Saturday, April 30, 2011

Jockageddon 2011-2012

It has happened before. It will happen again.

Just in case you've been regarding sports as the one refuge from the heaping helping of bad news we're being treated to daily in current events, guess what: We may be heading into a veritable Jockageddon, the end of professional sports life as we know it.

ALL FOUR "major league" sports in North America could be headed for cataclysmic lockouts within the next 10 months. As in, shutting the whole thing down for a full year or more.

Funny thing is, the National Hockey League is considered, by far, to be the junior member of American "major league" sports, trailing Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Football League by light years in attendance, revenues, TV ratings and overall attention. In fact, in areas of the nation with no traditions as hockey strongholds, the NHL is rarely considered "major league at all."

Yet, despite the undisputed status of the NHL as the most borderline of the "major leagues," it is the NHL the other sports are now using as their role model in the upcoming collective bargaining agreement negotiations with their respective player unions.

Here's why.

Because the NHL busted its players' association to bits in their last CBA negotiation, which ended up with the lockout of 2004-05, that's why.

After cancelling a full season of hockey including the Stanley Cup playoffs, the owners ended up getting everything they wanted plus more, but the main thing they got was an across-the-board 24% reduction in player payrolls.

Yep, that's right. In one fell swoop, they chopped their payrolls by one-quarter.

Needless to say, that's the kind of numbers which make the eyes of any owner in any business light up like Christmas morning. Reduce your biggest single expense item by 1/4 by one stroke of the pen? Ho, ho, ho, you betcha!

Now you've probably noticed we are in a bit of an economic mess these days, and have been for almost three years now. I would certainly love to reduce my biggest expense by 1/4 just by saying so, and so would you, and so would Mike Ilitch, so would William Clay Ford, so would the Steinbrenner family, so would Jerry Jones, so would Mark Cuban and so would every owner in every professional sport.

The owners all scream, as they always have for 100 years and more, about all the money they claim to be losing. It's all BS, of course -- they're all making money and most of them, tons of it. But as most billionaires always do, they'll use the "economic crisis" as their rationalization as to why everything has to be torn to the ground, RIGHT NOW, and more important than anything else, THEY need to get to keep a lot more of the money.

So, basically, the other three professional sports, the "big three" to the NHL's junior-member status in the pecking order,  are going to follow the Roadmap to Prosperity mapped out by the NHL in 2004-05:

  1. Declare a lockout
  2. Cancel an entire season of competition
  3. With a new season approaching, impose an agreement on the players, completely dictated by you
  4. Tell the players they can either take it, go play in some other league, or go work at Burger World.

It worked before; the owners see no reason it shouldn't work again. So, they are all poised to follow the same basic template in order to bust the player unions to dust and impose the conditions they want. And, of course, the NHL intends to follow its own example in its own upcoming lockout.

Each individual sport has its own problems but really they end up being pretty similar: the owners want to assume complete control over every aspect of the game, and pay the players a hell of a lot less while doing it.

What the owners in all three sports want, and what they'll eventually get, will boil down to something like this:
  • Huge across-the-board reductions in salaries (both average and maximum)
  • Iron-clad salary caps -- no exceptions, grandfather clauses or other loopholes
  • Dramatically limited ability of players to negoitate for huge free-agent contracts
  • Complete elimination of no-cut contracts -- owners will be allowed to cut anybody any time they want
  • Dramatically-expanded authority of owners and league officials to impose disciplinary authority (suspensions, huge fines, contract terminations, lifetime bans) for behavior violations (criminal offenses, on-field actions, drug usage violations, etc etc). Basically when the league commissioner in each sport makes his decision on fines, supensions, etc etc., that is going to be it -- no more appeals. 

A lot of people say, "oh, don't be silly. The owners aren't going to go THAT far. If they get the pay cuts they want, why would they go for all that other stuff too?"

Well, why wouldn't they? If you're going to shut the whole shebang down for a year or more, are you going to do it for chicken change? If you're going to take hostages, might as well demand a big ransom. They're not going to do it for a 3% reductions in salaries. If you're going to go sit on Santa's lap and hold a gun to his head, you might as well throw everything you want on your gimme-gimme list. Plus, it fits in perfectly with the overall game plan of our modern billionaire class: go for unconditional victory.

They'll get it, too. Why? Because eventually, it'll go to the courts, and then to Congress (they'll eventually need antitrust exemptions to ram most of this stuff through).

And when things go to the courts and Congress, who wins?

The billionaires, that's who. The luxury boxes and free-food buffets at pro sports stadiums aren't packed with politicians and judges by any accident.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Pistons and Wings: Better off going their separate ways

The long-rumored, long-awaited, long-delayed and long-overdue sale of the Detroit Pistons is all but complete, with only final NBA approval pending on the deal between current owner Karen Davidson and new buyer Tom Gores.

It was obvious from the moment longtime Pistons owner Bill Davidson died in March 2009 that his widow had little interest or inclination in running the team, and it was only a matter of time before it was unloaded.

Unfortunately, this process was dragged out about 18 months too long, resulting in the team stumbling zombie-like through a completely wasted season in every sense.

More on that later, but first, let's simply breathe a sigh of relief the proposed (at times rumored to be nearly completed) sale to Tigers/Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch did NOT go through.

Ilitch obviously has been a great owner for the Red Wings and a decent one for the Tigers, but the proposed purchase of the Pistons appeared to be really nothing but an attempt to build leverage to get a new multipurpose downtown arena built for the Red Wings -- almost certainly primarily at taxpayer expense.

Had Ilitch bought the Pistons, he could have used as a "carrot" for financing of  a new downtown arena the idea that the Pistons would join the Wings as tenants.

Fine idea -- Joe Louis Arena certainly needs to be replaced --  but one problem: such a move would have ultimately left The Palace of Auburn Hills, still a virtual state-of-the-art arena (due to constant renovations and remodeling under Bill Davidson) for the most empty with no pro sports franchise as an anchor tenant.

"But they'd have plenty of concerts," comes the retort, but in fact the concert schedule would be severely cut into by the new Wings arena, which would attract most of the marquee events.

So essentially, the taxpayers would be "asked" to finance the construction of a new $300-$500 million arena, while another $300-$500 million arena (paid for completely at PRIVATE expense) sits vacant in the suburbs, probably eventually to be demolished.

"Asked" in the way these things are usually done: first with subtle hints, then some not so subtle, and finally with an out-and-out threat to move (or sell) one of the franchises (almost certainly the Pistons) out of town.

Instead of "if you build it, he will come," it's "if you DON'T build it (or more accurately, pay for it), we will leave."

(It's not totally inconceivable the early-season rumors about a possible Pistons move might have been floated as early-warning signals in just such a campaign. The rumors, you remember, started to bubble up when the sale to Ilitch was supposedly on the verge of completion.)

Not totally incidentally, a minor side effect of the deal would have been the complete monopolization of the concert business in Southeast Michigan under the auspices of the new combined Palace/Olympia Entertainment banner, allowing the new company to jack up ticket prices to any event held anywhere in the area pretty much as high as they wanted to.

Now, in case you haven't noticed, we're in a bit of a financial crunch around here -- there isn't enough money to run the public school system OR the municipal government in Detroit OR any number of other public/governmental services which are being chainsawed away every day.

And we're told the state is broke too. (Not quite broke enough not to give away $1.8 billion to corporations but let's leave that alone for a while.)

So the whole idea of the taxpayers -- ohh, it might be through some kind of subterfuge like a hotel room tax, a rental car tax, maybe bond guarantees, any variation of other financial flim-flammey, but in the end it would be the taxpayers shelling out -- spending $300-$500 million to build a new arena for two professional sports franchises owned by a billionaire would seem a little far-fetched.

Happily, with the purchase of the Pistons by Gores, that whole scenario is most likely off the boards for good. The Pistons can get back to the idea of putting together a decent team (after next year's lockout of course) and the Red Wings can continue their pursuit of the Stanley Cup. And the Palace/Olympia concert businesses can both continue to operate separately -- and occasionally compete, which might actually (shocking!!) result in slightly lower ticket prices for fans.

If Mike Ilitch really really wants a "New Olympia" downtown, he can get one the same way most businesspeople get new buildings: he can arrange the financing himself. He's a billionaire, so it shouldn't be all that hard.

It's a great day in America whenever somebody FIRES MILLEN!!!

The NFL Network is doing football fans a favor by dumping Matt Millen: has learned that Mike Mayock will join the NFL Network's broadcast team for its eight-game Thursday Night Football package. He will replace Matt Millen and Joe Theismann on the broadcast.

Now, it's time for ESPN and ABC to quit insulting the intelligence of football fans and yank the idiot off the airwaves as well.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Houston, we had a problem.

Well, it's been three or four days now and I've finally gotten the rotten aftertaste of Monday night's NCAA championship game between UConn and Butler out of my system.

Houston, of course, is the home base of the soon-to-be-dismantled U.S. manned space program. Perhaps in a tribute to the imminent shutdown of NASA, the Huskies and Bulldogs teamed up to give us a game straight from the era before humans slipped the surly bonds of earth, back in the 1950s or so.

The 53-41 stinkbomb of a game was the worst game in recent NCAA history, rivaled only by the Michigan State-Wisconsin semifinal sludgefest in 2000.

That was actually a good defensive game, but the UConn-Butler game, rather than a display of dominating defense, was an exhibition of execrable offense. Both teams are decent on defense (UConn is quite good), but more than anything else the game swung on Butler's horrible shooting, 18.8 percent, and a ridiculous race-to-the-bottom display of the gut-grinding "play the right way" philosophy which has strangled the whole game of basketball over the last 20 years.

UConn also doesn't get a pass for the obnoxious offensive exhibition, because once the Huskies got out to about a 6-7 point lead, Jim Calhoun also went all the way back to the pre-shot-clock era for the late and much-unlamented Four Corners.

Whenever Butler plays, the announcers just can't shut up about how disciplined, dedicated, hard-working, well-coached and of course fundamentally sound they are. (In contrast of course to the undisciplined, slacking, lazy, badly coached and fundamentally futile idiots they happen to be playing). Oh, and do you know, they play in the same fieldhouse "Hoosiers" was filmed in? (Yeah, I knew.)

Unfortunately, like all sports, basketball is a game of imitation. And, unfortunately, more and more we are probably going to see more scenes like these, from the actual Milan-Muncie Central game in 1954 which was the actual basis for "Hoosiers."

Friday, April 1, 2011

Looks like the Boss still reads the paper

THE FAB FIVE: I'll see your "Uncle Tom" and raise you a Stepin Fetchit

For the first time in years, the legendary Michigan 'Fab Five' has been in the news this month, mainly due to an episode in ESPN's "30 by 30" "documentary" film series.

"First time in years," because basically nobody has been doing much thinking about the FF, except as footnotes to the end of the NBA careers  of Chris Webber and Jalen Rose. Juwan Howard, the only remaining member of the FF still playing, currently sees mopup minutes off the bench for the Miami Heat (in some ways an NBA version of the FF) and, at 38, may well be in his final season.

The FF only really existed, of course, during the 1990-91 and 92-93 seasons, since Webber bolted for the NBA following the 1993 NCAA title game, followed by Rose the next season, so the entire unit (Webber, Rose, Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson) only played together for two seasons.

Children born any time after the NCAA title game are now 18 years old, and the majority have either graduated from high school or will shortly.  So basically anybody playing high school basketball now has only seen the FF on video or in history books.

Of course, you can't find any of this out by looking in the official NCAA record books, since the records and statistics of games involving Webber were vacated by U-M following revelations in a federal perjury case that he had accepted over $300,000 from booster Ed Martin. (A professional gambler, by the way. We'll leave that one -- the VERY curious endings of both NCAA final games involving the FF -- alone for now.)

As usual in propaganda/puff pieces covering the FF, the ESPN production (partially financed by Rose, a commentator on the network) claimed they had "dramatic" and "enduring  impact" on the game of college basketball.

Rose has kept the publicity bandwagon going with a public feud with Duke and coach Mike Krzyzewski, charging that the Blue Devils only recruit players Rose described as "Uncle Toms."

(After a firestorm of criticism, Rose backed off -- a bit -- from the comments, carefully noting the "Uncle Tom" epithet was what he "used to think" as a callow 17-year-old. Subsequent TV and radio appearances clearly indicate that whether or not he has given up flinging "Uncle Tom" at players like Grant Hill, he still finds the whole thing just utterly hilarious.)

Well, let's see. In the program, the FF is lionized for introducing:
  • Shaved heads
  • Baggy shorts
  • Hip-hop music
  • Brash rebellious attitudes, especially toward coaches
  • Exciting slam-dunk basketball
  • Black shoes and socks
OK, let's run down the list.

Yul Brynner could tell you that shaved heads were hardly invented by the Fab Five.
So could Jack Johnson, who won the world heavyweight title in 1908.

Now of course it's not likely kids in the 1990s knew too much about Jack Johnson. (I didn't learn anything about him until I was 13-14, but that was 20 years earlier). But there was another guy a little more contemporary who was making shaved heads fashionable somewhat earlier than the FF.

I lived through the 1980s, and I can tell you, after the skimpy shorts we all sported in the mid-1970s, shorts were getting looser and longer throughout the decade. And guess who was leading the charge? Why yes, our old friend Michael Jordan.

That's Jordan from 1987, when the FF was still in junior high school. No, he's not sporting floor-dragging skorts we've seen in recent seasons, but those are definitely moderately droopy drawers.

Hip-hop music didn't exactly erupt on the world all of a sudden in 1992 either. Ever since the days of Grandmaster Flash about the turn of the 1980s, through Run-DMC and Public Enemy mid-decade, hip-hop was pretty much the soundtrack of choice around any basketball court. Here's one from 1988, when the FF were freshmen in high school.

"Brash rebellious attitudes" were first reported in the year 87,864 BC when teenage cave dweller Urggh-Unk, in response to the seasoned savvy savannah hunter Glaaghh-Arrgh lecturing him on the right way to hunt mastodons, told the old man to take a hike and go sit in the cave.

"Exciting slam-dunk basketball" is especially a fiction, because the FF did not really play exciting slam-dunk basketball -- they played sagging, collapsing, double-the-post defense (really more like a zone). A half-dozen times a game they would run a fast break, but more often they walked the ball upcourt and tossed it in to Webber or Howard in the low post.

They didn't invent it either, but here was some real fast-break basketball from when the FF was still in high school:

And some more exciting fast-break basketball from when they were in grade school:

Finally, the FF is remembered -- probably more than anything else -- for supposedly introducing black shocks and shoes to basketball. The problem with that is, when I was in high school in the mid-1970s, several high school teams in the mid-Michigan area wore black shoes and black socks, as a tribute/salute to the 1968 Olympics medal-stand demonstration by Tommie Smith and Lee Carlos. A lot of people didn't like it, but they did it anyway.

Through the years, I always thought the Fab Five had been doing the same thing: wearing black shoes and socks as a protest to advance the cause of equality.

Well, guess what? It turns out, as reported by the FF documentary, the Fab Five wore black socks for one very simple reason: NIKE told them to. To sell shoes (and socks).

Yes, NIKE. A billion-dollar company, run by Phil Knight, most definitely a white man.

Like "Uncle Tom," there's a term for black people who jump at the command of rich white bosses.

Let me introduce you to Stepin Fetchit.

And so much for those pioneering trailblazers, the Fab Five.