Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Missed Opportunity

If you’re looking to professional sports to provide justice for the wrongs you think need to be righted, find a different hobby.  Professional sports doesn’t exist to bring you anything more meaningful than the highs and lows that accompany victory and defeat.  That said, it still provides an enormous capacity to fail you when you need it most.
The latest but certainly not the last case in point was NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s rather lightweight two game suspension handed down to Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for domestic violence against his fiancĂ©e, now wife, Janay Palmer.
Rice and Palmer were in an Atlantic City casino for fun and games when a domestic dispute turned horribly violent.  According to reports, both Rice and Palmer struck each other.  But you don’t need to speculate who came out of that fight unscathed, at least physically.  The video tape is crystal clear.  Rice was forcibly dragging a limp Palmer by her hair out of an elevator following whatever took place behind those metal doors. 
Physical violence against women is nothing new among NFL players.  The San Diego Union-Tribune maintains a database of all NFL players arrested since 2000.  You could review it if you have the time but suffice it to say that nearly every team in the league has had a player charged with domestic violence since 2000.  And that’s just the recent history.  Cleveland Browns’ fans with a memory can recall the number of run ins Jim Brown had with domestic violence during and after his career (with all charges either eventually dropped or resulting in his acquittal).  What set the Rice situation apart in the public conscious was the videotape.  It’s one thing to read about a player dragging an obviously injured woman around but a whole other matter to actually see the horror on continuous loop.
The incident gave Goodell and the NFL a chance to do two things.  First, he could take the most public stand possible against the NFL’s unfortunate history with domestic violence.  Second, he could send a message to all of the other players that violence against women in any form is now a zero tolerance offense that will threaten your livelihood.  And in some fashion Goodell did both by even bothering to punish Rice at all.  But what Goodell also did was place the penalty on a spectrum that’s hard to fathom—less than smoking marijuana, slightly more than wearing non-league approved cleats.  When Goodell had the power to do all he could he opted instead to do the least he could and keep a straight face.
There are plenty that would argue that Rice should have been suspended for a year.  There are plenty of others that would argue that a player smoking marijuana merits a 4-game suspension so at the very least, the very least, a player channeling his inner caveman dragging around his property by the arm ought to suffer the same consequence.

I’m not sure exactly what the right penalty should have been.  What I am sure about is that this penalty doesn’t feel right.  A two-game penalty tells you that the NFL sees other offenses as far more serious than those involving its players hitting women.  Just ask the New Orleans Saints players accused of participating in a bounty system against other players in the league.  But more to the point, it also offers absolutely no deterrent to the next offender.  A season long suspension clearly would.  A half year suspension just might.  And in the end, isn’t that at least part of the purpose of issuing a penalty?  Shouldn’t the impact it will have on deterring similar conduct be taken into account?

Let’s go back to the aforementioned New Orleans Saints bountygate as a proxy.  It wasn’t domestic violence but had similar attributes in that involved NFL players and coaches sanctioning or participating in specific conduct meant to injure another.  Goodell leveled significant penalties, suspending head coach Sean Payton for a year, indefinitely suspending another coach and issuing minimum 6 game penalties to others.  Goodell also suspended one player, Jonathan Vilma, for a year.  Three other players were suspended for a range of between 3 and 8 games.  In every case players and coaches suffered more significant penalties than Goodell issued against Rice.  (It’s worth noting that the sanctions against the players were overturned by Paul Tagliabue, who was hired as an arbitrator.  Tagliabue found that they engaged in the conduct but placed the blame on the coaches for incentivizing them to do so.)
My guess is that Goodell sees the distinction between the bountygate situation and Rice’s as a matter of one threatening the integrity of the game and the other a singularly personal matter.  But can that dichotomy alone explain the massive difference in Goodell’s thinking, especially when once a penalty is issued the outcome of a game, in this case a future game, is potentially altered?

If Goodell really is parsing these situations that closely then he is losing sight of the reason he’s taken such a strong stand on personal conduct issues in the past.  Maybe Goodell felt chastened when Tagliabue overturned the penalties on the bountygate players, but that’s hardly a reasonable excuse.
Nothing gets done in a vacuum and I suspect Goodell levied a penalty that he knew Rice would not appeal without looking like an even bigger idiot.  I’m sure, too, that Goodell had to balance the inevitable outcry from the union had he levied a penalty with real sting.  Goodell, as commissioner, is as much a politician as an executive.

But not every incident calls for a political solution.  Sometimes a line has to get drawn and let the consequences flow from that.  The players’ union is like the NRA.  There is no penalties on its members that they’d ever agree to on the record.  Besides, their interests are not at all aligned with Goodell’s.  He has to protect the integrity of the game and all that it stands for.  The union, particularly this union under the misguided leadership of DeMaurice Smith, cares not a whit about the good of the game, only the good of the dues paying members.  Given that, Goodell’s thought process should have been first and only to do the right thing.  Instead he looked to do what was expedient, what would make his life easier.
It would be interesting to understand Goodell’s actual thinking but he’s taken the coward’s approach and gone radio silence, allowing the furor to dissipate.  It hasn’t yet.  At some point, maybe at a press conference during Hall of Fame week or some other low key moment down the road he’ll elaborate, but I doubt it will be much.  He’ll say that the league took a stance by bothering to punish Rice at all and then dangle out there that reasonable people can debate the severity of the punishment.  All true, technically.   Practically, it’s a load of crap.

There’s just no sugarcoating the magnitude of Goodell’s misstep here.  His supplicants in the media, like Peter King, will dribble out tidbits to suggest that Goodell tried to do the right thing by, for example, talking to the victim, getting her input, making sure her voice mattered.  But in even making that gesture, Goodell conducted that meeting with Rice sitting right next to her, the dominator and the dominated.  What exactly did Goodell think Palmer was going to say in that meeting?
The culture of this country in these matters still tilts wildly in favor of the perpetrator.  Rice was applauded when he walked onto the Ravens practice field the other day as if he’s some kind of hero to be honored for what exactly, not killing Palmer?  Notably, in his press conference on Thursday, Rice was appropriately contrite and apologetic.  It would have been more noble to have chastised the idiot Ravens fans that gave him the applause in the first place.

Victims of domestic violence, like victims of sexual assault and victims of sexual harrassment, on the other hand, face questions about their character and motivations, fair questions in the context of due process but certainly not the only or even the main questions to ask.  And they’re also often put in the awkward position of feeling responsible for the ultimate punishment levied.  That’s a lot to bear.
Had Palmer, for example, been allowed to speak freely and confidentially, neither of which occurred here, she might have had a different story to tell.  We’ll never know but it isn’t a stretch to suggest that Goodell, a lawyer by trade, knew exactly what he was doing by interviewing Palmer with Rice present.  As it is, though, because Goodell and King and others dribbled out the information about her role in Goodell’s deliberations, a harsher penalty on Rice would inevitably brought a harsher scrutiny on her from all those Ravens fans who can’t stomach the thought of being without Rice for an extended period of time.

There is a war on women in this country and it shows no signs of abating.  Goodell just contributed to the fray when he had a real chance, using this country’s most popular sport and his position in it as the ultimate bully pulpit, to emphatically declare that there is absolutely no place for domestic violence.  Goodell had an obligation to think globally and instead deliberately thought small and in doing so called into question his ongoing ability to lead the sport.
The fight for women’s rights will go on as it always done, by fits and starts.  The inroads women have made in the last 25 years or so are impressive but for all the gains made it just takes an incident like this and the shocking outcome to remind us all that until we take care of everyone on the same footing we don’t really take care of our own.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Home Is Where The Heart Is

This one feels different, much different.

When Lebron James first joined the Cleveland Cavaliers, he effectively had no choice. The worst team with the number one pick in the NBA draft gets who it wants and James was the biggest no-brainier pick in the history of the league.

When he left it was a crotch kick, a punch to an unexpected gut of a city that always seems to get an unexpected punch. That same desperate, lost, hurt that was felt when Art Modell pulled the Browns out of Cleveland was its logical antecedent. To literally lose your sporting blood put the city in a football wilderness that took, you guessed it, nearly four years to remedy.

When James bolted the first chance he had he left the team in ruins. That may have been exactly why he left. But he took Cleveland’s heart with him and it spent, yep, four years figuring how it could all begin again.

The reason this feels so different is that this times James had a choice. He could go anywhere he wanted and he decided to come back here. You'd have to go back to Bernie Kosar’s manipulation of the NFL’s supplemental draft in order to land in Cleveland to recall an even remotely similar sense of not just pride but of affirmation for the reason that most of us with a choice nonetheless remain.

No longer is there any concern about his basketball future. He’ll finish his career, hopefully another 10 years from now, as a Cav. All the cringing fans used to do when James would wear a Yankees hat is gone forever.  He can follow any baseball or football team he wants. There will be no need to read anything into those kinds of gestures. James chose here not there and it has the absolute feeling of finality, both a prodigal son and favorite son returning, satisfied with his time away and relishing his future on his home turf.

I read James’ decision letter, twice.   It was a master stroke, the likes of which are rare in professional sports. Sure it went through the editing process and sure some of it, maybe most of it, was calculated to put a different spin on what James is really about. Yet it felt genuine. It was fully realized and actualized. It contained no false promises. It just laid it out in rather simple terms and in the process seemingly made fools of all of those who, from a very great distance, thought they understood what he really was all about.

Without saying it directly, James nonetheless laid out the case for why he's not the mercenary many of us, me included, thought he was. It certainly helps that the Cavs have some excellent assets to work with, certainly more than the Heat at the moment. But the pull to come home, to raise his sons in a place with less glitz and more sensibilities, seems to have predominated.

His letter in many ways read like the words of Bruce Springsteen in “Long Walk Home” and it's easy think about what James is telling his own kids at the moment and what other dads in Akron and Cleveland are telling theirs:

My father said, “Son, we’re luck in in this town. It's a beautiful place to be born.
It just wraps itself around you, no one crowds you no one goes it alone.”

That is exactly the way this town has always treated James. He lives just a few minutes from me and he's easy to spot when he's in town. Sometimes alone at the movie theater. Sometimes riding his bike on the local streets. Sometimes playing softball at the local high school. No one crowds him but he knows the people around here have his back.

The other striking aspect of this almost surreal moment in Cleveland sports history is how much James has grown as a person in the last four years. He wrote that his four years in Miami felt like college. He went in a know-it-all and came out a humbler man comfortable with not having all the answers. It's exactly the point of going off to college, or the army, or wherever it is that one goes when they have to leave home in order to grow up.

James is absolutely correct when he wrote that there was nothing to be gained in holding a grudge against Dan Gilbert or the fans who cursed his very existence. Indeed he offered up exactly the right perspective without specifically giving Gilbert a pass for the screed Gilbert wrote when James left. James saw himself in the shoes of those he spurned and understood both their anger and their angst.

I also get though why Gilbert didn't publicly renounce his screed in the last several days. It would have looked shallow and opportunistic. Better to have handled it as he did, per James, face to face and man to man.

For all the criticism leveled at Gilbert, and I've leveled plenty at him myself, you have to give him his due. He overcame his own impetuousness and sprinkled with a little luck when it comes to the ping pong balls has put together enough of a franchise now to at least give fans hope that the team isn't just James and 11 other guys. More importantly though he gained his own perspective about the NBA that was learned the hard way, a perspective that when coupled with James’ maturity, will really serve this franchise well as it pursues it's stated goal of bringing  this town a championship.

There is enough cynicism in sports and life that it's virtually certain that some, maybe many, will try to find the holes in James’ story, the real motives behind the move. But not on this day. There is no way to spoil a win, nor should there be, for fans who haven't seen enough of it.

I suspect many feel like Gus Sinski at the mound talking to Billy Chapel as he was throwing a perfect game in “For Love of the Game.” Collectively we would be saying “we don't stink right now because of you. We’re the best team in [basketball] because of you, right now, right this minute because of you. We’re not gonna screw it up, we’re gonna be awesome for you. “

Let's hope he remains awesome for us. He’s off to a perfect start.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Decision II, The Sequel

If LeBron James is close to making a decision about his basketball future you wouldn’t know it, at least from him.  The speculation and scenarios being drawn are all on the if/come and mostly exist in that odd space where wishful thinking repeated often enough magically turns into fact.
James will make whatever decision he needs to make soon enough.  The basis on which that decision will get made has not changed.  He will play basketball for the team that gives him the absolute best path to continue to win championships.  It really is as simple as that and as complicated, for the team that gives him that mythical best chance is a matter of opinion, not fact.
If there is anything amusing at the moment or perhaps delicious is watching/listening/reading the angst of the Miami Heat fan as they ponder life without James, first, then Dwyane Wade, second, then Chris Bosh a distant third.  It’s as if Heat fan continues to harbor the belief that this so called Big 3, in and of itself, presents the best opportunity for more NBA rings.  That belief was delivered a hard blow of reality in this year’s NBA Finals, but why let the facts get in the way.
Dan Le Betard, writing in Monday’s Miami Herald, had a column that mostly rings true until it doesn’t.  His overarching message is that Heat fans need to relax because rumor isn’t fact and unless and until James speaks, there is nothing to see.  That’s fine as far as it goes.  Unfortunately it goes further as Le Betard then essentially runs down the same rat holes to offer the counter theory that James isn’t going anywhere because, I guess, wishful thinking. 
He says James likes Miami, is a team player, yadda yadda yadda.   This is supposed to give a suddenly anxious Miami fan looking for any good news comfort?  Maybe.  But offering it up is to simply provide counterpoint to the other theories out there and why, for example, James will end up back in Cleveland, nothing more.
Nature abhors a vacuum and so do sports fan.  In the absence of real news, they’ll make it up.  The whole Twitter explosion on Sunday about Dan Gilbert’s plane is just another version of “so and so has his house on the market” or “so and so was in town looking for houses.”
So let’s return to, as that great American statesman and linguist Don Rumsfeld would say, to the known knowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns.
James is a mercenary, plain and simple.  He may love Miami.  He may love Akron.  But in truth if this were the mid 1930s and Munich, Germany had a team in the NBA owned by a guy with a funny moustache, James would sign with Mr. Hitler’s group if it presented him with the absolute best path to championships.  Plenty of NBA players took the blood money from serial racist Donald Sterling for years.  James isn’t motivated as much by money because he earns so much off the court.  He’s motivated solely by winning and if that’s with the Munich Stormtroopers James would be the last person to express regret.
James is loyal to this friends and teammates.   That was true in Cleveland and is true in Miami.  It was also be true should he land in still another city.  Remember, kids change schools all the time.  New friends get made.  When you have f-you money, your friends tend to find you anyway.  James didn’t stay in Cleveland out of loyalty to friends and he won’t do it in Miami either unless that loyalty presents him with the absolute best path to championships.
Those are the known knowns.  The known unknowns consist mostly of what James believes provides him the best path to championships.  This will remain unknown until, again to channel Rummy, it’s known and not before.  All of the great and not so great NBA writers with well-placed sources and high minded opinions can speculate all they want about Cleveland’s core of young players and their view of where that puts the team in the league pecking order.  The only analysis that means anything is the one James is currently pondering as he vacations while others simultaneously start and extinguish fires.
The unknown unknowns are the trickiest for it’s theoretically possible that James will alter his thinking and leave his talents in Miami or take them elsewhere based on something other than the absolute best path to championships.  And this is where these kinds of columns tend to fall apart. 
As writers, as speculators, as fans, we crave information.   The less available it is the more we crave it.  In the absence of information we’ll just fill in the blanks ourselves based on nothing more than wishful thinking as to how we want it to turn out or think it ought to turn out.
Truthfully, here anyway, there are no unknown unknowns.  When all is said and done and James has made his decision he’ll say what he’s always said: “I want to win championships and this is the place that gives me the best chance for that.”  If that exact quote or something close enough for government work isn’t said at the time of Decision II, The Sequel, I’ll eat my hat.
There isn’t any real romance to sports.  Things don’t always work out the way they’re supposed to.  The only thing you get is what you actually deserve and even then that’s up for grabs.  You don’t get a hole in one on the golf course just because it’s your birthday and you don’t land the best basketball player on the planet just because you think you got screwed by him 4 years ago.
It would mean a great deal to this town to once again have a viable winter diversion.  When James left he took a piece of everyone with him.  He may have matured in these last 4 years but never confuse maturity with sentimentality.  He won’t come to Cleveland just because he thinks he owes it to this town.  He’ll come if at all because, let’s say it together, it gives him the absolute best path to championships.  We can talk about the potential of Kyrie Irving, Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and whoever else is on the roster when the dust clears. 
The only opinion that has ever mattered in this equation is James’ and if the roster falls short relative to what he sees elsewhere then Cavs fans can again lament their misfortune.  And so that we don’t confuse the issue, the misfortune is not that James didn’t choose Cleveland.  It’s that the Cavs and all their front office changes over the last four years didn’t accomplish nearly enough to make his decision easy for him.