Failure to Make Shots in the Clutch is Going to Sink the Raptors

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Credit: Getty Images

There has been a lot of talk about why the Raptors lost Game 1. They choked, LeBron came through. But it all came down to this: the Raptors were not able to make the baskets at the end. It is as simple as that. Unfortunately, that has become the reputation of every Toronto team. Can’t come up with the big goal, clutch hit, drain the shot at the most critical times.

Raptors had two chances to seal the deal. Once with seconds left in the fourth quarter, the other with seconds left in overtime. Both times, the Raptors came up empty. That can’t happen. Not when you are favoured to win, not when you have home court advantage, and not when you are facing Cavaliers team that barely survived the first round against Indiana.

I’m not sure Fred VanVleet is 100%. He is usually makes three-pointers easy. But his wide three-point attempt in the dying seconds of overtime went wide. And the doubts are creeping in again.

But tomorrow is another day. So, the objective of Game 2 is also simple: win the game. In fact, winning is non-negotiable. The Raptors either win Thursday or the series is over next Monday in Cleveland. Period.

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We’ve Always Told Athletes to Shut Up and Play, Why is This Any Different?

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LeBron James commented on the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida where 17 people were killed by a lone gunman, a former student of the school. He like many left-wingers (i.e. social activists) are calling for stricter gun control measures. Fox News host Laura Ingraham went on her television program and said James should “shut up and dribble” and not comment on matters pertaining to the United States. The all-star and 3-time NBA champion responded to her saying he will continue to speak his mind and will not let anyone tell him what to say. Anyone, LeBron?

Two-time Super Bowl Champion Chris Long (son of Football Hall of Famer Howie Long) came to the aid of James. He too argued about having the right speak their minds and had some choice words for Ingraham. The reaction to Ingraham’s criticism of James is beyond belief. I believe people are targeting Ingraham because she is more of a pushover and can’t take on a heavyweight like Rush Limbaugh. If there is one legit criticism of Ingraham’s comments is that she is wayyyy late to the party. I (and many others) have been telling athletes to stick to sports years before she did. All I got to say to Ingraham is, what took you so long?

The skin of James and others like him is starting to become thin. As long as I have been covering and following sports, media has always been telling athletes (past and present) to shut up and worry about their own game. Why is what Ingraham said any different? Hall of Fame basketball player and current television analyst Charles Barkley has been speaking his mind for years on a number of things, both on and off the court. He is also perhaps James’ biggest critic. There have been plenty of people telling Barkley to shut up and stick to basketball, and hardly anyone makes a big fuss over it.

Those who cover the Toronto Blue Jays have continuously told the players to get off social media, especially pitcher Marcus Stroman. Stroman is known to get very emotional when he has something to say. Many say they are tired of hearing how upset Stroman was in losing his salary arbitration case. Yet they turn around and say someone like James have a “right” to make social commentary especially if it is against the sitting President of the United States. Hypocritical? Is Donald Trump still occupying the White House?

Some will say talking about politics is different from whining about a missed call by the refs. I would tend to agree with that. The big difference though is the latter is about the game, the former is a subject that has no connection to the game. There is nothing wrong about making a lot of noise about a dirty hit by a player even if it was clean to begin with and you have no case from the start. Something like politics on the other hand is another matter. Everyone has an opinion (like me) and they think theirs is the most important. One exception could be if that player (or coach or manager) has a personal experience or first-hand account of the issue. Otherwise, if you are reacting to something that you heard from someone else, I say who cares. Your opinion is no more important than mine. And if you want to keep opening your yap, I will continue to tell you to zip it.

Also see:

Athletes Should Stick to Sports
Sports is Not a Platform for Activism
Kaepernick Only Has Himself to Blame… Plus, Defending Your Brand

DeMar DeRozan: MVP

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DeMar DeRozan is having the best season of his career. Maybe not statistically, but he is the reason the Toronto Raptors are one of the best teams in the NBA’s Eastern Conference with the likes of the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

This season, DeRozan is averaging 24.5 points a game through the first 48 games. That is less than the 27.3 points per game he averaged last season. But what’s important is that he is getting a majority of his scoring this season when it matters. We have seen when DeRozan is on the court with the game on the line, he wants the ball and has often come up with big baskets at critical moments. You also can’t discount his play making abilities or the way he has helped make the Raptors a championship contender year after year.

I first entertained the idea of DeRozan being the NBA’s most valuable player in 2017. With the way DeRozan is playing, there is an even bigger case to be said that he is an MVP candidate this season. I won’t waste your time arguing who is worthy of being an MVP. I have already written a piece on that. But if there is one quality I look for in an MVP, it is how he plays when the game is the on the line. In other words, is DeRozan a clutch player? I think he is. DeRozan is also becoming a leader of a talented but young Raptors team.

DeRozan is not an outspoken individual, much like another former MVP, Stephen Curry. But he is becoming that superstar player that some in the media feel the Raptors are missing. Since being taken ninth overall by the Raptors in 2009, DeRozan has developed into one of the league’s best players. He may not get the recognition from the US media, but basketball fans here in Canada know how good he is. It’s about time DeRozan gets his name on the Maurice Podoloff trophy.

Also see:

The Raptors are Playing with House Money
How to Determine Who’s MVP Worthy
By Far, Stanley Cup Playoffs are Better Than NBA Playoffs

Contact Won’t Kill Sport, Petty Rules Will

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Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

I recall the 1994 baseball players strike where there were cries that fans will never watch a game again. That same sentiment was echoed in 2004 when the NHL locked out its players which lasted the entire season. Everyone, at least in the media, believed this was the end of professional hockey as we know it.

Fast forward to 2014, both baseball and hockey have never seen their respective sport become more popular than before. Labour strife has not killed sport as a lot of experts have suggested. Earlier this year, members of the United States Women’s Ice Hockey threatened to boycott the Women’s World Hockey Championship over money. It hardly got any negative press. In fact, many in the media stood up and applauded as did hockey fans on both sides of the border. These people who said they would never see a game again because of the bickering over money are making Donald Trump the most honest man in the world.

The latest threat making the rounds is concussions. Contrary to popular belief, head injuries is not news. The difference is, thanks to advancement in medical technology, we are now seeing the consequences of getting hit in the head. That has caused doctors and others in the medical profession to call for rules in place to prevent such injuries. But how? There have been penalties in place for hits to the head but it is as clear as mud. As we are witnessing it being put into practice, the new rules have not prevented more head injuries and players are not sure what’s allowed and what is not.

There is a false notion that people watch hockey for goal scoring. No questions that scoring goals is important, it what determines who wins or loses. But as I have said before on a number of occasions, it takes more than scoring goals to win games. And part of that is preventing goals from being scored. That involves a certain level of contact. Plain and simple. We have witnessed during all-star games where if defence is non-existent, it makes for a boring game. You can’t defend if you are not allowed to make contact, or at the very least there is the possibility of making contact.

The violent nature of hockey or football is not going to kill the sport. What will kill sport is putting in rules that will hinder the player’s ability to perform to the best of their abilities. Can’t hit in the head? Can’t go below the knees? The “sensitive” area is certainly off-limits. So what part of the body is left to make contact? You realize that these ridiculous calls for safety are being championed by those who don’t give a damn. They wear suits, glasses, have a PhD in something, not the qualities I associate with a sports fan. They claim they are doing it in the best interest for sports, but don’t believe it for a second. The lack of contact in sports, and the petty rules enforcing it, is going to do far more damage than the cancellation of the World Series or losing an entire NHL season.

Also see:

Have Attitudes Towards Athletes Who Boycott/Strike Changed?
The Latest Futile Attempt to Ban Fighting in Hockey
Hockey is a Tough Sport, Get Use to it

What If Making Trades Was That Easy

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This Blue Jays season has been so disappointing that even the recent (and some would say expected) trades of Francisco Liriano and Joe Smith to contending teams were met with frowns by media and the like. Not so much that these players were dealt away, more like what we got in return. Pouting at Ross Atkins for making the trades is one thing, actually pulling the trigger on one is more difficult than people like to believe. Some folks blindly believe the Blue Jays can pick players up at a drop of the hat. And many of them work in sports media. If only it were that easy.

I have listened to sports talk radio for years and too many times I hear callers ask the host the same question: “why can’t (insert team here) get (insert player here)?” or “they should trade (insert player here) for (insert player here), that would be a great trade.” I remember hearing one caller insisting the Blue Jays should trade Kevin Pillar to the Dodgers for Clayton Kershaw, straight up. First off, you have to convince me the Dodgers would be willing to part with their ace for then Toronto’s young unproven outfielder. Secondly, the idea immediately comes off as a pipe dream. There is no logical basis to make the trade other than to promote phony outrage and anger that someone would not take such a trade proposal seriously. It makes you wonder the kind of people who listen to sports talk radio shows and whether that is the kind of people advertisers want to be associated with.

But let’s just say (for the sake of argument) acquiring the players we wanted was that easy. For starters (and I’m speaking from the Toronto sports fan’s perspective), the Blue Jays would surpass the Yankees as the franchise leader in World Series championships. Maple Leafs fans would be bragging about a Stanley Cup dynasty, not lamenting about not winning the Cup since 1967. If making a trade was that easy, no one would be talking about consequences such as the lack of parity it would cause or how the trade will impact the other team.

Another thing to think about is if trades were that easy, why would teams need general managers? If you believe the armchair GMs, all you need to do is pick up the phone, announce your demands and bingo, you get the player you want. Anybody can do that. In fact, why not just walk into a store and take whatever you want on the shelf? That kind of act would land you in jail but it seems some people feel it’s the way to do business in professional sports.

It probably took Alex Anthopoulos weeks if not days to negotiate the trade that brought Josh Donaldson to Toronto. There were those who didn’t want the team to part with Brett Lawrie, the Blue Jays’ third baseman at the time, who ended being one of the players the Blue Jays sent to Oakland for Donaldson. That was one of the challenges Anthopoulos had to face. Perhaps it is all Pat Glillick’s fault. Glillick made things pretty easy during his tenure as Blue Jays GM. His blockbuster trade in 1991 that brought Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter from San Diego led to two World Series Championships and now everyone thinks they can be a general manager in sports. But all kidding aside, if only making trades were that easy. What should the Blue Jays do about Jose Bautista? Why not ask Justin Bieber?

Also see:

Even if Bautista and Encarnacion Return, the Blue Jays Still Have Areas to Address
Firing Exposes Incompetence… Among Fans and Media
Get the Right Player First, then Spend the Money

By Far, Stanley Cup Playoffs are Better Than NBA Playoffs

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There has been a lot of talk about how the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors have been dominating their opponents in this year’s NBA playoffs. So-called basketball fans and media have long cheered for the Cavaliers and the Warriors to battle it out for the NBA title.

The Toronto Raptors made things interesting last year when their Eastern Conference Final series with Cleveland was even after the first four games. That produced excitement for us fans here in “The Six” but it caused quite a shock to the rest of the United States. Dare I say more shocking than Donald Trump winning the US Presidential election. As great as it would have been to see the Raptors in the finals, there are those who got their wish and saw Golden State and Cleveland battle it out for the championship. And by the looks of it, it will happen again for the third straight year.

This year’s NBA playoffs has been predictable. Unless you live in Cleveland or in the Bay Area, there hasn’t been much excitement. Even Charles Barkley doesn’t seem interested in what’s happening in the NBA Eastern Conference Final.

https://www.clippituser.tv/c/rvvyng

Compare that the Stanley Cup Playoffs where it has been unpredictable and exciting. Most of the excitement is coming from teams like the Nashville Predators, an 8th-seeded team in the Western Conference who will be making their first ever appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals. How can you not like what is happening with the Predators? They have taken Music City by storm and it’s not just because team captain Mike Fisher’s wife is a famous musician. The Predators are making the Ottawa Senators look like the Florida Panthers when it comes to fan base.

Standing in the way of bringing Lord Stanley to the Volunteer State are the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins are the only team left in the playoffs with a true superstar player, or in this case two, in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Which buries the theory that you need one to be a championship contender. Alexander Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Connor McDavid, Carey Price, Steven Stamkos, they are all watching the playoffs from home. Add to that, top teams like Chicago, Montreal, Washington, and last year’s finalist San Jose were eliminated early.

There is also the fact that five of the seven Canadian teams made the playoffs this year, a year after there were none. The return of the Toronto Maple Leafs to the playoffs certainly helped even though they were not able to get by the Capitals in the first round. The Senators, perhaps, went further in the playoffs than anyone would have expected. Erik Karlsson is one of the best defenseman in the game and he is showing us why in the playoffs. Had Ottawa made it to the final, it would have been an interesting storyline with one-time Senator fan favourite Fisher facing his old team for the Cup. The Penguins and Predators have their own storyline in the finals. The two teams at one time were considered being sold to a Canadian tech billionaire. Jim Balsillie wanted another team in the Southern Ontario market but nearly ran his successful smartphone company into the ground in order to do it.

Sure, playoff hockey isn’t without its flaws. The Senators still are able to employ the neutral zone trap. But until there are rules in place to outlaw it, defensive hockey is still the way to go in the playoffs. Another is, you guessed it, the lack of fighting in hockey. There’s been some animosity in the playoffs but very few resulting in the drop of the gloves. The Gary-Bettman-doesn’t-want-a-Canadian-team-to-win-the-Stanley-Cup mantra is growing old but there are folks who still cling to it like those in the southern United States who many say still cling to the confederate flag. But despite all that, the Stanley Cup Playoffs remains compelling because of its unpredictability.

The NBA can have all the superstar power they want. I’ll take the blue-collar attitude that comes with playoff hockey. It is by far the best playoff action anywhere.

Also see:

The Raptors are Playing with House Money
Bettman is the Best Commissioner in Professional Sports
Everyone Loves an Outcast

 

Looking Out for the Next Number One

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This week, I attended the OHL Cup tournament in Toronto. The tournament features the top minor midget hockey teams in Ontario and parts of the United States. It also acts as a way to showcase players for managers and scouts of major junior teams. Since much of the players in this tournament will be in junior hockey next year, and since the Barrie Colts are picking first overall in this year’s OHL Priority Selection, I was curious to see who will be in the league come September.

The last time the Colts selected first overall was in 2011. They took a 14-year-old from Belle River, Ontario named Aaron Ekblad in the draft that year. The rest as they say is history. This year, many OHL scouts, coaches, general managers, and media I have talked to are speaking highly of Jack Hughes (pictured), a talented forward from Orlando, Florida who is playing with the Toronto Marlboros of the GTHL (the Marlboros are one of the teams taking part in the OHL Cup). Despite his small size (he’s listed as 5’11” but many think he’s shorter than that), they feel he has the skill-set to be an impact player for the Colts. But Hughes is also being attracted by NCAA schools and the United States National Development Team. The Colts have been burned in the past for using their first selection to draft players (particularly those who are American-born) that intend or have made commitments to other programs. So whether the Colts will take him at number one at the April 8th draft remains to be seen.

While we’ve seen the likes of Ekblad and Connor McDavid at the NHL level, many have not seen the two develop in the junior ranks. I was fortunate enough to cover these two players as they spent a good portion of their teenage years in the OHL. I also had the pleasure of watching Jason Spezza, John Tavares, Steven Stamkos, and Bobby Ryan play in the league. It is fascinating to see them play at a high level well before they became household names.

Despite what you hear in the media, hockey players (and other athletes) do not grow on trees. Finding a great hockey player is more than about whether he can score goals. There are a number of factors involved. How well does he skate? How is his hockey IQ? Does he make too many mistakes with the puck? What about the program he is currently in? Is it constantly developing good hockey players? Does he make other players on the team better? What’s he like away from the rink? What about his upbringing? His family?

This kind of thinking also applies to other sports especially when it comes to family. Lonzo Ball is projected to go number one in the upcoming NBA draft. But most of the talk isn’t about the UCLA standout, it is about his father, former US collegiate basketball player LaVar Ball. The elder Ball seems to have taken control of his son’s budding basketball career, bragging about his abilities and putting an enormous value and unnecessary pressure on him. Add to that, LeVar Ball is willing to pick fights with anyone who criticizes him like Basketball Hall of Famer Charles Barkley. These things would scare many NBA teams into not drafting Lonzo Ball, not because of his talent, but the unpredictability of his father. Fortunately, there are few people like LeVar Ball in this world.

It is interesting to find out who the next Sidney Crosby, LeBron James, or Mike Trout will be. They can be found in places like the OHL Cup, the local ball diamond, or high school gymnasium. Go see them play at your local arena before you have to fork out $200 to do the same at the Air Canada Centre.

UPDATE April 8:

The Barrie Colts selected forward Ryan Suzuki of the London Junior Knights as their first pick of the 2017 OHL Priority Selection. His older brother Nick plays for the Owen Sound Attack.


Hughes, by the way, was taken by the Mississauga Steelheads 8th overall.

Also see:

Draft, Schmaft
Getting the First Overall Pick: Big Deal? Or Big Deal?
Lessons From the World Juniors

Canadians Expected to Compete in Every Sport

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A couple of observations from this past weekend. Abbotsford, British Columbia’s Adam Hadwin won the Valspar Championship, his first victory on the PGA TOUR. Meanwhile, Team Canada were winless at the World Baseball Classic. Two sporting moments, two different outcomes, but both had the same expectation: to win it all.

Maybe it is too much to say that the Canadian WBC team was expected to win it all or even advance to the next round. Even if you had every Canadian Major League Baseball player on the team, there are holes in a few positions, namely in middle infield, where they are lacking significantly. In the case with Hadwin, he has been close to winning before, most recently at the CareerBuilder Challenge where he shot a round of 59. It was simply a matter of time before he would eventually be in the winner’s circle. Next stop for him is the Masters in Augusta.

It used to be if a Canadian was in an event such as the Masters, or Wimbledon, or the Indianapolis 500, the notion is: “we are just glad to be here.” Not anymore. With the exception of perhaps soccer, Canadians are expected to compete, if not win, on a regular basis in every sport, not just hockey. That is a different mindset than say 10 years ago or even longer where we would settle for a participation medal. With better athletes and better training, Canadians are expected to take home the hardware when they take on the rest of the world.

The difference I believe is attitude. At one time, winning a championship was seen as too difficult of a task. Now it is looked at as a challenge everyone wants to face. To me, that is a good sign that Canadians have goals, some albeit lofty, that they expect to meet. The days of just hoping and praying are over. Today’s Canadian athletes are able to control their own fate more often.

Now, there is still a lot of work to do when it comes to actually winning championships. Canada’s baseball team needs a middle infield to go with the strong pitching and power hitting. Milos Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard will have to overcome their physical setbacks before they can compete in major tennis tournaments. Canada’s basketball team is one Center away before they become a serious threat to the dominating US team.

But one thing is for sure, athletes need to continue to aim high. That separates the participants from the contenders and it will bode well for Canada in producing not just great athletes, but champions.

Also see:

Do You Need International Success to be a Great Canadian Athlete?
Lessons From the World Juniors
Olympics are All About the Games

 

There is Something to be Said About Loyalty

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there-is-something-to-be-said-about-loyaltyThe late Tony Gwynn played 20 seasons with one team, the San Diego Padres. Despite a Hall of Fame career that included 8 batting titles, 5 gold glove awards, and 15 all-star appearances, Gwynn appeared in only 2 World Series, both times he was on the losing team. The Padres franchise had just a handful of winning seasons with Gwynn on the team. But the thought of leaving for another team never entered his mind. Gwynn is perhaps an example of loyalty.

There are other two names that come to mind, Shane Doan of the Arizona Coyotes and Joe Thomas of the Cleveland Browns. Both players have established themselves of being elite players on teams that would be best described as mediocre. Both deserve to be in their respective Hall of Fames once their careers are over. But neither have asked to be traded to a contending team nor have they gone on the market and signed with another team. They decided to stay where they are.

You could be excused if you were someone like Kevin Durant or LeBron James who left their respective teams to join ones who are already championship calibre or a so-called “Super Team” where the line up is made up of superstar quality athletes. But to those who stuck it out with one team or one organization throughout their entire career, you should be saluted. To them, it is more about being associated with one team than it is about winning championships. I find that people appreciate a player’s loyalty even if they had every reason to leave.

Loyalty is perhaps the most unappreciated quality in the world. No one seems to care if you dedicate yourself to one team or organization. In fact, loyalty is often seen by some as being associated with losers. But if you are one who works hard and shows up everyday, you maybe on a losing team but you are hardly a loser. Sometimes being a big fish in a small pond is better than being one of million in an ocean.

So let’s give kudos to those who are staying with the only place they knew for their entire lives. One maybe a lonely number, but for some, it is the only number they know.

Also see:

Stability Key to a Successful Team?
Backers Abandon Cam, Broncos Win One for Peyton
Is it Always Good to Go Out on Top?

Some Traditions are Worth Keeping

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I was asked why the first baseball game of the season is played in the afternoon. My reply was it is tradition. Yes, it was on a work day yet baseball fans find the time to get out to the ballpark and watch the game. Many marketing geniuses would suggest holding the first game of the season in the evening would make more sense because more people are off work and children are off school at that time. But we see many stadiums filled to capacity with thousands of people supposedly calling in sick. As the saying goes: if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

The latest attempt by Major League Baseball to appease those who don’t follow baseball is to replace the intentional base-on-balls rule. In effort to pick up the pace of the game, instead of lobbing four pitches away from the plate, managers will signal to the home plate umpire of their intentions to give first base to the batter without throwing a pitch. Another idea being bandied about is to start the half of each inning with a runner on first base if the game goes past the regulation 9 innings as a way to generate more runs to decide a winner thus ending the game a lot sooner. Those ideas may sound good on paper but whether it will work in reality remains to be seen. Already, a number of managers and players are against them even before it is put into practice. Are they being fickle? No. They know full well that it is not going to work. They, like a lot of baseball fans, understand that going through the motions of something even remotely uninteresting is part of the game. The only people who have a problem with the pace of the game are those who don’t watch it. You can extend that argument to those who don’t like the violent nature of hockey and football, and the lack of scoring in soccer.

Too many times, those in charge of sports leagues ruin what is already a great game to watch. They feel kicking a good number of diehard fans to the curb in favour of attracting a few casual ones is worth it. Hockey fans experienced this in 1992 with the Fox puck, a puck that glows on your TV screen. Fox carried NHL games in the US and felt putting a spotlight on the puck will make it easier for people to see it while watching the game on TV. But the gimmick became more of a distraction than an enhancement, and a couple of years later, Fox put the glowing puck, figuratively, on ice.

That is not to say there is room for improvement when it comes to the game. But sometimes it is best to leave things alone. Why do some changes make sense while others are not accepted? I can sum it up with one word, politics. Those who believe in legislating change, or forcing the issue on others, are doomed to fail while those who let nature take its course, meaning no political interference, are more likely to succeed. This is why leagues with rules that see hockey players get kicked out of the game and/or face supplementary discipline for getting involved in a fight are seeing their product diminish. It is kind of ironic that the people who were perhaps the most vocal against the Fox puck cling to the belief that there will be no more fighting in hockey. All I can say is: pity.

Times are a changing and technology is offering new ways to do things that are more convenient. But some (like me) are what people like to call “old-school”. We continue to perform tasks today that were first created dozens of years ago. We like to hold up and flip through pages of a newspaper, or prefer to speak to a person in-person when buying a big-ticket item. Recently, vinyl records have seen a resurgence by people in their late teens and early 20s (a.k.a.: millennials). They are discovering what a lot of us already know and enjoy.

Some often mistake tradition for laziness. But we don’t change just for the sake of it. Sometimes the best way of doing things is what we have already been doing for years. And that is why some traditions are worth keeping.

Also see:

Political Correctness has No Place in Sport
What Happens When the Passion is Gone?
Outsiders Strike Again