Wanted Dead or Alive/ Kentucky Means Business

Josh Randall would have thrived in today’s NFL.

Randall, the fictional bounty hunter with the sawed-off Winchester played by Steve McQueen in the TV western ‘”Wanted Dead or Alive” (1958-1961), which catapulted the laconic McQueen to stardom, traveled long distances on horseback for small pay to catch his man. When he found him, he practiced fair play and sought to “bring him back alive,” despite the show’s title.

Had Randall participated in the National Football League, he would not have been bound by such limitations. He would find his prey directly across the line of scrimmage; the cash rewards would be greater; and he would not have been prevented by his conscience from going all out to maim the opposition.

McQueen as Josh Randall

With the revelation that the NFL Saints under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams engaged in a three -year- long system of rewarding players for injuring their opponents or forcing them out of the game, and that similar shenanigans have been going on for years with other teams, including the Redskins, the NFL is facing a public relations nightmare, and the wrongdoers are facing huge fines and suspensions.

The NFL has determined that Williams, with the knowledge of head coach Sean Payton and General Manager Mickey Loomis, paid $1500.00 to his players for “knockout hits” and $1000 if a player was carted off the field. The money was generated by fines, and by contributions from Williams and other players. Evidently, informal reward systems for big hits and forced fumbles have been going on for years; but this is the first time we have become aware that payoffs have been awarded to players for inflicting injury with the express consent of management.

The reaction among players and some egg-headed talking heads is that similar practices have been going on for so long throughout the league that “it’s no big deal.” But this argument ignores the fundamental distinction between a) accidental injury; and b) management-inspired mayhem. The former is a cost of doing business in the NFL. Long ago, the Courts determined that athletes in team sports “assumed the risk of injury which comes with participation in a violent sport.” But when management plays a role in orchestrating injuries, we have mischief of a different level bordering on criminal conduct.

This scandal could not have come at a worse time for the NFL, which is already facing a barrage of lawsuits alleging that it failed to take proper precautions against concussion-related injuries. Now, add to the list of potential litigants any player who has been injured as the result of a “bounty” program.

There is no way that Williams, now the defensive coordinator at St. Louis, can survive the disclosures. The feeling here is that he will be suspended for the entire 2012 season by Roger Goodell and that the Saints organization will be fined at least a million dollars, plus lost draft picks, which will be the most severe penalty ever imposed by an NFL commissioner against a player, coach, or organization.

Through the televised NFL combine, the Peyton Manning saga, and speculation about the upcoming draft, the NFl has been remarkably successful in keeping itself on the front page of the sports section during its off season. But this is one time when the League might have preferred a little anonymity.

Kentucky Means Business

Since the rule requiring high school seniors to complete one year of eligibility before entering the NBA draft was enacted in 2005, no “one and done” has played a key role in leading his team to a a national championship. Marvin Williams was the sixth man on the 2005 champion Tarheels; freshmen-based Ohio State (Greg Oden, Michael Conley) lost in the finals to Florida in 2007; and Derrick Rose missed by a hair in 2008 with Memphis. If there has been a pattern to recent champs, it is that they have been led by experienced players in their second or third years of stardom. Rookies, it appeared, did not have the savvy to take teams all the way.

But as I have watched Kentucky, led by three star freshmen, repel the challenges of Mississippi State, Vanderbilt (twice) and Florida over the past couple of weeks with a toughness and sagacity befitting a squad of seasoned assassins to finish undefeated in the SEC (16-0) and 30-1 overall, it is clear to me that the Wildcats are about to turn the tables on conventional wisdom.

The three freshmen are 6’10” center-forward Anthony Davis, small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and point guard Marcus Teague. Each has long-arms, off –the- charts athleticism, and fierce determination. When teamed with returning lettermen Darius Miller, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones, they form a seamless sextet capable of running the table in the NCAA tournament.

Anthony Davis Stands Tall

Kentucky coach John Calipari has been called everything but a great coach, but how else do you explain his molding a youthful squad in to the best defensive team in the country? On the perimeter, the length and quickness of Davis, Teague, and Kidd-Gilchrist have made life miserable for three-point oriented teams such as Florida and Vanderbilt. In the paint, Davis, a natural forward playing center, has set a record for blocks by an SEC freshmen, recording 146 swatbacks; and like Bill Russell, he keeps his blocks in play. Overall, the ‘Cats defend the two @ 36.4% and the three-ball @ 31.8%. On offense, they shoot 48.9 and 36.4, respectively. Small wonder they play to a 19.3 ppg winning margin.

Offensively, Kentucky has been getting better with near geometric progression, particularly Davis, who would be a player of the year candidate if he couldn’t shoot a lick. But Davis, a converted guard, has just begun to display his offensive versatility. Against Vanderbilt last week, his critical 3-pointer beat back a Vandy rush. He shot 8 of 9 from the field and made all six of his free throws. Yesterday, when Florida narrowed a 16 point deficit to 57-53, his lefty jump hook, block, and put back dunk stifled the Gators for good.

There is nothing that Kentucky does not do exceptionally well. Even its 3-point game has improved. But the ‘Cats’ best attribute may be their mental toughness. They may let you back in; but once you get close, they will swat you down like a pesky insect. One blocked shot, a fast break, and a three-ball later, and their two point lead has stretched to seven. But since Kentucky is not deep, like Syracuse, they remain vulnerable to injury and to foul trouble. Ironically, in the upcoming SEC tournament, where they are likely to play Vanderbilt or Florida for the third time, they may also be subject to complacency.

After all, when you’ve got your sights set on a national championship, what’s another SEC title?

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