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SPORTSTALK

After months in the shadows, Clay County's aspirations to lure a Big League Dreams franchise to Middleburg are finally getting the public scrutiny they so richly deserve. Last month, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced that it's investigating allegations that the Clay County Development Authority violated state open records and public meeting laws while negotiating a deal with the company to build a baseball-themed entertainment park.

Joe Riley, one of two Clay County residents who filed complaints with the FDLE last fall, has accused the county of negotiating with Big League Dreams outside of the Sunshine law. And indeed, last year the county commission asked one of its board members to privately hammer out a deal (though the county insists this is not illegal). You need only read the county auditor's report to realize why they'd want to keep the public in the dark: This is a sucker's bet, a sham that only the gullible could support.

The deal would work like this: Clay County would agree to build the facility, which the county estimated would cost $15 million but Michael T. Price, the auditor, says would more likely clock in around $25 million or higher. To pay for it, the county would use the projected leftovers from a road-construction bond it took out five years ago, as it can't secure bonds for the project without putting it to a public referendum. (Big League Dreams generously offered to lend the county the money to build Big League Dreams' facility, which the county would then pay back to Big League Dreams, with interest. For some reason, Price does not think this a wise move.) In exchange for this investment, the county would receive a portion of Big League Dreams' profits for the next 30 years.

A very small portion. Between 1997 and 2011, Big League Dreams paid out between $11 million and $16 million to its nine government partners, all of which are in the Southwest (the Middleburg deal is its first venture east of the …   More

SPORTSTALK

Greyhound racing is, by all accounts, a dying sport. Less popular with each passing year, it seems more and more that the tracks that still exist aren't there because they themselves are a draw, but because of an arcane state law passed in the '90s that allows tracks to feature lucrative poker tables if they run at least 90 percent of the number of races they held in 1996. So even as fewer and fewer people gamble on the dogs — and even as the industry hemorrhages money (Florida tracks lost $35 million in 2012) — the tracks remain.

Poker is not without its problems. People can get in over their heads and spend money they don't have. But one thing poker tables don't have is a body count.

The same can't be said for greyhound racing.

On Feb. 15, the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times published an exposé of the industry. Drawing on newly available records, the investigation found that 74 dogs had died on racetrack properties in Florida in the last six months of 2013 — one every three days, on average. Jacksonville tracks were not immune.

One greyhound, the 3-year-old, fawn-colored Penrose Jake, had his final race at Orange Park Kennel Club last August. Jake started strong that night, but then slammed into another dog and finished last. A few hours later, following a 127-race career, he was dead. The track didn't say what caused Jake's death. It didn't have to: While Florida lawmakers recently began forcing tracks to report greyhound deaths, the tracks don't always provide detailed information about what happened.

In early September, a greyhound named Hallo Spice Key died after being sprinted around a Jacksonville track in the pre-dawn hours, long before a race. "It appears the death could have been prevented had the greyhound not been sprinted in the dark," the report concluded.

Most of these deaths are, in fact, preventable, the dogs victims of the industry's greed. Thirty-one dogs in that six-month span died or were euthanized for race-related …   More

SPORTSTALK

As we approach the NFL Scouting Combine and Draft, all the talk has shifted from the top-shelf players — Jadeveon Clowney, Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel — to a player projected to be a mid-rounder just a couple weeks ago: University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, who rocked the testosterone-fueled pigskin world by announcing earlier this month that he's gay.

The All-American and Southeastern Conference co-defensive player of the year, Sam was vital to his squad. He was also a rarity — a player known to be gay by teammates who protected his secret and valued his play regardless.

Sam reportedly wanted to come out before the Senior Bowl in January, but his agent talked him down. Sam then planned 
to come out sometime between that game and the combine in May, but reporters started approaching him with pointed questions about his dating life, in effect pressing the issue.

So Sam announced. A shitstorm ensued.

Peter King of Sports Illustrated posted an article full of on-background sources claiming that coming out would damage Sam's draft stock. This quote, from an unnamed general manager, seems the most salient: "The question you will ask yourself, knowing your team, is, ‘How will drafting him affect your locker room?' And I am sorry to say where we are at this point in time, I think it's going to affect most locker rooms. A lot of guys will be uncomfortable. Ten years from now, fine. But today, I think being openly gay is a factor in the locker room."

Some Jaguars would disagree. Uche Nwaneri staked out this rather evolved position to ESPN: "I would welcome a gay teammate same as any other. Something about team sports really transcends color and orientation. In between the lines, it's all football. Purest form of it. I don't know how it will play out in specific locker rooms around the league, but I know that as adults and professionals, the only thing that should matter is the game and the team."

Tyson Alualu — the first-round …   More

SPORTSTALK

Acouple of weeks back, on Folio Weekly's blog, I wrote an appreciation of George Zimmerman's "painting" of Angela Corey. That, combined with Wes Denham's excellent analysis of the painting in last week's Crime City ["Red Becomes Her"], likely stand as the last critique of Zimmerman's visual arts in this magazine for the foreseeable future.

After all, the Z-man's forte isn't really painting, but self-promotion. Those who wonder where he would turn up next can't be surprised by his foray into the sports world — that is, if you can call celebrity boxing a sport.

Promoter Damon Feldman, known for his fixed celebrity fights, booked the portly pugilist for a "fight" on March 15 against gone-and-almost-forgotten rapper DMX, most notable for poignant cultural-touchstone singles like "Where Tha Hood At" and "What These Bitches Want."

Feldman announced this fight on the eve of what would have been Trayvon Martin's 19th birthday, an especially classy touch. Following a thunderstorm of outrage — imagine that — over the weekend, he announced that he'd cancelled the fight. Then he said he was rethinking the cancellation, and that there would be a press conference on Tuesday (after this publication goes to press) announcing his "final decision." "Zimmerman," he told one website, "still wants to fight."

Whether or not this thing actually happens, it's still a remarkable footnote in the seemingly endless George Zimmerman saga — and more evidence that Zimmerman (a dead ringer for King Hippo from Mike Tyson's Punch Out) will do just about anything to monetize reasonable doubt and the highest-profile loss of the Corey era. This, as you might expect, has led some to criticize him.

One such critic: Jacksonville defense attorney John Phillips, who is working on behalf of Jordan Davis' parents in the legal action against gas station gunman Michael Dunn, and who is vigilantly opposed to Stand Your Ground.

"The first thing everyone needs to realize is that this …   More

SPORTSTALK

To borrow the immortal words of rap legend T.I., "Big things poppin'" in Duuuuuuuuval when it comes to the city's association with professional soccer.

For starters, the smart money says that the inimitable Tony Meola, the U.S. Men's National Team cornerstone in 1994, is the frontrunner to coach the Jacksonville North American Soccer League team when it starts play next year. The franchise has reportedly interviewed 30 candidates for the job, so nothing's set in stone, but hiring Meola makes a lot of sense for one reason — two words:

Name value.

When dealing with the local media, the question, as always, is the hook. Since Meola still is among the highest-profile players in National Team history, putting him at head coach makes sense. He knows the game, and knows how to be an ambassador, a promoter of brand-awareness in a market still learning to embrace soccer.

Sometimes the obvious choice is the best one. Undoubtedly, many of the area's 30-something soccer fans wanted to be Meola, on some level, when they were playing the youth game on pitches all around Northeast Florida. Certainly, they did when they were playing the almost-forgotten Super Nintendo game Tony Meola's Sidekick Soccer. In terms of launching a franchise and giving it an instant identity, Meola is a great choice.

Of course, Meola isn't the only great choice soccer fans are considering in the next few weeks. Local soccer buffs long ago circled Feb. 12 on calendars as a day to head Downtown and catch some first-class pro soccer action.

On that day, the New York Red Bulls take on the Philadelphia Union at EverBank Field. The Union committed to one preseason game a year at EverBank for three years; this is Year No. 2.

For the Union, the game — part of a month in Florida preparing for the regular season — comes just a few days after a scrimmage at its Deltona training facility against the mighty University of North Florida Ospreys.

Last year, 5,000 local fans turned out to …   More

SPORTSTALK

In just a few days, the sports world will see something unprecedented — a championship game between teams from cities with some of the most liberal cannabis laws in the Western Hemisphere.

While that doesn't overshadow the on-field subplots — Peyton Manning attempting to win a Super Bowl with a second franchise, Richard Sherman making his case for best cornerback of all time — what the Drudge Report called "The Pot Bowl" represents a watershed moment in our national discourse, specifically as it relates to medical marijuana, our cannabis laws in general and the future of law enforcement and incarceration.

The NFL has — like no other major sports league — faced an existential crisis regarding the health of players, especially once they retire from the game. Concussions, in particular, have factored into conditions that led Junior Seau and Jovan Belcher to kill themselves in spectacular fashion.

Against this backdrop, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was asked recently about allowing players to use pot in states where medical cannabis is legal. His response was typically cagey, but rooted in reality: "I don't know what's going to develop as far as the next opportunity for medicine to evolve and to help either deal with pain or help deal with injuries," Goodell said, according to NBC Sports. "But we will continue to support the evolution of medicine."

The nascent medical marijuana industry has, for a variety of reasons, become more sophisticated in its understanding of weed's palliative effects. For NFL players, many of whom have had issues with painkiller addiction, it makes sense to opt for a substance that may be habit-forming but can't kill you or destroy your liver if you go one toke over the line.

And let's not kid ourselves: For medicine or recreation, weed is already widely used throughout the NFL. Last year, offensive tackle Lomas Brown, with 18 seasons under his helmet, estimated that "at least 50 percent" of NFL players smoke …   More

SPORTSTALK

Time was, wrestling cards in Jacksonville would draw upwards of 5,000 people — sometimes more than once a week. Back in the glory days of "Championship Wrestling from Florida," the Briscos, the Funks, Harley Race, Ric Flair and a rotating cast of barroom brawlers built like brick shithouses brought out huge crowds.

Today a lot of those guys are dead or getting there. And those days have been gone for quite some time.

Like stagflation, the Jacksonville Journal and the paper mill smell that choked this city like an olfactory homunculus, the days of turnaway crowds at the rasslin' matches are as dead as kayfabe — the belief, promulgated by promoters until the World Wrestling Federation steroid trials of the early 1990s that wrestling is "real."

World Wrestling Entertainment gets here a few times a year, and does decent business, but the old days are long gone, despite the best efforts of John Cena and the gang.

Wrestling, of course, is still an active "thing" — as Shelton Hull's profile of indie wrestler Jon Davis [News, "Don't Try This at Home," Jan. 8] indicated. There are still touring troupes. One of the best-regarded — Evolve — came back to Jacksonville for a pay-per-view performance for the first time since last summer, when the company drew a few hundred bodies to the sweltering Potter's House gym on the ever-scenic Westside.

The company continued its tradition of holding wrestling events in economic blight zones on Jan. 12, when it held Evolve 27 at one of the most notorious nightclubs in the entire city, Plush, located in the heart of the Arlington Crime Blotter. The club, which has been in operation almost continuously under one name or another since at least the early '90s (now sort of officially called Brewster's Megaplex), has been a rite of passage for everyone from 
hip-hop heads and rave kids to punk rockers 
— old and new school.

Noise is often made about shutting the place down, but it has …   More

SPORTSTALK

The national championship game between Auburn and Florida State is fast becoming a memory. What we saw on the field was revelatory. Jameis Winston had a lights-out performance as FSU stormed back and overtook Auburn in the second half of a game tighter than anyone expected.

Great game. Great end to the tortured history of the Bowl Championship Series — gone but not forgotten, late but unlamented. As soon as the game was over, however, another controversy was fueled — among the oldest in American public life.

A very excited Jameis Winston had this to say after the game: "We champions. We can share that. We are champions together. And through everything that we went through. Through all the haters. Through every single thing, we came out victorious. God did this. I'm so blessed. He's so blessed. All the stuff that he handled with Ethan [Fisher, the coach's son, who has been diagnosed with a rare blood disorder called Fanconi anemia] and he come out here and coach us? That touched me. And it's nobody but God. It's nobody."

Winston, a native of Hueytown, Ala., hit all the expected points: An appeal to God. A recognition that he was blessed. The usual conflation of divine providence and athletic achievement. NBD, except to a certain observer, an Alabama resident herself.

"Am I listening to English?"

Those words from Dee Dee McCarron — the mother of Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron — brought forth a reminder that, despite the integration of college football in the 1970s, back when Bear Bryant prowled the sidelines, we're never too far away from racially coded rhetoric.

Mama McCarron apologized. Retracted the Tweet. BFD. To borrow from The Four Tops, it's the same old song.

Perhaps because college football is so delightfully plebian — everyone has opinions, the most vociferous often coming from those who never actually attended a college — it tends to bring out sides of people that might better be kept hidden. The …   More

SPORTSTALK

Rodeo cowboys are like strippers, or maybe freelance writers. Unless you have skin in the game, or unless you're a big fan of the pastime, the participants are necessarily anonymous.

The bumps they take, and the risks they assume — all very real. The same can be said for the payout, or lack thereof.

Just as a writer can get stiffed when he writes a story that gets spiked, the same can be said about some country-strong stud who gets thrown from a bull before the 8 seconds are up. Biggie Smalls once rapped, "Mo money, mo problems," but no money definitely does not equate to no problems.

The risks the riders take are far too great. When the Professional Roughstock Series rolled through the Jacksonville Equestrian Center Saturday night — the second stop on the circuit's 2014 tour — I saw a half-dozen sick bumps from the back of a bucking bronco or bull. Bumps that might have killed a lesser man, a man like me, for example — concussive head bumps, landings on the neck and so on.

Rodeo is no country for old men. Josi Young — a bareback rider from Buhl, Idaho, who took home a grand total of $14,188.46 during the 2013 season, placing him second in bareback-rider total earnings, according to the PRS website — made it to the final four, only to take an especially hard landing. As he lay on the ground, motionless, the announcer's stentorian voice held forth about the need to pray for him. Just as the crowd's silence reached a prayerful level, Young was back on his feet.

Miracle of miracles? Or conditioned response?

"No big contracts, no guarantees. If you don't ride, you don't get paid," said the announcer to the crowd — a sellout crowd of at least 1,000, with people being turned away by the police. Blue-collar, as you would expect, folks who arrived there in their gleaming F-150s, some attired in Western togs, others in "Duck Dynasty" paraphernalia. The code of the Good Ol' Boy in 2014 is that of mutually assured obsolescence. Within the …   More

SPORTSTALK

One thing I've noticed in my years doing this column — and my years writing about the Jags, especially — is that NFL players are, in the final analysis, commodities, nothing more, nothing less. The commodification of the gridiron hero has facilitated many narratives, none more so than the tendency of sportswriters to put those narratives in the Manichean framework of heroes and villains.

Consider how Jimmy Smith was treated as he wrestled with addiction issues; or, more recently, Justin Blackmon, who entered rehab after being indefinitely suspended from the team in November. Contrast that with the lionization of Brad Meester, a wholly average interior lineman whose gifts have been longevity and staying out of trouble.

For Jacksonville's white-bread sports media, that's more than enough.

The Meester narrative, along with the team's slow-crawl improvement over the last weeks of the season, allowed the Jags' home finale to feel better than earlier ones at the ass-end of lackluster campaigns. The Dec. 22 game against the Titans, in the sun-soaked, surprisingly full confines of EverBank Field, was a capstone on the Meester era — and a fine illustration of how reality once again was framed by a convenient narrative in Jagland.

The Meester farewell had everything, including a treacly message on the videoboard from his kids. It was easily the greatest send-off for an interior lineman in franchise history. And why not? He'd been here since the Coughlin era. Meester even got a gimmick play in the red zone — shades of former Jags lineman Guy "the Human Turnstile" Whimper.

That was a nice moment. A few days before, however, the Jags sent another veteran off with considerably less ceremony. It wasn't nearly as pretty.

On the cusp of Jeremy Mincey's 30th birthday, after cultivating a well-earned reputation for tardiness (he missed the Jags' trip to Houston because he overslept), he was cut. The defensive end and Gators alum, who's always …   More

 
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