On Fire

“It’s been one of those years, but we are going to go down swinging to the bitter end.” — Jimmie Johnson, before last weekend’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval

Sure, the Braves might’ve clinched a playoff spot last weekend. And sure, the United States got blown out at the Ryder Cup. But the weekend’s most interesting sporting event belongs to NASCAR ー that is, if you think it’s a sport.

NASCAR fans are used to watching drivers race on ovals and road courses, but this weekend they were treated to the debut of the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval ー a track that combines the banked turns of an oval with the left and right turns of a road course.

And it was glorious.

Though the course was slightly reconfigured after Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. and Erik Jones managed to destroy their cars in practice, the race itself still had plenty of wrecks. In a late-race restart, then-leader Brad Keselowski brought out another caution after driving his car headfirst into the Turn 1 wall.

Yet those car-eviscerating blunders pale in comparison to Johnson’s attempted last lap pass of Martin Truex Jr. for the lead. Coming out of the track’s final right-hand turn, Johnson clipped Truex, sending both of them skidding and opening the door for third-place Ryan Blaney to take the checkered flag.

But it gets worse.

This race was a playoff elimination race — only the top 12 drivers advance to the next round. After recovering from his spin, Johnson crossed the finish line in eighth position, tying with teammate Alex Bowman for 11th place in the points. That is until, Kyle Larson plowed his car into the front-stretch wall to compensate for his blown-right front tire, passing a stalled Jeffrey Earnhardt to capture a 25th-place finish and an extra point.

A point that tied him with both Bowman and Johnson.

And with Bowman and Larson controlling the tiebreakers, seven-time NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson thus eliminated himself from title contention. So if that guy you’re socially obligated to interact with before class tries to talk to you about how close that Ohio State game was, how disappointing the Falcons’ near-win was or, especially, how good his weekend was, your sagacious On Fire correspondent permits, nay, commands you to ignore him.

There is only one sport in the world where the whims of track owners and executives are so unchecked that an entirely new genre of venue can be debuted in the middle of the playoff schedule without much recourse.

There is only one sport in the world whose CEO and chairman can impose ridiculous, ad hoc drug sanctions only to get himself arrested for drunk driving with oxycodone in the car.

And that sport is NASCAR. So if you haven’t been following the attention-starved downward spiral of America’s best reason to drink on a Sunday afternoon, you should be.

“Throwing it deep … for Ridley … he’s got it! Breaks a tackle — and it’s going all the way!” — the part of last Sunday’s Falcons game meant to build up fans’ hopes, in order to worsen the pain of an eventual loss to the Saints

Your Atlanta Falcons might be resting at 1-2, they might have only beaten the Carolina Panthers and they might have just lost starting safety Ricardo Allen for the season, but this loss could propel them to a division title and the opportunity to avenge their postseason defeats at the hands of — well — just about everyone.

For Georgia sports fans, Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley has certainly made up for his role in UGA’s defeat at Alabama’s hands in last year’s College Football Playoff National Championship. After all, Ridley wasn’t responsible for catching Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s game-winning touchdown pass. And after yesterday’s three-touchdown performance, Ridley’s probably passed the Falcons’ other Alabama wideout, Julio Jones, on offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s depth chart.

Speaking of the devil, the much-maligned play-caller’s real test this season won’t be finding a new way to fumble the Falcons’ playoff hopes — or, for that matter, to find a way to one-up his drug-fueled departure from USC’s football program. And it won’t be finding a way to keep Jones from scoring more than three touchdowns all season, because he already did that last year. No, the pressure is really on Sarkisian to craft some way of letting Atlanta sports fans down more than the Braves are fixing to.

And the man’s certainly got momentum on his side. He already lost a $30 million lawsuit during the offseason.

But back to the Braves. They’re headed to their first MLB playoff appearance since 2013, when an eighth-inning home run by then-Dodgers infielder Juan Uribe brought in two runs — and sent the Peach Clobbers home. And barring Atlanta-esque late-season collapses by either the Dodgers or the Cubs, it looks like the Braves are headed to another National League Division Series against pitcher Clayton Kershaw’s Blue Crew. The potential for a playoff matchup between ex-Baltimore Orioles, now-Dodgers third baseman and shortstop Manny Machado and ex-Orioles, now-Braves right fielder Nick Markakis should certainly give Baltimore sports fans a thrill. Or, at least, another reason to seethe over Orioles General Manager Dan Duquette’s job security.Regardless, your merciful On Fire correspondent hopes that the Braves’ season ends better than Uribe’s career, which was cut short by a ground-ball-induced unfortunate event. At least his sacrifice probably reminded some that cups are for more than just holding beer and catching home runs.

“We’re going back to the SEC Championship this season, y’all. And they’ll have to put us in the playoffs this time!” — an Auburn fan before last Saturday, probably

We’re just starting the fall sports season, but your prescient On Fire correspondent can already tell where things are heading — it’s as clear as the intentions behind that 3 a.m. text from your overeager “study buddy” from economics class. In the realm of college football, the Alabama Crimson Tide added a 62-7 pummeling of Ole Miss to their record, though they didn’t punch their playoff ticket yet.

But that’s OK. The rest of the NCAA did for them.

Bama fans had much to be vindicated by this weekend. The brilliant Head Coach Scott Frost, who led UCF to their 2017 “National Championship” alongside Alabama, demonstrated his ingenuity — this time, in finding a new way for his Big Ten Nebraska Cornhuskers to disappoint at home: a loss to the Sun Belt’s Troy University Trojans.

But wait, there’s more. The Auburn Tigers, whose 26-10 defeat of Alabama last year kept college football’s best team out of the SEC Championship, managed to lose to the SEC’s other tigers, LSU. Meanwhile, then-suspended Head Coach Urban Meyer’s Ohio State showed the Big Ten’s true colors in a near-defeat to TCU. Yet that was one of the Big Ten’s best performances this week: highly ranked Wisconsin choked against BYU while Rutgers fell to Kansas, who apparently don’t just play basketball.

Speaking of other sports that people watch to kill time between football games, the Atlanta Braves appear set for a playoff run with their commanding lead of the NL East. The Braves’ roster is loaded with talent poached from the 2014 Baltimore Orioles team: right fielder Nick Markakis and pitchers Brad Brach, Darren O’Day and Kevin Gausman. The quartet seem likely to demonstrate the administrative incompetence of the somehow-still-an-Oriole General Manager Dan Duquette, whose impeccable resume includes giving former slugger Chris Davis $161 million to do … well, we’re not exactly sure what.

Over in the American League, your On Fire correspondent is impressed by the Red Sox’s remarkable hundred-win performance, which is the team’s first since 1946. Ever since pitcher David Price parted ways with “Fortnite,” they’ve seemed destined to avoid the legendary fried-chicken-and-video-games collapse of 2011. However, only time will tell if the franchise of slur-spouting fans can avoid a PlayStation-induced relapse.

Elsewhere in football’s shadow, Brad Keselowski locked himself into the next round of NASCAR’s playoffs after a chaotic race in Las Vegas, wherein half the playoff field found a way to wreck themselves before they checked themselves. Washed-up Jimmie Johnson continued the worst season of his career, securing a 22nd place finish that still put him ahead of half of the once-great Hendrick Racing’s other entries. Can — or will — Rick’s ex-superteam ever bring back the days of housing Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the same garage?

While we’re still wondering about that, we do know that a few things are certain: death, taxes and Alabama dominating college football.

It’s September. The first winds of fall are in the air, and college students nationwide awaken every Saturday with dreams of victory in their hearts. They leave their dorms and run across campus in a beautiful mass of school spirit until they reach their campus’ football stadium, where they join their peers at tailgates, forming lifelong friendships and memories as the smell of burgers and hot dogs fill the air.

Meanwhile, your pioneering On Fire correspondent is joining his fellow Emory students in making a similar coming-of-age trek across campus: the Saturday evening stroll from Harris Hall to the legendary “KOLLEGE” party. It’s esteemed traditions like these, formed across centuries, that make Emory a bastion for collegiate tradition and pride.

“But you’ve never experienced a gorgeous early-autumn afternoon in Michigan’s ‘Big House!’” you cry.

Your sagacious On Fire correspondent smiles and responds: “Ah, but have you ever strolled from the hallowed halls of Emory’s Sigma Chi to the stunning green lawns of Alpha Tau Omega, watching 150-pound white dudes in Chubbies throw a frisbee to the soaring melodies of Post Malone’s “Beerbongs and Bentleys,” while they repeatedly glance across the street towards the sorority lodges?”

Yes, friends and disciples of On Fire, college football season has returned. And with it, students across the nation are teaming up to cheer on their comrades on the gridiron, and Emory students are doing the exact same things that they were doing last week, with slightly cooler weather.

Alas, 2018 marks the 182nd straight football-less year at Emory. But why should we let other schools steal all the spotlight? Emory, of course, is located in one of the nation’s most fertile recruiting areas. It has natural local rivals in Georgia State and Kennesaw State (Ga.). And, believe it or not, it is already home to some incredibly qualified footballers.

Contrary to popular sentiment, your stunningly athletic On Fire correspondent is not referring to himself or herself, though it has been rumored that he or she throws a mean spiral.

No, your cannon-armed On Fire correspondent refers instead to a number of promising players scattered throughout the Emory campus.

After all, who better to play quarterback than Dooley herself? The undead skeletal demon and part-time Emory mascot already has a built-in offensive line in her security guards. Some scouts have expressed concern about Dooley’s brittle bones not being able to stand up to hits in the pocket, but the whole “immortality” thing should help her withstand the rigors of a full college football season.

How about a head coach to lead the newly-minted Emory football team? There are too many choices to count. The best coaches are people who can make tough decisions — people who can evaluate the numbers in front of them and not be bogged down by any emotional connections — aka the entire Emory administration.

Emory infamously cut their journalism, education and visual arts programs in 2012, which left a sea of students alone and rudderless and sounded the death knell on a few of Emory’s finest programs. But your economically savvy On Fire correspondent applauds the administration for its foresight and inability to let things like “the interest of its students” and “campus-wide protests” stop them from ensuring that more money is funneled into the Goizueta Business School.

The proof is in the numbers, after all. Since the school-wide cuts in 2012, Goizueta has skyrocketed from 19th in the U.S. News and World Report rankings all the way to … 21st.

When reached for comment, Emory’s head football coach reportedly blamed SEC bias.

“Don’t blame it on the sunshine, don’t blame it on the moonlight, don’t blame it on the good times, blame it on the Boogie.” — Jackson 5

The No. 6 seed New Orleans Pelicans completed their first-round sweep of the No. 3 seed Portland Trail Blazers 131-123 at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans on April 21. And yes, that’s the name of their stadium.

Your On Fire correspondent believes there are many reasons for this surprising sweep. Pelicans center Stretch Armstrong — whoops —  Anthony Davis played like the MVP candidate he is, averaging 33 points and pulling in 12 rebounds per game for the series.  Then there was Pelicans point guard Rajon Rondo, who gave slightly more than minimal effort for the first time since 2008 and dished out 13 assists per game while still being unable to hit a jump shot.

But there was a notable absence from this series: Pelicans four-time all star center DeMarcus Cousins, whose season ended with a torn achilles on Jan. 26. Cousins was in the midst of a fantastic season, averaging 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.4 assists with a true shooting percentage of .583. Over the past three seasons, ESPN’s estimated wins added (EWA) had Cousins adding anywhere between 14-17 wins a season, making him (statistically) one of the 10-15 most valuable players in the NBA.

When the Pelicans added Cousins, many thought that the dynamic duo of Boogie and The Brow would be the kind of one-two punch New Orleans needed to compete in the Western Conference. Boogie was the peanut butter to Davis’ Jelly; the socks to his shoes; the John Legend to his Chrissy Teigen.

But with the Pelicans absolutely demoralizing a higher-seeded Portland team, Boogie suddenly seems more like a third wheel than a bride-to-be. Davis don’t need no man — he is the strong, independent superstar Kentucky fans have been telling us since they started recruiting him out of fifth grade. Davis doesn’t need Cousins’ peanut butter because Davis isn’t just some jelly — Davis is Nutella. Davis doesn’t need socks — he’s Crocs. Davis doesn’t need a John Legend — he’s Oprah.

The numbers bear this out. Losing Cousins and adding power forward and Theodor Herzl doppelganger Nikola Mirotic, shouldn’t make a team better. But it did. Seemingly, his gaudy individual numbers don’t translate to team success.

Throughout his six years in Sacramento, the one city in California you couldn’t pay this On Fire correspondent to live in, Cousins never led his team to more than 33 wins. Even without markedly better talent, the Kings’ current dumpster fire team only won six fewer games compared to the Boogie led train-wreck two years ago, Cousins’ last full season with the team — a far cry from his 14-17 EWA.

But how did the Pelicans improve after losing a two-time Second-Team All NBA player?

With Cousins, the Pelicans defensive rating was bottom-10 in the league. Over the last 34 games without him, their defensive rating has been in the top five.

Per the Ringer, without the slow-footed Boogie, the Pelicans have trapped the pick and roll much more aggressively with Holiday and Rondo. The quicker Mirotic can recover to either the shooter or roller in a way that Cousins can’t with cinder blocks for feet.

Ultimately, this should all amount to just a barbershop conversation about Cousins with my hairstylist Katya. Except, Cousins is about to be a free agent this summer. Seeing green (no, not the WEED Stephen A), Cousins expects to receive a max contract. Unfortunately, coming back from a torn achilles is always difficult and unpredictable. Even assuming he is 100 percent healthy, should New Orleans offer a max contract to a player who wins as rarely as Cousins?

There’s nothing more American than grabbing a hot dog, heading to the ballpark and watching nine guys from the Dominican Republic make magic on the field.” — Will Ferrell

With the conclusion of March Madness and subsequent desire to bet on all things sports-related to win back the $10 buy-in you lost after Virginia fell first round, have no fear: a new sports season is fully underway. Baseball is back and ready to be the source of all your disappointments as you follow a team for 162 games that last three hours each, just to find out your favorite team has no chance at making the playoffs.

Regardless, your On Fire correspondent is ready to give you an all-encompassing season preview so you can be prepared to make small talk with that one relative who is oddly obsessed with the game.

As much as it is fact that Wednesdays follow Tuesdays, carrots are healthy, Emory is better than Oxford, etc., nothing has changed with the long-held practice that the New York Yankees will spend every possible dollar to build a superteam. Instead of taking strong analytical efforts to develop young players, the Yankees have continued to be the Alpha Chai Latte Brads from Long Island, N.Y., who simply buy their way to the top. By acquiring GQ poster boy Giancarlo Stanton to guarantee the team even more home runs, the Yankees are once again ready to be the most hateable team.

While the Yankees did everything they could to improve, the Miami Marlins did everything they could to tank. By selling every star player, including the aforementioned Stanton, the Marlins sit at the level of a student who flunked out of “baby bio” and are now taking full pass/fail classes on the basket-weaving track. Most shocking with this Marlins development is the divorce between the organization and the “Marlins Man.” Laurence Leavy (78C), the Emory grad turned successful lawyer, became a fixture at all top sporting events by rocking a bright orange Marlins jersey at prominent seats at the World Series, Super Bowl, Kentucky Derby, etc. Now, by not renewing his season tickets, he is the biggest free agent in baseball willing to take his talents away from South Beach, Fla. Maybe, just maybe, he will next be spotted as the sole fan at Chappell Park for an Emory baseball game.

As a change in the game this year, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has led the charge to pick up the pace of baseball play. By shortening the amount of mound visits and considering instituting a pitch clock, Manfred may in fact speed up the game so much that games will be more short-lived than your freshman-year desire to be pre-med (still improbable).

The 2018 season should ultimately be one of no surprises: Yankees will be good, Marlins will suck and top-down decisions will ruin the national pastime.

However, if the owner of Maggie’s can take an active role in campus elections, then I guess anything may be possible this season.

“If you ain’t first, you’re last.” — Ricky Bobby

In the annual lull between the the regular football season and the start of March Madness, the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea briefly turned every American into a self-proclaimed ice dancing expert. But your On Fire correspondent’s heart is broken not for the termination of the all-too-quick Winter Olympics, but for the United States’ dismal performance.

Before I criticize my beloved country, a few notable victories are worth mentioning.

  1. Red Gerard won the United States’ first gold medal in the men’s snowboard slopestyle. Maybe just as importantly, his family won my heart by shotgunning beers at 8:30 in the morning in celebration of his performance. Few things are more American than claiming supremacy in a sport as arbitrary as sliding down a mountain on one fat ski, but beer for breakfast with your kin is definitely one of them.
  2. The U.S. men’s curling team took gold. A team that looks like a group of dads who finished last in fantasy football and had to join curling as punishment defied all odds and trounced Sweden, a heavy favorite leading up to the event.
  3. Shaun White is still alive? Apparently. White earned us another gold medal, but wow, I haven’t heard of this guy since he starred in the 2007 American Express commercials.
  4. Women’s hockey won gold. In a glorious shootout victory, the women’s hockey team defeated our northern neighbor Canada in a test of whether universal health care covers broken, maple-shaped hearts.

In spite of the glorious performances, the U.S. finished fourth in the overall medal count, falling behind Canada, Germany and wait, that can’t be right Norway?! (To be honest, your On Fire correspondent probably could not locate Norway on a map.)

The U.S. has 64 times the population of Norway, and they nonetheless destroyed us in the medal count (39 medals against our 23) and pushed us off the overall podium, which is absolutely unacceptable. Don’t even get me started on Iceland, which qualified for the 2018 FIFA World Cup despite having a population smaller than Wichita, Kansas. The United States didn’t qualify for the World Cup on purpose, but if we were trying to earn a spot in the field, that would have been a huge embarrassment. Regardless, Norwegians probably enjoy winter and going outdoors or something freaks. Fortunately, the 2020 Summer Olympics (the only Olympics that actually matter) in Tokyo, Japan, are only two years away. Hopefully we garner 64 times the medals of Norway.

While your On Fire correspondent is forever quick to criticize the United States’ lack of even a bronze overall medal, he or she is just as quick to advocate for stomping some probably socialist Scandinavian country into the snowless ground.

“One: Is this or is this not the XFL? Yes it is. Two: Do I or do I not currently have a pulse? Yes, I do. Let’s play football.” — Former XFL Quarterback Jeff Brohm on playing six days after a concussion.

With the post-Super Bowl flames in Philadelphia reducing to an ember and Kevin Hart’s celebratory drunkenness turning into a treacherous hangover, a world without football is starting to feel like a sick joke. In Super Bowl LII, the Philadelphia Eagles defeated Tom Brady and the Patriots — thank God and all felt right in the world. But now, a week and a half later, the abyss in the hearts of football fans everywhere is gaping. The next games of either collegiate or professional form won’t be played until late August.

But the football lull will soon be a thing of the past: WWE chairman Vince McMahon announced Jan. 25 that the XFL will return in 2020. Yes, the anti-establishment football league that operated for one season in 2001 during the NFL’s off months is returning. Without an official name, it can only be hypothesized that XFL stands for Xtra-Fun-League, contrary to the NFL colloquially standing for the “No Fun League.”

The XFL supposedly seeks to make football a fast-paced, easy-to-understand entertainment league that reinforces family values. Truly, patriotism is at the forefront of the league’s priorities and player safety is at the back — and your On Fire Correspondent is more pleased than Ron Swanson at a free breakfast buffet. It is rumored that players will be mandated to stand for the national anthem and respect the flag in all capacities. After the anthem, which will most likely include bald eagles circling the stadium, the league uses the “scramble” to determine possession, in which two opposing players fight to gain possession of a loose football rather than simply engaging in a polite coin toss. Furthermore, if the league follows its tradition of deregulated football as it did in 2001, the fair catch during punt returns will be banned, thus permitting all returners to become first-team Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) candidates.

The NFL has become the epitome of sports adulteration in America, where it can only be foreseen that Commissioner Satan/Roger Goodell will cover all players head-to-toe in bubble wrap and resort to two-hand touch competitions (No pushing, guys! Gosh!). The return of the XFL’s near-anarchic form of football is sure to restore the sport to glory. With provocatively dressed cheerleaders, hard hits, less rules and more patriotism, this is the league that reinforces all stereotypes of American sports culture. Rumors have it that former Heisman winner and most frat quarterback of all-time Johnny Manziel will be launching a return with the XFL — ensuring that every Brad in Alpha Chi Latte will order a fake Money Manziel XFL jersey shipped from a sketchy website from China that only accepts PayPal or Bitcoin. It’s #comebackszn, y’all.

With the revamping of the XFL, the no-fun monopoly of the NFL that limits player celebrations and unpatriotically cares for player safety will finally have viable competition. While critics may say that the XFL will simply lampoon the sport, your On Fire correspondent says give America what it wants. Are you not entertained?

We care about people’s feelings, we’re respectful when anyone is offended, but we have this 80-year name that we love.” — Lanny Davis, Washington Redskins lawyer

In an unforeseen act of non-idiocy, the Cleveland Indians announced Jan. 29 that the team planned to finally abandon the Chief Wahoo logo on their uniforms by 2019. The logo, first developed in the late 1940s, depicts a Native American chief with red skin, huge teeth and nose and a large feather sticking up behind his head. With the logo serving as the Robert E. Lee statue of sports logos, the removal is a win for non-racists everywhere.  

However, your On Fire correspondent is a bit shocked by the change. For the longest time, he/she anticipated that Cleveland management would address the predicament by altering the logo with maybe a less offensive shade of red. Perhaps even the Washington Redskins will finally respond to criticisms about their team name, perhaps to something like “D.C. Redskins.”

Some Cleveland baseball purists believe this is the first battle in a war towards changing the name to something other than the “Indians.” The audacity. It would be utterly unfair for the team change their name to something — dare your On Fire Correspondent say it — politically correct. Absolutely nothing is more American than using the national pastime as a platform to market stereotypical imagery associated with the people whose culture and very way of life it completely destroyed! I guarantee you that loyal subjects of ‘The Land” are more than ready to go to battle covered in war paint purchased from Hobby Lobby as they march to the beat of their tribe drum bought at Guitar Center.

Obviously, “Indians” captivates the culture of the the city; Native Americans comprise 0.3 percent of Cleveland’s demographic makeup. It’s about the equivalent of the Los Angeles Lakers bragging about all nine of the lakes that their storied NBA franchise glorifies.

While a total rebrand is far from happening, it can be hoped that Cleveland fans can swallow their loss of the Chief. Why not rally around the letter “C”? No one else in baseball is doing it.

All kidding aside, it is truly commendable that the Cleveland organization is taking a step towards progress in spite of backlash from some of its fans. Although it has not fully eradicated its race-based image, the organization is finally starting to become aware of its controversial mascot.  In a city where pollution is so bad its river has caught on fire (no pun intended) 13 times, the removal of Chief Wahoo is a positive move  towards cleaning up Cleveland’s image.