Thursday, September 18, 2014

Taking Away The Shine

It’s getting more difficult literally by the moment to remain a fan of the NFL.  The league is in a clear free fall and seems almost like it is making things up on the fly. If a league ever needed a war time consigliore it is now.  Tom Hagen, where for art thou?
What’s frustrating about all of this is that for at least fans in Cleveland it’s taken a bit of a shine of its first home opener win since the Truman administration.  Which is too bad because if there is anything much to like about a bad team in a good city it’s the over-the-top euphoria felt when the team wins a game it’s supposed to lose.  The sun shines, the birds sing, and every coach and player is the best we’ve ever had.
That would pretty much sum up fan reaction to the Browns unlikely win against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday if the league wasn’t so dysfunctional at the moment.  Indeed I’m not really sure how appropriate it is to even discuss the Browns’ win except as an afterthought.
The blame for this falls squarely once again on Commission Roger Goodell.  I was pretty certain for a great number of years that Bud Selig was the worse commissioner in the history of organized sports.  But at the moment Goodell is making Selig look like David Stern by comparison.  Goodell is Nero, fiddling as the league burns.  Other than a handpicked interview he conducted with CBS News and then botched anyway, Goodell has been in hiding managing the crises he’s creating by his own dithering.
To get a true measure of Goodell’s incompetence all you need to know is that he so mishandled the Ray Rice situation that most observers now have been grudgingly forced to sympathize with Rice, not for his deeds but for the simple fact that he’s now been punished twice for the same offense.  The legal concept of double jeopardy doesn’t technically apply to a private entity like the NFL but that’s beside the point.  It doesn’t feel right when someone is punished twice for the same offense if no new facts have emerged between punishments.
But it’s not just the Rice situation.  Goodell’s complete inability to manage a crisis has allowed teams to flounder about as they manipulate their own morals to justify why their best players shouldn’t be punished for offenses they’ve clearly committed. 
Adrian Peterson’s name is now as notorious as Rice’s thanks to Peterson’s rather candid admission and attitude toward how one may properly punish a 4 year old child.  The Minnesota Vikings at first deactivated Peterson and there he should have remained.  Yet he didn’t for a number of reasons.  He’s the Vikings best player was one.  The league couldn’t figure out what more to do was another.  After reinstating him and then looking like fools for doing so, the Vikings again essentially deactivated him.
In Carolina, they were essentially shamed into doing something similar with Greg Hardy, who actually has been convicted of domestic violence and yet, strangely, remains unpunished by league.  He may not be active for the games but he is getting paid.  In San Francisco, where the owner and the head coach know no shame, let Ray McDonald play on.
All this is going on while Goodell remains holed up and lawyered up.  A cabal of idiots describes them best.
Every league is going to go through these moments.  Baseball has had at least two of them, both around widespread illegal drug use and survived.  The NFL, too, will survive this mess one way or another.  The game itself is simply too popular.  What is most fascinating though is that the league, a multi billion dollar enterprise with virtually every resource at its disposal, can’t manage a crisis.
I won’t pretend that these issues aren’t complicated.  We do live in a just society and we do want to see people accused of crimes be treated fairly.  But the issues also aren’t nearly as complicated as the NFL is making them out to be, either.
Rice was an easy call at the outset that Goodell proved incapable of handling.  It’s actually hard to fathom how anyone seeing just the first video would still only assess a two game suspension.  The Hardy call is just as easy.  He’s already been convicted and the testimony against him is damning.  The Peterson case is easy mainly because Peterson isn’t denying the conduct, just the label.  And the McDonald case isn’t difficult either given that there were plenty of teammates present who actually witnessed what took place. 
Yet it seems that the NFL wants to deal more in nuance instead of the obvious.  The crime some prosecutor decides to charge the player with isn’t the issue.  Prosecutors are politicians who do things as much for political reasons as practical ones.  The facts are what they are and it’s on those and not the actual charge on which the NFL should be making its decisions.
I’m not surprised that Goodell remains popular with the owners.  But all you need to know on that score is that one of his more vocal supporters is Dan Snyder.  And why Snyder?  Because Goodell decided that the racially offensive name of Snyder’s franchise was not a league matter but one for Snyder to decide.  It’s a mutual backscratching society which is why Goodell’s job is safe when it should be over.
When people think of the NFL these days it’s not about the games, it’s about the league itself and that is the essence of the problem.  In Cleveland, the Browns won last Sunday not because of some fluke or quirk but because they were the better team on a given day.  The fans are talking, yes, but talking much more about Rice and Hardy and Peterson than Brian Hoyer.
That’s too bad.  Right now this Browns team doesn’t stink, at least like virtually every previous iteration.  A team that averages 5.6 wins a season for the last 11 years (a number that’s actually skewed by an improbable 10-win season in 2007) is pretty much exactly what it means for a team to stink.  So right now, at 1-1, the Browns don’t stink.
And while I’m not here to throw cold water on a good win, let’s just say that we’ve seen this before. Last year’s team had a mini win streak of sorts early in the season and then regressed to the true level of its awfulness.  In fairness, in most other years no regression was needed.  The team started out bad and got worse.
Still, there was much to like about Sunday’s win but perhaps the biggest takeaway was its ability to carry over a relatively high level of play from one week to the next.  True the Browns looked like the 2012 Browns in the first half of the Steelers game two weeks ago.  But the second half was more productive and energetic even if it fell short.  To watch that productivity and energy get carried over was indeed rare in these parts.
It’s still too early to offer a fair assessment of head coach Mike Pettine and maybe, as owner Jimmy Haslam said in a flash of exuberance after Sunday’s win that the team got the right coach (a feeling he likely uttered last season about Rob Chudzinski as well as the Browns, under Brian Hoyer, won 3 straight early last season), let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Pettine does seem different.  He isn’t the wet blanket that was Pat Shurmur or the little dictator that was Eric Mangini or even the genial but befuddled grandfather that was Romeo Crennel.  He’s pretty much a square-jawed, look you in the eye kind of guy, akin in temperament to former head coach Marty Schottenheimer but without the soaring clichés and flowing tears.
What is going to take time is to assess whether Pettine truly has the make-up of a successful head coach.  A head coach sets the tone and in that regard Pettine has done a good job thus far.  But two games into the season where expectations were low anyway isn’t exactly trial by fire.  The measure of Pettine and hence this team will come in a million smaller ways but will boil down to his ability to keep this team together and competitive if/when the season, like virtually all others, starts circling the drain.
Soon, hopefully, fans can have exactly these kinds of discussions.  That’s what football is supposed to be about.  As long as Goodell remains in charge, as long as he continues to garner support from the owners with their own foibles to hide, the NFL will be less about the games and more about “the league.”  It’s not the welcome distraction that any one wants.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Moral Relativism and The NFL, Roger Goodell-Style

Do you feel a little dirty today?  I do.  Despite everything I knew and felt about the Ray Rice situation, despite everything I wrote about it previously, I still sat and watched Monday night football.  I watched it because I’m a fan of the New York Giants.  I watched it because I enjoy NFL football. 
That’s the essence of the conflict here.  The NFL has a product that I enjoy as a consumer to the point that I end up looking the other way at its moral relativism no matter how offended I otherwise might be.  That makes me complicit in the dirty business of a league that, first, only suspended Rice for two games and, now, keeps Roger Goodell employed.
That has to change and if it doesn’t, if we as users of their product don’t take a stand by not supporting the league, its games, its sponsors until the NFL decides to fundamentally change and stand for something other than its brand, then we too are as big a part of the problem as is Goodell.
Goodell should resign as commissioner and if he doesn’t he should be fired.  Goodell already said he won’t resign and the decrepit ownership of the league, many of whom have their own sordid problems, are so out of touch with what takes place on the streets of day to day life that they probably will award Goodell a bonus.
Goodell’s job is supposed to be about, above all else, the protection of the game.  The NFL is at its cultural nadir at the moment, even if its games remain popular, because Goodell failed at the most important job he had. It’s amazing, really, that he can’t or won’t see it.
As usual, Goodell took to a controlled setting to explain away how incredibly unfeeling he and the league are to victims of domestic abuse who suffer at the hands of the men the league employs.  He looked sincere even as he presented a strong face for the his and hence the league’s indifference to societal norms when he said, echoing the talking points that the Ravens clearly had been given a few days earlier, that seeing the video made all the difference.  I think Goodell is lying about not seeing the video previously mainly because it’s almost impossible to believe otherwise.  And while he gets no benefit of the doubt any more, let’s just assume he didn’t.  So what?  He knew what happened and it matters little that he felt misled by Rice and his attorney who suggested that Rice’s fiancée essentially had it coming to her because she was the aggressor that led Rice to half the further discussion with a well-placed punch.
What Goodell suggests, what John Harbaugh and Ravens owner Steve Biscotti suggest, as they were shamed into facing the almost incomprehensible wrongness of their prior actions is that they never really knew how horrific domestic violence was until they actually witnessed it.  More to the point, they expect the public to buy that explanation.  That’s how far out of touch the league really is and why Goodell has to go, now.
Goodell’s crimes go even deeper.  Foremost, he’s lost any hope of gaining the high ground on this issue.  He can announce a hundred new initiatives and it won’t matter because he’s doing it because it was forced on him and not because he wanted to. 
He could have taken a much more aggressive approach toward ridding the league of abusers in his CBS News interview and did not.  Indeed, right now and despite his letter to league owners about a change to its domestic violence policies, two players, Greg Hardy and Ray McDonald continue to play.  Hardy has actually been convicted by a judge of assault on a female.  He’s appealed so the league dithers as if it has no choice.  McDonald has been arrested and despite his head coach, Jim Harbaugh, proclaiming zero tolerance for domestic violence, McDonald continues to play.
Let’s not lose sight of that fact that no one understands the power of the NFL’s brand better than Goodell as he wields it constantly in order to leverage any and everything he can from anyone.  He doles out limited access to select journalists who will further the league’s narrative in order.  He puts players at risk constantly, first by participating in the cover up of the impact concussions were having on former and current players and still by allowing Thursday night games despite all the medical evidence against such quick turnaround.  Goodell uses his bully pulpit for one thing only, to further maximize the league’s financial windfall while ignoring the cultural slide it contributes to in that pursuit.
Goodell’s abject incompetence at recognizing the broader implications of his decisions isn’t without precedence.  The real reason situations like this continue to come up, particularly in football, has everything to do with the culture of the sport that has been set by the NFL for decades, a culture that values winning and the spoils that come from it far above anything else, a culture that has found its way to the bottom of the feeding pools.
It’s coincidental at least, perhaps ironic, that on the same day that the NFL was finally shaken to its foundations by its own hypocrisy, the NCAA shed the vestiges of its high minded pretension by publicly removing the remaining sanctions from Penn State’s program, sanctions levied because of that school’s institutional coddling of a pedophile because of its desire not to derail its lucrative football program.  I guess because there’s no evidence of new pedophilia among the Penn State coaching staff that it’s time to simply burnish the previous penalties and act as if the entire matter never happened.
There is a common thread. 
Players don’t enter the NFL and then abuse women.  It’s a learned behavior over the many years in which their status is exalted because of their ability to run faster, throw better and tackle harder than someone else.  It starts in high school, continues through college and by the time these players reach the NFL their perceptions of societal norms is so skewed that they end up rallying around a player like Rice as the Ravens players did when all that was known then was that Rice dragged his unconscious girlfriend out of an elevator and left her like a discarded cigarette butt after he had snuffed her out in a fit of pique.
There isn’t a high school or college program in America that hasn’t found a way around punishing its better players in order to avoid potentially disastrous results on the field in the next game.  Florida head coach Will Muschamp suspended 3 players for the team’s opening game against Idaho but that game lasted one play because of the weather and was cancelled.  Florida was scheduled to take on a slightly gamer team in Eastern Michigan the following week so Muschamp lifted the suspensions and lashed out at critics who questioned his hypocrisy.
Muschamp can make all the excuses he wants but he did it because he felt he needed the players on the field for a game against Eastern Michigan.  That says something about how far Florida has fallen, certainly, but it says more about how a situation like Rice’s happened in the first place.
Players are coddled and ultimately made to feel like the rules of proper society are bendable in extenuating circumstances, like a big game on Saturday or Sunday.  Rice had no real fear that losing his temper and knocking out his fiancée and the mother of his child would cause him to lose his job.  He had no such fear because it’s never happened in the NFL.
Last week Sports Illustrated had a profile of Louisville coach Bobby Petrino.  I suspect that it didn’t make Petrino happy nor his fans for it laid out in subtle but definitive ways the institutional hypocrisy that creates the cesspool that ultimately lets scum like Rice float to the top.
Petrino is a complicated figure with an incredibly ethically challenged record both personally and professionally.  One thing he does, though, is win and for that he’s been rewarded again with a top college job.  Indeed Louisville’s athletic director Tom Jurich did a clever slight of hand by turning the question outward as to why he’d bring back Petrino after all the damage he’d done previously to at least 3 different football programs, including Louisville’s.  He couched it in near religious terms by responding, rhetorically with his own question, “who am I to not forgive?”  In other words, we’re all servants of God and if God forgives, how can we not model that behavior?
It’s all bullshit and Jurich must know it and if he doesn’t he shouldn’t be in his position.  It isn’t a question of forgiveness it’s a question of winning and losing.  He calculated that Petrino gave the school the best shot at keeping its program at a high level and he took it figuring he could just shower the grime off later.
That’s why players don’t fear consequences.  There’s always someone else to pick up the pieces for a guy who can help a team win.  Whatever publicly the coaches or owners say, what they do speaks more loudly.  Think about the McDonald and Hardy cases. Both continue to play because their absence would hurt the team.  The tired yarn of letting the legal process play out is ridiculous, particularly in domestic violence cases.  It puts the onus on the victim to recant or refuse to testify in order to save her abuser’s job.  That’s what the Ravens did to Janey Palmer and it’s what the 49ers and the Panthers are doing to the victims in their cases.
But of course there are other options to letting the process play out as they say, they just don’t include letting Hardy and McDonald play in the games.  Their teams could have simply deactivated the players from the active roster on game days.  Sure they’d still get paid but it would leave no doubt about how team management felt about their actions.  But that apparently would clash with the Panthers’ and the 49ers’ nascent playoff hopes and thus clearly wasn’t considered.
More to the point, let’s not act like anyone in the NFL actually cares about a due diligence process or is even bound by one.  They just pull it out when it’s convenient to them as cover for far more nefarious motives.  The NFL, despite having the power and money of a medium sized country, isn’t subject to the Constitutional protections of due process.  Goodell has told us many times that he can take action at any time for the good of the game.  Yet he and the Panthers and the 49ers in concert saw no reason to take any action yet on Hardy or McDonald and still don’t even as the league burns around them for the inept handling of the Rice situation.
Look at the shameful way that everyone associated with the Ravens handled the Rice situation.  The owner left it in the hands of the football people who calculated that the team’s playoff chances were less without Rice.  So the team president Dick Cass, the team general manager Ozzie Newsome and the team head coach John Harbaugh wrapped their swaddling arms around Rice, furthered his despicable implication that it was Palmer’s fault all along, and treated him as if he had accidentally run the car into the neighbor’s hedges.  Grounding him for two games stung about as much as a paddling does to a 6 year old with about the same impact long term.
What all of these demonstrate is that apologists exist at the highest levels to excuse player behavior because what they do isn’t about building men or character but about winning games and bringing money into the school, the city, the franchise, the league.
As should Goodell, the Ravens should be made to purge the franchise of its owner, its president and its general manager and its head coach.  The franchise’s culture can’t be fixed as long as any of them remain.  The same goes for the Panthers and the 49ers and any other team coddling the miscreants on their teams.
It seems like the only people that don’t know that the league is at a major crossroads is the league itself and all those apologists.  Just keep on the same road and they won’t need anyone calling for their heads.  They’ll have made themselves so irrelevant that they’ll fade away of their own accord.  If that’s the way this goes, then good riddance.  Finding another diversion from pro football won’t be nearly as hard as they think.

Monday, September 08, 2014

The Numbing Sameness of It All, Again--Opening Game, Pick the Year

The outcome was as inevitable as it was confounding but the journey was more interesting than usual.  The Cleveland Browns are a league doormat for many reasons not the least of which is their inability to beat division rivals or win an opening game.  So in that sense, nothing changed as the result of the outcome of Sunday’s 30-27 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

What made it more interesting than usual was the startling dichotomy behind a first half that unfolded as if the Browns would be on the business end of a 50+ point beat down and a second half that showed them to be a game if undermanned team.
Still, as head coach Mike Pettine noted, it’s a results oriented league that gives no points for moral victories and thus the Browns are, as usual, 0-1. 
This is a team, a franchise, a fan base, that needs something positive to happen.  It almost happened Sunday as the team improbably clawed its way back from a moribund 27-3 halftime deficit to tie it up late in the game.  Then of course it reverted to what it is because a team’s character shows most prominently during times of stress.  Needing a few first downs to at least get to overtime, the Browns offense instead buttoned back up, putting itself in bad positions with blown up plays that ultimately allowed Ben Roethlisberger to lead his team on one final drive that sent the Browns home with just another almost win and definite loss.
You could say that it was the defense that let this team down once again on that final drive, as it has some many times in the past.  But that only tells part of the story.  Looking as if it had no preseason in which to prepare when it yielded 27 first half points to the Steelers, the defense looked nearly formidable in the second half holding the Steelers to just those 3 critical points that ended the game.
It’s not really about dumping on this group of players for another loss because in many ways it’s not the players that failed but those above them and I don’t mean the coaching staff.  Sure Joe Haden once again demonstrated that he’s not nearly as good as he thinks he is and Justin Gilbert showed he is in desperate need of some film study.  But the defensive line, long touted as the strength of this team, showed up in the second half.  So did the linebackers.  Roethlisberger looked pretty damn ordinary for most of that second half as a result.
What continues to fail this team of course is its erstwhile and reckless approach to management.  Owner Jimmy Haslam can’t possibly think that the one and done he subjected former head coach Rob Chudzinski to had no impact on the direction of this franchise or even the outcome of this particular game.  It was monumental and not because Chudzinski was slated to be the next Bill Belichick.  It was because the impetuousness he demonstrated in first taking the words of Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi and then summarily firing them when they couldn’t deliver on any of their promises for the next coach showed the team and the world that Haslam, like Gilbert, needs plenty of seasoning.
It also put this team where it’s been too many times already—learning a new system, breaking in a new coach.  That’s some pretty high hurdles to take on in addition to the challenges that one of the league’s most stable franchises, Pittsburgh, perennially provides.
Marla Ridenour, writing in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, talked about the cloud that hangs over the team because of the Chudzinski firing and she’s right.  There’s nothing to suggest at the moment that Haslam will be any less impetuousness with Pettine when things go wrong.  Indeed would anyone be really surprised if Haslam were to fire Pettine should the team find itself winless during its bye week?  Of course not.
But we do know one thing.  Pettine isn’t a particularly impatient man or at least a man coaching like he’s on the league’s shortest leash. With just about everything going wrong in the first half, the narrative, indeed the collected wisdom within the confines of what make up the “experts” on the NFL’s pregame shows was that after one failed half it was now Johnny Manziel time.  Ridiculous on many levels but let’s start with the most basic.
Pettine is a rookie head coach.  The quickest way to cement that status is showing impatience with the fragile psyches that are the NFL’s band of quarterbacks.  If he replaced Hoyer at the end of the first half, it would have been tantamount to replacing him forever, sort of how Chris Palmer went to Tim Couch when Ty Detmer failed in that embarrassing opening season loss to, who else?, Pittsburgh in 1999 or when Romeo Crennel benched Charlie Frye near the end of the first half in the 2007 season opener against, wait for it, Pittsburgh, and went to Derek Anderson.  In other words, there was exactly this precedent in recent Browns’ past for Pettine to have benched Hoyer.
It would have been so like someone associated with the Browns to draw conclusions after one half of football in the season’s first game that perhaps that’s really why everyone was calling for Manziel.  They just kind of figured a Browns head coach, understanding the terrible history of head coaches in this town and the dreadful opening game outcomes for more than a decade, especially against Pittsburgh, would fall right in that line.
For not giving into the inevitable temptation, Pettine as much as anyone gets a Star of the Game award.
And what to make of Hoyer.  Well, for one thing, he operates better in a no-huddle format than the plodding approach employed by all of the offensive coordinators past.  So stick with it from here on in if only because it plays to the strength of the one guy that you need most at the moment.
The reason you need him most is because General Manager Ray Farmer still harbors the belief that he did address the wide receiver situation by stockpiling this team with Division II players, small fries, and undrafted free agents (many of whom not coincidentally fill all 3 slots).  Farmer claims they’re talented receivers it’s just that fans don’t know their names.  Neither does the rest of the league.
Put it this way, though, it wasn’t by accident that Hoyer kept going to tight end Jordan Cameron early on.  He’s reliable.  The others clearly haven’t shown enough even in practice for Hoyer to rely on them.
This Browns team isn’t a talented bunch.  There were flourishes on Sunday, certainly.  But what holds this team back is what has always held this team back.  A franchise if not in turmoil then at least in dissonance.  It’s hard to know exactly how far this team is away from being a legitimate contender but there are clues.  For example, more than half the roster wasn’t even with the team last year.  Another example, it still sorely lacks depth at virtually every position, making it more vulnerable than most to injuries.
It’s not even fair yet to say that this team will be interesting to watch all season.  There were good signs on Sunday but that’s all there were.  Nothing definitive will be decided next Sunday either against New Orleans.  What this team needs now is simply to show progress.  It did on Sunday, as measured from one half to the next.  The real trick comes in showing it from one game to the next.