Sunday, February 13, 2011

We Have Now What we Have Always Needed, Real Partnership with the Government.

Deadspin is pretty much useless to me because it’s become the US Weekly of sports blogs, but I remain a fan of its slogan: “without access, favor, or discretion.” That saying is the “all the news that’s fit to print” of the blogosphere. Think about the slogan when you read two pieces: Peter King’s hagiography of Roger Goodell ($) and S.M. Oliva’s dissection of the NFL as an embodiment of crony capitalism at the Mises Economics Blog. (HT to Chris Brown for the latter link. And yes, I get the point that I’m left-of-center and quoting the von Mises Institute.)

I finally got around to reading the King piece this weekend and found myself wondering whether it would be any different if it were written by the NFL’s PR department itself. (The irony here is that Goodell got his start as a PR guy for Ken O’Brien when the Jets took O’Brien as one of the least heralded members of the famed 1983 quarterback class.) In Cliff Notes style, here’s what you can learn from King’s eight-page piece:

1. Goodell successfully handled a racially-loaded incident in a bar in college.

2. Goodell sent a security detail to Tank Johnson’s house instead of Johnson buying a gun.

3. The NFL is very popular, but the labor dispute will be complicated.

4. Goodell’s childhood was marked by protecting his siblings, realizing that he would have to outwork everyone else, and following his Dad’s political career, which ended with a principled stand against the Vietnam War. We end up with this rancid comparison:

Goodell lost the 1970 Senate election, receiving just 24% of the vote in a three-party race. "But what did he retain?" Roger says. "His principles. His integrity. His character. It had a big effect on all of us."

On the future NFL commissioner, especially. "Roger has so much of his father in him," Tagliabue says. "He listens to all sides and has the courage of his convictions. I used to see it a lot when he was dealing with state legislators and governors. He understood the pressure elected officials were under."

Yes, Peter, we all see the similarity between Charles Goodell taking a stand against Vietnam that provoked a backlash from his own party and Roger Goodell convincing politicians to fork over large chunks of the public treasury to enhance the bottom lines of the NFL and its wealthy owners. Real conviction on both sides.

5. Goodell took care of his mother when she had terminal cancer.

6. Goodell convinced Jerry Rice not to go to the USFL, returned pro football to Cleveland, and was correct to side with Jerry Jones on the potential of local sponsorship deals.

7. Goodell is a man of the people who talks to his ordinary customers.

8. Mike Vick wants to make Goodell proud after lying to him about his involvement in dog-fighting. (Seriously, this story about Goodell’s steely glare to Vick is ludicrous. Was Vick really going to admit to a serious federal offense and thus make the Commissioner of the NFL a material witness? Goodell’s question to Vick was a classic sideline reporter question with only one potential answer, but Greg Aiello King retells it with vim so fans can feel good that the NFL commissioner takes a hard line on scofflaws with cornrows.)

9. Goodell will bend on the NFL’s position that the season should be extended to 18 games – an unprincipled, meritless position in light of the emphasis on head injuries and thus, an obvious negotiating ploy - but he is a stalwart negotiator who will win in the end.

The inclusion of the 18-game schedule issue is the only nugget in a long cover story that could possibly be construed as negative for Goodell and King promptly defuses it by saying that Goodell and the owners will back off that demand. Hell, even the cover – a ground level shot looking up at Goodell, surveying all he has conquered as the serious man of industry – comes right out of your average political campaign. Sports Illustrated is the major national media entity that should be able to display critical thinking when it covers the labor dispute because ESPN and the other networks are beholden to the league as a result of their broadcast deals. Instead, SI devoted major space to allow the NFL to fire an early salvo in a PR war. (In SI’s defense, they did a very good job covering head injuries in a lengthy cover feature this season, so it’s not as if they have nothing to contribute.) King’s piece reeks of a writer who wants to maintain a good relationship with the entity that he covers. The desire for access pollutes the final product.

In contrast, the Oliva piece is a great takedown of the NFL and Goodell. In the same way that lots of voters are against “big government” while ignoring the fact that they are beneficiaries in a host of ways (their position isn’t “I don’t like spending;” it’s “I don’t like spending on other people”), lots of otherwise conservative people love a sport that makes a mockery of the free market. Inept owners like the Fords in Detroit and the Browns in Cincinnati continue to rake in profits from unassailable positions because the NFL protects bad management. (I would pay through the nose to see a meeting of NFL owners in which a promotion/relegation system is discussed.) These owners benefit from the heavy public subsidies that every franchise receives in one form or another. Oliva then lights into Goodell as being emblematic of the league’s authoritarian bent:

There is, in fact, a strong “intellectual property” mentality throughout the NFL. Literally this is reflected in the league’s fanatical prosecution of its trademarks and copyrights. But on another level, there’s a belief in “The Shield,” the image of a league that must be protected at all costs from any hint of negative press.

When Roger Goodell became commissioner, he took this idea to laughable excess. No longer content to enforce the league’s on-field rules, Goodell anointed himself a crusader against all perceived wrongs. He routinely suspends players for off-field incidents – even mere allegations — that have nothing to do with the actual game of professional football. His rationale is that any action by an NFL player that may reflect poorly on him also hurts the league somehow. (Of course, that doesn’t apply to Goodell’s employers, the franchise operators, who are free to be sleazy, racist, and dishonest businessmen, e.g. Daniel Snyder).

Then again, as a lifelong NFL bureaucrat, Goodell is simply extending the league’s on-field thinking to off-field situations. The NFL product is increasingly bureaucratic and not very “consumer friendly.” The league obsesses over trivial matters — fining players $5,000 for wearing the wrong socks, banning all truthful criticism of officiating mistakes, changing rules on the fly in the middle of the season — to the point where we’re no longer talking about private businessmen but quasi-governmental officials. Indeed, what private business outside of professional sports has a “Commissioner”?

Not that any of this is surprising. When the majority of league stadiums are government finances, that mentality seeps into the league’s operations. When you attempt to circumvent the laws of economics by continually subsidizing poor management, what you’re left with is a even poorer management.

The one problem with Oliva’s critique is that Goodell’s crackdown on players who are not charged with crimes (Ben Roethlisberger) or, in one case, are alleged to have committed a tawdry offense that isn’t even illegal (Brett Favre) is actually a free market response. The NFL has to be careful with resentment on the part of its fans towards its players. That resentment has elements of race and class (a combination of conservative and liberal themes!) and is stoked by the sports media, which often have little food on their table, but have a lot of forks and knives and have to cut something. (See the comment in King’s piece by a tailgater in Cincinnati.) By becoming the avenging angel for fans, Goodell is responding to taste of the market. Not all bad qualities of the NFL are the result of its suckling at the government teat. Then again, if the point is that the NFL is an emblem of authoritarian, state-aided capitalism, then Sheriff Goodell fits right in.

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