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Barking Mad

In my years of writing this column, I've found that I write many more arrest/trouble-with-the-law stories than I'd anticipated when I was handed the keys to the Sportstalk franchise in 2005.

Athletes across the spectrum seem to have issues with law enforcement. I feel like I've written a few articles about various arrests and legal situations faced by pro wrestling legend Ric Flair.

But the bulk of my "athlete gets arrested, and in other news, the sun will rise tomorrow" stories have to do with college athletes — specifically athletes from the University of Florida. As good as their football team has been on the field, and their basketball team has been on the court, the school's student-athletes can't seem to go very long without being clotheslined by the long arms of the law.

Sometimes, we see basketball players running afoul of statute — consider Joakim Noah's bust a few years back for a double dribble: open container law violation with a side violation of marijuana possession. Usually, though — and perhaps not surprising, given how many people are on the roster in any given year — the offenders are football stars.

Quite often, those offenses involve guns. I remember writing about former Gators and Jaguars player Dee Webb and the unfortunate incident that happened when he and a couple of other players were present when an assault rifle discharged and fired into a neighboring apartment. Charges were dropped, that time, for what a Gainesville police rep called "an accidental shooting with incredibly poor lapses in judgment." I bet Marissa Alexander wishes she'd received that benefit of the doubt.

And then, there's the Aaron Hernandez story, which seems to involve a purposeful shooting, albeit one with more "incredibly poor lapses in judgment." Though it is said that he has been a model prisoner since he was locked up a few weeks back.

Not all lapses in judgment involve firearms and inconvenient corpses, of course. …   More


From Gator to Hater

For Gator Nation, it's been a Bummer Summer. On the heels of the PR nightmare of Aaron Hernandez (one of the best tight ends of the Urban Meyer era) facing murder charges in New England comes the recent embarrassment presented by Riley Cooper, former Gators wide receiver, who got liquored up at a Kenny Chesney concert and torpedoed his career by tossing a racial slur at a security guard.

As with Hernandez — whom Tim Tebow accompanied to a bar at least once when both were Gators — there's a Tebow connection to Cooper: They were college roommates. It makes you wonder what Tebow's take on all this might be. However, the Patriots quarterback has yet to offer a response at press time; it's likely he never will.

In the hours after Cooper's drunken "I will jump that fence and fight every n***** here, bro" comment, there was no shortage of instant analysis. There were some who felt Cooper's unfortunate incident signified a larger sense of entitlement, as a reasonably prominent member of the Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver corps.

"According to a number of sources, Riley Cooper wanted to be treated as if he was Bradley Cooper at the Chesney concert," Joseph Santoliquito wrote on the Philadelphia CBS affiliate's website. "He was an unruly ‘drunk who wanted the red-carpet treatment and security to basically kiss his ass, because he was "Riley Cooper, an Eagle," from what I saw,' said someone close to what happened that night. Apparently, when Cooper pulled out the ‘Don't-you-know-who-I-am' card, it wasn't acknowledged. ‘Security wasn't having it,' and Cooper apparently had a snit-fit."

While he's not the first white guy to get drunk and go atavistic and hateful with ill-considered rhetoric, Cooper faces a problem that is specific to his line of work.

Former NFL tight end Shannon Sharpe talked about it on "The Norris & Davis Show" on Baltimore radio station 105.7 The Fan.

"What he did open was a can of worms for everybody …   More


Performance Anxiety

Let's go ahead and blame (or thank) Alex Rodriguez. It seems to work for everything else.

The former Jacksonville Sun, Miami native and high school state championship baseball player has had a rough time of it lately. Rodriguez's link to Biogenesis of America, a Miami firm in the business of "enhancing" the performance of athletes, has been all over the news this summer — and the bulk of the coverage has been negative.

At this writing, Rodriguez is back playing for the Yankees. This quite likely might be his last stint.

With the threat of suspension from Major League Baseball for 211 games looming over his head pending an appeal from the union, any suspension would be a career-ender for the embattled 38-year-old third baseman and three-time Most Valuable Player.

Rodriguez once was widely heralded as one of the game's greats. Before the PED scandals hit, smarter minds than mine had him on the fast track to Cooperstown. Now? He gets booed. At home. Unless he's hitting home runs.

See, that's the paradox about performance-enhancing drugs. Everyone's against them — in theory. In theory, we all have unwavering moral codes, and we'd rather play fair and lose than cheat and win. Trouble is, for athletes, there's a limited window during which one can succeed. Success means many things — winning, cashing in, earning individual accolades. But if someone is giving his life to a sport, racing against time and attendant deterioration, it's rational to wonder, regarding cheating: Why not?

No one these days admits that Rodriguez is his favorite athlete. However, he's still influential — at least the much-lambasted mindset that drove him to performance enhancement is.

In July, a former Biogenesis employee, Porter Fischer, told ESPN's "Outside the Lines" that teen boys — high school athletes — would visit the clinic looking for that extra edge that included "[s]ports performance packages, which would include HGH, …   More


Sinners and Scrums

With summer's heat finally beginning 
to abate, fall sports are on everyone's mind.
In Northeast Florida, pro and college football take pride of place. But as Jacksonville becomes more cosmopolitan, we're seeing other sports emerge — one of them being women's rugby, courtesy of the Jacksonville Women's Rugby Club.

Practices began Aug. 20 for the JWRC — whose team nickname is the Sinners — and this should be an exciting campaign for these lady ruggers. This season, they have coaches from South Africa who have 40 years of combined experience.

Team President Melissa Newkirk, who played college rugby at University of Central Florida, talked about the challenges of playing rugby on the club level in an email interview. She said the squad has 20 players but would like to have 30 to 45.

"We do not have tryouts and take anyone who wants to play, so we will take on all that are willing!"

Players come from all backgrounds — some with intense rugby backgrounds, 
others without.

"About half of our players did play in college, but we get lots who have never played before, and we teach them the game," Newkirk said. New players can learn the basics in about a month, but it takes three to six months to really feel confident, she said.

Newkirk played three years as an undergraduate — an experience that led directly to starting up this team.

"I started playing rugby in college. When I moved back home, there was not a team," she said. "I loved playing and wanted to share my passion for the sport with others. We also have an amazing local men's team that was and still is very supportive of our team; without their help, the women's team would not have been possible."

Many in our area might notice similarities with other more familiar sports; indeed, there are analogues to football and especially soccer.

"Rugby is a constantly moving game, like soccer; there are no downs or stoppage as in football," Newkirk said. "The main …   More


Reset Button

In recent years, it's been hard to muster up real enthusiasm for the on-field prospects of the Jacksonville Jaguars. That's not to say fans have not been loyal; even through seasons with many more losses than wins, the team has drawn at the box office, by and large avoiding blackouts. The same will hold true this year for all seven of the team's home games in Jacksonville.

Despite this, the national media has routinely lambasted Jacksonville and its fans. The team is subpar, they say, and the town isn't worthy of being an NFL city. And every time Shad Khan looks at a road atlas, someone seems to have a blog post or a column saying he's going to move the team. We saw it most recently when Khan bought the Fulham club in the English Premier League; certainly, went the logic, he's going to move the Jaguars to London.

How stale is that line of thought in 2013? How broken is that logic? Given that Khan in his short tenure has seemed more involved with the franchise than Wayne Weaver ever was, and that he's gone to great lengths to improve the stadium — everything from the public-private partnership for the scoreboards to the locker room and training facility upgrades — it seems ridiculous to play the "Jags Are Moving" card at this late date. Not to mention Khan's interest in The Shipyards and other Downtown properties similarly belies that meme.

The fact is, Khan didn't buy an NFL team so that it would lose 10 games a year for the next decade. Maybe change isn't coming quickly enough for some Jags fans, but what we are seeing is a concerted effort to remove the stench of defeat from EverBank Field and replace it with something we haven't whiffed in a long time: the sweet smell of success.

There are many reasons for optimism as the team enters the regular season.

Improved offensive line: It's been a long time since the Jaguars have had two tackles as good as Eugene Monroe and Luke Joeckel. We have to go back to the old days, when Coughlin …   More


All Apologies

Before this column goes any further, an apology for the subject matter:

I'd like to apologize to all readers for writing about the Jacksonville Jaguars. Undoubtedly, you'd like to read about a better pro football team. Undoubtedly, I'd prefer to write about quarterbacks who throw seven touchdown passes in a game or who, even as opposed to Chad Henne against the Raiders, got more than 13 out of 40 passes to go more than 5 yards, as The Florida Times-Union Jaguars writer Ryan O'Halloran tweeted.

It would be great if I were writing about a team that fulfilled my preseason hopes — one which the defense catalyzed changes in game momentum, one which the quarterback took advantage of his top-of-the-first-round tackles to make reads of the defense and to spread the ball around to receivers, one which the running backs hit holes hard and broke free into the secondary with reckless abandon, one which fans hoped would bring it for 60 minutes every week.

If that were the case, I'd be writing about the Jacksonville Sharks or the Jacksonville Dixie Blues. I'm writing about the Jaguars, however, and apologizing, much like the Orlando CBS affiliate did for showing Jaguars vs. Raiders instead of the Manning Bowl (Eli's New York Giants vs. Peyton's Denver Broncos).

Apologizing. Like the Jags should, for drafting a punter instead of Russell Wilson, the Seattle signal-caller who was still on the board when punter Bryan Anger was picked in 2012. And how did you like that Seattle game, by the way (Seahawks 29, 49ers 3)?

Apologizing. Like Shad Khan should, for putting this pitiful product on display in Jacksonville. Jack Del Rio, Mike Mularkey, Gene Smith and the rest of the gang are gone like the wind; but frankly, we don't give a damn, since the product looks the same.

The team looks like an expansion team. Like they're Happy To Be There. Like they expect fans to derive some psychic benefit at this late date, almost two decades into the franchise's existence, …   More


Allure of the Big Game

Remember when Jacksonville hosted the Super Bowl? Seems like it was almost a decade ago — because it was. Paul McCartney was the musical halftime entertainment, and for some, that was the punch line of the joke. For others, it was something far more elemental: the fact that the NFL dared to hold its showcase game — arguably the biggest event in professional sports —i n the Bold New City of the South.

The horror, the horror!

National pundits — such as Tony Kornheiser of ESPN and the Washington Post, Bill "The Sports Guy" Simmons and a cavalcade of media stars — made all of the jokes that you would expect. "In Jacksonville, there are more Waffle Houses than reasons to live" type material. It was great fun to have the national media lay into Jacksonville for its shortcomings when it came to hosting an event like the Super Bowl; primary among them was that the city lacked a centralized entertainment district that one would expect in a major city, and that there were not enough hotel rooms for the influx of visitors.

The entertainment issue was more or less solved, though with Super Bowl parties being held at far-flung venues like Plush/The Edge in Arlington, it was hard to find a cab to get to them. The issue of lodging had a similarly ad hoc solution, in the form of lodging on cruise ships in the St. Johns River. Somehow, we got through the event, albeit with damage to our reputation nationally and even internationally. Or so the narrative goes.

I am reminded of the Super Bowl logistics issues given the recent announcement by Gator Bowl President and CEO Rick Catlett that Jacksonville intends to bid on national championship games in 2016 and 2017.

"We think we're in a really good position," Catlett told The Florida Times-Union in September. "We've got a heckuva offer. We have 84,000 seats and all the hotels that they're asking for. Plus, we've got premium resorts. … We've hosted a Super Bowl [in 2005], so we know …   More


Why Not Tebow?

Through two home games started by Blaine Gabbert, the Jacksonville Jaguars have been outscored 65-5. If there is one silver lining, the team briefly led in both: 3-0 against the Colts; 2-0 against the Chiefs. So there's that.

The harsh truth, though, is that that just isn't enough. Not even close. Not when discussion — ranging from a USA Today story a couple of weeks ago to a Yahoo! Sports radio spot I heard during my Monday morning commute after the Colts debacle — revolves around whether the Jags can go 0-16. Trading away starting offensive tackles for late-round picks — as the Jaguars did with Eugene Monroe in early October — won't help the team win or the quarterback remain intact.

How bad has it gotten for the Jaguars? It's gotten so bad that when the Jaguars punt these days — and they punt a lot — people call it the Teddy Bridgewater Formation, a reference to the expected No. 1 pick that the Jags will take in the 2014 draft. It's so bad that much discussion lately has revolved around when or whether the Jaguars should sign Tim Tebow to a contract. Again!

You remember Tebow: Nease High School star, Gators superstar Heisman-trophy winner. Took Denver to the playoffs despite having entire halves of games in which he completed one forward pass. Didn't get much of a shot in New York with the Jets. Couldn't stick on the New England roster. That guy. Apparently, there are some who believe he's the franchise savior.

Like the guy in a monkey mask I talked to before the Colts game. I never miss an opportunity to talk to someone wearing an animal mask, and since he had a pro-Tebow sign, I wanted to get a sense of why he thought Tebow would be a good add for the franchise. His answer? Nothing you haven't heard before.

And why would there be anything new to say? The "why not Tebow?" side or the side posting banners that quote General Manager Dave Caldwell saying "even if he's released" he's not coming to Jacksonville …   More


FSU's ‘Famous' Football Icon

As the Florida State Seminoles prepare for a 
 season-defining contest on the road against their Atlantic Coast Conference rival Clemson Tigers on Oct. 19, it's useful to consider how, in just a few short games, the 'Noles team has incontrovertibly staked its claim to being the best college football team in the state — if not the country.

For evidence of the Seminoles' superiority, one need only look back to their last game — a 63-0 drubbing of the previously ranked Maryland Terrapins. As absurd as it may sound, that contest was not as close as the score indicated as, even with second-teamers playing the second half, it was clear Maryland had given up — the game should have been called under some sort of mercy rule provision.

Whenever a sports program experiences a renaissance, there are many reasons why. One of them has to be Jimbo Fisher taking the reins from Bobby Bowden — a great coach in his day, which unfortunately ended late in the 20th century. The Bowden of the 21st century was clearly a caretaker, the equivalent of those ancient Soviet leaders of the early 1980s or Pope Benedict — more for show than for go. His teams had amazing talent, but relatively speaking, they underperformed compared to what they could have done.

When Fisher officially became head coach, it took a little time for his rebuilding to bear fruit. This year, it finally has. Loads of talent on FSU's roster, not least of which is the freshman quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate, "famous" Jameis Winston. He's kicking butt, taking names and enjoying every moment of it, if his comments after the Maryland massacre are any indication.

"It felt like a little league football game out there," Winston said. "It was 12 o'clock, the sun was out. I don't think I saw a cloud in the sky. It was a beautiful day."

Sports fans can forgive Winston's reference to "little league football" as opposed to Pop Warner; he pitched 17 games with a 3.00 ERA and 21 …   More


Fever Pitch

Steve Livingstone sees the fervor in Jacksonville's soccer community and believes the city will embrace its North American Soccer League expansion franchise.

Livingstone, who formerly had stints with NFL Europe's Scottish Claymores and with the Jacksonville Jaguars for the last eight years, was brought in as club president. The team will take the field for the 2015 season.

He said anecdotal and statistical evidence shows Jacksonville is a viable market for
the league.

"Jacksonville is already a great soccer community through the tremendous work that's been done within the numerous youth and adult soccer leagues that have been operating for many years here," Livingstone said by email. "You just need to visit any of the soccer parks around the city and region on a Saturday morning to see how many people are enjoying the game."

He said a vibrant local community rabidly supports the U.S. Men's National Team (USMNT) at area sports bars and through social media. Livingstone estimated that there are 200,000 people in town with an interest in soccer.

Will those numbers translate into paying customers? If they don't, it won't be for lack of trying from the local NASL franchise.

"We plan on giving Jacksonville a great soccer team and a great experience when they come to our games," Livingstone said. "Our ticket prices will be very affordable and we will present a great day's entertainment for everyone." Ticket prices for Jacksonville games have not been set. Individual game tickets for NASL games in other markets range from $10 to $55.

We've seen expansion teams come and go in the region. Corporate sponsorship is always part of the plan and a recurrent challenge. According to Livingstone, corporations will get involved because "we can deliver a specific, passionate and highly engaged audience to them," and because the team will be involved in the community through clinics and camps, and will be bringing in world-class soccer events beyond the NASL …   More