Sunday, May 06, 2012

Lingering Items--Public Relations Edition

During most weeks of the year, but most certainly the regular season, one NFL player or another runs afoul of some league rule.  Maybe he tested positive for a banned substance.  Maybe it was an illegal hit.  But in every case the league levies a punishment, the player appeals and eventually it gets resolved through the arbitration process.  And as that’s all taking place no one much pays attention, let alone complains about the process.

I mention this because in very large measure the punishment the league handed down to 4 current and former New Orleans Saints players for their alleged involvement in a pay-to-injure scheme are of the same ilk.  The allegations are a bit more salacious certainly but otherwise it doesn’t command any sort of resort to media handwringing.

Yet whether it’s Mike Florio over at or any number of other like-minded moralists, this situation is different and in their view the league should be handing over to the public all of its evidence against the accused so that everyone can pass premature judgment.  We don’t even demand such things in the prosecution of real criminals, but this is football so this kind of transparency obviously is much more important.

It’s a false argument and one the league most certainly will ignore.  The NFL doesn’t owe the public that kind of transparency any more than the Plain Dealer or ProFootballTalk or Yahoo or ESPN or the guy running the local 7-11 does in terms of how they deal with internal disciplinary matters.  There is an orderly process that will ultimately test the value of the league’s evidence against the defenses proffered and a decision will be rendered and we can all go about the business once again of wondering exactly why the Browns hate wide receivers.

The far more interesting dynamic in this Saints debacle is that of exactly how the union resolves its massive conflict of interest.  There’s no question that certain Saints players, including the Browns resident outhouse lawyer Scott Fujita, put money into a pool to reward other Saints players for playing with a certain, shall we say, intensity.  Fujita admitted this openly.  The dispute is whether the rewards were doled out for hits intended to injure the competitors.  Fujita’s spin is that they were simply for good, clean hits because, apparently, a million dollar salary isn’t enough of an incentive for a professional to perform as required, which means make good, clean hits.  Other players and the league say that it was a bounty program.

Common sense would indicate that the league has a good case if only because Fujita’s rationalization is idiotic.  But who knows?  The league has had seemingly open and shut cases before and they’ve managed to blow it so anything’s possible.

What really rubs the wrong day is as usual the strident views taken by a union run by an individual, DeMaurice Smith, who cares not a whit for the good of the game.  He fancies himself more in the vein of Marvin Miller when it comes to his role, as if protecting and defending his members is always at odds with acting in the best interests of the greater good.

This isn’t to suggest that the union shouldn’t mount a defense on behalf of the suspended players.  It’s their legal duty to do just that.  But to not denounce, even in the most general terms, any players who might have participated in a bounty system is reprehensible.  Smith and the cronies and lawyers that report to him are so blinded by their distaste for commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners that pay their salaries that they cannot even comprehend the awful message they are sending to the vast majority of their members with their odd defense of the Saints’ players.

Eli Manning, for one, had no such qualms in denouncing any of his fellow union members who would deliberately set out to injure another.  Same, too, for Aaron Rodgers.  But apparently Smith has forgotten that he is supposed to represent Manning, Rodgers and Brett Favre (the target of one of the alleged bounties) just as equally as Jon Vilma or Will Smith.  And because he has forgotten that charge, Smith has set up an internal civil war within the union that will not just hurt the union but also hurt the greater good.

I’ve been consistent in my views on Smith.  It was a mistake to hire him as the head of the union because he had absolutely no experience in labor-management relations.  He then proceeded to foolishly incite a lockout with a completely failed legal strategy, which wasn’t a surprise.  He didn’t negotiate any better deal then what he was offered before he pushed the union off the cliff.  That hurt his members most of whom are so disconnected to these matters anyway that they awarded Smith with a new contract.

Smith has once again taken his charges down the exact wrong path and that has nothing to do with whether or not the suspended players are guilty.  If Smith thinks it’s wrong for one union member to target another union member for injury, it’s his duty to say so and as publicly as possible.  Until Smith takes a stand as a real leader and finds a more elegant way to balance the sometimes competing interests of his members, he’ll continue to fail as a leader and the union will continue to look like the overmatched boobs they’ve become.

Colt McCoy showed up to work out for the Browns and a consensus seems to be emerging that mixes both surprise and bewilderment.  They’re surprised because McCoy didn’t kick up a fuss about the drafting of Brandon Weeden.  They’re bewildered because the Browns didn’t immediately trade McCoy in order to pave the way for Weeden.

To that I would add my own surprise and bewilderment but not for anything that either the Browns or McCoy have done but for the simplistic reactions of those being paid to write about it.  What exactly about the current situation immediately demands that the Browns part with McCoy?  Stated differently, what about McCoy personally suggests that his default reaction would be to bitch and moan and demand a trade?

I sometimes wonder whether many in the media that cover professional athletes for a living have any real clue about what makes athletes tick.  Their view of the McCoy/Weeden dynamic suggests they don’t.

If there’s one thing professional athletes understand by this point is that they aren’t long for professional athletics if they can’t stand a challenge.  Nearly every aspect of their existence is built on competition.  They are constantly fighting off others for the right to be the starter and the moment they think they have it made is the exact moment they need to worry the most.
McCoy is under contract with the Browns.  That’s why he showed up to work out.  He didn’t bitch about the drafting of Weeden because he’s been fighting off competition since Pop Warner.  It’s the nature of the job.  McCoy might fall short as a quarterback because his physical skills aren’t quite sufficient for a league of all stars.  But he won’t fall short because he lacks the desire to compete.

Besides, there’s no specific reason for either the Browns or McCoy to conclude at this point that it’s best for McCoy to ply his trade elsewhere.  If you believe that Weeden should be the starting quarterback, then by default having McCoy as the backup is far better than having it be Seneca Wallace, who couldn’t even beat out McCoy for the starting job.

The other benefit is that McCoy may burn with the desire to remain a starter in this league but he’s not the kind of personality that would publicly undermine Weeden like Wallace did with McCoy last season.  And as a final measure, there’s little chance that if Weeden starts next season he’ll make it through the season unscathed.  He’ll likely suffer an injury if only because every quarterback seems to.  There’s also every reason to think that he’ll hit some real low points where it will make sense to go to the bullpen even temporarily.  Wouldn’t you rather have McCoy in that bullpen then Wallace?

When the Browns signed Gary Danielson to mentor Bernie Kosar it worked because Danielson was still a serviceable starter in his own right while simultaneously not just recognizing but embracing his role as a placeholder for the next generation.  McCoy isn’t Danielson, but then again very few are.  If the Browns in theory could find a Danielson clone to mentor Weeden then by all means have at it.  But that player isn’t out there for if he were every team with a young quarterback, and there are plenty of them, would have snatched him up by now.
Until that kind of player emerges there’s no reason to run McCoy out of town and deliberately undercut the one area on the team where some depth is finally starting to emerge.

In the last 9 seasons, the Browns have won as much as 6 games just twice.  The rest of the time they’ve been in the 4 and 5 win category.  This isn’t just a garden variety losing record of a club that just lacks a few breaks.  It’s long term incompetence running head long into long term mismanagement.

In that context it’s understandable that the fans are excited about anyone who might promise something more than 6 wins in a season.  Still, doesn’t the exuberance around Weeden seem a bit, well, irrational?

At any time other than perhaps the last week and a half, not just the average Browns’ fan but nearly any Browns’ fan couldn’t have picked Weeden out of a lineup let alone talked confidently or intelligently about his accomplishments at a near second-tier Big 12 college or how the hell it could possibly translate into NFL success.

The exuberance too seems in large part manufactured by the public relations department of the Browns who are selling attributes like his advanced rookie age as a benefit without mentioning that if Weeden is indeed successful he’ll be the first.  Age does bring maturity but let’s face it, Weeden’s old because he couldn’t make it as a baseball player, his preferred occupation.
I’m not down on Weeden because it would be impossible to have formed that opinion given absolutely no body of work on which to draw any such conclusion.  Which is the point, isn’t it?  

I don’t mind the Browns’ p.r. department doing what it should be doing.  But it seems incredibly premature to anoint Weeden the starter let alone the savior of this dysfunctional franchise.
I’m not sure when the Browns fell out of love with McCoy but it was somewhere around the time that Pat Shurmur was hired as head coach.  That’s fine because every coach has his views on what it takes to execute his vision.  But the reason this franchise has performed so miserably is completely related to its reaction to Weeden before he’s had even one practice.  It’s always cart first and then horse with this team and in simple terms that’s why the results for the last decade have been consistent and awful.

When people talk about Scott Fujita, it’s always in glowing terms.  And while it’s not always fair to judge someone by one mistake, including a mistake that lasted for years, it does lead to this week’s question to ponder:  If Fujita really has the stand up image he’s cultivated, wouldn’t he simply take his relatively mild medicine, apologize and vow to work even harder to improve player safety?

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