Sherman’s March

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Lots of chatter about Richard Sherman’s and Doug Baldwin’s press conference yesterday, in which the Seahawks teammates joined forces with a life-size cut out of Baldwin to take on the “hypocrisy” of the NFL’s media availability and sponsorship policies as well as to call out its double-talk on player safety.

There are two points I want to make about reactions to Sherman and Baldwin.

1) Sports business guru Darren Rovell let fly a small twitter barrage in defense of the league. One of his arguments was that since Sherman, who has a deal with Beats by Dre, is also receiving a portion of pooled money from the NFL’s exclusive sponsorship deal with Bose, Sherman is effectively “double-dipping.”

So, how much are the players making from the Bose deal? When the NFL and Bose announced their deal this summer, the league exercised its Emily Post-like sense of decorum to decline to discuss how much it was getting from Bose. According to media reports, the NFL’s previous deal with Motorola was for $40 million a year and that the NFL rejected a $50-mil per year offer to re-up with Motorola.

So, let’s assume the deal with Bose is for $75 million a year, which would be nearly double the previous deal. According to Rovell, 45% of sponsorship deal money goes to players, added to the salary cap. Someone can correct me if I am wrong, but since teams don’t have to spend all their cap money, it’s not necessarily true that that’s a dollar-for-dollar transfer to the players’ pockets.  But let’s assume it does mean that.

45% of $75 million is about $35 million. Since we’ve probably overstated the size of the Bose deal, I will low ball this a tad and say that this leaves about $1 million a year per team for players’ salaries. There are 53 men on an active roster. So, even leaving aside practice squads, I get a figure of about $20,000 per player per year from Bose. I have a very strong hunch that, when you crunch the numbers, the figure is lower than this, but that’s not a lot of money for an NFL player in any case. if you asked Richard Sherman whether he’d sacrifice that sum in exchange for having some of his grievances being addressed by the league, I strongly suspect he wouldn’t think twice.

This raises a related issue which is that there persists a feeling that the players are incredibly lucky to lead the lives they do and to make the money they make. And in a profound sense, that is true. But here’s where that thinking goes off the rails – so are the freaking owners, not to mention the Commissioner, with his $40 million in annual compensation. If Richard Sherman is arguing that ordinary women and men should feel sympathy for him because he can’t make ends meet or is unfairly oppressed by the league relative to the working conditions of ordinary folks, he should be laughed out of the room. But he’s not saying that. He’s saying he has a beef with the league. You don’t have to agree with him. But if you think Richard Sherman is out of line complaining about sponsorship restrictions because he pockets some extra cash every year, how about spending 100 times the air time hammering rich owners who rob municipalities blind while they simultaneously hold themselves up as pillars of their communities?

There’s a basic lack of proportion here.

2) In criticizing some of what Sherman had to say, Mike Golic fell back on a favorite trope today – the collective bargaining agreement (CBA). The media availability clause in player contracts, which union negotiators accepted, says players need to be available to media. Seahawks’ running back Marshawn Lynch, who has been mocked in the past for his nervous responses to questions, has twice been fined $50,000 for refusing to speak to reporters. If players don’t like that clause – and Golic was sincerely sympathetic to some players’ aversion to speaking publicly – they can address that the next time they negotiate a CBA, Golic says. One hears this argument all the time about Goddell’s unilateral disciplinary power.

Here’s the thing, though. You can’t get everything in a negotiation. You prioritize. Some stuff you have to let go, as you live to fight another day, That doesn’t make it impermissible to complain about those demands the other side insisted upon. Owners do it all the time, usually beginning to complain about one minute after the ink is dry on a CBA that they’re *still* not making enough money. And that’s the piece of this argument that is so aggravating – I rarely if ever hear media invoke the “you bargained it” argument to shut down an owner or a commissioner.

I’ve brought this up before in connection with now-retired Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig. Selig defended the scourge of PED use on his watch in the 1990s by arguing that he had no choice because the union would not agree to drug testing before the 2002 CBA agreement. Well, guess what? He signed on to those agreements. If he was so concerned about PED use, and really saw it as the singular threat to the game’s integrity he subsequently claimed to champion, he could have shut down the sport until the players caved on testing. After all, he was quite willing to do precisely that to advance largely bullshit economic arguments about how franchises like his own couldn’t compete or make money.

If it’s good for the goose, it ought to be good for the gander.

Sherman’s presser is a relative triviality in the great scheme of things. But a bias persists in painting players as lucky parasites who should be thankful for every dollar they earn, whereas owners’ wealth, however they make it, is their birthright.

Happy Thanksgiving, all. (Seriously!).

Same old, same old

It’s a depressing day in higher education. The New York Times has a devastating story about the serial failures of the University of Virginia to pursue vigorously sexual assault cases on its campus. The problem is a national one – UNC’s own failures in this area have been well-documented.

I just felt compelled to mention that.

Yesterday, I received via email the “Michigan Today” newsletter. It included a link to an interesting episode in university history. In 1925, Neil Staebler, then a student in Ann Arbor, was the editor of a gadfly student publication called Chimes, which was to fold a year later. The most powerful man on campus in 1925 was the already legendary Fielding Yost, long-time football coach and athletics czar at UM. Michigan was a powerhouse in football in those days. So much so that Yost and his backers were clamoring to build a new stadium that could accommodate up to 100,000 fans.

Staebler, alongside the sociologist Robert Angell, was adamantly opposed to the proposed stadium and, more generally, to the insidious influence of football on campus life. The arguments deployed on either side of the debate are familiar to anyone paying attention to NCAA-related controversies in 2014.

When Yost was making his case for the new stadium, he promised that its benefits would reach far beyond football. The new revenues generated by football would pay for a brand new sporting complex to accommodate other varsity and intramural sports. So, even in 1925, big time college football sold itself as a beneficent force in campus life and was already seeking to create a kind of dependency that would link its fate to athletics more generally.

In making his case for a new stadium:

“…Yost went into overdrive. All that spring and summer he gave speeches from Monroe to Marquette to Kalamazoo, to Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis Clubs, Chambers of Commerce. On the faculty there might be snooty naysayers, but among outstate alumni and just plain fans, he had thousands of allies. Michigan was behind in the stadium race. The state had to compete.”

The trope that anyone who criticizes big-time athletics is elitist and anti-athlete is, this story makes clear, far from a new one, as is the claim that schools in an arms race cannot afford to unilaterally disarm.

When Staebler and Angell (then a 25-year old professor and former sports editor of the Michigan Daily) took on football, they knew they would be demonized. After Angell called for the abolition of intercollegiate athletics, he was deemed “inhuman, devoid of emotion, incapable of feeling thrills and disgustingly academic.”

Writing for Gaebler’s publication, Angell framed the mission of the university in basic terms:

“At Ann Arbor is an institution called a University. What does this mean? It means first and foremost that here is a social structure dedicated to the improvement of human life through the acquisition of knowledge.”

So, the question, in his mind, was whether big time football furthered that fundamental mission. His answer – clearly not.  Football, he argued, had an outsized and unhealthy impact on the intellectual and moral imagination of Michigan’s students. And as for the athletes themselves: “Angell said, only a few did more in class than maintain their eligibility. Nearly all their time and energy went to the sport. ‘Their diplomas cover a multitude of intellectual sins.'”

Angell’s problem wasn’t with football itself, but what it had become at Michigan:

“I enjoy watching a football game almost as much as the next man,” he said. “Time was when I enjoyed it more. But that does not alter the unmistakable fact that students could still be allowed this pleasure without the contests becoming a great public spectacle. That is what turns a fine thing into a degenerating one. The university has certainly no duty to furnish public entertainment to its own detriment.”

Gaebler’s and Angell’s adversaries rehearsed a by-now familiar set of arguments. Football benefited athletes of all stripes at Michigan, including the former tennis player, Angell. Football was here to stay, so opposing it was to do little more than tilt at windmills. Building a bigger stadium would not alter the fundamental purpose of the enterprise, only generate more income and meet popular demand.  In sum, if you aren’t going to get rid of football, you might as well get behind it becoming as big as possible.

In the midst of this fight, a university committee issued a long-awaited report on the impact of athletics on campus life. The report concluded that:

Michigan should dampen the fierce emphasis on winning; reduce the imbalance between intercollegiate and intramural sports; and put more faculty on the Board in Control of Intercollegiate Athletics. The University was “an institution of higher learning, not a purveyor of popular entertainment,” the committee said. “Intercollegiate athletics seem to have grown out of all proportion to the importance of the purposes which they serve.”

The response – naturally, it was to push ahead with the new stadium, a 72,000-seater that opened in 1927.

Twas ever thus.

Subtraction by subtraction

It would be hard to overstate how bad a basketball player Andreas Bargnani is. Not compared to you or me, of course. But compared to almost anyone who might take the minutes that Bargnani would otherwise play, the Italian 7-footer simply and indisputably hurts your basketball team almost any time he is on the floor.

Because basketball analysis is still so spotty, and because whether a player can sometimes put up 20-plus points in a game serves as a substitute for even the most rudimentary analysis of performance and value, some people still don’t realize this about Bargnani.

Last week, Brendan Brown, who covers the Knicks for a living, told Mike Francesa that it would help to have Bargnani – who hasn’t played yet this year due to injury – back in the lineup for the struggling team. Francesa, of course, agreed.

So, let’s review:

- compared to the average center, Bargnani scores more points, is a better free throw shooter and hits a higher percentage of his threes than the typical big man (most don’t try to shoot them, of course).

- but in essentially every other way, Bargnani is worse, and in some cases, far worse than the *average* center. He is an awful rebounder; an inferior passer; a below average field goal shooter, even accounting for his increased number of threes; a poor shot blocker.

Add it all up, and whereas the average player has a Wins Produced score of .100 per 48 minutes, Bargnani is actually below zero. Whereas Knick’s center Samuel Dalembert, a good player but no one’s idea of a hall of famer, is responsible for a net of about 72 wins in his career, Bargnani has actually *cost* his team a net of 19 wins in his career.

He is simply, indisputably terrible even if, every few games, he hits some threes and racks up a decent point total. There is almost no player in the NBA who would contribute less to the Knicks winning than Bargnani does.

So, no, it won’t help to have him back. This is his ninth year in the NBA. He’s been terrible essentially since day one. Nothing is going to change that.

Did I mention that the Knicks are paying Bargs $11.5 million this year and gave up a first round draft choice to acquire him.

The Malice in the Palace, ten years later

This past Wednesday marked the tenth anniversary of the so-called Malice in the Palace, the brawl between the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers that spilled over into the stands at Auburn Hills and resulted in unprecedented suspensions for Ron Artest and others. In many ways, that fight and its aftermath marked a turning point in NBA history.

Some years ago, I wrote about Commissioner Stern’s handling of that melee and the ways in which Stern hoped his actions would forge a new era for the NBA.

Two quick footnotes to what I wrote way back when:

1) none of the discussions I heard this week about the brawl called attention to the fact that prosecutors themselves deemed the fan, John Green (no, not *that* John Green), to be criminally culpable for having escalated the brawl. In popular lore, Ron Artest (now Metta World Peace) is an unhinged guy who over-reacted to a fan doing nothing more than impishly tossing a beverage on Artest. Green had a criminal record, though, and did more than just wet Artest’s beak.

Down the memory hole.

We live in a crazy world, so naturally Artest and Green later (apparently) became friends. But the story of that fight continues to be mistold.

2) Stern, as I’ve written before, quite self-consciously addressed himself to the racial conundrum at the heart of his former empire: how to sell big, incredibly athletic young black as physical specimens to a largely white fan base that loves spectacle but whose sensibilities, collectively, run very quickly to the perception that young black men, as a group, teeter on the edge of menace and malice.

It happens that the current generation of NBA stars – LeBron, KD, CP3 and so on – walk that fine line extraordinarily adeptly. But one way to understand the very swift efforts of Stern’s successor to banish Donald Sterling from the NBA is as payback for the players willingness to go along with the league’s racially self-conscious approach to image management.

The recent controversy surrounding the email sent by Atlanta Hawks’ owner Bruce Levenson about the team’s difficulty attracting fans shows clearly that the ghosts of the Auburn Hills still hover over the sport.

The league may have successfully recast its image after the Malice. But it did not succeed in expunging the dilemmas of race from our collective conscience.

Rusty Hardin explains away child abuse

This is not a defense of the NFL’s decision to suspend Adrian Peterson without pay for the rest of the season. The NFL’s disciplinary “system” is a mess and needs to be overhauled. But Hardin’s attack on the league this morning was best on a categorically false premise – that when it’s your own children, you may hurt them. To be clear, that is not what Harden said. He said repeatedly that no one wants to see a child hurt and that Peterson made a “mistake.” But Hardin also said over and over again that it was wrong for anyone but parents to be the arbiter of how people should raise their own children, that Peterson “spanked” his four year old son and that he left no permanent damage, as if that somehow made his actions OK. In other words, Hardin tried repeatedly to explain away or minimize assault on a young child.

It’s reasonable to say that the legal system’s adjudication of any criminal matter ought to be the first line of consideration for subsequent discipline by the NFL. But as Jemele Hill pointed out this morning, if Harden is not disputing the league’s right to impose at least *some* discipline in cases of domestic violence, it’s frankly shocking that he does not believe that is the case for abusing a four year old child. And let’s be clear – Peterson was deemed by the criminal justice system to have broken the law when he whipped his four year old son with a tree branch. You’re not allowed to do that and it’s not a matter of discretion.

And by the way, Hardin has no idea whether permanent damage was done to the child. Yes, the physical wounds will presumably heal. But such is typically the case when a child is sexually abused. That’s not material, as the lawyers would say, to whether permanent damage was done. I am not saying that what Peterson did was the same as child sexual abuse, by the way. But what is not debatable is this – you are not allowed to assault a child just because she or he is your own. Reducing that simple, incontrovertible fact to a question of “discretion” in “disciplining” your own kids is sophistry of the worst sort.

Hardin is paid very handsomely to represent wealthy clients. That’s his job. There is, therefore, no reason to take at face value his assertions and characterizations, however. I know he’s a “newsmaker” and attracts audience, which is why companies like ESPN want him on the air. But he’s not an objective analyst. And in my judgment, he crossed a shameful line today and disgraced himself by trying to explain away assault on a small child.

(Don’t) Say Anything

Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, a former league MVP, tore his ACL during the first game of the 2012 playoffs. He subsequently sat out all of 2012-13. Three weeks into the 2013-14 season, he tore his meniscus and missed the remainder of the season.

Due to an assortment of injuries, the 26-year old has missed six of the team’s first eleven games so far this season.

Last week, Rose said the following:

I feel I’ve been managing myself pretty good. I know a lot of people get mad when they see me sit out. But I think a lot of people don’t understand that when I sit out, it’s not because of this year. I’m thinking about long term. I’m thinking about after I’m done with basketball, having graduations to go to, having meetings to go to.

I don’t want to be in my meetings all sore or be at my son’s graduation all sore just because of something I did in the past. Just learning and being smart.

Naturally, this caused sportsmediaworld to lose its collective mind. Here’s Deadspin’s account of Steve Rosenbloom, Chicago Trib columnist, arguing that Rose’s comments demonstrate what a stupid idiot he is and, for good measure, what a stupid idiot he is. A similarly characteristic  take came from the inimitable Stephen A Smith, who described himself as “devastated” by Rose’s comments. Smith said that because Rose is in the midst of a guaranteed five year contract, to bring up long-term health concerns like whether Rose was going to be able to be there for his kids without experiencing chronic debilitating pain was “inexcusable” and “egregious.” Smith spoke in the most solemn terms about what a betrayal this was of owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who is paying Rose $90 million plus over the life of the deal. As many others argued, because Rose is not playing football or boxing and, therefore, not risking any real long-term health problems, Stephen A. believes he has no obligation other than to give his maximum physical effort even if that increases his risk of further serious injury. Smith regarded with great “alarm” what Rose was “disseminating to the masses” – namely that, as a basketball player, Rose was making unacceptable claims about whether athletes in his sport could argue seriously that they might have to worry about their physical condition once they retire.

Mike Greenberg was similarly exercised by Rose’s statements.

One wonders whether, until a few years ago, the typical sports pundit would not have said similar things about a football player who suggested he might hold himself out of a game not because he was suffering from an immediate acute injury, but instead because he was looking ahead to the end of his playing days. Regardless, the argument is a stupid one. We can all be thankful that Derrick Rose isn’t playing a sport that may increase substantially the likelihood of his suffering long-term brain impairment. But as anyone with severe arthritis, back problems or other non head-related, but chronic pain can tell you, life under such circumstances can be miserable and sometimes unendurable. Ask Bill Walton what life was like for him for a few years.

I have no idea whether the long-term prognosis for Rose is chronic pain. But neither do any of the clowns weighing in to say what a travesty it is that he’s actually thinking seriously about his kids and his future after basketball. I am sorry that Greenie is offended that Derrick Rose is a little gun shy after two catastrophic knee injuries in two years. But the comments are ill-informed, presumptuous and obnoxious. No one who has played with Rose has ever regarded him as a slacker. Indeed, current and former teammates love Rose and his dedication and commitment.

And I fail entirely to understand why a single fan or sports pundit gives a single solitary shit about Jerry Reinsdorf’s money (or that of any other owner). He’s ridiculously wealthy. He’s making a fortune off his NBA team. If I have to choose between Derrick Rose and Jerry Reinsdorf who is more deserving of the money they’ve made off the game of basketball, that’s a no-brainer. If Bulls fans are frustrated because they want to see Rose on the court more, I understand that. But that’s not a professional, or moral, judgment.

The reaction to Rose’s comments (not unlike the overblown vitriol now being directed at Robert Griffin III) highlight a simple truth. For all their endless complaining about athletes giving boiler plate answers to questions and never saying anything interesting, sports pundits frequently act like a pack of ravenous dogs the second a player dares to go off script.

 

 

Bring It!

Michele Roberts is the new executive director of the NBA Players’ Union. She is the first woman to be union chief for a major North American sports league. The players were fleeced during the negotiations that ended the 2011 lockout. To hear Roberts tell it, that’s not going to happen again.

Roberts said that the owners should be credited with having “done a great job of controlling the narrative.” A measure of their success is that the perfectly sensible things to Roberts says are going to sound alien or hostile, because professional owners have often been so successful at using terms like “markets” and “competition” in nearly the opposite of their commonly understood usages.

Among her claims:

1) it’s ridiculous that owners should be splitting the revenue 50-50 with the players. Roberts asks: “why don’t we have owners play half the games?” As she says, “there would be no money if not for the players.” Even the conservative columnist George Will is on the record as saying that when it comes to pro athletes, he subscribes to Marx’ Labor Theory of Value (that’s Karl – not Groucho).

Roberts elaborates:

“Let’s call it what it is. There. Would. Be. No. Money,” she added, pausing for emphasis. “Thirty more owners can come in, and nothing will change. These guys [the players] go? The game will change. So let’s stop pretending.”

Yes, we can quibble over whether the players should get *all* the money. But the owners’ fatuous claims that they teeter on the brink of bankruptcy unless they receive an ever-expanding share of the pie are much less serious than Roberts’ assertions.

2) Roberts described the salary cap flatly as “un-American.” We can quibble about that. But what is undeniable is that the owners, as a collective, would regard as an outrage and an affront to everything America stands for any effort to cap their profits.

3) She rightly bashed the owners’ desire to raise the NBA age minimum. We’ve covered this ground before. Their arguments for doing so do not withstand scrutiny and the larger discussion of age limits in American sports have an undeniable racial tinge.

4) Roberts response to the recent claim by Commissioner Adam Silver that a third of teams were still losing money was the only appropriate one there is:

“I initially just started laughing, to be honest with you,” she said of her reaction to that statistic. “I know that as a result of the last CBA, at least 1.3 billion dollars in revenue that would have otherwise been on the players’ side is now on the owners’ side. I see the valuations of these teams going though the roof. … How much more do you need to make money?”

It’s going to be fun to watch her in action when the players consider opting out of the current CBA in 2016, just before the massive increase in television revenues begins. On the whole, sports media are painfully guileless about the owners’ ridiculous claims of poverty and their absurd attempts to defend their unrelenting greed and market-defying privileges by invoking shibboleths like “competitive balance.”

Roberts seems well-placed to take those head on.