Saturday, July 23, 2011

Lingering Items--Perspective Edition

The Ohio State Buckeyes' football program may not be quite out of the woods just yet, but Friday's actions by the NCAA confirm that whatever else the drive-by sanctimonious and moralizing numbskulls at the Columbus Disptach, ESPN and Sports Illustrated want to have you believe, the Buckeyes are not the rogue and lawless program they've been unfairly painted to be.

By telling Ohio State on Friday that there will be no new allegations against the program (in other words, the vast conspiracy alleged by Sports Illustrated, flamed by the Dispatch, and piled on by other even lesser media outlets who felt they were late to the party, wasn't true), the case sits where it started, with one man, Jim Tressel, having lied to the NCAA about potential NCAA violations by a handful of his players.

Tressel, having paid the ultimate price for his sins, now stands as the new face of all that is supposedly wrong with college athletics but at least we know that the Buckeyes program is hardly USC of the 1980s. And while I'm sure that ESPN and Sports Illustrated will continue to excoriate Tressel as a means of deflecting their shoddy coverage and treatment of the Buckeyes generally, it may be best if you read the transcript of the NCAA's 5-hour interview with Tressel yourself in order to draw your own conclusions.

If there's a picture that emerges of Tressel from that interview, it's one of a coach who cares very deeply about his players and his program but constantly wrestled with all the day-to-day realities of the multitude of issues that can veer either or both wildly off track. In many ways he comes across as perhaps too naïve to have ever gotten himself into the position as the head coach of a major Division I program, too unsure really of how to handle situations that his own upbringing may never have prepared him for. What he doesn't do, though, is come across as a cold, manipulative phony deliberating shielding himself by creating a false public portrait of who he really is.

On the key issue of a small group of players trading on their status and memorabilia for free tattoos, Tressel was straightforward in admitting that he understood this was a NCAA violation. But the circumstances surrounding those infractions were complicated by the shady character that at least some of the players had gotten themselves involved with and the specter of a FBI criminal investigation of that character.

Tressel didn't make light of the potential NCAA violations that these players had committed but like a parent he casts aside that immediate concern for what he believed was a far greater threat—their safety and personal welfare.

Where Tressel blew it and admits as much is that he should have taken this to the university's lawyers or the compliance department (which, by the way, comes across pretty well actually in the Tressel interview) and gotten their input. He says he didn't do that because he was working off of what he thought was confidential information that if disclosed could make the situation even worse, from a safety standpoint, for those players.

Ultimately, it was this bad calculation and what Tressel did to hide it that cost him his job. But yet when you ponder the interview it does leave you with a sense that as wrong as Tressel was he shouldn't have lost his job. It makes me wonder whether anyone on the school's Board of Trustees bothered to even read the transcript before arriving at the conclusion that the only way for the school to get past all of this is for Tressel to go. Shame on them if they didn't.

We undoubtedly live in a society where we too readily and too often dismiss simple truths in favor of far more elaborate and cynical explanations of human behavior. Thus I have no real expectation that those who jumped to crucify Tressel and Ohio State so quickly will be swayed by anything that came from the NCAA on Friday or anything they read (or probably glanced over) in the Tressel interview. But this case was always more nuanced than any of them had time to uncover in favor of a story line about a phony coach leading a too successful program that flaunted the rules in order to get that way.

I'm far from suggesting that Tressel was a victim here. He brought this on himself by making what amounts to two really bad decisions. But Tressel never was and still isn't the worst person in the world. What was needed most in his case was what the university gave him first and then abandoned—the benefit of the doubt. As the facts continue to emerge, his actions may not be any less wrong but they are for more understandable.

What's less understandable and always will be, is why so many people were so quick to judge and then to revel in the downfall of a decent, honorable man.

The NFL's lockout still hasn't been lifted and the reason for that remains the same as it was when the lockout was first imposed. The National Football League Players Association is an overmatched, outmaneuvered trade organization wholly incapable of adequately dealing with the complicated issues of a multi billion dollar business.

Led by DeMaurice Smith, a lawyer by trade who talks a good game but whose inexperience in labor negotiations put the union at a disadvantage, backed by a group of players too ill-informed and disconnected from the business side of their sport to fully comprehend exactly what's taking place, and supported by a group of clever lawyers more interested in making their bones on the backs of the players, the NFLPA has bungled every step of this labor dispute to the point where they found themselves backed into a corner by the owners. Now they're trying to scratch their way out and look rather small doing so.

Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner and the de facto lead negotiator for the owners, always faced two real challenges in this negotiations. First he had to corral a group of owners who are nothing more than a loosely affiliated group of competitors. No small task certainly but Goodell did a good job of keeping them in check throughout the negotiations. Second, Goodell had to find a way to keep Smith and his advisers from leading their lambs to slaughter. That's been the far more difficult task as these recent and final days of the lockout demonstrate.

While there appear to be a few remaining issues between the parties that could get quickly resolved if that was the players' desire, it appears that what's mostly keeping the lockout lasting these few extra days is Smith and his executive board's parochial interest in looking like they won't be bullied by the owners. Thus does Smith and his executive board continue to insist, for example, on using the most inefficient means available to re-certify as a labor union, a prerequisite to actually having a collective bargaining agreement, just because they want to demonstrate one last act of defiance, as if they're punishing the owners when all they're really doing is hurting themselves and the fans they claim to love.

But perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself. For those too jaded to want to pay attention to all the nuance and minutiae of these labor negotiations, let me just refer back for a moment to the process I laid out previously about how this matter gets resolved.

The collective bargaining agreement the owners voted on is merely tentative because the NFLPA, in a wrong headed strategy that has served only to prolong the lockout, claimed they decertified as a labor union. Thus until they recertify, the parties can't enter into a new collective bargaining agreement. And before they can recertify, they have to get all the lemming-like players they got to sign decertification cards last year to sign recertification cards this year. The union could accomplish this electronically but has chosen not to, opting to have the cards signed once the players report to camp. But of course the players can't report to camp until the lockout is lifted so what this is about is Smith and his executive board, the same group that caused this headache in the first place, telling the owners to go ahead and lift the lockout and trust them that they'll get their business taken care of.

Understandably the owners are in more of a “trust but verify” mode at the moment though I really think that a leap of faith could be taken here with little harm. Still it's a measure of the unnecessary acrimony that this situation created that this kind of issue is further holding up the NFL.

Smith claims that he and the players will work through the weekend, meaning that by the time they end up voting it will be close to six days since the owners tried to end the lockout. In the grand scheme, these six days will be meaningless. But likewise in the grand scheme, these six days are a marker for why this dispute has dragged on for as long as it has. The owners have always been willing to get a deal done. Sometimes the biggest roadblock is not an opposition that continues to say “no” but an opposition, like the NFLPA and Smith, that don't know how to say “yes.”

If there's one thing to really admire about the Cleveland Indians' management at the moment, it's that they've learned their hard lessons. In the days when former general manager and now club president Mark Shapiro used to come out and readily admit things like the Indians didn't have the budget to make any significant off-season or in-season moves, he would be lambasted by the fans who were tired of hearing excuses.

Not this time. Shapiro and general manager Chris Antonetti have done an effective job of using beat writer Paul Hoynes to get out the word that they really, really are looking to make a few moves before the trade deadline in order to bolster the roster in a pennant race. It's the right thing to say and it may actually be true. We won't really know until a move gets made.

If the Indians do make a move, the goal should be a bit more long term. Grady Sizemore, once again on the disabled list, has now proven to be a player that you can't count on. He's injury prone. And with each injury he comes back a little less effective than he was before. He's a centerpiece of this roster and because of that his absence becomes more magnified.

The Indians, like any other team in their situation, will probably end up relying on the if/come with Sizemore until it's well too late. His potential remains alluring, but pinning their hopes on his health and a permanent return to productivity will end up being a fool's game. Sizemore's injury-plagued career has followed a resulting pattern of regression. At this point it's far more likely than not that he'll never be the player we always thought he could have been.

Every sport has their Grady Sizemores and it's always sad when such promising careers end up never being fully realized. Sizemore is a good guy and the kind of guy that teams should build around. But in this case, whether it's because of his style of play or because he just has one of those bodies that injures more easily than others, baseball will end up never seeing the full value of his potential. That is until the Indians dump him.

Seriously, though, it's doubtful that the Indians can really replace Sizemore in a late-season deal. It's a problem that needs a larger solution. But when/if the Indians make a move, whether it's next week or in the off season or the one after that, it will undoubtedly be with the realization that what they really have to do is not supplement a roster but fill a new hole they were praying wasn't going to open but secretly feared always would.


With the NBA in lock out mode as well, here's this week's question to ponder: What's more likely to occur first, the end of the NBA lockout or a long-term solution to the nation's debt crisis?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Competing on Wits and Smarts

If you're less a fan of the games on the field and more a fan of what goes on behind the scenes in professional sports, then this is your time.

The NFL and its players have been going at it hammer and tong for several months and just now seem poised to solve their labor problems before anything more than the Hall of Fame exhibition game is lost. The NBA and its players aren't so much going at it hammer and tong as they are attacking each other in a high schoolish passive/aggressive fashion but are likely months before they even start addressing their real problems let alone solving them. Don't bet against an entire NBA season being lost.

And now baseball, with its collective bargaining agreement set to expire on December 11, is set to enter the fray of public negotiations. No one seems to be talking about a strike or a lockout in baseball but yet it has perhaps the most turbulent history of labor relations so don't bet against some sort of labor action in that sport either.

While the issues certainly aren't the same in each sport, they are connected by money or, more specifically, revenue: how much is there and how do we divide it?

If the parties in the baseball and basketball disputes were smart, they'd take notice of what's happening in football and adapt accordingly. But basketball has never been that smart about how they go about their business and baseball even less so. Thus when both of those disputes inevitably conclude, whenever that is, basketball will have found a way to kick the can down the road for a few more years, like the nation's debt problem, while baseball owners will once again knuckle under to the players while convincing themselves that their problems have been solved.

The real lesson emerging from the football negotiations is that the overall health of the league is tied more to cost certainty for all of its owners than it is to allowing a few “super” franchises to thrive. Football has learned that it's not just about the fans in cities with franchises. It's about hooking in the millions of fans outside of these cities and the best way to do it is by forcing the teams to compete on brains and not dough.

For example, in the NFL negotiations the dispute isn't just about dividing the overall revenue pie, although that's certainly been a key topic. It's also about all the little things that have big financial ramifications that have caused the owners angst for years.

It seems like the owners and players solved the big revenue issue a few weeks ago and yet as they put the finishing touches on a new, multi-year agreement the remaining revenue issues were rookie salary caps and how many rights of first refusal the owners could exercise on their potential free agents.

If reports coming from the negotiations are true, it looks as though the players have given in on the rookie salary cap in some fashion and the owners have all but abandoned the concept of right of first refusal, except for one “franchise” player per team. The resolution of both of these issues make sense, at least from a business perspective.

A rookie salary cap does two things. It gets younger players into camp more quickly and it helps keep costs in line while making future increases far more predictable. Understanding your costs not just on a near term but on a long term basis is important for any business. The explosion in rookie salaries has been a thorn in football's side for too long and it looks like the owners will mostly be getting the relief they've long sought.

When it comes to free agency, all the new rules seem to have done is institutionalize the way the more successful teams have operated for years. Every year it seems like both the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers turn over half their rosters and let some of their more valuable players leave via free agency. And every year puzzled writers seem to write those teams off as a result only to see them once again deep in the playoffs at year's end.

What those teams learned long ago is that the right mix in football is to concentrate your more expensive investments in just a handful of players and then replace the more fungible aging, expensive veterans with younger, cheaper versions. There may be some production drop off in following that script, but it never seems to be enough to keep either team out of the playoffs for long.

Players always seem to crave absolute free agency as if it's their sport's Holy Grail. But with a hard salary cap in place, an economic recession that caused many teams to realize that the good times indeed don't always roll and a stronger group of owners, there's little likelihood that free agency in football will lead to crippling salary growth.

In the end, what you're left with in football is a a sustainable business model that forces teams to compete on wit and smarts and not on money. If the Cleveland Browns aren't a successful franchise under the coming structure, then it's because they continue to make bad personnel decisions and not because they got out spent. That's how it should be.

As obvious as that lesson is, whether it will take in both basketball and baseball if far less certain. But of the two sports, I hold out more hope for basketball.

If David Stern really does rule his sport with an iron fist, then he'll keep the league in shut down mode until it gets its house in order. What's plaguing the sport is a salary cap that no one can quite fully figure out. It isn't just all the loopholes that's the problem. It's the fact that the cap can be exceeded by simply paying a luxury tax and that's just what the big market teams have been doing for years. The thought initially was that teams wouldn't want to pay the tax. What's played out is that basketball has slowly but surely become a version of baseball where well financed owners in bigger markets are dominating the sport. That's not how it was supposed to be.

The short-sighted union sees the huge salary growth and doesn't want it to be checked in any way. But watching how all the small market teams are struggling and will continue to do so should be enough of an incentive to recognize that their long term future is tied more to the health of the league overall and less to the health of a few key franchises. In more ways than a few, basketball has essentially morphed into a winter version of major league baseball.

And baseball? Don't get your hopes up. The best way to illustrate baseball's financial problems is to look in our own backyard, at the Cleveland Indians. For many of the right reasons, the Indians are well into July and still fighting for first place. But anyone who pays attention at least a little understands that the holes in the Indians' roster are going to keep it from getting over the threshold unless they're addressed.

The problem that club president Mark Shapiro and general manager Chris Antonetti face is that baseball's lack of financial controls makes it difficult for teams like the Indians to make a push late in the season. Sure, the Indians can go after a handful of free-agents-to-be and rent them for a stretch run. All it costs is money.

But the Indians, as one of the many small market teams with owners who aren't nearly as well off financially as others, can't just toss around money without consequence. Spend now and it will have an impact on next year's budget. An even worse scenario is to make a trade for a productive big name that will cost you the lifeblood of the future—your key minor leaguers.

Everyone wants to make a run now, including Shapiro and Antonetti. But it's they and not the fans that have to live with the consequences if that run isn't successful. And even if it is, it still comes at the expense of the future. They sit in a perpetual “no win” situation.

Teams like the Yankees, on the other hand, can and have papered over their multitude of mistakes with even more money generated by operating in a major market in a league without any real restraints. It's been that way for years, of course and baseball, under Bud Selig, has always paid lip service to the problems.

What's really happened in both basketball and baseball is that some teams, meaning those in small markets, are forced to try and compete on wits and smarts while other teams, meaning those in major markets, get to add an open checkbook to the equation. It has hurt the competitive balance of both leagues and ultimately has hurt the experience for the fans.

If you want to root for the right outcome in each of these sports' labor disputes, then don't focus on the near term games that might get canceled. Focus instead on an outcome that assures that each team in the league can compete on the same terms as the others. It's the only way to give every team a real chance at success.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

All Star Indifference

What if they played an All Star game and nobody showed up? In large measure, that’s pretty much the theme of Major League Baseball’s version of the All Star game this year and for once I’m not talking about fan indifference, although I could be.

With seemingly half of the selected baseball All Stars begging off or otherwise ineligible because they pitched on the Sunday before a Tuesday game, Major League Baseball now has on its hand an All Star game in name only that will end up being played mostly by second and third tier players that have had a decent half season, no offense to Asdrubal Cabrera intended..

The union is of course defending the defections, despite their ever swelling numbers, as a matter of a number of individual circumstances combining at the same time to make the situation look worse than it really is. There’s no reason to doubt that explanation unless you take into account that when it comes to what’s best for the sport, the union has always led from the rear anyway.

The fact is, while there undoubtedly are some players that care about actually playing the All Star game, for many of them it’s an unneeded distraction, like Sunday dinner at the in-laws, that they’d would rather just avoid.

If there is a marker for this All Star game and the joke that it’s become, thy name is Derek Jeter. Citing the mental and physical exhaustion of chasing his 3,000th hit, Jeter begged off even attending any aspect of the festivities in Phoenix.

This is the sainted Derek Jeter, by the way, the one player we’re all reminded has always done the right thing when it comes to baseball, who has blown off the whole damn thing because the pressure of achieving a goal he was going to achieve sooner or later has left him positively exhausted. This is also the same Derek Jeter that was voted on the team and who otherwise stands completely healthy at the moment.

Jeter’s “decision” with a small “d” has created a little bit of controversy but not enough to get anyone too excited. And even it got any one other than the goofs running Fox Sports who are broadcasting the game terribly overheated, it wouldn’t be enough to change his mind anyway. With his usual flair for the uncontroversial, Jeter just shrugs his shoulders at the dust up, as he undergoes a personal calculus that probably concluded that Phoenix in July sounds about as exciting as Ann Arbor in the fall. True that.

If baseball had a real commissioner with real power who really cared about this mid-summer exhibition, he’d come out forcefully against Jeter’s actions and levy a heavy fine, assuming that real commissioner thought the All Star game carried some sort of transcendent importance.

But baseball has Boob Selig, a man who can wax philosophic about the enduring goodness of all that his sport represents but cannot actually do anything meaningful for the sport, just kind of shrug his shoulders as well and rationalizes it away like a parent whose kind just came home with a bad grade in Algebra. Never mind the message that Jeter is sending to the other so-called All Stars or the few fans that give a flying fig about the game. It’s not like baseball is imbued with symbolism anyway.

I don’t really want to pick on Jeter, the least hateful Yankee of the last 25 years. But I think it’s perfect that it’s a healthy Jeter, having just created a quaint feel-good story on the eve of the game by going 5-5 on Sunday and getting his 3000t0th hit on a home run, who is telling the rest of the world that there are much better ways to spend a Tuesday night in July then engaging in a meaningless exhibition game. Indeed there is. Tuesday night is the premier of the final season of Rescue Me, for instance.

And before anyone from Major League Baseball bothers to drop me an email to remind me that “this one counts” because the winner of the All Star gets home field advantage in the World Series, let me remind them that this fact is of only tangential relevance to fans in two cities that haven’t yet been identified anyway. Besides, since baseball went to awarding the home field advantage prize to the winner, there’s been absolutely no correlation between that prize and World Series success.

So back to Jeter and his 3,000 better ways to spend three days then in the 194 degree heat of Phoenix sweating out a potential haboob.

If Jeter giving baseball the middle finger serves as the flashpoint for reconsidering the actual playing of this annual snorefest, then it will have served a greater purpose and he may be elevated to the least hateful Yankee of the last 50 years.

But baseball is full of traditions that don’t make any sense so there’s no chance that Jeter’s inaction will have any lingering effect on a game that has long since lost whatever lingering effect it was supposed to have.

There may still be a few fans somewhere, anywhere, who still watch more than an inning or two of the thing, but let me know the next time there’s any water cooler talk about the game in your office and I’ll remind you that it was the first time, too.

The last time something interesting happened at an All Star game was 2002 when Boob Selig proved my point by ending a 7-7 game in the 11th inning and declaring the game a tie and sending everyone home. Outside of ESPN’s Buster Olney, I’m not sure anyone else even noticed or at least complained since it was, like 3 a.m. on the east coast when this “decision”, again with a small “d”, was made.

The truth is that the only people that really benefit from this All Star game are those among the 174 players selected who get some sort of bonus for achieving that half-honor. That’s fine. I’m not against baseball naming its All Stars, for whatever that means. It’s just that the game is less meaningful than an episode of The Bachelor.

But why pick on just baseball. If there’s anything worse than baseball’s all star game, it’s basketball’s. And even then, both of those games are positively riveting when compared to the low wattage output of the NFL’s Pro Bowl. But hey at least the Pro Bowl is not the Minor League All Star game, an oxymoron of such major proportions that they ought to just retire the term oxymoron here an now in honor of the minor leagues even naming All Stars or, as I like to call them, the best of all the players not good enough to play at the major league level.

It’s all harmless, I know and there are much bigger issues in the world of sports. But if baseball is going to interrupt its season year in and year out in this way and then tell me it’s for the fans, it’s worth letting them know that we’re on to their schtick.

Celebrate if you must, baseball, but I have the public on my side. The television ratings for the game have been trending down since 1988, with 2010 being the lowest rated All Star game ever. There’s no reason to think this year will be any different, what with Jeter decompressing in his penthouse. And worry not, fans, if Fox pulls the plug in the future. Somewhere in the can has to be a lost episode of The Search of the Next Elvira to replace it.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Framework of an Agreement

If all the optimism filtering out of the discussions in Minnesota is accurate, the NFL owners and its players will have the framework in place for a new collective bargaining agreement within the next few days.

For all those who depend on the NFL for their livelihood, from the players to the front office staffs to every lowly employee in every ancillary industry tied into the NFL whose paycheck depends on games being played, that constitutes good news.

But until the parties jointly announce a resolution of their differences, nothing is final. And as is typical in any negotiations, they’re always some naysayer on one or both sides that will try to throw a turd in the punchbowl at the last second over this issue or that. Ultimately though all the minor concerns will fall away and some sort of agreement will get signed.

The question the average fan probably has is why will the settlement only constitute a “framework for a collective bargaining agreement” and not an actual agreement. The answer to that is tied up in all the unpleasantness that comes when one party, in this case the players, decides to head down a litigation path instead of staying at the bargaining table.

In simple terms, what’s getting resolved is the underlying litigation itself. The litigation ensued because the NFLPA, the union representing the players, filed a petition to decertify as the exclusive bargaining representative of the players. While the validity of that petition has never been ruled upon, that act in turn led to a group of players filing a class action lawsuit claiming that the owners committed a multitude of anti trust violations by, among other things, locking them out. The players also sought an injunction to prevent the lockout.

As we know, the district court issued an injunction against the lockout but that was quickly and forcefully overturned by the court of appeals. That little shift in circumstances is ultimately what forced the players to get serious and start addressing the issues the owners brought to the bargaining table. To that point, the union, led by an absolute neophyte in DeMaurice Smith, essentially refused to negotiate, saying no to every owners’ proposal while offering nothing in the form of a counterproposal.

But it’s the fact of this litigation coupled with the union’s decertification that complicates the ultimate resolution and the start of a new era of labor peace. First, the parties have to settle the lawsuit. They are doing this by creating the so-called framework for a new collective bargaining agreement.

Once that framework is established, the court will have to sign off on the agreement and give all potential class members a chance to object. That sounds ominous but will mostly be a formality. The players are lemmings and will trust whatever agreement has already been reached. Even if one or two thorns file an objection, it won’t matter anyway. The court can simply reject their opposition.

After the settlement is approved by the court, the players will then have to vote to re-certify the NFLPA as its exclusive bargaining rep. That, too, will be a formality but it will take some time to accomplish. Once that’s completed, the parties, meaning the NFL Management Committee and the NFLPA, can sign an actual collective bargaining agreement with all the handshakes and hugs you’d expect. Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith will give the perfunctory kudos to their negotiating teams and, in turn, to each other and all the acrimony that was present just a few months ago will suddenly and surely melt away for the next 5 or 10 years or for however long the next collective bargaining agreement is scheduled to last.

Getting through all of this procedural hoops is pretty complicated stuff designed by lawyers for lawyers. If you didn’t think they weren’t going to get some small piece of this multi-billion dollar pie then you don’t know lawyers very well.

If the owners wanted to be pricks and really force the players’ hands, they’d keep the lockout in place until all of the above administrative matters have been worked through. That would take weeks and cost games but it would give them the only real assurance that labor peace has been achieved.

But the owners have as much of a vested interest in getting the games played as the players do and so they’ll open camps once the settlement agreement to the litigation, which contains the framework for the new collective bargaining agreement, is signed by the class plaintiffs.

Meanwhile, while all of this works its way through there is a new piece of litigation that needs to be dealt with and that’s the complaint recently by retirees who aren’t too happy that they weren’t given a seat at the negotiating table.

Much has been made about their issues with former Browns offensive lineman Joe Delamielleure and former Bears player and coach Mike Ditka acting as the leaders of that charge. The sympathetic tug from Joe D and Ditka has been that the players now are realizing such riches that they ought to reserve some of that for those who went before them.

But it’s not like there isn’t another side to this story. The union hasn’t exactly ignored the calls but they haven’t been overly sympathetic to the retirees either. Drew Brees, in words he’ll probably end up regretting, pointed out that many of the former players have fallen on hard times because of bad financial and personal decisions they’ve made. Undoubtedly that’s true but he didn’t necessarily need to poke them in the eye about it.

The real problem for the retirees is that they have no legal right to be at the bargaining table. In a quirk of federal labor law, the union (which doesn’t even exist at the moment, allegedly) only represents active players. Once players retire, they are not active members of the union. There’s nothing preventing either the owners or the players from discussing benefits for the current retirees while at the bargaining table but nothing requiring it either. So it’s not a surprise that these retirees haven’t been brought into the discussions in any meaningful way.

That litigation too will get resolved in short order. The retirees don’t have any legal standing to pursue that kind of lawsuit anyway. That notwithstanding, there may be some token outreach to the retirees to address their concerns but in truth there probably isn’t an amount of money that the league could dedicate to their cause that would ever fully satisfy them anyway.

With a deal apparently imminent, all that really remains is for the parties to actually go back to the business of getting players into training camps. That’s easier said then done, especially here in Cleveland where the Browns don’t even a have a full team to get into camp. But then again, that’s been true for the last several years so perhaps nothing much has changed.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

The Bucks and the Ducks

We’ll probably never really know how it was the Jim Tressel actually came to lose his job as head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes. Sure we understand the email from an unethical lawyer that Tressel stupidly didn’t pass along to anyone else in authority and the false statement he made about it months later as the lynchpin. But why Tressel was ultimately forced into early retirement is murkier.

It’s been several months now since the revelation of Tressel’s misconduct and the “we’ve got his back” press conference that university president Gordon Gee and athletic director Gene Smith held saying that Tressel’s job wasn’t in trouble.

From that point forward came a media onslaught unlike anything Ohio State had ever experienced. And yet through all the pseudo investigations, especially the discredited hack job that proved more false than true perpetuated by Sports Illustrated, Tressel’s only misconduct was and remained his incredibly stupid decision to not forward on an email.

In fact, with the distance that a few months provides, it’s become clear that not one other Buckeyes player has come under the NCAA’s microscope or been threatened with suspension. No assistant coach has been shown the door for engaging in any sort of background dealing or in some way facilitating the misconduct by the Tat 5. Most importantly, despite the reckless allegations of drive-by journalists, there has been not a shred of evidence offered, despite all of the digging and probing, that Tressel was running any sort of rogue program or that the Ohio State athletic department generally had a wild west approach to compliance.

But yet the white hot glare of those drive-by journalists proved to be more than the weak leaning trustees, or at least some of them, could handle and thus Tressel had to be sacrificed. Officially it was a resignation but what happened unofficially probably won’t come out for years if at all.

Meanwhile far worse scandals have hit college football in this same season and in each case the head coach has retained his job. There’s the whole Cam Newton affair in which it’s actually been proven that his own father was offering him up to the highest bidder. The claim was that Auburn didn’t pay Newton a penny and indeed it’s never been shown that Auburn did in fact pay Don King Wannabe Cecil Newton anything for his son’s services.

But yet Newton, after a checkered and short career at Florida that saw him get thrown out of that university allegedly for both stealing and cheating, ended up in Gene Chizek’s lap in Auburn. Maybe Chizek never got the scrutiny that Tressel got because Chizek’s career up until he met Newton was about as mediocre as they come. But even more galling is that even the NCAA let Newton slide because it was his father that engaged in the misconduct and not the son.

I said then that was a loophole that you could drive a truck through and it remains one today. Put it this way. Terrelle Pryor and the rest of his cohorts could have skated past any suspension had they just said that they thought their fathers paid for the tattoos, even if it had later been revealed that the currency was their sons’ memorabilia.

So give Cecil and Cam Newton credit for being cleverer than Terrelle Pryor and DeVier Posey.

That doesn’t erase in the least what Tressel did, but it certainly would have taken the players off the hook and then the program suddenly doesn’t look any more rogue than Auburn’s.

As bad as the Newton affair was for college football, it may end up a mere sideshow to what’s going on with Chip Kelly and the University of Oregon program. Yahoo Sports, which first took on the Ohio State story, has revealed in just the past few days that Kelly personally approved a $25,000 payment to Will Lyles to secure the services of two high school players.

When the allegations were first revealed how it was that Oregon was able to sign key players, including running back LeMichael James, the university scrambled to put together a report that demonstrated it had done nothing wrong. The payment to Lyles, they claimed, was for recruiting services, a quaint notion that Lyles was just a guy getting by running a little service to help out cash strapped programs with recruiting budget shortfalls. As if.

As a point of clarification for the uninitiated who want to think that this is still the 1950s, there are actually “recruiting services” out there that get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars from some programs to provide video and other reports on various high school players. It’s not clear whether the players directly “sign” with these services because that would make it look like they had agents, something the NCAA frowns on. And yet these services end up forging special relationships with certain players, usually from tough inner city backgrounds, in order to better market themselves to good and receptive programs just trying to give a kid a break.

It may not be illegal at the moment for any school to use a recruiting service but it is unusual. Oregon for example said it used Wyles as part of its overall approach to making efficient use of its recruiting budget. Given that kind of fallacy it almost makes you feel empathy for Cecil Newton who basically served as a one man recruiting service for his son.

But getting back to the point it appears that Oregon’s defense of it termed wholly innocent acts was a sham. Yahoo Sports, after interviewing Wyles several times, claims among other things that Wyles’ reports, in other words the actual services he was supposed to provide on various recruits, were put together months after the fact and at the request of Oregon once they knew they were in the crosshairs of an investigation that was blowing the cover off its shady practices.

The Yahoo Sports story also claims that Kelly was personally involved and has the evidence to prove it including a note Kelly personally wrote to Wyles thanking him for chaperoning three highly touted recruits to a Ducks’ game in 2009.

But if you think that’s the worst of it, you’d be wrong. Wyles was straightforward in admitting that the only service he really provided was to cuddle up with a few elite recruits and get them to Oregon for money. He did this by personally supervising the transfer of James from one high school to another that didn’t require a standardized test to graduate. That little task directly paved the way for James to get to Oregon, otherwise he may have never graduated high school.

He also did it by helping another recruit, Lache Seastrunk, obtain a different legal guardian because Seastrunk’s other guardian, his mother, didn’t approve of his decision to attend Oregon.

The only thing more outrageous than the conduct itself is the media’s lack of obsession with it, save for Yahoo Sports. Maybe that’s because it’s the Oregon Ducks and not the Ohio State Buckeyes. Maybe it’s because it’s Chip Kelly and not Jim Tressel. Maybe it’s because it’s more convenient to get to Columbus, Ohio than Eugene, Oregon for the mostly lazy journalists plying their trade these days.

It may be that Kelly will eventually lose his job but right now I’m not hearing Mark May or any of the other conveniently outraged at ESPN obsess over it. In fact Kelly and the Ducks’ program are getting mostly a pass even though their alleged misconduct is far, far worse than anything that went down at Ohio State.

No one accused Ohio State of putting together an after-the-fact justification of its own misconduct. Indeed, if anything Gene Smith and Gordon Gee were too forthcoming about the underlying but isolated misconduct. No one, including Tressel, is accused of paying or arranging the payment of money to players or their recruiting services.

If any program was playing on the fringes of legality it was Oregon and not Ohio State.

But the difference here, particularly in retrospect, is that Smith and Gee threw together an ill-conceived press conference to defend Tressel when what they should have done was taken the Oregon bunker mentality approach. That press conference served as convenient red meat for those who felt Smith, Gee and Tressel needed a comeuppance for being, well, so successful.

In one sense it is nice that the trustees at Ohio State took a stand and didn’t lower the university’s standards to those of Oregon and Auburn and the multitudes of others over the years that have been found to have done far worse. But in another sense it’s shameful that the trustees didn’t at least take the benefit of time and distance to place all of this, including Tressel’s misconduct, into a larger context. Instead they caved to the popular opinions of people that don’t know any better and in the end took down a man who deserved punishment but not the death penalty.

Tressel deserved a better fate then he got from those trustees and here’s hoping that his former employer and the political appointees who control it eventually realize that and come to the conclusion that the next permanent head coach for Ohio State is the one still living in their backyard.