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A Sports Poet and I Didn’t Know It…

For today, a little bit o’ verse to sum up last week’s biggest headlines:

I'm here, I'm queer, and I'm gonna make you wish you'd never picked up a football.

I’m here, I’m queer, and I’m gonna make you wish you’d never picked up a football.

Duke beats Syracuse when Coach Boeheim is sent away

Michael Sam’s football prowess overshadows being gay

Jason Collins, also gay, returns to play in the NBA

(Could it be we’re FINALLY seeing opinions on this issue sway?)

American hockey teams are sad Olympics reach final their day

With round-one knockout, Ronda Rousey makes Sara McMann pay

Dale Jr. wins Daytona (and sends first-ever tweet!) after rain delay

And a career-best win for adorable Aussie golfer Jason Day!

Happy Monday! Remember, the Olympics may be over, but pro hockey is BACK and baseball spring training is starting up! WOOT!

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High Five! Denver Upends KC, JJ Sprints to Title, and a UFC Champ–or Is He?

1) Despite two ankles wrapped like “mummy” and not “Manning,” an injured Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos handed the Kansas City Chiefs their first defeat Sunday night, 27-17 at Denver. KC was the last undefeated team in the NFL—a surprising and commendable turn of events for a team that ended last season with a fired coach, a player’s murder-suicide, and a new head coach, Andy Reid, who himself was fired after a long, spotty career with the Eagles.  The matchup was also anticipated because Denver and KC are also in the same division, the AFC West, and are two of the nation’s best teams, both now at 9-1. Denver is still without head coach John Fox, recovering from a successful aortic valve transplant two weeks ago.

Georges St-Pierre

You should have seen the other guy. (Accccctually the other guy looked pretty OK.)

2) In a questionable split-decision, followed by an even more bizarre statement of potential retirement, beloved—and bloodied—UFC champion Georges St-Pierre successfully defended his welterweight title a ninth time Saturday, beating Johny Hendricks. As a normally “GSP”-loving crowd booed, St-Pierre (25-2) was named the winner, then stated he was having personal problems and was going to “go away for a little bit.” Although classy in his speech, a clearly stunned Hendricks remarked how unfair it would be for St-Pierre to retire, and deny him a rematch. UFC president Dana White claimed he does not expect St-Pierre to retire and will immediately seek to line up the two fighters again. “Georges knew he lost, his corner knew he lost, Hendricks knew he won, and his corner knew they won,” said White.

3) Less than a week after No. 2 Michigan State knocked off No. 1 Kentucky, J.J. Mann set off another men’s basketball upset when he sank the go-ahead 3-pointer with 13.1 seconds left to lift unranked Belmont over No. 12 North Carolina 83-80 on Sunday in the Hall of Fame Tipoff. Mann finished with a career-best 28 points. The Tar Heels’ James McAdoo was not far behind, scoring a career-high 27 points with 13 rebounds.

4) Jimmie Johnson won his sixth NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup championship in eight years in Homestead, Fla., Sunday, putting him behind only Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt Sr., each with seven titles. Johnson is the youngest driver to win six titles, reaching that mark 83 days before Petty. He’s also the fastest to six titles, as neither Petty nor Earnhardt did it in an eight-year span. Rounding out this year’s drivers, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Jeff Gordon. Finishing in the middle of the Sprint Cup pack was Danica Patrick in 27th.

5) Finally, congratulations to my alma mater, Centre College, and its field hockey team, which lost in the Sweet Sixteen round of the NCAA tournament this weekend to Christopher Newport College, 1-0. It was the Lady Colonels’ first appearance in the tournament. Now, is there an American professional field hockey league? Not that I know of. Will you ever hear Shelby Judkins or Kirby Roberts on ESPN? Probably not. But you might see them owning it someday. Or in a boardroom, a corner office, maybe even the Oval Office. As the NCAA commercials say, most student-athletes will go pro in something other than sports. I can’t wait to see what these ladies do. Well done!

The 11 Easiest NCAA Bracket Tips EVER! (Sorry, Ted From Accounting)

No winnings for you this year, Accounting Department!

No winnings for you this year, Accounting Department!

In one of my favorite Cheers episodes, Diane infuriates Sam by choosing game results according to which city’s orchestra conductor she prefers. And winning.

Which is why when it comes to making a bracket, I think casual fans actually have an advantage; they haven’t been barraged with two prior months of BRACKETOLOGY! and Hoopdemonium with Hal! (brought to you by Taco Bell and Wells Fargo and…)

A bracket’s possible winning outcomes are 147.57 quintillion (more cool tourney factoids here). Even insiders have joked to me they have considered uniform color as a parameter. So don’t overthink it – get to pickin’! But here are some tiny guidelines just in case:

Don’t believe the hype. (#1)
The mind-numbing math is a lot to grasp even for experts. Don’t worry about all the algorithms, just stick with the basics—wins, seedings, and experience.

Then again…(#2-3)
It doesn’t hurt to consult some pundit pals. CBS Men’s College Basketball Analyst Greg Anthony shared with me he relies on strong seniors and road wins:

“Teams that have at least three starters who are seniors averaging double-figures are a good idea. Teams who have lots of road wins—those are the upset specials.”

Go with guards. (#4)
CBS Radio’s 106.7 The Fan host and George Mason University play-by-play voice Bill Rohland recommends a solid backcourt. “Guards win tourney games. Trust a team with above-average guard play.”

Just a few guards to consider: Peyton Siva (Louisville); Joe Jackson (Memphis); Michael Carter-Williams (Syracuse). Sports sites like CBS and ESPN will give you quick looks at rosters and schedules. Note: “Vs.” a team means “home”; “@” a team means “away.” And for help on understanding the five basic basketball positions, allow my family photo album to assist.

Not-sweet-sixteen seeds. (#5)
It’s a classic rule-of-thumb not to pick a 16 seed to win even one round. It could happen, but not so far.

Then again (again)…(#6)
Don’t put all four 1-seeds in the Final Four either. This has only happened once in modern tourney history (2008). I personally pick at least two upsets for each of the four regions and cross my fingers from there.

What’s a good upset? (#7)
Teams are paired from end to end – 16 vs. 1, 15 vs. 2 etc. If I have particular vitriol for a 4-seed I might have them go down to the 13 just for fun, but I only have an 18% chance of winning.

However, a 12 has beaten a 5 almost every year since 1989. Pick an 11 over 6 and your odds are 32%, and they get better from there. If you’re looking to pick an upset, look in the 12-9 range.

Pick more than one bracket. (#8)
Spread the fun around. I always do a sentimental one that advances my favorite teams, no matter how many unicorns they have to ride, and a second bracket based on reality. Either way, I win.

You don’t have to bet or join a group to participate. (#9)
Find free blank brackets at any sports website (CBS, ESPN etc.) where you point and click your choices, then track them online as the tourney proceeds.

Location, location, location. (#10)
Teams are supposed to play at neutral sites, but it’s almost impossible to pull this off as the tournament progresses. A (hypothetical) top-ranked New Jersey team might struggle to travel three time zones and play a (hypothetical) 16-seed Santa Barbara at noon in Los Angeles, UCSB fans’ backyard. Take note.

Go with your gut. (#11)
If picking a perfect bracket were easy, and all the rules applied, then burger and bubble gum companies wouldn’t offer millions in contests seeking one. Go with your alma mater, the furriest mascot, your gut, your heart, your kid’s heart…you never know.

Because in the end, taking part in this grand, silly, exciting ceremony unites you with an entire country for three weeks – far longer than a one-day Super Bowl. You have common ground with your kids, your co-workers, your mechanic, that cute guy on the morning train. So get on board, and get those brackets done!

Salaries, Soccer, and “So, Are You Into Girls, or What?”

Soccer Moms Listen Up
Pro soccer is gaining ground in the U.S., but the heart of futbol still lies overseas. And believe it or not, David Beckham is no longer its most recognizable star. In Spain, FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo are soccer’s modern gods with stats that stagger (well, everywhere but in America).

Ronaldo

Cristia…um, nevermind, I forgot.

According to Forbes, the two men have the most Facebook fans of any athlete (43 ad 55 million respectively), and are roughly the ninth and 11th highest-paid in the world. Messi, who just tied the record for most goals in the two teams’ years-long rivalry (think Red Sox/Yankees or Edward/Jacob) is considered the slightly better player, but Ronaldo’s model looks make the female fans swoon. Remember their names–you’ll see much more of both during the buildup to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. And for some fun, check out Messi and Kobe Bryant in this ad for Turkish Airlines (I admit when I saw it I didn’t know who Messi was either). 

900 Club Gets a New Member
Rutgers women’s basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer reached the historic 900-win mark Tuesday night as the Scarlet Knights defeated South Florida 68-56 at home. Stringer, whose record is 900-330 overall, joins Pat Summitt, Jody Conradt, and Sylvia Hatchell–who achieved her 900 mark with North Carolina last month. Three men’s coaches have 900+ victories: Mike Krzyzewski, Bob Knight, and Jim Boeheim. (Krzyzewski began his career as a player and assistant at Army for Knight.)

Speaking of Krzyzewski…
It was an intense week for #3 Duke, whose team lost at unranked Virginia, then had to dodge Cavalier fans storming the court. With a number of major basketball upsets this season, court-storming has become a daily occurrence, and so far without incident. But Krzyzewski has had enough, demanding in a post-game press conference that home teams be courteous enough to let the losing team leave the floor first. I think Coach K is right—but also frustrated with an unstable season. You can’t control that kind of group exuberance.

Personally, I am more concerned with the evolution (?) of traditional student taunts beyond “Air Ball!” and into sexual and even cruel realms. Maryland students recently chanted something at Duke’s Mason Plumlee that even Richard Pryor wouldn’t type here. If you’re going to pay $50,000 for your kid’s college education, I hope you don’t have to see them acting like a jerk on national TV.

European soccer is currently so embroiled in controversy due to fan racism that AC Milan literally left the pitch on Thursday in support of their black players who were met with monkey chants. Monkey chants. In Twenty-Freaking-Thirteen. College students: you are America’s future. Let’s set a better example.

Anyway, Duke did end the week with a win, getting revenge against Miami on Saturday, 79-76, for a 90-63 thumping earlier this season.

Dr. RGIII?
Seniors at Ashburn, Va.’s Broad Run High School have launched a social media campaign petitioning Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III to speak at their graduation ceremony. The school is near the Skins’ practice facility and even sports the same burgundy and gold. Hopefully Griffin, who earned a political science degree from Baylor in only three years, can take time off from rehabbing his knee (torn vs. Seattle in a Jan. 6 playoff game, thereby pretty much doubling DC-area AA attendance) to offer some wisdom.

Don’t Ask, Don’t…Just Don’t.
[Head banging sounds here.]

I don’t know why I’m surprised. After Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o (of the Facebook fake-girlfriend scandal) had a sub-par performance at last week’s NFL Combine tryouts, the conversation quickly expanded beyond whether the scam is affecting his performance to…whether or not he is gay. Reportedly, NFL representatives asked him directly about his sexual orientation; other players complained of the same.

Regardless of your position on gay rights, think of it this way: You are a BOY who finds a GIRL on Facebook. Turns out you are being digitally stalked, then are publicly exposed, at the very crux of your young career, for your naiveté (oh and you were a mere teenager when the dupe began). Then, because the stalker happens to be your same sex, your intimate life is suddenly questioned by those who could determine your future. Are smoking, drinking, and felonies less important to your highly-paid performance on the field than who you date? Because that’s what these types of questions imply.

Media can ask athletes whatever dumb things they want, but the NFL collective bargaining agreement prohibits such questions from its own employees. Legally, a hiring manager cannot ask you your sexual preference, if you plan to become pregnant, or if you have a disability, and the NFL Combine is, essentially, a job interview for young men who have worked their entire lives for this opportunity. Let’s hope some enlightenment comes out of this.

Salary Negotiation…Donation?
Springtime is when pro football re-evaluates its player contracts—even Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco must be analyzed (he’s doing just fine. The Ravens reportedly are re-signing him for $120 million over six years, making him the highest-paid NFL quarterback ever).

But even multi-million dollar franchises face limits in order for budgets to be fair across all 32 teams. New England got some help from a surprising place last week—its own QB, Tom Brady, who agreed to less money annually in order for the Patriots to meet the “salary cap.” But don’t worry about Tom either—the contract guarantees him a job through age 40 (at which most QBs don’t play anyway), and he’ll actually make more money in the end.

Center of (Unwanted) Attention
Indiana center Roy Hibbert was suspended (along with Warriors forward David Lee) after last week’s brawl between the Pacers and Golden State, centered around Hibbert (7-2) and Warriors point guard Stephen Curry (6-3).

Even more fascinating than poor Curry’s ragdoll treatment was the involvement of the NBA’s only female referee, Violet Palmer, who attempted to remove some bodies but eventually had to step away and let the boys duke it out. Still, Palmer is the first female ref to reach and establish a career in the highest level of a U.S. professional sport. Dee Kantner also briefly worked as an NBA ref in 1997. And last September, Shannon Eastin was the first woman to referee an NFL regular-season game, working as a “replacement” during a Rams-Lions matchup.

By the way, Curry redeemed himself in his next game vs. the Knicks, scoring 54 points.

Parting Shot
The Gonzaga University men’s basketball team has made history by being voted an overwhelming #1 in the AP poll for the first time. The Spokane, Wash. school has only 5,000 undergraduates (#2 Indiana has 90,000), but for the last decade has become one of the most feared and respected teams. We’ll see if they can carry the momentum into “Selection Sunday,” during which the NCAA Tourney brackets are set, 6 p.m. ET March 17.

Week of Wonder, Woe

Wow. Normally this week would have been bananas for basketball alone with Rivalry Week and the NBA All-Star Break. But other storylines are even more unbelievable, uplifting, crushing, and creepy (like spiders?). Oh what a tangled, amazing web sports weave…

Finally a Pole You WANT for Your Daughter!
Danica Patrick’s qualifying for pole position (first place start) for next Sunday’s Daytona 500, the “Super Bowl” of racing, is today’s headline on many national front pages, not just the sports sections. Reaching 196 mph, Patrick edged out veteran Jeff Gordon to become the first woman ever to earn a NASCAR Sprint Cup pole—and in its biggest race, no less. But Patrick is not the first woman to challenge the chaps; others have cracked the speed ceiling, most famously Janet Guthrie, who started ninth in two 1977 races.

Patrick was also excited to steer headlines away from her romance with teammate Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. (he finished 12th) to Stewart-Haas Racing, her car, and, after a long day, “finally getting a sandwich.”

Ahmadinejad

Better put a tie on for this one, Ahmadinejad.

Top Women’s Teams Tip Off Tonight
There’s no shame in admitting you don’t follow women’s college basketball. It’s a game where finesse makes up for the physical prowess and agility of the men…oh wait, unless you’re watching #1 Baylor’s 6-8 “Most Outstanding Everything” Brittney Griner, who leads the NCAA in women’s dunks—yes dunks—and career blocked shots. And not just regular blocks, but hyperspace-windmill slapdowns that, well, let’s just say if Iran saw the footage, ain’t no space monkeys getting shot into Texas any time soon.

Iran can watch her take on loved and loathed Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma and his #3 Huskies tonight at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2 in the showdown of the season thus far.

B-T-Dubs, on tap for Wednesday: the best rivalry in the NBA, the Boston Celtics (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce) at the struggling L.A. Lakers (Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash), 10:30 p.m. on ESPN.

Olympic Hero’s Murder Charge Stuns World
Oscar Pistorius did not medal at the 2012 Olympic Games, but the beloved South African double-amputee kept pace with able-bodied sprinters and even anchored the 4×400 relay team, earning the nickname “Blade Runner.”

But after a bewildering Valentine’s Day shooting at his Pretoria mansion, the 26-year-old has been charged with the murder of his popular model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, 30. Claiming he thought there was an intruder, it’s unclear what happened between the known gun owner (South Africa is noted for high crime rates) and Steenkamp, who was reportedly shot four times through a bathroom door. Pistorius is currently being held without bail.

The event is another PR hit for Nike, who sponsored Pistorius most recently in sadly ironic ads reading, “I am the bullet in the chamber.” Previous sponsorships with Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, and Michael Vick also soured or were severed altogether. But on the brighter side…

Michael Jordan Turns 50
Nike’s long-running partnership with MJ stands strong (at an estimated $1 billion in sales per year) as the greatest basketball player of all time reached one of life’s biggest milestones Sunday, the big 5-0. I used to work for AARP, so I’m not even going to make the old “time for his membership card” joke. In fact, the avid golfer and former minor league baseball player is nowhere near retirement, currently serving as majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats and endorsing Nike, Hanes, and others.

(Just remember, parents, when your son wants those Air Jordans, they start at around $200, with some styles selling for well over $5000. Maybe best to go with the underwear.)

“Rivalry Week” Does Not Disappoint (Except Kentucky. And Sort of Duke.)
With the gaping void left after the Super Bowl, sportscasters geek out for “Rivalry Week,” when longtime college basketball enmities play out, the biggest ones on ESPN:

• #3 Miami continued its surprise surge past Florida State, and later Clemson, to a 12-0 ACC record.
• #2 Duke regrouped in the second half to beat nemesis North Carolina on coach Mike Krzyzewski’s 66th birthday, only to fall to Maryland 83-81 on Saturday.
• #17 Oklahoma State topped Oklahoma 84-79 in overtime.
• #25 Kentucky lost to Florida and lost their star player, freshman center Nerlens Noel, to a season-ending ACL tear.

Of course, many rivalries don’t make it to mainstream TV, but are just as important to, say, Memphis fans like me, whose blood Louisville has made boil since the 70s. And crowds for my Division-III alma mater Centre College’s  battle with Transylvania University give the fire marshal his biggest night of the year.

I asked some other local sports pals about their favorite hoops rivalries. Redskins Pro-Bowler Lorenzo Alexander  tweeted that he likes Duke/Maryland and “Cal vs. Stanford, of course,” (he’s a former Golden Bear). CBS Radio, 106.7 The Fan host and George Mason University play-by-play man Bill Rohland recommends Virginia Commonwealth and Old Dominion as a historic “mid-major” matchup.

You’ll hear “mid-major” a lot more come tourney time next month; it means teams not part of the six major conferences like the SEC or Pac-10. Gonzaga, for example, plays in the West Coast Conference, but is currently ranked #3.

Why is this important? Because believe it or not, people are already talking tourney brackets—here’s your chance to get a jump on Fred in Ad Sales. Hopefully these traditional rivalries will withstand recent whiplash-inducing college conference realignments (Like, Tulsa may be joining the Big East. Tulsa. Oklahoma. “East.” Huh?).

If you missed the games, no worries—many of the teams will meet again during their conference championships in two weeks.

Olympic Wrestling Grapples with Future
One of civilization’s oldest sports, wrestling, is on the chopping block for the 2020 Olympic Games. Last week, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) moved to remove wrestling—a sport dating back to the ancient Olympics, Homer’s Iliad, and the Bible—from the lineup, opening the door for sport climbing, roller sports, and wakeboarding. Yes, wakeboarding.

To put it in clearer terms, this is akin to a school system saying, “Meh, why teach reading anymore? They’ll figure it out.”

The IOC board will meet again in May to firm up the 2020 roster. Wrestling will remain in the 2016 Games, but the bizarre combination of the U.S., Iran, and Russia will continue to lobby for it long beyond.

Fun with Fruit
To much excitement (especially for Washington National fans who camejustthisclose to a shot at the pennant last year), baseball spring training has officially begun in Florida and Arizona. The “Grapefruit” and “Cactus” Leagues are chances for players tune up playing each other, college teams, and other National and American League MLB teams. The games are inexpensive and played in small venues, giving fans great views and easy chances for autographs. If you’re still thinking over spring break, I recommend a trip.

The Itsy, Bitsy Spider…Ruins a Golf Round
Swedish golfer Daniela Holmqvist claimed she was bitten by a black widow spider on her ankle as she played an LPGA qualifying round in Canberra, Australia (just where does this woman store her socks?). She swatted the spider away after feeling a sharp pain, then used a tee to carve open her ankle to release the venom. She continued to play, although she did not advance.

The good news for Holmqvist is that she did not make her situation worse—medical authorities advise against slicing open venom wounds “Lone Ranger” style as this can cause blood loss, panic, and infection–and doesn’t help anyway. Also, black widows do not live in Australia; it was likely a “redback” a non-deadly cousin, but still one that packs a wallop. Either way, a tip of my visor to a determined athlete. (And for the record, any animal that eats its men and cleans its house every single day also has my respect.)

In Other Ankle News…
Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson, the NHLs 2012 defensive player of the year, is out for the season after his left Achilles was sliced by a skate Wednesday vs. Pittsburgh. Officials determined the tangle and resulting injury from Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke was an accident.

NBA All-Star Week
Taking a hiatus from their regular schedules, NBA teams had a little fun this week in Houston with their annual “break” activities like the dunk contest (won by Toronto Raptors guard Terrance Ross) and the All-Star Game. L.A. Clippers’ guard Chris Paul led the West to a 143-138 victory over the East Sunday night. Although the game is really meant to showcase players’ abilities to fans without pressure, the outcome only fueled discussions about potential MVP candidates, including Paul, Miami’s Lebron James (whose recent stats are too staggering even to get into), and Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant.

P.S. Durant starred as himself last year in “Thunderstuck,” a fun family film about an uncoordinated kid who magically exchanges basketball powers with the OKC star.

Goodbye to Buss
Tempering the All-Star celebrations was the death Monday of longtime Lakers’ Hall of Fame owner Jerry Buss, who succumbed to cancer at age 80. Buss was widely adored and presided over 10 of L.A.’s 16 titles. He revolutionized basketball, upping the element of entertainment behind the talents of greats like Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shaquille O’Neal.