Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Lingering Items--Eternal Souls Edition

There's nothing like a redemption story. It's a yarn older than the written word, more beloved then a tale of true love and continues unabated in every form of entertainment today. It's nice to believe in the power of redemption evens when it's mostly just a dramatic device contrived as an efficient if not accurate way to convey complexity either the writer, the reader or both can’t fully understand.

Witness, if you'll excuse the reference, the common theme of LeBron James' capturing of his long sought after NBA Championship. Nearly every sportswriter with a breathless thought has defined the Miami Heat's triumph as the personal triumph of James as if he were a member of the Lost Tribes of Israel who suffered long and hard and made it out of the desert alive.

Some suffering. James is one of the richest athletes on the planet. He lives a life of opulence and privilege borne of his outsized athletic skills. That was true before the playoffs started and remains true today and for the foreseeable future.

But attaining the championship he previously couldn't is more a result of attrition than redemption. It was just James' turn in the barrel. The Heat's path to the finals was clear and easy, relatively speaking. The Oklahoma City Thunder's was harder and longer and their fatigue and inexperience showed in the end.

James already lived his redemption story anyway when he signed his first pro contract. It was the real triumph of overcoming the very long odds of his upbringing. Having long since arrived he long since surrendered any candidacy in the redemption sweepstakes.

Let's all be honest with one another about this. James was always going to win an NBA title at some point. He's the best player on the planet, he still works hard at his craft, and he makes those around him better. It was always just a matter of time. Now or next year or whenever.

The other reason James' championship can never be a redemption story though is far more central to the ultimate narrative. For redemption to work the protagonist has to reclaim his soul. That hasn't happened here because James remains soulless having sold himself for his quest. He's no Jabez Stone and he doesn't have Daniel Webster on retainer even if he was. The devil drives a hard bargain and never renegotiates.

James is a forever man-child perpetually caught up in an adult world he doesn't fully understand. He commands an audience because of fame and fortune but he'll never fully have their respect because children are mostly seen and rarely really heard.

There is no real chance that James will ever fully gain the perspective one needs for real individual growth. Fame and fortune obscure. Look at Michael Jordan. It hasn't yet occurred to him that he is the worst owner/basketball executive in history not named Isiah Thomas. Fame and fortune obscure.

James will go on to win a few maybe several more titles and earn more and more individual accolades. But they will never change the essential nothingness of his being.

It's not really that James stiffed the Cavaliers and did so like a total putz. That was just the gating charge when he entered the land of souls departed. It's that James divested himself of the value system he so richly earned by avoiding all the crap that life threw at him early for the fast track to a phony Promised Land.

Pat Riley, the NBA's Gordon Gekko in looks and outlook, was certainly a far more attractive option then a muddling Danny Ferry. And while Ferry probably did lack the chops to put all the pieces together it's not as if James wasn't complicit in Ferry's difficulty. Let's never forget the long shadow James cast on the Cavs franchise and how his every twitch and quirk set off alarms inside the Q.

The irony is that James isn't lazy. He works on his game in the same way every truly great athlete does. Perfect, to his way of thinking, is never the enemy of good.

And yet James just couldn't abide things not happening for him quickly enough. So he sought a shortcut, a stack decked and if that cost him his soul, so be it.

In certain ways James is like Roger Clemens another rare talent for whom great was never great enough. Clemens used more nefarious means to cheat the system but he was seeking the same kind of edge as James did.

Indeed there are plenty of characters thought the history of sports that sought a similar path. It's as old, too, as a redemption story.

There's no reason to begrudge James his accomplishments because rare is the goal achieved without some compromise. But James will always have to live with the fact that his goals weren't nearly as earned as they could have been.

Speaking of redemption stories, the Penn State apologists can begin theirs in earnest now that Jerry Sandusky has been convicted on 45 of 48 counts of child abuse. There will come a point this season, maybe the next, when someone isn’t writing about Penn State’s resurgence as a respectable university after if put Sandusky and his sick exploits in the rear view mirror.

Frankly I’m not sure that Penn State can ever be redeemed. Shouldn’t it be scarred for life for its complicity in the long term abuse by one of its more trusted employees? Most certainly each of Sandusky’s victims will be forever scarred so why should Penn State ever get a pass?

For those who always rushed to protect Joe Paterno by claiming he had done what he could to stop Jerry Sandusky, how in anyway has that view been vindicated now that Sandusky is a convict? It hasn’t. If anything that view becomes even more discredited when you consider the mountains of evidence that were stacked against Sandusky and realize that because Paterno hardly lifted a finger to have it stopped, the abuse continued long after it could have been stopped.

In so many ways Paterno was a virtuous soul. He did place great emphasis on academics. He worked hard to build the stature of Penn State. For so many and for so long he supposedly stood for what was right about college athletics.

But Paterno was never the country bumpkin character that he liked to fashion for himself when it was convenient to do so. More than anyone else, Paterno was well aware that all his good non-athletic deeds for the university gave him almost unchecked power on that campus. And Paterno wasn’t afraid to utilize that power when he needed it to ultimately advance the cause of his beloved football team. It’s been thoroughly documented, for example, how Paterno kept his misbehaving players out of the scope of normal university discipline. His greater good was always far more narrow then he'd admit.

So when Paterno supposedly reported the Sandusky allegations up the chain, Paterno had every reason to believe nothing would come of it unless he specifically gave the word to make something of it. That word never came and Sandusky continued in his employ subject only to a whisper campaign while he quietly went about abusing more vulnerable boys.

Penn State doesn’t get another chance. Paterno was complicit and so was the rest of the university administration. If the new administrative crew really wanted to show its worthy of some level of forgiveness then it would start by proving how much more important institutional integrity really is by abolishing the football program completely and take whatever other steps were necessary to reduce the importance of any remaining sports. They’d wash Paterno off the books completely and take down whatever statutes they erected.

It’s nice that Paterno had a positive influence on so many young men. But this isn’t a balancing act. You don’t get to cite those figures as a counterbalance because the unthinkable, unimaginable horror that Sandusky’s crimes visited upon all those victims trumps all.

If you want to understand how sad, how truly pathetic this will all become, just wait until the university finds it completely appropriate to play the victim card for itself. It will pay out millions to settle lawsuits and then use that blood money as some sort of proof that the university community has suffered enough. It hasn’t and it never will because money will never give these victims back what they lost most and it will never erase the insidious way the university and its most important employees allowed such atrocities to continue for years.


As a follow up to my column last week about Scott Fujita, it’s been interesting that Fujita has gone back underground, perhaps realizing that his mouth is his own worst enemy.
The other interesting thing is to listen to union chief DeMaurice Smith call for a new investigation into the Saints’ bounty case. That makes him an even bigger hypocrite then Fujita, if that’s possible.

Smith didn’t participate in any aspect of the first investigation. In fact, he specifically refused to participate in the investigation and actively encouraged the players to likewise not participate in it. If there was only one side of the story that was heard, all the blame for that goes to Smith.

But Smith has sensed, wrongly but that’s another matter, that public opinion is such that the average fan doesn’t think there was enough evidence to suspend the various coaches, administrators and players. The average fan, I think, doesn’t much care either way. No one’s going to march on NFL headquarters in New York because Jon Vilma’s been suspended.

Smith gave decidedly wrong headed advice to his members on this issue and now is deflecting by trying to put the heat back on Roger Goodell.

The NFL has certainly put together a strong case that the Saints had in place a bounty system and that all that have been suspended deserved to be. There isn’t one particularly smoking gun so much as it’s the evidence’s cumulative weight that matters. That said, there were arguments to make in rebuttal that never got made because of another failed strategy by the union.

Goodell will rule this week and for the most part close the book on this latest NFL scandal. Smith can grouse about the decision because that’s what he’s paid to do but hopefully the players’ whose lives and paychecks were adversely affected will eventually come to realize that those adverse affects were due in some part to the bad advice they got from Smith.


Since we’re on a litigation theme, this week’s question to ponder: Even though he was acquitted of lying to Congress, does Roger Clemens’ silence since that verdict came down tell us more than a guilty verdict ever could?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Smearing the Wrong Person

Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita says he’s being punished over semantics. He may be, but when that punished is finalized he’ll have only himself to blame.

On the day his appeal of a four game suspension for allegedly participating in the New Orleans’ Saints bounty program, Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita and his cohorts traded that appeal process for the court of public opinion.

And in the court of public opinion they are expending great effort to display themselves as victims of a smear campaign while engaging in a little smear campaign of their own.

Let’s get a few things straight at the outset. Fujita isn’t a victim, he’s a perpetrator. Whether he’s complicit in fostering a bounty system that paid off for vicious hits on competitors may be a matter of semantics, mostly his. Fujita readily admitted early on that he did contribute money to an off-the-books bonus pool that paid teammates for good clean hard hits and other forms of in-game excellence.

If that all begs the question as to why otherwise well compensated athletes needed a special bonus pool that maybe gave them a few extra hundred dollars each week for doing what they already were paid handsomely to do, then you’re starting to understand what Fujita ignores—his story cum excuse walks an awfully fine line that most people can’t abide because of sheer illogic of it all.

What exactly is the difference between a good, clean hard hit and a good, clean hard hit that knocks a competitor out of the game? Not much to the recipient certainly. Irrespective, it is that difficult question that Fujita would have to actually answer in order to defend himself. Instead he turned tail and ran, again.

If you’re counting this makes it twice that Fujita has refused to actually participate in the process that could clear his name all while claiming that his good name is being smeared. He refused to answer any questions during the initial investigation, choosing a strategy of omerta when honesty would have been better. Now that he got a suspension he refused to participate in his own appeal.

Fujita played the victim card righteously plight during a noisy withdrawal from the appeal process by complaining about its abject unfairness, a red herring if ever there was one. This isn’t a criminal court. It’s an appeal process under a collective bargaining agreement that Fujita and these same cohorts ratified just a year ago.

We’ll all recall with some wincing the NFL labor wars of last season. There were accusations about this and that but mostly it was about how to divide up a shit load of money. There were plenty of other issues on the table, including player safety. Fujita was one of the most vocal about it, in fact.

Those labor wars, which involved court actions and expired contracts, were settled with a peace accord that included a brand new, long term collective bargaining agreement. Presumably the union and its members, members like Fujita for example, read it before they approved it.

Contained there in its own separate chapter is the ambiguously titled “Commissioner Discipline.” In very clear words it gives the NFL Commissioner, in this case Roger Goodell, the absolute authority to fine or suspend a player “for conduct detrimental to the integrity of, or public confidence in, the game of professional football.”

In the same way, it gives the Commissioner the power to act as the hearing officer for any such discipline imposed for allegedly engaging in such conduct and to issue a final and binding decision after any such hearing. It’s all there in black and white. Nothing’s hidden.

In that light, Fujita’s complaint is merely that an agreement he signed last year doesn’t work for him this year. It’s the player mentality. When a player feels he’s outperformed his contract, he doesn’t much care that it binds him for another season or two. He’ll bitch and moan and sit out and suck his thumb or claim he’s got the miseries all in a way to get the other party to that contract to do something differently then what was already agreed to.

That’s Fujita’s problem here. Conditioned like most players to ignore contracts, he gets all indignant when the other side enforces it, which is exactly what the NFL is doing here. Recall that before Goodell held the grievance hearings on Monday, these same players tried an end around the process by claiming rather insincerely that because this conduct supposedly occurred before the new collective bargaining agreement was in effect, they couldn’t be disciplined by Goodell under it.

That argument was quickly shot down by two different arbitrators and so faced with the actual disciplinary hearing they were entitled to under the contract they fought for and signed and given the chance to clear their name, the players walked, like cowards and bullies they are.

Fujita can claim that Goodell and the NFL are running a kangaroo court but until he participates fully he loses the right to complain. He looks ridiculous and if he’s at all a victim here it’s either of bad public relations or legal advice and he should fire his advisors.

Let’s face it. Fujita isn’t really worried about some convenient sense of fairness that fits a narrative that he thinks will garner him sympathy. He’s worried about a far more inconvenient truth. Even if the pool he helped perpetuate wasn’t to act as bounty payments, it was still impermissible under the collective bargaining agreement for which he can and should be punished.

Fujita may think that the evidence against him for participating in a bounty pool is flimsy but much of it comes from his own mouth. In the legal business we call that direct evidence. Fujita isn’t participating in the process because it’s rigged. He isn’t participating in it because he’s guilty and recognizes the futility of going further.

The problem though is Fujita isn’t nearly that honest. He courts the reputation of a stand up guy always doing the right thing but he’s an abject phony. He’s a phony because he talks about player safety while secretly helping create a bonus pool that at the very least rewarded players for hitting competitors as hard as possible (since they were already paid plenty for hitting hard enough). If there’s one thing we know, players get hurt by hard hits, even clean hard hits.

Fujita’s a phony because he stood shoulder to shoulder with his fellow union advocates and ratified a new collective bargaining agreement but then decries its alleged unfairness when it happens to work against him personally. Finally Fujita is a phony because by not participating in the process and then publicly criticizing the Commissioner he’s doing exactly the thing he claims to detest the most—the smearing of a man’s good name.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Lingering Items--Big Face Edition

As the Cleveland Browns effectively enter year 3 of the Mike Holmgren era, a light bulb finally went off in the head of the namesake.  Speaking to a collected media that’s heard the same old same old for so long that it could write the stories before a word is spoken, Holmgren instead veered off script.  Offering a mea culpa of sorts, Holmgren acknowledged what had previously escaped him—that instead of being a steadying influence on the franchise, he was becoming one of its most suspect members.

Holmgren is now going to become the face of the franchise, just as he was hired to be originally.  The Big Show is now the Big Face.  His general manager, Tom Heckert, is affable but is as dynamic as a librarian.  His head coach, Pat Shurmur, is too busy trying to keep his head above water to have time for the external niceties that go along with that job like coddling the media with substantive answers to mediocre questions.

Holmgren admitted that he’s heard the criticism that focuses on his shadowy existence in Berea and his penchant for talking to his friends in the Seattle media market while ignoring his obligations locally.  As a result the Browns have had a void since Holmgren was hired (to go along with the void that existed before he was hired) that has left the fans disconnected to a team with whom they crave closeness.

It’s never too late to admit a mistake as long as you’re going to go about getting it corrected so for now let’s take Holmgren at his word and give him the benefit of the doubt.  This week’s press conference was a good start, peppered as it was with self-flagellation and some honest insight into what he really thinks about the team he’s constructing.

The fans really would prefer arguing the merits of drafting Brandon Weeden and debating whether to trade or release Colt McCoy or Seneca Wallace instead of wondering whether the architect of all of this regrets taking the job in the first place.  Holmgren said he stood in the background in deference to Heckert and Shurmur because as a former coach that’s how he would have preferred it.  But what Holmgren failed to appreciate is that he never worked for someone like himself, a figure that for good or worse tends to cast a large shadow over everything that has very little to do with his expanding waist line. 

Besides, having a semi-iconic figure like Holmgren talk to the media on a regular basis takes the pressure off of guys like Heckert and Shurmur who clearly understand the difficulty of the task in front of them and need as much energy as they can muster to focus just on that.

The Browns haven’t been terrible the last two seasons because Holmgren stayed on the sidelines, but his staying on the sidelines did tend to make the fans more paranoid about the situation.  At this point it’s hard to know how committed Holmgren has been to the team but it’s been easy to assume the worst.  He’s fed that beast.  If he stays true to his word then that at least takes one thing off the ever expanding list of things to bitch about when it comes to this franchise. 
One of Holmgren’s endearing traits as a public speaker is that he’s anything but a poker face.  He can be alternately charming and irritating.  He’s politic when he remembers to be but mostly he’s a guy that tries to be as candid as a person can be when talking to the media.  The problem was that Holmgren’s visits to the podium were too infrequent for him to develop a rhythm with the fans and so they became distrustful.

The Browns are an improving team that still has too many holes.  But if Holmgren keeps his word and explains it all like a mustachioed Clarissa then that’s a positive step for a franchise known more for walking backward.  And if there is one thing above all else that this team needs, it’s more steps up then back.


One of the main questions Holmgren faced was over the prospect of having Weeden, Colt McCoy and Seneca Wallace on the roster for all of next season.  Holmgren said that they haven’t quite figured it all out at this point but it wouldn’t necessarily be a surprise if either McCoy or Wallace got traded.

Here’s a newsflash.  It wouldn’t surprise anyone else either.

If the issue is economics, then McCoy gets traded.  He’s got a trade friendly contract owing to his status as a third round pick.  But the Browns aren’t having salary cap problems and that puts Wallace in play but for different reasons.

Wallace isn’t a likely candidate to be traded.  Other teams may want him because he fits the profile of a serial backup, but with a salary of $2.4 million for next season most wouldn’t want him at that price.  If he’s gone it will be because he’s released with another team paying him league minimum and the Browns picking up the difference and absorbing it as a one-year hit to their salary cap.  Big deal.

Frankly I’ve never quite understood the fascination that Holmgren has with Wallace.  It’s crystal clear that Holmgren doesn’t see Wallace as a viable long-term starter in the league or he’d be starting and Holmgren would stop taking quarterbacks in the draft.  The same is true for every other team in the league.  Wallace’s value seems to be limited to his knowledge of the offensive system despite a rather thin playing resume in his 8 seasons in the league.  Besides, Wallace is a whiner and he’s not all that good of a teammate.

Wallace made it very clear last season that he had no interest in helping out McCoy and then went about his business following suit.  It was a ballsy position to take for a guy making that kind of money but Shurmur let Wallace get away with it because he had much bigger fish to gut.  Now Wallace says he’ll help out Weeden but doesn’t want to stick around if he’s relegated to the third string quarterback behind McCoy, who he apparently detests.

Wallace is an expensive reserve and certainly not worth the trouble.  A team properly managing its salary cap can never overspend in anyone category, making McCoy a far better candidate to remain which is why he’ll probably be gone.  The better choice would be to cut ties with Wallace, the sooner the better.  But the Big Show likes Wallace and that’s a pretty powerful voice in the conference room when Heckert, Shurmur and Holmgren take on that debate in earnest.

One of the odder moments of the Holmgren press conference was the few minutes he spent trying to reconcile with the Bob Feller of the Browns’ alumni, Jim Brown.  It was Holmgren who fired Brown taking away a half million dollar salary that Brown was getting for being some sort of consultant to Randy Lerner.  Brown didn’t much like losing his lucrative side gig and made his feelings known.

Now as part of Holmgren’s reinvention he’s welcoming Brown with open arms but not necessarily 
another paycheck.  For his part Brown seems to be open to coming back into the fold so it probably won’t be long before Brown starts singing the praises of Trent Richardson as he walks the sidelines of the Berea practice fields during training camp.

Having Brown hang around the facility is a net positive for the team.  He’s arguably the greatest running back to ever play the game and represents to the current crop of players a time when this franchise really was one of the league’s best.

But let’s not get all gooey wishing for some grand reconciliation.  Brown’s loyalty to the franchise is proportionate to the pay they give him and has been for years.  That’s not a criticism, just a fact.  If he’s back, great.  Welcome.  Hope you stay around a little longer this time.  But if he’s not, so be it.  Of the 2100 questions this team needs to answer, this one ranks about 1928th.

Here’s how ridiculous things have gotten months before the Browns play their first preseason game.  There was a story in your local newspaper about how Weeden and Richardson could both be in the conversation for NFL rookie of the year.  Technically, that’s true since they’re both rookies.  But shouldn’t someone at least see if either can actually play and play well at this level before wondering what accolades might follow?

But if we’re going to stupidly speculate about such things, wouldn’t it just make sense that Richardson is the more likely candidate?  All he has to do is run well.  That’s not necessarily an easy task on a team that doesn’t run block all that well, but it’s a mostly singular and hence simpler pursuit then what faces Weeden.

If there’s a harder position to play in professional sports than NFL quarterback I don’t know what it could be.  The best case scenario is that Weeden’s maturity matches his age and he’s able to adapt to all the nuances of the pro game more quickly than most rookies.  Even then he still doesn’t have much in the way of receivers to pass to.  No one gives rookie of the year honors to a quarterback simply because he can hand off well.  Weeden is going to have to display that strong arm and that advertised maturity in a way that yields at least as many touchdown passes as interceptions for him to get much notice as a budding rookie of the year candidate.

But why stupidly speculate about any of this?  I don’t much care how many interceptions Weeden throws  so long as at the end of the year the Browns have more than 5 wins to their credit.  That’s the only statistic that really counts anyway and will be the thing above all else that earns Weeden a second year as the putative starter.


LeBron James if nothing else is one of the more compelling sports figures of the last 50 years and his presence in the NBA Finals once again leads to this week’s question to ponder:  If James had not made such a public spectacle about his free agency and his Decision to leave Cleveland, would the NBA Finals be less interesting this year?

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Lingering Items--VIP Edition

There was a story a few weeks ago about a high school that had decided to set up a VIP room at its prom.  Students who wanted to pay a little extra in order to be treated like a little big shot could.  It was as much inevitable as it was another sign of a coming apocalypse.  It won’t be long before preschools offer a premium recess area with newer, better toys for children of parents willing to pay an additional tuition surcharge.

Yet, in the larger sense it’s hard to blame these enterprising high schoolers or their idiotic administrators for turning the prom into an even more realistic version of life itself.  Our sporting events have so embraced the concept of premium seats for big spenders that it’s probably never occurred to them that in doing so they are actually working at cross purposes.

As detailed in the latest Crain’s Cleveland Business, the Indians recently sent out a survey to premium ticket buyers asking their opinions on still another potential premium lounge at Progressive Field.  If it came to pass, and at this point the Indians claim they are just exploring options, the team would convert about 8 suites on the first or third base side into a premium lounge that would allow dining and a view of the ball park.

This new premium lounge would be on top of the lounge that’s available only to fans in the club suite, the social media suite that the Indians condescendingly make available to the nerds infatuated with that whole internet fad, the fan cave which is another group of converted suites and includes such baseball viewing staples as billiard tables, and the Champions Suite, which is a super suite carved out of a series of other suites.

I can understand Mark Shapiro’s quixotic journey toward realizing greater margins that won’t be used to increase payroll, but at some point this push to make watching a baseball game some sort of country club experience seems awfully counterproductive.

The Indians are bitching and moaning about the lack of attendance but act as if their attempts to make attending even more of an exclusionary process aren’t somehow related.  They are.

It’s hardly a secret at this point that a strong corporate commitment is needed in almost every city for professional sports to work.  The cost of running a professional sports franchise gets more expensive each year.  Player payroll is the most visible operating expense but hardly the only one.  There’s the usual stuff like maintenance, utilities and insurance.  There’s also debt service, front office expenses, and in sports like baseball, the whole range of minor league expenses.

One of the reasons a team like Cleveland constantly squeezes payroll is because it represents such a huge part of the overall budget.  The revenue streams from such things as television and radio tend to be fixed for years at a time.  There may be escalators in those contracts that keep pace in some measure with the economy generally but on a year to year basis there is nothing much a team can do to increase those particular revenue streams.

The more variable revenue streams are things like souvenirs, concessions and the biggest one of all, ticket sales.  Projections are easily made for budgeting purposes but if those revenue streams end up lagging it does directly and perhaps significantly impact a team’s yearly bottom line.

It’s in this context that the push for even more secure lines of revenue is being pursued.  The Indians aren’t necessarily lacking for corporate support but the economy since 2008 has taken a huge hit on local companies and hence their budgets for entertainment.  It’s the reason that there are so many loges available for conversion into something else.  When a company doesn’t renew a loge lease and there’s no one waiting in line for it, it’s a dead asset.  And right now and for the foreseeable future, the Indians have a lot of dead assets.  So do the Browns.

But is the answer to all of this more premium seats?  Is that really the right market to pursue?  Maybe not.

Premium seats are purchased by premium buyers, meaning corporations predominately.  Even as those seats might be available for individual purchase, I can all but guarantee that unless the vast majority of them are purchased by corporate buyers then they’ll mostly go empty night after night, like now.

And while these premium seats may be too expensive for the individual taste, they are still cheaper, often much less so, then suite tickets.  A suite comes with a preset number of tickets that must be bought, usually at least 10 per game.  Then there is a minimum food spend per game.  All in it’s an expensive way to see a game, any game.

But buying, say, a couple of club seats for the season and a few more in one of the other premium lounges ends up being a significantly cheaper proposition for a corporation.  So much so, in fact, that it provides an increasingly more attractive option then purchasing a suite for a season.

In other words, the more of these lounges that are created, the less the demand is for suites.  There isn’t a broader untapped market out there just clamoring for the right kind of suite.  It’s the same market looking for a different and sometimes cheaper option.  As the Indians create more specialty suites and lounges it’s done at the expense of those who would otherwise spend their dollars on the traditional suites.  In short, the Indians will end up just cannibalizing the same market but otherwise not making progress.  Arguably they could end up further behind.


Do you think the Browns are sensitive about the criticism they’ve been receiving for the lack of attention to the receiving corps?  Have you noticed how many stories you’ve read recently about Mohamed Massaquoi or Greg Little and how both are supposedly poised for a breakout season?  If you answered yes to the second question, then you have the answer to the first.

The Browns’ public relations department has attacked the criticism by doing what a public relations department is paid to do, manipulate the story.  Using the local beat reporters who tend to like their stories spoon fed, fans are getting a steady diet of stories that would tend to make you think that the team’s biggest weakness is actually a strength.

First there were the stories about Greg Little and his suddenly leaner frame that will put him in position to have a breakout year.  For the last few days the focus has been the undersized Massaquoi and how he’s over all of the various injuries that have plagued him in his first three years making him ready for a breakout year.  I hope there are enough footballs to go around.

Give credit to the Browns’ p.r. department for the onslaught while reading the stories in the local papers with a grain of salt.  No matter how it’s spun, the Browns receiving corps as presently constituted is one of the worst in the league.  With no meaningful off season acquisition, it’s the same group that was one of the worst in the league last season, just older.

There is some benefit to experience making it reasonable to expect Little to be better.  But his better isn’t ever going to turn him into a legitimate number one receiver.  He simply doesn’t have that kind of speed.  He’s a power forward that’s being forced to play center because management thinks it doesn’t need a legitimate center.

Massaquoi is a different story.  He’s injury prone which is related to his lack of size.  But more than that are the injuries he’s suffered—concussions.  With each day that passes, players are becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of concussions and their long term impacts.  Massaquoi has suffered two concussions already.  Even club president Mike Holmgren acknowledges that the concussions have taken a toll on Massaquoi and have changed his game.  Translated, Massaquoi is playing more cautiously, which is understandable.

So even if Massaquoi is technically healthy right now, there’s nothing about his performance that suggests he’ll have any sort of breakout season, particularly as he approaches his job with even more caution.  And even if he did have a breakout season what exactly does that mean for a passion receiver?  Like Little, Massaquoi isn’t blessed with great speed and isn’t the kind of game changing receiver that teams have to worry about irrespective of how healthy he is.

The Browns are slowly, surely starting to fill the many holes on this team.  The receiving corps remains a big hole still and no matter how hard the Browns p.r. department spins it and no matter how compliant the local media is in that scheme, the underlying facts won’t change until the Browns actually change them with better players.


It looked like the Twitter universe got a bit overheated on Thursday with “news” that the Browns were supposedly for sale.  The source of that rumor was a no nothing blowhard who got his one day in the sun by essentially making something up.

Maybe that’s unfair.  If you assume everything has a price, then the Browns, like any other team in any other sport, are for sale.  I’m sure that Randy Lerner, if you could find him and then wake him, would say he has a price.  It may be outrageous and unrealistic, but he probably has a price.

But the Browns thought enough of the essentially non-rumor to flat out deny it, which likely will only fan the flames further.  Remember, in sports when a player says it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.  When a general manager gives the manager or head coach a vote of confidence it’s the first step toward firing him.  And when an owner says his team isn’t for sale, it’s usually for sale.

Browns fans shouldn’t fret either way.  The Browns aren’t going anywhere even if they are sold.  The league is not going to let the Browns escape from Cleveland ever again.  Anyone buying the team will have to keep it in Cleveland.  Set that in stone.

If you accept that as a given, then fans should welcome a sale.  Lerner has been a disaster of an owner by any way you to want to measure.  It is literally a case where a new owner couldn’t possibly do any worse.

Don’t get your hopes up, though.  Lerner is a contrarian.  The more compelling the case for a sale, the likelier he’ll get further entrenched. 

It looks like whatever supposed quarterback competition there was going to be between Brandon Weeden and Colt McCoy won’t survive mini-camp.  Head coach Pat Shurmur has all but anointed Weeden the starter.  Maybe it was the anecdote Shurmur told about his time with Sam Bradford in St. Louis.  Maybe it was the passive aggressive way he punctuates every question about the offense with the comment “it all starts with the quarterback.”  Or maybe, just maybe, it is the fact that he is giving Weeden most of the reps with the first team.  Yea, that must be it.

McCoy fans, let’s face it.  Barring injury, it’s Weeden’s job if for no other reason then Weeden is Shurmur’s guy and McCoy is not.  That’s probably how it should be, unless you think Shurmur shouldn’t be trusted with any decision more difficult than paper or plastic.

What this all means is that the Browns’ management is taking a longer view of its path forward.  They recognize that this team isn’t playoff caliber and are willing to sacrifice another season so that a youngish team can mature all at once.  As far as plans go that’s as good of one as they’ve had for years.

At some point though the fans are going to get fed up paying for sacrificial seasons.  I suspect that there’s maybe one more season left in the tolerance bank so long as fans see legitimate forward progress and not the usual running in place on a 4-12 treadmill.


So Grady Sizemore is still feeling soreness and his rehab has had a setback, meaning he continues to collect a multi-million dollar salary while adding zero value back, which everyone knew was the most likely outcome.  That leads to this week’s question to ponder: Does Sizemore have the best agent ever?

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Lingering Items--Depth Edition

Bad games and bad weeks happen in baseball.  They are far more easily absorbed then in football.  So if your team is otherwise fundamentally strong and soundly built then a bad week simply represents the usual bumps and bruises along a very long 162-game season.

The Cleveland Indians certainly had a series of bad games culminating in a very bad week.  After an emotional, perhaps too emotional, 3-game sweep of the Detroit Tigers, the Indians laid 3 colossal eggs in Chicago, undoing pretty much all that was done against the Tigers.  It didn’t get much better against the usual punching bad, Kansas City, thereafter and they fell out of first place.

It’s not the losses that are troubling, occasioned as they were bad some lousy pitching.  It’s the injuries and what they reveal about this team.  It’s not deep, intentionally.

The Indians by design are mostly held together by players without a great deal of experience.  It’s cheaper to do it that way.  But when the front line players are barely experienced, what does it say about the replacements behind them?  You’ve seen the results, you make the call.

It’s also troubling that once again Travis Hafner is hurt.  Perhaps the least versatile player in the major leagues, if not major league history, Hafner probably doesn’t even own a glove at this point.  All he needs to do is keep himself relatively in shape, step into a batting cage occasionally while his teammates are in the field, and come to the plate 4 times a game.

If you ask the average person off the street to do that task, he might not get the same results at the plate as Hafner but he’d at least be available for the entire season.  The Indians require very little physically of Hafner and he still can’t stay healthy enough to play a full season.  He’s out for the next 4 to 6 weeks (!) after having arthroscopic surgery on his right knee.

You can’t really blame a player for getting injured, but you can stop rewarding him.  Grady Sizemore is collecting millions for doing exactly what everyone outside of Chris Antonetti and Mark Shapiro thought he’d be doing, spending time on the disabled list.  Hafner will collect millions this season for doing exactly what everyone outside of Antonetti and Shapiro thought he’d be doing, muddling through the final year of his contract with indifferent results while occasionally spending time on the disabled list.  There isn’t any chance whatsoever that either player could come close to performing at their contract’s worth and that was a given before the season started.

In the case of Hafner, you can argue that the Indians didn’t have much of a choice.  He’s in the last year of a contract and even if he had been cut the Indians would still be on the hook for his salary.  True, but the other side of that coin is that a deeper, better financed team would simply have cut its losses with Hafner and let him instead spend some time on some other team’s DL while the Indians developed a better alternative.

As it is, the Indians have not developed a better alternative and now have no real plan in place for how to cover the loss of Hafner, except the usual “by committee” approach that teams with a lack of depth tend to employ.  The committee approach is understandable when a team’s closer goes down.  It’s rather ludicrous when it’s a designated hitter.

The Indians’ offense was already an iffy proposition and that was with a supposedly healthy Hafner who was having a decent but not great year anyway.  It begs the question though of how much better off if at all the Indians would have been had they made alternate plans instead of continuing to rely on Hafner solely because of his millstone of a contract forces their hand.

It’s just this kind of thing that tends to reveal the fissures in a team that needs absolutely everything to go right if it’s going to compete.  For the initial part of the season that seemed to be happening.  The injuries, always the fear on a team this loosely constructed, have started and the holes they create underscore why the skeptics out there looking for reasons to not believe in this team have their Exhibit A.


Not to continue to beat the dead horse over attendance too much more, there is an additional point that rarely gets mentioned in the debate as to why the Indians don’t draw better.  Virtually every game is on television. 

There’s always been an argument over how game attendance is impacted by the fact that the games are otherwise televised.  There’s no good way to do that study mainly because it relies on the opinions that may be earnest but inaccurate.

To most, attending a game is an event.  The cost is certainly a factor, but there is a certain hassle factor involved.  And one thing I’ve come to appreciate the older I’ve gotten is how much the hassle factor really does figure into whether or not I attend any particular event.

When you’re younger, the thrill of an event tends to outweigh any hassle factor.  You don’t mind parking far away from the venue because you’re young and can walk.  The late night isn’t that much of a problem because what’s a few lost hours of sleep anyway?

But as you get older, the hassle factor takes on a bigger role to the point where you weigh the thrill against the hassle.  And the older you get, the more the hassle factor dominates.

Indeed, that’s one of the reasons every game is broadcast in Cleveland and elsewhere.  Owners understand that the vast majority of the people can’t attend on a regular basis.  So they make their product available in another way—through a cable package that they control.  The Dolans own Sportstime Ohio, for example.  They get the revenue it generates through the sale of its programming to cable operators.  They also get a piece of the advertising revenue those games generate.

In other words, in the larger sense when you consider attendance you can’t just focus on butts in the seats at Progressive Field.  You have to take into account the eyeballs on the screens in all the households and bars in the greater Cleveland area.  If those ratings are down as well, then the Indians do have an attendance problem. 

I’ve not seen ratings yet for this season, but last season the Indians were 7th in the major leagues in local ratings, up 105% from the previous year.  That’s impressive not just in theory but in practicality.  That gives the Dolans’ cable operations the ability to charge more for carriage of Sportstime  Ohio when it comes up for renewal and also makes the available advertising minutes more valuable.

The point though is that the Indians are still a popular draw locally when you take into account more than just those who watch from Progressive Field.  Certainly the team would be more profitable with higher attendance, but let’s not completely bemoan the lack  of support, mainly because it just isn’t true.


There’s little doubt that the Miami Heat are headed back to the NBA Finals and when that happens Cavs fans can recharge anew their angst meters.  The thought of LeBron James hoisting a championship trophy and wearing a championship ring is a unifying measure of anger for most of the locals.

Sooner or later, though, this is just something that we’ll all have to face.  James will win a championship at some point in his career and it won’t be with Cleveland.  And whenever it occurs it will be before the Cavs make it back.  Those are pretty well givens at this point. 

Still it’s hard to see at the moment the Heat actually winning the championship this season.  Both Oklahoma and San Antonio look deeper and better coached, assuming the Heat get past Boston.  James may be the star that shines more brightly but it’s not like Tim Duncan or Kevin Durant are dim bulbs.  They have better supporting casts, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh notwithstanding.  (Indeed, Bosh is proving that he always was about the 93rd best player in the NBA anyway.  He’s been gone now for several days and no one has much noticed.)

If this doesn’t end up being the Heat’s year, then look for the kind of off-season in Miami that Cavs fans used to know.  James and his confederates will work to get Erik Spoelstra  a new title, “ex-coach.”  Then there will be the usual positioning of grabbing other players that fit more with James’ vision of how the team should be constructed.

The only saving grace for Miami is that Pat Riley is a far stronger figure at the head of the franchise then Cleveland has ever had.  Having one several championships, Riley has a good working knowledge of difficult personalities and there’s every reason to believe he’ll be able to control the lunacy just enough to actually build the Heat into the kind of team that James really needs to win a championship.

I suspect that Riley will get it right eventually and James will win his championship.  If Cavs fans have any aspirations in this regard, it should be that the Heat doesn’t go on an extended run once they do get that first one under their belts.  The longer they wait, the less likely it will happen.


As Indians’ closer Chris Perez becomes a more vocal and hence more controversial figure, this week’s question to ponder:  At what point will Perez’s act start to wear thin? (hint: it’s directly related to how many saves he blows).