HE AIN'T SO HEAVY
This is an article from the June 8, 1998 issue
For all of us who enjoy breathing the secondhand fumes of danger,
the end is near. A heavyweight title fight, which used to nearly
suffocate us in the smoke of vicarious jeopardy, no longer gives
off even a thin vapor. Not a whiff. Evander Holyfield-Henry
Akinwande on Saturday night in Madison Square Garden? The air
above and around that bout is pretty clear, isn't it?
What is it about heavyweight boxing these days that produces
more torpor than terror? It's not us, it's not that evolution
has finally carried us beyond our appetite for personal
disaster. We still watch Scary Police Chases II on Fox, don't
we? It can't be the sport itself, which stubbornly resists all
efforts to civilize it. We still have Don King, more or less.
Is it that badness, which is what heavyweight boxing is supposed
to be about, is now the domain of sulking basketball players? To
judge from the shoe company ads and sports drink commercials,
today's gladiatorial arena is the NBA, a league ruled by an army
of slammin', jammin', elbow-swinging intimidators. Meanwhile,
off the court, players seem increasingly determined to give even
Sonny Liston a run for his bail money. Holyfield, who defends
his hard-won championship in boxing's most hallowed arena, ought
to inspire more than caricature. He's a rugged, hard-hitting
fellow. Yet the guy you really want to stay away from is Latrell
Maybe it's just Holyfield, with his droning Christianity. But we
don't think so. Lennox Lewis, another heavyweight champion, also
fails to produce night sweats in the rest of us. Even though he
hits like a sonuvabitch and never spouts Biblical quotations,
Lewis evokes more gentility than he does menace. Here's the
test: You're standing in front of a plate-glass window, and here
comes Lewis up behind you. Are you scared? Now here comes
Maybe it's just personality. When Mike Tyson was around, well,
we didn't want to run into him unless conditions were strictly
controlled. It turned out he couldn't fight much anymore, but
the fun of his highly rigged comeback was seeing the
intimidation reflected on the face of whatever boiled ham was
brought into the ring that night. Of course, that only worked up
to a point.
Maybe it's the talent level. Holyfield and Lewis are both in
their 30s, and George Foreman, the other big draw, is 102.
Everybody who has come along to try to replace this generation
has failed in one spectacular fashion or another.
But those complaints have always been in play. Here's the more
likely reason for the creeping irrelevancy of the heavyweight
champion: He--Holyfield, Foreman, whoever--is boring and, bitten
ears aside, predictable. These aren't the times for the ballet
of boxing, for ritualized violence, scheduled destruction.
Where's the thrill? Give us gloves thrown down on the ice,
set-tos in the paint, brawls on the mound. Give it to us down
and dirty, give it to us raw. Give us Jerry Springer and When
Animals Attack IV. Sad truth: The smell of a safely shared
catastrophe, disaster at a remove, is a comparative perfume,
overpowered these days by the stink of spontaneity. --Richard
SHAQ NEEDS A NEW SHOE
As recently as two years ago signing a shoe endorsement deal was
a rite of passage for a new pro athlete, like getting the
diamond-stud earring and the Lexus. Now the slumping sneaker
industry is undergoing a lace-tightening so stunning that even
Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal could be shopping for
a new shoe deal when his current five-year, $15 million Reebok
contract expires on June 30.
"We wouldn't pay him even half a million," says a rival sneaker
company executive, who says Shaq faces long odds of landing a
deal with Adidas, which already has Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, or
Fila, which has hung its marketing on Detroit Pistons forward
Grant Hill. Converse? Sales of its basketball shoes are down
50%, and it has little money to throw around. Nike? O'Neal irked
executives there when he was coming out of college by visiting
Nike headquarters to hear the company's pitch wearing Reebok
gear. "Would we be interested in Mr. O'Neal now?" says Jackie
Thomas, a Nike marketing executive. "I'm laughing, I'm
Along with Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith--whom Reebok
cut in February for a $1 million buyout fee--O'Neal is the
biggest name caught in the sneaker industry's about-face. Three
years ago Reebok had 130 NBA players under contract; next season
they'll have about 20. Reebok has also chainsawed its rosters in
football (from 550 to 100) and baseball (from 280 to 140).
Adidas, Converse and Fila never collected athletes the way Nike
and Reebok did, but even Nike is trimming its stable. It won't
release exact numbers, but it recently told 30 NBA players that
their deals will switch from guaranteed money to
performance-based payments next year.
Plummeting sales aren't the only reason most players will now
have to settle for free shoes. In the late 1980s sneaker boom,
sales generated by athlete-endorsers weren't as important to a
shoe company as the cachet bought by "branding" as many players
as possible with its logo. Now the feeling is that the large
number of athlete-endorsers has created marketplace clutter.
Arrogant, occasionally criminal behavior by athletes has created
misgivings, too. Says Howe Burch, vice president of sports
marketing for Fila USA, "Kids aren't as inspired by athletes
anymore." All of which has led the industry to reexamine, after
more than a decade of lavish fees and frenzied marketing, its
rationale for using sports figures as pitchmen. "At the end of
the day," says Reebok spokesman Dave Fogelson, "it has to be,
Are we selling shoes?"
Proposed Football League
A NEW GAME IN TOWN?
After announcing last week that they were "moving forward toward
the creation" of a pro football league, NBC and Turner Sports
(owned by Time Warner, SI's parent company) left unanswered
almost every question about their proposed venture, from the
starting date to the number of teams they aim to field to the
most obvious one: Does America really need another football
league? Both companies declined to comment, but one can safely
surmise that a league founded by a TV network and a cable giant
is going to be desperately viewer-friendly. Which got SI senior
writer Peter King to musing on what we might be seeing in the
summer (or fall) of 1999 (or 2000)....
It's halftime of the Turner Football League's playoff opener,
and here in the home locker room at the Cotton Bowl, as Dallas
Iguanas coach Ron Meyer blisters his troops, two cameras and a
boom mike record his diatribe for NBC's national audience. Los
Angeles Skyscrapers quarterback Vince Evans has raked Dallas for
three touchdowns and a 21-10 lead, and the Iguanas--even league
rushing leader Emmitt Smith, cut in a salary-cap purge by the
NFL Cowboys--slither off the field to a chorus of boos.
When Dallas huddles for its first defensive play of the second
half, captain Bill Bates steps over a cameraman lying on the
ground, shooting into the huddle. "Don't give Evans time!" Bates
yells, his voice caught by the mike in his shoulder pads.
At the line, Evans shouts "Set!" as middle linebacker Andy
Katzenmoyer (the prize $8 million steal of the TFL's first
draft) digs in across from him. The cameraman bolts for the
sideline, and Evans takes the snap, his eyes--and his 1.2-ounce
helmet cam--scanning the secondary. But his $45,000-a-year left
tackle, Chicago Bears castoff Chad Overhauser, gets
steamrollered by former Oakland Raiders pass-rusher Vince Amey,
who drives Evans into the turf. NBC cuts to a commercial
promoting that night's second playoff game, with New England
Chowder quarterback Doug Flutie purring into the camera, "All I
ever wanted was a chance to play football back home, and the TFL
gave it to me. Watch our playoff game tonight against
Birmingham. I'll take you into our huddle."
New York has made an effort of late to clean up its image,
Disneyfying Times Square and purging many of the city's
notorious porn shops. So does Manhattan real-estate tycoon
Donald Trump feel a touch of tawdry nostalgia when he
contemplates the site of his latest golf resort, in West Palm
Beach, Fla., of all places? Trump's proposed $40 million club
will nestle among a 12-story jail, a strip club and a store
called Condoms Galore.
NCAA Eligibility Rules
Toure Butler, a candidate to start at cornerback for Washington
this fall, has few problems concentrating on the football field.
Like many other learning-disabled students, however, he has
trouble in the classroom. In addition to his condition, a
difficulty in processing spoken information, he has been
burdened over the past two years by the question of whether the
special-education courses he took in high school made him
ineligible to play under NCAA rules. "There were times when I
didn't know if I was going to lose my scholarship and be out of
school," he says.
On May 26, when the NCAA agreed after months of prodding from
the Justice Department to revise its initial-eligibility
requirements for those with learning disabilities, that anxiety
was removed for Butler and hundreds of other student-athletes.
The agreement, which came after a 2 1/2-year federal
investigation found that the NCAA's eligibility policies
violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, will allow
learning-disabled students--who will still have to meet GPA and
standardized test requirements--to count NCAA-approved remedial
and special-education high school classes as part of the core
courses all athletes need to be eligible as freshmen.
That means fewer headaches for athletes like Butler, who was
declared ineligible in October 1996, three games into his
Huskies career, after the NCAA decided it would not recognize
the remedial-level courses he took at Cascade High in Everett,
Wash. Butler, who just finished his sophomore year with a GPA of
2.4, says he was yanked off the practice field by school
officials when the NCAA's decision came down. He sued the NCAA
and was granted an injunction to play until the start of the
trial, which was to have begun on Monday.
Butler's is one of at least six cases settled by last week's
rule changes. While questions remain about possible eligibility
abuse of the new policies, the NCAA doesn't anticipate a flood
of newly declared learning-disabled athletes because most
students are designated as such long before high school. "We
have to be mindful [of potential abuses]," says NCAA spokesman
Wally Renfro, "but we can't not do the right thing just because
we mistrust people."
SAD ROADSIDE GARDEN
On my way home a couple of months ago I glanced, as I always do,
at the building where I spent so much of my personal and
professional life. What I saw nearly sent me off the road. The
wall of the Boston Garden facing I-93 had been razed, offering a
gaping view of the arena's guts. Of course I knew that the
Garden was doomed, having been replaced three years ago by its
neighbor, the FleetCenter, one of those state-of-the-art joints
with air conditioning, $10 chicken sandwiches and no clue about
history. The old barn had to go. But why last week was it still
sitting there like a wounded animal?
As I peered into the building, I could see the loge section
where my dad and I sat the night goalie Jacques Plante debuted
in a Bruins uniform. The upper deck railings my girlfriends and
I hung over to yell our devotion to the Celtics' Don Nelson were
intact. The posts were still up, too, blocking from view the
action of games that have long since ended.
It's cruel to leave this landmark lingering (but necessary, I'm
told, because a hasty demolition might damage the FleetCenter).
This was where Havlicek stole the ball and Orr scored the Goal,
where kids like me entered clasping their fathers' hands,
feeling sure this was the night some new sports magic would be
conjured up. I've passed the gutted Garden 20 times, and the
sight jolts me still, as though the wrecking ball had crashed
into my own living room and left a gaping hole in a lifetime of
memories. --Jackie MacMullan
World Cup '98
IT'S FATALE FOR FEMMES
In spoken French, it's a short jump from les filles s'en foutent
(girls don't give a damn) to les filles sans foot (girls without
football). With the World Cup set to begin on June 10, either
phrase could describe the filles in the host nation. An
estimated 80% of French women profess not to give a damn about
the Cup, and many are rallying around a campaign of Gallic
disdain that includes antisoccer Web sites, TV networks planning
to counterprogram matches with romantic movies, and cafes
proclaiming themselves foot-free zones.
For several weeks at the fabled Folies-Bergere, a male strip
troupe known as California Dream Men will be offering le Monty
complet in a Widows of the World Cup spectacular. The
Chippendales will also be on tour, baring their can-cans at
clubs throughout the country. According to promoters, most of
the reservations for the tour have come from husbands "to make
up for their excessive soccer watching." That beau geste may not
be enough, however. Because of the Cup, French sociologists are
predicting a steep rise in the divorce rate.
That Zen master Phil Jackson recapture his inner peace and quit
whining about the refs.
That the U.S. soccer team fare better in France than U.S. men
tennis players did.
That beanball pitchers (like Armando Benitez) who injure batters
(like Tino Martinez) have to sit out at least as many games as
Fine, in dollars, threatened by Royals manager Tony Muser--who
had instructed his team to use sunblock--against any Kansas City
player to suffer a sunburn during a day off between games
against the Angels in Anaheim.
Pounds over the 124-pound limit that boxer Vanessa McKnight
weighed for a bout in Atlantic City, before a prefight physical
revealed to her--and to officials, who disqualified her--that
she was pregnant.
Dollars, under the table, that Italian soccer team AC Milan
allegedly paid rival Torino (in addition to an acknowledged
$10.5 million) for striker Gianluigi Lentini.
Pitchers in the National League who had won seven games at
Seven-game winners on the Braves' staff.
Canine athletes--dogs that compete in obedience, herding,
flying-disk-catching and other events--in the U.S.
Trampoline injuries treated in emergency rooms in the U.S. in
1997, an increase of 93% since '93.
Which Baseball Record Is More Likely to Fall?
In each of the last three seasons in which they played 100
games, Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey Jr. have been zeroing in on
61 dingers. RBIs? Please. No one's come within 30 of Hack
Wilson's 1930 record of 190. It takes other hot hitters to set
the table for an RBI guy. A home run hitter doesn't need that
help. Of Roger Maris's 61 homers, 31 were solo shots. --Tom
Juan Gonzalez drove in more than a run per game over 1996 and
'97 but missed 58 games with injuries. Now he's healthy. His
1.3-per-game pace this season would yield 213 RBIs over 162
games. Gonzalez has the table-setters--Texas is hitting nearly
.300 as a team--and with the Rangers in contention, he has
greater incentive than ever to be productive. --H.H.
On the seventh day they rested...and on the eighth, ninth and
10th. The way the Utah Jazz talked last week, the team's most
fearsome opponent on the road to the Finals wasn't a Western
Conference victim but all that downtime while waiting for the
Chicago Bulls to knock off the Indiana Pacers. The Jazz, who won
the West on May 24 and had seven more days off going into the
Finals than the Bulls, should have relaxed. In the last 20 years
19 teams have entered the Finals better rested than their
opponents; 13 won the title. What's more, teams that idled for
at least five days longer than their opponents have been nearly
unbeatable. In winning the NBA championship, it seems, the
waiting is the hardest part.
Extra Teams Finals Game 1 Titles
1 day 5 3-2 3
2 days 3 1-2 3
3 days 4 2-2 2
4 days 1 0-1 0
5 days 4 2-2 3
6 days 1 1-0 1
7 days 0 -- --
8 days 1 1-0 1
THIS WEEK'S SIGN THAT THE APOCALYPSE IS UPON US
Designer Ralph Lauren's company, Polo, is suing to force the
23-year-old official magazine of the U.S. Polo Association to
give up the name Polo.
Capitals coach Ron Wilson's attempt to goad the Sabres by
calling them "chicken": "I don't think anyone is smart enough to
fall for that."