Thursday, May 21, 2009

Peaks and Valleys

For most Cleveland sports fans, the problem is that the peaks to be enjoyed are far too low and far too infrequent than the valleys they’re forced to endure. The Cleveland Cavaliers couldn’t find a way to hold on to a 15-point advantage in game one of a seven game series and it becomes an unceremonious punch in the stomach. The Cleveland Indians can’t find a way to hold on to a four-run lead in the ninth inning against Kansas City and it becomes a marker for team mismanagement. Then there are the Cleveland Browns. They can’t find a way to hold on to their most valuable player and it becomes just another day at the office.

No wonder Cleveland fans have a complex. They’ve become the equivalent of family members sitting in a hospital’s critical care waiting room. More often than not, the news is bad. The events of the last few days serve as just another report from the on-call nurse telling them to stand by, the patient isn’t yet out of the woods and may never be.

But let’s try to at least ad context.

When it comes to the Cavaliers, placing faith in LeBron James to find a way to win is hardly the most risky of bets. The Cavs loss on Thursday night, coming the way it did, was dispiriting but hardly crippling. Home court advantage may have been temporarily lost, but as they say in golf, there are still plenty of holes left to play. James’ will to win is far greater than the fans’ sense of dread.

The Indians are a mess, simple as that. Feel free to dream all you want about a remarkable turnaround, but if past is prologue, it will come far too late in the season to do anything more than get your hopes up for next season. The only good news is that for this season, the valley isn’t likely to get much deeper. That would be nearly impossible.

But let’s pause a bit with the Browns. Even when they shouldn’t be making news, they do and even when it should be good it isn’t. The contract squabble with Josh Cribbs took another somewhat unexpected turn with the release of Cribbs’ statement purportedly explaining his side of the situation. In one sense it is dismissed as a negotiating ploy, which it clearly is. But in another sense it is something worth noting because it speaks to a loss of respect for an organization in whom so few have respect these days.

It’s silly to take sides in a contract dispute between wealthy players and ridiculously wealthy owners. The game is always bigger than the players and owners who participate in it and like every other contract dispute in the history of professional sports, this one too shall eventually pass.

That being said, Cribbs’ statement sent a cautionary message to Randy Lerner as well as head coach Eric Managini and general manager George Kokinis that this organization better start standing for something or it will soon fall for anything.

If any member of the current Browns has credibility with the dwindling fan base, it’s Cribbs. He plays hard on every play and has always been willing to take on whatever assignment he’s been given, no matter how ridiculous. When Cribbs starts calling out the owner for treating him like “collateral damage” one has to wonder what impact that will have inside the locker room. Cribbs has essentially laid down the gauntlet by putting his own credibility on the line.

If the Browns don’t renegotiate the contract, you can only expect the situation to escalate and eventually resonate. Cribbs took a preemptive strike at Lerner et. al that either forces them to step up and do the right thing, which, according to Cribbs, is to pay him fairly relative to his unidentified peers, or stare him down and risk alienating the emotional center of the team thereby putting a serious crimp on Mangini’s plan to transform the franchise.

I can’t help wonder, though, why Cribbs has taken it to this level this soon. It’s May. The only leverage point he has right now is to withhold his services from workouts that aren’t contractually required. That’s hardly a stinging rebuke. No one will give this much thought until at least training camp. That’s when the stakes heighten for both sides. If fans of the Browns understand anything at this point it’s the outcome on the field of a team that doesn’t properly prepare.

The other thing I wonder about is the logic underlying Cribbs’ emotional statement. On many levels it doesn’t make sense. Let’s start with the premise. Cribbs is not a restricted free agent but a player one-third of the way through a contract he signed that pays him over $6 million. No one put a gun to his head to sign it. To now claim, as he does, that the contract is one-sided is disingenuous. As I recall, he was all smiles when he originally signed it.

But beyond just this simple point, Cribbs sets up the straw man argument that he shouldn’t be held accountable for breaching his contract since the owners breach contracts all the time. Really? Give me an example. Just one. The reality is that the collective bargaining agreement keeps the owners feet to the fire far more than it does to the players and every meritorious allegation of a breach of contract made by the players has been rectified in binding arbitration.

As I wrote the other day, the truth is that both sides treat player contracts more like guidelines than binding commitments. But when push comes to shove, there is nothing a team can do to get a player to renegotiate his contract if the player chooses not to renegotiate. The team can cut the player, but that’s a hollow threat if the player is truly valuable. If the Browns cut Cribbs, he’d be snapped up in an instant.

When it comes to not honoring contracts, it’s really the players that hold the inglorious history of walking away from their signed commitments. Every year there are handfuls of players in every sport that refuse to honor their signed contracts in order to force their employers into newer more lucrative ones. I’m not making a value judgment on the tactic, just stating a fact.

Besides, it was Cribbs who decided to get into this business in the first place. He can portray himself a knave, but he’s well armed for the battle. His agent may have been born at night, but it wasn’t last night. It’s a fair fight.

Perhaps the biggest flaw in Cribbs’ logic is that he only has 10 or so years to make the most money he can to last him the rest of his life. Being a professional athlete does not carry the implied promise that when your playing career ends you can blissfully retire without ever having to work again. If Cribbs defies the odds and plays until he’s 35, why should he assume that his earnings during his career should be enough to sustain him until he’s 95? If this dispute really is about whether or not Cribbs shouldn’t have to enter real life in his mid-30s without ever having to seek gainful employment again, he’ll lose the fans as quick as he got them on his side.

It’s understandable that Cribbs is upset with what he feels is a lack of integrity by Browns’ management. But it’s not as if Cribbs shouldn’t have seen that coming. Cribbs has been with the team for four seasons and in that time he’s had a front row seat to all manner of dysfunction that has been the Browns. The only surprise in any of this is that Cribbs is surprised.

Ultimately, I blame the agent. Taking your case directly to the media is Negotiation 101 so the fact that Cribbs issued a statement isn’t a surprise. But J.R. Rickert needs to do a far better job of controlling his client than he’s done to this point. Cribbs’ statement, like this column, would probably have been twice as effective if it had been half as long.

Showing that I, too, can learn, I’ll end on that note.

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