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SPORTSTALK

Hello, Gator fans: four wins, three losses and third place in the SEC East – that's not what you expected going into this season, am I right? And the untimely end of quarterback Jeff Driskel's era — that took you by surprise, too. I wish I had some answers for you. I wish I could say that if a few things just went better for the Gators, then they would be back in the mix.

Basically, I wish I were a better liar. But I'm not.

I deal in reality. And the reality of the Florida Gators is harsher than last week's cold coffee. It's not as simple as losing the starting quarterback, or Dominique Easley from the defensive line, or Matt Jones — no, not the erstwhile Jaguar with the Foot Locker discount card — from the running back stable. The problems with this team cannot be isolated to one or two or three key personnel. They won't be fixed in time for the Nov. 2 Florida-Georgia game. They won't be fixed in 2013.

It's arguable that there are too many problems to list here, but I'll touch on the major ones.

Lack of imagination: An old adage applies to the Gators offense: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. This holds true for the putrid offensive football we have seen this year — and really throughout the Will Muschamp era. Florida Gators football for years was among the most exciting college football to watch in the entire country. Throughout the Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer eras, even non-fans could watch Gators football and know that they were going to see something worth watching. Now? What we get is some low-rent, wannabe Woody Hayes "run the ball, stop the run, and play smashmouth" template that works better in theory, or in sepia-tinged photographs from yesteryear, than in practice. Muschamp built the team to play 16-13 games against Alabama. However, when Alabama needs to throw the ball downfield and score 50, the Crimson Tide can do that. We know the Gators cannot.

Bad …   More

SPORTSTALK

There have been 0-16 teams before in the NFL. Well, OK, one 0-16 team — the 2008 Detroit Lions. And we have to wonder how badly that squad would beat the current incarnation of the Jacksonville Jaguars on a neutral field at this point, after the big cats' last lamentable loss, a 42-10 shellacking at the hands of the defending NFC champions, the San Francisco 49ers.

It's possible, one supposes, to spin this result in a positive way. Maurice Jones-Drew — a Jaguars great of the past and mediocrity of the present — attempted to do just that after the game in London.

"This year hasn't gone the way we wanted it to, but at the same time we're going to continue to work," the running back told The Guardian. "When it is turned around, it's going to make it that much better because you know how far you've come."

Indeed. And the aforementioned Lions organization can speak to what a turnaround actually looks like. The Lions of 2013 are quite legit: The best wide receiver in football, a solid quarterback and a defense that performs well at home for the most part tend to legitimize an operation. The Jags? Well, they have some quality wide receivers in Justin Blackmon and Cecil Shorts, and some building blocks on defense that might develop … down the road.

Of course, who really knows if the team will still be here by the time these building blocks become more than just pieces of potential? The NFL's two-game experiment in London this year went — by all accounts, including that of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell — extraordinarily well. So well that at least one Jaguars player said he'd like to go back.

"Playing in the stadium was unbelievable," Paul Posluzsny told The Guardian. "The amount of people here, the fans, the fact that the game got out of hand in the fourth quarter and everybody stayed and was loud. The crowd was unbelievable. It was one of the best NFL atmospheres I've ever been a part of. If Mr. Khan says, ‘Paul, …   More

SPORTSTALK

Last month, the San Francisco company Fantex announced plans to offer stock in the "value and performance of the brand" of one of the premier players in the NFL — Houston Texans running back Arian Foster. Jacksonville Jaguars fans know his play well, since the Texans would qualify as division rivals, if the Jaguars were a serious threat to do anything this year in the AFC South.

On the surface, this almost seemed like a good idea. Foster is a rarity among NFL players in many respects. Known for being thoughtful, Foster might also be the highest-profile football player ever to claim to be a vegan. As a former vegan myself, I can tell you that most who claim to be vegan fall short of that assertion. Foster has been quite outspoken on the subject of taking money when playing NCAA football at Tennessee, saying that the very idea of amateur status in big-time college sports was a charade and that there was something wrong with a system that turned massive profit while not giving any of that profit back to the talent generating it.

In short, I like the guy — what he stands for and his game on the field. That said, the idea that one would buy stock in an NFL player 
— a fungible commodity if ever there's 
sbeen one — is prima-facie absurd.

This is especially true in Foster's case. During his Nov. 3 game, a Sunday night tilt against the Indianapolis Colts, Foster left the game with a back injury. In recent years, Foster has battled everything from hamstring issues and a torn ACL to a heart condition. No one who plays in the NFL is 100 percent healthy, but Foster is never too far from the injury report.

Some theorize Foster's lingering maladies might not affect this initial public offering — which, at this writing, is still in process with no date announced.

"Obviously, if the injury is season-ending and requires surgery and/or rehab, the inaugural IPO could be affected, but just like a stock that has a bad quarter, some may …   More

SPORTSTALK

With Oregon's loss to Stanford, the road has been cleared for Florida State University to play in the college football national championship game against University of Alabama. As we get ready to say our last goodbye to the Bowl Championship Series, it seems somehow fitting that we look poised for a national title game for the ages.

There's a slight possibility that it might not come to pass.

"We already know there is a 99.9 percent chance Florida State is going to be in the BCS National Championship Game by virtue of Oregon going down to Stanford on Thursday night, but I've got news for you: The Seminoles will not be playing Alabama; they'll be playing the Evil Genius — Urban Meyer — and his Ohio State Buckeyes," Mike Bianchi wrote in the Orlando Sentinel.

"Alabama has games left at No. 7 Auburn, at Mississippi State and an SEC championship game against either No. 9 Missouri or No. 13 South Carolina. I realize the Crimson Tide have won three of the last four national titles, but they haven't proven anything THIS year. The only decent team they've beaten is Texas A&M — and they had to hold on for dear life to win that game 49-42."

Well, maybe. Maybe Auburn will test them. Maybe Missouri or the Gamecocks. But having watched Alabama dominate its competition year after year, it's hard to imagine 'Bama falling to any of those teams.

Not with AJ McCarron, not with excellent lines on both sides of the ball and not with those outstanding running backs. And not with the ever-present Alabama Mystique — something South Carolina (despite occasional flirtations with greatness during the Steve Spurrier Era) and Missouri simply don't have.

Florida State, compared to the Crimson Tide, has nothing but cake on its plate. A decimated, discouraged and discombobulated Gators squad, and whatever will pass for an ACC championship game, will only be appetizers for the main course — a program-defining contest against this century's …   More

SPORTSTALK

Pop Warner is under siege — or so says the national media.

Recent reports are that Pop Warner, America's largest youth football program, saw its participation drop a staggering 9.5 percent from 2010 to 2012, from its 2010 peak of 249,000 participants. Pop Warner, founded in 1929, grew steadily until recent years; according to ESPN, participation dropped 5.7 percent in 2011 and another 4 percent last year. If there's anything encouraging to be said for Pop Warner enthusiasts, it is that the decline appears to have flattened this year.

Why are kids leaving Pop Warner?

Many prominent commentators attribute the decline to factors that include the increased popularity of other sports. Others say Pop Warner is becoming less popular because of the NFL concussion epidemic, which has been blamed for everything from Junior Seau's suicide to Jim McMahon's descent into senescence.

Youth football probably won't go on as it is forever. I remember when I played in the 1980s, and the practices were grueling. Lots of laps and calisthenics, tackling drills in every practice and — for fat boys like me — trips to the sweat box to make weight. Today's parents seem less willing to subject their children to that — or even to let the children choose that for themselves.

Wes Benwick, president of the Mandarin Athletic Association (MAA) for the last two years, is the father of four boys who were or are Pop Warner players. Benwick's sons have had no concussions, though he "understands the risks" of youth football.

"Part of me is not surprised by the decline in participation," Benwick said by phone. "What I am seeing is an increase in younger players participating and a decline among older players due to alternatives" such as different leagues with different rules "because of age/weight issues" or even different sports.

The MAA has spent $25,000 to $30,000 on new helmets over the last couple of years, according to Benwick. Helmet technology is …   More

SPORTSTALK

When I was a kid, I was shocked when things were renamed.

When the Soviets renamed cities as Stalingrad and Leningrad, or the Vietnamese used the name Ho Chi Minh City, I found it jarring. I couldn't understand what would drive renaming — the need for historical reinvention, perhaps, or a desire to reinforce a new iconography. It seemed inorganic somehow.

I had the same issue with banks. My local Barnett Bank was absorbed by Wachovia, which in turn was absorbed by Wells Fargo. Not that the localist permutation was necessarily better than the behemoth that re-contextualized it, but it seemed more authentic somehow when it was a smaller entity.

The local always is absorbed by the global in the sense of corporate identity. Any hipster startup worth its salt has an eye on the exit strategy: when to cash out, how much to cash out for and, maybe, who to cash out for. Critics carped and caviled when the nihilist website Vice was bought out by Fox. Really, is there much difference between the two?

We are marks for branding, us 21st-century Americans, especially when it comes to our diversions. We want our food stamped "organic," our music from an "indie" imprint, our quasi-subversive literature from a small press. And this extends to our public buildings — we expect them, paradoxically, to exude a sense of purpose. As if it matters if the place where we see a concert or an ice hockey game or whatever is named after anyone important, and memorial or tribute to any concept.

Some are struggling with recent talk from Alan Verlander, Jacksonville's sports and entertainment executive director, of amending the name of Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena. He said the idea came up during negotiations between the city and the Jacksonville Jaguars about the EverBank scoreboards. Mayor Alvin Brown said he has no plans to change the name of the arena, said David DeCamp, the mayor's spokesman.

In response to talk of adding a corporate name in 2002, 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

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

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

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

 
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