Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Realignment Blues: What is a College Conference?

I grew up a Big 8 guy. The Missouri--Kansas Game was holy day at our house. I never did recover from when we moved across State Line Street into Kansas and suddenly I was supposed to root for the hated Jayhawks, but I knew my loyalties even if my younger siblings rooted for Kansas. This time of year I knew which bowl to follow because the Big 8 went to the Orange bowl. Not any more. Now I am watching the umpteenth bowl I don't care about and Missouri joined something called the Big 12 and now is on its way to The SEC.

The truth is my Big 8 was a figment of my imagination and misplaced loyalty. It morphed into something called the Big 12 then the Big 12 with only 10 members and it goes on. My old rivalry game no longer exists. College Conferences, in the great DeToqueville tradition, are voluntary associations that can mutate, grow, shrink or even cease to exist. They are voluntary associations created by colleges and their Presidents and Boards for their own purposes.

A college conference resembles the original Articles of Confederation with little revenue, members who can leave at will and no central identity to transcend college identity.Whatever purpose they have, it depends upon self interest and not abiding loyalty or heritage.

(And what is it with this BIG thing. I mean the Big 10, Big 8, Big 12 and even the Big East. I mean only guys could come up with these names!)

The original conferences grew by fits and starts. Many originally had an organic quality of regional proximity and traditional rivalries. In the forties and fifties as scandals sundered college athletes, the Conferences took on the task of regulating competition. It quickly became clear that conferences could not regulate themselves; there was too much conflict of interest when schools that played each other had to stand in judgment over each other. The few good conference commissioners that tried to enforce discipline soon found themselves without jobs.

Many conferences sponsored championships but this did little to enhance them. Most conferences were what organizational theorists would call loosely coupled systems, with little to hold them against centrifugal forces. In a number of cases, conferences signed exclusive agreements with Bowl Games like the Big 8 and Orange Bowl or Pac-10 and Big 10 for the Rose Bowl. There were not many bowls and this gave them cachet and importance.

Two watershed events transformed conferences.

First the NCAA basketball tournament grew in stature, visibility and wealth. The tournament gave preference to conference winners, and independents found themselves left in the cold. Schools scrambled to create conferences just to get access to the tournament and its visibility and revenue. The most successful and artificial of these conferences was the Big East, the first real conference created just for money and NCAA access.

Second,  in 1984 the courts ruled that NCAA could not exercise monopoly control over college football. This meant that TV contracts devolved to schools and conferences. Many schools stuck their own deals, but the networks wanted reliable and consistent offerings. Conferences stepped in and offered an entire package as well as quantity and quality of product. This began the era of fundamental economic inequality in college sports as the SEC and Big 10 garnered contracts and TV status that outstripped everyone else.
The basketball tournament and TV deals drove conferences to emulate the SEC to create a " brand" for their conference that could be as powerful as that for schools. The Big 10 soon followed suit. Very quickly the college landscape evolved into Division 1 major conferences and all the rest. Even in Division 1 many mid major schools did not have the visibility or stature to garner TV contracts.

The BCS did for college football conferences what the NCAA tournament did for college basketball. Without a national championship and with conferences controlling television and bowl deals  access to the mythical national championship or to the big money bowls depended upon being a member of a marque conferences. The rest of the schools were stuck with secondary and backwater bowls and contracts. Many of the secondary bowls cost more to attend than they paid out.

This led to the last seven years of consolidation and pilfering, so much so a micro-industry has grown up just trying to predict and follow it.  All the moves reflect efforts by schools to get access to football TV money. For example, the ACC, a basketball conferences with no real football cache beyond Florida State, stole Boston College and Virginia Tech. This year they dismembered the Big East by grabbing Syracuse. The SEC and Big 12 evolved in similar manners. TCU illustrates this new world order. Desperate to get into a BCS conference for its football team, it joined the Big East. As the Big East disintegrated, it jilted the Big East and joined the reconstituted Big 12. Just look at this map of the new Big East to see the real logic of conferences.

Modern conferences now have a  set of clear purposes.

1)        Maximize the revenue for all the schools to address the costs of college sports.
2)        Maximize television value by capturing top markets or schools with high viewership loyalty.
3)        Maximize TV exposure in football that generates revenue and enhances public visibility.
4)        Maximize the chance to get schools into the NCAA basketball tournament.
5)        Create a strong brand that enhances the reputation of any school in the conference to makes it a destination for schools and networks.
6)        Connect with schools that might share common goals or purposes academically or have geographic affinity.

Notice the original purposes are now last, and no one even worries about using the conferences as a tool to regulate competition.

It's not pretty, actually it is pretty ugly. But the Presidents and Boards face continuous budget deficits and hemorrhaging losses from sports especially football. They will pursue anything to increase the attractiveness of games to TV or get more teams into the tournament.

For most fans their loyalties lay with schools and this is a good thing. Keep them there. As the TCU saga illustrates, conferences may be brands but not objects of loyalty.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Strange World of College Football Christmas

“The worst Christmases were when I was home with the family. I was grumpy and they were sad. We all wished I was getting ready for a bowl.” So an old and wise football assistant coach introduced me to the strange world of College Football Christmas. A linebacker told me two years ago, “yeah, I’m going home to be with the family, I hate it!”  He mused about how he’d have to watch all his friends on TV at various bowls around the country.

I saw the best statement yesterday in the Seattle Times when the Husky’s young coach Steve Sarkesian said, “I tell them don’t ever give me anything for Christmas…They already gave me the best gift that I could have. That’s waking up in a hotel on Christmas Day at a bowl game and then going to practice.”

Waking up in a hotel is the best gift he could have!

Now that summarizes the wackiness and joy of college football bowl season. I know all the arguments for a national championship, but still love the fact that 70 teams of kids get to celebrate with each other and enjoy a visit to a city and one last game all before a new semester starts.

But think about this world. This is a time those of us who celebrate Christmas see to gather with family and friends and celebrate, exchange gifts. We are grateful for the gift of love and redemption in the world that expresses itself in our love for each other.  Now college football players and coaches suffer when they sit around the table with family, friends and presents. They suffer the loss of not playing, not being with each other and the knowledge that their season failed.

For the players their closest friends and companions are each other. They share four or five years of sacrifice, pain, competition, joy, suffering, failure and accomplishment with each other. Their most lasting memories will be of each other, not of the victories and loses. They are all young adults and can live time away from family if they are with their second family.

Coaches experience this as a celebration of their work and effort. They see this as vindication for their efforts and commemoration and festivity for the hard work of their “kids.” The coaches live in each others lives and wounds during the season and for them, spending this time away from family and sanity is hard but satisfying.

Really the deepest losses for this strange way to celebrate Christmas are for the young coaches whose spouses and young children spend the Christmas season with tree, family but without dad. This is a deeper sadness at the core of all coaches, male and female, who spend such consuming lives recruiting, worrying, planning and coaching their teams, away from their family. As one coach told me, “sometimes I think I am a better parent to my players than my children.”

But this Christmas on the road, Steve Sarkesian and the Huskies and 60 other teams will wake in hotel rooms on Christmas morning happy and satisfied. They will practice on Christmas day, work hard and eat hearty with the people they have spent the year with, with their friends and team members. For those of us who have gone to their banquets and know that these young athletes express with tears their “love” for each other, then maybe this is the best way to spend Christmas. To be with, play with, and work with those you love and respect.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Why Athletes Can't Afford Loyalty

I watch Bruce Jenner on the Kardashian reality show with appalled sadness. Bruce Jenner once stood as the greatest athlete in the world winning the 1976 Olympic Decathlon. Shaggy haired with an ah shucks attitudes, he stood as an American hero. Now he haunts the  haunts the outskirts of the Kardashian family circus with a face wrecked by too many bad plastic surgeries, a shadow of fading glory. I remember seeing Mickey Mantle selling autographs at a casino. I read of the fate, genetic and otherwise, of the great East German Olympians many cast off by their society just like some of the recent Chinese Olympic champions who live on streets.

Every athlete lives one injury from oblivion. The brilliant Brandon Roy just retired from the Portland Trailblazers, no longer able to play on knees that betrayed him at the age of 27. The Indianapolis Colts and their fans are cold bloodily thinking of passing on their greatest quarterback Peyton Manning because of an injury. Athletes cannot rely upon the loyalty of fans and owners. It took one second in a meaningless late season game to rupture Adrian Peterson's ACL and MCL. In one second his seven year 100 million dollar contract with the Vikings could be compromised even if he recovers since so much of his skill depends upon his explosiveness, one of the consistent casualties of ACL injuries. 

Every athlete will lose their career physically before they are ready emotionally. Too many athletes do not have a backup plan, a degree or altnernative career. When most of us are just launching their careers in late twenties, most athletes are obsolete. With the average pro career 3-5 years, most professional players end on the scrap heap by 27.

Every athlete knows thiseven the ones living in denial.

Athletes also know how utterly fickle and ruthless fans can be. Just go to a basketball game, any level, and watch fans wave and yell and scream for a team or athlete. But the fans mood will shift almost instantaneously. Fans shower down praise,  love and ecstasy, but in a second will boo, scorn or curse the same athlete in the same game. Athletes know that fan loyalty cannot be relied upon; fans want blood and victory, but will settle for blood if they cannot get victory.

Experienced athletes know who we fans are and rightly do not trust us. Just watch the kvetching about Bernie Williams or now Derek Jeter on the downside of magnificent careers with the Yankees. In my hometown fans are turning on Ichiro on the downside of glorious career. Fans do not give unconditional love; it is tightly conditioned. Yet we scream and moan and accuse athletes of being greedy when they leave us.

Albert Pujols just accepted a 250 million dollar ten year contract from the Los Angele Angels, rather than accept a 19 million dollar per year contract with St. Louis for fewer years.  More than a few fans and commentators have excoriated him for not staying with St. Louis his only team. They argue that he grew up in the Cardinals system and should stay with them out of loyalty.  But Pujols helped St. Louis win two world series in five years. His mentor and manager who helped him grow into the star, Tony Russo just retired. What did Pujolis owe the fans? Nothing. He was willing to take a small discount but 5 million per year difference, 20 percent of the St. Louis offer over ten years added up, a lot.  Over the life of the contract it would be worth 50 million dollars or 5 percent of a billion!
We and the St. Louis fans should be glad for him and celebrate his commitment and achievements for the team and the city.

Players cannot and should not trust fans. We forget too easily and remember too long. Fans claim to have loyalty, but the reality is that we do not and turn quickly and viscously upon our heroes. As fans we will forget the journeymen and haunt the retired stars who did not have a safety net at conventions or memorabilia gatherings. The players exist only as amber dipped memories of the fans. We cast off athletes like we cast off almost everyone else. They have no safety net and fans have very short memories. They know the pain of "once I was somebody."

Every professional athlete should be trying to maximize their income. We should not be surprised when they do this. We should not begrudge them seeking to maximize their gain with their very limited economic window of opportunity. We should also realize they understand fans better than we understand ourselves. Our momentary adulation and quicksilver attitude shifts cannot feed their kids or build their homes.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Sports Ethics: Have Fun!

Several weeks ago the University of Washington football team struggled with a three game losing streak. A season that commenced with great promise teetered on the verge of collapse. The players held a players only meeting, a rare and important event for any team. After the meeting, several players announced that the team had reached a remarkable conclusion. The players needed to “have more fun.”

I believe this is a vital insight into how players should carry themselves in sport competition. Remember that in English we are quite honest about sports; we “play” sports. Many modern sports emerged not from practice for warfare but exciting and challenging activities that pushed the athletes and provided deep satisfaction in accomplishment and winning. You can see this with your pets playing or better yet when you coach or watch kids’ games, before the AAU and Select coaches get to them.

I remember coaching T-Ball for my six-year old kids. We’d set the ball on the T and someone would whack it with her bat and the ball would skitter towards second base.  Seven kids would run to the ball laughing and shouting. Of course no one remained on first to catch the ball. We had to remind the hitter to run to first base, and the kids would flutter around second jostling for the ball. Someone would emerge from the six-year old scrum with the ball, but of course she had no one to throw it to at first. All the parents laughed, and as coach I swallowed my irritation and could only smile as all the practice we had gone through disappeared in the thrill of actual play. Now that was fun! That is sport. The joy, thrill and enjoyment of moving, learning, acting together grounds the fun of sport.

I don’t think the football team meant fun as in funny where people tell jokes or do hilarious and silly things that make us laugh. Laughter is an aspect of fun, but it narrows the concept to a particular aspect of fun. In the origins of the word this refers to fun as a form of hoax or silliness but the other fun suggests looseness and enjoyment.

I believe the football team meant, “we need to play loose; we need to play with abandon and experience the ferocious joy that lead them into the sport to begin with.” To have fun empowers athletes to commit and act upon their trained experience and fully perform without holding back, second-guessing or hesitating. Having fun reinforces and supports all the habits of mind and body that players develop. Neurologically when a person is unconsciously engrossed in an activity that engages and satisfies them, their brain lights up in a very different way than when they are worried or hesitating or thinking about what they are supposed to do.

The counterpoint would be the reminder that so many coaches and players will tell you that the NFL means the “No Fun League,” just ask Bill Belichick.

When a player is NOT having fun; they are playing tight. The tightness degrades cognate and physical efficiency and subverts trained habits. They may be thinking too hard about what they are doing; this act of thinking slows them down and complicates reactions. These nanosecond gaps give a competitor a significant advantage in challenging that player. An athlete might be trying to remember the correct response or the options that they have. Either way, it wastes time and reaction giving opponents significant advantages. Worse, when a player plays tight and worries and think it undercuts speed and confuses pattern recognition.

Often the thinking revolves around judging and assessing oneself. The slightest mistake or the concern over making a mistake leads to hesitation or misguided attempts to change on the fly undercutting efficiency of response even more.
Another variation will be when a player is constantly looking over their shoulder to the coach. They feel judged and evaluated, which they are, but they become so fixated upon what the coach might be thinking that they sacrifice their own training and reactions and lose speed and performance efficiency. Even when they may be learning to internalize a coach’s schemes or learn better ways to perform, this transition takes time, hurts performance and slows them down.

When a player is not having fun; they play worried. They hesitate; a hitch develops in their swing or throw or hit. Too much second-guessing spins out into tinkering in the middle of a game and what might become a singular failure turns into a self-reinforced slump. This attitude gets contagious as others pick it up or adjust because they cannot trust the slumping player, then they get out of sync or they have to think because the pattern training falters because the other play is not performing.

Psychologists speak of the moments of flow when a person literally lives the skill. They lose track of time but their mind, body, and emotions converge upon execution of what they are doing. This moment exists for all of us in any endeavor. When an athlete enters “a zone,” we mean they are experiencing flow.

Achieving flow and high performance especially under conditions of stress and competitive counters is allied with having fun. Fun links high performance, neurological efficiency and speed and efficiency of pattern recognition and action. Fun buttresses playing loose, trusting preparation and training and the satisfaction that derives from a job well done.

When the Seattle Marines turned around their awful 2012 season, Kyle Seager their young third baseman talked about a basic truth of performance, "We're loose....any time you're not stressing and not tight, you are going to play the best you can." 

The Washington players were right; having fun matters to perform well and reach your highest potential.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Late Autumn: Leaves and Coaches Fall

That time of year again. The leaves are falling and so are NCAA Division 1 coaches—24 and counting. This will exceed last year’s Division 1 windfall.

Along with the firing comes the hiring and the birth of new hope, the higher outlandish salaries and the retreads and often the hiring again of deeply flawed or wounded saviors for programs.

The world of athletic directors and college coaches remains very small and incestuous. Everyone knows each other, has worked or will work for each other. They all keep tabs, and most athletic directors keep a short A List of possible replacements if their coach implodes.

The lists often overlap, but the pool covers five areas:

1)          Established high achieving coaches who are moveable from a comparable school.
2)         An upcoming coach who has proven his worth at an FCS or lower tier conference and is ready to move up like Urban Meyer earning his moves from Bowling Green to Utah to Florida.
3)         A hot coach like Brian Kelly at Cincinnati last year or this year’s Kevin Sumlin at Houston.
4)         A senior coordinator either at atop flight college program or a professional program like Charlie Weiss before he went to Notre Dame or now to Kansas.
5)         Someone on the sidelines for a variety of reasons, perhaps fired or disgraced like Mike Leach at Texas Tech, massive violations and probation like Rich Rodriquez at Michigan or someone who has voluntarily taken time off like Urban Meyer

The most recent hirings and firings reveal nothing good for college sports.

First, these new hires and their salaries confirm all the cynics that all the new revenue in college sports will be spent on coaches and facilities, not on student athletes. Bill Moos, the aggressive Athletic Director of Washington State University, could be speaking for any athletic director in the country after he spent 2.5 million for Mike Leach to coach his Cougars, “the revenue stream created by the new television contract and equal revenue sharing among conference members has enabled Washington State to invest in facilities, salaries and infrastructure.” Of course Leach’s salary is only the tip of what will be a 4+ million dollar iceberg with all his staff.

Did you see any mention of student support services or academic support services or health or counseling for student athletes there? Neither did anyone else. This is the new norm and the money will not find its way to student athlete welfare issues unless Presidents and Provosts force the issue. (Seattle Times, December 8, 2011  C4)

Second, two years and out! This year confirms one of the worst movements in college coaching: giving less and less time to turn around a program. Realistically it takes five years to turn around a college football program. Normally coaches inherit depleted talent and low morale. It gets worse because many recruits see the firing coming and shy away from the school. Despite this, boosters and fans have high expectations for quick turn around amped up by the high salaries.

A new coach usually takes the job in late December, by then most of the top recruits have committed. He has to run around just to hold on to the committed who are often not really fitted for his system. A new coach only gets a true class of his own student athletes in his second year. Most of them redshirt, so a coach does not field a team made up largely of their own players fitted for their system until year three, and only in year four do the recruits blossom into upper class leaders.

This year two coaches, Turner Gill at Kansas and Larry Porter at Memphis, were fired at the end of two years! Unless serious personnel issues are involved as in the sacking of troubled Mike Locksley at New Mexico.

This two-year trend sets an awful precedent. Two years proves nothing and magnifies the already absurd pressures to win fast and quick. The two-year threat just pushes more decent coaches to borderline practices or cheating or to look the other way when they discover rule violations by their players.
Third, the deeply flawed return. The rehiring of coaches such as Mike Leach at Washington State or Rich Rodriquez at Arizona reflects that small world of athletic directors. It also reveals the real bottom line--WINS.

I remember talking to an athletic director I highly regard and asked him why he had just hired a scandal-plagued coach. The AD cited a number—the total WINS the coach had amassed along with his scandals.

Rich Rodriquez wins, but he wins badly. He does not graduate his students; he downgrades academics and discourages his athletes from being students. He mismanages his coaches, ignores his compliance folks and blames his problems upon everyone but himself. He won at West Virginia without any oversight but at Michigan he failed at the most central duty of a coach, taking responsibility for oneself and one’s team. The athletic Director at Arizona is a smart and fine administrator, so I am really surprised to see Rodriquez back, unless we consider WINS.

The hiring of Mike Leach at Washington State makes its own sense. College coaching can breed some real weird guys whose great skill lies in winning games; Leach ranks right up there. He graduates his kids, but it is not clear he cares about them. He coaches a fun and interesting game but his “unique and quirky” style could not survive in the glare of endless publicity in a big city. Pullman makes sense for him as a second chance, but if the allegations of how he treated his concussed player are anywhere near true; he should not be coaching. WINS are the only reason he is. Someone better be watching WSU’s back.

The most interesting and challenging return is Urban Meyer going to Ohio State one year after retiring from Florida for reasons of mental, spiritual and physical health. He brings one of the quickest and most interesting minds back to the game. I honestly think he needs another year away and would have stayed in the booth if any school but Ohio State or Notre Dame had not come calling.

Meyer is relentless, demanding and a ruthless perfectionist who can demean and drive his coaches batty, but who always respected his players, even if he often let them get out of control off field. But he lost it the last two years. Too much intensity, too much perfectionism and an utter inability to remember why he was coaching, to develop kids, not just   WIN.  But he saw what he was becoming and knew enough to leave.

I think it is too early, but OSU got a great coach. They will need to watch him in a very different way. I also admire Meyer for his public honesty about the bouts of depression and perfectionism and the cost to his life and family that he permitted us all to see. The life of the modern American coach is brutal and ruthless, and his life reminded us of that.

Fourth, it has been a hard year for black coaches with three losing jobs already, and two of them after only two years. The NCAA and conferences claim to push schools to look seriously at minority coaches, but unless they impose an NFL Rooney rule, we will continue to see immense lag in minority hiring.

Not all the leaves have fallen and the new buds are not yet with us. But this year like last highlights how colleges lose their credibility and integrity in the game of coaches and the game of wins.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sport Ethics: "I've Got Your Back."

“I got your back.”

This promise has a profound role in American sports culture and in competitive athletics. The words are deceptively simple but involve a powerful promise that binds individuals together.

Take the words at face value. A person’s back may be their most vulnerable part. Our eyes cannot see behind us, and our ears point forward. The back defines a blind sport where athletes or people can be blind-sided. Notice also protecting another person’s back also assumes not just the vulnerability of the back but that another person or team is out to get a person.

We pledge, “I’ve got your back,” to people who have a vulnerable side and are exposed to competitors out to get them. This pledge binds two people and depends upon trust that the person will in fact be there to protect and that they have the skill and will to do so. Making that pledge takes on a moral responsibility to be there and to be good at what they do.

“I’ve got your back,” anchors the success of a team. It cements trust, loyalty and often competence on the team. On any good team including athletic teams, individuals have defined roles and responsibilities. The roles take tremendous focus, effort and skill. At high performance an athlete narrows their range of vision and effort. To perform at the highest level an athlete must trust that those around them will do their jobs so they can perform theirs. 

Relying upon and trusting the reliability and skill of those working with you permits individuals to commit wholeheartedly to a task. People can take risks and give all their focused energy when they trust others with them have their back.

More significantly when an individual commits and focuses, he or she narrows focus and creates blind sports while zeroing in. Taking this risk and achieving intense concentration depends upon a player not worry about their exposure. They trust their teammates to cover them as in, “I’ve got you covered.” This trust and reliability enable everyone to give their best with unguarded commitment.

For instance in football a linebacker depends heavily upon cornerbacks so that linebackers can read and commit. Fellow linemen on defense depend absolutely upon other linemen to fill a gap so they can stand in their own. In soccer the freedom and initiative of midfielders and forwards to attack depends upon having their backs covered by the defenders to prevent breakaways. I could go on but the point is clear.

Sometimes it is even more real. In contact sports, covering a back involves physically protecting a player’s health. For a quarterback the left offensive tackle protects their blind side. The tackle literally has their back and if they fail the quarterback can be blown up. In basketball weak side help literally covers the back of players who must commit on defense and leave lanes exposed. Another aspect of covering a back includes backing someone up when they make a mistake and covering for them to support the team.

This need to protect and cover explains the central role of constant communication in sports to alert, warn and anticipate. This communication maximizes the safety and the performance of each member of the team. These warnings and protection are the essence of having someone’s back.

Sometimes having a back seems to require retaliation. If an opponent intentionally hurts teammates, players will take it on their own to pay back. Retaliation seems to restore the moral balance of the failure to “have your back,” and deters future actions. When a pitcher risks getting fined or thrown out of a game to hit someone when the other team has hit their player, they “got the back” of their teammates.

“I’ve got your back,” becomes a norm for a team culture. It thrives in a culture engaged in competition and combat with opponents. The promise cements the trust and reliance that empower teammates to focus with abandon on their task and take risks knowing loyal team members protect them.

“I’ve got your back” supports high performance. It deepens the loyalty and self-protection that teammates have for each other. It joins bonds that hold under stress. If a teammate is seen as unreliable and cannot be trusted to protect one’s back, the individual will be ostracized and isolated. The promise defines a moral glue and code.

 “I’ve got your back,” can also lead to moral blindness. It is very hard to rat out a teammate who has protected you. It is very hard to betray someone you have trusted with your own safety or performance. It is very hard to give up someone who has done wrong if they defended you when you were in danger or being outmatched.

This bond of loyalty can be misplaced if it leads teammates to hide malfeasance. Yet one aspect of having a back involves covering for mistakes and being covered in return. The loyalty and bond of having survived competition or combat can lead teammates to simply refuse to believe or see when a person commits a wrong.

Several times I have participated in investigations of wrongful actions involving athletes on a team. The incident does not matter, what matters is how time and time again, no team members would identify what happened. Even if it involved an assault at a party, no one saw it. No one remembered it. Fellow teammates had each other’s backs not just in the performance on the field and together off the field, but the loyalty and bonding carried over to protect the malfeasance.

The simple promise “I’ve got your back,” can mean everything. It embodies loyalty, commitment, and shared membership in a common enterprise. The promise expresses integrity. It can lead people to sacrifice for others and to master their positions and help others do theirs. But, like all human practice, it can close up people and cover up wrong as well as enable the good.

Friday, November 25, 2011

“Old Men Forget:” Presidents Must Tell Coaches When to Leave

Playwrights often depict tragedies where the blindness of an aging hero leads to acts of hubris that doom them. Aeschylus, the great Greek playwright, reminds everyone, “call no man happy until he is dead.”  In Shakespeare’s King Lear, “robes and furr’d gowns hide all,” tells the familiar story of how position and success can lead to hubris, bad judgment and spawn the “cankers” of the mind that destroy judgment. Old age and unaccountable power ferment a witches brew that through history has corrupted leaders in all walks of life.

The story is all too familiar in every culture—a young hero and leader triumphs. They continue their success and aggrandize power and position and come to they identify with their position. They see themselves as indispensable and refuse to step down with dignity or honor intact. College sports is not immune to this unfolding tragedy.

Woody Hayes assaulted a player on the sidelines during the 1978 Gator Bowl and then attacked his own coaches as they tried to hold him back. Lute Olsen finished out his fine career amid embarrassment, recriminations, strokes and depression. Bobby Bowden was forced out of an extraordinary career after five mediocre years amid the humiliation of having a successor forced on him and being stripped of 14 victories. We have all watched the 84 year old Joe Paterno fall from grace over alleged disinterest in the sexual abuse by an old coach and member of the Penn State family.

Ohio States’ Hayes was 65 and had been regularly reprimanded for loss of control and assaulting people during his career, but despite the warnings of his superiors continued with his behavior. Olsen was 74 at the end of a brilliant and largely untarnished career, a gentlemen coach. He had bitterly resisted efforts to provide an honorable exit for him as he lost control of his game and life. Bowden was 80 and had forged Florida State into a football power He had fought efforts to move him out tooth and nail and the Board did not side with the President just as with Paterno.
Knowing when to leave with dignity and honor intact is a rare skill that few of us arrive at on our own and often we need help from friends or more vitally from our leaders. This is where Presidents should come in.

But knowing when to leave with dignity is hard but not impossible in life and in sport. Tony Russo’s recent retirement at the age of 68 after winning the World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals illustrates how it can be done. John Wooden stepped down at the age of 65 after winning his tenth national basketball championship. Dean Smith of North Carolina stepped down at the age of 66 after a brilliant career. In football Bo Schembechler from Michigan retired at the age of 60 after two Big 10 championships and Tom Osborne retired from Nebraska at the top of his game.

To survive for twenty years at one place in the cutthroat world of college sports requires coaching brilliance and persistence. It means the coach has won time and again and probably had to resurrect himself or herself. To keep passion and interest, they fuse their identity with the consuming activity of coaching. It is excruciatingly hard to step down from what they are great at, let alone what defines them as a person. Only superb self-knowledge or a very good President can deal with this temptation.

The key denominator for all these coaches who ended in embarrassed failure lies in the unwillingness of their Presidents to remove them. In leadership theory we would talk about “mentor them out!” In cases of celebrity coaches, athletic directors stand relatively powerless, and in the case of Olsen, Bowden and Paterno the Presidents refused to act when they should have.  For just as the fool tells King Lear, the coaches need someone wiser to help them:

O, sir! You are old;
Nature in you stands on the very verge
Of her confine: you should be rul’d and led
By some discretion that discerns your state
Better than you yourself. (2.4:140-144)

Why do the Presidents fail?

First and foremost, a successful and visible college football or basketball program becomes a lodestar for a university’s identity and brand. Penn State built much of its rise in enrollment and national stature around the signal power of Paterno’s program and his old school charisma. Ohio State’s rise to national prominence followed the same path. A school like Florida State staked its brand and strategy directly upon the success of the football program. From an institutional perspective university administrations and Presidents are very reluctant to remove a coach who has come to represent their university. This is also why coaches must increasingly be pure as the driven snow in their public life because they now stand for the school and its values. The endless drum beating of publicity flaks and the ESPN world augment the college coach’s prominence. As the always thoughtful Don Wetzel argues, the media tends to “goddify” such coaches to everyone’s detriment.

Second, the power base of the coach transcends the power base of the President. The Board of Trustees takes a personal interest in the success of athletic programs. Universities deploy athletics programs as a forum to lobby and wine and dine officials and contributors. This places coaches at the center of the mix of public and private power that sustains modern universities. A coach’s relation with the Board expands to enmesh with rich and heavy weight boosters and contributors. Even if a President believes that the coach should retire for reasons, the Board and boosters may paralyze him or her.

Third, coaches are human despite the publicity around them. Individuals surround and lionize coaches. Fans quasi-worship and deify them. The ESPN media machines amplify this myth making. Everyone around them, their coaches, players, staff, fund raisers and sometimes Presidents have a vested interest in not telling the coach the truth; he or she would protect their legacy by going out on top rather than playing out the denouement of tragedy and mortification.

Coaches are humans. They succumb to the myth of their indispensability just like the political and corporate leaders who cannot give up power, success and repute. No one wants to leave it all behind and  risk that horrible question, “wasn’t he once somebody?” Only the Presidents have the perspective and responsibility to deal with this and for them, “ripeness if everything.”

Paterno disgrace symbolizes the problem; the issue will arise soon at some other prominent programs. I do not blame the coaches, really. I would struggle for the self-awareness and discipline to leave in such a position. But very few who succumb to the temptations that Shakespeare and Aeschylus portrayed will leave in dignity and honor. They will bring down their institutions with them.

Just as these feel like classical tragedies, a classical virtue would have lead the Presidents to act and guard their institution and protect their coach—courage.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Tale of Three Sports & their Unions-Part 1 & 2

Professional sports leagues require unions. Only a voluntary contractual agreement with organized players permits the apparatus of modern professional sports. Common apparel deals and common pool distributions as well as salary caps, required minimum expenditures on salaries and revenue sharing all need these agreements to protect a league from anti-trust challenges. The contracts permit drafts, compensation limits and trades to occur without restraint of trade challenges. Modern professional sport leagues deploy these devices to several vital goals:1)guarantee profit and return on investment; 2) maintain some competitive balance across big and small market teams; 3) police drug use; 4) give bad teams a chance to become better and construct balance competition over time. Despite each owners desire to win at all costs, they have a joint interests to steward steward a profitable sport with high quality games and competitive hopes for teams and fans.
Despite the central role of unions and their continuing and unique power, two labor negotiations broke down in acrimony—one lead the union to dissolve and players to sue the league, the other has lead to an impasse that may lose the season. Baseball, on the other hand, with little fanfare, just did a “handshake” agreement to extend labor peace to 20 years. I think these different outcomes flow from both the culture created between owners and players and the structure of incentives the contracts focused upon. In particular football and basketball narrowed in on a zero sum view of revenue tied to salary caps while baseball used luxury taxes and revenue sharing to address the chasm between small and large market teams.

Most team owners are unwaveringly entrepreneurial and aggressively libertarian in their politics. They hate having a strong union. In addition they tend to be very personally invested in the status and fate of their teams. This resistance coupled with periodic attempts to break the unions have blighted professional sports with thirty years of lockouts, strikes and bitter recrimination, reaching its height in the disastrous baseball 1997 seven month baseball strike that lead to a cancelled World Series or hockey losing an entire season in 2004-2005.

All professional sports are afflicted by the trend of large market owners buying up the best talent. Left on their own most sports would degrade to permanent oligarchies with permanent winners and losers and very frustrated and lost fans. It would also degrade the talent competition where one small group of teams would regularly trounce others based upon bought talent. Many of the union authorized mechanisms on revenue and drafts are to protect owners from destroying their sport through the dynamics of inequality in revenue as how to allocate costs among players.

In the last seven months the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball had their collective bargain agreements expire. The NFL involved a four-month lock out, ugly negotiations and recriminations and immense public pressure to settle. The NBA negotiations have imploded with the NBA verging on a lost season. Baseball, which has the longest and most bitter history, has a handshake agreement to put a new agreement in place without a lockout or strike four months before the start of spring training.

Why the difference? All the negotiations involved complex and unique aspects but the chasms exist over percentage of revenue dedicated to owners and players as well as devices such as salary caps and luxury taxes to save owners from themselves and sustain some competitive balance and quality product for fans and media.

What interests me is that two sports along with hockey have used salary caps to address the issue of escalating salaries and competitive equity. To me this has always made sense, and it drives me batty that baseball has never used one. Baseball permits oligarchs to dominate talent by letting teams develop players and then the oligarchs like Boston, Philadelphia and New York buy that talent when they become free agents. The irony is that the two leagues with salary caps have generated two different economic and competitive cultures that lead to the labor chaos. Yet baseball has eschewed the rational approach, but evolved this deeper peace and even a common venture model.

While unions are dying everywhere in the United States, they thrive in professional sports because of the monopoly and monopsony of the leagues and the very limited and highly skills population from which players develop. The contacts also insulate the enterprise from many anti-trust and restraint of trade charges. So why the immense differences in outcomes of the last three negotiations?
The issue driving owners remains as always maximizing profit, long term investment and maximizing their freedom and status from being owners. Given whom the owners are, they strongly prefer not to have unions or long-term agreements with their employees.

As an example, the bitterness and contractual brinksmanship in football makes the least sense. Professional football has become the most popular and profitable professional sports enterprise in the United States. If owners are to be believed, only two teams are losing money.  Attendance and contracts rise yearly. The Super Bowl like March Madness has permuted into a cultural institution. The major device to generate quality of fan interest and quality of product has been a percentage split of revenue with players and a relatively hard salary cap.

With no guaranteed salaries, the football teams can seem to pay outlandish salaries but guaranteed salaries mean little. The real money has migrated to extremely high rookie bonuses and singing bonuses. This in turn softened the salary cap considerably. This hypothetical equality is augmented by some marginal revenue sharing to prop up smaller market teams who have trouble even reaching the salary cap minimum, but more than a few teams, as in baseball have not even spent their revenue sharing money on talent or salaries.

Part II will examine how the history and incentive approach influenced the approach and outcomes of these three labor negotiations.

Part II

So how did an economically and media successful enterprise like professional football get dragged to the abyss and almost lose its season. Really bad negotiating tactics, animosity and mistrust between the negotiating teams hurt. The players believe correctly that they play the most dangerous and life threatening sport in the world besides boxing. They resent the owners cavalier cover-ups and drive for money by piling on more games at the risk of their health. The owners seemed totally deaf to these concerns driving the enmity. The real drive of the owners grew from a small group of very powerful owners who wanted to change the share split with players to maximize their large investments.

This should have been easy to resolve. The economic policies distributed playoff teams far and wide as well as guaranteeing that many unsuccessful teams could turn themselves around within one to two years. Parity in playoff access had become the norm in the NFL; it worked and inspired fanatical fan and media support. Despite all this and very strong incentives to settle peacefully, the culture of animosity and resentment of players and owners and power of the hard line owners lead to the four month lockout and a new contract at the last minute.

The players actually gained considerable advantages around health and safety issue with limits on practice and full pad time and new pensions for older players. The owners gained a more friendly percentage distribution but had to build in requirements that teams that receive revenue sharing must spend a very high percentage on salaries rather than use for profit and starve their talent pool. The salary cap remained harder than before. More  limits upon rookie compensation will lead to more rational risk spending and increase the money balance to veterans. It is not ot a bad deal that could have been struck much earlier. It was worked out after bitter negotiations that reaffirmed a culture of antagonism and rogue owners till wishing unions would disappear.

The fact that the unions did use their Armageddon play and they did disband to challenge the ownership and competitive balance structure shocked everyone, including the players. It emboldened the NBA players, and cast a shadow upon the very similar but different negotiations of the NBA.

The NBA is a mess compared to the NFL. Assuming you can ever believe owners, it claims 22 teams of 30 lost over 300 million dollars. The league had steadily lost cachet, and media interest and attendance had edge downward for a decade with a slight blip last year. The incipient pro soccer league actually passed the NBA in per game attendance. The talent level remained superb, the skill level mediocre, and the too long season and grotesque playoff schedule where half the teams make it diminishes mid season games to the point of meaninglessness. The quality of play reflected it.

The NBA’s soft cap with too many exceptions had become nonsensical only really affecting young players. The league had developed salary ratios of 3 or 4 to 1 despite a cap. Unlike the NFL, the championships remained clustered within a small number of teams with mini-dynasties. The endless playoffs at the end of an insignificant and low TV rated season, generated little interest until the very end. The NBA desperately needs a hard cap or strong revenue sharing to ensure both a quality product and some reasonable level of profits, otherwise the cycle will continue. The losses, the bitterness, the off field culture of the league heightened already bitter anger between the two sides, and neither was willing to compromise despite being well within a ball park. In negotiating terms they had hardened their positions rather than looking to their interests. Unlike the NFL where calls for President Obama’s intervention rang out, very little public pressure arose to demand a settlement. For many folks the NBA season could disappear and no one would notice or care.

The NBA has another huge problem. For many fans, college basketball and March Madness provided an easy substitute. If the NBA did not play, it hardly mattered to many basketball fans because from November through March, they could watch passionate and interesting basketball with far better TV distribution than the NBA has. This substitute effect for the NBA reflects rising college ratings and interest along side slowly declining NBA attendance and wide spread indifference.  The NBA culture and negotiations the focus upon zero sum issues and a strong substitute mean the league and players are making themselves irrelevant.

Baseball has had the longest and worst history including a cancelled world series, a nullified reserve clause and collusion actions. Yet this month a new contract will be signed with little fanfare or brittleness. In fact, baseball over the last twenty years has evolved into something resembling a partnership arrangement rather than the adversarial relation of the other sports.

Much of this grows from the abiding fan loyalty and comfort with the sine wave progress of teams and seasons. It grows because baseball essentially owns uncontested market territory from April through September. It grows from a remarkably successful economic model that generates profits, limited but effective revenue sharing from luxury taxes and stable or increasing attendance even as baseball has sunk into the shadow of football in terms of sports interest and wealth.

I wonder how much of this evolves from baseball not having a salary cap and living with incredible inequality in expenditures among teams. Maybe the lack of cap and guaranteed expenditure percentages displace the negotiations in a way that enables them to occur without being seen as zero sum games. I think the lack of a cap but very powerful luxury taxes permits the rich to spend freely but at the same time pay to subsidize others. This softens the libertarian and don't tread on me beliefs of many of the owners. Maybe a league that almost destroyed itself in 1997 and permitted itself to be humiliated by drug scandals collectively knew it could not afford the conflict.

Baseball moves much more slowly than football or basketball in talent development and team transformation. This leads owners to a longer-term view to begin with. But paradoxically baseball has had championships distributed across the widest array of teams of any sport, far more than NBA and more than the NFL.

This distribution of championships should not occur but it does for two odd reasons. First, baseball teams draft college players or invest in international or high school players and can keep them under professional contract for six years. This means that most teams keep players until their late twenties. The problem with baseball occurs when the rich teams simply buy up the best players from smaller market teams.

The catch and irony is that these rich teams must now give six to seven year contracts to players in their early thirties or late twenties, a totally absurd risk calculation. The average players peak years are 23-31, after that they steadily and and inexorably decline in skill and production. This means the rich teams are locking into huge contracts for two to four years of peak performance while the other teams got five years of peak performance years at much less money. This has resulted in older and slower rich teams who perform far more erratically than their salaries would suggest because of the age and long term contract factor. At the same time the sheer inequality has driven teams to be more innovative in player evaluation and scouting to offset these differences.

Oddly enough the bitter history seems to have generated a sense of partnership.This has been augmented by their Commissioner actually learning from past failures rather than magnifying them like basketball's David Stern.  It leads to a “handshake” contract but also mutual willingness to address issues like signing bonuses and earlier availability for arbitration as well as moving teams from leagues or adding an extra wild card team. It also leads both sides to realize the integrity of the enterprise depends upon aggressive testing and to create cutting edge technology and requirements to test for human growth hormone.This supplements mandates that players must now wear a new helmet to protect them from 100 mph fastballs.  Both sides realize they have vested interest in the reputation and physical integrity of the sport.

I think the fact the baseball achieves most of their competitive balance goals through luxury taxes rather than caps with exceptions makes the negotiations less bitter. The powerful and personally invested owners do have more freedom but they pay a heavy cost of up to 75 to 100 percent tax when they go over the agreed upon limits. The issues do not feel like zero sum games but rather permit owners to act if they are willing to pay the costs. This will now be extended to address the issues of huge rookie costs that are hurting everyone. The luxury tax money then gets redistributed. I don’t like it but the logic has worked to produce competition and balance when it should not.

Three sports. Two wars, one reached a treaty based upon the sheer money both would lose; one is on the verge of imploding for a decade over embittered relations and an economic model that does not work. One lives in hard-nosed comity because they learned their lesson and has made an incentive and penalty economic system that should not work but actually produce real competition. The culture ensnaring the two sides and the focus of economic relations had as much to do with these outcomes as the real issues involved.