Friday, March 27, 2015

Reining In The Religious Bigots

It’s time to let the free market have its say and the ones to do the talking are among the biggest players on the block, the NFL and the NCAA.

Earlier this week Indiana governor Mike Pence signed into law a so-called religious freedom bill that would specifically allow businesses in that state to openly, purposely and insidiously discriminate against gays so long as they assert sincerely held religious beliefs that require them to reject doing business with homosexuals, bisexuals and transgenders
The NFL, the NCAA and the sponsors of both have substantial business interests in Indiana.  Not only does the state have an NFL franchise, it also holds the annual circus known as the combine for several days each March in Indianapolis.  The NCAA has its corporate headquarters in Indianapolis.  One of its conferences, the Big Ten, holds its annual championship in Indianapolis.  Together these activities probably yield hundreds of millions of dollars annually in economic benefits for the state. 

The other thing tying these organizations and their sponsors together is that they both serve the LGBT community.  Both the NCAA and the NFL have a smattering of openly gay players with several more closeted ones sprinkled throughout.  The companies that shower millions on them for the right to be associated with them have gay employees.  In short, none can afford to be viewed as homophobic because of the attendant economic consequences that would bring.
Yet unless all of them stand up to the religious bullies and far right nut jobs running the government in Indiana, they risk being branded as complicit in the bigotry the state of Indiana recently institutionalized.

Let’s be clear on this point.  Indiana may be the first to get this law passed and signed by a weak-willed governor more concerned with checking off the boxes on his far right bona fides in case he should run for President some day than he is with the rights of all his citizens, but left unchecked these vile laws will spread like anthrax. 

Certainly the U.S. Supreme Court, perhaps unwittingly, gave birth to these kinds of laws when it found that Hobby Lobby, as a company, could assert religious claims against contraception as a basis for refusing to follow the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that contraception must be a covered benefit under its health plans.  And it will likely take the U.S. Supreme Court to step in, much like it did in Brown v. The Board of Education, to ultimately put a stop to this latest form of bigotry.   But until then, it falls to those who have a vested interest in not looking like they sanction discrimination to effectively stop this in its tracks.

Believe me, if the NFL and the NCAA take a stand in Indiana, it will give pause to every other state currently considering these ridiculous laws.

If there’s one thing these religious zealots believe in more than shunning homosexuals, it’s the power of the free market as the solution to all of society’s problems.  So those that can should unleash that power by refusing to do business of any kind in a state that institutionalizes bigotry against any segment of society.

Tech companies, a few organizations and a couple of small businesses have said they won’t do business in Indiana.  The Republican mayor of Indianapolis came out against the law.  That’s a nice start but it’s not the kind of tsunami that would get unleashed if the NCAA and the NFL and their sponsors take on the cause.

The NCAA issued a helpful statement, indicating that it’s concerned about the impact of the law on its employees and that it wants to ensure that those attending next week’s Final Four are not negatively impacted.  It also left dangling the implication that there could be more direct action taken as it further considers its options.  But I’m disappointed anyway.

The Indiana legislature has been considering this law for the last few months.  The governor has repeatedly expressed his support for it.  What the NCAA should have done was threaten to move this year’s Final Four, even with all the logistical challenges that would create, unless either the legislature voted the bill down or the governor refused to sign it.  By not speaking up it, the law got passed and by virtue of its existence, its employees and everyone attending the Final Four are negatively impacted.  It’s simply unrealistic at this late moment to expect every employee of the NCAA, every participant in the tournament and every fan to boycott the state at this late date.  

Instead they have to do business in what is certainly now one of this nation’s most odious states.
The NFL had threatened Arizona with the withdrawal of a Super Bowl when it was considering a similar law.  It worked.  But here the NFL has remained silent, at least so far.  That’s puzzling but perhaps not.  The NFL has a very troubled history of moving too slowly on issues of social significance and it usually takes a few missteps and a public outcry before it gets it right.

This isn’t that hard for the NFL.  Just come out now and tell the state that the combine won’t take place in Indianapolis again and until the law is changed.  Maybe they have contracts that would have to get broken.  So be it.  The NFL has twice as much money as the God these legislators claim to worship.  It can take the short term loss for the long term gain.  So could have the NCAA.

Undoubtedly demanding action by the NCAA and the NFL will surely inflame the religious fruitcakes who think these kind of Jim Crow 2.0 laws are just dandy.  The argument Spence articulated on behalf of them is that the law is not about discrimination, it’s about religious freedom.  What Spence can’t rightly answer, and the most salient question he avoided, is exactly how religious freedom is supposedly under attack in this country.  It’s not, that’s a fallacy perpetrated by far right religious lobbying groups in order to further its far right Christian agenda.  When Spence references religion, it’s code for Christianity.  And it’s not all of Christianity, just the far right branch that believes cats will start playing with dogs and cows will rain from the heavens if gays are allowed to marry.

The real nub of the issue is that a few far right religious lobbying groups worked the state like TV evangelists work their flocks.  They convinced them that a few mom and pop shops who ran afoul of public accommodation laws by refusing to serve gays was a wrong that needed to be righted in the name of a God whom, a character in the movie Hannah and Her Sisters once said, if he returned and saw all that was being done in his name would be so appalled he’d never stop throwing up.

There’s no inherent wrong that needed to be righted unless it’s telling those loudmouth bigots that they are wrong, morally, religiously and economically.  If Spence and the Indiana legislature wants to stand up for religious freedom then they ought to be the first to stand in front of the line and protect the next group of Muslims who get threatened for wanting to build a mosque next to a synagogue.   
Gay marriage is legal in 36 states at the moment.  The country hasn’t collapsed onto itself.  Indeed things pretty much seem the same.  The Cleveland Browns still suck.  The Republicans still hate the President.  Girls still remains one of the most over-rated shows in television history.  

The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to legalize gay marriage across the country.  But that won’t dissuade the bigots any more than the decision in Brown v. The Board of Education when bigoted businesses were told that they had to integrate or risk breaking the law.  When George Wallace refused to abide by the decision and tried to stop the University of Alabama from integrating, when he tried to stop elementary schools from integrating, he was shut down by the federal courts and federal marshals.  He had plenty of supporters, certainly, but time and history haven’t been kind to either of them.

That will ultimately be the same result for Pence and every legislator in Indiana who passed this law, just as it will be for every legislator across the country considering similar laws, just as it will be for every governor in every state and every other attorney general in every other state (including John Kasich and Mike DeWine in Ohio) still fighting the wrong fight on taxpayer money.

There’s no reason though to wait for history to render its judgment.  That judgment can and should be rendered contemporaneously by those with the economic power to do it.  And if the NCAA and the NFL don’t get this right, then it’s time to reconsider our support for anything they sponsor. 

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Shrugging It All Off

Joe Paterno hated end zone celebrations.  He told his players to hand the ball to the official and to act like they’ve been there before.  Cleveland Browns fans don’t need to act like they’ve been there before.  They have.

How else can one otherwise act when considering the various moves of the Cleveland Browns as it goes about its latest offseason marked as it is by the usual overpromising and under delivering.  Maybe the better reaction is the Joey Bosa shrug. 

To focus on but two recent examples:

The Browns unveiled their new branding initiatives that amounted to nothing more than keeping the same logo but with a more vibrant shade of orange on the helmet and a more foreboding shade of black on the faceguard. 

There was a bunch of accompanying talk about how these new designs somehow are more reflective of Cleveland today than in the past.  Mostly though this great unveil was a microcosm of the team itself: more hype than substance.

Then the Browns signed Josh McCown, 35-year old Josh McCown, as their next quarterback.  That makes McCown number 23 on a list with no end, no real beginning, and no real goal.  Such is the ignominious roster of Browns quarterbacks the last 15 years.

It probably means something that of the previous 22 quarterbacks to wear a Browns uniform the only one with a winning record, Brian Hoyer, is the latest one being replaced.  But it probably says even more that the Browns are still signing quarterbacks like McCown with the abiding belief that what this team needs, indeed what gets it from point A to point B, is a bridge to its true savior, also known as the quarterback that doesn’t exist.  Josh McCown, meet Luke McCown or Jack Delhomme or Brian Hoyer or, or, do I really need to go through the other 20?  Seriously, how long are the Browns going to try and recreate the Gary Danielson/Bernie Kosar experience?

No one could possibly much care that the Browns see McCown as a better option than Hoyer.  It’s like choosing Budget Car Rental over Alamo at the airport.  Neither is Hertz or Avis and what you get by being cheap is a pretty decent chance that the car you reserved won’t be available for another hour, please wait.

In the same way, no one much cares that the Browns grand strategists see the latest shade of orange as somehow more reflective (unless it’s actually, you know, reflective) of the city than the previous color.  It’s like choosing ecru over khaki when picking a shade of brown to paint the guest room.  To the person visiting the colors are as indistinguishable as they are uninteresting.

It really is hard to figure out what this team is doing or working on that ultimately will make it perform better on the field.  We know, for example, that if the team had better players it wouldn’t matter if they wore uniforms that were ultraviolet with grey accents just as we know if these same players wore the red, white and blue of the New England Patriots they’d still finish under .500 every season.

I’m not against branding or even updating the branding.  But let’s call it what it is: the last tool in the box of a diversionist. 

What this bit of news about re-branding really demonstrates above almost all else is that this is a franchise more consumed with fluff than substance.  I suppose that the only thing that would make this effort more clear if the team had decided to rename itself.  Isn’t that the last bastion of all failing brands?

The Browns have become the Value Jet of NFL franchises so it wouldn’t be a total surprise if they came up with a new name, like Value Jet did when it renamed itself JetBlue after a particularly horrific crash in a Florida swamp revealed that Value Jet was not a brand that anyone trusted.

For Value Jet, it mostly worked.  JetBlue was reborn and has been modestly successful as a budget airline flying limited routes while charging frugal-minded customers for bags and probably everything else, including arm rests and seat cushions.  The Browns’ rebranding efforts, I suspect, will meet with less success.

As long as owner Jimmy Haslam retains the team’s current name how much can really change?  Decades ago most fans understood that the team name honored its most famous coach, Paul Brown.  But Art Modell changed that calculus when he fired Brown (has there ever been a better example of foreshadowing?) but weirdly kept the name.  Now, however, the history has been long forgotten by most fans and now the name just sits there, wallowing as the logo does in its own bath of blandness.  Brown might be the least vibrant color on the spectrum matching the least vibrant team in the NFL.

And while this franchise has given its fans every reason to be cynical about anything it does, the question is still relevant: exactly what is the team trying to distract the fans from?

Oh yea, it’s the stuff going on inside of Berea. 

I’m not against signing McCown though again it’s worth pointing out that his signing comes at the expense of dropping the only quarterback the team has had since 1999 who has played more than ten games and had a winning record.  It’s just that his signing doesn’t move anyone’s needle.  McCown was terrible last season, played well in spots in previous seasons, and overall brings absolutely nothing to the mix assuming the goal was to stabilize the quarterback position.  He’s what Brandon Weeden would have been in a few years, when he turns 35, had the Browns kept him.

So why did the Browns sign McCown?  Good question and one the team hasn’t really ventured to answer.  But you can read into some of McCown’s comments, the most telling of which is that he both understands that he is not nor does he have any interest in being the team’s near, mid or long-term answer at quarterback.  He just wants to contribute, you know, do what’s asked.  That apparently conflicts with Hoyer’s perfectly understandable view that given his success with a team that otherwise lacks any, he both wants to start and be paid like one.

In other words, in signing McCown the Browns weren’t interested in a fierce competitor with his eye on the prize.  They wanted a caretaker, a guy willing to shut his pie hole and sit in the corner happy with a  contract that guarantees him a little over $6 million by the time he exits Cleveland, probably at the end of next season.  That narrative also fits well into the larger issue of branding, doesn’t it?

There is much else in Berea from which the Browns would want its fans distracted, like the disastrous general manager with the happy texting fingers.  Then there’s the news that the Browns nixed solid trade offers for Josh Gordon last season only to now find themselves clinging to a player with no market value on a team in desperate need of someone who can catch the ball.  The overhang, of course, is just the general specter of another draft, a passel full of draft picks, and a track record that says they’re more likely to blow every one of them than get any one of them right.
Yea, sure, now is exactly the right time to re-brand, just as it is the right time to sign McCown, and the right time shrug your shoulders at it all and move on, secure in the knowledge that no matter which way the Browns arrange the deck chairs the ship is still sinking.