It's almost fall, the greatest time of the year to let out our inner beer-drinking, salsa-chugging, and Take-Me-Out-to-the-Ballgame-screaming personalities that we hide for most of the year. Sports are really the only DVR-proof events on TV anymore, so don't fast forward through the biggest stories of the fall season: the NFL's concussion problems and a changing of the guard at quarterback; College Football's mega-dynasty at Alabama and hypocrisy on paying its athletes; Baseball's Alex Rodriguez conundrum and a potential new Home Run King; soccer's latest and greatest attempt at winning over American fans.
Fantasy football drafts are well underway, college football teams are already complaining about their Top-25 rankings, and the World Series is just around the corner, so let's get the lowdown on the biggest stories of the fall sports season.
Changing of the guard at quarterback — The past decade in the NFL has been overwhelmingly run by three star quarterbacks: Peyton Manning while on the Colts, the Patriots' Tom Brady, and the Saints' Drew Brees. But all are pushing the wrong side of 30, and a new wave of young stars is ready to dethrone the Old Guard. These young QBs are led by (below, from left to right) the Colts' Andrew Luck, the Redskins' Robert Griffin III, the Seahawks' Russell Wilson, and the 49ers' Colin Kaepernick. Unlike the Old Guard, the latter three of these new quarterbacks succeed with a deft combination of running and passing, changing the model quarterback from a stodgy, immobile passer to an electric, athletic playmaker.
Concussion lawsuit against the NFL — A group of over 4,000 former NFL players sued the league over allegations that it knowingly withheld information linking football-related head injuries like concussions to an increased risk of mental problems later in life, such as Alzheimer's and dementia. The two sides reached a settlement for $765 million on Thursday, with the NFL taking the definite win in ending the threatening lawsuit. But it's not as if concussions are going away. Look no further than Bills quarterback Kevin Kolb, who on a totally innocuous play in last week's preseason game suffered a likely career-ending concussion. So while the NFL has dodged its biggest threat on head-injuries, there are still many more to go.
Faster-paced games — Football haters often lament the slow pace of the game. Run up the middle for a yard; 35 seconds of standing around; incomplete pass; 35 more seconds go by. Then a timeout. Four-minute commercial break. It's enough to annoy even the most devout football fans, but this tedious, dawdling aspect of football is on the way out, replaced by hectic no-huddle offenses hell-bent on running as many plays as possible as quickly as possible. More plays equals less milling around and more action.
Former outspoken players trade football for microphone — Football punditry should be a bit more exciting this year with the addition of vocal, retired players Ray Lewis and Randy Moss into commentary. Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated runs down the key questions facing Lewis and Moss: Will Lewis' over-the-top rah-rah speeches (and dance moves, below) translate into informed analysis on ESPN's studio? Does he have any legitimacy to admonish players' off-field transgressions given his alleged involvement in a 2000 double murder? As for Moss, the former star wide receiver had a reputation for selfishness and laziness on the field, but his FOX Sports 1 companions are already talking up the brains of the talking head. Moss is one of the most fun and quotable players in NFL history — he once said he would pay a $10,000 fine in "straight cash, homie" — and should be must-watch TV from the studio desk.
Los Angeles to get NFL team? — The country's second-largest TV market has been saying an NFL team is near for almost 20 years, but this time could be for real real. A franchise relocation to Los Angeles is "imminent," at least in the informed opinion of Dallas Cowboys' owner Jerry Jones, and the area has two potential plans for building state-of-the-art football stadiums. ESPN's Arash Markazi argues that the Oakland Raiders and St. Louis Rams are ideal targets for relocation. Both previously played in Los Angeles and both have expiring stadium leases; will we see a return of the Los Angeles Rams and Raiders?
Major League Baseball
The saga of Alex Rodriguez — The admitted performance-enhancing drug user was suspended for his role in the Biogenesis case for 211 games by the MLB, but he is still playing for the Yankees as he awaits his appeal process. And playing well, too. Hate him or love to hate him, A-Rod has turned full-on wrestling heel, making him one of the few must-watch hitters in baseball.
Pittsburgh Pirates shed losing history — Finally, after 20 consecutive years of losing records, the Pirates are set to make baseball's postseason. They hold a commanding lead in the Wild Card playoff race and are just a plank's walk behind the division lead, and the team is confident enough to begin selling playoff tickets to their fans. Led by outfielder Andrew McCutchen's all-around goodness and their stellar "Shark Tank" bullpen, the Black and Yellow should finally get that losing monkey off their back. Yinzers, enjoy a Primanti Brothers sandwich. You (and Wiz Khalifa) earned it.
The questionable fairness of no salary cap or floor — Baseball's lack of a salary maximum or minimum has made for some questionable practices this year. For one, the Los Angeles Dodgers opening payroll of $220 million far exceeded any other team — yup, even the Yankees — and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Dodgers have one of the best records in baseball. The Houston Astros sit at the other end of the spectrum, with a payroll of just $21 million, and again unsurprisingly, the worst winning percentage of any MLB team since 2005. But that's not without benefits; Forbes reports that the Astros' low payroll has made this the most profitable season for a team in baseball history. Astros owner Jim Crane, then, may be the only person who likes this arrangement.
A new (and clean) Home Run King — In traditionalists' eyes, Roger Maris' famous record of 61 home runs in a season still stands, as everyone who has surpassed that number has been linked to performance-enhancing drugs. But the Orioles' Chris Davis — one of those traditionalists — has knocked 47 homers this season and is on pace for 58. He'll need a burst to catch Maris, obviously, but don't discount that possibility, as he's gone on several torrid stretches already this year. His clean sheet with drugs should make him a fan favorite if he does so. Plus, just look at that beautiful home run swing.
Johnny Manziel scandal highlights NCAA hypocrisy — The NCAA was in a lose-lose situation with "Johnny Football," and it definitely lost. The Heisman Trophy-winning Texas A&M quarterback allegedly sold his autograph for big bucks, a cardinal sin in college, and the NCAA gave him a whopping suspension of ... the first half of the first game. The NCAA would have looked bad if it had suspended a 20-year-old for trying to make some money for his own successes, and it would have looked even worse if it made a specific exception for college football's most compelling player. In the end, it just looks plain bad, as Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports points out: "This is a gift from the comic gods, one of the most laughable rulings of all-time," he writes. Ouch.
The growing legacy of Jadeveon Clowney — The monster 6'6" South Carolina defensive end delivered the most memorable hit of 2012 — seriously, stop and watch that explosive hit again below — and Clowney's legend is only growing this season. Clowney is as much a fantasy as he is defensive force, and a profile in The New York Times lists a series of childhood tall tales so outrageous that he seems to be the real life version of all those Chuck Norris jokes. "He is a taller, thicker, stronger Usain Bolt," the Times author writes, and ESPN just calls him "The Freak." It's over-the-top praise, to be sure, but can't we all just agree to believe?
Ed O'Bannon lawsuit to force pay for players — Manziel and stars like him could be paid for selling their autographs soon, though, if O'Bannon's potentially "seismic" litigation against the NCAA succeeds. The former UCLA basketball star is suing the NCAA and video game maker EA Sports for using college players' likenesses and images without compensation, and several current football players have joined the suit as well. They want a 50-50 player-team split of income, which would be a radical increase from their current compensation of, well, nothing. The consequences of the suit are huge, and they are real; for one, the NCAA has already decided not to renew its deal with EA Sports. More changes could be on the way this season.
The mega-dynasty of Alabama football rolls on — Alabama and its maniacal workaholic coach Nick Saban have won three national championships in the past four years, and begin the year favored to win another. The team has been so good these past few years — the Crimson Tide has been favored by Vegas oddsmakers to win in 43 consecutive games — that fans have begun complaining that the games are "boring." A third consecutive title this year would make Alabama the first college three-peat in the modern era. Yawn, Tuscaloosa shrugs.
The rise of the smart schools — Take a peek at the Top-25 rankings and you'll notice some schools known for their brains, but not their braun. Stanford ranked at No. 4? Vanderbilt and Northwestern ranked at all? "Revenge of the Nerds," Sports Illustrated calls it, noting that even Duke played in a bowl game last year, its first since 1994. Heck, even Princeton, Harvard, and Dartmouth each had a player drafted into the NFL in April, the most for the Ivy League since 2001. Felicitations! Let us summon the libations!
Soccer comes to American TV — It's always been here, of course, but NBC's $250 million deal to show English Premier League matches on its networks is a game-changer, putting that other football's highest-quality teams into American living rooms. Ratings for the season-opening Manchester United match were way up over last year, although they're still dwarfed by American football and baseball. But it's likely the first step among many in getting Americans to join the rest of the world's total soccer obsession.
Another gay player to come out? — Basketball's Jason Collins was the first modern active player to come out in the big four sports, and either baseball or football could be next. Baseball actually already had a gay man in its league back in 1976 with Glenn Burke before the media was prepared to report on such a thing. Football rosters hold about twice the number of players as baseball teams, so it seems likely that the NFL will be next. There have been reports of NFL players considering coming out, some anonymous and others not so much. As quarterback Robert Griffin III says, "now is the window."
And with that, let the games begin.
GIF of Ray Lewis dancing: Guyism; Photo of Pirates' Andrew McCutchen: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar; GIF of Chris Davis home run: Business Insider via MLB.com Photo of quarterback Johnny Manziel: AP Photo/ Patric Schneider; GIF of Jadeveon Clowney hit: @CorkGaines via Twitter; Photo of Alabama football: AP Photo/Butch Dill, File; Photo of soccer shot: AP Photo/Jon Super;