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Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011

Go Ahead: You Know You Want to Dream It

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There's no avoiding it, even if it tempts the football fates. The Packers are 8-0 and looking unstoppable on offense, which means their fans will be thinking about a perfect season—the media will make sure of that. Aaron Rodgers and his pals have won 14 straight dating from last season, a franchise record, and are halfway to an unbeaten regular season. But 16-0 wouldn't matter unless it led to 19-0; just ask the New England Patriots of 2007-'08, who fell short in the Super Bowl.

The Packers' 45-38 victory in San Diego wasn't shown in New York, where Frank was watching the Giants edge the Patriots again. So he had some questions to start the Observers' weekly confab.


Frank
: I know the Packers had a 45-24 lead, but the Chargers had a shot to tie until Philip Rivers' last interception. Some moments of anxiety for you?

Artie
: Nope, not a bit. You've asked this before, like two weeks ago when the Vikings had a chance to go ahead in the final minutes, or when the Falcons had an early 14-0 lead. But my answer is the same: I never felt nervous. This time it suddenly sunk in: I haven't felt this way about a Packer team since I was a kid in the Lombardi era, like 1961 and '62. The game starts and I just think there's no way they're going to lose.

Frank
: You never felt that way in the Brett Favre era?

Artie
: Oh, never.

Frank
: Because of Brett's ability to turn seeming victory into disaster, I guess.

Artie
: Exactly. But now it's an odd feeling. Even when the Chargers were chipping away, I just wasn't worried. I'm as surprised by this as you may be, but the feeling was more like, "Oh, this is an interesting game now." And I remembered that as a kid I'd sometimes wish the other team would make more of a game of it, just for the excitement.

Frank
: I know Rodgers had another terrific day passing, but two of the Packers' touchdowns came on interception returns.

Artie
: Technically, the strategy to beat the Pack is to keep the offense off the field. But if the way you're doing it is throwing "pick sixes," well, you're keeping Rodgers on the sideline but not keeping the score down.

Frank
: So at 8-0 is it too early, or too risky, to talk of perfection?

Artie
: Everyone's going to do it anyway, so why not? Barring an injury to Rodgers or another key guy, there's no other team this year that looks as strong. It doesn't mean they can't lose, but it's certainly possible they could run the table.

Frank
: The '72 Dolphins went 17-0 when the regular season was two games shorter, and the Patriots missed 19-0 by only three points.

Artie
: Often a team will gather speed in the second half of a season—witness last year's Packers or the '07-'08 Giants. This year it could be the Eagles, or the Giants again. But right now I don't see any other team whose fans can assume they'll win every week.

Frank
: Anyone who knows football and has seen this year's Packers must be thinking they can repeat in the Super Bowl. And the idea of a perfect season has to be a part of that now.

Can the NCAA Tough It Out?


Frank
: A few weeks ago we talked about the ethical wasteland known as big-time college sports, in light of the media reports that a booster at Miami provided players with cash payments, jewelry, prostitutes, you name it.

Artie
: That was on top of the mess at Ohio State that cost Jim Tressel his job, the mess involving Reggie Bush that cost USC a national championship, and the apparent shopping-around of Cam Newton by his own father...

Frank
: The system is corrupted by all the money it produces. Competing for the biggest pieces of the pie means luring recruits with payoffs, or fixing their grades, or realigning conferences to the point where tradition or geography has no relevance.

Artie
: Boise State may be going to the Big East? West Virginia ridin' the Plains with the Big 12 while Missouri slides to the Southeastern Conference, Utah and Colorado in the Pacific 12...

Frank
: Boise ditched the Western Athletic Conference this year for the Mountain West to get a better shot at a BCS title. Now the Big East is recruiting them to stay alive, at least in football.

Artie
: It's so impossible to sort out all the financial and academic cheating that I'm for getting rid of the NCAA and just worrying about out-and-out criminal acts by players.

Frank
: Trying to stay relevant, the NCAA's Division I Board of Directors recently took several steps. It will allow conferences to add $2,000 in "full cost-of-attendance" money to scholarships. And academically, it voted to increase eligibility requirements for incoming players and to deny postseason play to schools that consistently miss the Academic Progress Rate standard.

Artie
: But how does the NCAA deal with the back-channel benefits? Compared to what some of the Miami guys got, 2K is chicken feed.

Frank
: A stipend would seem to be an admission that the athletes are essentially employees of a school.

Artie
: Employees who see very little of the revenue they help create. Which is the basis for a lawsuit by former UCLA hoops star Ed O'Bannon and others, challenging the NCAA's ability to make money off their likenesses "in perpetuity." Bill Russell recently joined the suit, which adds some heft.

Frank
: NCAA President Mark Emmert adamantly denied that the stipend was a "pay for play" move, saying that would be "antithetical to what college athletics is."

Artie
: Huh? That's exactly what college athletics is, at least to the ones who actually make the money, ain'a?

Frank
: The NCAA's plan isn't strong enough. It needs to be mandatory for all conferences, not optional. And it needs to apply to all athletes, male and female, in every sport.

Artie
: Schools market themselves with the images of volleyball players and wrestlers and gymnasts, too.

Frank
: The media and their TV contracts are at the heart of the problem. ESPN's hand washes the NCAA's, and the money from both of them washes over these athletic corporations that happen to be affiliated with our great universities.

Artie
: The only way to change anything is to hit the schools in the pocketbook. But the school presidents have to accept things like postseason bans.

Frank
: That's the aim of this new policy involving Academic Progress Rate. The NCAA says a 925 APR is equivalent to a 50% graduation rate. The new plan raises the threshold for a postseason ban from 900 to 930. In the May 2011 ratings the state's major programs were all in the "safe" zone except for UW-Milwaukee basketball, at 926.

Artie
: But there are legitimate gripes that the APR penalizes programs that lose players early to the pros. Plus, I want to know how the athletes compare with the overall graduation rates; it ain't like 95% of "regular" students get out in four years!

Frank
: On eligibility, the NCAA moved to increase the requirement from a 2.0 GPA to 2.3 for incoming freshmen and 2.5 for junior college transfers.

Artie
: Hey, schools can always find ways of "cooking the books" to get players in.

Frank:
Ultimately, the NCAA's big weakness is that it's essentially a voluntary organization. The BCS already operates independently. If enough schools were to say, "We're not gonna let the NCAA penalize us," they break away in a few "superconferences" and the NCAA collapses.

Artie
: I think it'll go that way, and pretty soon. But never fear, moneymakers, we'll all keep watching the games, you betcha.