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SPORTSTALK

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

SPORTSTALK

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

SPORTSTALK

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

SPORTSTALK

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

SPORTSTALK

It's the biggest achievement yet in local roller derby: The Jacksonville RollerGirls all-star team, the New Jax City Rollers, qualified for the 2013 Women's Flat Track Derby Association Division One Playoffs in Richmond, Va., Sept. 13-15 as the No. 30 seed. Teams from around the world will compete. And the New Jax team will be there, thanks to its hard work and dedication. And those fans who can't make the trip to Richmond can still view the action on WFTDA.tv.

Keri "Fancy Schmancy" Lewis, fresh off a tournament in Tampa, fielded some questions by email.

The first question that bears reflection: Is roller derby "feminist"? Her answer might surprise you.

"I don't think roller derby is a feminist enterprise. It takes a village to run a roller derby league. Flat-track roller derby was founded in Austin, Texas, in 2003. It was started as a female-only sport, but there were men that played an integral part of the league function, ranging from coaches, staff, referees, bout announcers, photographers, videographers, volunteers to fans. Derby leagues become a big family."

Supporting her contention that roller derby is of equal importance to both genders, Lewis mentioned that the local men's team — the Magic City Misfits — is the fourth-ranked team in the United States.

Even with all that love, it's difficult for athletes, who must hold down day jobs, to find time to practice and compete.

"It is a challenge getting a practice and bouting venue that accommodates our league's needs," Lewis said. "Can we get enough practice time at reasonable hours for the skaters? Finding bout venues that are affordable and give us the opportunity to put on a good bout for paying patrons [is a challenge]. We also struggle making it affordable for skaters to compete on our traveling team, especially the all-star team. New Jax travels at least five times a year to out-of-state bouts, and getting the money and time off work to compete can be taxing on …   More

SPORTSTALK

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

SPORTSTALK

A few years ago, when Wayne Weaver owned the Jaguars and the only thing that changed from year to year were the names of the players on the police blotter, there wasn't much to say about the Jaguars ownership from the business side.

Recall all of the media hype about blackouts, moving to Los Angeles and other topics that seem more dated with each passing week. Now the Jaguars have an owner with the gumption to put his investment in the center of the global stage. And really, it's about time someone figured it out.

Given the league investment in its franchises in the Northeast Corridor, one cannot give Shad Khan enough credit for realizing that the best way to trump that bias is to establish his small-market Southern franchise as a global entity. To that end, with the purchase of Fulham soccer team in the English Premier League, he's established himself as a sovereign figure in sports, one with the capital, moxie and vision to be among the most important sports team owners of his generation.

Check out Khan's words. They should sound familiar to Jags fans — in tone and spirit, they're reminiscent of what he said when he bought the Jaguars. It's just been a couple of years, but the cleansing power of Khan's frankness and clarity make the former regime seem like a dim memory.

"Fulham is the perfect club at the perfect time for me," Khan said in a statement. "My priority is to ensure the club and Craven Cottage each has a viable and sustainable Premier League future that fans of present and future generations can be proud of. We will manage the club's financial and operational affairs with prudence and care, with youth development and community programs as fundamentally important elements of Fulham's future."

London readers of Folio Weekly — and I assume there are some — can take those words to the bank. They're more solid than the pound sterling. And what's clear, especially in retrospect, is that Khan saw and sees American football as …   More

SPORTSTALK

For those interested in seeing the future of professional baseball, there likely will be no better showcase this year than the Southern League All-Star Game — and certainly not one you can see live in Jacksonville.

Suns manager Andy Barkett’s team is not having an amazing year, though it certainly is better than the debacle faced by the Jacksonville Suns’ parent club, the Miami Marlins. Nevertheless, Barkett helms the South Division All-Stars this year, and six Suns were chosen for the squad, including four pitchers — starters Adam Conley, Sam Dyson and Jay Jackson, and reliever Michael Brady. Dyson is sidelined with a back sprain and on the disabled list.

Jake Marisnick joins the squad from the Suns’ outfield. Kyle Jensen, had he not been promoted to New Orleans already, likewise would've been an All-Star. Jensen has Major League ability already, and it’s only a matter of time before he's showing it in the National League.

Suns fans know what to expect from these players. They know, for example, of Marisnick’s power — something fans in Miami might well be seeing in a couple of months after September call-ups, and something that might be seen in the bottom of the first inning at Bragan Field, as Marisnick will be leading off for his squad. They know how left-handed pitcher Conley can strike out virtually anyone at any time, and the efficiency of Dyson, who might not be related at all to the vacuum cleaner company, but who keeps the base paths clear of runners more often than not. They know that batters hit a bit more than .200 against Jackson, and they know that Brady closes games virtually every time out.

Beyond the local heroes, there are some must-see players on the South squad. For starters, a trio of .300 hitters — Montgomery Biscuit Kevin Kiermaier, Justin Greene from Mobile and Mississippi’s Jose Martinez. On a circuit where pitchers generally prevail, a .300 average is …   More

SPORTSTALK

Most sports fans in Northeast Florida first 
 became acquainted with Aaron Hernandez when he was a tight end on that incredible University of Florida offense a few years ago. Hernandez, Percy Harvin and Tim Tebow made Gators games must-see TV.

Yes, he tested positive for marijuana, but folks who know the history of "Gainesville Green" know the temptation and the ubiquity of the so-called sticky-icky in the 352. Yes, there were mutterings about so-called character concerns before he was drafted by the Patriots in the fourth round. But these were minor cavils. Hernandez looked like a steal of a draft pick at the time. Fast-forward a couple of years, and Patriots coach Bill Belichick looked even more prescient. Fast-forward to today, and the revisionist history of the "long view" takes hold.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King battled with some Twitter followers about the wisdom of the Hernandez draft pick recently, in the wake of Hernandez being scrubbed from the Patriots roster and NFL history. Could he still be called a good pick? Yes, King argued, given his statistical contribution to the team before the guy was arrested on murder charges.

And — in my opinion, at least — King's right. As interested observers of the Jaguars' process, we've seen almost two decades of drafts here, and two years of starter-level "elite" production is more than can be hoped for from your standard fourth-round pick. No one could have rationally foreseen the accusations of murder and evidence destruction in which Hernandez became ensnared. In part, it's because what the NFL calls "character concerns" so often have nothing to do with anything beyond a bad result on a urinalysis for cannabis (the only reliable substance testing, given how long it stays in the system).

Rather than look at real-deal character issues, the league and its media adjuncts (ESPN and other broadcast partners) reduce the whole matter to how clean a player's urine is. For further …   More

SPORTSTALK

The NBA season ended with a thrilling seven-game series between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs. At any given time, a half-dozen future Hall of Fame players were on the floor. Up until the last game, it was impossible to figure out which team would win the series. The Heat were pronounced dead and LeBron called a fraud seemingly every day until the end; the Spurs, the underdogs, avoided such castigation.

Will the Heat be an official dynasty, like the Lakers and Celtics of bygone eras? Who really knows? Much changes in the NBA on a yearly basis. It's easy to imagine a key injury or two driving the Heat back to the pack. It's equally easy to imagine other franchises rising to take the Miami club's place.

Some franchises are closer to that goal than others. Two that don't seem especially close to championship glory — at least at this time — will meet in an October preseason tilt in Jacksonville: the Orlando Magic and the New Orleans Pelicans. This will be the Magic's third preseason trip to Northeast Florida and the first since 2008, just eight days after the team opens training camp in Orlando. In discussing the initiative, Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown was his usual restrained self.

"When the 2013 NBA preseason begins, Jacksonville will be getting a piece of the action," Brown said in a news conference. "We're very excited to be working with the NBA again … one of the strongest and most recognized brands in the world."

Brown said the game allows Jacksonville to show the world that it's a great destination for sports and entertainment.

"We want this to be a spotlight that helps fans everywhere get an interest in Jacksonville and in Jacksonville's story, because we have a great story to tell," he said, referring to a revitalized Downtown, parks, beaches and a "re-energized job market."

After his remarks, Magic representative and former star Nick Anderson and Jacksonville University hoops legend Artis Gilmore added a few …   More

 
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