Thursday, April 25, 2013

Lingering Items--They Aren't Who We Thought They Were, Either Edition

The controversy surrounding Pilot Flying J seems to change by the day.  What doesn’t is the impact any of it will have on Jimmy Haslam’s new toy, the Cleveland Browns.  It’s the great unknown.  Then again, it’s the Browns so what’s new?

The Browns have nearly cornered the market in unknowns so it’s not a huge surprise when it comes to the fortunes of the Browns that a corporate scandal involving the current owner of the Browns barely registers as a significant event anymore.  Maybe it should, assuming fans are still interested in seeing the Browns v2.0 actually succeed.

Here’s why this matters.  If you’re Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, who serves as an owner/CEO of Pilot Flying J, there’s a worst case scenario that ends up with him serving time for fraud.    Evidence could develop that implicates him in what essentially amounts to cooking the books to make the company look more profitable, putting him in the crosshairs of the criminal justice system.  If that happens he could join an ever growing prison population of corporate fraudsters.   He could also find himself in the crosshairs of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and his fellow owners who don’t want someone of his ilk mixing among someone of their ilk. In either case, it would most certainly put the franchise in flux once again.  In other words, it will be like the entire run of the Randy Lerner regime.

But there is no way to know at the moment how likely it might be for the worst case scenario to come to pass for Haslam.  I do know that Haslam and his team are staying up late, reading affidavits, making phone calls, and basically being embarrassed as each day they do so they uncover a little more ugliness that has caused Haslam to go from the defiant defender in his first press conference to the humbled executive in his last.  Put it this way, a company doesn’t announce a 5-point plan that involves an independent investigation, the suspension of several employees, a mea culpa on a few of the rebates and the impending hire of a Chief Compliance Officer if something hasn’t gone terribly wrong somewhere.  The only question now is the scope of the problem, not the existence.

To the extent that Browns fans should be worried about what’s happening at Pilot Flying J it’s less about Haslam personally and more about it rocking the financial underpinnings of the fortune both Haslam and the fans were counting on to support the franchise.  Fans in Cleveland already know what it’s like to have owners who don’t have the cash to play at the high rollers table.  We lived with Art Modell for years as he borrowed from one bank to pay off another while blaming the city for all his troubles.  We’ve lived with the Dolans now for years as they continue to obfuscate their own financial issues by crying about being a small market team.

The reason Haslam’s breaking a sweat at his press conferences these days is that the damaging blow to the company’s reputation and credibility directly translates to potentially less business as the Standard and Poor’s rating agency warned.  Less business means less cash to meet its expenses, including an ever increasing debt load that must be serviced.  Pilot Flying J is privately owned, mostly by the Haslam family.  A private equity group owns a little more than a third of the company.  Twice in the last 18 or so months it has taken on relatively heavy debt in order to finance a dividend payment to the owners.  The financings have been used for a variety of purposes—to pay down other debt incurred from acquisitions, for general corporate purposes and to put money in the pockets of the owners.  Some of that money, perhaps a good deal of that money, was used by Haslam to fund his purchase of the Browns.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that nor is there anything the least suspicious about it.  Taking on debt to fund a dividend to the owners of a private company is pretty common.  But that debt comes at a relatively high cost to ongoing operations.  Pilot Flying J’s corporate debt is rated below investment grade and may get lower, which means that it will be perceived as an even greater credit risk  That’s not unusual, particularly in businesses that sell fluctuating commodities like gas.  But to the investors that are funding that debt, they are taking on a higher risk and thus charge a higher interest rate.  It’s like an individual with a spotty credit rating trying to get a mortgage.  The bank might be willing to take the risk but it will charge a higher interest rate than it would to someone who is a much better credit risk.

Why this matters is that the company took on this debt confident that its business was strong.  It’s the largest operator of travel centers in the country and until about a week ago had a stellar reputation.  For the time being, that reputation is taking a mighty hit and so too will its business.  People don’t want to do business with those who might be cheating them.  If Pilot Flying J loses too much business it will have trouble meeting its debt payments and that in turn will make the entire company and hence Haslam personally more vulnerable to collapse.  And if Haslam collapses he’ll have to sell the Browns and on and on and on.

It’s too soon to speculate on the fortunes of Haslam, Pilot Flying J and the Browns but they are intertwined.  The only thing Browns fans should be worried about at the moment is how the front office will screw up this year’s draft.  Instead they should actually be worried about who might be the next owner of the Browns.  Calling Dan Gilbert….

Speaking of Dan Gilbert, he did a major about face this week when he re-hired Mike Brown to coach the Cavaliers.  Judging from the reaction on Twitter, this isn’t one of Gilbert’s more popular moods.  Gilbert must know how ridiculous it looks to have divorced Brown, quickly remarry and then find himself longing for his original bride.

No one really knows whether it was a mistake to fire Brown in the first place and/or whether that mistake has been compounded by rehiring him.  But there are other issues about this that should be talked about, not the least of which is whether Gilbert isn’t really some closeted version of George Steinbrenner and Brown is his version of Billy Martin.

If Gilbert really made a mistake by firing Brown it was because Brown used the leverage of the 10-day window in his original Cavs’ contract to force Gilbert to make a decision.  When the Cavs bowed to the Celtics three years ago in one of the weirdest, most miserable playoff efforts LeBron James will ever have, thoughts turned immediately to what it would take to re-sign James.  No one really knew because James wouldn’t say.  The speculation though was that James didn’t like Brown.  Meanwhile Brown had a contract with an option year that had to be declined within 10-days of season’s end or else that last year became guaranteed.  Gilbert wanted more time and Brown wisely said no.  That caused Gilbert to make decisions he now says he regrets.

Well, duh.  Gilbert regrets it because he didn’t really know what might make James re-sign.  More to the point, how James felt about Brown shouldn’t have even entered into the mix.  That it did caused the cascading effect of Brown being fired and the truculent Byron Scott being hired.  Here’s a lesson for Gilbert:  if you really are going to let the inmates name their own warden then you better be sure how they really feel about the current one.  Here’s another lesson for Gilbert: never let the inmates choose their own warden.

Will Gilbert follow either of these lessons?  That’s getting increasingly hard to say.  There’s so much talk these days (and hopefully it’s just idiotic media speculation) that a factor in the rehiring of Brown was the completely illogical supposition that it would play well with James and give the Cavs an enhanced chance to re-sign him if he opts out of his Miami contract after next season.  Oy.

Disregarding the illogic of this new theory, the truth is that the chances of James coming back to Cleveland will not rest at all on who is coaching the team.  Erik Spoelstra is the head coach of Miami for God’s sake and that was almost irrelevant to James.  What James knows better than the people who cover the sport for a living is that the head coach is the least important factor in the equation in the NBA.  Talent is the difference maker and James went to Miami because he was able to have his buddies play with him in Miami because they wouldn’t play with him in Cleveland.  James saw them and not Spoelstra as his ticket to a NBA crown.  Hitler could have been the head coach and it wouldn’t have matter.  James was right.

James will return to Cleveland only if it suddenly becomes his best chance to continue to win championships.  There isn’t a sentimental bone in his body.  He’s driven solely by the need to win championships and he knows that it takes an abundance of talent not an abundance of coaching to make that happen.

Where a coach makes a big difference in the NBA is on a team like Cleveland that is struggling to put together the pieces.  More victories can be squeezed out through good coaching.  The Cavs for example would have had a handful more of wins if the team had simply played better defense.  Brown will help with that.  It doesn’t mean that the Cavs will suddenly become contenders.  They won’t until the talent improves significantly.

I guess it’s nice that Brown’s back but I say that only because I’m not sure what the other viable alternatives really were.  Gilbert had no interest in taking another flyer and that left only a handful of other candidates every one of whom had at least as many warts as Brown.

I think the Cavs will be better next year because of Brown but that doesn’t mean they’ll be good.  If you want to worry about something, forget about James and worry about how Brown’s defensive emphasis will play with the Cavs’ next free agent in waiting, the defense-adverse Kyrie Irving.  If Irving eventually bolts like James will Gilbert get rid of Brown again?  Put differently, how many times did Steinbrenner fire Martin?


Another new regime making draft day decisions for the Browns is the source of this week’s question to ponder:  What is the most graceful way for the Browns to end the Brandon Weeden experiment?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

He is Who We Thought He Was

The whole Tiger Woods cheating episode that bridged Friday night into Saturday morning this past weekend reminded me so much of Kramer’s confrontation with former major league ballplayer Steve Genderson over the improper cleaning of the golf ball during a round.  Its outcome may have spurred Genderson to commit murder but it most certainly prompted Elaine to ask why Kramer was such a stickler for such a silly rule.  Kramer says “a rule is a rule.  Let’s face it.  Without rules, there’s chaos.”

Exactly, and now the golf world has chaos and as usual Woods is at its center.

The Masters looks bad and Woods looks worse but yea I suppose if Woods had won then Nike could have run more of its tone deaf “winning takes care of everything” ad featuring Woods crouched over a putt and everyone would have had a good chuckle.  Enough is enough.  Winning doesn’t take care of everything.  It doesn’t even take care of anything.   This isn’t Machiavelli and the ends don’t justify the means.

Whatever adulation Woods still gets is still undeserved.  His massive character flaws, make Don Draper look like Pope Francis.  The only thing that I puzzle over, but then only for a moment, is why so many want to give Woods a pass?  Heck, they aren’t giving him a pass, they have created the mess he’s become.

Masters officials, in concert with the like minded commercially driven officials at the USGA, conspired to contort the rules they are supposed to guard so that their meal ticket, Woods, could play the weekend in the Masters.  Woods drives ratings because he’s so talented and because he’s such a train wreck.  Truth be told, the only thing more compelling than watching Woods at the top of his game is watching Woods try to overcome another self-created hot mess.  We shouldn’t be surprised by Woods.  His integrity has long been shot.  We should be surprised by the Masters and USGA officials.  They were our last, best hope.

Let’s pour over the facts again, because I’m a lawyer by trade and I think it’s sometimes best to just let the facts and the reasonable inferences from them tell the story.

When Woods’ third shot on the 15th hole in Friday’s second round of the Masters hit the flagstick and spun back in the water, he had to take a drop.  Bad break, but it happens.  Woods had options including dropping the ball within two club lengths of the point where the ball first crossed the hazard.  He also had the option to replay the shot from his previous spot.  He chose neither.  Instead he intentionally (his words) chose to drop it two yards behind his original spot and did so for the sole purpose of giving himself an advantage for his next shot.  Again, in his words, he figured that if he could hit exactly the same shot again but from two yards further away he wouldn’t risk hitting the flag stick again and then would be in a position to make bogey.  Woods may have been humblebragging about his skills considering how ludicrous it all sounded, but then again things pretty much went as described and Woods ended up with a bogey.

As even the most casual golfer now knows, Woods’ drop violated the rules.  It’s a two stroke penalty which he was required to add to his final score.  When he didn’t do so, he ended up attesting to a score he didn’t achieve.  That carries one of the most known penalties in golf:  automatic disqualification.  There’s no grey area about that.  None.  Zero.  Ask Roberto Di Vincenzo.  He knows better than anyone.

The red herring in all of this is that the Masters (not Woods, but the Masters) claims it didn’t find out about the rules infraction until someone called it in.  But that’s only half the story and only half true anyway.  According to one of the most convoluted explanations I’ve ever read (courtesy of Monday’s Wall Street Journal via the powers that be at the Masters), the Masters’ officials, unbeknownst to Woods, fielded the call, considered the evidence and decided Woods didn’t violate the rules before Woods even finished his round.  They never bothered to ask him about it.

If you follow tournament golf, you already can surmise that this explanation doesn’t make sense.  The protocol is to talk to the player about the situation before he signs his scorecard and get his view of the matter.  That allows for a full airing of the issue and avoids having the player possibly sign an incorrect scorecard.  That they chose not to highly suggests that the situation didn’t unfold as they suggest.  To put a sharper point on it, had the protocol been followed they would have learned directly from Woods what he had done, the penalty would have been properly assessed and the scorecard that he signed would have been correct.  Woods would have been clear of any controversy whatsoever.

Now it could be that the Masters’ officials screwed it up by not talking to Woods first and had they just said that, they’d be off the hook though Woods wouldn’t.  But they don’t admit to that kind of error, either. That's why their explanation is only half true.  They next heard about the violation not from a caller but from Woods himself who described the drop in response to a question in a post-round press conference.  That put them in a real pickle.  Having decided to look the other way on a potential disqualifying action by the world’s number one player, here was that player now forcing them to revisit the matter and in the most uncomfortable way possible by admitting in intimate detail exactly how he violated the rules though Woods never put it in those terms.

So what did they do next?  They decided to essentially ignore what they heard from Woods and instead kind of sort of reverted to when they first heard about the violation.  They pulled out the newly amended decision about what happens when someone calls into a network to report a violation.  A few years ago the USGA and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in Britain, the two bodies charged with developing the rules, came out with a decision that essentially says that if someone watching a tournament on television sees a violation that the player didn’t otherwise acknowledge, it will be a 2-stroke penalty and not a disqualification for signing an incorrect scorecard if the player and the officials at the tournament couldn’t discern at the time that a violation occurred.  They used that as a way to give Woods the pass they already had decided to give him anyway even though that phone call that supposedly started this mess (which, in fact, it did not) was the least important event in the entire time line or if not the least important than the least relevant.

The purpose of the rule the Masters relied on, in a vacuum, is to allow for context to inform situations that would have gone unnoticed but for cameras being perched everywhere, especially at major tournaments.  For example, if a television camera catches a player’s ball having moved from its prior resting spot but the player never notices it (maybe he’s still engrossed in club selection) nor do the rules officials following the group, then it seems to make sense to assess a 2-stroke penalty in retrospect and not the more draconian result of disqualification.

But this wasn’t that situation, not even close.  No context is even needed.  Indeed it is completely irrelevant that someone called in the violation by Woods.  The fact is that Woods described in vivid detail exactly what he had done to a room full of reporters.  When an official heard that admission they knew they had to revisit the situation because it was only a matter of time before an inquiring reporter with a working knowledge of the rules would have asked the question.  Actually they knew more.  They knew they had to disqualify him unless there was another way.  That there wasn’t didn’t deter them in the least.  Square peg met round hole and was pounded in thusly.

Obviously Woods didn’t realize he was ratting himself out for violating the rules, though he should have.  Woods isn’t your typical weekend golfer, not by a long shot.  He’s played thousands of rounds and has likely confronted virtually every situation that one could uncover.  Let’s recall one of the more infamous situations where Woods, well schooled on the rules, used them to his distinct and legal advantage.

In 1999 during the final round of the Phoenix open, Woods hit his tee shot on the 13th hole into the desert and it came to rest near a boulder.  Woods cleverly sought out a rules official and asked if the boulder was considered a movable object.  The reason he asked is that he knew that movable objects, even if they’re boulders, can be moved unless embedded.  The boulder, lying harmlessly in the desert, did not look embedded to Woods but he wanted to be sure.  When the rules official told him that it was movable, Woods, again invoking the rule book, asked if he could get some help from the crowd to move the boulder because it weighed, by some estimates, about a ton.  The official said he could.  The crowd was eager to help, moved the boulder and Woods went on to birdie the hole.

This context is important.  It shows that Woods well knows the rules of the game, even the more esoteric ones.

Now back to Friday’s Masters round.  The rule about re-playing a shot from the original spot comes up in a number of contexts.  It not only applies when a ball is hit in a hazard but also, for example, when it’s hit out of bounds, something Woods has done probably hundreds of times in his career.  In other words, he knows that he’s supposed to replay the shot from the same spot.  He did not.

There have some who have come to the defense of Woods but most of those have focused on the supposedly new rule that came into effect about two years ago.  But their focus is misplaced.  It would be relevant if Woods had never described the situation to the reporters, the call came in from a viewer, and the officials decided the drop was wrong.  In that case and only in that case would a 2-stroke penalty and not a disqualification have been justified.

Another one who came to Woods’ defense was David Feherty the former pro turned irreverent golf commentator.  He said this was a silly controversy but not because of the supposedly new rule but because every pro out on the tour does the same thing—drops the ball a few feet away on a re-hit instead of in the same spot.  In other words, per Feherty everyone violates the rule so Woods shouldn’t be singled out.  Bullshit.

First of all, Feherty’s claim is untrue.  It simply isn’t the case that professional golfers routinely flaunt the rules.  It’s the exact opposite.  Golfers, professional and otherwise, call violations on themselves all the time that no one would ever have seen.  It’s a bedrock principle of the game and one that makes it unique from virtually any other sport.  Second, consider Feherty’s words in light of his role.  He’s a commentator on a network that televises most of the tournaments.  He runs into Woods several times a year.  Do you think Feherty wants the burden of incurring Tiger’s wrath by saying that Woods should have been disqualified?  Feherty remembers how Peter Kostis was shunned for months by Woods because Kostis criticized Woods’ rebuilt swing a few years ago.

Woods is an imposing, intimidating figure.  He’s also a really bad guy and a serial cheater (by his own admission and when it comes to women) who has no respect for the game or its traditions.  He’s still the truculent loner who has been able to shit on anyone just because of his otherworldly golf skills and does so with impunity.

The breaks in golf, as in life, don’t have some predestined way of evening themselves out.  Woods will continue to win golf tournaments, if/when he surpasses Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors won it will be celebrated.  But even that won’t obscure who Woods really is.  He’s Don Draper: a talented guy who pursues whatever and wherever at the expense of the soul he seemingly lacks.  Nike may want everyone to believe that winning takes care of everything, but that’s because they have product to sell.  Winning can’t change Woods.  He is exactly what we know him to be.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Lingering Items--Chutes and Ladders Edition

Usually I end my Lingering Items columns with a question to ponder but today I flip the conceit: Are sports fans in general cynical or is it just Cleveland sports fans?

Though I don’t usually weigh in on the answer but ask because I'm concerned.  About me, about you about the nature of sports in Cleveland generally. I had just finished writing my once or twice a year column on the Cleveland Cavaliers and decided to let it sit for a few days.  Something about it didn’t seem quite right.  When I returned to it, the problem became clear.  It seemed to be drenched in a baseline cynicism that can best be summed up as “the Cavs suck, what’s new?”  That really wasn’t what I intended to say.  Thus beget the question to ponder and then another, more existential variation: did I have anything more to say about Cleveland sports that I hadn’t already said?

At that moment, the answer was “no.”  I seemed to be saying “of course the Cavs need to fire Byron Scott because, well, it’s just their turn in the barrel.  This is Cleveland and this is how we roll.  The Browns and Indians have just done another in their various yet endless resets and so it just stands to reasons that the Cavs are now on the clock.”

It’s almost beside the point that on some level it happens to be true.  What I was really dealing with was not the quixotic attempt to find a different angle to the same ol’ same ol’ but a better way of talking about what really is interesting to me about the fact that the Cavs do need to fire Scot.

Let me deal with the Cavs for a moment in the form of a casual observer, which I am not.  It’s true that I don’t write much about the Cavs, but there are two reasons for it.  First, there are many better suited to school you on the nuances of just how lousy the team plays defense.  Second,  I don’t find the NBA a particularly compelling form of professional sports entertainment.  The individual games, especially when played by third tier teams, are about as meaningful as a Pringles commercial.  If the Cavs beat Orlando by 10 or lose to them by 20, it means nothing except in the race for ping pong balls.

But what is compelling about them and hence what makes me far more than just casual about them (and the town’s other two teams) is the inexorable journey they’re on as they try to become relevant in a sport that seems more relevant to a billion Chinese then a 100 million Americans.  Indeed if I had to really ferret out exactly what interests me about sports in general, it’s that journey and all the various missteps that are taken along the way.

When I consider that context, I realize that I’m not particularly cynical about sports or even Cleveland sports because after all these years the results hardly matter.  What I am cynical about is the ability of those that control Cleveland sports to do the right thing when it comes to navigating the path from the outhouse to the penthouse.  It’s not exactly like I need to go chapter and verse on each of the teams in this town but I will if you dare me to.   Until then, suffice it to say that no matter how many days and weeks and months and years seem to pass the ability of any Cleveland team to build itself into a winner always seems fanciful.  It’s like the fans are stuck playing an endless game of chutes and ladders except that the team rarely finds a ladder but always lands on the chutes and usually the one that takes you not just one or two rows back but the one that takes you all the way back to the beginning.

And so it is with these Cavs at these moments.  They have cap space.  They have one verifiable talent and they have one incredibly bored fan base.  Is it right to hold only Scott accountable for it?  Of course not.  But it’s not right to give him a pass, either.  Let's look at what's really driving the conclusion.


The Cavs are approaching Ted Stepien-era level futility and it’s not as if the fans aren’t noticing.  The shine of LeBron James’ reign here has long since dissipated and so too has the insane promise owner Dan Gilbert made that the Cavs will win a championship before the James-led Miami Heat.  The truth is that the Cavs won’t even make the playoffs before the James-led Heat win their third or fourth championship.

The reason that the Cavs are a futile, boring, mind-numbing mess has something to do with Scott, something, maybe more, to do with the front office and plenty to do with the NBA.  Let’s take it in order.

Scott is starting to feel some pressure, finally, from the media and the fans and you can tell the crisp collars on his dress shirts are feeling a bit tight these days.  Frankly I’ve not seen the media give a bigger pass to a head coach since Eric Wedge was manipulating the Indians’ starting lineup on a nightly basis.  Indeed the Wedge comparison is most apt.  The local media gave Wedge a pass even though he was a mostly ineffective micromanager mostly because the Indians were terrible and who was managing or mismanaging the lousy product the front office was putting out there seemed almost irrelevant.  The same holds true for Scott I suppose.

The Indians’ front office seemed to notice that Wedge wasn’t wearing any clothes right about the time it became clear that Wedge didn’t have the ability or temperament to develop young players.  By comparison, the series of nitwits the Browns have hired as their head coach have garnered far greater scrutiny and given far less rope than the Indians gave Wedge or that the Cavs, at the moment, are giving Scott. But should Scott really enjoy the freedom to underperform night in and night out?  It may not be fair to judge the team in terms of wins and losses because their talent is so far inferior to the better clubs in the league.  But it is fair to judge them by intensity and effort and on this score even Scott has noted several times this season (and last year) that too often the team doesn’t seem interested in competing.

I’ll take his word because he’s closest to it but even from the cheap seats and my outdated overstuffed leather recliner there’s no reason to argue the point.  Scott told the Plain Dealer last Thursday that he’s aware of the muted rumors about his job and he didn’t have much to say about them, except that in not saying much he said plenty.  He pointed out that injuries and an overall lack of talent have kept him from fielding a competitive team.  All true.  Yet, curiously, he said that if he had to grade his own performance, he’d give himself a “C.”  Maybe he was being self-deprecating, but can that be true if the grade is correct?  This team has been playing out the string for most of the season and by playing out the string I mean going through the motions, giving half effort and generally hoping to get through the game unscathed and to dinner before the restaurants close.

It may not be Scott’s responsibility to acquire the players and I won’t blame him for the horrid roster.  But I will blame him for an almost complete inability to reach these players in a way that at least guarantees a team that’s willing to fight for a win 82 times a season.

If there is such a thing as coaching out the string, Scott is doing it.  He seems to alternate between being lost and being uninterested.  If your life depended on your ability to name one positive thing Scott has brought to this franchise, particularly this season, could you do it?  I couldn’t.

I’m not even sure Scott is actually a lousy head coach.  But I am sure he’s a lousy head coach of a team with lousy talent.  I don’t know what exactly Scott works on with his team in practice but the results aren’t impressive.  The young talent under him hasn’t developed either technically or professionally.  What is apparent is that he hasn’t instilled in them the work ethic they’ll need to better compete.

It would be interesting I suppose to see what Scott could do with a talented roster, but there’s no reason to give him that chance in Cleveland.  By his own admission he’s done just an average job.  Is that really the kind of coach owner Dan Gilbert wants for his team?  Would he tolerate “C” level performance in any other part of his organization?

The front office is more than culpable in this mess, maybe more than Scott.  The roster they have compiled is not particularly interesting save for Kyrie Irving.  It's a mish mash mostly of spare parts and projects.  It's compiled that way I suppose in order to retain a mythical flexibility for some future point when they'll spend that flexibility like drunken sailors at a strip club.

What too of its decision to hire Scott in the first place?  He had an impressive resume as a player but to call his resume mixed at the time the Cavs hired him is being generous.  After a rough first year, he had a very successful two year run with New Jersey.  Then the team stopped listening to him and he didn't make it through what was turning into a miserable fourth year.  Since then he's mostly found himself coaching at the bottom tier of the league.  It's true that the New Orleans Hornets made the playoffs twice under him, most of the time they were near the bottom of the standings.

In other words, Scott's resume reads like the resume of a typical journeyman head coach in any sport.  He's Bobby Valentine without the fake mustache and glasses.  What makes his hiring curious is that Gilbert had to sign off on it and did so knowing that there wasn't anything particularly compelling about Scott as a head coach.  You could argue that the most distinguishing thing about his career is that shortly after realizing any level of success his employers were quick to fire him thereafter almost as if they couldn't wait to rid themselves of him. The other thing that was more than clear though, which makes his hiring even more strange, is that he has virtually no record of actually developing a young roster.

So it's not a surprise the Scott is on the edge of losing another job when you consider his history.  But the thing to worry about is now the  “when” of the Scott issue but the “what happens next?” issue that follows.  This same front office that's put together a middling roster while keeping its powder dry for a mythical future it can only describe in mystical terms is the same front office that hired Scott and the same front office that will hire his replacement. Does that inspire confidence that they'll get it right?  Should it?

These are the questions Gilbert ought to be asking because while it was always taken as hurt feelings his boast about the Cavs' near term fortunes vs. the Heat's, what will not be taken is a long walk through the desert without a canteen of water in sight.  Gilbert has a record of accomplishment in most of his business dealings but right now he's failing not just the fans or the team, but himself.

Finally, let's talk about the NBA as an entity.  The cycling through of lousy season after lousy season, the revolving door of marginal talent, the constant lottery picks, the wheeling and dealing, the saving of cap space on the if-come are all part of the 10-year cycle of team’s that occupy the outer boroughs of the NBA.

I’ve written about this before but it bears mentioning again that the NBA statistics are as iron clad on this fact as any other sports statistic you’re likely to see:  when a team hits the skids it takes at least 10 years to get back to any level of respectability.  So the fact that the Cavs are in this hellish cycle of dread isn’t really a surprise.  Nor is the fact that this team is still several years away from legitimately competing.

Gilbert certainly is aware of this and while not completely powerless to do anything about it, he's going to have to do more then just look engaged. He has to demand more from the basketball people, including the head coach, brought in to steady the ship.  The NBA deck is stacked against bad teams and the only way out is to hope that the ping pong balls bounce your ways more than a few times in a row.  Teams like the Cavs need to consistently pick in the top 5 every year until they get good enough to get the hell out of the lottery.  In the meantime they have to find other ways to supplement the roster so that when they graduate from the lottery they don’t get stuck too long in the next inner ring of hell occupied by teams just good enough to squeak into the playoffs but not good enough to make a legitimate run.

Fans will get excited the next time the Cavs make the playoffs, which is about 5 years away by my calculations or longer if the team is unable to hold onto Irving because he, like James, sees greener pastures in warmer climates.  But at some point the team will squeak into the playoffs and after the initial fun of it wears off two years in the Cavs will have to do something dramatic to get into the better neighborhoods.  That’s the time when saving all that salary cap money will especially come in handy.  Again, though, assuming the NBA history holds true (and in few if any cases hasn’t it held true) the Cavs are at least 7 years and probably two or three head coaches away from facing that dilemma.


So let me end this interminably lengthy column with one final question to ponder: Given what you know about the process, can you ever actually imagine a scenario where James leaves Miami after the 2014 season to come back to Cleveland?

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Lingering Items--Radio Nowhere Edition

Apparently no one associated with the newest, latest version of the Cleveland Browns believes that less can be more.  When it comes to the Browns and their recently announced radio broadcast rights deals, more is more under the theory, I suppose, that there is no limit to how much Browns related programming can be absorbed.  Actually we’re about to find out as the Browns flood the airwaves over the next year with 1,000 hours of stupefying shows.

It’s easy to conclude that the unique deal the Browns signed with WKNR and its rival station, WKRK, The Fan, was all about the money.  And of course, that conclusion is always going to be well justified when it comes to sports.  It was about the money.  But I think there’s more to it as well, which we’ll talk about in a minute.

First, let’s talk about the overblown deal that was announced.  Clear Channel and its local outlet, WTAM, are for the first time since the Browns returned the odd station out.  It still has the Cavs and the Indians and in some ways it seemed to treat the Browns like second class citizens when the seasons overlapped so it makes sense that the Browns wanted to find a more dedicated partner.

The Browns did that and more by essentially finding two dedicated partners.  The two rival radio stations colluded combined in a joint bid whereby each of the stations will get to broadcast the Browns’ weekly march toward one 4-12 season after another.  Two of the stations, WKRK and WNCX, are on the FM spectrum, the other, WKRN, on AM.  So wherever you may be driving, or if you just prefer to watch the broadcast but listen to Jim Donovan and Doug Dieken instead of Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts, it should be pretty easy to find someone broadcasting the game.

Broadcasting games on the radio is still a pretty big deal.  It’s carries with it a certain amount of cachet for the stations involved and it’s just that cachet that the Browns dangled in front of two stations desperate to break from the numbing sameness that is terrestrial radio.

The bigger part of the deal though is the ancillary program that each station agreed to.  WKNR has agreed to dedicate 4 mind-numbing hours to the pregame, which means the pregame will last, on average, an hour longer than the actual game.  Then when Doug Dieken completes his post-game “interviews” (the process by which Dieken makes a statement like “you had to be happy with the blocking today” and then waits for whoever is on the other end of the mike to agree with him), there will be two hours of post game on WKRK.

Then there will be the midweek shows.  And Oh! the midweek shows.  Vic Carucci, who carries the title of Browns senior editor for the Browns-owned web site will host a two hour a day chatfest, sponsored by Liberty Ford, which is one of the ways that the stations in turn recoup the money they paid the Browns.  Meanwhile new head coach Rob Chudzinski will host a weekly show.  So in addition to all the Rick’s from Brunswick that call in anyway to talk about the Browns, fans will get official Browns-dedicated programming two and sometimes three hours every single day.

What the Browns have done here is actually quite brilliant.  The Browns now control the messaging on the city’s two dedicated sports talk radio shows and didn’t have to pay a nickel for it.  Indeed they are being paid millions for the privilege of making sure that the stations most likely to foment discord at their dysfunctional operations will instead present the more positive aspects to why still another regime change is in order.  Why bitch about coverage from the local media when you can just control it instead?

This is why Jimmy Haslam is a genius and Randy Lerner is an idiot.  Haslam is a billionaire on his way probably to being a raging gazillionaire because he understands business and isn’t afraid to work at it.  Since buying the team, he’s dispensed of Mike Holmgren and his unique brand of lethargy, he’s sold the naming rights to the stadium, and he’s found a way to tightly control the team’s messaging and getting the local media to fund their own sellout..

Lerner is a billionaire (maybe) by birth who has essentially become Arthur but without the ever-present vodka tonic.  It may be hard for Lerner to actually squander all the cash he was given but you can pretty much guarantee that he isn’t going to stop trying.  I wonder if Greg Kokinis is still being paid by Lerner?

That the Browns changed radio partners may not seem like a big deal to the fans but when they can’t find a radio host to beat the drums over why this team needs to make that move, they’ll begin to understand that it's because the media no longer represents them, they represent the team.


The expansive control that the Browns now lord over the local media by virtue of their radio deals (coupled, as it is, with the local TV deals it has with those who broadcast their preseason games) is really the next phase of what Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban identified as the next logical step in the shakeout of dying local print and electronic media.

As you may recall, Cuban started to limit media access to his team in favor of having in house “journalists”  (an oxymoron if ever there was one) interview the players post game and distribute the quotes to the media.  Cuban came under the predictable criticism for it but wondered aloud, well, he did more than wonder, he came out and basically said that the time is near if not at hand where teams will write their own game stories and supply their own quotes.  He called it an efficient use of resources in a time where independent media outlets are struggling to fund themselves.  I’d call it propaganda.  When the only perspective is that of the people running the operation, the only stories you’re going to get are those favorable to those running the operation.

Yet for all the criticism Cuban got, there hasn’t been a peep out of the local media in Cleveland about the more stealth version of Cuban’s business model the Browns have created.  Part of that is because the radio reporters aren’t going to complain publicly on the airwaves of those that the Browns have paid for and the print reporters covering the Browns are lazy from years of being spoon-fed by the Browns’ PR department.  But part of it is because most people don’t consume media the way they used to anyway.  People run to the internet for their “news” and are pretty indiscriminate about where they get it from. If the Browns are running a propaganda operation and using once independent radio stations for their outlets, so be it.  Who cares?  Really, who cares?

There’s also no question that newspapers are on the decline.  Pick up a copy of your local Plain Dealer or Akron Beacon Journal and see how much of their copy is actually local anymore.  Not as much as you’d think.  Newspapers are run by shadow staffs and they tend to fortify their online presence by utilizing local bloggers who, if they are paid at all, are paid very little.  The competition for stories isn’t particularly robust.

Teams on the other hand have somewhat expanded their own in house operations.  Carucci is a former print journalist who got out just in time to join, first, and then the Cleveland Browns.  His title is senior editor but don’t think for a moment that he has free reign to do anything other than tow the company line, something that he’s more than comfortable with by the way.

I’m not criticizing Carucci for finding a steady paycheck in a dying business and I’m not criticizing the Browns for wanting to control how their product is reported.  But just keep both of those in mind as you read stories on the Browns’ web site or listen to all the hours of new programming on the radio.

If you doubt this, just consider the words of Alec Scheiner, the Browns’ new president.  He told Crains Cleveland Business that the Browns will “work with their new partners in deciding the on-air talent” for the pre and post game programs.  I wonder what it takes to get those jobs?

It’s a disturbing but inevitable trend.  The deal with the devil that WKRN and WKRK made was that their ratings and hence their advertising revenues would soar by becoming, essentially, extensions of the Browns.  They’re probably right.  The only thing more voracious than Browns’ fans appetites to talk about the game about to be played is Browns’ fans appetites to talk about why the Browns lost the game they just played.  There is no nuance too small or insignificant to escape scrutiny.  Everyone has an opinion about what the Browns need to do to win and it’s equally valid to make before or after a game.


Meanwhile over at WTAM, despite still having the Cavs and the Indians, the loss of the Browns still has to hurt.  But if there’s one thing you can count on it will be that Mike Trivisonno, the weekday talking troll, will suddenly turn into the biggest Browns’ critic on the planet.

When the Browns were on WTAM the only thing as funny as listening to Trivisonno fawn over a Browns’ official is listening to Trivisonno fawn over Cavs and Indians officials.  Trivisonno may be a no talent boob of the highest order but he isn’t as dim as his opinions would suggest.  He knows how the bread gets buttered which is why he wouldn’t criticize Randy Lerner, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur, Mike Holmgren or anyone else associated with the Browns until the word “formerly” appeared before the words “associated with.”

But with the Browns elsewhere it wouldn’t surprise me if Trivisonno is already railing against the team or its management in one inane fashion or another.  WTAM lost some prestige and given that the Browns’ rights aren’t up for bid for the next several years, there’s no reason for Trivisonno to hold back with his unique blend of non-sequiturs.  Of course to test my theory on Trivisonn you’d actually have to listen to Trivisonno, something I don’t recommend to anyone who values their brain cells.

Given that the Browns will essentially be choosing the on-air “talent” for their pre and post game lovefests, this week’s question to ponder is how many ex-Browns do you think will end up with those jobs?