Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin

At a time when party lines are toed so deeply as to create ideological trenches in the United States, President Barack Obama might have found a unifying force to bring all Americans together: A hatred of Russia. Between remnants of Cold War hysteria and a lack of social progress in the land of a former enemy, Republicans and Democrats, rarely alike, both have reasons to despise the hosts of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

And so, it’s without much consternation from either side of the political spectrum that the White House announced its delegation to the Sochi Olympics wouldn’t include a President, First Lady, Vice President or even an acting cabinet secretary. Instead it will be comprised of two openly gay delegates: tennis legend Billie Jean King at the Opening Ceremonies, and two-time Olympic medalist in ice hockey, Caitlin Cahow, at the Closing Ceremonies.

A statement from the White House coyly suggested that the President believes the delegation “will showcase to the world the best of America – diversity, determination and teamwork.” In case that was too subtle, the statement repeated that this delegation “represents the diversity that is the United States.” The only way the statement could have been more implicative would be if the statement was read by Ellen Degeneres while holding rainbow flags.

Why is the United States going through all this trouble to say something, while not really saying anything?

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Maurice Clarett carries the ball

The latest entry in ESPN’s 30-for-30 series, Youngstown Boys, directed by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, will premiere on Saturday, December 14, at 9 p.m. ET after the Heisman Trophy Presentation on ESPN. Youngstown Boys is the second effort in the documentary series from the Zimbalist brothers, with their previous entry, The Two Escobars, standing as one of the most celebrated films of the collection.

Via ESPN official release:

Youngstown Boys explores class and power dynamics in college sports through the parallel, interconnected journeys of one-time dynamic running back Maurice Clarett and former elite head coach Jim Tressel. Both emerged from the working-class city of Youngstown, Ohio—Tressel as the head coach who turned around the football program at Youngstown State—before they joined for a magical season at Ohio State University in 2002 that produced the first national football championship for the school in over 30 years.

Shortly thereafter though, Clarett was suspended from college football and began a downward spiral that ended with a prison term. Tressel continued at Ohio State for another eight years before his career there also ended in scandal.

Youngstown Boys instantly sets itself among the top tier of the 30-for-30 series’ films. Fans of films like The Two Escobars, The Best That Never Was, and Once Brothers will be satiated by the story’s powerful portrayal of relationship dynamics, success, struggle, and redemption.

We spoke with co-director Michael Zimbalist about making the film, its themes, Clarett and Tressel, and the NCAA.

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The offensive coordinator appears complacent. It’s a rare sight. He’s smiling. Peacock postured, and certain. His pride is so pronounced that even the defensive coordinator – whose affinity for humanity seldom prompts insight – is able to immediately understand that something good has happened to his colleague.

“You’re in a good mood.”

The offensive coordinator doesn’t hear him.

“I said, ‘You’re in a good mood.’”

“What’s that? Sorry.”

“You look like you’re feelin’ good. What’s goin’ on?”

“Oh, yeah. I think I did it.”

“Did what?”

“I invented the perfect play.”

The seeming lunacy of the statement doesn’t escape the defensive coordinator. He doesn’t know how to respond. He respects his colleague, but his claim is ridiculous.

“Oh yeah? Let me see it.”

Still dreamy, as though something mesmerizing is occurring in the distance, the offensive coordinator hands over his playbook. The defensive coordinator takes it, looks at the page, rests his finger on his mouth, twice stops himself from speaking and proceeds to not do anything for several seconds. The offensive coordinator continues his gaze toward the horizon.

“This is incredible.” The defensive coordinator can hardly believe what he’s seeing. “We have to run it. All the time.”

The two coaches call their players together. They line up. Even though the defensive coordinator knows exactly what the play will be, he can’t stop it. The offense scores a touchdown. It’s perfect.

“We have to try this again.”

They do, but a funny thing happens. As the ball is hiked, the right tackle slips and the defensive tackle is able to break through his block and sack the quarterback.

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Welcome to The Quazcast, a weekly podcast that brings listeners in on a frank conversation between myself and a random person from the world of sports.

These interviews are about digging deep and avoiding the cliché questions and answers that too often plague sports conversations. My guest could be anyone. I might speak with a 90-year-old NFL kicker one week, the manager of a Major League Baseball team the next, and a bull fighter the week after that.

This week I talk with former Major League Baseball All-Star Ellis Valentine. Over eleven seasons in the big leagues, Valentine earned a reputation for having an amazing arm, prompting former Montreal Expos manager Felipe Alou to quip, “There’s a plateau where you can’t throw the ball any harder and you can’t be any more accurate. That was Ellis Valentine.”

The Gold Glove Award winning right fielder faced a ton of adversity throughout his career. In addition to fighting drug and alcohol addiction throughout his playing days, Valentine missed a crucial month of action back in 1980 when he was hit in the face with a pitch from St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Roy Thomas that cracked his cheekbone in six places. Valentine maintains to this day that he was targeted with a beanball.

Below is an excerpt of our conversation and a recording of the complete interview. As always, to get future podcasts downloaded straight to your listening device, you can subscribe to The Quazcast on iTunes.

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the quazcast (1400 x 1400)

Welcome to The Quazcast, a weekly podcast that brings listeners in on a frank conversation between myself and a random person from the world of sports.

I might speak with a 90-year-old NFL kicker one week, the manager of a Major League Baseball team the next, and a bull fighter the week after that. The Quazcast is about digging deep and avoiding the cliché questions and answers that too often plague sports interviews.

This week’s guest is one of the game’s good guys: former Super Bowl winning New York Giants tight end Kevin Boss. After graduating from Western Oregon University with Academic All-District VIII honors, Boss declared himself eligible for the 2007 NFL Draft. He was selected by the Giants in the fifth round, and finished his rookie season as the team’s starting tight end after Jeremy Shockey went down to injury.

Boss was a key contributor to New York’s championship season, making important catches in the NFC Championship game and the Super Bowl. He’d spend the next three seasons with the Giants as a starter, cementing his reputation as a large, but athletic tight end, who most memorably leaped over a would-be tackler on a third down play against the Eagles in his final year with the team.

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roughriders_fans-2I drove across Canada once. Along the Trans Canada Highway, I stopped to refuel with gasoline and energy drinks in a rural Saskatchewan town. When I went to pay, I was told by the cashier that I better get home soon. She had no idea I was more than 2,500 kilometers away from there.

I must have looked as though she was speaking a foreign language. So, she tried to fill in the knowledge gap, “You know. For the game.”

Buzzed from the tiny vibrations you feel from driving for five straight hours, I still had no clue what she was talking about. She, somewhat frustrated at my obliviousness, mentioned that kickoff was in ten minutes. Then, it was like a light bulb went on over her head. Her countenance completely changed. “You’re not from around here, are you?”

I said I was just passing through, and she informed me that it was usually dead around this time because everyone was home watching the Roughriders play.

The Canadian Football League is barely an afterthought for me, but here was an entire community of people so interested in the outcome of their local team’s games, that the whole town seemingly stopped what it was doing to observe and cheer.

There’s this strange urge within many of us from Canada’s larger cities – where professional sports and alternative entertainment options are more abundant – to mock the CFL as something for those simple, salt of the earth types in the flyover provinces enjoy. It’s all very condescending and hints at a lack of self-awareness.

We all have simple pleasures and differing motivations for seeking out things that make us happy. For sports fans of any sort to project their preference as superior to another’s is ridiculous. It’s sports. Sports are as meaningful as you want to make it. There’s no easily understood reasoning for why we care about it, and there’s no way of explaining why one thing within sports should be more appealing than another. So, congratulations if your preference for the NFL doesn’t allow you time to keep up with the CFL. That’s great for you. It’s great for me, too.

However, for a whole bunch of people in Saskatchewan tonight, the CFL is very meaningful. The 101st Grey Cup is being held in Regina, Saskatchewan, between the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and the same Saskatchewan Roughriders who prompt their supporters in rural towns across the province to stay in, and not frequent little gas stations just off the highway. I hope nothing but the best for them.

When we speak about the beauty of sports, we’re typically referring to a precision pass, a wonderful goal or the perfect throw. We mostly use the term to describe a vicarious experience in which something spectacular has occurred. We see it, and our imaginations allow us to experience it. This is why we enjoy sports.

However, that’s not all it offers. Occasionally, sports can give us something more. It can encourage us. It can protect us. And it can prompt us to do good things. Most importantly, it can include those who have otherwise been excluded.

This was the case for Danny Keefe, a kindergartner from Mitchell Elementary School in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, who suffered a brain hemorrhage at birth that caused childhood speech apraxia. In addition to his difficulty speaking, the studious-looking 6-year-old insists on wearing a suit and tie to school every day. He also dresses this way when he’s fulfilling his duties as the official water coach for the Bridgewater Badgers Div. 5 Peewee Football Team.

When Tommy Cooney, the team’s quarterback, learned that Danny was being picked on at school due to his personal style and speech apraxia, he decided to create a “Danny Appreciation Day.” According to WCVB in Boston, the entire team got behind the idea and all wore suits to school just like their waterboy, Danny.

That’s what sports can do.