Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: the Chiefs’ real makeover, dumping Dee Ford, and so much more

Chiefs offseason free agent signings and roster moves

The Kansas City Chiefs are expected to be active in free agency this offseason, and here are all of the moved they have made so far.
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The Kansas City Chiefs are expected to be active in free agency this offseason, and here are all of the moved they have made so far.

The only thing the Chiefs did well defensively was rush the quarterback. The Chiefs defense was essentially a sea of stink, with one beautiful island.

They have now bombed the island.

In the last few days they have decided to release Justin Houston and trade Dee Ford to the 49ers in exchange for — checks notes ... Is this all? Really? — a second round draft pick. In 2020.

We are still early in the offseason, and signing the versatile defensive back Tyrann Mathieu was a significant improvement. More moves are on the way, and you don’t judge the vacation by the flight out. The trade of Ford clears $15.4 million in cap space so at the very least let’s see what they do with that money.

But in the moment the clearest takeaway is that the only strength of the Chiefs defense has been dismantled. Ford had a career-high 13 sacks last year and led all edge rushers in pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.

The Chiefs pass rush was a group effort. Ford was more effective because of the presence of Chris Jones, who was more effective because of the presence of Justin Houston, who was more effective because of the presence of Ford, and time is a flat circle.

Jones is a terrific player. He’s a star, even with some flaws against the run.

But, guys — who else is rushing the passer?

Let’s make some acknowledgements. The Chiefs are up against the cap and have (smartly) prioritized extensions for Jones and Tyreek Hill. Ford does not fit the profile of an every down player for new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo because of vulnerabilities against the run.

He is something less than an elite player and his numbers were inflated by a rocket ship offense. The Chiefs faced more pass attempts than anyone else and, presumably, more pass attempts with a lead. That’s a great environment for a pass rusher, and especially an edge rusher. Ford may have just played the season of his life.

But they could have had him on another contract year. Spagnuolo can’t be so rigid that he could not have found a way to utilize Ford’s speed and knack for strip sacks.

Are the Chiefs expecting this much of a bump from Breeland Speaks in a new system? Did they find some confidence in Tanoh Kpassagnon hidden away somewhere? Do they think they can fill the hole in the draft, even without picking until 29th overall?

Look, the Chiefs deserve credit for being aggressive in remaking this defense. A year ago, they did lip service. They traded Marcus Peters, cut Derrick Johnson, kept the defensive coordinator and called it a cultural makeover. That was nonsense, and they should have known it.

The 2019 Chiefs were even worse defensively, and lost the AFC Championship game in overtime with their unicorn quarterback never getting a chance because the defense could not hold the Patriots to even a field goal at home.

Now, they are making drastic moves to maximize what’s left of Patrick Mahomes’ rookie contract. We can argue the details, but give them credit for effort, at least.

Mathieu is a versatile playmaker who will strengthen a poor secondary. He has a well-earned reputation for causing havoc, a trait that was sorely missed without Peters. Mathieu gives the Chiefs options. Different ways to attack.

But, at least until we see what happens with Ford’s cap space, this is one step forward and one step back.

The Chiefs got worse by trading an effective pass rusher for a second round pick in a draft more than a year away. The judgments made in real time should reflect that fact.

There is plenty of time to make up for it. If general manager Brett Veach can make sure that Mathieu and whatever is done with that money is more effective than Houston and Ford would’ve been, we’re all good here.

But at the moment, the burden of proof is on the Chiefs.

This week’s eating recommendation is the chocolate cake donut at Fluffy Fresh, and the reading recommendation is Tim Keown on Bryce Harper.

Please give me a follow on Twitter and Facebook and as always thanks for the help and thanks for reading.

Anything is possible. The 2017 Twins did not expect to make the playoffs, and into the summer when they were in contention they were still waiting for a losing streak so they could flip players for prospects.

So, sure. If you want to you can come up with a scenario where Adalberto Mondesi is baseball’s breakout star, Whit Merrifield comes close to matching his 2018, and the rest of the lineup gets enough production to be league average or better in runs.

Then you can come up with another scenario where Brad Keller builds on his rookie year, Jakob Junis’ curveball develops, Danny Duffy is effective again, and they find enough young arms to fill out the rest. With a good defense, that might be enough to finish solidly top half in run prevention.

The AL Central is pretty weak, so there will be wins to be had with an imbalanced schedule, and with five of 15 teams making the playoffs ... sure, it’s possible.

Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid talked about a number of things from the status of safety Eric Berry to new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo while meeting the media at the NFL Scouting Combine on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019 in Indianapolis.

You have to think about what’s likely, though. The Royals were 13th in runs and 13th in homers last year and lost some 35 percent of their power with Mike Moustakas, Sal Perez, and Lucas Duda.

Maybe that’s made up if Jorge Soler stays healthy, and Ryan O’Hearn is real, and Mondesi is an actual star instead of a projected one.

But if you compare their lineup to, say, the Indians ... well, there’s a huge difference.

Nobody knows nothing, and the 2019 Royals playing into the postseason wouldn’t be the craziest thing in recent baseball history.

But it wouldn’t be far off.

I heard several versions of this after the column on the unrest with baseball players, so let’s do this here:

I believe Alex Gordon is a terrific person to talk about it.

Obviously I hope you read the whole column. I hope it enough that I’ll link it again here, and here, and here.

But you’re reading this now, which means you’re OK in my book, so let’s look at the points Gordon made.

“Teams have control of guys way too long. Being a free agent now sucks. It used to be, ‘Now I’m a free agent, I put my time in and now I can enjoy it.’ But now you’re older and teams are looking at older players different now, which is fine.

“But if that’s the case — if you’re not going to pay older veterans who put in the work for six years and then don’t get paid — then you need to pay younger players what they deserve after one year. Aaron Judge shouldn’t be making (close to) the minimum after an MVP (caliber) season.”

The point here is that the experience and benefits of being a free agent are diminished. This used to be the goal of every player, for obvious reasons, but the money isn’t there like in past years — “WHICH IS FINE,” Gordon said, emphasis mine.

He’s saying he understands why teams are doing that. They’re not valuing older players as much. They’re valuing younger players more. “WHICH IS FINE,” Gordon said, emphasis mine again.

But then pay the guys you’re valuing. He’s arguing for others, not himself.

OK, the next quote:

“I’m not saying we should get more money. I’m saying it should be fair. I’m saying if you’re going to treat older players the way you are, then young players need to get what they deserve.”

This is probably the best quote. He’s not demanding or even asking for players to be paid more in general. He’s saying the structure just needs to shift to better reflect the way teams value players.

Athletes don’t do this often. He’s acknowledging that older players probably shouldn’t be getting those enormous contracts anymore. But he’s also pointing out the absurdity of a system in which owners are no longer paying older players, while being prohibited from paying younger players, which means even more billions in their pockets for not being the reason anyone watches or cares about a game.

How does anyone think that’s the way it should be?

Then the last quote:

“We don’t want to sound like we’re complaining. We’re happy. We get paid well. There’s just got to be a way for it to be fair. Not for me and (Merrifield), but just the players as a whole. We just want what’s fair.”

I get that nobody wants to hear Gordon talk about money, but if you get past that initial and superficial reaction, you hear him making intelligent and self-aware points.

I don’t know how we get to fair from here. Merrifield and Gordon made it clear they didn’t want to talk about details. That’s for the negotiators, and there’s a reason the players hired a new lead negotiator.

Maybe rookies play for the minimum and then everyone hits arbitration after that. Maybe teams are fined or docked draft picks if they lose a certain number of games in a year or number of years. Maybe there’s a salary floor — again, over a year or number of years. Maybe instead of six years in the minors plus six in the majors teams get control of players for a total of nine or 10 total, no matter the level.

Maybe the de facto salary cap that the players stunningly agreed to in the last CBA can evolve into something like the NFL or NBA systems, where player payouts are tied to league revenues.

There are a lot of potential solutions. Or, at least, potential improvements.

Here’s one thing any amount of Gordon backlash points out is still true: the smartest thing baseball owners do is keep their books private, so that fans and media focus on the salaries of the subset of players who aren’t producing as expected instead of the billions being made by owners who made foolproof investments and add no value to the games we love.

They better.

The first time around, the Royals did not have a winning record until Dayton Moore’s seventh full season in charge.

I want to be clear that this is me reading between the lines, and not repeating anything that anybody in the know has told me, but: I assume Moore was close to being fired. The thought had to at least have crossed David Glass’ mind.

Moore has, um, more credibility now but he can’t expect to have another seven years. If you start the clock with the 2018 season — with Cain, Hosmer, Davis, Herrera, and Holland all gone — this would be year two of the rebuild.

Baseball can move slow. Even the best and fastest moving prospects need a few years in the minors, and then often a few more in the majors before they find their way.

The Royals are trying to speed that up. That’s why they went so heavy with college pitchers in last year’s draft. Whether it’s Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman or high school shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. or someone else the Royals figure to get an impact prospect with the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft.

There’s no way to know exactly how this will go, of course, but if you squint a little bit you can see the outline of a future winner. Mondesi could be a star, and the Royals will try to fill the field with athleticism. They believe they can be better at developing pitching then the last time, and if that’s the case they will be one of the sport’s best teams in run prevention.

Timelines are tricky. The last time the Royals took longer than expected, with a payoff better than expected. But a winning record in the next three years is entirely realistic. If there’s not, something has gone wrong.

This might be a highjacking of your question but one of the NFL’s great lies is that teams are family. This is a mind trick used by coaches to promote buy-in, often with the unspoken motivator of fear: if you’re in our family you have a chance, but if you’re not you might not have a job.

It’s something sort-of-kind-of a weird version of a family during the season. Coaches spend more time together than they do with their real families. Players often hang out together in their spare time, including regular meals on game weeks.

But the lie is always there, as “family members” are released because a better or more convenient option came available.

Justin Houston was always going to need to renegotiate the biggest contract in franchise history if he wanted to be part of the 2019 season. Both sides understood this fact, which is great. That’s how business should be.

But let’s be as clear as possible: this is not how families operate.

I wondered if Houston might be willing to renegotiate. Free agency has changed over recent years. More money is available. But it’s still a risk, and even the best situations require some sort of sacrifice by the player. The decision is often between the most money or the best fit. It’s rarely both.

From a personal standpoint, you could see why Houston might want to stay. He has good friends here. The coaches understand him and protect him in ways that others might not. The Chiefs were, theoretically, a coin flip from the Super Bowl so wouldn’t he want to see that through?

Again, you can see how it might have worked out.

But Houston’s agent is Joel Segal, one of the absolute best in the business. NFL front offices don’t see Segal as the guy you retain if you want to downsize a contract.

Houston has made more than $70 million in his career, so he doesn’t need every last dollar. If that’s as far as a fan goes with it, then fine.

But Houston is also a smart man, a bit of a thinker, and he’s already been on the wrong end of the NFL business. He was a first-round talent who slid to the third round because of silly concerns over a reported failed drug test. That cost him millions, so how could you fault him for wanting to exploit leverage when he had it?

I don’t know if Houston will end up getting more money somewhere else than he could have negotiated with the Chiefs. Nobody does.

But this is a brutal business, one where players have less power and more uncertainty than any other in major American sports. If Houston would’ve been willing to renegotiate and take less it would have been a gift to the franchise, and one I’m not sure was earned.

How could you fault him for any of this?

Eric Berry’s situation comes with its own nuance. He was injured, and nobody has ever questioned his character or resolve. If the injury took longer to heal than expected the frustration was shared on each side.

But the overriding truth with Berry is similar to Houston. This is a business first, not a family. Players are on the wrong end of that relationship so often that fans and media can be jarred when the leverage flips.

As it turned out, I would make the case that Berry handled the injury perfectly. Sometimes we use hindsight to see flaws so it’s only fair to use hindsight here to see a situation managed well.

He took this slow and methodically, to the point that the first time he played a full game was the AFC Championship. He wasn’t the same player we’ve come to know, most notably in giving up two key third down completions, but how is it logical to think he’d have been better if he’d have pushed the limits earlier and harder?

Mostly, though, this is about leverage. Teams introduce players to the league by showing how that leverage will be used against them.

The players would be stupid not to take advantage if they’re talented and lucky enough to eventually get leverage on their side.

#BruceForever is no longer just a tagline. It’s a lifestyle.

College allegiances have a way of muddying logical thinking, but unless you have a previous bias it would be hard not to appreciate what Weber has accomplished and — this part is worth highlighting — not to see the significance in this particular moment in time.

This college basketball season has largely been dominated by news of its ugly side. The Adidas trial has been a cloud over the sport and many programs, most notably Kansas.

Zion Williamson was something like ESPN’s escape hatch to focus on basketball, a neat trick considering he’s the player who was the subject of a pay-for-play proposition caught on a wire tap with KU assistant Kurtis Townsend. Does anyone really think Williamson chose Duke because he liked the engineering program?

Then, of course, he injured a knee when his Nike basketball shoe blew out, which caused another round of stories those who profit from college basketball would rather avoid.

So, anyway, in THAT environment Weber has what is either his greatest or second greatest coaching accomplishment. He coached Illinois to the 2005 national championship game. Objectively speaking, that is a far better moment than sharing the 2019 Big 12 regular season championship.

But that accomplishment has been diminished so often and so loudly by some that it’s become a sort of insult. Like, yeah, he did it but with Bill Self’s players. Never mind that Weber was the coach, or that it was his second year there, not his first, so it wasn’t just a turnkey operation.

The same thing happened at K-State, when he won a share of the 2013 conference title. That was Frank Martin’s players, and besides, K-State lost three times to Kansas and backed into the title with a loss in the last game.

This one, though, this one is bulletproof. Weber won with his guys. He won with the first recruiting class after the program reboot, and he did it his way. This group defends like maniacs and individually they’ve each worked hard and steadily improved. Barry Brown didn’t start for his AAU team and he’ll be remembered as one of the best players in program history.

So, yeah. Bulletproof.

You asked about Ned. Well, let me tell you something. I mentioned this in a column about him last week but he is not bulletproof.

Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost says he had a great off season and ready to get back working with the youth and building a team. Yost also wants to see more strategy in the game and still doesn't like the use of a shift in defense.

I wrote a few times last year that some in the organization weren’t thrilled with Yost last year. They lost 104 games, so plenty of blame could go around, but there was a thought from some that Yost had become too passive. That he wasn’t as motivated and focused as he once was.

Ultimately, of course, his reputation and the plain fact that the roster wasn’t very good won the day. Yost kept his job, and is back again this year.

A lot would have to go wrong for Yost to be fired, and I don’t want this to come across as some stupid #hottaek about a manager and the hot seat. He’s respected, and an important part of what they’re trying to do.

I’m just telling you he is not bulletproof.

Not completely, I wouldn’t think. The FBI stuff is part of the stew, but they had a lot going on this year.

They lost a preseason first-team All Big 12 player for the year to injury, a key power forward who helped push them to the Final Four last year to suspension, and a returning starter and (by far) their best shooter to a leave of absence.

Without those three, I’m not sure a conference title could have been fairly expected.

That team lacked a lot. For a stretch, Mitch Lightfoot was the only guy who played last season in the rotation. Even at full strength, Marcus Garrett was a good player but not a star. Devon Dotson was terrific, and Dedric Lawson a dynamic offensive player. Ochai Agbaji gave them more than they ever could have expected.

But Quentin Grimes didn’t play to expectations, David McCormack provided energy but not much production, and there just wasn’t enough to make up for what was lost.

I understand the temptation to make a strong connection between the FBI and the end of the streak. I just think there was a lot more with it.

This is the bigger concern. Kansas can be forgiven for not winning the league once every 15 years (rim shot?) but this athletic program has no Plan B when it comes to financial success.

Bill Self has to be great. Basketball has to be dominant. I’ve written about this before, and it’s probably more relevant now than ever.

When North Carolina was being investigated for fake classes taken by many athletes, the quality of recruiting classes dipped. That wasn’t coincidence, and Roy Williams did an admirable job keeping North Carolina within shouting distance of the top of the sport.

That could be the new challenge for Self, or whoever replaces him after he goes to the NBA at some point.

I wouldn’t expect KU’s challenge to be as steep as North Carolina’s, for at least two reasons. The first is this shouldn’t stretch on for years and years.

The second is that, let’s be honest, if you’re a college basketball player looking for a program untouched by scandal your options are fewer and fewer — and the Nike trial hasn’t even started yet.

I don’t know what Self’s future is. Gregg Popovich has said he’s unsure if he’ll coach the Spurs next year, and if he retires, Self will be connected to the job. There’s a lot of uncertainty going forward.

Kansas really needs Les Miles to fix football. That would go a long way in protecting the athletic department from a dip if basketball isn’t able to generate the same revenue.

Amateur sports are fun, aren’t they?

This won’t be the list you want but it’s the list I believe in:

1. Person Who Asks For Your Picks And Then Gets Mad That They Don’t Win Their Bracket.

2. Nobody. That’s the whole list.

Picking a bracket is one of the great joys of sports fandom, and it’s a great joy because we can all do it the way we want. Go strictly off KenPom. Parrot the picks of somebody on TV. Pick your favorite colors. Pick places you’d like to visit. Pick senior guards, or experienced coaches, or the best defenses. Whatever.

The great part is that picking a bracket is the ultimate lesson that we’re all going through life guessing, doing the best we can. Some people smoke a pack of day and live to be 95, and some people pick their favorite mascots and win your money.

Because, look. If Zion Williamson is healthy then Duke is by far the best team. If he’s not, then there are no great teams, like 20 that are both good and flawed, and 48 others in the tournament that are pretty ordinary.

So I could tell you that Virginia’s defense and motivation would be good picks, or that Ja Morant should be the No. 1 pick in the draft, or that Michigan State has an interesting combination of a badass point guard surrounded by talent and good coaching, or that you should pick against the Pac-12 because that garbage league deserves negative-6 teams in the tournament, but really, those are just guesses that don’t deserve any more of your time or thought than letting an untrained monkey pick your bracket by throwing literal garbage at the wall.

What I really want to talk about here is that washing machine. We’ve actually had good luck with our washer. I bought it used from a friend at least eight years ago.

So I don’t owe that thing a dime, but I’m completely dreading this next purchase because I’m convinced that all appliances now are nothing more than expensive junk.

Promise this is true: we bought a refrigerator a year or two ago, and were told by two servicemen and three salespeople that it did not matter what brand or model we bought because they’re all trash and will break down within five to seven years.

I’m guessing the washing machine will be the same thing. There is nothing worse than spending lots of money on something you and the person selling it to you both agree is junk.

God bless America.

The refrigerator wins in a blowout, and wifi routers in 2019 should be better than they are. Also, our dishwasher — thing could be 20 years old for all I know, but still — seems to take one out of every four cycles off.

But really, other than that, we’ve had good luck.

Our coffee machine was a wedding gift. I bought the microwave for like $50 nine years ago at Home Depot. We got sick of waiting for a 12-year-old plasma TV to break down so we just replaced it and pretended it was an anniversary gift. The computer I’m typing these words on is probably five years old and hasn’t given me a hiccup of problems.

What I’m trying to say here is that it’s not all complaints with me.

The refrigerator is a piece of junk, though.

I never had the confidence to do this, but you know the stories about people slipping the cable guy a twenty to pirate the pay channels? That’s some good legal tampering.

Go to the Power and Light District after midnight on a weekend and you’ll see all sorts of legal tampering.

I should probably stop before I get fired.

There’s a highly entertaining and terribly selling book to be written about the Royals from 1995 to 2006. The mistakes, the failures, the exasperation. Bob Dutton could probably write 200 pages on this from memory.

But, obviously, that’s not what you’re asking.

I believe the 1969 Chiefs may have been the most interesting team in the history of Kansas City sports. They had, what, seven Hall of Famers? And the access in those days was a level I literally cannot imagine.

The quarterback for that team — an eventual Hall of Famer — was the actual and real-life sports director for a local television station.

I know that story has been told, many times, but think about that. It’s incredible. Nobody thought to do this, because it’s just not the way things were done back then, but what if a writer asked to come into the locker room and smoke a cigarette with the fellas while Hank Stram went through adjustments?

More recently, the most interesting three seasons of a local team were the 2012 Chiefs, the 2014 Royals, and the 2018 Chiefs.

The 2012 Chiefs were tragic, literally. It was the most miserable season in the careers of presumably everyone involved and most of the time when we talk about these things it’s to celebrate happy memories.

But that team had as many compelling stories as any champion. Jovan Belcher’s monstrous act touched on societal issues like domestic violence, parenting, gun laws, and the legal system. His body was later excavated, and his brain was found to have advanced stages of CTE.

The organization’s morale was dropping every day, with Scott Pioli unable to recreate the success in New England. Eric Winston was proud and defiant. Romeo Crennel was respected and overmatched. Fans were angry. Jamaal Charles’ brilliance was wasted.

There was so much going on.

The other two are happier examples. The 2014 Royals were the team that changed it all. They talked a city and fan base off the edge, and into the World Series. A generation of Kansas Citians have a different view of baseball and what’s possible because of what they accomplished.

They came within one swing of the world championship, and when they lost the last game, Royals fans stayed and stood and chanted LET’S GO ROYALS so long that many players came out to say thanks.

The 2018 Chiefs may have done something similar for football here. Patrick Mahomes has no precedent. Certainly not in Kansas City, and perhaps not in the sport. That team was filled with strong personalities and its influence is strong in every corner of the league.

Also, and I promise this is true, I think it’d be fun to spend a year with a high school team. There are so many great stories to tell from that level.

Gosh I hope so. I actually think a plan for the north loop would make more sense, particularly if it could come with a more sensible interchange between the Buck O’Neil Bridge and I’s 35 and 70.

Wipe out that little stretch of I-70 between downtown and the River Market and you’ll be able to do more than is possible on the south loop because you won’t be encumbered as much with space. You could have a canal, for instance, and more of a free flowing are that connects.

The north loop idea is great, don’t get me wrong. There are more hotels there, the Kauffman Center, Power and Light. That would be a welcomed and well used park space.

But it also feels a bit like a publicly funded amenity for Cordish’s luxury apartments, and (sorry not sorry but) the estimate of $490 million of economic impact is so laughably absurd we should all agree to never talk about it again.

Mostly, though, I’m just so happy with the progress that’s been made downtown and that more seems to be on the way. I’m old enough to remember a time when people actively avoided downtown. I have friends who tell stories of being in high school and driving downtown to play games in the streets because they liked the buildings and knew there’d be no traffic.

We lived downtown until 2012, and loved what it was becoming. The progress in the seven years since has been incredible. I have some concerns about the rising price of living there, but that’s a high level criticism, and comparatively speaking a welcomed one.

This concludes the city planning portion of the Minutes.

I will always be a Winter Truther. I love wearing sweatshirts, I love building fires, I love sleeping when you need an extra blanket. Being cold is vastly superior to being hot.

That said, I will admit a few things.

This winter was rough for those of us fighting the good winter fight. Our preschool is only three days a week and we had seven snow days, a fact that can screw right off.

I will also admit that the temperatures got a little out of hand. At times, it felt like the weather gods were testing us, like, you REALLY sure you prefer it cold?

But I can tell you: I do.

I’m like everyone else, and welcoming the warmer temperatures. It’ll be nice to be able to grill again, and run outside. Goodness knows the kids can use more fresh air.

My only request is this. Be honest about who you are, and if you were ever complaining about the cold winter, you better be willing to tell me why 103 with 80 percent humidity for most of July and August is preferable to a cold night with a fire in the fireplace and a pot of chili cooking.

The park is undefeated. They see other kids, explore a bit on their own, push themselves physically and end up tired.

It really is the best.

I didn’t realize this for longer than I should admit, but Science City has a really cool outdoor area. Our older son got a remote control boat for his birthday, so it’s probably time we take that bad boy to Loose Park or something.

One thing I’m going to try to do this spring is find nearby high school soccer or baseball games to take the kids to. I think they’d like that.

This is becoming habit with the last question of the Minutes lately, but if you have some suggestions please let me know. But, really. The park is the GOAT.

This week, I’m particularly grateful for Kansas City’s best sports week of the year. I’m still not emotionally mature enough not to miss Mizzou during the Big 12 tournament, but this week is still a load of fun, and a heck of an opening act to the NCAA Tournament which all right-minded humans understand is the best event in American sports.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.