The NFL hasn't had an old-fashioned straight-ahead place-kicker since Mark Moseley retired in 1986. After a league ruling this spring, it may be a long time before the NFL sees another one.
Last year the Falcons looked into outfitting a backup to Morten Andersen with a $250 shoe called the Super Impactor, created by onetime NFL punter Ray Pelfrey and featuring a toe wider and higher than anything the league has seen since Tom Dempsey's day. The boot soon came to the attention of Jerry Seeman, the NFL's senior director of officiating, who declared it illegal. That set off a year of wrangling between Pelfrey and the NFL in which the league couldn't tell Pelfrey exactly what constituted a legal shoe. A letter from a league lawyer quoted the NFL's rule on footwear, which refers to "shoes that are of standard football design" and "a normal kicking shoe" without defining either of those terms, and concluded with impressive circularity that Pelfrey's shoe "is not acceptable under current NFL rules."
The league's competition committee upheld that decision in May, which must come as a disappointment to the two dozen pro scouts who had seen the Super Impactor making an impact at Pelfrey's kicking camp in Sparks, Nev., last March. The shoe was on the right foot of Matt Piotrowicz, 17, now a senior at Chicago's Mount Carmel High, who boots the old-fashioned way. "This kid was kicking as long as six or eight of the pro prospects we were there to watch," says Mike Stock, special teams coach for the Chiefs.
Was it the shoe? Recruiters from Division I, in which Pelfrey's shoe is legal, don't care. They've seen film of an Impactor-powered Piotrowicz kickoff leaving the stadium in a Catholic League game last year—a boot estimated to have traveled 91 yards. After receiving some 20 offers from the likes of Arizona, Ohio State and Penn State, Piotrowicz has orally committed to Florida. If he's a hit there, the NFL may find this issue circling back on it before too long.
One of the first things the new czar of the Continental Basketball Association plans to do this season is institute a dress code-sport coat and tie for all players, coaches and other team personnel on road trips. Considering that the 53-year-old CBA teeters perpetually on the verge of bankruptcy (more than 100 franchises have folded in the last two decades), making a fashion statement might sound trivial. But not to Isiah Thomas. "We're going to present ourselves as professionals on and off the court," says Thomas, who recently paid a reported $10 million to buy the nine CBA franchises. "That's the only way to make this work."
Thomas is right to go after the CBA's image. No matter how many John Starkses and Mario Elies it sends to the NBA, to most of America's sports fans the A in CBA has long stood for Amateurish. Moreover, despite the CBA's standing as the "official developmental league of the NBA," neither the NBA office nor the NBA players' association has ever paid more than lip service to that designation, effectively leaving the CBA off the nation's radar screen.
If anyone can sell the importance of the league to David Stern and points beyond, it's Thomas. He's a future Hall of Earner with two NBA championship rings, a past president of the players' union and the former general manager of the Raptors. "Isiah has leverage in all sorts of places we've never had leverage before," says Jay Frye, former owner of the Fort Wayne Fury, one of the league's more stable franchises. (What role Frye and his colleagues will play in the new CBA has yet to be ironed out.)
Still, the journey to credibility is uphill. College basketball has long served not only as the NBA's minor league but also as its star-making machine. The CBA may never do much about the latter, but Thomas believes it's time to do something about the former. As popular as college basketball is, it has been failing miserably as a vehicle for player development, largely because so many players spend only a year or two on campus before departing, relatively unprepared, for the NBA. "The CBA has always been underutilized as a training ground," says Jerry Colangelo of the Suns, one of the NBA's most influential owners. "Isiah, because of his presence and his credibility, might turn that around."
Thomas's goal is a minor league system a la baseball: 29 CBA franchises, each affiliated with an NBA team. But he also has more pressing concerns, foremost among them to attract big-time sponsors and keep peace in the league, given its unconventional ownership arrangement. As in the WNBA and Major League Soccer, the league office—read Thomas—will have control over personnel and can juggle players among teams as he sees fit. "Of course, I was worried about giving up control and local autonomy," says Frye. "I did it because of Isiah's clout and because I think he can make this league better in the long run."