I love football. I mean, I really love football. I played the sport (badly), I coached the sport (reasonably well), and I am a depressingly committed football stats nerd. The NFL is the highest expression of this most American pass-time and, as such, has my undying (customer) loyalty. Or so it believes. The Super Bowl will be played this Sunday (On NBC, please don’t sue me NFL), and I will watch all of the game and most of the commercials. But this year, I watch in protest of an institution that has, in the time-honored phrase, grown too big for its britches.
For some time now, the small-minded folks in charge of the NFL have built a marketing machine on the shoulders of their very much larger-minded predecessors. The league and its owners are convinced that the NFL is a great irreplaceable and immortal colossus, immune to competing forms of entertainment, and thoroughly entrenched in America’s psyche. The result is a hype machine that has blackballed customers, blackmailed taxpayers, and made a joke out of the on-field product.
With the NFL’s version of “labor strife” soon to be settled, our democracy can soon return its full attention to more important matters. For example, without the business of sports hogging the headlines, we the people can focus on the villainous fiends who, apparently, comprise our professional athletic class. Far be it for us to blame the crooks on Wall Street for our tanking economy when we have Big Bird, teacher’s unions, and criminal athletes to take the blame.
I know what you are saying right about now; “I thought this was a sports rant.” and “Mike Vick is rehabilitated, so why is his picture gracing the top of this article?” Well, Vick is here because I like the pick, am in the media (sort of), and can frame the discussion as I see fit. Can you identify the fundamental problem with this construct? While browsing the sports pages (and by pages I mean web-pages), I came across two examples of why all of us should be deeply suspicious of everything we read (to include this humble domain).
Dear Mr. McCourt:
It is time for you to go away. You are an embarrasment and a fraud, but there is some time still left on the clock. Use that time to salvage what is left of your dignity, and your reputation as both businessperson and baseball fan. Use that time to make the correct decision for the franchise you have claimed to love. Use that time to make the correct decision for the fans you claim to serve.
Your tenure as owner of the Dodgers has become emblematic of the very worst in sports ownership. You bought the team without actually having the money to afford the responsibility. You used the team’s cash flows to lead a lifestyle you neither earned or could afford on your own. You did exactly what the most irresponsible homeowners and developers did in the years leading to the Great Recession; purchase something you could not afford in the hopes that its value would increase enough to bail you out. You committed these sins using a treasure of the sports world, using fraudulent methods and with a callous disregard for those who would be harmed. Even now, as your mismanagement of this historic franchise has led it to ruin, you seek to leverage yet more of its future.
It isn’t who you think; the leeches who live on public sympathies while returning little social value. A sustained debate has been held in this nation on the costs and benefits of items ranging from food subsidies to heating oil subsidies to free health care. Across the nation, it is human capital, and the commercial infrastructure it supports that is up for debate. But in the wide-ranging argument over who is worth the money, one group remains conspicuously above criticism; professional sports owners.
We love our major league entertainment in America; I am a long-suffering fan of the Cleveland Browns, and a rabid supporter of the Los Angeles Dodgers. As a former high school athlete (not very good) and youth sports coach (better than average), I am a believer in the value of sport. I am also, however, a believer in prioritization. To put a twist on a favorite quote from Mr. Holland’s Opus, “If I must choose between football and long division, I choose long division.” In the movie, the principal is canceling the music and drama programs to close a budget gap, the football program he leaves untouched. That is an example of Hollywood reflecting life, but our high schools are just following the trend we the people have established at the big league level. At a time of teacher layoffs and wholesale attacks on the idea of public education, our nation continues to spend public money at a rate of $1 billion per year on stadiums for professional sports. If you are one of those good folks who are outraged at $4 million earmarks to study bear DNA, you might want to take notes.
After a year of health care battles, financial clashes, immigration dust-ups, tax compromises, treaties, and the repeal of DADT, the President of the United States is embroiled in the biggest controversy of them all; his verbal support of the Philadelphia Eagles for giving Michael Vick a second chance. One might be moved to wonder about the consistency with which we the people are willing to apply the Christian value of forgiveness. Just over two years ago George W. Bush, on behalf of we the people, forgave the criminally bad management (and just plain crime, for that matter) of the entire Wall Street investment banking industry. President Obama, in similar fashion, forgave the equally tawdry practices of the auto industry just less than two years ago.
The actions of both of those groups cost far more damage to human life and liberty than anything a second rate hustler like Mike Vick could pull off. I suspect more than a few dogs and cats have suffered in the recession triggered and then exacerbated by the artists formally known as business geniuses. But then, this news story isn’t really about forgiveness, vengeance, or crime; like everything else coming from the totality of the U.S. media, this story is about the story. President Obama didn’t call a news conference, take out a full page ad in the New York Times, or send out a mass email to his supporters to advertise his “support” of the Eagles. Mr. Obama made his comments in a private conversation with the owner of a private business. Despite the sedate nature of the comments, the opportunity to stir up another juicy presidential controversy has the media ratings monsters drooling all over themselves.
Every professional sport in the United States, to include the pseudo-professional ranks of big time college sports, goes through a coaching purge. From the mid-point of a given season through the end of the post-season, a bloodbath of firings and forced resignations envelopes the profession of coaching. Behind the scenes, millions of parents with children on pee wee and high school teams are currently demanding the very same pound of flesh from the volunteers (or near-volunteers given what high school coaches make) who guide the kids. In 21st Century America, the notion of fault has become all-consuming; the line between genius and stupidity is rarely more broad than the impact of a bad bounce.
This is not an article begging for sympathy and compassion in relation to professional coaches with massive contracts. The price of failure at that level should be termination; but when? How long should it take for a pro coach to establish his personnel and philosophy? How long should it take for a player to grow and mature into his profession? The fortunes of many coaches are decided by the shallow learning curves of their young players, leading me to wonder how many of us would like our decisions and work habits when we were 20-something to be fodder for national news. In short, this is an article about perspective, timing, and the nature of success.