SPORTS

On Ray Rice Fallout: Stop needing the NFL to pass judgement for you

The media (traditional and social) landslide created by a football player’s suspension has reached Oh-My-God-Shut-Up-About-It proportions. And while other “major” events like this hog the spotlight for a time and then go away, this will be a thing for at least six more weeks and likely go beyond that. Football and the media that cover it have a way of staying relevant, and nothing makes it easier than controversy.

‘Damn, Paul, you’re so insensitive! I mean, did you even see the video from TMZ?’

Yeah, I saw it. When it came out. It hasn’t changed since then and it will never change (unless they release the unedited director’s cut that wasn’t suitable for theaters). This isn’t about whether Ray Rice was appropriately punished by the NFL. It should be noted that he wasn’t actually punished by his employer, the Baltimore Ravens, who are the ones who pay his salary. They deferred to the league to rule on this rather than upset a star player and take blame or credit for the harshness of their own judgement. He wasn’t punished by the justice system either. Not even charged. The only life sentence he got was marriage to the woman he allegedly knocked unconscious. NFL players often get called neanderthals, so maybe that’s the case here (see illustration above).

(Editor’s Note: I love being married, guilty as charged.)

No, this is not about his punishment. It’s a reminder to people that the NFL, like any other corporation, is not a moral authority–it’s a business. Stop looking for a moral stance from something that doesn’t make money off of being moral. Consider this question: If Ray Rice had been suspended for four, six, eight games or even a whole season, what would we learn that is different about the morality of his actions? The reaction is so focused on the punishment and what he deserves rather than the victim and what can be learned. Regardless of his punishment, he still did whatever he did, thus making the message to all: “if you’re comfortable with the punishment, then go ahead and do it.”

I imagine the concern here is that two games and hundreds of thousands of dollars is not enough of a deterrent, that a greater percentage of men will commit domestic violence because they can use NFL v. Rice as their playbook. I say, if the punishment is the only way to prevent domestic violence, then we’re doing it wrong. In sports and society, fear of punishment doesn’t appear to work as well as we’d think. Prisons are still crowded, crimes still happen, even when justice is served. Justice, after all, is the search for balance after a crime has been committed. Maybe it’s time to concern ourselves less with justice and more with being the type of people who don’t commit crimes.

Had the NFL sent a message with its ruling and really hit Ray Rice hard with a half-season or something that was deemed ‘enough’, how soon before another NFL player committed a similar crime? Or killed someone while driving drunk? Or beat someone up in a bar? And when that eventuality happens, what would people do? “Wait a second? But the NFL sent a message … how could this happen?” Then what?? More punishment? More justice? Instead, the NFL is deemed to have gone soft in this case, giving everyone ammunition for when it happens again to say, “See … should’ve come down harder on Rice.”

Stop needing the NFL to pass judgement for you. Stop needing anyone to do it. Right and wrong have some gray areas, but domestic violence and spousal abuse aren’t among them. It’s never OK. Remind your fans of that, not through punishment of the criminal, but through the eyes of the victim. Hitting someone can’t be bad thing because you’ll go to jail or get suspended. It has to be because … it’s a bad thing.

Think back on how basic it is from childhood: “Don’t hit. Bad. No. That hurts. Look, she’s crying. See? No. Bad. Don’t hit.” Those rules still apply, no matter how grown-up or problems are or how many adult beverages we’ve had. Yes, there are consequences to your actions and justice is important, but more crucial to learning from an instance like this is taking the time to teach why a certain action is wrong. It’s not in the punishment of the criminal. It’s in the innocence of the victim.

DeSean Jackson

Give credit: The Eagles–not the Redskins–gave DeSean Jackson his clean slate

DeSean Jackson was cut less than a week ago for a list of vague but troubling reasons. One of the most explosive players in the NFL over the past six seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, Jackson was unceremoniously let go for some combination of having a poor work ethic, not playing well with others, and something else … what was it? Oh, right, his possible connections with a Los Angeles gang.

I purposely put the whole ‘gang’ thing last on the list for two reasons: (1) it can’t be proven, but more because (2) it’s already become a footnote in his bio. He’s a member of the Washington Redskins for the bargain price of $24 million over three years, $16 million of it is guaranteed. Move forward. Get away from the possible, probable and definite issues Jackson carries with him. He’s a dynamic playmaker, and if he can help the Redskins surpass their division-rival Eagles (as well as the Cowboys and Giants) then he’s an absolute steal.

Right?

What’s most likely to happen: DeSean Jackson will put up some serious numbers for the Redskins. He’ll take attention away from WR Pierre Garcon, stretch the field for RB Alfred Morris, and take pressure off of QB Robert Griffin (or QB Kirk Cousins). And by ‘pressure’ I mean in terms of how often teams blitz. They’ll need more players in the secondary to keep up with DJax. I actually think the pressure from fans, media, teammates, media, coaches and media will skyrocket for RGIII. (Yeah, media is mentioned three times to account for all of the NFL coverage out there.)

Jackson won’t commit any crimes worse than a traffic violation. He’ll show up to voluntary workouts like he never has before. He’ll be a boyscout. And when he torches the Eagles secondary, win or lose, Chip Kelly and the Eagles’ brass will draw ire from fans, media, teammates, media, coaches and media. Washington will likely be better, the Eagles might be worse, and if it results in the Redskins finishing ahead of Philly, the Eagles will never hear the end of it.

But the Eagles will not have been wrong. Someone with more clout than me needs to remind them of that fact. It will never be proven, but Philly’s higher-ups may have at the very least prevented a crime or at the most saved a life. It’s not that dramatic of a statement. They’ll never dish the full list of reasons why he was released, but just consider what it would take for your team to dump arguably its best player in the prime of his career. It wasn’t money–Jackson just had a career year AFTER signing a huge contract, so his value was still going up. They had to have found something, and it may have been so small as identifying a destructive pattern that needed to be broken before it turned a man into a criminal (see Aaron Hernandez).

Aaron Hernandez

On August 22, 2013, Hernandez was indicted by a grand jury for the murder of Odin Lloyd, and is currently being investigated in connection with other murders in Massachusetts.

Ever see ‘Minority Report’ with Tom Cruise? The crux was a paradox of punishing people for committing a crime they did not yet commit. If you stop them, then they can’t be guilty. In this case (reality), instead of charging someone with future crime and putting them into some trance-inducing prison, DeSean Jackson was fired. Again, there’s no telling what he might have done. He was punished for a having an alarming probability of poor conduct with a wide range of possible outcomes. *He was pulled over for DUI before the possibility of causing a fatal accident. It’s likely the Eagles saved his life.

But history will never write it that way unless Jackson has some deep realization and at some point publicly thanks his former employer for it. The likely facts will be that Jackson has a productive, maybe illustrious career with the Redskins. The Eagles will not reach a Super Bowl without him, and they’ll get shamed ( externally) for letting go of a unique talent in his prime. Even if Jackson were to get into trouble after a successful career is over, the team would not be able to escape the criticism of giving up on him.

What is also likely is that the Eagles made the right decision. They may have even saved a life. Maybe not a literal life, but more that they broke a man’s destructive pattern, allowing him to refocus his life into something productive instead of criminal.

*To be clear, this statement is metaphorical. As far as I know, DeSean Jackson has no DUIs on his record.

NOTE: This was spurred by the ESPN article announcing Jackson’s signing with the Redskins. In that article (roughly 16 paragraphs long), there was no mention of why Jackson was released by the Eagles in the first three-quarters of the story. ESPN is already over it.

The Brilliance of Mark Cuban: Let ’em play and pay ’em for it

Mark Cuban has the right idea about the NBADL.

Mark Cuban has the right idea about the NBADL.

Mark Cuban knows how to get things going. The Dallas Mavericks owner and  part-time shark said recently that high school basketball stars should consider jumping directly to the NBA’s Developmental League, rather than going to college for one or two seasons before declaring for the NBA Draft.

This, apparently, is a brand-new concept to people in the basketball business. Representatives on both sides–NBA and NCAA–from Charles Barkley and Jerry West to Bruce Pearl and Larry Brown have denounced this as a ridiculous concept that will surely result in the Apocalypse … of basketball.

The Cubes has it right.

Proponents of the college game tout “the college experience” as something uniquely beneficial to these athletes. “They get certain life skills and gain an appreciation for academics with the rest of the student body.” (Not a real quote, more of a gist). Stop it. The college experience for a premier men’s basketball player is nothing like that of the average pinky toe of the student body. While they all likely have been told that they have what it takes to make it to the NBA, there are a definitive few who can legitimately cut class three years early. Those players show up, play ball, and leave. They can’t earn a degree in that time and they know it. So, while they may even get legit grades, they do it with a course load that is geared to get grades. Their goal isn’t to graduate, it’s to pass (the time). And I don’t fault them for that; the system allows it and even promotes it.

Talking heads say the college game is the best at preparing players for the NBA. If they are true student-athletes, why is it the school’s job to prepare them for a life that does not require the degree? Shouldn’t it be to prepare them for a career off the court and, if they happen to make it to the league then so be it? Truth is, universities spend millions of dollars on trying to find and develop the best basketball players they can so the school’s colors can stain television screens in March. If they happen to graduate the so be it.

The perception of the D-League is that of an empty gym for oft-injured veterans and raw prospects to give it a go. It’s basketball limbo with C-minus talent in cities that aren’t quite “destinations” with crowds closer to semi-pro wrestling. So what? The disdain with which the D-League is talked about confuses me because no other minor league gets the same treatment.

Cito Culver

Cito Culver

Meanwhile, a 17-year-old kid named Cito Culver was drafted in the first round by the New York Yankees in 2010.  No one batted an eye. He since has yet to get past the Single-A level. He’s barely 20 and will never know the college experience, but nobody worried he was making the wrong decision. Maybe his career .238 batting average is just the coming-of-age portion of his baseball biography. Maybe at 21, 22, 23 or 24 he’ll break into the league and enjoy a 10-year career. Or maybe he’ll fade into minor league purgatory, forgotten before he could be remembered.

Baseball and hockey have made stories like that OK. It’s part of the culture of those sports. The NBA would do well to develop something similar–the kind of indifference to the eventual outcome that helps scouts, fans, athletes and their parents sleep at night.

Ideally, the D-League and other minor leagues would make a college fund part of any player’s initial contract. A player could come out of high school, earn a paycheck to play basketball, and earn added money that can only be used to pay a tuition. The truly great players who make a name for themselves in high school would be free to sign endorsement deals, and then join the NBA a year or two years later. And follow baseball’s lead: If a player opts to go to college after they’ve been drafted in high school, they are required to wait three years before becoming draft eligible again.

In the end, the NBA has the power to make this happen at the great expense of the fleeting NCAA. The governing body of college sports has taken so many hits over the past decade that it seems a perfect time for a break-up. The NBA is a business, and the NCAA is a business that clings to a poorly held-together notion of altruism that is all but evaporated. The first time a major college prospect opts for the D-League instead of Duke, makes some cash, and becomes an NBA star, consider the floodgates opened.

And thank Mark Cuban.

The rise and fall of football

Mention the concept of the NFL or football for that matter falling from its rank as the dominant sport in the United States, and be prepared to be labeled a fool. The NFL is enjoying the greatest success any sport in America ever has right now, and is somehow doing it all under the guise of a non-profit organization. The NFL is in the business of making the rich richer while making the poor feel rich, if only for a while, and it’s more efficient at reaching that end than most any industry.

But like great teams destined to rule for years as a dynasty (Cowboys, 49ers, Steelers, Patriots, etc.), great industries (newspapers, automakers, etc.), and great music (swing, disco, grunge), everything gets old. Everything reaches a highpoint and then realizes that the only thing that can follow a highpoint is decline. The NFL, football is at it’s highpoint. The Fall of Football has begun.

Now watch the Rise of Football. Excuse me … Futbol. American spell check doesn’t know what means, but it won’t be long before that’s fixed.

Soccer is the world’s game, and although we in the States like to think of our stuff as being the best, American football can’t hold a candle to the economic and social impact of soccer.  The figures below are from 2009, but still show the disparity in global popularity and prosperity.

While one argument I always hear about the NFL is that it’s too big to fail. If size matters, then it’s soccer who cannot fail and it’s not even close.  You don’t have to look at the international game to see it, either. In an article by Forbes in November of 2013, the undeniable success of America’s own Major League Soccer (MLS) accounts for the first giant steps to a monumental shift.

According to the article:

Now, there are 19 teams – with another New York City team scheduled to launch in 2015 and one in Orlando in the works. And with Hunt selling his second soccer team, Columbus Crew, for an MLS record $68 million this July, ownership is as dispersed and valuable as ever. Average attendance has surged to 18,600, a more than 35% increase from the 2000 nadir of just over 13,700.

Of course, these numbers pail in comparison to the NFL or even major college football, but the true signs of demise are not at the top, but at the bottom. Youth football is experiencing a drastic decline in participation, the likes of which they haven’t seen in decades. Hinging largely on the health issues of the last five years over concussions, parents simply don’t want their children put in harm’s way. According to a report by ESPN’s Outside the Lines: The nation’s largest youth football program, Pop Warner, saw participation drop 9.5 percent between 2010-12, a sign that the concussion crisis that began in the NFL is having a dramatic impact at the lowest rungs of the sport.

And then there’s market saturation. I used to enjoy watching NFL pregame shows for an hour or two before kickoff. Now, I spend my mornings watching the English Premiere League games that start just as I’m waking up and usually lead me right until 1 p.m. It’s fantastic. The athleticism is astounding and the action is not boring as football purists would have you believe. There are more soccer games available on TV now than ever before.

Should I also get into the shifting demographics of the United States? Suffice to say that with a population becoming more diverse,  most of those different nationalities have one thing in common — their love of soccer.  It is infused in the blood of those who will make up a minority majority.

If this post were a thesis, I’d keep going, but I think the point’s been made. And I didn’t even play soccer, I played football. Pop Warner and high school. I love the game, I’m just not “in love” with it anymore.

It won’t happen soon. Not five or 10 years. But in a full generation, I expect the shift to be clear. Baseball had its run and the NBA’s highpoint proved to come at a time when the NFL was reaching its own so it will never hold the top spot. But when all of these economic and social factors eventually add up, it will be to the sum of soccer.