Thursday, September 18, 2014

Taking Away The Shine

It’s getting more difficult literally by the moment to remain a fan of the NFL.  The league is in a clear free fall and seems almost like it is making things up on the fly. If a league ever needed a war time consigliore it is now.  Tom Hagen, where for art thou?
What’s frustrating about all of this is that for at least fans in Cleveland it’s taken a bit of a shine of its first home opener win since the Truman administration.  Which is too bad because if there is anything much to like about a bad team in a good city it’s the over-the-top euphoria felt when the team wins a game it’s supposed to lose.  The sun shines, the birds sing, and every coach and player is the best we’ve ever had.
That would pretty much sum up fan reaction to the Browns unlikely win against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday if the league wasn’t so dysfunctional at the moment.  Indeed I’m not really sure how appropriate it is to even discuss the Browns’ win except as an afterthought.
The blame for this falls squarely once again on Commission Roger Goodell.  I was pretty certain for a great number of years that Bud Selig was the worse commissioner in the history of organized sports.  But at the moment Goodell is making Selig look like David Stern by comparison.  Goodell is Nero, fiddling as the league burns.  Other than a handpicked interview he conducted with CBS News and then botched anyway, Goodell has been in hiding managing the crises he’s creating by his own dithering.
To get a true measure of Goodell’s incompetence all you need to know is that he so mishandled the Ray Rice situation that most observers now have been grudgingly forced to sympathize with Rice, not for his deeds but for the simple fact that he’s now been punished twice for the same offense.  The legal concept of double jeopardy doesn’t technically apply to a private entity like the NFL but that’s beside the point.  It doesn’t feel right when someone is punished twice for the same offense if no new facts have emerged between punishments.
But it’s not just the Rice situation.  Goodell’s complete inability to manage a crisis has allowed teams to flounder about as they manipulate their own morals to justify why their best players shouldn’t be punished for offenses they’ve clearly committed. 
Adrian Peterson’s name is now as notorious as Rice’s thanks to Peterson’s rather candid admission and attitude toward how one may properly punish a 4 year old child.  The Minnesota Vikings at first deactivated Peterson and there he should have remained.  Yet he didn’t for a number of reasons.  He’s the Vikings best player was one.  The league couldn’t figure out what more to do was another.  After reinstating him and then looking like fools for doing so, the Vikings again essentially deactivated him.
In Carolina, they were essentially shamed into doing something similar with Greg Hardy, who actually has been convicted of domestic violence and yet, strangely, remains unpunished by league.  He may not be active for the games but he is getting paid.  In San Francisco, where the owner and the head coach know no shame, let Ray McDonald play on.
All this is going on while Goodell remains holed up and lawyered up.  A cabal of idiots describes them best.
Every league is going to go through these moments.  Baseball has had at least two of them, both around widespread illegal drug use and survived.  The NFL, too, will survive this mess one way or another.  The game itself is simply too popular.  What is most fascinating though is that the league, a multi billion dollar enterprise with virtually every resource at its disposal, can’t manage a crisis.
I won’t pretend that these issues aren’t complicated.  We do live in a just society and we do want to see people accused of crimes be treated fairly.  But the issues also aren’t nearly as complicated as the NFL is making them out to be, either.
Rice was an easy call at the outset that Goodell proved incapable of handling.  It’s actually hard to fathom how anyone seeing just the first video would still only assess a two game suspension.  The Hardy call is just as easy.  He’s already been convicted and the testimony against him is damning.  The Peterson case is easy mainly because Peterson isn’t denying the conduct, just the label.  And the McDonald case isn’t difficult either given that there were plenty of teammates present who actually witnessed what took place. 
Yet it seems that the NFL wants to deal more in nuance instead of the obvious.  The crime some prosecutor decides to charge the player with isn’t the issue.  Prosecutors are politicians who do things as much for political reasons as practical ones.  The facts are what they are and it’s on those and not the actual charge on which the NFL should be making its decisions.
I’m not surprised that Goodell remains popular with the owners.  But all you need to know on that score is that one of his more vocal supporters is Dan Snyder.  And why Snyder?  Because Goodell decided that the racially offensive name of Snyder’s franchise was not a league matter but one for Snyder to decide.  It’s a mutual backscratching society which is why Goodell’s job is safe when it should be over.
When people think of the NFL these days it’s not about the games, it’s about the league itself and that is the essence of the problem.  In Cleveland, the Browns won last Sunday not because of some fluke or quirk but because they were the better team on a given day.  The fans are talking, yes, but talking much more about Rice and Hardy and Peterson than Brian Hoyer.
That’s too bad.  Right now this Browns team doesn’t stink, at least like virtually every previous iteration.  A team that averages 5.6 wins a season for the last 11 years (a number that’s actually skewed by an improbable 10-win season in 2007) is pretty much exactly what it means for a team to stink.  So right now, at 1-1, the Browns don’t stink.
And while I’m not here to throw cold water on a good win, let’s just say that we’ve seen this before. Last year’s team had a mini win streak of sorts early in the season and then regressed to the true level of its awfulness.  In fairness, in most other years no regression was needed.  The team started out bad and got worse.
Still, there was much to like about Sunday’s win but perhaps the biggest takeaway was its ability to carry over a relatively high level of play from one week to the next.  True the Browns looked like the 2012 Browns in the first half of the Steelers game two weeks ago.  But the second half was more productive and energetic even if it fell short.  To watch that productivity and energy get carried over was indeed rare in these parts.
It’s still too early to offer a fair assessment of head coach Mike Pettine and maybe, as owner Jimmy Haslam said in a flash of exuberance after Sunday’s win that the team got the right coach (a feeling he likely uttered last season about Rob Chudzinski as well as the Browns, under Brian Hoyer, won 3 straight early last season), let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Pettine does seem different.  He isn’t the wet blanket that was Pat Shurmur or the little dictator that was Eric Mangini or even the genial but befuddled grandfather that was Romeo Crennel.  He’s pretty much a square-jawed, look you in the eye kind of guy, akin in temperament to former head coach Marty Schottenheimer but without the soaring clichés and flowing tears.
What is going to take time is to assess whether Pettine truly has the make-up of a successful head coach.  A head coach sets the tone and in that regard Pettine has done a good job thus far.  But two games into the season where expectations were low anyway isn’t exactly trial by fire.  The measure of Pettine and hence this team will come in a million smaller ways but will boil down to his ability to keep this team together and competitive if/when the season, like virtually all others, starts circling the drain.
Soon, hopefully, fans can have exactly these kinds of discussions.  That’s what football is supposed to be about.  As long as Goodell remains in charge, as long as he continues to garner support from the owners with their own foibles to hide, the NFL will be less about the games and more about “the league.”  It’s not the welcome distraction that any one wants.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Moral Relativism and The NFL, Roger Goodell-Style

Do you feel a little dirty today?  I do.  Despite everything I knew and felt about the Ray Rice situation, despite everything I wrote about it previously, I still sat and watched Monday night football.  I watched it because I’m a fan of the New York Giants.  I watched it because I enjoy NFL football. 
That’s the essence of the conflict here.  The NFL has a product that I enjoy as a consumer to the point that I end up looking the other way at its moral relativism no matter how offended I otherwise might be.  That makes me complicit in the dirty business of a league that, first, only suspended Rice for two games and, now, keeps Roger Goodell employed.
That has to change and if it doesn’t, if we as users of their product don’t take a stand by not supporting the league, its games, its sponsors until the NFL decides to fundamentally change and stand for something other than its brand, then we too are as big a part of the problem as is Goodell.
Goodell should resign as commissioner and if he doesn’t he should be fired.  Goodell already said he won’t resign and the decrepit ownership of the league, many of whom have their own sordid problems, are so out of touch with what takes place on the streets of day to day life that they probably will award Goodell a bonus.
Goodell’s job is supposed to be about, above all else, the protection of the game.  The NFL is at its cultural nadir at the moment, even if its games remain popular, because Goodell failed at the most important job he had. It’s amazing, really, that he can’t or won’t see it.
As usual, Goodell took to a controlled setting to explain away how incredibly unfeeling he and the league are to victims of domestic abuse who suffer at the hands of the men the league employs.  He looked sincere even as he presented a strong face for the his and hence the league’s indifference to societal norms when he said, echoing the talking points that the Ravens clearly had been given a few days earlier, that seeing the video made all the difference.  I think Goodell is lying about not seeing the video previously mainly because it’s almost impossible to believe otherwise.  And while he gets no benefit of the doubt any more, let’s just assume he didn’t.  So what?  He knew what happened and it matters little that he felt misled by Rice and his attorney who suggested that Rice’s fiancée essentially had it coming to her because she was the aggressor that led Rice to half the further discussion with a well-placed punch.
What Goodell suggests, what John Harbaugh and Ravens owner Steve Biscotti suggest, as they were shamed into facing the almost incomprehensible wrongness of their prior actions is that they never really knew how horrific domestic violence was until they actually witnessed it.  More to the point, they expect the public to buy that explanation.  That’s how far out of touch the league really is and why Goodell has to go, now.
Goodell’s crimes go even deeper.  Foremost, he’s lost any hope of gaining the high ground on this issue.  He can announce a hundred new initiatives and it won’t matter because he’s doing it because it was forced on him and not because he wanted to. 
He could have taken a much more aggressive approach toward ridding the league of abusers in his CBS News interview and did not.  Indeed, right now and despite his letter to league owners about a change to its domestic violence policies, two players, Greg Hardy and Ray McDonald continue to play.  Hardy has actually been convicted by a judge of assault on a female.  He’s appealed so the league dithers as if it has no choice.  McDonald has been arrested and despite his head coach, Jim Harbaugh, proclaiming zero tolerance for domestic violence, McDonald continues to play.
Let’s not lose sight of that fact that no one understands the power of the NFL’s brand better than Goodell as he wields it constantly in order to leverage any and everything he can from anyone.  He doles out limited access to select journalists who will further the league’s narrative in order.  He puts players at risk constantly, first by participating in the cover up of the impact concussions were having on former and current players and still by allowing Thursday night games despite all the medical evidence against such quick turnaround.  Goodell uses his bully pulpit for one thing only, to further maximize the league’s financial windfall while ignoring the cultural slide it contributes to in that pursuit.
Goodell’s abject incompetence at recognizing the broader implications of his decisions isn’t without precedence.  The real reason situations like this continue to come up, particularly in football, has everything to do with the culture of the sport that has been set by the NFL for decades, a culture that values winning and the spoils that come from it far above anything else, a culture that has found its way to the bottom of the feeding pools.
It’s coincidental at least, perhaps ironic, that on the same day that the NFL was finally shaken to its foundations by its own hypocrisy, the NCAA shed the vestiges of its high minded pretension by publicly removing the remaining sanctions from Penn State’s program, sanctions levied because of that school’s institutional coddling of a pedophile because of its desire not to derail its lucrative football program.  I guess because there’s no evidence of new pedophilia among the Penn State coaching staff that it’s time to simply burnish the previous penalties and act as if the entire matter never happened.
There is a common thread. 
Players don’t enter the NFL and then abuse women.  It’s a learned behavior over the many years in which their status is exalted because of their ability to run faster, throw better and tackle harder than someone else.  It starts in high school, continues through college and by the time these players reach the NFL their perceptions of societal norms is so skewed that they end up rallying around a player like Rice as the Ravens players did when all that was known then was that Rice dragged his unconscious girlfriend out of an elevator and left her like a discarded cigarette butt after he had snuffed her out in a fit of pique.
There isn’t a high school or college program in America that hasn’t found a way around punishing its better players in order to avoid potentially disastrous results on the field in the next game.  Florida head coach Will Muschamp suspended 3 players for the team’s opening game against Idaho but that game lasted one play because of the weather and was cancelled.  Florida was scheduled to take on a slightly gamer team in Eastern Michigan the following week so Muschamp lifted the suspensions and lashed out at critics who questioned his hypocrisy.
Muschamp can make all the excuses he wants but he did it because he felt he needed the players on the field for a game against Eastern Michigan.  That says something about how far Florida has fallen, certainly, but it says more about how a situation like Rice’s happened in the first place.
Players are coddled and ultimately made to feel like the rules of proper society are bendable in extenuating circumstances, like a big game on Saturday or Sunday.  Rice had no real fear that losing his temper and knocking out his fiancée and the mother of his child would cause him to lose his job.  He had no such fear because it’s never happened in the NFL.
Last week Sports Illustrated had a profile of Louisville coach Bobby Petrino.  I suspect that it didn’t make Petrino happy nor his fans for it laid out in subtle but definitive ways the institutional hypocrisy that creates the cesspool that ultimately lets scum like Rice float to the top.
Petrino is a complicated figure with an incredibly ethically challenged record both personally and professionally.  One thing he does, though, is win and for that he’s been rewarded again with a top college job.  Indeed Louisville’s athletic director Tom Jurich did a clever slight of hand by turning the question outward as to why he’d bring back Petrino after all the damage he’d done previously to at least 3 different football programs, including Louisville’s.  He couched it in near religious terms by responding, rhetorically with his own question, “who am I to not forgive?”  In other words, we’re all servants of God and if God forgives, how can we not model that behavior?
It’s all bullshit and Jurich must know it and if he doesn’t he shouldn’t be in his position.  It isn’t a question of forgiveness it’s a question of winning and losing.  He calculated that Petrino gave the school the best shot at keeping its program at a high level and he took it figuring he could just shower the grime off later.
That’s why players don’t fear consequences.  There’s always someone else to pick up the pieces for a guy who can help a team win.  Whatever publicly the coaches or owners say, what they do speaks more loudly.  Think about the McDonald and Hardy cases. Both continue to play because their absence would hurt the team.  The tired yarn of letting the legal process play out is ridiculous, particularly in domestic violence cases.  It puts the onus on the victim to recant or refuse to testify in order to save her abuser’s job.  That’s what the Ravens did to Janey Palmer and it’s what the 49ers and the Panthers are doing to the victims in their cases.
But of course there are other options to letting the process play out as they say, they just don’t include letting Hardy and McDonald play in the games.  Their teams could have simply deactivated the players from the active roster on game days.  Sure they’d still get paid but it would leave no doubt about how team management felt about their actions.  But that apparently would clash with the Panthers’ and the 49ers’ nascent playoff hopes and thus clearly wasn’t considered.
More to the point, let’s not act like anyone in the NFL actually cares about a due diligence process or is even bound by one.  They just pull it out when it’s convenient to them as cover for far more nefarious motives.  The NFL, despite having the power and money of a medium sized country, isn’t subject to the Constitutional protections of due process.  Goodell has told us many times that he can take action at any time for the good of the game.  Yet he and the Panthers and the 49ers in concert saw no reason to take any action yet on Hardy or McDonald and still don’t even as the league burns around them for the inept handling of the Rice situation.
Look at the shameful way that everyone associated with the Ravens handled the Rice situation.  The owner left it in the hands of the football people who calculated that the team’s playoff chances were less without Rice.  So the team president Dick Cass, the team general manager Ozzie Newsome and the team head coach John Harbaugh wrapped their swaddling arms around Rice, furthered his despicable implication that it was Palmer’s fault all along, and treated him as if he had accidentally run the car into the neighbor’s hedges.  Grounding him for two games stung about as much as a paddling does to a 6 year old with about the same impact long term.
What all of these demonstrate is that apologists exist at the highest levels to excuse player behavior because what they do isn’t about building men or character but about winning games and bringing money into the school, the city, the franchise, the league.
As should Goodell, the Ravens should be made to purge the franchise of its owner, its president and its general manager and its head coach.  The franchise’s culture can’t be fixed as long as any of them remain.  The same goes for the Panthers and the 49ers and any other team coddling the miscreants on their teams.
It seems like the only people that don’t know that the league is at a major crossroads is the league itself and all those apologists.  Just keep on the same road and they won’t need anyone calling for their heads.  They’ll have made themselves so irrelevant that they’ll fade away of their own accord.  If that’s the way this goes, then good riddance.  Finding another diversion from pro football won’t be nearly as hard as they think.

Monday, September 08, 2014

The Numbing Sameness of It All, Again--Opening Game, Pick the Year

The outcome was as inevitable as it was confounding but the journey was more interesting than usual.  The Cleveland Browns are a league doormat for many reasons not the least of which is their inability to beat division rivals or win an opening game.  So in that sense, nothing changed as the result of the outcome of Sunday’s 30-27 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

What made it more interesting than usual was the startling dichotomy behind a first half that unfolded as if the Browns would be on the business end of a 50+ point beat down and a second half that showed them to be a game if undermanned team.
Still, as head coach Mike Pettine noted, it’s a results oriented league that gives no points for moral victories and thus the Browns are, as usual, 0-1. 
This is a team, a franchise, a fan base, that needs something positive to happen.  It almost happened Sunday as the team improbably clawed its way back from a moribund 27-3 halftime deficit to tie it up late in the game.  Then of course it reverted to what it is because a team’s character shows most prominently during times of stress.  Needing a few first downs to at least get to overtime, the Browns offense instead buttoned back up, putting itself in bad positions with blown up plays that ultimately allowed Ben Roethlisberger to lead his team on one final drive that sent the Browns home with just another almost win and definite loss.
You could say that it was the defense that let this team down once again on that final drive, as it has some many times in the past.  But that only tells part of the story.  Looking as if it had no preseason in which to prepare when it yielded 27 first half points to the Steelers, the defense looked nearly formidable in the second half holding the Steelers to just those 3 critical points that ended the game.
It’s not really about dumping on this group of players for another loss because in many ways it’s not the players that failed but those above them and I don’t mean the coaching staff.  Sure Joe Haden once again demonstrated that he’s not nearly as good as he thinks he is and Justin Gilbert showed he is in desperate need of some film study.  But the defensive line, long touted as the strength of this team, showed up in the second half.  So did the linebackers.  Roethlisberger looked pretty damn ordinary for most of that second half as a result.
What continues to fail this team of course is its erstwhile and reckless approach to management.  Owner Jimmy Haslam can’t possibly think that the one and done he subjected former head coach Rob Chudzinski to had no impact on the direction of this franchise or even the outcome of this particular game.  It was monumental and not because Chudzinski was slated to be the next Bill Belichick.  It was because the impetuousness he demonstrated in first taking the words of Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi and then summarily firing them when they couldn’t deliver on any of their promises for the next coach showed the team and the world that Haslam, like Gilbert, needs plenty of seasoning.
It also put this team where it’s been too many times already—learning a new system, breaking in a new coach.  That’s some pretty high hurdles to take on in addition to the challenges that one of the league’s most stable franchises, Pittsburgh, perennially provides.
Marla Ridenour, writing in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, talked about the cloud that hangs over the team because of the Chudzinski firing and she’s right.  There’s nothing to suggest at the moment that Haslam will be any less impetuousness with Pettine when things go wrong.  Indeed would anyone be really surprised if Haslam were to fire Pettine should the team find itself winless during its bye week?  Of course not.
But we do know one thing.  Pettine isn’t a particularly impatient man or at least a man coaching like he’s on the league’s shortest leash. With just about everything going wrong in the first half, the narrative, indeed the collected wisdom within the confines of what make up the “experts” on the NFL’s pregame shows was that after one failed half it was now Johnny Manziel time.  Ridiculous on many levels but let’s start with the most basic.
Pettine is a rookie head coach.  The quickest way to cement that status is showing impatience with the fragile psyches that are the NFL’s band of quarterbacks.  If he replaced Hoyer at the end of the first half, it would have been tantamount to replacing him forever, sort of how Chris Palmer went to Tim Couch when Ty Detmer failed in that embarrassing opening season loss to, who else?, Pittsburgh in 1999 or when Romeo Crennel benched Charlie Frye near the end of the first half in the 2007 season opener against, wait for it, Pittsburgh, and went to Derek Anderson.  In other words, there was exactly this precedent in recent Browns’ past for Pettine to have benched Hoyer.
It would have been so like someone associated with the Browns to draw conclusions after one half of football in the season’s first game that perhaps that’s really why everyone was calling for Manziel.  They just kind of figured a Browns head coach, understanding the terrible history of head coaches in this town and the dreadful opening game outcomes for more than a decade, especially against Pittsburgh, would fall right in that line.
For not giving into the inevitable temptation, Pettine as much as anyone gets a Star of the Game award.
And what to make of Hoyer.  Well, for one thing, he operates better in a no-huddle format than the plodding approach employed by all of the offensive coordinators past.  So stick with it from here on in if only because it plays to the strength of the one guy that you need most at the moment.
The reason you need him most is because General Manager Ray Farmer still harbors the belief that he did address the wide receiver situation by stockpiling this team with Division II players, small fries, and undrafted free agents (many of whom not coincidentally fill all 3 slots).  Farmer claims they’re talented receivers it’s just that fans don’t know their names.  Neither does the rest of the league.
Put it this way, though, it wasn’t by accident that Hoyer kept going to tight end Jordan Cameron early on.  He’s reliable.  The others clearly haven’t shown enough even in practice for Hoyer to rely on them.
This Browns team isn’t a talented bunch.  There were flourishes on Sunday, certainly.  But what holds this team back is what has always held this team back.  A franchise if not in turmoil then at least in dissonance.  It’s hard to know exactly how far this team is away from being a legitimate contender but there are clues.  For example, more than half the roster wasn’t even with the team last year.  Another example, it still sorely lacks depth at virtually every position, making it more vulnerable than most to injuries.
It’s not even fair yet to say that this team will be interesting to watch all season.  There were good signs on Sunday but that’s all there were.  Nothing definitive will be decided next Sunday either against New Orleans.  What this team needs now is simply to show progress.  It did on Sunday, as measured from one half to the next.  The real trick comes in showing it from one game to the next.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Save the Sympathy For Someone More Deserving

Everyone is for drug testing until they are against it.  And they’re usually against it when the outcome effects them in a personal way.
That is the only explanation I can muster as to why so many are sympathetic to Josh Gordon at the moment.  The mercurial Cleveland Browns receiver received confirmation this week of the fate that was inevitable once he struck out swinging at the NFL’s drug policy, a year long suspension.  The thought that this putrid Cleveland Browns team could be deprived of its only playmaker for the season suddenly turned soft the noggins of fans and media types alike.
Without belaboring to state the obvious, this team has more than proven that it’s a perennial 4-5 game winner, even with Gordon.  Things aren’t going to change in the near future for this team’s fortunes for reasons well beyond the control of Gordon.
But as for what’s in the control of Gordon, that’s actually hard to say.  From all the evidence presented, he appears to be a drug addict.  He’s now tested positive at least 6 times for illegal drugs, in college and the pros.  This is not about second chances.  It’s about seventh chances.  He’s more than worn out the patience of those continuing to enable his demons.
One could argue forcefully that the only group effected personally by the positive drug test result of Josh Gordon is Gordon himself and his family.  But the way the media and fans are reacting it’s as if they’ve been kicked in the gut as well.  Hardly.
Gordon is no one’s cross to die on.  We all should simply ignore the embarrassing and tone deaf second hand smoke defense that his legal team offered. The outcome of the arbitration hearing was hardly in question.  Well before he tested positive this time, Gordon knew the tightrope he was walking and the consequence for tripping.  Like any headstrong, immature, pampered egomaniac, he thought he could beat the system.  He couldn’t and he didn’t.  The punishment he got he deserved.
Bill Livingston, a columnist for the Plain Dealer (assuming the name hasn’t been auctioned off by the Northeast Ohio Media Group in order to buy more servers for their digital strategy), has taken up Gordon’s cause as a fan proxy by questioning the strictness of Gordon’s penalty given what are the rumored “facts” of this case, meaning the relative levels of marijuana in Gordon’s system and how other leagues use other levels.
It’s hard to avoid the most obvious pun by calling this line of argument a smokescreen.  But Livingston’s been in a fog for most of his career anyway.  The league and the union have a collectively bargained drug policy and protocol.  This is what the parties voluntarily agreed to and the rules under which Gordon and his co-workers operate. 
The purpose of this argument about the relative levels is to somehow give credence to the ridiculous defense that somehow this serial drug user ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time and was victimized by exposure to second hand smoke. 
Gordon is no victim.
There’s a far more plausible and simple explanation.  Gordon is lying.  Indeed why would he even deserve the benefit of anyone’s doubt?  He has the most to gain or lose in offering up an argument that isn’t even correct medically, let alone practically.  Gordon has been caught smoking dope numerous times in college and the pros but suddenly he’s reformed and just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time?  Why would any logical thinking person think that’s more likely than the far more likely scenario that Gordon once again smoked dope and didn’t think he’d get caught?  Obviously Harold Henderson, the arbitrator in this case didn’t buy it and neither should anyone else.
Indeed what’s most offensive in this case is Gordon’s abject unwillingness to own his own misbehavior and mislead the team and it’s fans into thinking that this time he didn’t do anything wrong.  The reason guy’s like Gordon don’t seem to ever learn is because they are surrounded by enablers, including gullible media types and lawyers, willing to further a bullshit narrative in order to avoid the real life consequences of bad actions. 
The Cleveland Browns are a worse team without Josh Gordon but the only person responsible for that statement is Josh Gordon.  The unwillingness of the arbitrator to buy into Gordon’s “defense” doesn’t make the arbitrator the bad guy here.  Neither is the league nor the union to blame for the outcome.  Gordon simply can’t learn the simple lesson of what it would take to stay in the league and for that he now finds himself on the outside looking in.
It’s almost comical really how twisted the thought process of others has become.  Livingston, for example but hardly the only example, goes down the path of noting the supposed number of drug tests that Gordon passed already as, what, proof that he’s reformed?  I don’t think we even need to stretch as far as the Lance Armstrong fraud to talk about how ludicrous it is to make the argument about how previous positive tests portends compliance.  The reason Gordon was subjected to such long term testing was precisely because he has a history and eventually if a person hasn’t reformed he’ll get caught again.  Gordon hasn’t reformed.  He got caught again.
Gordon put together an amazing, record-setting season last year while dancing on the head of a pin.  Where opposing defenses couldn’t trip him up, where a parade of mediocre at best quarterbacks throwing to him couldn’t slow down his accomplishments, all it took for Gordon to regress was an off season filled with more time then he knew what to do with.
The decriminalization of marijuana may be your issue, have at it.  But that has nothing at the moment to do with Gordon’s status as a multi violator of league rules.  Gordon’s job, his life, is in jeopardy because Gordon lacks the self control to change the course.  Given his history, there’s no reason to think that even this suspension will move his needle.
I think it’s dangerous to take up the cause of someone like Gordon in order to further the larger debate about the relative dangers of marijuana.  It matters not at all whether marijuana is legal in a few states and otherwise available by prescription in most others.  The same can be said for most performance enhancing drugs as well.  The point, again, is that the league and its union voluntarily put in place a set of rules on what substances are prohibited, what the testing protocol for those substances should be, and what penalties would be assessed for violations.  It’s up to those parties to decide if and when they want to change their rules. 
Of course the other thing that’s getting people twisted up in their shorts is the severity of Gordon’s penalty in the context of the league’s kid glove treatment of Ray Rice for beating his then girlfriend and dragging her out of an elevator in an Atlantic City casino.  One of the local television stations even ran a “fan poll” asking if the Gordon penalty was too severe compared to Rice’s. I’m guessing they didn’t consult an expert in polling as the question answers itself nor should they be surprised by the results.  Of course a year-long suspension is more severe than a two game suspension. Duh.
Rice ran afoul of the league’s personal conduct rules.  His actions reflected poorly on the league and that’s what put him in the crosshairs of the commissioner.  There are no prescribed penalties for domestic violence.  It is case by case.  Roger Goodell may have done a lousy job in exercising that discretion but it was his to exercise.
There was no discretion to be exercised in Gordon’s case.  His previous violations put him down a path of progressive discipline with the next violation resulting in a season long suspension.  There was no dispute that Gordon had dope in his system.  Case over.  The only real mystery is why the arbitrator waited so long to issue the opinion.  Perhaps he was on vacation.
I have no sympathy for Gordon and neither should anyone else, at least in the context of the punishment meted out.  My sympathy for Gordon extends to him personally with the hope that he gets help for the problems that he clearly has.  But if he never plays another game for the Browns or in professional football, it won’t impact anyone’s life but his own and those for whom he’s supporting.
The next step is his.  What would make this story better is if Gordon really uses his time away to make positive changes in his life.  Everyone likes a resurrection story.  With Gordon, though, there’s reason to worry.  He’s still in hard denial about his actions this time and he didn’t learn any lesson from the previous five (at least) positive drug tests.  There’s no reason to think he’ll learn anything meaningful from the sixth.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

He's Not Number One

Cleveland Browns head coach Mike Pettine on Wednesday confirmed what was obvious to the entire nation on Monday night.  Johnny Manziel should not and will not be opening the season as a starting NFL quarterback, even for a team as woeful and as quarterback-challenged as the Browns.
Manziel was never going to open the 2014 season as the Cleveland Browns’ starting quarterback anyway.  Never, ever, ever was it going to happen.  Manziel should probably publicly thank Pettine for saving him from another embarrassing chapter of the tragicomedy that is slowing developing in Berea with Manziel as chief protagonist.
To say the least, Manziel needs seasoning.  To say the most, he needs to grow up.
Pettine will never admit that Manziel flipping the bird at the Washington bench on Monday night in the second half of a preseason game for goodness sakes tipped the scales.  And it probably didn’t, but only because it wasn’t as if the scales were otherwise in balance.  What Manziel’s act did do was highlight exactly the problem with him at the moment.  He lacks both the maturity and the mental makeup to take on the role of starter.
It’s actually pretty comical when you think about how Manziel responded to the taunting from an opposing bench in a meaningless game.  Lacking any wit or sense of subtlety he gave the typical 14 year-old R-rated non-verbal version of “oh yea?”   Clever stuff, Johnny.  I’d have more respect for him if he had made a joke about their mothers.
More to the point, though, is it demonstrated exactly how easily it is to get inside the head of Manziel.  That shouldn’t be such a surprise.  It’s clear there’s ample room if only, but not only, because Manziel didn’t exactly spend the filling it with anything remotely work related.
This little comeuppance for Manziel, as inevitable as it was expected, puts him at a crossroads now, perhaps the first time he’s actually faced one in his life.  What he does next, which path he chooses, could very well determine if he becomes just another wasted first round pick by the Browns or the one true player around whom this beleaguered team can finally rally.
The one thing working in Manziel’s favor on this score is that he does seem to understand how vast his shortcomings clearly are at the moment. In his interview with Jon Gruden broadcast on ESPN Manziel candidly pointed out how little grooming he really had at Texas A&M for the pro game.  His college team didn’t huddle.  He never took a snap behind the center.  The playbook consisted of plays whose proper execution relied mostly of Manziel running around long enough to either find someone, anyone who might be open or taking off himself.  That amazing lack of precision to the college game just doesn’t translate to the uber-scripted world of the NFL and Manziel knows it or at least he does now.

In his comments earlier Wednesday, Manziel was similarly candid, saying he didn't do enough well on the field to earn the nod.  Indeed he admitted he probably wasn't ready to be a starter.
What makes all this so curious then is why Manziel used his offseason so frivolously.  He seemingly knew how big of a learning curve he had to overcome and instead of spending as much time as possible to make that leap he spent most of his time dicking around various nightclubs around the country.  It’s the kind of approach that someone who feels overwhelmed by what he faces tends to take.  Gravitate toward what you’re comfortable with while avoiding what you aren’t.  And if anything about Manziel is crystal clear he’s comfortable at a party.

He also made that point in his remarks Wednesday and in typical fashion he zagged when he should have zigged.  He was definitive, if not a bit defiant, in defending his offseason conduct, claiming it made no difference in the outcome and didn't impact him at all.  Indeed he said he wouldn't change a thing and vowed to essentially spend next offseason doing the same thing.
It's difficult at times to harmonize the candid, contrite Manziel with the defiant borderline idiotic version.  He knows what to say except when he doesn't.  Immaturity, perhaps, but it's more than that.  It's the reason actually scouts were so mixed about him in the first place.

But let's get back to facts.  It’s not that Manziel didn’t put in work during the offseason.  It’s that he didn’t put in nearly enough, irrespective of what he says now.  No one expected Manziel to display veteran poise at this point.  But neither should fans have expected Manziel to look as lost as a guy off the street on Monday night.  There’s a reason Pettine used the middle of August to name Hoyer as the starter.  There was no effective other choice and given how far Hoyer still needs to come the time to stop taking away reps from his was now.
Nothing about the way Manziel has performed thus far suggests he’s even close to being a credible NFL quarterback anytime soon.    That’s not to say it couldn’t happen but short of an injury it won’t or at least shouldn’t happen soon.  The one thing Manziel doesn’t need now (not to mention Hoyer) is any sense from Pettine that the move to Hoyer is less than permanent.  If past is prologue, though, more time will be spent soothing Manziel’s rather fragile ego than giving the tough love he actually needs.
Look, the red flags are everywhere with this guy and rather than treating him like a savior he needs to be put in his place.  Pettine, general manager Ray Farmer, even embattled owner Jimmy Haslam, did an awful job this offseason reigning him in almost going to great pains to sanction the behavior as appropriately aged-based.  The behind the scenes story is that none of them were pleased with his antics and yet they waited until Manziel arrived for training camp, partied out and ill prepared, to tell him that.
Similarly, there is the issue of Manziel’s missing of a team meeting last week, reminiscent of his missing an early meeting at the Manning quarterback camp last summer and, of course, the middle finger incident.  In short, nothing about Manziel screams leader including his statement Wednesday that his partying ways would continue.
I’m sure Pettine would say that these matters have been handled internally but there’s nothing publicly to suggest that Manziel has gotten the message.  Besides, there’s nothing wrong with a coach taking a calculated approach to calling out a player publicly, particularly a player who is supposed to be leading by example instead of acting like one of the bad asses in the back of the bus throwing spit balls when the coach isn’t looking.  It worked well for Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick to publicly challenge a few players from time to time.
Manziel needs to see this moment for what it is and get on the right path, publicly and privately.  Outwardly he doesn't.  He needs to come out and candidly admit he didn’t work hard enough and just as candidly re-dedicate himself to living up to the trust and faith that has been placed in him.  He didn't.  

A bit of advice for the rookie.  The fans, particularly in Cleveland, are a forgiving bunch unless you’re a dick.  It’s why they still stick with Bernie Kosar through all his problems and still can’t stand Braylon Edwards.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Missed Opportunity

If you’re looking to professional sports to provide justice for the wrongs you think need to be righted, find a different hobby.  Professional sports doesn’t exist to bring you anything more meaningful than the highs and lows that accompany victory and defeat.  That said, it still provides an enormous capacity to fail you when you need it most.
The latest but certainly not the last case in point was NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s rather lightweight two game suspension handed down to Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for domestic violence against his fiancée, now wife, Janay Palmer.
Rice and Palmer were in an Atlantic City casino for fun and games when a domestic dispute turned horribly violent.  According to reports, both Rice and Palmer struck each other.  But you don’t need to speculate who came out of that fight unscathed, at least physically.  The video tape is crystal clear.  Rice was forcibly dragging a limp Palmer by her hair out of an elevator following whatever took place behind those metal doors. 
Physical violence against women is nothing new among NFL players.  The San Diego Union-Tribune maintains a database of all NFL players arrested since 2000.  You could review it if you have the time but suffice it to say that nearly every team in the league has had a player charged with domestic violence since 2000.  And that’s just the recent history.  Cleveland Browns’ fans with a memory can recall the number of run ins Jim Brown had with domestic violence during and after his career (with all charges either eventually dropped or resulting in his acquittal).  What set the Rice situation apart in the public conscious was the videotape.  It’s one thing to read about a player dragging an obviously injured woman around but a whole other matter to actually see the horror on continuous loop.
The incident gave Goodell and the NFL a chance to do two things.  First, he could take the most public stand possible against the NFL’s unfortunate history with domestic violence.  Second, he could send a message to all of the other players that violence against women in any form is now a zero tolerance offense that will threaten your livelihood.  And in some fashion Goodell did both by even bothering to punish Rice at all.  But what Goodell also did was place the penalty on a spectrum that’s hard to fathom—less than smoking marijuana, slightly more than wearing non-league approved cleats.  When Goodell had the power to do all he could he opted instead to do the least he could and keep a straight face.
There are plenty that would argue that Rice should have been suspended for a year.  There are plenty of others that would argue that a player smoking marijuana merits a 4-game suspension so at the very least, the very least, a player channeling his inner caveman dragging around his property by the arm ought to suffer the same consequence.

I’m not sure exactly what the right penalty should have been.  What I am sure about is that this penalty doesn’t feel right.  A two-game penalty tells you that the NFL sees other offenses as far more serious than those involving its players hitting women.  Just ask the New Orleans Saints players accused of participating in a bounty system against other players in the league.  But more to the point, it also offers absolutely no deterrent to the next offender.  A season long suspension clearly would.  A half year suspension just might.  And in the end, isn’t that at least part of the purpose of issuing a penalty?  Shouldn’t the impact it will have on deterring similar conduct be taken into account?

Let’s go back to the aforementioned New Orleans Saints bountygate as a proxy.  It wasn’t domestic violence but had similar attributes in that involved NFL players and coaches sanctioning or participating in specific conduct meant to injure another.  Goodell leveled significant penalties, suspending head coach Sean Payton for a year, indefinitely suspending another coach and issuing minimum 6 game penalties to others.  Goodell also suspended one player, Jonathan Vilma, for a year.  Three other players were suspended for a range of between 3 and 8 games.  In every case players and coaches suffered more significant penalties than Goodell issued against Rice.  (It’s worth noting that the sanctions against the players were overturned by Paul Tagliabue, who was hired as an arbitrator.  Tagliabue found that they engaged in the conduct but placed the blame on the coaches for incentivizing them to do so.)
My guess is that Goodell sees the distinction between the bountygate situation and Rice’s as a matter of one threatening the integrity of the game and the other a singularly personal matter.  But can that dichotomy alone explain the massive difference in Goodell’s thinking, especially when once a penalty is issued the outcome of a game, in this case a future game, is potentially altered?

If Goodell really is parsing these situations that closely then he is losing sight of the reason he’s taken such a strong stand on personal conduct issues in the past.  Maybe Goodell felt chastened when Tagliabue overturned the penalties on the bountygate players, but that’s hardly a reasonable excuse.
Nothing gets done in a vacuum and I suspect Goodell levied a penalty that he knew Rice would not appeal without looking like an even bigger idiot.  I’m sure, too, that Goodell had to balance the inevitable outcry from the union had he levied a penalty with real sting.  Goodell, as commissioner, is as much a politician as an executive.

But not every incident calls for a political solution.  Sometimes a line has to get drawn and let the consequences flow from that.  The players’ union is like the NRA.  There is no penalties on its members that they’d ever agree to on the record.  Besides, their interests are not at all aligned with Goodell’s.  He has to protect the integrity of the game and all that it stands for.  The union, particularly this union under the misguided leadership of DeMaurice Smith, cares not a whit about the good of the game, only the good of the dues paying members.  Given that, Goodell’s thought process should have been first and only to do the right thing.  Instead he looked to do what was expedient, what would make his life easier.
It would be interesting to understand Goodell’s actual thinking but he’s taken the coward’s approach and gone radio silence, allowing the furor to dissipate.  It hasn’t yet.  At some point, maybe at a press conference during Hall of Fame week or some other low key moment down the road he’ll elaborate, but I doubt it will be much.  He’ll say that the league took a stance by bothering to punish Rice at all and then dangle out there that reasonable people can debate the severity of the punishment.  All true, technically.   Practically, it’s a load of crap.

There’s just no sugarcoating the magnitude of Goodell’s misstep here.  His supplicants in the media, like Peter King, will dribble out tidbits to suggest that Goodell tried to do the right thing by, for example, talking to the victim, getting her input, making sure her voice mattered.  But in even making that gesture, Goodell conducted that meeting with Rice sitting right next to her, the dominator and the dominated.  What exactly did Goodell think Palmer was going to say in that meeting?
The culture of this country in these matters still tilts wildly in favor of the perpetrator.  Rice was applauded when he walked onto the Ravens practice field the other day as if he’s some kind of hero to be honored for what exactly, not killing Palmer?  Notably, in his press conference on Thursday, Rice was appropriately contrite and apologetic.  It would have been more noble to have chastised the idiot Ravens fans that gave him the applause in the first place.

Victims of domestic violence, like victims of sexual assault and victims of sexual harrassment, on the other hand, face questions about their character and motivations, fair questions in the context of due process but certainly not the only or even the main questions to ask.  And they’re also often put in the awkward position of feeling responsible for the ultimate punishment levied.  That’s a lot to bear.
Had Palmer, for example, been allowed to speak freely and confidentially, neither of which occurred here, she might have had a different story to tell.  We’ll never know but it isn’t a stretch to suggest that Goodell, a lawyer by trade, knew exactly what he was doing by interviewing Palmer with Rice present.  As it is, though, because Goodell and King and others dribbled out the information about her role in Goodell’s deliberations, a harsher penalty on Rice would inevitably brought a harsher scrutiny on her from all those Ravens fans who can’t stomach the thought of being without Rice for an extended period of time.

There is a war on women in this country and it shows no signs of abating.  Goodell just contributed to the fray when he had a real chance, using this country’s most popular sport and his position in it as the ultimate bully pulpit, to emphatically declare that there is absolutely no place for domestic violence.  Goodell had an obligation to think globally and instead deliberately thought small and in doing so called into question his ongoing ability to lead the sport.
The fight for women’s rights will go on as it always done, by fits and starts.  The inroads women have made in the last 25 years or so are impressive but for all the gains made it just takes an incident like this and the shocking outcome to remind us all that until we take care of everyone on the same footing we don’t really take care of our own.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Home Is Where The Heart Is

This one feels different, much different.

When Lebron James first joined the Cleveland Cavaliers, he effectively had no choice. The worst team with the number one pick in the NBA draft gets who it wants and James was the biggest no-brainier pick in the history of the league.

When he left it was a crotch kick, a punch to an unexpected gut of a city that always seems to get an unexpected punch. That same desperate, lost, hurt that was felt when Art Modell pulled the Browns out of Cleveland was its logical antecedent. To literally lose your sporting blood put the city in a football wilderness that took, you guessed it, nearly four years to remedy.

When James bolted the first chance he had he left the team in ruins. That may have been exactly why he left. But he took Cleveland’s heart with him and it spent, yep, four years figuring how it could all begin again.

The reason this feels so different is that this times James had a choice. He could go anywhere he wanted and he decided to come back here. You'd have to go back to Bernie Kosar’s manipulation of the NFL’s supplemental draft in order to land in Cleveland to recall an even remotely similar sense of not just pride but of affirmation for the reason that most of us with a choice nonetheless remain.

No longer is there any concern about his basketball future. He’ll finish his career, hopefully another 10 years from now, as a Cav. All the cringing fans used to do when James would wear a Yankees hat is gone forever.  He can follow any baseball or football team he wants. There will be no need to read anything into those kinds of gestures. James chose here not there and it has the absolute feeling of finality, both a prodigal son and favorite son returning, satisfied with his time away and relishing his future on his home turf.

I read James’ decision letter, twice.   It was a master stroke, the likes of which are rare in professional sports. Sure it went through the editing process and sure some of it, maybe most of it, was calculated to put a different spin on what James is really about. Yet it felt genuine. It was fully realized and actualized. It contained no false promises. It just laid it out in rather simple terms and in the process seemingly made fools of all of those who, from a very great distance, thought they understood what he really was all about.

Without saying it directly, James nonetheless laid out the case for why he's not the mercenary many of us, me included, thought he was. It certainly helps that the Cavs have some excellent assets to work with, certainly more than the Heat at the moment. But the pull to come home, to raise his sons in a place with less glitz and more sensibilities, seems to have predominated.

His letter in many ways read like the words of Bruce Springsteen in “Long Walk Home” and it's easy think about what James is telling his own kids at the moment and what other dads in Akron and Cleveland are telling theirs:

My father said, “Son, we’re luck in in this town. It's a beautiful place to be born.
It just wraps itself around you, no one crowds you no one goes it alone.”

That is exactly the way this town has always treated James. He lives just a few minutes from me and he's easy to spot when he's in town. Sometimes alone at the movie theater. Sometimes riding his bike on the local streets. Sometimes playing softball at the local high school. No one crowds him but he knows the people around here have his back.

The other striking aspect of this almost surreal moment in Cleveland sports history is how much James has grown as a person in the last four years. He wrote that his four years in Miami felt like college. He went in a know-it-all and came out a humbler man comfortable with not having all the answers. It's exactly the point of going off to college, or the army, or wherever it is that one goes when they have to leave home in order to grow up.

James is absolutely correct when he wrote that there was nothing to be gained in holding a grudge against Dan Gilbert or the fans who cursed his very existence. Indeed he offered up exactly the right perspective without specifically giving Gilbert a pass for the screed Gilbert wrote when James left. James saw himself in the shoes of those he spurned and understood both their anger and their angst.

I also get though why Gilbert didn't publicly renounce his screed in the last several days. It would have looked shallow and opportunistic. Better to have handled it as he did, per James, face to face and man to man.

For all the criticism leveled at Gilbert, and I've leveled plenty at him myself, you have to give him his due. He overcame his own impetuousness and sprinkled with a little luck when it comes to the ping pong balls has put together enough of a franchise now to at least give fans hope that the team isn't just James and 11 other guys. More importantly though he gained his own perspective about the NBA that was learned the hard way, a perspective that when coupled with James’ maturity, will really serve this franchise well as it pursues it's stated goal of bringing  this town a championship.

There is enough cynicism in sports and life that it's virtually certain that some, maybe many, will try to find the holes in James’ story, the real motives behind the move. But not on this day. There is no way to spoil a win, nor should there be, for fans who haven't seen enough of it.

I suspect many feel like Gus Sinski at the mound talking to Billy Chapel as he was throwing a perfect game in “For Love of the Game.” Collectively we would be saying “we don't stink right now because of you. We’re the best team in [basketball] because of you, right now, right this minute because of you. We’re not gonna screw it up, we’re gonna be awesome for you. “

Let's hope he remains awesome for us. He’s off to a perfect start.