20 win total bets for 2022

A quick refresher on my philosophy for betting season win totals.

1.) I don’t pay much attention to schedule. We overthink this, despite only a handful of teams being obvious mismatches each year. For the most part, everyone is playing the bulk of their schedule against the meat of the bell curve and we tend not to be great at guessing successful teams before the season.

2.) I heavily consider luck. Did a team have awful turnover luck? Awful field position differentials? Win a bunch of close games? All those factor into my thought process.

3.) Who under/over performed from a year earlier? Yes, stats from the previous year don’t always matter much in an era of significant roster turnover, but still, when a team’s EPA/WPA/successful play rate, etc. look good and their record does not — it’s usually a sign that something weird happened and is unlikely to happen again.

With that in mind, my 20 win total bets for 2022.

Florida International, Over 3 (-140) [UPDATED: 3 (-115)]

FIU was an example of a team that was a complete train wreck because virtually everyone cashed in their chips by the end of September. Butch Davis was leaving. The team wasn’t going to win many games regardless. The end result was misery. But we’ve seen this before, right? Think 2017 Baylor or 2018 Louisville or even last year’s Utah State. New coach, new energy, new results. And in a league as weak as Conference USA, there’s really no reason to assume FIU can’t turn things around quickly.

Update: FPI projects FIU with 4.3 wins for the season. Even SP+, which ranks FIU as the third-worst team in the country, projects three wins. The schedule includes Bryant, Texas State, New Mexico State and UConn in the season’s first five games, so it’s entirely possible we could hit this over by October.

Toledo, Over 7.5 (-145) [UPDATED: 8 (-125)]

Maybe my favorite bet of the year. The Rockets ranked 17th nationally in EPA/play last year. Of the 16 teams ahead of them, 15 won 10 games or more. They finished 7-6. Of Toledo’s second-half offensive drives last year, 71% were played with the Rockets either ahead or within 3 points. Louisville is the only team with a higher rate of 2H drives within 3 who won less than eight games. Indeed, Toledo went 0-4 in games decided by a FG or less last year. Bill Connelly’s metrics show Toledo with at least a roughly 50/50 shot to win all but one game (Ohio State) this year. Some marginally better luck and Toledo is a 10-win team this year.

Update: The line has moved up to 8, which certainly increases our odds of a push, but I’m still happy to back the Rockets even at that number.

Louisiana-Lafayette, Under 8.5 (-105) [Update: 8.5 (even)]

The Cajuns were one of my favorite under bets last year — and it didn’t pay off. Why? Because they went 7-0 in games decided by a TD or less. ULL and Nebraska had essentially the same cumulative EPA in 2021. The Cajuns were 7-0 in close games and finished 11-1 for the regular season. Nebraska was 0-8 in close games and finished 3-9 for the regular season. These things matter. The Cajuns also had among the highest differential of drives starting in opponent territory (a bit of luck that doesn’t often repeat itself). The Cajuns have been among the luckiest teams in the country for two straight years, but they’re now without their longtime starting QB and their head coach, so this is the year when the luck runs out.

Update: FPI projects 8.2 wins. SP+ has Louisiana at 8.7. I remain confident in a bigger drop-off than those projections suggest, and since there’s no juice here, why not?

Central Michigan, Under 7.5 (even)

CMU won eight regular-season games last year, but three came by four points or less (as did a bowl win over Washington State). The impetus for that good luck begins with field position. CMU was +22.5% — best by a wide margin — in percentage of drives beginning in opponent territory. For comparison, that’s about the same differential USC enjoyed in 2020, and look what happened to the Trojans in 2021.

Of note: I also leaned heavily toward the Eastern Michigan under (6.5, -160), but the juice was a bit too high for my liking, and frankly, someone in the MAC has to win games this year.

Penn State, Over 8.5 (+105) [Update: 8.5 (-105)]

Last year, Penn State was also one of my favorite over bets. They had awful luck during the crazy COVID season of 2020, including two losses in which they out-gained their opponent by 200+ yards. That simply never happens. So, did their luck turn in 2021? Ah, no. The Nittany Lions played 95.5% of their drives either ahead or within a TD and still managed to lose six games. Four losses were by four points or less, including an L vs. Iowa because their QB got hurt in the second half.

Update: I still think this is a 9-3 team, but this is a number I’m a little less enthusiastic about now. SP+ has Penn State as the No. 13 team in the country, but projects 8.2 wins. It’s a tough schedule with too many 50/50 or 60/40 type games.

Ball State, Under 5.5 (-130) [Update: 5.5 (-150)]

Ball State had a successful play margin (successful offensive rate minus unsuccessful defensive rate) of -6.6% last year — good for 111th out of 130 teams. No team worse won more than four games. Ball State won six. They were +7 in turnover margin for the year but were out-gained by an average of 83 yards per game.

Update: That’s a lot of juice for a very low number. I’m probably out on this one now. The MAC is too unpredictable.

UTSA U8.5 (-150)

Roadrunners are one of four teams that have seen a 3 points per game increase in points-off-turnover differential in each of the last two years. Their +3.85 shift from 2020 to 2021 was the 21st-largest move. Meanwhile, UTSA was 6-0 in games decided by a TD or less. In addition, UTSA struggled down the stretch, with a negative scoring differential over their last five games (3-2).

Arizona State, over 6.5 (+105) [Update: 6 (-105)]

No part of me likes this bet. Between the truckload of guys who transferred out and Herm Edwards’ job status a daily talking point, there’s every reason to assume Arizona State goes off the rails this year. But — I’m letting the numbers tell the story for me. The Sun Devils went 8-5 last year. Four losses were away from home. All were by 14 or less. The defense held opponents to 28 or less in 10 of 13 games. And then there’s this number: Arizona State saw a nearly 14 points/game swing in points off turnovers from 2020 to 2021. That’s two TDs PER GAME based solely off turnovers. So it a seven-win season — even with all the other issues — too much to ask?

Update: In the Pac-12, I see no reason Arizona State can’t finish .500. That this number actually went down shows how much the public thinks it’s a team about to go off the rails… and there’s a reasonable chance that’s correct. But SP+ and FPI both project seven wins, and unless Arizona, Stanford, Washington State and Colorado are markedly better in 2022, the Sun Devils won’t have six games in which the opponent is clearly more talented.

Indiana, over 4 (-120)

Speaking of Arizona State’s insane swing in points off turnovers, Indiana was also really darned unlucky, with a nearly 9 point-per-game year-over-year shift in the wrong direction. Another way of looking at it: Indiana had one of the worst starting field position differentials in 2021, again a product of bad turnover luck. Part of this can be attributed to a particularly lucky 2020 campaign in which the Hoosiers won their fair share of games they had no business winning. But this also wasn’t nearly as awful as the 2-10 record in 2021 suggests, and with a better QB situation and lower expectations, there’s no reason to think a bowl game can’t be in the cards.

Louisville, over 6.5 (-105) [Update: 6.5 (+105)]

Another team with bad luck in 2020 that I expected to swing back in 2021… and it didn’t happen. Some of this can be chalked up to the fact that 2020 was an inherently strange year, making identifying bad luck metrics tougher than other seasons played under normal circumstances. Still, it’s hard to argue that Scott Satterfield’s bunch hasn’t been one of the unluckiest teams in the country the past two seasons, including an 0-3 record in games decided by a FG or less last year. Virginia won on a last second field goal. Clemson won only due to a second-half injury to Malik Cunningham. Last season, Louisville was within 3 points or ahead on 71% of its second-half drives vs. FBS teams and won just five of those games. Michigan State, Utah, Utah State, Iowa and Purdue all profiled about the same — and all won nine games or more.

TCU, under 6.5 (+110) [Update: 6.5 (+120)]

I like the Sonny Dykes hire, but I’m not sure this is a Year 1 boon. The Frogs won just five games last year, and still were among the most overachieving squads in the country. They had the same explosive play differential as ULM and Northwestern. They ranked 105th in EPA/play. They went 3-0 in games decided by a FG or less.

Syracuse, over 4.5 (-105) [Update: 5 (+120)]

The Orange were a breath away from bowl eligibility last year, losing three straight games in the middle of the season by 3 points each. The defense was actually quite good — just two teams topped 400 yards of total offense against them — and Sean Tucker is one of the best runners in the country. But Syracuse was hurt by bad luck with takeaways — just four INTs all year after having 44 in the previous three seasons combined, and just three fumble recoveries after collecting 11 the prior year. They also were killed by late transfers, and figure to be a deeper team this time around. The biggest obstacle to five wins is that there aren’t many obvious wins on the schedule and the ACC Atlantic is deep.

Update: I really think Syracuse can be a bowl team this season, but the ACC Atlantic is deep, and Cuse is probably the least talented of the seven teams in the division. Odds of a push are high here, so probably not worth letting your money sit for three months on that bet.

Mississippi State, over 6.5 (-120) [Update: 6.5 (-125)]

The Bulldogs had the seventh-best successful play differential in college football last year and still went 7-6. They lost games by 2, 3, 4 and 10. They return a QB who seems perfect for Mike Leach’s offense. They’ve got Memphis, Arizona, Bowling Green and East Tennessee State out of conference. Georgia and Alabama are the only two games I see as obvious losses.

Update: I’ve only gotten more confident in Mississippi State since June. The cause for concern is that, per FPI, they have the second-toughest schedule in the country. I don’t buy it. SEC West is never easy, but Auburn, LSU, etc. are not guaranteed to be any better than they were last year.

Northern Illinois, under 6.5 (+120) [Update: 6.5 (+130)]

The books are already taking into account NIU’s extremely good luck last year — but I’m not sure they’re taking it into account enough. NIU was 4-0 in games decided by a FG or less (including four wins when trailing in the fourth quarter). They won nine games despite a successful play rate differential of -3.9 percentage points. Only three other teams with a -3% or worse rate won more than six (and none more than seven).

Bowling Green, under 3.5 (+120) [Update: 4 (+125)]

No team had a bigger year-over-year shift in a positive direction in points off turnover differential per game. Still, the Falcons went 4-8 last year and how they beat Minnesota should be a 30 for 30 one day.

Update: So bettors seem to think the opposite of me on Bowling Green. Indeed, a number of folks whose opinions I respect are high on the Falcons — largely due to the fact they bring back FBS’ most experienced roster. Meh. Returning bad talent means nothing to me.

Utah, under 9 (-135) [Update: 9 (+105)]

Did the Utes catch lightning in a bottle last season with Cam Rising at QB, a lot of emotion on the line, and a weak Pac-12? Maybe. They had among the most advantageous field position in the country (+18.5% differential on drives starting in opponent territory) and had the largest overall field position differential in FBS.

Houston, under 9 (-105) [Update: 9 (+105)]

I really want to be a buyer on Houston, but the numbers say otherwise. The Cougars won five games last year in which they trailed in the second half (three in which they trailed in the fourth quarter). They had the sixth-highest year-over-year shift in points off turnover differential. And, at the end of the day, the public likes them too much.

Marshall, over 6.5 (-160) [Update: 7 (-140)]

Aside from the juice, I absolutely love this bet. Four of Marshall’s five regular-season losses came by a TD or less last year. The Herd were ahead or within a TD on 82% of their second-half drives last season vs. FBS and still won just six of those games. They ranked 28th in successful play margin and 37th in EPA/game and every team ahead of them in both metrics won at least seven games. The move to the Sun Belt makes this a bit more complicated, but there are nine winnable games on the slate and in Year 2 under Charles Huff, I think real progress is made.

Update: Looking back, I’m scratching my head at why I thought laying -160 was a good idea. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Marshall wins nine this season, but I’m out on this one.

Louisiana Tech, over 4.5 (-105) [Update: 4.5 (-120)]

La Tech had approximately the same percentage of snaps last year in which it had a 50%+ win probability as Iowa and Western Kentucky. Iowa won 10 games. WKU won nine games. La Tech won three. They’re not going 0-3 in games decided by a field goal or less again in 2022.

Kent State, under 5 (-105) [Update: 5 (+125)]

They went 7-7 last year despite being +13 in turnover margin. They had a negative points differential for the year. Their best wins were NIU by five and Miami (Ohio) but one. They lose a very good, veteran QB. I’d still love to see this go to 5.5. Would feel much better about that.

Update: Boy, under 5 seems awfully low. This is another one I’m not sure now why I liked so much two months ago. Alas, the return could be solid, so I might ride it anyway.

Well, ACCtually: The Archives

These days, everyone has a podcast. It’s lame. It’s so 2021.

The cool kids — the ones who really have their finger on the pulse of the cultural zeitgeist — those kids don’t do podcasts. They do Twitter Spaces. I mean, think about it. It’s basically the same as being best friends with Elon Musk. Or something like that.

Anyway, I’ve teamed up with Andrea Adelson for a regular Twitter Spaces discussion on all things ACC, and if you’ve missed any of the episodes, you can catch up on them all here.

(NOTE: Spaces keeps recordings for 30 days. Older episodes will not be available.)

July 11, 2022: We’re talking NIL, NFTs, BLM and lots more with former Clemson player Darien Rencher. Darien gets into what people got wrong in criticizing Dabo after George Floyd, what Tony Elliott will do at Virginia, and how Ben Boulware made a habit of suplexing dudes in high school.

July 1, 2022: It’s an emergency spaces to talk realignment! Me and Andrea dig into the implications of USC and UCLA’s move to the Big Ten for the ACC and Notre Dame, then we draft our own 20-team super conferences.

June 27, 2022: It’s an old-fashioned ACC mailbag in which me and Andrea discuss Jell-O shots, offer Simpsons references, describe Miami’s SUVs for driving recruits around (SUVs: black on black?) and reminisce about the old Dr. Galazkiewicz Bud Lite commercial.

June 13, 2022: Who’s got a better job than The Bear? Chris Fallica‘s spun a stint interning in the Miami sports information department into the best gig in the country working on “College GameDay.” He gave us details on his career path, his time working with Lee, Kirk & the gang, his thoughts on the Miami revival, his picks in the ACC and his favorite (non-Miami) ACC campus to visit.

June 6, 2022: Will Notre Dame ever man up and join a league? Is Dave Clawson smarter than everyone else? What does Kid Rock understand about beer that the rest of us could learn from? The Athletic’s Matt Fortuna joined us to talk through some of the most important conversations of our time.

May 31, 2022: What’s a good season mean for FSU? Could Deion be the Noles next head coach? What’s Brendan Sonnone recommend drinking after a 7-5 season? And why is he naked? All of that and lots more from Jeff Cameron as we dive deep on the Seminoles.

May 23, 2022: We’re ranking the ACC’s quarterback situations, 1-14 with our special guest, Roddy Jones. Who’s the biggest wild card? Who’s the sleeper pick? Who’s most critical to their team? We answer all those questions and at least one of us might be right.

May 16, 2022: Checking in with the dean of ACC media, the great David Teel. We talk about increased football investment at Virginia and Virginia Tech, the future of the ACC’s middle/lower-tier teams, how the ACC might’ve avoided financial hardship, plus which UVA/VT beat writer would look best with a mustache.

May 9, 2022: Live from the ACC spring meetings, we talk NIL enforcement, ending divisions in the ACC and we catch up with UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham.

May 2, 2022: NC State offensive lineman Grant Gibson discusses Jordan Davis, Ikem Ekwonu, NC State’s big expectations, getting the running game going in 2022, Dave Doeren’s beard, NIL gone wild and lots, lots more.

April 25, 2022: NFL draft preview with ESPN’s Jordan Reid, with discussion on Mario Goodrich, Justyn Ross, Ikem Ekwonu, Zion Johnson, Andrew Booth, Sam Howell and many others from the ACC.

April 18, 2022: Is Clemson still the ACC’s best team? We talked with Larry Williams of Tigers Illustrated and Matt Connelly of On3 to get the latest on the QB battle, the search for O-line help, Dabo’s aversion to the portal and what the new offensive staff means for 2022.

Stuffing a year’s worth of movie viewing into six weeks (Or how I spent my February non-vacation)

For most of the year, finding time to watch a bunch of movies is tough. But just as football season ends, the Oscar talk starts heating up, and I find myself — at least for the past couple years, with so many films available for streaming — catching up on a year’s worth of movies in the span of about six weeks.

Last year, I did a round up of all the films I watched (largely while dealing with COVID) and so I figured I’d do the same again now. Among the Best Picture nominees, “Licorice Pizza” and “Drive My Car” aren’t streaming , and I have zero interest in seeing “West Side Story.” That leaves “King Richard,” “Dune” as ones I still need to get to, but my interest is minimal.

As for the others, read on…

CODA (Apple+) ⭐⭐⭐⭐

A deaf family in working-class Massachusetts comes to rely heavily on their teenage daughter, who can hear, but the daughter has bigger dreams of a singing career, creating tension between individual goals and the family bond. It’s a pretty succinct conflict, and it could easily turn into teen melodrama. There’s a moment early on in the movie where the mother, played wonderfully by Marlee Matlin, asks her daughter, “If we were blind, would you have wanted to be a painter?” It’s a significant moment because this is how we might expect this film to unfold — the cliches about teenage rebellion and family discord are the same, using whatever catalyst for conflict seems most interesting.

Instead, “Coda” blossoms into something else — a coming-of-age drama, a musical, a comedy. But most of all, it’s a story about family, the bonds that are forged through facing life’s challenges together, and the challenge of letting go of the people you love most in the world.

This movie won’t win the Oscar for Best Picture, but it’d be my choice. It’s beautiful and heartfelt and funny and real and the performances — particularly Troy Kotsur as the father — are so damn good that it’s just a joy to spend time with these characters. My pal Joe Posnanski wrote a few weeks ago about “happy movies” — the ones that, when you watch them, will always bring a smile to your face. “Coda” should undoubtedly take a place among the best of those movies, because of all the things this movie is, in the end, it’s a story about finding happiness with the people you love.

BELFAST (Rental) ⭐⭐⭐

In my meager attention to Oscar buzz, this one seems like the favorite to win Best Picture. Should it be? The movie — based on director Kenneth Branagh’s childhood in Northern Ireland — certainly looks the part. It’s shot beautifully in black and white, with the feel of a Broadway show, from the set design to the way characters interact within the small mixed neighborhood where it’s set. (It has a sort of “West Side Story” quality to it, ironically enough.) The performances are strong — particularly from Caitriona Balfe, who might be the singular most beautiful human being on the planet — and there is no shortage of Van Morrison music (always a perk). That the story is largely told from the viewpoint of Buddy, a young boy growing up in 1960s Belfast, is both a strength and a problem. The insanity of the street wars between Catholics and Protestants, alongside the serious marital and financial troubles his parents face, feels all the more surreal when viewed through the lens of a 10-year-old. But that naivety also somehow stalls the story, because the stakes are less clear and the deviations from the primary tension are routine. In the end, it mostly works, but more as a rumination on childhood and innocence lost than a true narrative.

KIMI (HBO Max)

It wants to be a modern take on “Rear Window.” Instead, it’s essentially “The Net” with better technology. It feels like there was more to say within the story here about the surveillance state, about the claustrophobic nature of the pandemic, about a world that is entirely too connected and yet leaves us insufferably alone (a tone set, unintentionally, in how flat the supporting characters are and how quickly some of their plot lines are just dropped). Instead, it quickly becomes little more than a standard cat-and-mouse thriller. It’s filled with convenient details that set up the later plot movement, none of which says much of anything about the characters or the larger scope of Big Tech in our lives. Perhaps the most interesting part of the film is Steven Soderbergh’s camera work (he handles the camera himself) which alternates between making the camera a character for dramatic effect (a skill perfected by Hitchcock and occasionally used well here) to a tonal distraction that constantly reminds the viewer “YOU’RE WATCHING A MOVIE!” which seems like the last thing you want when the tension created by the plot is the only thing really pulling the movie along.

SUMMER OF SOUL (Disney+) ⭐⭐⭐

I actually watched this over the summer when it was first released, and unlike Peter Jackson’s endless “Get Back” documentary on the Beatles, this is a tight trip through a largely ignored piece of music history. There’s plenty to love here, from the scenery to the performances… but damn, Mavis Staples is just the best.

ATTICA (Amazon Prime) ⭐⭐⭐⭐

First, let me say that this is as well crafted a documentary as you’ll see — a film stuffed with first-hand footage, news accounts and powerful interviews with the subjects who lived it. Both “Attica” and “Summer of Soul” have similar aims — to shine a line on stories about race in the 1960s and 1970s that most people have some passing awareness of but little serious insight into. But if “Summer of Soul” is a remembrance of the joy to be found within an overlooked and marginalized community, “Attica” is its tonal opposite. The story of the Attica prison uprising of 1971 still feels entirely relevant — particularly as the country once again deals with the dynamics of a desire for “law and order” while finally more aware of the disproportionate toll that takes on communities of color. “Attica” clearly has a point of view sympathetic to the prisoners, but it is not ignorant of other side — the predominantly white community in upstate New York that exists, almost entirely, as a home for the prison. The culmination, however, is an affront to both points of view, as national politics and old-fashioned brutality overtake any semblance of nuance. It’s a powerful history lesson, and one you shouldn’t miss.

BEING THE RICARDOS (Amazon Prime) ⭐⭐

There’s a good movie in here — perhaps a very good one — but I was thrown by the decision to use a very specific framing device to largely tell the tale of one week in the lives of Desi and Lucy. There’s some additional backstory, but it’s sparse and comes at seemingly arbitrary moments. There’s also a real push to make this story seem relevant in OUR MODERN TIMES of “Me too” and political witch hunts that might be vaguely true of the actual humans portrayed in the story, but that’s never firmly established either. What really stands out from the movie are the acting performances. Javier Bardem and Nicole Kidman are terrific as Desi and Lucy (particularly the latter, who, for the first time I can remember, actually nails an American accent consistently), but the real treats are the supporting stars. Tony Hale is wonderful (in a role that feels like both a departure for the actor and yet intrinsically similar to Buster Bluth), and his “Arrested Development” costar Alia Shawkat is good (but I wish there was more to the character). Nina Arianda was fantastic as Vivian Vance (I’d previously only seen Arianda playing Pizzerina Sbarro, the sexy heir to the Sbarro pizza fortune, on “30 Rock). And then there’s J.K. Simmons as William Frawley in a role that should remind everyone that J.K. Simmons is a goddam American treasure.

THE POWER OF THE DOG (Netflix) ⭐⭐⭐

My wife is confounded by the attention this movie is getting (nominated for Best Picture, among other accolades). I mostly understand her position. If you’re not simply enraptured by the lead performances (and Benedict Cumberbatch is awfully compelling here) it’s largely just a Western about a dysfunctional family that revels in its own misery. Until the ending. I will not spoil it here other than to say, the end justifies the whole ride and utterly reshapes the perspective. Viewed amid that new perspective, I can see why it’s a strong contender for the Oscar. The problem, of course, is that you won’t view it through that perspective until you’ve finished watching it. Perhaps it’d be more enjoyable on second viewing, knowing what each note of the plot is building toward. My wife is unlikely to invest that time, regardless. To me, this was a movie better enjoyed as a conversation topic after viewing than the actual viewing, which is not necessarily a bad thing. If nothing else, it’s beautifully shot and the scenery is so gorgeous that it’s not all that bad spending time in this world, even when not much else is going on.

GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE (Rental) ⭐⭐⭐⭐

“Ghostbusters” is among my all-time favorite movies. “Ghostbusters II” is a flawed but perfectly entertaining sequel. The all-female “Ghostbusters” is a movie I have never seen and never will, but it made clear where the trend line for the franchise was pointing. So, my hopes for this were minimal. Instead, what “Afterlife” delivered was something both nostalgic and somehow new. In a literal sense, this is a continuation of the “Ghostbusters” story, and there is a ton of fan service here (most of which works). Some of it comes at the cost of plot, but that’s OK, because the plot never made a ton of sense in any of the “Ghostbusters” movies. There’s a level of suspended disbelief required to enjoy these movies at all. But once you moved past the nods to the franchise’s history, the movie felt less like a continuation of “Ghostbusters” than of something like “Goonies” or “Stand By Me.” I can’t remember the last movie that felt so quintessentially 1980s — in the best of ways. Hollywood just doesn’t make those blockbuster adventure flicks like “Back to the Future” or “Ferris Bueller” anymore — a stylized mix of comedy and adventure and… fun! “Afterlife” was a 1980s movie made in 2022, and I loved every bit of it. Were the characters particularly well developed? No. But it was still a delight to spend time with Paul Rudd (his generation’s Bill Murray?) and Carrie Coon and McKenna Grace was absolutely delightful as the film’s protagonist. There are a few moments that could’ve been executed better — particularly a long Dan Aykroyd monologue that essentially fills in the blanks on what the Ghostbusters have been up to over the past 30 years — but it’s easily overlooked when the ride is so enjoyable. And, perhaps more than anything, “Afterlife” serves as an absolutely beautiful and heartfelt tribute to Harold Ramis. It may have gotten a bit dusty in the room during the movie’s climax as a result.

THE TENDER BAR (Amazon Prime) ⭐⭐

This movie fits squarely into the genre of films where Ben Affleck drives around in an old car through white, working-class neighborhoods in New York or Massachusetts, listening to 70s classic rock and picking up his buddies while making vaguely funny jokes. All of these movies are fine. This movie was also fine.

ROADRUNNER: A FILM ABOUT ANTHONY BOURDAIN (Rental) ⭐⭐⭐

Anthony Bourdain’s suicide got to me about as much as any celebrity death has. If you’d asked me in high school about the person I admired most, I probably would’ve said Kurt Cobain, a man whose ability to speak to a deeper truth and thumb his nose at authority matched my suburban outrage at the world. In college, I was obsessed with Ernest Hemingway and viewed him as the epitome of masculinity, a flawed human who nevertheless represented an archetype I was supposed to strive for. In my 30s, as I began to define my actual place in the world, if you’d asked me whose life I most envied, it’d have been Bourdain. It’s not lost on me that there’s a common thread between all three of those men.

I recently read Charles Cross’s “Heavier than Heaven” biography of Cobain, which was terrific, but also maddenly depressing. In high school, I viewed Cobain as a god. Reading about him now, I realized we were very similar in so many ways that it was easy to envision a world where he had just a bit more love in his life and survived… or one in which I had just a little less, and didn’t.

“Roadrunner” does a great job of capturing the complexity of Bourdain as a human — not the romanticized ideal of the rebellious world traveler, but as a very flawed man who might’ve been running from something more than exploring the world. Unlike my deep dive into Cobain, I came away from this film seeing all the ways Bourdain wasn’t like me, wasn’t like I thought he was, wasn’t what he wanted to be either. Bourdain wasn’t so much a tragic figure as he was simply a flawed man who needed something the world couldn’t provide. It’s a sad film, but also perhaps an appropriate coda for a life that so many of us envied. I used to think, “Damn, if Antony Bourdain was so unhappy he killed himself, what hope do the rest of us have?” Now, I realize that what he was missing was something I already have — a place to belong, people to love, an acceptance that there is no perfect reality I have to endlessly pursue, just a few moments here and there that feel pretty close to perfection.

THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH (Apple+) 🤷

I feel quite certain this was good but… I’m just not a smart enough human being to appreciate Shakespeare. It was shot beautifully, it included some terrific actors who I assume did a terrific job emoting while reciting the Elizabethan English, but I ended up playing on my phone through most of it because I’m a big, dumb American. I apologize for nothing.

TICK TICK… BOOM (Netflix) ⭐⭐

I’m not much of a Broadway aficionado, but I am so enamored with the talents of Lin Manuel Miranda (making his directorial debut here) that I was convinced to watch. And it was… not bad. It gets the tone of Broadway down, particularly in the first half of the movie, which includes some fantastic musical numbers. The latter half of the movie leans more toward traditional film making as the plot climaxes, and that largely works, too, even if there are some stretches where you think, “Wasn’t I just watching a musical? This feels more like a ’90s drama now.” Andrew Garfield is also terrific as Jonathan Larson, a character whose world boils down to one thing: He’s about to turn 30, hasn’t had a show produced yet, and he just can’t get anything written for this super important song he needs for the second act of his latest project. Meanwhile, the supporting characters have their own, very real, very serious issues that he neglects while obsessed with his own career. It’s very ’90s, but for a character the audience is supposed to sympathize with and root for, this version of Larson is pretty damned unlikeable. The music is great though, so worth the watch just for that.

DON’T LOOK UP (Netflix) Negative 50 ⭐

I hated this movie. Hated it so very, very much. Hated with the red-hot intensity of a thousand suns. While watching it, I kept thinking of the “South Park” episode when everyone who bought a hybrid car loved smelling their own farts because that is essentially what this movie was — just Hollywood A-listers being so smugly self-righteous about this movie they were making that it turned into one deep inhale of their own farts. It was, ostensibly, meant to be in the arena of “Wag the Dog” (a movie I also hated), but it ended up as essentially “Ocean’s 12” with politics. (Side note: I’ve never hated a movie more than “Ocean’s 12.”) Political and social satire done well can be exceptional. Look at Key & Peele or Chapelle or “Confederacy of Dunces.” But there was nothing subtle or funny about this. Just Hollywood elites turning an actual crisis (the environment, per director Adam McKay, though it felt more about COVID-19) and, rather than turning a mirror on it, it used some sort of funhouse mirror, broadening every character to the limits of credibility, all meta commentary and no actual commentary. It’s so self-serious that nothing in the movie can actually be taken seriously. Which would be OK if it was a comedy, but it’s not that either. It’s essentially just an opportunity for a bunch of very rich, very famous people to talk down to the idiot commoners and tell them: “This movie is about important things and you probably can’t understand that so we’ll dumb it down for you.” I hated this movie so much that I longed for an actual asteroid to hit the earth just so I didn’t have to continue to exist in a world where this movie was nominated for an Oscar.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY (HBO Max) ⭐⭐

A thriller starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett and Willem Defoe and directed by the best monster-movie creator of a generation in Guillermo del Torro was… pretty dull. A remake of the 1947 classic, it largely sticks to the script, and as a result, doesn’t have anything new to say. It’s like a decent cover band — it sounds fine, but you’d never confuse it for the real thing. The sets, which mimic the art deco look of the 1930s and 1940s are wonderful, however, which almost warrants a viewing on its own. My biggest complaint is that I was expecting so much more.

And beyond movies, a handful of TV binges, too…

WOLF LIKE ME (Peacock) No stars

The premise seemed to have some promise: A widowed father falls for a woman who connects with his emotionally fragile daughter. One problem: The woman is a werewolf. This premise could work in so many ways — horror, black comedy, silly rom-com — and yet this show never really decides it wants to be any of those things. Take, for example, the male lead, Josh Gad. I have liked Gad in exactly two roles. The first is as the voice of Olaf in “Frozen.” The second was as Elder Cunningham in “Book of Mormon.” In both cases, he plays a naive but lovable doofus. His role in this show is meant to be the exact opposite. To say the least, it’s awkward. The plot really amounts to nothing, and the climax of the six-episode series is arguably the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen on a TV show. There’s a great bit on an episode of “30 Rock,” when Tina Fey’s character notes, “You can’t just create an ending out of thin air by playing music and having people give each other meaningful looks.” And that is exactly how this show ends – with a tedious montage of the three main characters exchanging looks while music plays … for close to five full minutes! There are a dozen other awful things about this show I could get into, but I’ve already thought too much about something that doesn’t deserve an ounce of your energy since the creators clearly put no effort into it themselves.

YELLOWJACKETS (Showtime) ⭐⭐

Perhaps I’m nitpicking with this show, because overall, it was enjoyable enough — tons of plot and action and suspense, enough to justify the binge. But there was also just so much I didn’t like. There was a ton of gore, and I have no problem with that when used to the right effect, but this continuously felt as if it was used as a way to signal HOW VERY IMPORTANT AND SERIOUS THIS SHOW IS!!! It wasn’t that it was simply gratuitous in the way it might be in a teenage horror movie. It was that it was utilized as a substitute for actual depth. The show could be easily pitched as “Lord of the Flies” but with girls, and “Yellowjackets” occasionally steers hard into that turn, as with the second episode when all the girls stranded after a plane crash get their periods at the same time because of course their cycles all sync up after just a few days together. (Never mind that this theory has been proven false repeatedly or that the “ugh my period!” jokes feel more than a bit stereotypical and misogynistic.) The casting, particularly among the adults, is off, too. Juliette Lewis is borderline unbearable, and her particularly brand of white-trash disaster doesn’t at all correlate with the troubled but likable version of her younger self. I love Melanie Lynskey in nearly everything she’s ever done, but she just can’t hit the right notes in a leading role here. Her husband on the show, played by Warren Cole, is even worse, and the climactic scenes in the final two episodes of the season lose any sense of tension or credibility because neither can play their part believably. And as for plot — it had a lot of echoes of “Lost,” occasionally to the show’s benefit, but mostly in a “I don’t think they’ve thought any of this through and are probably making it up as they go” sort of way.

STATION 11 (HBO Max) ⭐⭐⭐

Like “Yellowjackets,” the plot here is a train wreck. It’s less noticeable in the moment, but the more you think about it after the fact — a thing, I think, the show wants you to do — the less sense it makes. The show itself deviates wildly from the source material, which is both good and bad. The larger story becomes something of a Frankenstein’s monster, as the show tries to stitch together enough of the original book’s elements with the new threads it has created, when it should’ve simply picked a lane and stuck with it. Indeed, one of those new threads is the relationship between Himesh Patel’s 20-something Jeevan, deep in the midst of a quarter-life crisis, his drug-addicted brother, Frank, and an 8-year-old played beautifully by Matilda Lawler, as they struggle to survive an apocalyptic pandemic. There are two full episodes dedicated to this trio – including the premier – and they’re by far the best of the series. The show hits so many home runs in its small moments, when it’s focused on just a few characters. Every time it zooms out, however, things go haywire. Still, the performances are strong enough to make the viewing enjoyable, and my biggest complaint is I just wanted more of the good stuff and less of the rest.

Is NIL really ruining Olympic sports?

You may have seen the NBC Sports story that’s been making the rounds on social media today suggesting that Olympic athletes are a dying breed due to those pesky college football players stealing all the money that used to fund their sports. It is, to say the least, a problematic take. But is it entirely wrong? I’ve reported on NIL quite a bit, so let’s dig in to the realities.

Let’s go through the story, which was written by Noah Pranskey and can be found HERE.

Don’t let this last part be a throwaway line, as it so often is. If college sports were treated as a real business — which it is! — no one would be arguing that too much attention is given to the only products that turn a profit. Now, if the NCAA rebranded as Meta, that’s a different story…

Ah, I just love stories of “economic anxiety.” I genuinely wonder how many people who espouse this theory also devoutly crusade against wealth redistribution in every other aspect of life. The truth is, the U.S. is alone in shifting the responsibility of preparing Olympic athletes from the government to universities (just as it is unique in allowing universities to essentially be a minor league for pro sports). If the U.S. acted in any way like other countries, the USOC would be on the hook for funding these sports. Whether it is a good or bad thing that we do it differently here is a worthy debate, but let’s not act like the U.S. would simply disappear from the Olympics if colleges didn’t fund athletic training.

First off, NIL is absolutely NOT allowing athletes to “share a piece of the profit pie.” None of the NCAA, conference or school “profits” are going directly to athletes beyond their scholarship and “educational benefits,” which is a nebulous term that will be at the center of the “athletes as employees” debate. This, however, is about the Alston ruling, not NIL.

Additionally, Kristi Dosh is an exceptional reporter and knows more about NIL than anyone, and it should be noted here that her quotes is discussing a) something different than NIL, and b) what the school’s perspective is, not what her perspective is.

Lastly, let’s point out that any economic system has its advantages. Slavery, for example, made a lot of folks rich and made the cost of crops like cotton cheaper for everyone. That economic boon was possible because of a massive moral failing. So whatever the economic fallout of treating athletes as employees might be, the single most critical issue in the discussion is whether the current system is legal (or moral).

Here is some very good data that is not at all related to the premise of the story.

First off, hard to blame NIL — a thing that took effect in 2021 — for events that happened between 2001 and 2020.

Second, all those programs cut in 2020… can you think of anything else that might’ve been going on in the world that year?

Lastly, note the sports mentioned here. MENS swimming. MENS tennis. MENS gymnastics. MENS wrestling. The reason there are fewer scholarships available in these sports is because, starting around 2001, there was drastically more enforcement of Title IX, which previously had largely been ignored by schools beyond some basic window dressing.

Here’s a point of distinction: The NCAA does not mandate how many Olympic sports schools sponsor or how much those schools spend on those programs. That’s determined by the schools themselves. And yes, those schools’ athletics departments are run like a business, which is entirely reasonable. Because if football and basketball struggle, that also hurts the bottom line — significantly more than if the other sports struggle.

As Matt Brown has written many times, Olympic sports are actually a source of revenue for most schools. Or, I simply googled and found this good piece from the BC student newspaper. Places like Stanford, however, sponsor far more sports than average, and much of that is paid for not simply through football, but through earmarked donor support. And, as is also noted in this story, programs that were cut were, in many cases, reinstated.

The assumption here is that our system is better. Maybe it is. But the fact that no one else does it this way should force the question of whether we should be doing it this way, too. If nothing else, it’s an incredibly inefficient way of doing it because, while the system does give Olympic athletes an athletic and academic platform, it does the same for thousands of other athletes, too. Only about 1,000 U.S. athletes participate in the Olympics, and only about 750 of them trained in a college program. That’s a very small percentage of the total number of non-revenue sport athletes currently being supported by football and basketball money. If the goal is simply to create Olympic athletes, then there are far more cost-effective ways to do this.

We’re way into this story now, and I’ve yet to read a single word tying NIL to anything of substance in the piece. A lot of talk of nebulous “changes” but not NIL. Interesting that the headline suggests NIL is at the heart of the problem. It’s almost as if NIL has to be used to shift the blame to greedy athletes instead of the schools actually making investment decisions.

In other words, if these sports were forced to also act like businesses and find cost effective ways of operating, they’d be better prepared for a changing college sports landscape. What a novel concept!

The fact is, for better or worse, spending on non-revenue sports has skyrocketed at a roughly proportional rate as revenue for football and basketball has increased. They’ve benefited massively from those sports’ success, and quite frankly, they don’t all *need* the kind of money that’s in their budget. Alabama’s softball coach makes more than $300,000 a year. That’s great, but it’s not necessary to have a softball program. It’s possible because football brings in such massive amounts of money.

Hey, our first real mention of NIL and… it’s about how great it is!

And here’s the thing: It IS great. NIL can be a boon for Olympic sports, too. Athletes like LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne are so high profile that her NIL promotions are actually a great window into the world of collegiate gymnastics. In the longterm, giving athletes like Dunne a bigger platform for earning money can translate to more fans, more participation, and … more revenue!

Now, here’s where I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a moment: NIL is not without its problems, and yes, it might be impacting athletics budgets (a little) and could do so down the road (a lot).

I spoke with Jim Cavale, CEO of INFLCR, for a story last week. He did a nice job of summing up where things stand with NIL, 6 months into the new world order.

[Schools] quickly realized you couldn’t just answer NIL and recruiting as a coach with ‘We’re going to help you grow your followers on social.’ You had to have some deals, some deal flow to talk about when you were recruiting. The easiest way to do that and start to think about the entire team was to be creative and get them all paid — but if you’re doing that without fulfillment, it starts to really make you wonder if it’s NIL or pay-for-play. The folks who think it’s NIL just say it’s non-traditional vs traditional. But others will say it’s legitimate vs. illegitimate. And that’s going to become a center stage argument in 2022 as booster collectives emerge.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but the basics are:

  • There are lots of genuine NIL deals happening out there reflective of what any other sort of sponsorship and advertising would look like. Folks like FSU’s Dillon Gibbons have done a wonderful job of using NIL for charitable purposes and others, like Kenny Pickett, spun their NIL success into perks for their teammates. But those deals take time, effort and, often, celebrity. Most student-athletes do not have excess of any of those things.
  • A lot of recruits — both high school and in the portal — want NIL money and coaches want to give it to them, while skipping the middle man of actually finding a company to partner with an a fulfillment item (like an ad or a social post) that warrants the investment. So boosters for individual schools are setting up NIL “collectives” which essentially funnel money to those athletes and get them paid. For what? That’s the problem.
  • NIL should inherently be tied to YOUR name YOUR image and YOUR likeness, which should, of course, be transferable wherever you go. But these “NIL” deals are instead tied to you going to a specific school. That’s not at the heart of what NIL was supposed to be.
  • Booster collectives are, largely, not a violation of the rules — mostly because there are no rules. It’s a free-for-all, and the NCAA chose for that to be the case. There was ample time to form a framework for NIL, but NCAA leadership and its member institutions decided to punt.
  • Those booster collectives probably are taking money out of the pockets of athletics departments, as it’s entirely likely some portion of that money would’ve gone to donations to the school rather than directly to the players.

So, is NIL hurting athletics budgets? Probably not in the short term. But if this is the first step toward pay-for-play, athletes as employees, unionization, etc., then yeah, there’s a real chance that athletic department budgets will take a real hit.

Of course, that also forces the question: Is that a bad thing? If the market suggests players could’ve commanded more money, and the courts agree that they’re employees who should be paid — well, then those changes to the budget are a necessary outgrowth of correcting a flawed system.

Moreover, this isn’t necessarily all bad for Olympic sports. For one, Olympic athletes — i.e. athletes from non-revenue sports with a real shot at the Olympics — might be able to command more money themselves.

Second, if football, for example, is deemed to be a business apart from the school, and its athletes are employees, then it is exempt from Title IX, and therefore wouldn’t tilt the scales so far toward men’s scholarships that other men’s sports must be cut.

Lastly, there will always be boosters willing to fund non-revenue sports. Sometimes it’s because their kid plays that sport… or they did when they were in school… or they just like the sport… or they want some power within the athletics department and they aren’t a big enough fish for football… or any number of other reasons.

Long story short, NIL and player empowerment are likely both necessary and inevitable, and once again, we’re blaming the players for the flaws in the system created by administrators and taken advantage of by coaches and recruiters.

Best reads of 2021: Everything is awful edition.

In 2020, I foolishly made a New Year’s resolution to read 366 feature stories over the course of the year — an effort to read more, be inspired by the good work of other writers, and keep me from wasting time on dumb stuff like games on my phone, TV or actual work. It was a chore, but it paid off with tons of good stories, which I recounted over the year HERE.

This year… I didn’t read very much at all. It’s probably akin to going on a crash diet, then once you’ve lost the weight, heading to Golden Corral. I just went in the opposite direction, burned out from my yearlong endeavor.

Still, at the end of every year, I like to compile a list of my favorite stories I’ve read (find my 2020 list HERE or 2018 HERE. What happened to 2019? No clue.), and so I was faced with the harsh reality that I’d not devoted nearly enough time to great journalism in 2021. That’s a shame, and something I need to remedy in 2022. No, I won’t be reading 366 features (at least not purposefully), but there should be some happy medium. So, when I do this list again in 12 months, it will certainly be a better cross-section of the year’s best writing (I hope).

In the meantime, I did read just enough in 2021 to warrant at least a top 10 list (and a few others for good measure)…

Continue reading Best reads of 2021: Everything is awful edition.

Mark Hale (1954-2021)

Mark Hale died at age 67 on Monday, September 13, 2021.

Mark was loved by his wife of 45 years, Linda, his three children, David, Amy and Stephen, their spouses, Meredith, Kevin and Audrey, his seven grandchildren, Alexa, Kalli, Nathaniel, Lola, Madison, Willa and Thomas, and his sister, Susan.

Mark was preceded in death by his father, Thomas, and mother, Lola.
He will also be missed by countless friends, coworkers, extended family and Home Depot employees.

Mark possessed a truly epic collection of “dad jokes” long before anyone thought to coin that term. If the house erupted with high-pitched squeals and uproarious laughter, there was a good chance “Pop-pop” was chasing or teasing or playing a game of “gitsy bug” with his grandchildren. He loved dogs — from Jake to Duke to Timber to Winston and Sophie, and grand-dogs Wrigley and Emerson, Charlie and Mia. They were his kids, too, and he took such joy in playing tug-of-war or wrestling on the floor with all of them. The cats though? Well, every man has his limits.
Mark never met a stranger. He’d strike up a conversation with anyone, no matter how much it might embarrass his kids, from a server at a restaurant to the cashier at Wawa to that small army of folks at Home Depot who always knew what he was working on and the latest obstacles in his to conquer a project.

Mark loved engines. Born February 28, 1954, he got his driver’s license at the height of the muscle car boom. As a kid, he’d go with his best friend, Jack, to watch cars drag race down Kirkwood Highway. He believed the most important product of American engineering was the 389-cubic inch V-8 that powered his Pontiac GTO, which he raced through the streets of New Castle County, only occasionally needing to elude the police. In recent years, Mark and Stephen would go to classic car shows, and Mark reminisced about the thunderous cars he and his friends raced down the entrance road at Dickinson High School. The last car show they attended together, Nate tagged along, too — another generation hoping to be just like Mark.

By the time kids came along, Mark’s racing days were over (except for the time he nearly blew through a border check point at 90 mph while driving a Mazda across the country for David). His white 1965 GTO still sits in his basement workshop, the engine in need of an overhaul. The inspection sticker on the license plate reads “78,” the year David was born.

Instead, Mark found thrills watching Dale Earnhardt eviscerate NASCAR tracks across the country. Earnhardt exuded the traits Mark respected most: A tireless work ethic, a drive for perfection at his craft, a ceaseless determination to do the job the right way. “Finishing races is important,” Earnhardt once said, “but racing is more important.” That’s how Mark lived. The results mattered, but not as much as the work itself.

Mark grew up in his father’s shadow, following Tom into the garage to tinker with engines or into the workshop to hammer out plans for a home project. He mowed lawns and he changed oil, but he also rebuilt engines and restored rusted fenders to their former glory.

It’s no surprise he met the love of his life at work, too. Mark was the head cashier at a department store. Linda was the new cashier, and she saw Mark as a sweet boy who reminded her of Richie Cunningham from “Happy Days.” They were 17. They’d be together nearly every day for the next 50 years.

There was a time, however, when they were 19, Mark all but disappeared. He had a project, he said. Typical Mark, lost in his work. For Christmas that year, however, Linda got an invite to the house. When she arrived, Mark handed her a gift box. Inside, she found a set of keys. He then led her to the garage and revealed what he’d been working on: A maroon 1967 GTO he’d bought off the scrap heap and restored for her. A small stuffed Santa and reindeer were lined up along the hood scoop, and “Little St. Nick” by The Beach Boys played on the radio.

A week before he died, Mark sent a version of another Beach Boys song to Amy: “Don’t Worry Baby.” That was Mark’s mission in life. He took the worries and stresses and problems from the people he loved, and he fixed them.

Shortly before they were married, Mark and Linda scraped together enough money to buy a house that Mark completely renovated, adding a second story when David was born. There was another house and more projects by the time Amy came along in 1982. When Stephen arrived, in 1991, it was on to house No. 3 and countless new projects. Mark shoveled snow for neighbors without ever being asked. He covered the house in Christmas lights each year, and neighbors called him “Clark Griswold.” As paramedics left the house after trying to save his life, a neighbor pulled one responder aside. “Mark was a really good man,” they said.

Mark worked for more than 40 years at Astra-Zeneca, and coworkers remember his endless patience and flawless memory. He was as at ease correcting management on a critical mistake as he was pulling practical jokes with his coworkers in the plant. If a problem cropped up at 4 a.m., colleagues called Mark, and he’d walk them through it, step by step, as long as it took. Mark was like a safety net for those around him, his friend and coworker Jimmy Taylor said. No one worried about making mistakes, because Mark was always able to fix them.

After three decades, Mark decided to retire. It lasted less than a year before he went back, supposedly for a temporary project. More attempts at retirement followed over the years, but he always went back. He’d just wrapped up his latest temporary job in June, surely figuring there’d be another around the corner.

David grew up going to countless ballgames with his dad, including a road trip to Wrigley Field to see his beloved Cubs, even though Mark was never a big sports fan. Mark took David to his first concert, too — an impromptu decision made after a Phillies game, when a scalper offered a pair of tickets for $10. It was Neil Diamond, and Mark knew a deal when he saw one. David was never particularly handy around the house, but Mark was always there to help. When David and Meredith had a baby on the way, Mark came to Charlotte, North Carolina to help assemble Lola’s crib. He talked with Meredith for hours, going over plans for a bathroom restoration. On his last visit, he insisted on crawling through a sweltering attic to find out why the air conditioning wasn’t working quite right.

Mark always played a prominent role in Amy’s family, often shuttling kids from place to place when Amy was juggling too many things at once. Alexa and Kalli each have fond memories of rides in Pop-pop’s blue Suburban — the one he kept driving for nearly 25 years, because no vehicle was ever beyond repair — and along the way, he’d always impart some bit of wisdom about the world, usually a lesson he’d learned from his dad. A few days before he died, Mark surprised Kalli with a ride home from high school. They talked about life, just as they always had.

Eventually, Amy bought a house just a few blocks from Mom and Dad. Mark came by several times a day, installing new floors, expanding closets and remodeling bathrooms, eventually storing more of his vast collection of tools at her house than his. Mark rewired so many outlets, he went back and labeled each switch for Amy — even a few he called “future fans.” He taught Alexa how to change the oil in her car, quizzing her on the steps each time, and beaming with pride when she had the right answer. He taught Nate — his little “Bubba” — how to cut the grass and wash the car. Two days after Mark died, Nate was out cutting Grammy’s lawn because that’s what Pop-pop needed. On days when the weather looked bad, Mark inevitably sent Amy the same text message: “Storm’s coming. Might want to put down the patio umbrellas.” Before a recent thunderstorm, Amy wrote back that Nate had already done it. “Atta boy,” Mark replied.

In Stephen, Mark found his counterpart, an engineer with a passion for cars. In college, Stephen and his automotive engineering club built a car, and Mark helped paint it. Then Mark towed the car from Delaware to Nebraska for a competition. Stephen was late for his first date with Audrey. He’d gotten busy helping Mark install windows. Still, Mark and Audrey, now a doctor, shared a similar understanding of how the world worked. She’d explain some facet of biology, and Mark would nod and relate it to a machine he’d helped build. When Stephen and Audrey bought their first home in Baltimore – an old house in need of love and a skillful hand – Mark made the 90-minute drive nearly every day to fix sagging plaster, replace the 100-year-old wiring, and teach Stephen about carpentry, plumbing and electrical work. In the past year, Mark loved watching little Thomas toddle behind them, his play tools in hand, wanting to be just like Daddy and Pop-pop.

When his brother-in-law, Ed, suffered a stroke a few years ago, Mark made the three-hour trek to Virginia, day after day, to help him through rehabilitation. After Linda’s best friend, Carol, lost her husband suddenly, Mark sat with her on her back porch and made a promise: “Anything you need, I’ll be there.” Mark spent last spring refurbishing the old swing set and playhouse his kids had used, so Alexa, Kalli, Nate Madi, Thomas, Lola and Willa would have a place to play when they visited. During the COVID-19 shutdown, kids from the surrounding houses flocked to use it, too. On the top of the playhouse, Mark added an American flag. That was his favorite part.
He quoted Ernest movies. He loved Mexican food. He was surprisingly good at ping-pong. He loved Billy Joel and The Beach Boys and, recently, found an affinity for Yacht Rock. He loved real bacon and hated turkey bacon. He insisted on staying busy, but he’d stop on the side of a road to snap a photo of a pink sky at sunset or a field covered in snow. He was most comfortable in an old t-shirt and jeans. He took Linda camping for their honeymoon. He was honest. He was brilliant. He was kind. He was a million other things that no accounting of his life could ever measure.

Mark loved projects. He loved the work. But he hated endings. He was a perfectionist. If his work served as an expression of his love, there was no room for the tiniest blemish. He was happiest if one small job led to another, then another. He once promised to help David repaint his living room and proceeded to spend two weeks sanding plaster across three rooms before a speck of paint was applied. Keep working. Keep finding new problems to solve, new ways to make the world a little better. The race was always more important than where he finished.

So as we grieve our loss, please don’t let this be an ending. Celebrate Mark’s life now and often. Give him the gift he gave so many of us. Start a new project by telling stories and sharing memories. Talk to strangers and help your neighbors. And most of all, make sure the people you love always have someone they can rely on when the job gets too tough.

Due to COVID-19, the family is celebrating Mark’s life with a private ceremony. In the near future, however, they will host a larger gathering for friends, neighbors, coworkers, extended family, dogs and the lumber guy at Home Depot.
The family is immensely grateful for the gifts, food and flowers from so many wonderful friends. Thank you. For others wishing to express their sympathy, we ask you please consider a donation in Mark’s name to The American Heart Association or The Delaware SPCA.

What I watched on my COVID vacation

So the bad part about getting COVID is… pretty much everything. I give it zero stars and do not recommend.

The silver lining, however, is it leaves a little time to catch up on movies, and again, thanks to COVID, pretty much every movie is available on a streaming service now, so no need to go to the theater.

And with the Oscars coming up, I felt like I should try to watch any of the movies getting buzz, which turned out to be a pretty extensive list.

So, over the past few weeks, I’ve watched 18 movies while largely relegated to my couch. Some were great. Some were awful. But I put together a quick review of each in case you’re also looking for something to watch.

One Night in Miami⭐⭐⭐⭐
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
⭐⭐⭐

Both were transplanted from stage productions to movies, and while the performances were phenomenal in both (Chadwick Boseman absolutely needs to win the Oscar for best actor in “Ma Rainey”), I think “One Night in Miami” made for a much better overall movie. “Ma Rainey” felt like a stage production on film. “Miami” had a real movie quality to it in its pacing. In the end, it’s probably the social justice version of “My Dinner with Andre” in that it’s largely just one long conversation between interesting people, but it’s elevated by both the terrific acting and the nuanced look at race and the roles Black men — particularly famous ones — were asked to play in the 1960s. My mind could be changed on this, but “Miami” feels like it’d be my choice for Best Picture this year. (MRBB on Netflix, ONIM on Amazon Prime)

The Prom

Like ONIM & MRBB, this is meant to mimic a stage production… but my God is it self-indulgent. As a musical, it’s a bore. The songs are mediocre at best. As a story, it’s largely a series of meta jokes about Broadway. And as a performance, it’s intended, ostensibly, to parody self-important stars and instead wallows in its own gravitas. Just awful. (Netflix)

Derek DelGaudio’s In and Of Itself⭐⭐⭐⭐

If you’ve not yet seen it, I’m not going to say anything about it because it’s best enjoyed without pretext. All I’ll say is that it’s the most unexpected viewing experience I’ve had in a long time. And I call it a “viewing experience” because that’s what it was. Like the previous films, this was a stage show… though this was actually filmed during the live performances and benefits from being able to overlap several of them throughout. It’s part magic show, part fable, part motivational speech… but really, it’s about the ride DelGaudio takes you on. You will not regret it. (Amazon Prime)

On the Rocks⭐⭐

Two actors I genuinely enjoy in almost anything (Bill Murray and Rashida Jones) are again pretty enjoyable, but the story offers next to nothing to back up the star power. There’s no real plot here, just a series of excuses to put Murray and Jones together in front of a camera. That’s fine, but disappointing that it didn’t amount to something more. (Apple TV+)

Boys State⭐⭐⭐

A documentary on a mock government for high school boys in Texas offers a lot of insight into the reality of politics. It could be interpreted as a black comedy if not for the reality of our political climate that somehow makes satire impossible. Worth the watch. (Apple TV+)

Da 5 Bloods⭐⭐

I love the premise, which is largely a riff on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre while delving into the burdens of Black soldiers in Vietnam. The presentation from Spike Lee is, as you’d expect, unique. Some of it works, like the monologues from Delroy Lindo (who is terrific). But so much of it doesn’t, from the insane leaps in logic in service of the plot to the obvious problems with the timeline to the unnecessary additions like one character’s long-lost daughter (which culminates in the film’s final scene in a moment so dishonest it nearly ruins all that came before it). In the end, Lee made a perfectly watchable movie that never lived up to the bigger promise he clearly was working hard to inject. (Netflix)

Mank⭐⭐⭐

The story of “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz is a really fun watch. Gary Oldman just chews up the scenery with a terrific performance that would be Oscar-worthy if not for Boseman’s role in “Ma Rainey.” The story bounces between two critical points in Mank’s life: The California gubernatorial election of 1934 and the writing of “Citizen Kane” in 1940. The film works hard to connect these two events, and it doesn’t work. It’s all too forced. But the two stories, independently, are both incredibly fun and worth the watch. (Netflix)

Pieces of a Woman⭐⭐

The first 30 minutes of the movie verge on tragedy porn, indulging every grueling moment of an ultimately tragic stillbirth that should set the stage for an emotional juggernaut of a movie. Unfortunately, the film fizzles out after that opening sequence and veers into pointless distractions, including a focus on Shia LeBouf’s character rather than staying with the broken mother. (Netflix)

News of the World⭐⭐⭐

Tom Hanks is great, as always, in what amounts to a pretty standard Western that moves from action at Point A to new action at Point B to new action at Point C, etc. It’s your archetypal “hero goes on a journey” story. It’s fun and has enough suspense to keep you off your cell phone, but doesn’t really amount to anything special. (Available for Download)

Judas and the Black Messiah⭐⭐⭐

Of all the movies on this list, this is the one I probably need to really watch again to appreciate fully. It was, without question, well made, well acted and well scripted. The story hits all the right notes in building depth for the antagonist and creating real stakes for the protagonist (which, as it’s based on real — and tragic — events, makes sense) and in the end, it should clearly make you angry. All of that works. And yet… I just never felt hooked by the movie. It all functions better as a think piece than a movie. But perhaps that’s just me… or the time that I watched it… or something. I know it was good, and so I’m going to revisit it at some point. (HBO Max)

Trial of the Chicago Seven⭐⭐⭐

I hate Aaron Sorkin. “The Social Network” makes me genuinely angry. So I went into this with very low expectations. Turns out… the Sorkin-ness of it was dialed way back, and the story — while largely following a standard courtroom drama plot line — added up to something more. While it covers some of the same ground as “Judas and the Black Messiah” it does so in a more traditional means, which is both good (for entertainment sake) and bad (for genuine insight) but all amounts to an entirely watchable two hours, including a surprisingly adept performance by Sasha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman. (Netflix)

The Forty Year Old Version⭐⭐⭐

I’d be underselling this to call it “Clerks” for an older and/or Black audience (though this film’s target audience probably doesn’t have a ton of overlap with Kevin Smith’s), but that’s what I was thinking about as I watched it. In part, this is because of how the film is shot — in black and white, with a largely unpolished feel. In part it’s the casting, which includes plenty of amateurs and few big names. And in part, it’s the subject matter — a character adrift and unsure, torn between pursuing the thing she thinks she’s always wanted and something new and possibly better (if just shifted ahead by about a decade compared to “Clerks” mid-20s cast). Like “Clerks,” it’s also scathingly funny without a hint of pretense, which works marvelously. In the end, the rough edges will likely turn off a part of a general audience, but like “Clerks,” if you can embrace them, they actually manage to elevate the overall movie. (Netflix)

Midnight Sun

I couldn’t even finish it. How you take a story that combines space and the apocalypse, have George Clooney as the lead, and it all comes out incredibly boring is just beyond me. But that’s what you get here. (Netflix)

Sound of Metal⭐⭐

It’s a good movie with some strong performances, but like “Da 5 Bloods” or “News of the World,” it felt like it could’ve been something more but never really reached that point. The story of a metal drummer who loses his hearing takes us through his journey and ultimately his semi-acceptance of his fate, but it didn’t really connect for me. I think this largely comes from scenes that I didn’t quite enjoy lasting too long, and other parts — like the main character’s relationship with a class of young deaf children — being rushed in service of getting back to the main plot. It’s worth the watch but left me thinking how much better it might’ve been. (Amazon Prime)

Malcolm & Marie⭐⭐⭐

This movie is of the same pastiche as “Ma Rainey” or “One Night in Miami” — what in TV terminology is called a “Bottle episode.” There are just two characters and the whole film takes place in their Malibu home over a single evening. The acting is terrific and the dialogue is mostly sharp, but it also can’t quite escape a level of self-indulgence that leaves you feeling like you don’t really want to have just spent the past two hours with these people. It’s worth the watch because of the exceptionally strong performances, but it’s really hard to set an entire movie around two fairly unlikeable characters. (Netflix)

The Little Things

Arguably the dumbest movie I’ve seen in a while (though “Wonder Woman ’84” was still far worse). Rami Malik is incapable of playing a normal human being. Denzel Washington’s character is supposed to be a deeply wounded cop that somehow never comes across that way, and the third act is effectively a series of just mind-bogglingly dumb decisions made by the main characters mixed with ’70s cop show action and reaction shots. I hated this movie with the passion of five Denzels. (HBO Max)

Promising Young Woman⭐⭐⭐⭐

This is the movie that I’ve spent the most time thinking about since watching it. First off, it’s a terrific premise: A woman whose life has been upended due to a sexual assault tries to get revenge on predatory men who seek out drunk women for easy sex. It’s part “Falling Down,” part “Inglorious Basterds.” But that’s not quite right either. The movie veers between a love story, a revenge fantasy, a mystery, a black comedy… and at times, that feels a bit off-putting. I was a bit distracted by some of the casting choices, too. While Carey Mulligan is terrific, the secondary parts were essentially all recognizable TV comedy veterans, which felt like an odd choice for a film ostensibly about such serious subject matter. But I read a good review after the fact that suggested this is part of the allure — and that after a traumatic event like a sexual assault, it’s realistic to be mixed up, to not know how to treat your surroundings, to be unsure what type of narrative your life is now following. That makes sense to me having ruminated on it for a while, too. I’m still not sure that I loved all the aesthetic and casting decisions, but I’m also still thinking about them… and that’s the sign of an effective story. (Available for download)

Nomadland⭐⭐⭐⭐

I’m still not entirely sure how I felt about it. It was good. Frances McDormand gives a very Frances McDormandy performance, and the story was undoubtedly unique and insightful and in some ways a modern day “On the Road.” But the movie was so full of contrasts — the beauty of this life vs. the security of an established existence, the independence required vs the need for community — that it’s hard to know exactly what to make of it all. Perhaps that’s the point. More than anything, however, I can say there was not a more gorgeously filmed movie this year. If Joshua James Richards doesn’t win an Oscar for the Cinemetography, they should just stop giving out awards.(Available for download)

Still want to see: Soul, The Father, Minari

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

When I finally regained my sense of smell, I immediately quoted this scene from Dewey Cox, which then reminded me I should watch the whole movie again. My God it’s great. If you’ve never seen, do yourself a favor and watch it right now. One of the 10 funniest movies of all time and a worthy addition to the canon of great parodies alongside “Spaceballs” and “Airplane.” (Amazon Prime)

My favorite stories of 2020: An awful year with some great journalism

This year, I set a New Year’s resolution goal: Read 366 feature stories in 366 days.

We’ve still got a few days left, but you can find everything I’ve read (closing in on 366) here:  January’s readsFebruary’s readsMarch readsApril readsMay reads, June reads, July reads, August reads and a whole mess at the end because I was lazy.

After reading so many awesome stories, however, I don’t expect you to cull through all 366 to find your favorites, so I’ll share mine below.

Of course, these are always supposed to be top 10 lists, and that’s an impossible task when I’ve read so many great pieces, so I’ll cheat a bit to get a few more into the mix…

Best oral history: Brian Van Hooker’s amazing deep dive into the impact of The Simpsons’ “Steamed Hams” bit. There’s a full day’s worth of laughs in here & it goes well beyond the basic history, which is great. As a side note, as a reporter, my favorite part of the Steamed Hams oral history was imagining Brian calling an astrophysicist to ask if it was theoretically possible the Northern Lights could be contained entirely in someone’s kitchen.

Best series: Eli Saslow’s first-person “as told to” accounting of normal people’s battles with COVID-19 was haunting and essential, and none got to me more than this one about parents who nearly lost their two sons to the virus.

Best story by one of my friends: Lots of good work from the great ESPN folks this year, but nothing better than Andrea Adelson’s emotional look at David Shaw’s battle to save his brother’s life. Just a beautiful story of what we’ll do for the people we love.

Best non-college football sports story: Tom Junod’s tale of what actually happened on a Maine baseball field and the tragic backstories of the people involved is so deeply reported and emotionally intense. Then again, it’s what you expect from Tom.

Best sports essay: Ryan McGee’s personal appeal to NASCAR fans after the sport banned the confederate flag is the takedown of “History not Hate” that was desperately needed. It takes courage start pulling the skeletons out of the family’s closet, and this was a courageous piece.

Best feel-good read: In a year without much good news, we all needed a pick-me-up, and Sam Anderson’s profile of Weird Al Yankovic was exactly that… a joyful & surprisingly emotional treatise on the pleasures of being different.

Most prescient story of the year: Back in February when we all assumed COVID-19 would go away soon enough, James Hamblin’s story offered an astonishingly prescient alternative, that before hardly any Americans had it, the virus had already won.

Most deeply reported story of the year: Matthew Shaer goes around the world and back to find the real truth of a man who claimed to be a lost US commando lost in Vietnam for half a century. Nobody dug deeper on a story this year.

Best narrative essay: Sarah Viren’s wife was accused of harassment. The accusations were all lies. The taut narrative here reads like a crime thriller while exposing the dark underbelly of higher education.

Reporting MVP of the year: The Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe had more stories I absolutely loved than anyone else this year. Just a terrific run of deeply reported, narrative driven pieces, one of which I’ll include in my top 10, but also wanted to share a couple others…

The pandemic hit and this car became home for a family of four — stunning storytelling that illustrated the massive and disproportionate impact the virus had on people who were already struggling to get by…

A pandemic, a motel without power and a potentially terrifying glimpse of Orlando’s future — Another deeply reported and detailed piece that’s haunting in its specificity and also how universal these stories are becoming…

Now my top 10 favorite stories of the year. The one common thread among them is that they each go deep on their subjects, and if that’s all they were, they’d all be excellent stories. But in each case, the writer elevates the content into something bigger and better and more lasting. Hope you’ll read them all.

Reminder: please please please continue to support good journalism in 2021 by subscribing to your favorite news outlets & sharing the stories that impact you.

10. Linda Rodriguez found perhaps the most outside-the-box approach to telling a COVID-19 story this year with her piece on a man who’s spent nearly his whole life in an iron lung. It’s beautifully reported and written and perfectly captures the humanity of a man whose existence requires machines.

9. I mentioned Greg Jaffe’s outstanding work this year, and you could pick one of many for the top 10, but this piece on the soldier turned in by his own platoon who became a conservative hero after a Trump pardon. The depth of reporting & visceral emotions are next level here.

8. The reporting here is great, too, but the writing in Burkhard Bilger’s deep dive into high-end reno projects in NYC is the type of thing that keeps me up at night I’m so jealous of it. The quotes are amazing, too. Contractors got jokes.

7. Michael Lista’s story of a poorly planned sting operation in Canada goes so far beyond the narrative thrills of a crime story and results in a heartbreaking tale of loneliness and despair.

6. Caroline Randall Williams wrote the most powerful piece I’ve seen on how to address the country’s fraught history with race. Too many of our big debates are had with excess emotion and too little empathy, and Randall Williams flips the script in gut-wrenching fashion.

5. I hate celebrity profiles but Taffy Brodesser-Akner upends all the tropes and actually finds something deep and meaningful in her story about Val Kilmer that, in the end, feels like a story that mattered so much more because of the time in which it appeared. It’s beautiful.

4. Hannah Dreier’s story of a police standoff just days after de-escalation training in Alabama is the type of nuanced and objective reporting on police violence we so desperately needed this year. It doesn’t take sides. It just puts the reader in the midst of the chaos.

3. Jesmyn Ward’s essay on losing her husband just before the pandemic upended the world was simply heartbreaking. It reminded me of “The Leftovers” subplot in which personal grief gets upstaged by national tragedy and the additional hurt that comes with that.

2. Chris Solomon’s essay on the love shared between his parents and the toll that commitment took as they got older and his father dealt with dementia. Just gut-wrenching and beautiful at the same time. Not sure any story will stick with me more than this one.

1. Sarah Zhang’s story on prenatal testing & Down Syndrome is touching and heartfelt but also asks some big questions we face as humans. It’s one of those rare stories that deeply connects with its subjects but is about something so much bigger.

December Reading List: The Search for September-November’s Reading List

So I’ve been slacking. Yes, I’ve still been reading… just not nearly so much. My goal of 366 stories in 366 days is… possibly not going to happen. I write this with 21 days remaining and 26 stories left to read. But hey, I was one of Pocket’s top 1% this year, so that’s got to be good for something, right?

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Anyway, as I’ve also slacked on posting these, I’m skipping most of the commentary and just including links. I am worthless during football season. Forgive me.

If you’ve missed any previous reading, here’s January’s reads, February’s reads, March reads, April reads, May reads, June reads, July reads, and August reads, along with a best of the first half of 2020 list and a best of all time list. Best reads get a .

247.) The Lesson Americans Never Learn by Annie Lowery in The Atlantic

248.) On and off the field, Marvin Wilson leaving a lasting impact at Florida State by Andrea Adelson for ESPN

249.) Can ‘Athletic Intelligence’ Be Measured? by Devin Gordon for The New York Times

250.) The Scramble to Pluck 24 Billion Cherries in Eight Weeks by Brooke Jarvis in The New York Times

251.) On Witness and Respair: A Personal Tragedy Followed by a Pandemic by Jesmyn Ward in Vanity Fair

252.) The 5G lie: The network of the future is still slow by Geoffrey A. Fowler in The Washington Post

253.) Going Postal: A psychoanalytic reading of social media and the death drive by Max Read in BookForum

254.) The Falling Man by Tom Junoud in Esquire
I read this one every September 11, and it always feels new and haunting.

255.) Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence on BLM, listening and learning: ‘I’m on the journey of discovering’ by Hallie Grossman for ESPN

256.) The U.S. shows all the signs of a country spiraling toward political violence by Rachel Kleinfeld in The Washington Post

257.) Deshaun Watson is ready to be heard by Tim Keown for ESPN

258.) The Fight Against Words That Sound Like, but Are Not, Slurs by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic

259.) The Limitless Potential of Zion Williamson by JA Adande in Men’s Heath Continue reading December Reading List: The Search for September-November’s Reading List

August reads: Yes, this year is still happening. Dear God when will it end?

It’s August. I don’t have anything more to add. I’m drained.

Update: Turns out, I was a slacker this month. Well, not a slacker all around. Life was chaos. That led to less reading — just 17 stories in 31 days. Alas, I’ll do better in September.

If you’ve missed any previous reading, here’s January’s reads, February’s reads, March reads, April reads, May reads, June reads and July reads, along with a best of the first half of 2020 list and a best of all time list.

Best reads get a .

Enjoy August fare…

230.) How the Trump campaign came to court QAnon, the online conspiracy movement identified by the FBI as a violent threat by Isaac Stanley-Becker for The Washington Post

231.) My Midlife Crisis as a Russian Sailor by Andrea Pitzer for Outside Magazine

This was a really fun travelogue and a reminder that I wish I had more adventures as a reporter. Damn sports being so buttoned-down.

232.) Bob Newhart made comedy history in Houston by Andrew Dansby in the Houston Chronicle

Bob Newhart is on the very short list of comedians I most enjoy. He’s an absolute American treasure.

233.) How the Media Could Get the Election Story Wrong by Ben Smith in The New York Times Continue reading August reads: Yes, this year is still happening. Dear God when will it end?