Ray Ratto

A sports-related pie-fixing scandal? Hell never felt so fun


A sports-related pie-fixing scandal? Hell never felt so fun

I’m liking this 2017 so far. Then again, after 2016, nearly any year would be an improvement.

Just this last weekend we got a flat-earth scandal that turned into a mock-up about media self-importance and fake news (yay Kyrie Irving and his impish sense of satire!).

We got the overblown Russell-Hates-Kevin narrative, and the faux Russell-Secretly-Loves-Kevin counternarrative, all because we are stunningly attracted to meaningless and utterly contrived drama (yay our ability to B.S. ourselves!).

We got the NBA All-Star Game ripped for having no defense even though last year’s game was, if anything, worse (yay short attention span!).

We got the Boogie Cousins trade and the national revulsion of all the thought processes the Sacramento Kings put into this perpetually rolling disaster (yay making Boogie and Vivek Ranadive household names!).

And now we got the Great Sutton United Pie-Fixing Scandal. Yeah, pie-fixing. Hell never felt so fun.

So here’s the deal. Sutton United, a very small fry in English soccer, got to the fifth round of the FA Cup, a competition in which all the clubs in England are commingled and play each other until one team remains. The big clubs almost always win, so any time a small club goes deep, it’s a big deal.

Anyway, Sutton went deeper in the competition than nearly anyone in the last century, a charming development given that it is such a small club that it had a stadium caretaker, goalie coach and backup goalie all in one massive fellow, a 46-year-old guy named Wayne Shaw. Shaw became the globular embodiment of the entire Sutton Experience, a jolly lark for everyone involved and especially when he ate a pie on the bench in the final minutes of Sutton’s Cup-exiting loss to Arsenal.

And now he’s been eased into resigning his jobs with the club, because – and this is so very British – there were betting shops taking action on whether he would in fact eat a pie on the bench, and he either did or did not tip off his pals that he was going to chow down on television.

He did eat the pie. His pals collected on their bets. The sport’s governing body opened an investigation into market manipulation by gambling – which is hilarious given that no fewer than 10 gambling establishments have advertising deals with English soccer clubs. Shaw was invited to quit to kill the story, and he took the hint.

Hey, dreams die all the time. But it’s still pie-fixing. Let that rattle around your head for a minute. Pie-fixing. Not match-fixing. Not point-shaving. Pie-fixing.

Now how can you not love this year?

Sure, it sucks for Shaw, but it serves as a series of cautionary tales for athletes around the world.

* Gambling is everywhere, and every time you inch toward it, you dance on the third rail.

* If you want to help your friends, give them cash.

* This is a horribly delicious way to lose your gig.

* And finally, fun in the 21st century isn’t ever truly fun because someone in a suit and a snugly-placed stick is going to make sure you pay full retail for that fun.

But it is nice to know that something that has never happened before is now part of our year. Pie-fixing is a thing now, as silly in its way as Irving’s flat-earth narrative was. And as we steer away from normal games as being too run-of-the-mill-fuddy-duddy entertainment, we have replaced them with sideshows.

Or do you forget how many people complained Saturday and Sunday that the dunk contest wasn’t interesting enough? How stupid is that?

Lots. Lots of stupid. But against pie-tin-shaped planets and pies turned into betting coups, how can it possibly compare?

We chase a lot of idiotic narratives in our sporting lives. The great What Will The Patriots Do To Roger Goodell story died like the old dog it was. We still try to flog Warriors-Thunder as a rivalry in search of better TV ratings when all the obvious evidence is that it is no such thing unless you think a couple that broke up nine months ago is still a solid story. We have Bachelor fantasy leagues, for God’s sake.

This would leave most normal folks in despair, thus matching their everyday experiences, but yin meets yang, and every time it looks like we are all barrel-rolling into the sun, we get Irving, and then we get Wayne Shaw.

In short, 2017 is going to be fun of grand surprises for us all. I look forward to the day President Trump tries to fete the Patriots and only gets to Skype with Bob Kraft and the equipment guys who midwifed DeflateGate, and Mark Davis in Las Vegas, just to see if he can get a P.F. Chang’s into the Bellagio.

Why not? This is sport’s year-long tribute to sketch comedy, and evidently everyone is signing on enthusiastically to replace lessons of morality and honor and equality and dignity and sportsmanship with slackened jaws and belly laughs.

So yay sports! Or as it is clearly becoming, A Night At The Improv.

One useful takeaway from this seeming madhouse of a weekend in NCAA Tournament


One useful takeaway from this seeming madhouse of a weekend in NCAA Tournament

College basketball peaked last week, as it typically does. There were 52 games, many of them hilariously delightful, only a few of them viewing slogs, and the sturdiest pillars of the narrative temple as it relates to the remaining 16 teams are:

* A 98-year-old nun who also functions as an unpaid assistant coach.

* A head coach who curses on air, gets soaking wet after wins and confesses that he worries about peeing himself on the sideline.

* A new version of the old debate about whether your view of Syracuse’s zone defense defines you as a basketball fan.

* Your dead bracket.

The nun, the glorious Sister Jean of Loyola Chicago, is new, and so is Eric Musselman (except in northern California, where he’s had pretty much every available pro job). But Jim Boeheim’s murderous zone defense, which he has employed since the Hoover administration, remains the litmus test about how you like your college basketball served.

Think of it as your AARP ID, if you must. It’s old-fashioned, it isn’t easy to watch, but it works.

And all the fun of a bracket that has more teams below the 4-seed than at or above it . . . well, Week Two is when most of that traditionally self-corrects. Even this year, there is the very real possibility that the gutty little underdog in San Antonio could be . . .

. . . wait for it . . .


And no, this is not the proof that the selection committee got it wrong. Not that they got it right – they’re pretty much not qualified based on work experience to do the job anyway, and their ability to ignore logical criteria at will to get a desired team or result is a long-standing tradition of this three-week bacchanal.

But if there is a useful takeaway from this seeming madhouse of a weekend, it is that it is not yet a sign that the revolution is underway or that the meek are inheriting the earth. If you ignore the seed math and look at the names next to the seeds, you still see the same basketball powers. In other words, the bracket will normalize as it always does, the power in the sport is never far away from the seat of that power, and those of you who root for the meek – well, your hope that charm can beat muscle rests on Eric Musselman and Sister Jean.

And the NCAA Tournament is not the vehicle to bet that prop.


For the moment, the Pac-12 is the Mid-American Conference


For the moment, the Pac-12 is the Mid-American Conference

If you’re a progressive thinker, the only thing that can save the Pacific 12 Conference from the grossest form of humiliation is for one of the six schools it sent to the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament – Cal, Stanford, Oregon, Oregon State, UCLA, Arizona State – to make a deep run. In Stanford’s case, to become the first four-seed to win a title.

If you’re a more desperate type, it is to hope that Oregon, Stanford, USC or Washington wins the NIT. Nobody will know it, but we did say “desperate.” And if you need to get to Utah in the Women’s NIT . . .

Well, you get the point. The Pac 12 is the first conference to bow out of the NCAA Tournament before the first weekend since the Big 12 was first formed in 1996-7. And because nobody remembers this sort of stuff year to year, it wipes out last year, when the conference went 9-4 and sent Oregon to the Final Four.

And when we say “sent,” we mean no such thing. In the NCAA Tournament, and in college sports in general, teams achieve. Conferences just get their cut.

Still, as the college sports industry is still covered based on the rules of tribalism, where the keeping of scores breaks down by laundry first and then by affiliation, the Pac-12 has been historically God-awful, which for things referencing the deity is a considerable stretch. Not only did they send only three teams to the NCAA Tournament and saw them evaporate before Friday dawned, they were 1-8 in bowl games, the worst record of any major conference since forever.

Plus, there’s the FBI, plus there’s the ongoing sense that the Pac-12 is the last of the Power 5 and getting worse, plus there’s the fact that it isn’t in the Southeast or Midwest, where this stuff really matters.

But we noticed it on Thursday because people kept bringing it up, especially after Arizona was owned by Buffalo despite having the putative top draft pick in DeAndre Ayton and specifically because a Sean Miller-coached team was so poor defensively.

And now comes the fun of watching the 12 conference university presidents panic as the other presidents make fun of them in the mahogany playground in which they all play. And don’t think that doesn’t happen. College sports is a big business played by kids for the financial benefit of older kids who keep score on things like this.

So the women start Saturday, and in a just and fair society that would get sufficient attention and play enough games to make the conference members feel better about themselves. We don’t have that society yet, so for the moment, the Pac-12 is the Mid-American Conference, and won’t get a chance to prove otherwise until December.

But hey, at least their task force on the structural future of college basketball was received . . . well, with a tepidness unknown to mankind. So yeah, they're on a hell of a roll.