falcons are good

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To a very casual observer, a mid-December post on the 6-7 Atlanta Falcons would cry out for a Dickensian introduction, but it simply has not been a tale of two halves for these dirtier-than-anticipated birds.

Some, like MMQB’s Andy Benoit, really wanted to believe in that Victorian-era trope, though. Three weeks ago, Atlanta, which started the season 5-0, had lost four of five games, slipping to a 6-4 record. Falcons fans were beginning to lose hope, but Benoit told them not to panic, because “a closer look reveals a different story.” Benoit’s message was compelling in its simplicity:

On film, the 1-4, Stage 2 Falcons haven’t looked significantly different from the Stage 1 Falcons who started 5-0. And, OK, maybe the Stage 1 Falcons were not quite as good as their record indicated, but those five wins are a more accurate portrayal of the 2015 Falcons than the club’s four losses. The biggest difference between Stage 1 and 2 has been the dreaded turnover.

[T]he Falcons have beaten themselves with random fumbles and a few interceptions, of which only one was a truly bad offensive play. Ryan, cerebral as he is, has always had a slight tendency to take the bait and make a foolish throw or two into disguised or tight coverages. But interceptions have never been a major bugaboo. So unless you believe this will change in the final six games of Ryan’s eighth NFL season, there’s little reason to believe turnovers will continue to plague Atlanta.

Most likely, Atlanta’s fate hinges on how well its offense functions.

Combine the Stage 1 Falcons with the Stage 2 Falcons and what you’ll likely get is a Stage 3 Falcons club that finishes 10-6 and is a dangerous Wild-Card foe.

The seductive simplicity of Benoit’s thesis really is too good to be true. It seems easy to pick on him three weeks later, when Atlanta dropped all three games in that period and has an active six-game losing streak, but his reasoning would’ve been flawed regardless. Even if it’s true that turnovers– both fumbles and interceptions– fall within the realm of luck, and even if it also is true that the Falcons’ then-recent losses were due to turnovers, Benoit ignores the possibility that the team’s early successes also were due to luck. Instead, he simply assumes, without offering any evidence to that effect, that the team was playing closest to its true-talent level when it opened up 5-0, rather than when it went 1-4 (now 1-7, the same record with which the Detroit Lions opened the season). Couldn’t good luck have played just as much a part of Atlanta’s 5-0 opening as bad luck did in their subsequent losses? Of course, but in his overly rosy evaluation of the early season Falcons, Benoit apparently didn’t consider that.

At 6-7, Atlanta isn’t mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, but, with another game against the Panthers remaining and the Seahawks surging, they’re very likely done for the year.

In erasing their 5-0 start, the Falcons’ poor play in the last few weeks likely is a closer approximation of their true talent level than their results in the first five weeks. Indeed, as these charts illustrate, they’ve been historically bad from Week Six onward.

For postseason purposes, Atlanta no longer controls its own destiny (scenarios), but, at a minimum, it will need to beat its three remaining opponents– Jacksonville, Carolina, and New Orleans– to have a shot. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Falcons have a two-percent chance of making the playoffs, and their projected win probability this week against the Jaguars is fifty percent. Not great, Bob.

Michigan State Final Four Preview

Michigan State’s back in the Final Four, and they take on Duke tonight at 6:09 on TBS. In the spirit of the Final Four, here are four good reads on the 2015 Spartans to get you ready for tonight’s game:

Go Green!

Tom Izzo Is The Best Coach In Modern NCAA Tournament History — By Far (via FiveThirtyEight)

A No. 7 seed unseats a No. 2 in the NCAA tournament’s second round about twice every three years, but there was something about Michigan State’s upset of Virginia on Sunday that felt more routine than that. Perhaps it was the fact that the Spartans had toppled the Cavaliers just last season, but beyond that, no second-week tournament run from Michigan State qualifies as surprising at this point. As you might have heard, Izzo’s Spartans are now 13-1 all-time in the round of 32, and they’ve visited the Final Four more often (six times) than they’ve lost in the tournament’s opening weekend (five times).

Digging deeper into the numbers only solidifies Izzo’s reputation as Mr. March. A few years ago, FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver wrote about how unlikely Izzo’s teams were to have consistently advanced as far as they did from the seeds at which they started — and that was at the very beginning of the five-season stretch (from 2010-present) where the Spartans advanced to four regional semifinals and one regional final. By any standard, Izzo’s teams tend to wildly exceed their expectations once the NCAA tournament commences. … Read More

(via FiveThirtyEight)