A lesson in comparative hockey violence for Predators fans

After tying the Stanley Cup Final series at two games each on the backs of two emotional, dominant wins at home in the first NHL championship-series games ever played in Nashville, the Predators returned to Pittsburgh hoping to convert their momentum into their first lead in this series. Instead, they fell flat. The Penguins scored three goals in the first period, and three more in the second on their way to a 6-0 shutout victory.

It was a very disappointing night for Predators fans, who reportedly had more people in attendance in Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena to watch the away game on big screens than the number of people who were in the seats at the actual game in Pittsburgh. They certainly were upset with the result of the game, as well as with the way in which the Penguins– Sidney Crosby in particular– played it.

Crosby has been sparring with Nashville’s P.K. Subban throughout this series, but their clashes mostly have played out in the media and off-ice press conferences. Last night, however, things became decidedly physical, peaking with this moment:

Hockey is a contact sport, obviously, and the issue of fighting in hockey is a broader conversation for another day. I think most agree, though, that there is not a place in the game for Crosby’s behavior captured above.

Understandably, Predators fans are incensed and are calling for Crosby to be suspended for his actions. (Crosby also threw a water bottle on the ice in apparent response to what he thought was a missed penalty call against the visitors.) If the league decides to go in that direction, I would not have any objection.

I would remind the Predators fans that their team does not exactly have a clean record in this department, however. Five years ago, hosting their then-division rival Detroit Red Wings in the early rounds of the playoffs, Nashville ended a game-one win in ugly and embarrassing fashion. That night, it was Shea Weber who brutally bashed Hendrik Zetterberg’s face into the boards as time expired:

(In a bit of hockey irony, the Predators later would trade Weber for Subban, the victim of last night’s skull dribbling.)

I know from first-hand experience that Nashville hockey fans are good hockey fans who know the game. They’re justified in directing their anger toward Crosby (welcome to the club!), and I do want them to win the Cup because of what it would mean for the sport; a city I love; and all of my friends there, whether they’ve been on the hockey train or are jumping on now (again, welcome to the club!). All teams have had their dark moments, though, and hockey memories run deep. On the other hand, does it seem like Crosby’s Pens have more such moments than, say, Subban’s Preds? You bet.

Go Perds.

Sports Law Roundup – 3/31/2017

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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:

  • Penn State child abuse: The criminal trial of former Penn State University President Graham Spanier, who was charged in connection with the Jerry Sandusky sexual assault scandal inside the university’s football program, concluded with a jury verdict convicting Spanier of a single misdemeanor count of child endangerment. The jury, which deliberated for two days, declined to convict on the conspiracy charge. Spanier’s attorney immediately indicated an intent to appeal the verdict. Albert Lord, a PSU trustee, responded to the news of Spanier’s conviction by writing that he is “running out of sympathy” for Sandusky’s “so-called” victims.
  • Baseball fan injuries: The Cleveland Indians prevailed in a lawsuit filed by a fan struck in the face by a foul ball. The Ohio court adhered to the “Baseball Rule,” which holds that people who choose to attend baseball games assume the risk that they will be struck by flying bats and balls and therefore cannot sue teams when they are injured in such an incident. The plaintiff argued that his case presented distinguishing factual circumstances: he alleged that stadium ushers ordered him to leave his seat during play in the bottom of the ninth inning in advance of a fireworks show, such that his back was to the field when the batter hit the ball that eventually hit him in the face when he turned back to look at the field. Conflicting evidence on the timing and nature of the ushers’ instructions seems to have damaged the fan’s case, however.
  • Hockey labor agreement: The U.S. women’s national hockey team and governing body USA Hockey agreed to a confidential four-year labor deal centering around player compensation and support programming. The agreement negates the need for a planned player boycott of the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship, which begins today. A predominantly female team of attorneys from Ballard Spahr represented the players on a pro bono basis. In disappointing related news coming just one day after the new agreement, however, the University of North Dakota announced that it is cancelling its women’s hockey program, which has been an important feeder to the national team.
  • Hockey head injuries: Pretrial disputes over document discovery continue in the head-injury lawsuit between the NHL and a group of former players. Previously, those disputes focused on research documents from Boston University’s CTE Center. Now, however, the court has dealt a victory to the players by publicly releasing certain internal NHL communications and other documents. An early review of the now-public documents already has revealed one seemingly damning email from a team doctor lamenting “situational ethics” in the context of concussion management: “We all sit around and talk and talk about concussion management. Then it’s the playoffs, someone suffers an obvious loss of consciousness and is back playing in less than 48 hours. . . . We must be [the player’s] advocate regardless of what the coach or general manager thinks.” Another email, from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, expressed disappointment with a former referee’s public criticism of the league’s hard-hit discipline policy, writing, upon being informed that the former official still was receiving severance pay from the NHL, writing that “maybe he should understand it’s not nice to bite the hand that feeds you. Please have someone check to see if there are any grounds to withhold. Don’t want to hurt him – maybe just get his attention.” Other communications evidence what appears to be the NHL’s willful refusal to acknowledge or examine the issue of concussions in sports.
  • Baseball DUI: Earlier this month, a South Korean court sentenced Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kang to eight months in prison after the player admitted guilt on a DUI charge. The prison sentence was Kang’s first, despite two prior DUI arrests in his native country. It’s possible Kang serves no prison time, though, because the court conditionally suspended the sentence for two years, and he’ll avoid a lockup if he complies with the court’s terms. Initially, observers believed Kang would be able to return to the United States to rejoin his team for the 2017 season. He has missed all of spring training, however, and it appears he is having difficulty securing a visa to reenter the U.S., placing his season with the Pirates in jeopardy for the moment.
  • Student athletes: A federal judge has rejected a proposed class-action lawsuit filed by two former University of North Carolina student athletes against the school, which alleged that UNC pushed them into a “shadow curriculum” of “bogus courses,” which led to “a systemic failure to properly educate college athletes,” because, the judge explained, the court did not have jurisdiction over the case. In general, there are two ways a plaintiff may invoke the jurisdiction of a federal court: 1) allege a claim raising a question of federal law or 2) sue a “diverse” party (i.e., a defendant who is a resident of a state other than the one in which the plaintiff resides) on claims for which at least $75,000 is at stake. Here, the plaintiffs’ claims raised state-law questions, so the first jurisdictional path was unavailable. As for the second, while the plaintiffs are not citizens of North Carolina, theoretically setting up a “diversity” situation with UNC, the judge determined that the university is a component of the North Carolina government and thus not a citizen of any state for purposes of the federal jurisdictional analysis. The judge dismissed the case without prejudice, meaning that the plaintiffs should be able to refile in state court, although it now appears they likely will face sovereign-immunity challenges should they proceed down that route.

Sports court is in recess.

Sports Law Roundup – 3/3/2017

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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:

  • Football head injuries: Two former Purdue football players have sued the NCAA and the Big Ten Conference, seeking class-action treatment for their claims that those defendants failed to disclose information about head-trauma risks and provide the university with concussion-management policies. Both named plaintiffs allege that they currently suffer from depression, memory loss, and headaches as a result of concussions experienced while playing football in college.
  • Professional athlete Ponzi scheme: Last year, a banker pleaded guilty to conspiracy, wire fraud, and money laundering in connection with a Ponzi scheme she ran with former NFL player Will Allen designed to defraud investors with a plan to make loans to professional athletes seeking offseason financing when they weren’t receiving payments from their team salaries. On Wednesday, a court sentenced the banker and Allen each to six years in prison for their roles in the criminal scheme.
  • Baseball DUI: A South Korean court has sentenced Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kang to eight months in prison after the player admitted guilt on a DUI charge. The prison sentence is Kang’s first, despite two prior DUI arrests in his native country. It’s possible Kang serves no prison time, though, because the court conditionally suspended the sentence for two years, and he’ll avoid a lockup if he complies with the court’s terms.
  • Rams fans: Last year, St. Louis-area holders of Rams personal seat licenses suing the team after its move to Los Angeles requested class-action status for their case. Having consolidated various of these cases, the judge now has ordered the parties to mediation.
  • Penn State child abuse: Earlier this year, a court ruled that three former Penn State University administrators will face criminal child endangerment charges stemming from the Jerry Sandusky sexual assault scandal inside the university’s football program. Last month, the three defendants asked for an immediate appeal of the ruling that they must face trial, which remains scheduled for next month. Now, the court has denied those appeal petitions, clearing the way for the trial to begin as scheduled on March 20. (Last week, the judge granted the prosecutor’s request to add a conspiracy charge to the list of criminal counts pending against the defendants.)

Sports court is in recess.

Red Wings’ season, playoff chances coming down to the wire

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It’s easy to second-guess coaching decisions after the fact, begins many post-loss sports articles, but it was immediately clear that the Detroit Red Wings, and their recently redeemed goalie, Jimmy Howard, were not 100% last night in Boston. The direct evidence? Surrendering two goals on four Bruin shots in the first 2:44 of the game. The circumstantial evidence? A hard-fought win the night before in a game that did not start until after 8:00, delaying the team’s arrival at its Boston hotel until 2:45 yesterday morning. Howard looked sluggish, and his teammates weren’t able to bail him out. Their backs against the wall, Boston hardly let up, eventually claiming a 5-2 win.

The Howard redemption story is a nice and good one, and, if the Red Wings are able to clinch a twenty-fifth-consecutive playoff berth, there’s little reason to believe it can’t continue into the postseason, but hockey, as much as any sport, is a sucker for narratives like these, and they can color strategic decisions. Continue reading

Window Shopping: Step Back From the Window, or, Thank You Very Much, Mr. Rebooto

The July 31 non-waiver trade deadline was an especially active period for the Detroit Tigers franchise, which made big moves both with player and front-office personnel.

Detroit traded three of the best players on its 2015 roster in the days and minutes prior to the trade deadline. The team’s biggest move, and arguably the biggest of one of the most active trade-deadline periods ever, was their decision to trade number-one starter David Price to the Toronto Blue Jays. They also sent closer Joakim Soria to Pittsburgh, and, in the final moments before the deadline, Yoenis Cespedes to the Mets.

The basic logic behind each of these moves is that, even prior to these trades, each of these players was, for all practical purposes, not going to be a member of the Detroit Tigers in 2016. That’s because each is in the final year of his current contract, meaning that each becomes a free agent at the end of this season. The Tigers would have no special ability to keep Price, Cespedes, or Soria in Detroit after the end of the 2015 season, and, given their individual successes, each is likely to fetch contract offers on the free market too rich even for Mike Ilitch’s blood. Rather than keep Price, Cespedes, and Soria for August and September on a team that’s unlikely to even make the playoffs, only to watch them walk away in the winter, the Tigers, with an eye on the post-2015 future, decided to cash in some of the value of these assets by trading them now. In doing so, Detroit converted these three expiring assets into six prospects, including five pitchers and one infielder.

Baseball analysts widely praised these transactions as beneficial to the Tigers, who, general manager Dave Dombrowski announced were “rebooting,” selling with the goal of remaining competitive in the near term, rather than undergoing a full rebuilding. The top return for Detroit was Daniel Norris, a now-former Blue Jay who lives in a van and shaves his beard with an ax. They also received Matt Boyd from Toronto, a younger starter who, in his recent Tigers’ debut, beat Johnny Cueto and the Royals.

Of course, the only real question for Detroit was not whom to trade but whether to trade. As July 31 approached, that question divided fans and, it later would be revealed, members of the team’s front office and ownership. As for the former group, most fans recognized the Tigers’ slim playoff odds and supported selling, although a minority that included this writer held out hope that the team could make one more postseason push before initiating a rebuild. Ultimately, Dombrowski’s “rebooting” seemed to satisfy both camps: Detroit would get close-to-ready prospects in exchange for their expiring assets. No long rebuilding process– a full surrender– was in store, just a quick retooling.

Two additional notes in the context of these trades: 1) one week before the trade deadline, Toronto, the biggest buyers, and Detroit, the biggest sellers, sat four and five games out of the last American League wild card position, respectively, and 2) while it isn’t at all likely that Price, Soria, or Cespedes will return to Detroit in the offseason, the effect of an unusual clause in Cespedes’ contract is that the Tigers actually increased whatever chance they have of resigning Cespedes by trading him.

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As the Tigers and their fans were settling into life without Price, Soria, and Cespedes, and enjoying their first trial run with Norris, who had a strong start on Sunday in Baltimore, unbeknownst to them, even more action was afoot behind the scenes.    Continue reading

Shane Greene Outduels A.J. Burnett as Tigers Hurdle Pirates to Avenge Only Loss

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After the Pittsburgh Pirates handed the Detroit Tigers their only loss of the 2015 season on Monday afternoon, Detroit sought and found revenge against Pittsburgh Tuesday night. The Tigers’ first seven games were marked by nearly unbridled offense (+32 run differential, second only to Kansas City and, excluding third-best Oakland (+28), not close to anyone else), but they looked to their defense for a bounceback win in game eight. Starting pitcher Shane Greene, making his second start for the Tigers after his acquisition from the Yankees during the offsesason, was excellent. In particular, Greene was highly efficient, averaging just over ten pitches per inning for eight innings of three-hit, no-walk, shutout baseball. Not-insubstantial credit for his performance is due to key defensive plays by Jose Iglesias, Ian Kinsler, and J.D. Martinez. (Greene, who was making his first-ever plate appearances as a major leaguer, was generally ineffective with his brand-new Louisville Sluggers, but no one should care because this from his mother was adorable.)

Pittsburgh starter A.J. Burnett also had a strong outing, but he could not keep the Tigers at bay forever. The visitors broke through with one run in the seventh and, thanks to some heads-up baserunning by Iglesias, an insurance run in the ninth. Joakim Soria retired the Pirates side in the bottom of the ninth to seal the win.

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A minor subplot during this pitchers’ duel was the seemingly vertically compressed strike zone of home-plate umpire David Rackley, who had little interest in labeling anything up in the zone a strike. I was watching the Pittsburgh broadcast via MLB Network, but even I had to agree with the Pirate faithful that Rackley was robbing Burnett, who was throwing plenty down and away, when he even tried to go up in the zone. Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle certainly thought so, and after Rackley sided with the batter on a second or third Burnett pitch that really appeared to be in the zone, Hurdle started hollering at Rackley from the dugout, and Rackley tossed him as Jim Leyland watched from the front row.

Taking a fresh look at last night’s pitches this morning, it appears that my eyes did not deceive me, and Hurdle et al. were justified in their complaining:

burnettpitchplotI’ve circled in blue what I believe to be the Burnett pitch that immediately preceded the Hurdle ejection. Looked like a strike last night, and it looks like one today too. In Rackley’s limited defense, he wasn’t really calling any high strikes, but that defense isn’t much of a defense at all in the broader scheme of things. Consistency is important, but an umpire’s imposition of his own personal, deviant strike zone really isn’t.

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Our 2015 Tigers series, Window Shopping, will begin in earnest very soon. Consider this post a prequel, and until I can get the engine revved up, I encourage you to enjoy this 2015 Tigers season preview to which I contributed in significant part.

Ohio State claims the first College Football Playoff championship

Following a hot-knife-through-butter opening touchdown drive for the Oregon Ducks in last night’s national championship game, the Ohio State Buckeyes took over the game and never relinquished control. OSU running back Ezekiel Elliott averaged 6.8 yards per carry, and it felt like more than that in the second half, when Ohio State called the same counter run play seemingly on every down and repeatedly executed it successfully. Elliott was so hungry for more yards that he tried to eat confetti after the game.

After that initial Oregon drive, the Buckeye defense, lead by coordinator and former OSU head coach Luke Fickell, found the answer, though, and Oregon’s bucket of tricks soon ran dry. Even in the second half, when Oregon’s defense produced a couple of turnovers, Marcus Mariota and the offense couldn’t make any progress.

Oregon accumulated its twenty points with two touchdowns, that opening-drive score and a one-play, seventy-yard TD pass early in the third quarter, and two field goals. Those two field goals, along with a white-flag punt with eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter, felt uncharacteristic of a school that, in recent years, lead the charge of pedal-to-the-metal offense.

In the end, Ohio State ended up knocking off Oregon by nearly as wide a margin– 42-20– as the one by which Oregon defeated Florida State in the semifinal round.   Continue reading

On the Road Again: A study of NHL rink variation

One of the important background dimensions to comparative baseball statistics is known as “park adjustments,” a set of corrective factors applied to account for the physical differences (e.g., outfield wall depth) between each park. Among American sports today, only Major League Baseball and NASCAR (and golf, I suppose) permit such structural variation between the competitive arenas themselves.

Professional hockey used to be in that group too. More than merely adjusting, adding, and subtracting lines on the ice to affect the flow of play, as the NHL continues to do (cf. the NBA three-point line), the rinks themselves used to be different sizes. League rules mandate a uniform rink size, but so-called “small rinks” persisted in the NHL as late as the 1980s and 1990s in Boston, Chicago, and Buffalo.

While hockey does not face the structural differences present in baseball, there still is a need to apply rink-by-rink statistical adjustments. That’s because the compiling of basic hockey statistics (e.g., shots, hits, turnovers) requires statisticians to make judgment calls to a more significant degree than in a discrete-event sport like baseball.

By way of limited background, the NHL collects basic gameplay statistics through a computer system known as the Real Time Scoring System (RTSS). A benefit of RTSS is that it aggregates and organizes data for analysis by teams, players, and fans. A vulnerability of RTSS is the subjectivity alluded to above that comes when human scorers track a fluid, dynamic sport like hockey.

While others have noted certain biases among the RTSS scorers at different rinks, a paper by Michael Schuckers and Brian Macdonald published earlier this month analyzes those discrepancies across a spread of core statistics and proposes a “Rink Effects” model that aims to do for subjective rink-to-rink differences in hockey scoring what park adjustments do for structural differences between baseball parks.    Continue reading

The Forgettable Gene Lamont

These days, Gene Lamont is known, if at all, as one of the holdover members of Jim Leyland’s merry band of ice-cream-nibbling baseball veterans, now filling the role of bench coach for rookie Tigers manager Brad Ausmus. Attentive fans might know that he, along with former first base coach Andy Van Slyke, were together with Leyland in Pittsburgh when the skipper managed the Pirates, and even that Lamont himself managed those Pirates when Leyland left Pittsburgh to manage the Marlins and Rockies. If the Tigers fan we’re describing is me, then that’s pretty much the extent of common Gene Lamont knowledge.

As I wrote last month, if baseball fans think of one thing when they think of 1994, they think of the Montreal Expos. Everyone agrees they had the best team in baseball during that shortened season and would’ve won the franchise’s only World Series had it not been cancelled due to a labor dispute, potentially changing the course of baseball history in the process. Everyone, that is, except for Gene Lamont.

On Sunday, FanGraphs posted an interview with Lamont, who was the manager of the Chicago White Sox from 1992-95. Excerpts from that post follow:    Continue reading

The “unkillable” Detroit Red Wings make the playoffs again

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When a late goal sent their game into overtime and then a shootout against the Penguins in Pittsburgh last night, the Red Wings earned a point in the standings and secured a playoff spot for the twenty-third consecutive year, keeping alive the longest postseason streak in professional sports. As Deadspin put it this morning,

“the Red Wings sneaking into the playoffs” sounds like an underachievement. But this is a team that has absolutely no business being where it is, and it’s a triumph as big as anything Detroit’s achieved in years.

More on the Red Wings soon.