Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category

A Sterling Day

Board of Governors MeetingNBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s ouster of Clippers owner Donald Sterling sets a new, bold precedent and updated standards for professional sports ownership.

 

I’m not much of an NBA fan, which is to say not at all. I rarely pay more than cursory attention to the league. It’s just not a product that I appreciate. I love college basketball, but the NBA game is another story. Fantastic athletes, but a nearly unwatchable product.

These last five days, however, have been absolutely fascinating to me. What the NBA has just gone through with the moral stain that is Donald Sterling and how the league and its players ultimately handled the situation, in my mind, is nothing short of spectacular and applause worthy. Roger Goodell could learn a few things from rookie NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

As many readers may know, I spent 15 years working in professional sports here in San Diego. I spent five years with the San Diego Padres, and 11 years with the San Diego Chargers (one year overlapped where I worked for both). I’ve seen good owners and bad owners. I was there during the Padres’ fire sale in 1993 perpetrated by then principal owner Tom Werner. I was working in game day operations when they called us in to help the overwhelmed switchboard operators to answer complaints the team was receiving in protest from Padres fans. I think I still have the highly detailed script of responses they gave us and warned us not to deviate from.

I was with the team when John Moores swooped in from Houston and rescued the Padres, with the rebuilt roster that in 1996 brought a division title to San Diego. You think the fans breathed a huge sigh of relief once Werner was gone? That was nothing compared to how we felt. But for all of the problems and missteps Moores blundered through—mostly personal, some professional, such as the lawsuit that found he cheated his employees out of overtime pay—that eventually led to his sale of the team, he brought some real memorable moments to Padres fans and to the staff that worked for him. And because of him, we have Petco Park, which I think most San Diegans will agree is a good thing.

As for the Chargers, when you work in the NFL and get the opportunity to travel around the league, interacting with other league personnel as I did, you get a sense of what a truly awful owner looks like. Bill Bidwell, Al Davis, and Mike Brown come to mind. Dean Spanos isn’t perfect, but he’s always tried to do right by his team and his city. Believe me, we could do far, far worse. And if anyone other than Dean Spanos owned the Chargers, they’d be playing in Los Angeles by now.

Every now and then the Clippers would come up in conversation at Chargers Park. Every time they did, all I could think was thank God I don’t work for Donald Sterling. Honestly, I would have quit. I couldn’t have done it. And I suffered through Tom Werner! That’s how bad Sterling was.

In the pantheon of major professional sports team owners, Donald Sterling is without a doubt the absolute worst. Winning never mattered to him. For most of his 33 years of ownership there wasn’t even a nominal effort to build a successful team on the court. The Clippers were nothing more than a toy to him, something to use as leverage to make him seem more important than he really was; to elevate his status in order to bolster his real estate business. He moved the team from San Diego because his real estate holdings were in LA, so that’s where his NBA ownership status would do him the most good. The team was a joke, and their fans were suckers.

I’m sure there were many NBA owners, particularly in the West, that were thrilled to have him around. In most years it meant that as long as Sterling was there, no matter how bad their own teams were, the Clippers would almost always be worse, insulating them somewhat from the criticism of their own fan bases. Sterling? He just didn’t care.

But what could you do? He was the team owner. It’s not like you can fire him like you can fire the coach or the GM, although that’s exactly what was needed. It’s his team. He can run it however he wants.

That’s why Adam Silver’s decision to lower the hammer on Sterling yesterday was so historic. In one fell swoop, Silver changed the nature sports ownership for good.

In the wake of Sterling’s well publicized racist rant, Silver didn’t just punish an NBA owner, he took the unprecedented step of effectively ending the ownership. He banned Sterling from the Clippers and all NBA activities for life, and pledged to do everything in his power to garner the support of 3/4 of the NBA owners to force Sterling to sell the team. Silver sent a message that those types of attitudes, those behaviors will no longer be tolerated; that the NBA as a league will have nothing to do with someone who holds those views.

In short: Donald Sterling, You’re FIRED!

Let’s be honest here: This is something that should have been done long ago. Donald Sterling didn’t just suddenly, mystically come up with these racist convictions. In 2006, Sterling agreed to pay the U.S. Department of Justice $2.725 million as part of a settlement amid allegations of housing discrimination in apartment buildings he owns. He refused to rent to blacks, Hispanics, and people with children. Yet Sterling was not required to admit any guilt. In 2003 he was sued, accused of housing discrimination where he allegedly told his staff that he did not like Hispanic or African American tenants. That case was settled for $5 million, again with Sterling admitting no guilt.

In 2009, former Clippers GM Elgin Baylor filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against Sterling and the Clippers, claiming discrimination and a hostile workplace. Baylor, who is black, said that Sterling ran the team “with a Southern plantation like structure.” Baylor said that Sterling wouldn’t allow his GM to negotiate player contracts, and that the owner had a vision of his Clippers team to be composed of “poor black boys from the South and a white head coach.” Baylor lost that suit, with the jury determining that Baylor was fired because the team just wasn’t very good, not because he was discriminated against.

I wonder if that jury wants another crack at that decision now? File it under the category of “if I only knew then what I know now.”

The exodus of Clippers team sponsors surely had much to do with Silver’s decision. It was clear that companies wanted nothing to do with an organization owned by bald faced a bigot. It was only a matter of time before the league’s corporate sponsors began to follow suit in the absence of clear and decisive action on Silver’s part. We’re talking billions of dollars and a new TV contract that needed to be negotiated. From a business standpoint, the NBA simply could not continue to associate itself with Donald Sterling.

But Silver sent a clear message, and set a precedent for the entire sports world: No longer can owners act with impunity. An owner’s behavior will be taken into account, with the rights and privileges of ownership liable to be stripped away if that behavior is deemed detrimental to the league itself. Team owners will now be held to a new level of accountability for their actions. There is now a clear social contract that must be upheld, no matter how rich and powerful one is. In the business of professional sports, image is everything. Image means dollar signs. Unsavory attitudes, beliefs, or actions on the part of team owners that bring ill repute to the league itself will no longer be swept under the rug.

It’s the dawning of a new era. And although he likely had the full support of a majority of the owners for whom he works, we have Adam Silver to thank for it.

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Don’t Punish Team for Sterling’s Views

Clips LogoThe Clippers’ players are suffering enough.

Donald Sterling’s a bigot.  Surprise surprise.

Actually, no, not really.

Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers (formerly the San Diego Clippers before Sterling moved the team up Interstate 5) has a long and dubious record of being one of the worst owners–if not the worst–in all of professional sports.  Since taking ownership of the Clippers in 1981, Sterling has amassed the worst winning percentage of any owner in any of the four major pro sports leagues.  And he never seemed to care.  Winning for him was never a priority; being able to claim membership in an exclusive club, and using his NBA ownership status to bolster his real estate business was always his priority.

Donald Sterling has always been tolerated rather than accepted.   Clippers fans–if there really was any such thing prior to about two years ago when the team’s two superstar players, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, vaulted the team to NBA pseudo-prominence–were kind of like the Chicago Cubs fans of the NBA.  But hey, at least it could be said that the Cubs were trying to win every once in a while.  Sterling’s Clippers?  Not so much.

This year the Clippers have the LA/Southern California spotlight all to themselves.  For the first time in, well, ever, the LA Clippers are the only LA team in the NBA playoffs.  After an atypically abysmal season of turmoil, the Golden State’s revered Lakers didn’t qualify, leaving the Clippers the opportunity to make their own mark, and their own run at a championship out from the shadow of the team with whom they share an arena.  Until this year, the Lakers were LA’s team, selling out every game at premium prices, while the Clippers were the bargain basement brand of LA that no one but the truly die hards, like Billy Crystal, bothered to go and see.

A lot of that had to do with the fact that the Clippers were always so putrid.  Much of it had to do with the fact that their owner was largely viewed as a disgrace to professional sports ownership.

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past four days, a secret audio recording was published last Friday by the celebrity gossip site TMZ allegedly containing the voices of Sterling and his girlfriend V. Stiviano (Sterling is married, by the way, although apparently not happily so) with Sterling castigating Stiviano for hanging around with black people, and posting photos of herself on her instagram account with black people such as Magic Johnson and Dodgers baseball player Matt Kemp.  He also warned her not to bring any black people to his games with her.  Even though nearly 80% of the players in the NBA are black, apparently black people are not welcome in Staples Center on Clippers game nights.

The website Deadspin later posted an extended audio of the hour long conversation, where the voice purported to be Sterling’s, upon being reminded that he has “a whole team that’s black, that plays for” him, replies “You just, do I know?  I support them and give them food and clothes and houses.  Who gives it to them? Does anyone else give it to them?  Do I know that I have–who makes the game?  Do I make the game or do they make the game?  Is there 30 owners that created the league?”

Other than the fact that he doesn’t “give” them anything; that they earn what he “gives” them through employment contracts with the organization that says they must actually perform a service in order to earn that paycheck (i.e. play the game of professional basketball), or that nobody, and I mean nobody goes to Staples Center to see him do anything, or even cares that he’s there, he may be on to something.

On second thought, no, he’s not.  The guy is a first class douchebag with a history racist-y behavior.  Such as when he was ordered to pay $2.75 million for housing discrimination for allegedly discriminating against blacks and Hispanics in apartment buildings he owns.  He’s also been dubbed the “Slumlord Billionaire.”  Or the time he was sued for employment discrimination by his former Clippers GM, Elgin Baylor, a legendary NBA player in his own right.  Baylor, who is black, lost that suit, but given Sterling’s most recent comments, the courts must surely wish they had a do-over.

OK, so we’ve established the fact that Sterling is a real piece of excrement.  That much any sports fan has known for decades.  Hell, I even knew it, and I pay what can only be described as approaching zero attention to the NBA, save occasionally one player in particular; one recent SDSU Aztec who has in short order become a rising NBA star.  Other than that, in my opinion, the NBA game has no redeeming qualities.

But that’s neither here nor there.  There are an awful lot of people who do enjoy the NBA game.  More importantly, there have been an awful lot of people who have enjoyed Clippers basketball, particularly this year when they have consistently been one of the league’s best.  They’ve sold out nearly every game this year, something that previously only the Lakers could claim among the LA teams.  And now they return to the Staples Center for Tuesday night’s game five against Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors amidst uncertainty.  There is concern amongst the players and the coaches about how the team will be received in their home arena, by a crowd that has apparently been as raucous and enthusiastic and supportive as any Lakers crowd could ever hope to be.

“We’re going home now, and usually that would mean going to our safe haven,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers after Saturday’s 118-97 game four loss in Oakland, “and I don’t even know if that’s true” anymore.

That’s a shame.  They shouldn’t have to feel this way.  They shouldn’t be punished because their team owner is one of the worst human beings on the planet.  The good work that they’ve done to this point should not be the subject of ridicule.  They’re great players and class acts, by all accounts.  Blake Griffin and Chris Paul are the darlings of corporate sponsorship, staples of television commercial rotation.  Coach Doc Rivers has earned a place of high regard throughout his playing career and his brief coaching career with the Boston Celtics (where he won a championship) and now the Clippers.

These players and these coaches deserve better than what they expect.  They’ve worked too hard, represented themselves, their team, and their city with class and dignity all year, and have provided an awful lot of enjoyment for an awful lot of people.  And now, through no fault of theirs, they’re caught up in this disaster of their owner’s making.  It’s not fair to the players; they shouldn’t be punished for Sterling’s actions.

It’s one thing to want to boycott Donald Sterling, as many voices are calling for, including Warriors coach Mark Jackson.  But it might be helpful to remember that doing so not only hurts Sterling–though it’s entirely debatable whether he cares at all–but it also hurts the players.  And they clearly deserve much better.  In fact, they probably need the support of their fans now more than ever.

 

NFL Pro Days a “sham?” Not hardly. Not even a little.

In ProFootballTalk.com’s Mike Florio’s opinion, the pro days are a waste of time.  Which just shows how very little he knows about what the NFL scouts actually do.

ProFootballTalk.com’s Mike Florio ranted today about what a “sham” the NFL pro day workouts that take place on college campuses all across the country in front of NFL scouts and coaches are.  He claims “they’re all for show,” and that they’re pretty meaningless.  (See the video  at the end of this post)

Spoken like a guy who has never attended a pro day as an NFL scout, and who clearly doesn’t understand what the scouts are looking for.  I don’t know how many pro day workouts Mike Florio has attended, but I have attended many.  And I can tell you that they’re a pretty valuable tool in many cases.  Not always, but more often than not.

Florio essentially tries to make the case that because a pro day workout is not going to change the draft status of Stanford QB Andrew Luck or Baylor QB Robert Griffin III that they should scrap the pro days altogether.  “Scouts attend the pro days because they have to,” he says.  He’s missing the point entirely.

First of all, Florio is mostly right when it comes to guys like Luck and Griffin.  In fact the guys who are considered surefire top 10 picks almost never work out at all for the scouts, especially the top quarterbacks (and quarterbacks rarely run the 40 at all).  There really isn’t much for them to gain from it.  And he’s also right that a poor workout isn’t going to damage a guy like Luck’s draft status.  But the workouts aren’t about guys like Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.  They’re an evaluational tool, a piece to the puzzle.

Because “they’re scripted,” Florio claims that the workouts tell us nothing, that in comparison to seeing a player in a game situation it’s meaningless.  Except that by the time we get to the pro day, the scouts have already seen the guy on film in a game situation.  What scouts are looking for are things that you really can’t see sometimes on film.

The timing and testing at a pro day helps scouts define a player’s quickness, change of direction ability, and explosiveness.  The 40 yard dash, the shuttle, the three cone, and the broad and vertical jumps help quantify that.  It gives the scouts a little perspective.  Seeing a player up close and personal provides an extra insight on how he moves, and helps to define his athletic ability better.

The workouts often help scouts differentiate between players in the draft.  Maybe it gives one player from one school a slight edge over another player from another school in the eyes of the scout when it comes time to choose who to draft.  And not all draft eligible players get invited to the combine.  The pro day workout allows scouts to take a second look at a guy they may not have regarded very highly in the fall.

Pro days often tell scouts things about a player that they couldn’t see on film.  For example:  In 2002, Fresno St. middle linebacker Sammy Williams was a guy who just plain looked awkward on film.  He was tall and lanky.  He could run a little in a straight line, but he really struggled in pass coverage and couldn’t backpedal worth a damn or turn and run out of it.  His change of direction in space was awful.  After watching three or four games on him it was really pretty easy to write him off as a non-prospect……until we saw him at his pro day workout.

He measured in at 6’4 ½, 250 lbs.  Watching him go through drills, it was obvious that there was some explosiveness there that you really couldn’t see him use all that well on film.  It was then that it dawned on me that he might just have been playing out of position, and that he might fit very nicely at defensive end instead of as a linebacker (or maybe an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme).  He certainly wasn’t an inside linebacker.  So at the end of the workout I asked him if he had ever played with his hand down (football parlance for playing on the line of scrimmage).  He said “no.”  So I put him through some defensive line drills just to see what he might look like.  Based on that exercise and based on my report, on the draft board we moved him from a linebacker position to defensive end, and from a player that we had little to no interest in to a “priority free agent,” meaning that had he slipped all the way through the draft, he was one of our top targets in the rookie free agent pool.

The Oakland Raiders ended up drafting Williams in the 3rd round of the 2003 draft, as a defensive end.  They way overdrafted him, but it was that workout that opened their eyes to him.

In 2005, USC QB Matt Cassel was a complete unknown.  He had only taken a handful of snaps in garbage time through his four year career with the Trojans.  He was third string the year Carson Palmer won the Heisman Trophy at USC, and he was second string the next year when Matt Leinart won the Heisman Trophy.  At one point he had contemplated quitting football altogether in favor of pitching for the USC baseball team.  The scouts had no idea who he was until that pro day workout.  But there he was at the end of the workout throwing passes to various receivers and tight ends.  He had an excellent setup, solid footwork, a blistering delivery, and very nice accuracy.  Scouts that were walking off the field preparing to leave suddenly stopped in their tracks to watch.  More and more scouts started crowding around the USC coaches to find out who the hell this kid was, what’s his story, and do you have any game film on him?

Because of that workout, Matt Cassel was drafted in the 7th round by the New England Patriots.  In the 2008 season opener, Tom Brady was hurt and lost for the season, and Matt Cassel given the reins.  Cassel is now the starting QB for the Kansas City Chiefs.  Without that pro day workout, Matt Cassel’s football career was over.

It’s a common misconception that NFL scouts evaluate based on pro day or combine workouts; that 40 times or other workout numbers make or break a player’s draft status.  That’s not true.  The workouts are an evaluational tool.  The workouts are a piece to the puzzle that taken by themselves mean very little.  But when put together with the reports from film study during the fall visit they help put the picture of who and what a player is into much sharper focus.  They also give the scouts a chance to interact a little with the players, to see what kind of personality they have, and how they interact with others.

There is absolutely no substitute for film study.  None whatsoever.  Anyone who tells you otherwise either doesn’t know any better or is really bad at their job as a scout.  But the pro days are certainly not a “sham,” as Mike Florio contends.  They’re an important part of the evaluation process that helps scouts sort through the 1,500 or so draft eligible players every year.  Mike Florio the pundit may only be interested in the top picks of the draft, but the job of an NFL scout is to prepare for all seven rounds of the draft and free agency.  The pro days help to do that.

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The NFL Lockout: Who’s right, who’s wrong? And will there be a 2011 NFL season?

Nearly three months into the lockout, the NFL and the players union are no closer to signing a collective bargaining agreement.  In fact, the sides appear to be more polarized than ever.  There are some positive signs, as the two sides have been forced to restart mediation, but by all reports, despite several days worth of continuous meetings over the last week, there is no end in sight.  Meanwhile, life goes on on the management side, as the NFL released the 2011 schedule and the draft approaches.  The following is my take on what the issues are and who I think has the right idea.

The single biggest factor in this “crisis” is figuring out just exactly how to divvy up the $9 billion in annual revenues, which is actually a bit more complicated than it sounds.  And no, it’s not just a “dispute between millionaires and billionaires,” as many would like us to think, since not all of the players are millionaires.

Under the agreement that was extended by former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and former NFL Player Association Executive Director, the late Gene Upshaw, back in 2006 the owners and the players agreed to split the revenues roughly 60/40 in favor of the players, save about $1 billion shaved off the top to account for expenses.  The owners want to narrow that split and bring it closer to a 50/50 share, while the players want to maintain the status quo.

The Players’ Side

The argument on the players’ side is that the typical NFL playing career is short, averaging somewhere around 3.5 years.  They insist that the players, by and large, have a small window in which to earn, and they need to get as much as they can as quickly as they can.  They also say that the league is as popular and profitable as it is today because of the players and their efforts; that in effect they are the league; they are putting their health and well being—both short and long term—on the line every time they take the field, and therefore deserve a larger piece of the pie.

I have a couple of problems with this position.  First, the players are using a misleading figure in that they’re including players who don’t always make a roster out of training camp.  True, there is a portion of the player population that suffers career ending injuries.  But that number is dwarfed by the number of players who are simply replaced each year by another player who is perceived by team management to be a better player, or a better “value.”  Interestingly, the NFL agrees, saying that the average career for a player who makes the opening day roster in his rookie season is six years.

In my view, players who aren’t talented enough to make a roster shouldn’t receive special consideration just because they were given a tryout in training camp.

However, if we’re talking about some sort of compensation package for a player whose career is ended due to injury, then I’m listening.  Football is a violent game with the potential for a career ending injury on every play.  And if a promising young player has his career cut short by injury then it is reasonable to discuss implementing some sort of exit package or insurance policy that will provide him with a financial cushion to help him comfortably transition to the next phase of his professional life.  I view that as fair and something that can easily be accomplished.

I also take issue with the assertion that the league is what it is today strictly because of the players.  This is not the NBA, where the league markets its players above its teams.  Football is the ultimate team sport, where no one player will carry his team to a championship year after year.  The NFL has set up a system where with the right people in place and with good decisions, every team has a chance to compete for a championship.   A team’s success is more dependent on the decisions of team management in assembling the right group of players–not just the best players– and the coaching staff’s ability to outmaneuver their opponents on the chess board that is an NFL football field.

The NFL salary cap has created unprecedented parity across the league.  Every year the season starts with even the dregs from the previous year capable of reversing their fortunes.   The financial playing field is level.  Because of the salary cap there is more pressure on team management to make good, sound personnel decisions; every team has a marquee player or several, unlike MLB where the big money teams are allowed to hoard the top talent every year, and the same teams compete for the pennant every year.  Add in the fact that every regular season game is televised, making the NFL the most popular and profitable sport in the country.

Put it this way:  How often have the Pittsburgh Pirates or the Kansas City Royals been competitive in the last 20 years?  The Baltimore Orioles?  The Cleveland Indians?  Meanwhile, in the NFL formerly bottom feeding teams like the New Orleans Saints have won a Super Bowl; the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks have each been to a Super Bowl and have become annual playoff contenders; small market teams like the Indianapolis Colts, through savvy personnel decisions and solid coaching, are expected to be playoff participants, have won one Super Bowl and appeared in another; and the Green Bay Packers—the ultimate small market franchise—have won their fifth Super Bowl in franchise history.  Both the Colts and the Packers are considered among the NFL’s elite.

That kind of parity does not exist in MLB or the NBA, while the NFL has been able to generate more interest and more revenues for the league.

The Owners’ Side

The owners argue that the current revenue structure is weighted heavily in favor of the players and therefore is unfair.  However, they are the ones taking all of the financial risk, paying all of the bills, and taking responsibility for the day to day operation of the teams and the long term health of the league.  They argue that their expenses are increasing disproportionately with the revenues and subsequently their profit margins are shrinking.

Even without combing through their books with a fine toothed comb, I buy that assertion.  The cost to charter flights—large airliners–to away games has gone up significantly, and air travel wasn’t cheap to begin with.  The cost to charter buses needed to shuttle the team from site to site has gone up.  And the hotel, food, and per diem bill for the entire team and traveling party on the road has gone up—largely due to gas prices hovering around $4 per gallon.

Also consider all of the travel costs associated with sending scouts, coaches, free agent players, etc. all over the country every year.

The owners have also made numerous concessions over the years.  At the players’ behest, the practice squad was created to supplement team rosters and create more jobs for more players.  It was a good idea that benefitted both the players and management.  The practice squad was expanded from six to eight players, with special rules in place to create opportunities on active rosters with other teams with open roster spots.

The players insisted on having lunch, and then breakfast and lunch catered for them any time a practice was held.  The owners agreed.

The players also convinced the owners that they should be paid for participating in offseason workouts and practices in addition to their in-season game checks.  The owners also pay for the players’ medical insurance, which due to the high risk nature of being an NFL player is among the most expensive and comprehensive there is.  It’s the Bentley of Cadillac insurance plans……but it’s a necessary and justifiable expense.

The practice facilities have been upgraded to include the latest and greatest in athletic training, weight training, and therapy equipment.  They have also upgraded the locker rooms with more amenities to make the players’ workday more comfortable.  All at the owners’ expense.

But perhaps the biggest—and newest—contributing factor in driving expenses is the debt service on new stadiums.  The owners have willingly incurred hundreds of millions of dollars in new debt to build new stadiums across the country in the past decade.  They viewed the investment as necessary in order to grow the game and increase revenues overall.

It is admittedly difficult to predict the extent revenues will grow because of the new stadiums, yet the owners are still making those investments to ensure the long term viability of the league.  Still, their argument that revenues will grow as a result is pretty compelling.  To that effect, the league claims that an offer made on March 11 would have given the players a 14% increase ($2 billion) in cash and benefits over the four year period between 2011-2014.  Yet the players refused to accept.

There is another factor to consider:  As profit margins continue to shrink under the current terms of the CBA, the owners are forced to react in order to maintain a measure of profitability.  And they react by raising ticket and sponsorship prices.  The average cost of an NFL ticket is already hovering around $90, pricing most families out of attending.  At some point as prices continue to increase there will be a breaking point that will serve to alienate significant portions of the fan base.  When that happens, the game’s popularity will plummet, and revenues will fall off a cliff.  It’s in the best interests of both sides to maintain a certain level of affordability, or they risk destroying everything they’ve built to this point.

Let’s be very clear here:  The owners are not crying poor! No one is claiming that they’re losing money……yet.  They’re simply saying that collectively they are heading down a path to where eventually they will no longer be profitable.  They have not reached that point yet, but they can certainly see it coming and they want to head it off at the pass.

Other Issues

The Players Association also wants to address long term health benefits for current and future retired players.  The league has agreed, recognizing the disgraceful way in which some alumni players have been forced to live their lives.  Several have met tragic, early ends due to injuries suffered during their playing days.  The league has been sickeningly slow to address the myriad of issues in better working with their retirees, but to their credit they’ve finally owned the problem—complete with the requisite shame—and have pledged to make it right.  This is not an issue that will prevent a deal from getting done, and both sides agree that more must be done, both for current retirees and to protect the future of active players.

The league has also said that they are willing to offer lifetime health benefits to all players (presumably who have accrued a certain number of years of service).  Dicker over the details if you must, but there’s a deal in there somewhere.

The owners have proposed an 18 game regular season schedule, and the players have balked.  Fans don’t appreciate having to pay full price for a ticket to a “meaningless” preseason game, so the owners have proposed cutting the preseason from four games to two, converting them into regular season games.

I’m with the players on this.  Adding two regular season games will have the effect of shortening playing careers.  Veteran players typically don’t play much during the preseason, but would fully participate if those games counted.  The extra games would lead to extra wear and tear on bodies that are already put through a grind.  The players don’t want it, and I think they’ll get their way.

The players would also like to see the rules governing “Injured Reserve” status revised.  Currently, if a player is placed on injured reserve their season is officially over.  Teams will sometimes place a player with a long term injury on IR in order to clear a roster spot, even if the players might be able to return later in the season.  Again, I’m on the players’ side, and I think it’s something they’ll likely get.

The league is proposing a rookie salary cap to prevent unproven players who have never yet taken a single snap in professional football from receiving contracts that guarantee them upwards of $70 million or more.  This would protect teams from investing tens of millions of dollars in players who turn out to be major busts (Ryan Leaf, anyone?) and forcing them to actually earn their big contracts, while simultaneously making more money available to put towards the salaries of veteran players who have proven their worth.  I think it’s long overdue, and the veteran players are generally pleased with the concept.

Also being discussed is giving the players more time off, both during the season and in the off season.  The league has tentatively agreed to reduce the number of offseason practices from 14 to 10, and also to reduce the offseason programs overall by five weeks.

The issue of free agency, including the use of the “franchise” tags needs to be addressed.  The players don’t like the franchise tag, which is in effect a one year contract that pays the individual player a salary that is averages the top five highest paid players at his position.  But the players don’t like the short term nature of that arrangement, preferring to be able to seek better long term security elsewhere if they can’t come to an agreement with their current team.  The players would also like to see younger players be able to become unrestricted free agents after three years instead of the current four, but I don’t think they’ll get their way on this one.  And I don’t think we’ll be seeing the franchise designation go away, but perhaps they’ll tweak the system to where it’s more agreeable to the players.

Then there’s the sticky issue of adding human growth hormone (HGH) testing to the regimen of performance enhancing drug screening.  The players union is unconscionably resisting.  The owners should stick to their guns on this one, and it appears that there are some cracks in the union’s solidarity on this issue.  I’m guessing we’re going to see HGH testing, and rightfully so, as HGH is the new anabolic steroid and has no place in the game of football.

None of these “other issues” should be so profound as to prevent a new CBA from being completed.  In fact, there is wide agreement on most of those issues.  The main roadblock is the division of revenue.   In my opinion it’s the players that are in the wrong here.  The owners have not asked for anything unreasonable, and are simply seeking a more equitable split.  They’re not asking for a majority of the revenues, and I believe they’d settle on a 55/45 split for the players.  The problem is that the players have hired an executive director for their union that seems more interested in making a statement than he is in making a deal—the complete opposite of his predecessor.  DeMaurice Smith seems more eager to litigate than to negotiate, which could spell bad news for everyone, especially the fans.

Recent reports have detailed some divisions within the ranks of the players.  Some of the middle to lower tier players are apparently beginning to question whether their representatives are dealing in good faith and truly representing their interests.

Here’s the thing to keep in mind:  What Gene Upshaw understood was that what was good for the league was ultimately good for the players.  He saw it as his job to make sure that as the league prospered, so did the players, and he worked closely with Paul Tagliabue and the owners to make sure that all sides were treated fairly.  The result of his approach was an unprecedented period of labor peace, and an extraordinary increase in wealth and prosperity for the players.  Was he perfect?  No.  Could he have done more, particularly in regards to long term health benefits and retired players?  Absolutely.  But it’s a key issue now, and all sides are willing to tackle it.  Better late than never.

I believe—despite the characterizations by the players’ side that the owners are simply conducting a money grab and are just greedy billionaires—that the owners have dealt in good faith and want to come to an agreement that will be good for both sides.  They merely want to protect their investment, and from what I have seen they have not asked for anything unreasonable.  It’s time for DeMaurice Smith to stop grandstanding and start representing the interests of his clients.  If he does that, then a deal will be reached rather quickly.

To read more from the owners’ side, visit nfllabor.com.

To read more from the players’ side, visit nfllockout.com.

You decide who’s dealing in good faith.

Cheer on Paraguay!

An EXCELLENT reason to cheer on the Paraguayans to win the World Cup:

Paraguayan lingerie model Larissa Riquelme has pledged to run naked through the streets of Asunción, Paraguay’s capital, if her country wins the World Cup.

(Photos included in the link!)

GO PARAGUAY!!!!!

ESPN World Cup Telecasts Decidedly British

I’m not a soccer expert.  Way far from it.  I understand the game pretty well.  At least the basics.  And just like almost every other kid in the United States, I played soccer growing up.  But football (American style, that is) was always my first love, and as I wasn’t allowed to play Pop Warner, when I reached junior high, I jumped at the chance to play for my junior high school team.

In order to do that, I had to give up soccer, because in Colorado, the football and soccer seasons run concurrently, unlike here in California.  Gotta chose one or the other.  Winter snow and all.  And like just about everyone else across the country, because of that I grew up viewing soccer as a kid’s game.

That’s too bad, too, because I find that as I get older I’m gaining a whole new appreciation for the sport.  Credit MLS for that.  Having a viable professional league in the U.S. certainly helps to raise the profile of the sport and makes it a viable alternative to football, baseball, and basketball.  There’s just something about the potential to play professionally on your home soil that makes the sport more attractive to the masses.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m a football guy through and through.  But I do find myself searching for the odd MLS game on ESPN or the Fox Soccer Channel.  And I love watching the U.S. National Team play.

Every four years, though, since 1994, I become completely and totally fascinated by soccer.  Every four years for a month in and around June the World Cup is played.  And there’s just something incredibly special about the World Cup.  And I absolutely LOVE IT!  I am obsessed with watching our U.S National Team play, as I think EVERY red blooded American should be!

And correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that every time since ’94 that the World Cup rolls around, the U.S. pays more and more attention; the interest level in the world’s game seems to rise in this country to record levels.  And after every World Cup, the MLS becomes more and more popular, draws more and more fans, and has managed to expand into more and more cities.  The Seattle Sounders played their first season two years ago and instantly became a HUGE success, both on the field (or is it pitch?) and at the box office.  Portland is set to field its own MLS team next year.

Slowly but surely the game is growing in this country.  It’s becoming more and more popular, more and more accepted.  More and more American players are playing in the big money leagues in Europe, and the U.S. National Team is continuously climbing in the world rankings.  Americans are starting to identify with the sport.

Which makes ESPN’s decision to put a strictly British accent on its World Cup broadcasts, including the U.S. National Team broadcasts, just so damn baffling to me.  In the opening game against the Brits, Englishman Martin Tyler took the play-by-play duties, with former U.S. National Team player John Harkes providing the color commentary.

Ok, so maybe I can let that one slide.  After all, it was a U.S.-England match, and having an American and a Brit in the booth for a game against our cousins provides a unique flavor.  Kind of fun, actually.  A friendly rivalry in the booth for a friendly but important rivalry on the field.

But why maintain that kind of broadcasting lineup for the U.S.-Slovenia game?  John Harkes once again took the color commentary responsibilities, but for the play-by-play, the network once again tapped a Brit, this time Ian Darke.  In fact, three of the four play-by-play broadcasters are from England, which the fourth, Derek Rae, from Scotland.  Of the three color commentators employed by ESPN for the World Cup, only Harkes is a “Yank.”

Are they intentionally trying to point out to the millions of American viewers that soccer is not an “American” sport?  Are they trying to alienate their American audience?

It would seem to me that if they were truly trying to promote the game in the U.S., they would have Americans in the broadcast booth.  Or at least have an all-American booth for U.S. matches.  It’s not like they don’t have anyone they can turn to—after all, ESPN is the network that televises most of the CONCACAF region qualifying games for the U.S., employing JP Dellacamera to team with John Harkes.  (Dellacamera is relegated to doing radio for ESPN during this World Cup.)  Kind of like having a home team broadcast crew to put a decidedly American face on American games.

By all means, feel free to deploy the Brits for all of the other games (and ESPN is televising all 64 games played in the 2010 World Cup).  But for U.S. games being beamed back Stateside?  Wouldn’t it make sense to put a decidedly American voice on it?  It’s like Telemundo employing a Spaniard to broadcast Mexican National Team games back to Mexico.  For some reason I don’t think that would go over very well with the Mexican populace.

Americans tend to be very nationalistic.  As a country, we’re slow to accept and incorporate anything foreign.  Part of the reason soccer has struggled so mightily to gain a foothold here is precisely because it’s the “world’s game.”  We didn’t invent it, and we didn’t perfect it.  And thus it’s decidedly UN-American.  Which only demonstrates our ignorant, stubborn pride, but it is what it is.  We’re used to being a prime exporter of culture.  We invented baseball.  We invented basketball.  Two sports that have caught on nicely around the world.  But they’re still OUR games and we’re still the best at them (despite the Japanese stranglehold on the World Cup of Baseball).

For the U.S. to get excited about its team in the World Cup, we need to make it OUR game.  We need to put OUR stamp on it.  Reminding us that the game belongs to someone else, I fear, is going to hamper its ability to grow.

Build it! It’s more than JUST a stadium

There’s a common misconception that a new NFL stadium for the Chargers is strictly a Chargers issue.  That since the Chargers stand to gain the most from building a new stadium, then they should be entirely responsible for paying for it themselves.  And if they’re not willing to do so, then they should just leave.  The city will survive without them.

And although that may be true—that San Diego will go on without the Chargers as it has gone on without the Rockets and the Clippers—it is extremely shortsighted to look at the stadium as merely a Chargers issue, as if they’re the only ones affected.  They’re not.  And it’s about time folks started to understand that.

The stadium issue is a San Diego issue.  It is an economic issue that has much greater ramifications than whether or not we have an NFL franchise to call our own.  It will largely determine SDSU’s ability to continue to field a Division I football team.  It will absolutely determine whether San Diego maintains its ability to host the Poinsettia Bowl and the Holiday Bowl, one of the premier—if not the premier—non-BCS bowl games in the country.  San Diego greatly benefits from having fans of participating teams visit our fine city; they not only buy tickets to the game, but they stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants, visit our landmarks and attractions, patronize our stores……

But even that is only a small part of the economic impact a stadium brings to our city.  San Diego is a tourist destination, so a significant chunk of our local economy depends on brining in tourist dollars.  By losing an NFL franchise we lose an awful lot of free advertising on national (indeed international) television.  When CBS, Fox, NBC, or ESPN broadcast a game from San Diego in December or January they include video panoramas of the harbor, our beaches, and the skyline.  Images of a cloudless sky and 75 degree temperatures get beamed across the world.  And when commentators like Al Michaels declare that the NFL should hold the Super Bowl in San Diego every year while telling the hundreds of millions of viewers about the clear blue sky and the 90 degree day we are experiencing at the end of January while more than half of the United States is buried under three feet of snow; well, there simply is no better endorsement of our city than that.

And about the Super Bowl:  There is a lot of debate about the actual economic impact hosting that event has on our city.  The NFL says that the 2002 game had an overall economic impact of over $300 million.  Detractors claim it was less than $100 million.  But whatever figure you believe it is undoubtedly a huge net positive for our economy in direct numbers.  In indirect terms, though, one cannot underestimate the value of having a giant, 10,000 megawatt spotlight shined on our city for two weeks solid leading up to the game.  The state of California has spent millions of dollars on a national ad campaign to boost tourism in the state, yet we get even better direct exposure for our city for free!  And make no mistake about it:  The NFL is dying to bring the game back to San Diego, as it was an enormous success the previous three times it was here.

Building a new stadium also puts San Diego squarely on the list of cities being considered as a venue for the World Cup should the United States be chosen as the host nation for the 2018 or 2022 tournament. There is little doubt that a new stadium in San Diego would entrench the city as one of the 12 chosen sites.  It is estimated that the World Cup would have a national economic impact of at least $5 billion, with San Diego reaping between $350 million and $500 million of that haul.

Consider, too, the need to expand the San Diego Convention Center.  Mayor Sanders’ Convention Center Task Force recently published a study that estimated that “39.7% of prospective customers that do not book San Diego Convention Center attribute that decision to “Center Unavailable,” or a lack of space.” The study found that in 2007, convention attendees generated $921 million in direct spending here despite an inability to accommodate the largest events.  Without the added capacity, San Diego is losing out on a lot of business.

The proposed convention center expansion combined with the availability of a stadium for added space would guarantee that no event is too large to be held in San Diego.  When not being used for sporting events, the stadium floor itself could be used as a convention venue, not to mention the various club lounges and skybox suites that can be used to entertain smaller break-out groups as a part of the larger event.

Critics abhor the idea of using any kind of public funds to build a stadium for a “private enterprise.”  But the Chargers are more than that; they are a public asset in terms of the civic pride they generate in the community at-large and the revenues they help to create.  Yet a stadium can be more than just the team that calls its field home.  With the right location, a stadium can become a significant part of the economic engine that drives the city.  There’s also the $17 million the current Qualcomm Stadium drains from the city’s coffers to take into account.

The city absolutely should not bear the financial responsibility alone, nor will it.  But since the city stands to benefit from the presence of such a facility, the tax increment bonds that would be issued to help build it should be considered an investment in the overall economic viability and vibrancy of our community for years to come.

An investment in a stadium is an investment in the future of San Diego.

R.I.P. Norman Hand

Former Chargers defensive tackle Norman Hand was found dead today. I remember Big Norm.  He came to the Bolts a big, out-of-shape underachiever with a questionable work ethic.  He left for the New Orleans Saints in 2000 as one of the more prominent free agents that year and a BIG contract in tow, one that he most certainly earned.

Norm managed to turn his career around here in San Diego.  With the help of then defensive line coach Wayne Nunnely he worked his way into the starting lineup and into the hearts of his teammates and the staff, and in 2000 with the New Orleans Saints, he was named to the 2nd team All Pro team.  He was a really good guy who was always quick to express his appreciation to those who had helped him along the way, crediting Nunnely with making him a player worthy of the acclaim he had attained.  He was one of my all time favorite people during my time with the team.

My condolences to his friends and family.  He will be missed.

Scouting Combine Etiquette

News about the most bizarre of questions posed by Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland and directed at Oklahoma St. wide receiver Dez Bryant came out shortly after the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis last March.  At the time it raised some eyebrows, and there were a few mumbles about it, but it was never really addressed in any serious manner.  The question?  “Is your mom a prostitute?”

In a piece published today by Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio, 10 different possible intentions behind the question are presented (and he claims he could come up with 10 more).  I have a slightly different take.

While posing a question such as the one Ireland did is most certainly inappropriate, it’s hardly unusual.  After all, a Washington Redskins coach once asked a prospect “What would you do if I hit you in the nuts right now?” in a somewhat threatening manner.  Players have been asked numerous times “When was the last time you smoked crack?” or “When was the last time you smoked weed?”

It’s all a ploy.  The NFL personnel people want to see what kind of character these players possess.  They have a limited amount of time to try to look into the psyche of these players, to really try to get to know what kind of people they are, how they’ll respond to adverse situations.  The only direct interaction they have with most of these kids is at the all-star games (and not all of the staff is there, and the Senior Bowl is the only game the coaches attend) and the NFL Combine.  Otherwise, the scouts are left to glean personal background information from the college coaches and the college coaches alone.

There are legitimate concerns that some of these players might be bad seeds, and you can’t always depend on the college coaches to offer up accurate and honest information about their players.  Take the case of Ryan Leaf, for example:  Mike Price and his staff at Wazzu GUSHED about how great a kid Leaf was to the Chargers’ scouts.  Told them they’d absolutely LOVE the kid!  They’d have NO problems with him!  He was like a son to Price.  And we all know how that turned out.

Then there’s the case of Darnell Dockett.  At the age of 13 he came home to find his mother on the floor of their home with a bullet in her head, murdered execution style. A crime that remains unsolved.  That kind of discovery by an impressionable kid of that age is sure to have lingering psychological effects and leave behind some serious emotional scars.  Teams needed to know that if they invested millions of dollars into Dockett, would he have some sort of meltdown?  They needed to know how he had dealt with it, that he had dealt with it, and would continue to be able to deal with it.  But can you imagine an NFL coach asking him “What did your mom do to get herself whacked?  Was she a drug dealer?  Was she a prostitute?”  To be honest, I’d be disappointed if he didn’t haul off and punch the interviewer.

Then there’s the bizarre case of Dimitrius Underwood, the Michigan St. defensive end drafted in the first round by the Minnesota Vikings in 1999.  Underwood disappeared from the Vikings on the first day of camp his rookie year.  He was later diagnosed with a bipolar disorder, attempted suicide at least twice, and has had several stints in various mental hospitals.  The Vikings, the Dolphins, and eventually the Cowboys paid a steep price for not doing their homework, and for not monitoring Underwood more closely.

Many teams enlist the help of a psychologist to sit in on the meetings at the Combine to help evaluate a player’s mental health, for lack of a better term.  Most teams don’t.  But they’re all after the same thing:  Evaluating a player in every possible way.  They’re evaluating not only his skills on the field, but his work ethic, his leadership qualities–is he a leader or a follower–his intelligence, his instincts, how well grounded a person he is, how he interacts with his peers, how easy it is to light the guy’s fuse…..

These oddball, inappropriate questions are being asked to elicit a response.  They want to see how the guy reacts.  But I’ve never personally seen anything like what Ireland did.  None of the Chargers coaches or scouts that I’ve been around (and I’ve been in the room for plenty Q&A sessions at the Combine) ever pushed the envelope like that.  There were plenty of times, in fact, when I felt the questioning wasn’t nearly probing enough!  (Of course I simply kept my mouth shut, as it wasn’t my place to interject.)

But the question posed by Ireland was way out of bounds, and he should be reprimanded for it (and he has been).  And while there’s a definite and vital need to find out everything you can about a person that your team is seriously looking at investing millions of dollars in, there’s also a need to be professional and respectful.  Ireland’s actions were neither.

Chargers Jump 16 Spots to Select Matthews

I feel compelled to comment on last night’s move by AJ Smith to select running back Ryan Matthews from Fresno St.  Having at one time been an active participant in the draft room happenings, I think I have a bit of an understanding of what went down.

I think Ryan Matthews is a fine player, and I think he’ll have a long and productive career here in San Diego with the Chargers.  He’s a well-rounded player with good speed, ideal size, and good quickness.  I have no qualms about the choice.

What I do question is the price paid to move up in the draft.  Here’s the trade in its entirety:  The Chargers get the twelfth pick in the draft, a fourth round pick (#110 overall), and a sixth round pick (#173 overall), the Dolphins get linebacker Tim Dobbins, the 28th pick, a second round choice (#40 overall obtained from Seattle in the Whitehurst trade), and a fourth round choice (#126).

It’s interesting to note that in this deal AJ and Executive VP Ed McGuire managed to actually move UP in the fourth round, which in and of itself is a bit of a mini coup.  And while running back was certainly a dire need, I still think the overall price paid was too high.

Like I said, I think Matthews will be a fine player, but that’s a helluva lot to give up to move up to take a player that most draft analysts had falling to the bottom of the first round.  And I’m just guessing here but I don’t think this move was originally in the plans.

While I think it’s highly probable that Matthews was the targeted player all along, I don’t think that Smith and McGuire (and Player Personnel Director Jimmy Raye) expected to have to jump up so high to get him.  But the landscape changed when former Chargers Assistant GM and current Buffalo Bills GM Buddy Nix turned in the unexpected choice of Clemson running back CJ Spiller.  That changed the landscape a bit.  Suddenly Matthews became arguably the highest rated running back on the draft board.

The Bills’ choice of Spiller caught most folks off guard because the Bills still have the very talented if mercurial Marshawn Lynch on their roster.  What this tells us is that due to his multiple run-ins with local law enforcement, his recurring personality conflicts with team management and the coaching staff, and with his replacement firmly in place, the new regime in Buffalo has essentially decided to send Lynch packing.

This turn of events sent Smith into a bit of a panic mode.  If he wanted to get his man, he was going to have to make a move, and fast!  Now, there’s no telling–particularly from an outsider’s perspective–what the other teams ahead of the 28 spot had in mind.  But I can tell you from experience that when you’re in that draft room you can get a pretty good feel for what other teams are thinking about players that are still on the board.  And they likely had a pretty good idea that someone else was going to take Matthews now that Spiller was no longer available.

So Smith dug deep into his pockets and made a deal.  And he overpaid, just as he overpaid in order to trade up to draft Eric Weddle, and just as he overpaid for Jacob Hester.  The main difference this time is when those trades were made, the Chargers had the luxury of trading away draft picks–the roster had far fewer dire needs at the time as they were seemingly already stocked full of top flight players.  This time around the roster isn’t so stacked, and there are a lot more dire needs than in drafts past.

Had he managed to hold on to that second round pick, he would’ve been able to fill the roster with TWO immediate impact players instead of just one.  Which is just the elixir called for, as the team needs a viable replacement for the recently departed Jamal Williams at nose tackle as well as a primary ballcarrier.  Sure, you can say they need a free safety as well, but that was a secondary need (no pun intended) compared to the urgency to fill the running back and defensive line spots.

Smith and McGuire may still pull a rabbit out of their shared hat and find a way to add that impact nose tackle.  And I must say, that swapping fourth rounders to move up 16 spots is a minor stroke of genius.  But I still think that with the addition of Dobbins to the draft picks they gave up too much for a player that isn’t considered the surefire superstar LaDainian Tomlinson was when he was chosen with the fifth pick in the 2001 draft.  And while they’ve addressed their most pressing need on offense, they’ve still left their defense in a very vulnerable position.

One interesting side note that I can’t help but get a little excited about:  With the departure of Dobbins, the Chargers will now need to find some depth at inside linebacker.  It has been widely speculated that Kirk Morrison, the former San Diego State Aztec star, has fallen out of favor in Oakland.  And with the Raiders’ selection of Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain with the eighth pick, it could signal the end of Morrison’s tenure in Oaktown.  Which could conceivably signal his return to San Diego.  This could get interesting……

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