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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

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

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

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

Local sports radio listeners were fired up over Jaguars legend Mark Brunell this week. Not for anything he did on the field, but for what he said regarding the franchise being a relocation target.

"You know, it wouldn’t surprise me," Brunell said when an ESPN host asked him if he thought the Jaguars topped the list of franchises that could move to Los Angeles or London. "I hate to say it, but we’ve got an owner in Shad Khan that’s bought the soccer team over there and all indications are that we’re headed that way. It’s not good for Jacksonville. You don’t hear a lot of that talk in Jacksonville right now but everywhere else, someone mentioned it the other day it’s the Jacksonville Jaguars of London. I want them to stay. That’s my home. I love the franchise. I love the organization, but it wouldn’t surprise anybody if in a few years it happened."

The callers I heard during my commutes, and the hosts, trotted out the familiar refutations. No blackouts here in a long time. A lot of "tickets distributed" every week …though it seems to most that most of those tickets must only be good for the first half. Et cetera.

It is hard to argue that Jacksonville has done anything but support this franchise in recent years. A concerted civic effort did a lot to make that happen. But, as I have argued in print and on radio, the question will always be one of "how long can 'save the whale' type efforts actually work?"

Never mind corollary questions. Given the quality of play on the field since, well, the beginning of Obama's first term, and given the microscopically low expectations about a franchise perpetually rebuilding, and given other issues (like a generation of fans that would rather watch their fantasy football assets than the Chad Henne offense), one wonders if the issue with football in Jacksonville has that much to do with an underperforming fanbase.

Could it be that fans' failure to sufficiently …   More

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

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

SPORTSTALK

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

SPORTSTALK

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

SPORTSTALK

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

 
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