Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Giving Thanks for the NBA Lockout

It’s that time of year again. The time when autumn leaves have fallen, the air is brisk, and a time of reflection commences as we give thanks. For sports fans, its the time when baseball has just come to another dramatic close, football is in full swing as teams prepare for the stiffer competition of winter, and basketball should just getting started as new storylines begin to unfold. But as we approach this Thanksgiving, there is a void in that familiar cycle.
With Monday’s decertification by the NBA Players Union (NBPA), following its rejection of the league’s latest offer, the battle over the new collective bargaining agreement heads to the courts as the prospects for a 2011-’12 NBA season head toward the toilet. As Commissioner David Stern put it, “We are about to go into the nuclear winter of the NBA.”
            Great. So in this time of giving thanks, I’d like to show my gratitude towards everyone responsible for taking our beloved NBA away from us:
            First and foremost I’d like to thank the man at the top, Commissioner David Stern. His stubbornness in overseeing this lockout has brought us to this point. Had he been able to control his owners and present less-insulting initial offers this would have ended weeks ago. The split of basketball related income (BRI) and league system issues would have been ironed out without personal vendettas that were created by his proposal that the owners take back an incomprehensible 14% of BRI.
Stern, whether deserved or not, is the face of this debacle – the only commissioner of a major sport to have now overseen two work stoppages. He was once considered the best commissioner in sports, a brilliant former-lawyer who turned a failing sport with an image and drug problem into the most exponentially growing, globally marketable league in the world. Now he is being accused of halting the progress of his own league after its most exciting season in years, and his once-untouchable legacy has been stained.
On the other side of the line I’d like to thank Mr. Billy Hunter, the Executive Director of the NBPA. A former NFL wide receiver and one of the youngest United States Attorneys in history, he has headed up the Players Union since 1996. After ‘winning’ the past two labor deals by out-negotiating Stern and the owners to give the players a better deal, Hunter – according to NBA sources – has inexplicably taken a lesser role in these negotiations. Is it because he knows he can’t beat Stern again? Is it that he knows he’ll be fired if he doesn’t “win” this deal so is refusing to take the fairest offer that would let the players play? Is it a power struggle with NBPA President Derek Fisher that he is losing, and doesn’t care enough to take back control because he is still receiving his $2 million-a-year salary while the locked out players miss checks? Maybe it’s all of those reasons; maybe it’s none of them. Whatever it is, Hunter has come up short this time around and is making NFL Players Union Director Demaurice Smith’s labor negotiation loss look like a dazzling victory.
            While we’re on the NBPA, I’d also like to thank Union President Derek Fisher and the other player representatives who have taken part in negotiations. The players had no leverage to start the negotiations and have even less now. Fisher and other veterans such as Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Dwayne Wade have somehow mistaken a few years in college and a long career on the court for a law degree and negotiating experience. The players entering the negotiating room, attempting to take charge and pointing fingers at Stern (as Wade did), is the equivalent of Stern and his lawyers suiting up in jerseys to play pickup. Just like Wade, Garnett, and Bryant are the best in the world at what they do, so is Stern. He is the Michael Jordan of the boardroom. These players, negotiating the deal that every other player will have to live with for the next ten years, are the same ones who take no part in negotiating their OWN personal contracts. That is what agents are for, and while the players may want to take charge of their own prospects, they should have left the negotiating to the professionals. The power struggle between Billy Hunter and Derek Fisher should not be happening. The career lawyer who has negotiated for a living should be in control going against Stern, not the career point guard.
To top it off, most of the players negotiating will be unaffected by any new system this collective bargaining agreement, whenever it is agreed upon. Superstars like Kobe and Wade will see the same, if not a greater, amount of money with the new deal, and they have earned it. But people forget they are negotiating for the majority, the mid and lower-level players who will see their future contracts cut in half while the superstars see a greater percentage of the new salary cap. I’m not saying this affects the motivation of superstar players to achieve the best deal; they obviously want that for themselves and future players. But while highly paid players like Kevin Durant proclaim unity and refusal to give in to the league as games are missed, these superstars won’t exactly be in need of money like the majority of the players (for whom they claim to be speaking) when checks don’t arrive in the mail.
Professional athletes have a limited shelf life – the average NBA career is less than 5 years. Every player is now missing the precious few games possible to play – let alone be compensated for, and an injury could end their already abbreviated career at any moment. Old superstars like Kobe and Garnett can’t afford to miss an entire season as they enter their twilight years. Elite players like Wade and Lebron can’t afford to miss a year of their athletic primes and dent their legacy. Youngsters like Blake Griffen and Stephen Curry can’t afford to halt their growth into the future superstars of the league. Unheralded veterans like Leon Powe and Roger Mason can’t afford to miss paychecks while they are still viable role players. But all of that will happen now – all because they thought they could step off the court and into the boardroom and still be the alpha males. And they were sadly mistaken.
            Amazingly, after all that, I haven’t touched the group most responsible for this mess – the NBA owners. This group of multi-billionaires deserves more thanks than anyone for the cause and present continuation this lockout. They have attempted to bully the players into a deal more favorable for themselves because they claim to be losing revenue and operating at a loss. Some may argue that because the owners only received 43% of BRI the past few years – meaning that when all the income of the league is calculated, the owners get 43% while 57% goes to player salaries – the percentage they are left with is too small to keep every owner from operating at a loss. Some will argue that the hectic fluctuations of the economy have diminished revenue for the owners, but still the league has only grown and the owners received their fixed portion of the revenue. Some may blame the lack of ticket revenue, as tickets have become harder to sell as the appeal of watching from home for free become more enticing. Some may claim that without revenue sharing among the owners there will always be small market teams who cannot flourish. These are all possible factors, but even if all those issues were resolved, it would not solve the true problem – the decision-making of the owners themselves.
Owners overpay complementary players, give out contracts that are way too long, and chose to buy their way out of past mistakes with even bigger free-agency mistakes rather than building economically through the draft. Now, rather than pull themselves up by their bootstraps, they are looking for a handout. Instead of finding innovative ways to earn extra revenue, they want to dig into the pockets of the players. They are asking the NBA players to make up for their own mistakes.
Although the players have already agreed to give back 7% of BRI (about $3 billion over the next 10 years), making the split an even 50-50, the owners are inexplicably asking for more. Aside from the fact that is egregious by itself, the truth is that the players SHOULD be making a greater percentage of the revenue. The sports industry is a unique, employee-based industry in which the players are the product. The league is nothing without them, and they should be compensated accordingly. They do all of the work, put their bodies on the line day-in and day-out, and have an extremely limited time in which to do so for compensation. Fans don’t spend their good money on the Knicks because they like the way James Dolan runs the organization – they pay to see the players play.
What the owners fail to admit is that they know this. They know the players deserve more and they know they need to find new forms of revenue. They know that whatever loss they are operating at is just a minute blow to them financially because they have dozens of other forms of revenue – which is how they bought the team. They know that owning a sports franchise is not as much a business investment as it is an investment in pleasure, and making a profit is not why they bought the team. They know all of this – they know they have mismanaged what had been an all too profitable business. But instead of admitting such and taking accountability, they’re threatening to miss an entire season to make the players pay for their mistakes.
            NBA Viewership was at an all time high, and while we can pretend that the delayed start will only heighten anticipation, the reality is that the casual fan has already jumped off the bandwagon. All the work the league has done to clean up its image and market its product has been diminished. The exemplary status the league had built up has been stripped back down to its core by the greed and incompetence of all parties involved. The league will return to glory, yes, there are too many marketable stars and compelling storylines for it not too. But its image has taken a brutal hit. It is now the league of overpaid, selfish young athletes and vengeful, incompetent owners, overseen by a modern day despot. Even if that’s not true, the masses of casual fans have already begun to view it as such. Until this lockout is largely forgotten by the American conscience, it will hang over the once-promising future of the league.
Nobody should avoid fault here, not Stern, Not Hunter, not Fisher and the players, and especially not the owners. They’re all to blame. It took until October for negotiations to get serious as they made a last-ditch attempt to save a season they all knew was unlikely from the start. As fans of the NBA, we can thank them for preventing us the most anticipated season maybe ever. We can thank all of them that we won’t get to see year 2 of the Big 3’s drama in Miami, as Lebron tries to overcome his playoff failures and somehow decided whether it’s his or Wade’s team. We won’t get to see Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, and Deron Williams in the last year of their respective contracts slowly tear out the hearts of Orlando, New Orleans, and New Jersey fans who know their star is leaving. We won’t get to see young stars like Blake Griffen, Stephen Curry, and John Wall take the next step to superstardom. We won’t get to see the superstar-ego pairings of Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire in New York and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City either gel together and succeed or clash like Shaq and Kobe and miserably fall apart.
We can also thank them that we won’t get to see teams like Los Angeles and Boston make that one final title run as their superstars enter their twilight years. We won’t get to see young teams like Chicago and Oklahoma City continue to grow and maybe put it all together like they have the potential too. We won’t get to see the hectic free agency period – like that of the NFL – when teams are making so many moves that you start the season not knowing who went where. We won’t get to see the ultra-competitiveness of a shortened season, where every game means more than ever. And most importantly, we won’t get to see Dallas attempt to repeat, as Dirk Nowitzki moves closer and closer to being one of the 10 greatest players ever with each breathtaking fallaway.
We won’t see any of that now that the season now mostly likely won’t happen. The players have decertified and the fight goes to the courts, as the animosity between both sides will only continue to grow. Both sides will eventually look back at this and regret it. It was handled terribly by all involved and we fans won’t have our beloved NBA. It will be a sad realization for us to wake up on Christmas without the newly reignited rivalry of the Knicks and Celtics, a heated finals rematch between the Heat and Mavericks, and battle of two legendary contenders in the Lakers and Bulls. And that’s what has been overlooked in all of this – us, the fans. And not just the die-hards who watch a mid-January game between the Warriors and Bucks because we love the sport – they know we will be back. But it’s all the casual viewers who’ve said last season got them back into the NBA. That viewership will be lost again and have to be earned back. Only after Monday’s events have we seen an apologetic tone from some involved. That’s because they don’t care about the fans who have supported them or the thousands of businesses that will suffer without the NBA, they care about greed and personal vendettas and ‘beating’ the other side. And it will cost the entire sport more damage than any difference in BRI could ever inflict.
David Stern is right – we are headed for a nuclear winter in the NBA. I just hope we can emerge from our bunkers with some semblance of the league we knew before the war.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Cam Question

Let’s start with the blindingly obvious – Quarterback is the most important position in all of professional sports. Period. No player takes on more responsibilities, faces more pressure, or receives more accolades – or more of the blame – than the Quarterback of an NFL team. Quarterbacks win games and take their teams to championships. The days of Brad Johnson and Trent Dilfer winning the big game are over. Don’t believe me? Look at the Super Bowl-winning Quarterbacks since 2004: Brady twice, Roethlisberger, Peyton, Eli, Roethlisberger again, Brees, and Rodgers. Excluding Eli (who was playing like an elite quarterback in those playoffs), each winner was one of the three best the game that year. Now look at the six favorites (and their odds) to hoist the trophy in Indy this February: New England (9-2), Green Bay (5-1), Philadelphia (8-1), Pittsburgh (8-1), San Diego (10-1), and New Orleans (12-1). All are led by elite signal-callers. Eight of the past ten league MVP’s have been quarterbacks and eight of this year’s ten favorites for the award are as well. Notice a pattern here? In an increasingly offense-driven, pass-heavy league, the position is more important than ever.
Because Quarterbacks win games, they dominate media coverage in the NFL. Nine of the leagues twelve most marketable stars (Brady, both Mannings, Fitzgerald, Brees, Rodgers, Vick, Polomalu, Urlacher, Ryan, Sanchez, Tebow) are quarterbacks. Fans want charismatic, likeable leaders to be the face of their teams, and sponsors know just what position produces most of them – Quarterback. The Quarterback fitting the bill as the next piece of NFL marketing gold: Cam Newton. The question is, can he succeed on the field?
            Coming off one of the greatest collegiate seasons ever, leading and more often carrying his team on an undefeated romp through college football’s deepest and most difficult conference, culminating with the National Championship and possession of the Heisman Trophy, Newton nevertheless faced intense scrutiny as he entered the NFL Draft. Despite dominating SEC defenses, completing 66.1% of his throws for 30 touchdowns and only 7 picks, critics questioned whether he could be the kind of pocket passer that succeeds in the NFL.
Nobody has doubted Cam’s athletic abilities, for at 6’5” 248 pounds, he blends the size and strength of Ben Roethlisberger with the quickness and agility of Michael Vick into possibly the most incredible physical presence we’ve ever seen at the Quarterback position. He has a Defensive End frame, Wide Receiver speed, and Running Back balance, topped with an effortless, flick-of-the-wrist throw. Physically, he’s something we’ve never seen before, the NFL’s equivalent to Magic Johnson and Lebron James (combined?). Newton could play any position he wanted, but his underwhelming passing performance at the NFL Combine raised doubts about whether he could make it as a Quarterback. His accuracy and ability to read a defense were called into question, as teams feared he was this year’s Tim Tebow. Amid the uncertainty, however, and despite having drafted a Quarterback just one year prior, the Panthers took Newton first overall in the 2011 Draft.
A lockout-shortened offseason prevented Cam from the mini-camp and organized team activities that rookie Quarterbacks so desperately need to learn the complexities of an NFL offense and develop a rapport with their receivers. In four preseason games, he looked scared and overwhelmed, completing just 40.4% of his passes for no touchdowns. However, lacking a veteran to hold the fort until Newton was ready, the Panthers had no choice but to go all in, starting their rookie in Week 1.
            Then came Sunday. Cam Newton wasn’t just good… he was extraordinary. Completing 24 of 37 passes for 3 touchdowns (1 rushing) and a debut-record 422 yards in the air, Newton lit up the box score like no rookie starter has before. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not ready to check his ballot for Canton. And despite some young talent the Arizona Cardinals are not exactly Buddy Ryan’s Monsters of the Midway, so we’ll take the numbers with a grain of salt…maybe even a few grains. But it wasn’t the numbers that told the story. Cam had the swagger we saw in college. He took risks down the field, extended the play when the pocket broke down, and displayed that freakish athleticism when jumping over the pile Bo Jackson-style for a touchdown. He was deliberate in his drop-backs and put more velocity behind the ball than ever before. He showed a poise and control of the offense that was absent in the preseason. He carried himself like a seasoned veteran, a far cry from the hesitant Cam of the preseason that left analysts convinced he was destined for early struggles.
At least on this first Sunday, Cam seemed to have everything you want in your NFL Quarterback. He had a presence about him with strong body language. He demonstrated a level of maturity and grasp of the moment that far exceeded his years. He showed that he wasn’t afraid to make difficult throws and didn’t look the least bit intimidated as he tested the defense. He had a fire and enthusiasm on the field and the sidelines, totally engaged as the leader of his team. In a word, that’s what playing Quarterback in the NFL is all about: confidence. The ‘it factor’. A Quarterback’s mental makeup is more important than anything else. To win, a team needs a dominant leader, an alpha male with the charisma and gravitas to take charge and motivate the other 10 men on the field to complete the task at hand to the most of their abilities. Cam has that.
Look at the six elite Quarterbacks in the game today: Brady, Rodgers, Brees, Manning, Roethlisberger, Rivers; what do they all have in common? Confidence. They have control of their team and know the guys around them better than they know themselves. They care. Each one is a leader who, week in and week out, shows the presence, fearlessness, fire, and grasp of the moment that Cam showed Sunday. They aren’t afraid to lay into their teammates because those teammates know their guy cares more than anyone, that he’s their leader on whose shoulders they’ll ride to the top. An NFL team can’t win with a guy who looks like a deer in the headlights – think Shooter being handed the playbook when Norman Dale got ejected in Hoosiers. There’s a reason Matt Schaub, Tony Romo, and Jay Cutler - all equally as talented as the elite six - don’t have rings. You need a guy who walks in the huddle, down four with two minutes on the clock, and makes the other 10 guys think, “This guy’s got it, we’re taking this game.” They haven’t shown themselves to be that guy. That’s the ‘it factor’. Coming away from Sunday, you couldn’t help but feel that in Carolina’s huddle and on it’s sideline, Cam inspired that feeling. He had ‘it’.
Now the question becomes: can Cam keep it going? We know he has the once-in-a-generation athletic ability, and that may carry him for now. He faced a very weak Arizona secondary on Sunday, and next week presents a much mightier task in defending champion Green Bay. Cam most likely won’t repeat the statistical onslaught of Week 1, or even come close again this season, but he doesn’t have to. All he needs is to keep that swagger, that confidence he displayed so astoundingly in his debut. Can he win ugly games with that confidence against tougher teams? We will see. Can he become a solid, if not quality, pocket passer right away? Can he do what it took Michael Vick 10 years to, and learn to stay in the pocket and pick his spots displaying that world-class athleticism? Could Cam Newton redefine the Quarterback position in the National Football League? We don’t know yet. These are lofty, complex questions about a young man who has played one, albeit extraordinary, professional game. And they certainly can’t be answered right away or even just in this first year. But the possibility is there, because that confidence is there. Panthers fans have something to smile about this week, and I’m sure the Carolina season ticket office received a few more calls than usual on Monday morning. Cam Newton has that “it factor”, and at the Quarterback position, nothing is more important.