Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Footnote to Football History: A Long, Important Footnote

David Tyree announced his retirement from football yesterday. Since he was injured in 2008, and hardly played at all for the Ravens in 2009, his decision will not affect the 2010 season in any way.

However, for reasons Patriots fans can well understand, Tyree signed a one-day contract with the Giants so he could retire from that franchise, just as Nomar Garciaparra did with the Red Sox in spring training. Tyree's pro football career essentially comes down to one day, no make that one play. But it was kind of a big one.

Tyree is a certified immortal in both Giants and Patriots history for the amazing, superb, ludicrous catch he made in Super Bowl XLII, the signature play -- the winning play for all intents and purposes -- in the second-biggest upset in NFL history, the game that ended the Pats' chance of an undefeated season and a deserved rating as the sport's greatest team ever. Or, if you live in Bergen County, the game that gave the Giants their most thrilling and unexpected championship.

Football time moves fast. February of 2008 wasn't so long ago, but Tyree has already moved on into history, as has the game which put him there. Awful as it might be for Pats' fans to look back, I think Tyree's play DOES indicate the true nature of that Super Bowl, and what differentiates it from another Boston heartbreak loss and another historic Super upset.

The obvious parallel to Tyree in our town's sports history is Bucky Dent, another career nonentity who had the biggest moment in a catastrophic loss. It is also a mistaken parallel, at least in part. Dent's home run WAS a fluke, a Green Monster fluke. In almost every other major league park, it's a pop fly to the left fielder. Tyree's catch was part luck (the part where Eli Manning got away to make the throw), but it was nine parts athletic ability. He made a PLAY, a legitimate if unexpected act of football greatness.

And that, at bottom is what distinguishes Super Bowl XLII from the biggest upset in NFL history, Super Bowl III. As I have posted before, if it weren't for Joe Namath's pregame guarantee, the story of that Super Bowl would totally be "how the Colts blew it." Baltimore had five turnovers, two of which were in the enemy end zone, let alone red zone. Quarterback Earl Morrall, already named league MVP, had to be benched for nonperformance. The Colts' league best defense couldn't stop the run or put Namath on his back. When the NFL Network replays this game, as it does quite often, give it a gander. Try to put memory out of your mind. What you will see is a favorite choking to the max.

The NFL Network reruns Super Bowl XLII quite frequently, too. I don't expect many Pats fans to voluntarily expose themselves to that experience again, but it is an instructive comparison. The Pats didn't choke in any way. They got beat. Tyree's catch exemplified New York's game that day. The Giants played to the peak of their collective ability, no, well above any previous peak they had scaled that season. They won fair and square. That Super Bowl, in the end, is the Giants' story, not the Pats'.

Losing fair and square in a big one is no consolation. But it ought to be at least a little one. Otherwise, what's the point of honest competition?

Behaviorial Economics Works Even When Wearing a Helmet

Here's one of the many things I don't get about contemporary sports journalism and thought in general.

We live in a society where money is considered a far more taboo subject of conversation among acquaintances than mere sex. A group of guys drinking in any downtown saloon last night would more likely than not mention some element of their sex lives, but would reveal their annual salaries to one another only under torture. Even then, they'd lie.

People don't talk about their income, their investments, or especially negotiations over purchases in specific dollar terms. They just don't, not most of us. It's a deep rooted social thing . When we hear someone say, "I'm making X" or "Yeah, I paid Y for the house in 2002, and now it's worth Z" we think two things. 1. What a liar! 2. What an a$^$hole!

This is such a commonplace of human behavior we hardly notice it unless someone DOES break the taboo. That's for sums of thousands of dollars. Tom Brady and Bob Kraft, as we all know, are currently negotiating terms of employment for Brady where the numbers involve many tens of millions of dollars.

And yet, when Brady and Kraft are vague and equivocal in their public comments on their dickering, many commentators and fans rush to read deep and inevitably dark meanings into their non-declarative statements. It is assumed that player and owner have something to hide, some deep and horrible secret. What that might be, I dunno. Brady's ultimate professional ambition to be the man who returns the Cleveland Browns to glory? Kraft's master plan to convert Gillette Stadium into an even BIGGER shopping mall rather than an unproductive football stadium?

People are reluctant to talk about their personal finances. Smart people know better than to make declarative statements they can't walk back during negotiations of any kind. These are facts, but they sure ain't news. Why pretend they are?

It would be a far, far better sports world if the following rule was installed. Fans or media wishing to opine on uncompleted sports business deals should be required to state THEIR personal financial information up front. "I'm Joe Blow, I make this much money blatting into the radio 20 hours a week and HERE'S why Brady should/shouldn't get $17 million a year."

It would offer us a valuable perspective on the debate. Best of all, it would shorten said debate.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Money Makes the Spin Go Around

The best way to think about contract negotiations in sports is never. But if you must, here a few helpful hints from someone who used to be paid for the brain pain involved with this topic.

Step 1. Ignore anything you read or hear about negotiations until they are over, even, no, make that especially, if the words come from the participants themselves. Premature comments and speculation run the gamut of information from irritating and meaningless white noise (at best) to downright malicious bullshit. Very few sportswriters and fewer talk radio hosts are privy to the actual decision-making process of sports franchises or sports stars when that process is in motion. The chances you're getting inside dope from a disinterested source are so low as to be statistically nil.

Step 2. Assume that bad feelings have arisen during negotiations and pay no attention to the fact. As any divorce lawyer will tell you, money and ego are always mixed, and the more money at stake, the bigger the ego stake in the argument, too. This applies equally to players and management alike. You think noted philanthropist Bob Kraft LIKES being portrayed as a cheapskate in the media? Happily for us fans, however, the fee-fees of athletes and owners are no concern of ours. If Tom Brady's in a snit, he has a life partner he can hit up for sympathy. Kraft can just endow another university building to cheer himself up.

Step 3, the only one requiring you to do something. Sit in a quiet room and consider what is the best conclusion to a two-party negotiation for both sides. This is by far the likeliest outcome of the talks. Free agency, which offers a player multiple options, is harder to assess. But a football contract extension? That almost always winds up as a deal both sides can live with. If not, free agency or a trade soon follows.

Spent the drive home from work trying to think of an NFL quarterback with a consistent record of success and of reasonable age who went free agent. I couldn't, because it's never happened. Quarterbacks move on when teams push them and not before. One is traded or released only when a team is certain, not confident, certain, they have a player to replace him. I think the Eagles were nuts to think Kevin Kolb can replace Donovan McNabb, but they disagree.

Linemen are labor, who'd leave for a better dollar whenever possible, even as you or I. Quarterbacks are, and think of themselves as, part of management. They have a smaller ego commitment to their franchise than does the owner, but it's still there. Joe Montana's departure from the 49ers was as bitter as it gets, but even today, I bet that's the uniform he wears in his dreams.

All of which is a fairly long-winded way of saying the obvious. Anybody who doesn't think Brady isn't going to re-up with the Pats, or Peyton Manning with the Colts, and get top dollar for doing so, is urged to post a comment including personal contact information. We have a wager to discuss. Anyone who has spent more than 20 seconds contemplating Brady's negotiations has wasted far too much of the only summer we've got this year.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

George Steinbrenner, 1930-2010

George Steinbrenner was many things in his time on earth, which ended today at age 80. He was a sports business genius, a tyrant, a buffoon, a philantropist, a felon, and a character on Seinfeld. He could be charming (I know from personal experience), malicious, vindictive, sentimental, and just plain nuts. This was a rich mixture for a man whose primary psychological trait was an utter and incurable lack of impulse control.

A complex person with a full life, in short. I have only one brief comment to make on the Boss's life and times. I believe he would regard it as a tribute.

Warts and all, the fans of 99 percent of the professional sports teams on this planet would trade the team's current owner for Steinbrenner in his prime in less than a nanosecond.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Adam Smith Meets Pat Riley and They Hit It Off

From a pure standpoint of economics, LeBron James' decision to become a member of the Miami Heat makes perfect sense. Not in terms of James' personal finances, mind you, because he'd have made more money staying in Cleveland, but just as an example of how rigged markets have unintended consequences for the riggers.

At bottom, any salary cap system in sports, hard or soft, is an artificial restraint of trade, a collusion by capital to limit the value of labor. Due to the weird nature of sports themselves, this is the one case extant where labor, at least skilled labor, is scarcer than capital, and hence supply and demand works in favor of athletes, not moguls.

Nowhere is that supply and demand ratio more skewed in labor's favor than in the NBA. It's simple arithmetic. Basketball is the team sport played by the fewest people on a side. In addition, the nature of the game makes the best players more important still. Victory and individual prowess go hand in hand. No superstars, no rings.

Salary caps can only be negotiated through collective bargaining, and free agency is the concession owners in football, hockey and basketball had to make to get their caps. This has set up a situation where the top NBA players eventually get the chance to choose their employer, but when the choice is made, money is, if not no object, less of an object.

An All-Star free agent is going to sign a contract that ought to set up himself and his family in riches for generations to come. But it has a topside limit of insane wealth. This means somebody like that Russian crook who owns the Nets can't use money as a means of satisfying a free agent's ego. "You'll be the highest-paid player ever," which, let's face it, would sound good to you, me, or anyone else, is not allowed as a bargaining chip.

So if wages cannot be used to recruit high-level executive talent (the best way of thinking about free agents like James), franchises will turn to offering fringe benefits, lower taxes, marketing opportunities, hanging out with Jay-Z, etc. In the final analysis, however, the only meaningful fringe benefit for these gifted, sheltered, incredibly driven people is victory. If the money's pretty much the same anywhere they go, the opportunity to be on a championship team is inevitably going to be a dominant factor in their decision-making process.

Given that NBA superstars are a clubby lot, it was probably easy as pie for Wade to recruit James and Chris Bosh for his team, which as we saw in the playoffs was pretty awful except for him. All Riley had to do was make sure he had enough cap money on hand to back up Wade's sales pitch, which he did.

This trend, which is hardly new (among great players in history who left teams in pursuit of further glory, although through forced trades rather than free agency are Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), is going to continue, and paradoxically, the more limits the owners place on salaries, the more pronounced it will get. High draft picks working for capped rookie deals will be counting the days until they can create superteams of their own. Why not, if the money's the same, or pretty much the same. Do you, dear reader, think there'd really be much different between making $12 million a year or $18 million? The players don't either. It's a dream to them, too.

This places the owners in a nasty dilemma. Lack of superstars causes franchises to lose games, fans and money in that order. But by limiting player salaries to save money, the owners rob themselves of their best means of acquiring superstars. You can't depend on David Stern fixing the lottery every year.

It's funny. In their attempt to create socialism for the rich (themselves), NBA owners are stuck in a mini-crisis of capitalism, the kind described by the founder of socialism, Karl Marx.

So Much for the Marketing Executive of the Year Award

Last night, watching a TV show almost no one did, and lucky them, I got a much better idea of why LeBron James made himself the star of the most unfortunate reality television program ever broadcast.

I didn't see "The Decision" but since I was still alive yesterday, I was exposed to many, many clips from the greatest moment in Greenwich, Connecticut sports history, and James had the demeanor of a man (and we've all been there) aware that what had seemed like a good idea in planning was in the event revealing itself to be a horrible, horrible idea.

Which it was. James took a straightforward business decision to change his place of employment and turned it into an occasion which made him a villain to millions (bad) and a laughingstock to millions more (worse). The last guy who managed that daily double was Jay Leno.

But aside from silly vainglory, what did James do to hurt anybody? He was going to make fans of the teams he didn't join unhappy no matter what. As a matter of professional etiquette and common decent courtesy, James should have informed the Cavaliers he was leaving them at the altar before making the move public.

Had the Cavs reacted with hurt dignity to James' snub, I'd feel sorrier for the franchise. Owner Dan Gilbert's full-bore snit of a response, composed of equal parts methamphetamine, tequila, and Glenn Close in "Naked Attraction," makes leaving the Cavaliers seems like a sound decision for any player. I sure wouldn't want to work for a loony like that unless I had to.

It is also amusing to see that James has been criticized for leaving the Cavs in pursuit of a title by those noted team-first former players Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller and Chris Webber. Were I James, their harsh words would indicate that my choice of the Heart was a sound one.

For the record, I am unsure if the three amigos of the Miami Heat will live happily ever after next season. A team with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh can't possibly fail to win 50 games even if's completely dysfunctional, but the Celtics and Magic need not lose sleep to fear. There is a reason the U.S. Olympic team or NBA All-Star teams look disjointed on the court even as they are winning. Melding superstars is a delicate task which requires considerable on-court maturity from said superstars. James' maturity is in serious doubt right now.

My son Josh said last night that James' spectacle put a new light on Josh's longtime thought that James and he were the same age. Josh was seeing that in real terms, James' pampered NBA existence means that the average 25-year old such as himself is in reality way more of a grown-up than a national sports idol who just happened to be born in the same year.

Did James act like a spoiled kid for the last week? Sure. How else can he be expected to act? What else has he ever been? What else was the entire pursuit of King James by a half-dozen NBA franchises than further spoiling by a group of willful, egocentric rich guys who much less excuse for their behavior than James.

Which brings me back to last night's show. It was put on by the Heat as the introduction to a press conference in which James, Wade and Bosh would discuss their future magnificence. I assume the audience were Heat season ticket holders, if there is such a thing, because as a rule, sports franchises do not put on music video spectaculars to entertain sportswriters.

There were billowing clouds of colored smoke and flashing lights. There was music, "How Do You Like Me Now," to be precise (way to show some originality, Heat PR department). James, Bosh and Wade took the stage in that order, in their uniforms, and hopped around to music not quite current enough not to be foolish.

It was, in short, the same claptrap that is staged before the start of every NBA game in every arena in the league. It is all LeBron James knows about staging and promotion, as routine a part of his working life as morning traffic is for most of the rest of us. The league has made hype and fraudulent spectacle as much a part of its business as its actual sport for decades now (So has James' partner in broadcasting crime, ESPN). Why should anyone in basketball, or any basketball fan, be surprised if a player literally brought up on hype tries to generate some of his own?

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The Rest of Summer Will Be Quieter, But Much Duller

Three games are left in the World Cup. To my surprise, I find myself thinking I'll miss it.

Mankind's most popular sports event is worthy of its popularity. It has been the mixture of passion, excellence, incompetence, human grandeur, human folly, and all-around human loopiness that makes for superior sporting entertainment. I will miss all of it; the Brit commentators, the bungling officials, the moments of wrenching drama, the vuvuzelas, the whole schmear. The experience of being parts of crowds of regular folks (well, residents of Cambridge anyhow) rooting for the national team in a sport many of them weren't too familiar with is what I'll remember, and miss, most of all.

The World Cup's appeal is simple. 1. Americans are as patriotic/nationalistic as all other people, and enjoy rooting for national sports teams. 2. The dullest US fan knows that the Cup is a certified Big Deal in the rest of the world, and if there's one thing your average American likes, it's a Big Deal, a Big anything, really. 3. People like LIVE sports on TV, and the Cup had none of the tape delays by which NBC seeks to kill the Olympic movement.

My pleasure in the Cup does NOT mean I am now a devout soccer fan, will watch MLS games on TV, let alone in person, or any of those other pipe dreams held by the hard core soccer audience in this country. It does mean I will pay somewhat more attention to soccer in the next four years. Not much more, but more. Maybe I'll watch more Premier Leagues games on Saturday mornings this season. Maybe I'll choose to watch a US qualifying match of a Saturday night in 2013 instead of the WAC football game of the week on ESPN 9.

Multiply me by 50 million or so, and I think one can foresee soccer's US destiny. It will never become a mainstream US big money spectator sport. But it has escaped the fringe, and is moving steadily towards a respectable middle class life within the American sporting system.

Put it this way. US soccer will not suffer the fate of Olympic sports such as track and field and swimming, where we create national heroes for three weeks every four years, then forget about the athletes and their sport for another years. Soccer's in the mix. It is self-sustaining now. If you're as old as I am, and can remember (and my God, have written about) the efforts to jump start soccer as a sport in this country in the 1960s and 1970s, the preceding two sentences are among the most amazing facts of your sports fan life.

Monday, July 05, 2010

The Midsummer Clusterf...., I Mean Classic

In his quixotic, to be kind, and demented, to be accurate, quest to make the All-Star Game something more than a corporate retreat for ballplayers, Bud Selig has reached a milestone of sorts. The written and unwritten rules governing the selection of the 417 players who will make up the American and National League teams have become so complex no one will know who's in the damn game until about the fourth inning.

Between the vote-in, the "starting pitchers who pitch the Sunday before can't be on the team," the injury replacements, the "I'm thinking about being injured" guys who are as bored with the All-Star game as myself but have bonus clauses for making the team, and the time Omar Infante saved Charlie Manuel's life that we didn't hear about (that's gotta be why HE's on the National League squad), the All-Star rosters have become unfathomable. Sixty-eight All-Stars will be in uniform, and as many a dozen more will be All-Stars in absentia. Pregame introductions will start promptly at 9 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time in Anaheim, so as not to push back the scheduled 5:28 p.m. PDT start.

And by about 10 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time, two things will have happened. The American League will have won the game, and the game itself will again be a victim of its own cross-purposes. The All-Star Game, lest we forget, was invented as a marketing device, and that's how it's always worked best. Give the game's best players, and some guys having good half-seasons, a moment under the lights to promote themselves and their sport.

The idea that the game must have consequences and be a serious competition where losing sucks, is, of course, Selig's invention. And if he'd gone all the way, it might work. Limit the rosters to 25 men. Let the managers use those men as they see fit. If, say, Jon Lester or Ubaldo Jimenez is working on a no-hitter after three innings, let's see how that sorts out. If the Senators or Royals don't HAVE an All-Star on the team, they should practice harder next spring training.

But to say, "this game counts, but make sure everybody gets in it, and make we sure have enough players for a 19-inning game" is an exercise doomed to failure. You cannot conduct a game in which the rules of normal no-holds-barred competition are superimposed on the personnel practices of tee ball. You cannot make fans care about the outcome of a game in which the only thing they know going in is that the players who take the field for the first inning will be in the showers by the fifth.

(Don't throw ratings at me. Ratings for ALL sports events have gone way up in 2010. TV sports are the only beneficiaries of the recession).

They ought to call the game the All-Star Oxymoron. You can't have a meaningful exhibition game. Period. Full stop.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Write When They Get Work

Imagine my disappointment when I woke up this morning and found out NBA free agency began at midnight, but players can't sign until July 8. It had been my sincere wish upon retiring for sleep last night that when dawn rose, LeBron James and rest of his NBA peer group would all have found new or their old employers and I wouldn't need to hear or read about them until a more suitable time, such as basketball season.

In philosophy "Free Agency" means the capacity to employ free will. This free agent will employ said will to ignore those taller free agents. While the gang has only two NBA titles between them (one for Dwyane Wade, one for Paul Pierce, who is not my shit list, for reasons to be explained further down), they are unsurpassed in creating the tedium only the truly self-centered can generate.

Oh, I think I'll be a Net, or a Bull, or a Heat. New York's my favorite city, and of course, I've always loved the fans here in the town whose franchise I'm holding over a barrel even as I speak.

Terrific, buddy. So pick one, will ya? Text message your flighty pals and tell them to get off the pot as well. If you want to remain the Main Man with your current team, good on you. If you want to ruin some franchise by creating an alleged Superteam with three NBA megastars on the starting five, go for it. You might want to watch the season highlight films of the 1977, 78 and '79 Philadelphia 76ers first, though.

But whatever you do, do it. Stop the tweeted rumor mill and the ESPN TV specials (the panel discussion broadcast on this issue Monday night was the worst thing the network ever did, "Playmakers" included). Because while I love basketball, and James, Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest are gifted basketball players, that does not mean I love them. It does not mean I even want to think about them until it's watch them play.

I will exempt veterans such as Pierce and Dirk Nowitzksi from this critique. They have become free agents as an act of financial self-protection, an understandable decision given their ages and the vagaries of sports labor relations. I would be shocked if either man wasn't with his former team next season.

But the guys in their prime are doing something that alienates almost everyone who experiences it. They are flaunting their good fortune to be able to capture a perfect wave of opportunity. They are reveling in a situation where more than one basketball franchise has taken the very real risk of becoming a 13 win team next season for the chance of signing one or more of them, behaving more like coquettish high school girls than serious businessmen or even professional athletes looking for their best chance of winning. It's not a pretty sight. It's not the act of mature men. Frankly, were I an NBA owner, it would make me very, very leery of placing my destiny in any of their hands.

Here's a guess, based on a complete lack of inside information and boredom with the outside information I possess. Come October, almost all of LeBron and Pals will opt to remain right where they are. Better to rule in a first-round playoff loser than to serve on an imaginary 75 win powerhouse where attention and (most important) the basketball must be shared on an almost equal basis. Money, even these guys must have noticed, spends much the same in Cleveland as it does in New York.

Here's a better guess. My first guess won't be proven true or false until the free agents milk their situation for all the fuss they can wring out of it. It's just as much fun as it was being recruited for college in high school, because it's the same experience. Rich men in suits adore me! Oh, life is good!

The only difference is, they'll have to declare the money they're being offered as taxable income once they take it.