Saturday, July 28, 2012

Not Lerner Revisited

It’s no real surprise that Randy Lerner is on the precipice of selling controlling interest in the Cleveland Browns.  He may be a lifelong fan still clingy to his Browns jammies, but he’s been a reluctant owner since Day 1.  The only surprise, really, is that he held on this long.  He has a pattern.

When the sale is finalized, Lerner’s deconstruction of most of what his father built will have been completed.  When Lerner inherited MBNA bank and all its billions from his father Al, he didn’t wait nearly this long to sell it so he could pursue other hobbies.  With the sale of the Browns, Lerner is now nearly completely free of money-making enterprises.  That sound you hear is the huge cry of indifference as to what he does next.

The news has been kicking around inside the NFL for months that Lerner was in negotiations to sell controlling interest of the team.  Jimmy Haslam III, he of the Flying J rest stops that seem to dominate the highways from Cleveland to all points south, owns a minority interest in the Pittsburgh Steelers but he came to the inevitable conclusion that he was never going to wrest majority control of that franchise from the Rooney family. (Recall, though, that there was actually talk at the time Haslem bought his interest that the Rooneys may have been interested in selling outright.)  

Liking the view from the owner’s box, Haslam let it be known that his desires were bigger.  Because the key to life is timing, those desires found a willing partner in one whose own were waning.  It could be about the money as the reported sale price for controlling interest is in the $1 billion range, but it seems more about Lerner finally trying to find his own identity while also finding a way to remove his square peg self from the round hole of NFL ownership.
All the instant reassurance that the Browns would not be relocated as the result of the sale was meant to quell a skittish fan base but in truth there was never any chance that the NFL would ever allow the Browns to be relocated again anyway.  The real question to mull is exactly what kind of owner Haslam will be?

We know that Lerner was a lousy owner by any measuring stick you want to pull out but he did understand at least that his ownership interest was never really his in the first place.  He held it in trust for the fans even if he was clueless as to how to engage with them.  That contrasts wildly with owners like Jerry Jones in Dallas and Dan Snyder in Washington, D.C., two megalomaniacs locked in their own separate battle over who really represents the center of the solar system.  Fan engagement to them is simply another branding opportunity.

There has never been anything about owning the Browns that appealed to Lerner so it won’t be sad to see him go.  His detachment was legendary.  When the team needed him most he set off for England in a quest to own a Premier League team.  He granted interviews sparingly and reluctantly.  He made decisions impetuously as if the intent was to sweep the problem off the desk as quickly as possible.  It’s no accident that the Browns have foundered under his ownership.  Lerner foundered as an owner and the team and its results matched his psyche.

As for Haslam, maybe the team never gets appreciably better under him but it certainly can’t get worse.  The other thing is that it almost doesn’t matter to the fans how bad the team is anyway.  They mostly still support it with an unwavering enthusiasm irrespective of the abuse that usually results.  That said, what Browns fans should understand is that once Haslam takes control it won’t be too long until there’s regime change and the inevitable several year waiting period for it to take hold.

Haslam strikes no one as Lerner Revisited so it’s safe to assume that he has no intention of paying nearly a $1 billion bounty to own a set of crown jewels and then let someone else caretake it for him.  That means that unless Mike Holmgren can finagle his way into the new ownership group his days as a long distance architect are probably numbered.  Once he’s gone it doesn’t take long for the rest of the dominoes to fall.  Perhaps that’s why head coach Pat Shurmur was so prickly at his press conference on Friday.  He understands how this all works.  In the speed of a one day news cycle, Shurmur’s second year as head coach took on a certain air of “what’s the point?”.
So whatever excitement you might muster for Brandon Weeden as the quarterback of the future, you shouldn’t get too comfortable.  Whatever regime Haslam installs will undoubtedly have a different view of the football world then Holmgren, Heckert, and Shurmur.  It will manifest itself in the defensive schemes they play, the type of offense they run and the type of players they want.  In short, the current system, for whatever merit it might have, will get flushed, sooner or later but definitely.

Do the fans have it in them to endure another regime change?  Of course.  They understand the cycle as well as anyone.  Besides there is a certain allure of new blood.  It brings with it a renewed sense of hope even if it eventually collapses under its own weight of incompetence.
On the surface, there is much to like about Haslam, particularly as compared to Lerner.  Perhaps Lerner’s biggest shortcoming as an owner stemmed from his almost complete lack of business acumen.  Lerner inherited his wealth that was borne of a successful business his father started.  Lerner took the same indifferent approach to that business, MBNA, which he took to the Browns.   He sold it at the first opportunity.  He sunk a pile of dough into the Aston Villa franchise in England but it hasn’t helped much.  Indeed it has been bleeding money under his ownership.  In other words, he has no record of accomplishment.

Haslam on the other hand actually took the family business and with his brothers worked long and hard to learn it and then grew it into a far more profitable venture.  His fortune isn’t just inherited it’s also earned and that’s a significant difference.  Running a series of truck stops may be nothing like running a NFL franchise but the same business principles apply to each.  Customer loyalty is critical to any business and surely Haslam could not have built a successful business without understanding that.  That gives him a huge head start.

When you take care of your customers and give them a reason to want to do business with you again, good results tend to follow.

Yet there seems to be a little concern that Haslam is a self-proclaimed Steelers fan, as if somehow that would retard his ability as an owner of the Browns.

Frankly, I wouldn’t care if Haslam was a Michigan grad who interned for the Yankees and held lifetime season tickets to the Steelers so long as he takes a more proactive approach to owning the Browns.  Dan Gilbert was viewed as a carpetbagger from Detroit and yet has invested significantly in the Cavaliers and the community.  You may question his direction but never his passion for the Cavs and its place within the city of Cleveland.

Haslam and Gilbert are of a similar ilk and so it’s far more likely that Haslam will follow the Gilbert model and not the path set out by Lerner.   I would expect Haslam to embrace the special relationship between this team and its fans.  I would expect him to seek first to rebuild the trust with the fans that Lerner never seemed interested in capturing.  Ultimately, I expect Haslam to be successful because that’s his track record.

New ownership for the Browns may not have been the preferred way of kicking off a new season but it’s not a huge negative, either.  The team will once again struggle on the field as the thinness of its roster reveals itself when the inevitable injuries mount.  But as Haslam’s ownership works its way first through the approval process and then the transition it will serve as a decent distraction.  Whether it becomes an actual distraction, however, remains to be seen and something Haslam, ultimately, has the power to control.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Lingering Items--Retribution Edition

Time will be the real arbiter of whether or not the NCAA did the right thing in severely punishing Penn State University, but for those complaining perhaps they missed the meat of NCAA president Mark Emmert’s reasoning.

That Penn State was made an example of is probably beyond question. But of what, exactly? With no sense of irony, Emmert railed against the fact that the culture of winning has become so all consuming that it has created an atmosphere of “too big to fail” programs at some universities.

The phrase “too big to fail” is thrown around a lot these days and I’m not sure that it could ever apply in this context, but the point is still taken. At Penn State as in many places, the wants, needs and desires of the football program came to dominate the entire ethos of the university. When Joe Paterno, as well entrenched of a head coach as there has ever been, could literally impose his will on his own superiors by halting any further investigation into or a reporting of the allegations regarding Jerry Sandusky, it’s pretty clear to any objective observer that the tail is wagging the dog and that’s usually a huge red flag.

It’s easy to understand how it gets to that point and that’s perhaps where the NCAA is still turning a blind eye, particularly in the context of “too big to fail.” Everything the NCAA stands for at the moment is about money and how its two most prominent programs, football as practiced in the Bowl Subdivision and Division I men’s basketball, can generate even more of it. That money is used by the universities as a way of offsetting the costs of running big time programs and other non-revenue generating sports and that money also is used by the NCAA itself to run the rest of its so-called mission.

The athletic budgets at some schools these days runs upwards of $100 million. The bulk of that money goes toward football but it’s also used to run the multitude of other programs that provide great opportunities for student-athletes but serve only as a drag on the budget. Few athletic programs these days are self sustaining so it takes subsidies from the university’s general fund, along with private fundraising, to cover the difference. Those are dollars that can’t be used elsewhere in the university community.

That puts a great deal of pressure on football and basketball. A winning program is critical to a large university because it generates far more money than a losing program. They really are the tide that raises all of the university’s ships.

This really was the basis of Paterno’s “grand experiment” at Penn State and in a larger sense the basis for how the NCAA itself operates. The revenue generating sports serve as a catalyst for everything else that needs to get done and for awhile it worked, at least until it didn’t.

As the program under Paterno’s leadership began to assert its control over the university generally, the construct flipped. Arguably the NCAA never had that solid of bearings in the first place.

In any case, that’s the context in which Penn State’s punishment was handed down. By essentially assuring that Penn State will not be competitively relevant for years, the NCAA really is attempting to change a culture of winning at any cost that the trustees of the university still seem unwilling to change.

The question is when will someone step in to teach the NCAA the same lesson?

Nothing about what the NCAA is doing generally is meant to change this equation. The agreement to go to a half-assed playoff system is about first generating even more money and second finding a new way of splitting that ever-increasing pie. It will only continue the emphasis on winning at every level of what’s an increasingly corrupt enterprise.

Penn State will serve as a cautionary tale for awhile but it will end up being forgotten eventually, sooner rather than later. But as sure as you’re reading this, there’s a handful of programs around the country that are heading in the same direction that caused Penn State to spin out of control. How big is Nick Saban in Alabama? How about Les Miles at LSU? Where will Ohio State get under Urban Meyer? The next time any university makes another compromise in favor of the football program, and its probably happening a dozen times a day across the country, will be another clue that its trustees missed as to why the program ultimately exploded in a wave of some scandal or another.


Speaking of the Penn State trustees, if they think their job is done because they decided, albeit reluctantly, to take down the statute of Paterno, they are mistaken.

We’ll never know for certain, but had the trustees stepped in and shut down the program at the end of last season and carried it into this season, it seems unlikely that the NCAA would have lopped on additional penalties.

As it was, the NCAA was faced with an incredible situation. The Freeh report revealed in letter and form how the trustees were willing participants in allowing the culture of Penn State to metastasize to the point where they, too, were essentially underlings of Paterno. They voted down reforms in previous years that would have changed the culture of the university if adopted. They cast a blind eye when Paterno insisted on dealing with his player disciplinary issues outside of the university's general population. The president of the Board failed to inform the rest of the Board about the problems bubbling up on the Sandusky front. The trustees as a group acceded to Paterno’s demands for a more lucrative contract even as the controversy was developing. Then as the problems played out the trustees were very reluctant to act. Firing Paterno was the easy part. What they failed to do was take a more firm stance on the program itself.

All of this put the NCAA in a nearly untenable position. Its reaction may have been unprecedented but so too was the situation it faced.


As it turns out, Paterno isn’t the only one to feel like the Sandusky scandal wasn’t a football scandal. I’ve been fascinated, actually, by the number of head coaches and columnists that have been critical of the NCAA for sticking its nose into a situation where they claim it doesn’t belong.

If the trustees won’t do anything, who then is left?

But you don’t have to answer that question to appreciate that that NCAA had no real alternative and stay true to its ever murkier mission. Even if you take the view that the NCAA only deals with competitive balance issues, this was certainly one of them.

By protecting the football program from the public revelation that its long term assistant head coach was a long term serial pedophile, Penn State and Paterno were able to retain a favorable reputation long after Paterno ceased to be an effective head coach. It helped in recruiting. Put it this way, what parent would knowingly send their son to be coached by someone who was inclined to protect a pedophile at the expense of his victims? Exactly.

Penn State was able to stay competitive because of this cover up and for that, at the very least, it deserved punishment by the NCAA.


Switching gears to the Cleveland Indians, it had to make you tingle just a little to know that the Indians obtained Brent Lillibridge for the stretch run. All it cost them was a minor league pitcher with a stellar record and a reputation for not being able to throw hard. Doug Jones anyone?

And if that didn’t make you tingle then surely you did when general manager Chris Antonetti said that the Indians’ willingness to improve the team right now hinges on the outcome of this week’s Detroit Tigers’ series.

Seriously, the Indians don’t understand the fans’ indifference?

I always thought the Indians were just one weak hitting utility player away from challenging the Tigers and now we’ll be able to test that theory. I also always thought that the Indians were run on a day to day basis without any real long terms plans and now we know that’s true.

It is a rather fascinating circumstance where Antonetti would place so much emphasis on one series as if the rest of the season to this point was meaningless. You almost get the sense that the Indians’ relatively decent first half of the season ended up being Antonetti’s biggest nightmare. But in the overall context, it make sense.

These Indians aren’t built to compete for the long haul and Antonetti isn’t much making progress in that regard. They are built to play .500 ball at best while keeping a meager payroll intact.

The truth that’s revealing itself is that there really isn’t much Antonetti can do anyway. Because of a lousy farm system beget by years of bad drafting, the Indians lack the currency to make a run at anything other than the Lillibridges of the world. On the flip side, the Indians lack any real assets for which someone would pay with the kind of prospects they really need.

That means that the Detroit series is really irrelevant. Still it’s fun to contemplate how Antonetti will react if his next worst nightmare comes true: the Indians sweep the Tigers.


For the first time since, I think, the Nixon administration the Cleveland Browns enter training camp with all of their draft picks signed. You can thank the rookie salary scale in the most recent collective bargaining agreement for that.

That leads to this week’s question to ponder: what will Browns’ fans do with all the pent up angst usually reserved for wondering when their number one pick will be signed? And since it’s been a few weeks since we had a question to ponder, let me add another, related one: What’s a training camp without the obligatory “I can only coach the players who are here” quote from the head coach?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Statue to Denial

There is no amount of reality that can change the mind of someone in denial. Committed smokers will ignore every warning to their health until it’s too late. So, too, apparently will the Board of Trustees of Penn State.

Seemingly committed to implementing most (but not, of course, all) of the recommendations of the Freeh report that detailed institutional criminal indifference to the helpless and numerous victims of Jerry Sandusky’s sick obsessions, the Board of Trustees still can’t understand the fuss about a little ol’ statute of culprit and disgraced former head coach Joe Paterno that stands as a beacon of sorts, in not so Happy Valley.

The results of the independent investigation into the whys and wherefores and hows of Sandusky are such that for whatever good intention Penn State’s so-called “Grand Experiment” of balancing athletics and academics once had that experiment is now over and it failed miserably.

Maybe it is impossible to balance big time athletics, especially football, with the academic goals of our biggest colleges. But the answer to that question isn’t borne out by the Penn State mess. Penn State failed because those conducting the experiment, like Paterno, were both arrogant and myopic. So impressed were they with their own theories and high mindedness that they became the very symbols of what they supposedly were guarding against.

And yet, and yet, despite one damning page after another of a report so complete in its discrediting of Penn State, the school’s Board of Trustees still cannot seem to grasp the enormity of the situation or even their own level of culpability.

The statue of Paterno should be the first thing to go. Until it does it stands for what exactly? One of the trustees claims that the statue represents the good Joe did and not the bad as if by fiat he can dictate how others should feel about Paterno.

As long as it does stand it represents denial on a grand scale, its image intended to harken back to a time before the world knew about Sandusky, apparently. There’s no honor in that unless you’re completely delusional, which the trustees apparently are. The report placed significant and equal blame on Paterno and three other top university administrators for failing to “protect against a child sexual predator harming children over a decade.”

Indeed, the report can fairly be read to place even more blame on Paterno then the others for two key reasons. One, he ran the football program with an iron fist and steamrolled any one, including other administrators, for years to keep any problems “in house.” That’s in the report. Second, he knew of the allegations 10 years before they came to light, denied it under oath, and also talked an administrator out of reporting the abuse allegations in favor of dealing with the problem directly with Sandusky, which had the added benefit of not bringing unfavorable publicity to the university. That he wasn’t prosecuted initially was a nod, again, to the power he wielded in a small community.

Because of his intentional indifference to dealing with Sandusky’s criminal creepiness, there were additional victims that suffered repeatedly for years. That makes Paterno directly complicit in the sexual abuse of several children for years. There’s no other way to spin it and no way to sugar coat it. For whatever else he did with his life, this will be Paterno’s lasting legacy. No one needs a statue to remind them of that.

But why rush to judgment? The trustees say they need many more months to pass so that they can reach a decision not informed by emotion. If nothing else, the consistency of the thinking of Penn State remains remarkably in tact. Sandusky was able to victimize several more kids as the result of just that kind of deliberate Penn State think, which is to close your eyes and wish the problem away through the passage of time.

If there was a clear thinking person associated with Penn State at the moment he or she might realize that that kind of thinking really is the best marker for how deeply infected Penn State really is and why just a general housekeeping will never be enough.

Penn State may have world class research facilities and scores of excellent students, but it is all being overseen by a criminal enterprise deluding themselves into thinking they’re a bunch of high minded educators just trying to do their best to get by. They are a bunch of low minded, protectionist goons who seem more intent on preserving their own jobs than in doing any real good for the university they’re charged with overseeing.

Paterno, too, demonstrated a remarkable ability to turn over the facts in his mind in a way to avoid facing the reality of a situation that he was ill equipped to handle.

CNN released a letter that Paterno had written shortly before his death addressing the scandal that he helped foster through his wrong-headed protective instincts. Paterno couldn’t have been more definitive or more defiant: the Sandusky scandal wasn’t a football scandal and it wasn’t an academic scandal.

It’s exactly the same kind of thinking as the trustees who oversaw his pathetic reign. If Joe says it’s a certain way then that’s the way it must be.

Wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong again.

That Sandusky was a serial pedophile preying on vulnerable young men isn’t unique to football generally, but it had everything to do with Penn State football. Sandusky used that program as his own personal recruiting tool for vulnerable children. Paterno used his position in that program and with the university to shield Sandusky from further scrutiny. If using the football program and its facilities with the permission and acquiescence of people in charge who should have known better but didn’t to further pedophilia isn’t a football scandal, then what exactly is it?

The NCAA is all about punishing schools and players who use the advantages of athletics to further their own personal and/or economic interests. Maybe our small minds can only grasp what that means when its players getting free tattoos or selling their gear for rent money. But that’s not a sufficient reason nor will it ever be when it involves a school, a program and its leaders deliberately ignoring the most heinous form of human trafficking as a sick, twisted bastard was in their midst getting his jollies fondling children. They did it to preserve the program from embarrassment and to keep the spigot of money turned on full blast without interruption. just so they can avoid embarrassing publicity.

Penn State, as an institution, is infected with a toxic mold and it’s going to take more than a little bleach to get it clean. If the Board of Trustees doesn’t immediately dismantle the Paterno statue as the most immediate step and then follow it up by suspending the football program indefinitely and perhaps forever, it will serve as a reminder that a winning team and the money it generates is more important than honesty, integrity, virtue and, ultimately, just doing the right damn thing.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Picking Your Poison

When Cleveland Indians’ reliever Chris Perez popped off a few weeks ago about the lack of support for the Tribe generally and in relation to the Browns in particular, it was an outsider’s view.  And if there is anything Cleveland fans like less then rooting for crappy teams year over year it is outsiders questioning their sanity for doing so.

Putting aside Perez specifically, the approach of the locals is difficult to understand for the natives so it’s natural it would be even more  confounding to the outsider.  It’s about to get even more so with Browns training camp on the cusp of gearing up.

As sure as Randy Lerner invoking images of his youth spent his Browns PJs as a measure of his commitment to the organization fans will line the practice fields of Berea and chant “Super Bowl” at the first sign of Brandon Weeden or Trent Richardson.  It will as it always does stand in stark contrast to the lack of passion expressed by any Indians fans at any game this season.

It’s just true.  Cleveland is a Browns town first and always will be.  There simply is no amount of abuse too great that the Browns and their ever-changing-except-the-results management can heap on the fans and change this outcome.  On the other hand all the Indians management would need to do is flash a picture of David Dallucci on the Jumbotron to give fans a reason not to attend any game that doesn’t end in a fireworks display.

When the Indians were multi-year contenders for a brief period in the mid 1990s, Cleveland was still a Browns town even though the team was on a hiatus. It’s a function of the nature of the sport and the nature of the teams over their existence that has served to define the inherent DNA of the town. 

Baseball is a loping sport whose beauty is defined more by its subtlety.  Its pace matches a summer evening but these days that’s seen as a negative.  Football is as subtle as a sledgehammer.  It moves quickly and always carries with it the hint of something really bad happening to someone.  We like to see people crashing into each other and though we may cringe we secretly like to see people get maimed.  Not much has changed in that regard since the days of the gladiators.

But it’s also a function of the teams.  There was a point (decades old now, of course) when the Browns were perennial winners and the world knew it.  As a franchise it got off on the right foot and moved forward for years in the right direction.  Sure it’s come off its axis for at least the last generation but the most significant part of the fan base still has very fond memories of teams that actually won even if they ended up breaking your heart.  That currency still spends pretty easily.

Except for that too brief period of time in the 1990s, the Indians have been perennial losers and not even lovable ones.  That same fan base that still has fond memories of successful Browns teams has nothing even remotely close to similar memories of the Indians.  The standard joke was that it was hoped that the Indians could at least be competitive until the Browns opened camp.  Too often that wasn’t even the case.

If you didn’t understand this small bit of history then it does seem improbable that fans would still pour money down the rat hole that the Browns’ franchise has become while refusing to spend a fraction of that price to support the Indians.  As a slice in time, neither franchise is in any sort of golden era at the moment.  That said, Perez has a point.

As a franchise, the Indians are far closer to competing for a World Series title than the Browns are for a Super Bowl and that doesn’t look to change any time soon.  That doesn’t mean either is close to its ultimate goal but as between the two the Indians do give a fan more to cheer for.

Even if the Browns could somehow manage to eke out enough wins this coming season to actually make the playoffs, they would still be barely within sight of the best teams in the league.  On the other hand, assuming the Indians don’t make the playoffs this season they are well within sight of the best teams in the league.

Start with the notion that whether or not you agree with it philosophically, the Indians have a consistency in its management that the Browns would sorely love to have.  Owners have changed and so have managers yet there is still a direct line in the management and direction of the franchise from the transformative years of the mid-1990s to today.

The Browns, well, we all know about the Browns.  Randy Lerner as owner confuses passion with commitment.  All that’s done is create several vastly different approaches by several vastly different regimes.  Like a screwball comedy, chaos has ensued.

Next look at the quality of the players each is currently putting on the field.  You can debate the merits of so-called lists (which is what they’re really for) but the latest compilation of the NFL’s best 100 players wasn’t very kind to the locals, for good reason.  Outside of Joe Thomas, there isn’t a player on either side of the ball that forces an opposing coordinator to plan around.

Some of that might change, particularly if Richardson stays healthy and Weeden proves to be more than an old rookie.  But for now and for the last several years teams have beaten the Browns regularly not by exploiting the Browns’ weaknesses but by running whatever the hell they wanted to at them.  Maybe that’s the same thing.

The Indians on the other hand do have some players to contend with.  Their starting pitching is uneven but in the kind of way that suggests that most are good pitchers still acquiring veteran savvy.  The bullpen has been very serviceable, often bailing out the uneven starting pitching.  And but for two blown saves that bookended the first half of the season, Perez has been all that any team could want in a closer.

Asdrubal Cabrera is a star and Shin Shoo-Choo is on the cusp.  Jason Kipnis is an interesting player that most teams would covet.  Michael Brantley has played like a young, good player often does—sometimes good sometimes not.  Carlos Santana is valuable.

Where the Indians lack are on the corners and in the power positions.  It’s what is holding them back from being truly formidable.  But at least they are in the conversation.

What’s holding the Browns back are things far more fundamental.  There’s a regime in place that for the most part deserves the trust it covets but the team has been so devoid of talent for so long that the climb back is perilous.

If you want to consider it from just a financial standpoint, it’s also far easier to support the Indians.  The games aren’t cheap but they aren’t nearly as expensive as a Browns game either.  That may be a bit of an apples and pineapples comparison because of the limited number of home Browns games, but ultimately if you’re a family choosing to attend just one game of either, the Indians are a far better value.

No one accused Cleveland fans of logic nor is there any reason to question the wisdom of their choices.  They are honestly earned.  Indeed the case could be made that neither team will ever improve to the point of being compelling if fans blindly support whatever mess they’re given.

Still, it is worth keeping in mind the words of an occasional outsider, if only to maintain some perspective.  Whatever bones there are to pick with the Indians’ owners and management, they at least haven’t been trying to sell chaos as progress.