Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Letting the Patient Die

On Monday night, two teams, one representing the University of Connecticut and the other the University of Kentucky, played for the national championship of men’s college basketball.  It was an entertaining game throughout, hard fought, well defensed, filled with clutch shots and mostly thrilling action.  The outcome hardly mattered, except to partisans of both schools.  What mattered more, particularly to the NCAA which sponsored the game, was the spectacle of it all and the money it generated.

As the game unfolded no one gave a thought to whether or not the game was more or less entertaining simply because both programs involved had players who were essentially low paid professionals.  It didn’t matter at that moment.  It’s when the games end and the money is counted, the status of the players becomes paramount.

The central lie of the phrase student-athlete that the NCAA is that education isn’t even a by-product of the major college sports experience, let alone the focus.  Every player on the floor Monday night knew full well why he was there—because he had bartered his time and talents with a basketball for an education work around $40,000, all in, a year, at the school emblazoned on their jersey.  Most will be long gone before they can earn a four year degree.  It was never their intent.

It’s not a devil’s pact nor is there anything particularly underhanded about it.  In most respects it’s a rather mundane commercial transaction between those with talent and those who want that talent to further their own economic interests.

If colleges want to enhance their brand and reputations and meet their expanding budgets with dollars generated from sports, then that’s a choice they can and should make.  The boards of trustees that govern these schools make just those kinds of decisions every time they meet.  Sometimes they hire a professor because of his stature in that community and hope her presence can convince more high school students to come to their school.  Other times they approve capital budgets that include money for workout facilities, again with the hope that the investment pay off through increased tuition and donations.

Yet it’s these major sports like men’s football and basketball where the high minded among them start drawing arbitrary lines and concocting fictions that belie exactly what the eye can see.  Every fan, every faculty member, every college president, every trustee on every college board watching Kentucky’s freshman players well understood that most were there for the year because the NBA prevents them from playing in their league until they are out of high school for a year.  That didn’t stop them or anyone else from enjoying the game.  It didn’t cast a pall over the proceedings nor did it reduce its entertainment value.

And yet, and yet, the NCAA and its member schools continue to insist on trying to preserve a fiction that if it was ever useful certainly no longer is. It’s a fiction that benefits not the athletes in these kinds of games but the adults who benefit financially.

Exhibit 1 were the remarks by NCAA president Mark Emmert, delivered early this past Sunday morning.  Emmert like other NCAA presidents before him usually gives some sort of state of the institution speech before the national championship game so there wasn’t news in the fact that Emmert was speaking.  But what promised to be news was what Emmert would say with regard to the recent developments at Northwestern.  That Emmert chose Sunday morning, a deliberately sleep time of the day and week, was likely no accident.

Emmert claimed that the NCAA is well aware that college athletics is at a tipping point and that he and the handful of major conferences are working on a plan, the same plan they’ve been working on for 5 years now without anything to show for it.

Emmert also casually dismissed the idea of players unionizing and said that this wasn’t an answer to what supposedly ails the system.  Like all industries enjoying the benefits of a mostly unregulated market in the face of increasing calls to regulate, Emmert defended the NCAA and said it was best positioned to solve the problems it faces and not the courts and not the NLRB.  The fox always knows best how to guard the hen house.

Exhibit 2 was the obligatory op-ed piece that then appeared in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, co-written by LouAnna Simon, president of Michigan State and chair of the NCAA’s executive committee and Nathan Hatch, president of Wake Forest and chair of the NCAA’s Division 1 board of directors.  Do you get the sense that the NCAA is a bit top heavy?

Simon and Hatch’s column mostly parroted what Emmert had to say.  It shed a bit more light on the NCAA’s thinking but barely and even that those thoughts were badly buried by the organization’s key talking points: unions are bad.  That of course fits nicely with the Wall Street Journal’s editorial philosophy so it’s no surprise that it was the hook. 

Simon and Hatch spent some time reminding us that most of the money generated by the NCAA goes back into the product in the form of scholarships and other support to student-athletes.  They also reminded us that only a small percentage of those in the major sports of basketball and football go on to pro careers and that the NCAA is not just about supporting them but all the others involved in non-revenue sports.

All true, of course, but so what?  That’s just an argument as to why the NCAA deserves the biggest cut of the pie.  It’s not an argument as to why the laborers shouldn’t get their taste.  Even Simon and Hatch couldn’t sustain the premise.  They said in very non specific ways that they are working on things, lots of things, like finding a way to limit the amount of time Division I athletes spend on their sport, keeping them healthy and giving them a little more money to reflect the real costs of spending a year in school.  They didn’t say that they are looking to actually pay them unencumbered cash.  They didn’t have to because they won’t.

That Simon and Hatch and Emmert and others at the major conferences recognize the problem is probably a good thing.  That they can’t ever seem to find consensus is a bad thing, for them.  No one on any NCAA committee wants to deal with a solution forced by the point of a bayonet, to paraphrase Hootie Johnson.  But it’s what they will get as sure as the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passes another bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act that has no chance of being enacted.

 You don’t need to be a legal scholar to understand that the NCAA’s way of doing business is under siege or why that’s the case.

If history teaches us anything, and it teaches us everything, it’s that any economic system in which all the advantage goes to a select few at the expense of those whose labors drive that advantage won’t just fail but will be toppled by an uprising.  The NCAA and its member schools have created an economy that depends almost entirely on the stupidity of those supplying the services, which is what makes the actions of smarty pants at Northwestern seeking the legal status of a union so deliciously ironic.  They used the education that the NCAA provided to them against them.

The reason that the NCAA and its member schools cannot seem to come up with a workable plan is because they can’t seem to adequately define the problem or, more accurately, define their objectives.  Where the students and those pushing them want a greater share of the pie for themselves, the NCAA and its schools are almost singularly focused on preserving the notion of the “student athlete” not as a mean to protect those who toil but in order to preserve the biggest slice of the pie for themselves.

But this isn’t going away without a solution that works for now and for the foreseeable future.  The NCAA can’t afford to let perfect be the enemy of good even as they toil for years for a solution they don’t want.  There are solutions in which the schools that generate the billions give something more tangible back to the players that generated those billions.

In purely economic terms, this really is a question of whether or not the players in Monday night’s game deserve more for their efforts than the $40,000 worth of education they’ve received this academic year. This is the point that should be debated and the one around which solutions should be crafted.  Instead the NCAA changes the conversation because the tougher problem, crafting workable solutions, simply isn’t in their economic interest.

As we repeatedly learn from John Calipari at Kentucky, and really from many, many others in both basketball and football, the players aren’t that interested in the intrinsic value of an education as their compensation.  Maybe if or when most wash out of a pro career they’ll reevaluate their priorities and decide that an education might hold the key to their long term futures.  But telling young kids to be patient or to trust the adults in the room that have taken advantage of them for so long isn’t an answer that they want to hear or that would work in any event.

What the NCAA misses in that strategy is that it’s not just the players that are impacted, but the sponsors, the networks and, finally, the fans as well.  All understand full well the implications and can see the future and know that if this problem doesn’t get fixed it becomes the metastasizing cancer that kills the patient. 

The biggest tragedy that will befall college sports is not that players in some sports will get a cut of the money they’ve helped generate.  It’s that there will be no money to divide because rather than serve the patient they let it die instead.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Real House of Cards


If ever there was a doubt there can be no more. The house of cards that is the NCAA and the satellites that orbit around it are on the verge of collapse.

A money-printing operation, their very existence these days is wholly dependent on the revenue streams from a few key functions they sponsor, like March Madness and football as played in the bowl subdivision. There are television and radio fees, jersey sales, sponsorships, you name it and the NCAA, the major conferences and the member schools have found a way to make money off it. Boy have they, to the tune of billions, a year.

The reason this house of cards is now closer to collapsing than ever stems from the foundation on which its existence is built—the myth of the so-called student/athlete. Without the thousands of students working in the service of these the two big revenue sports, football and men’s basketball, for a pittance of the revenue they generate, these groups could not muster enough revenue opportunities on their own accord to sustain a corner grocery let alone the hierarchy it has built for itself. Indeed their raison d’etre would cease.

The latest blow came in a case in which the NCAA wasn’t even a party. A couple of those wiseacre football players at Northwestern found enough time away from their football obligations to use the student part of the student-athlete equation to take their grievances to the National Labor Relations Board in a quest to unionize. Their hope, I guess, is that if successful Northwestern officials will be forced to bargain with them over what, exactly? Better food? Less work hours? Beer Pong tables in the players’ lounge?

I give those Northwestern kids a lot of credit. This is a war they can’t win but because they’re kids they’re just dumb enough to believe otherwise. What their lawyers, or more accurately, their sponsors at the United Steelworks probably didn’t tell them is that the NLRB’s decision finding them to be “employees” as defined under the National Labor Relations Act and hence eligible to unionize likely won’t survive all the years of appeal it will take to bring the case to an end. The Board’s regional director in Chicago issued an incredibly flawed decision, speaking legally. Speaking practically, however, the regional director’s decision is another hard wind threatening to tumble the NCAA for the sin of exploiting the concept of student-athlete for their own financial gain.

To summarize what happened without getting into all of the legalese, senior Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter got the bright idea (or had it implanted in him, more likely) to go about trying to unionize his fellow teammates. The theory was that given all the time and trouble they go to in the service of Northwestern’s football team and the “compensation” they receive from that service in the form of scholarships makes them employees under the law and thus eligible to form a union, their scholarship serving as an employment contract and their showing up for practice and games being the work performed in exchange. What exactly they’d do once they became a union hasn’t exactly been clear but that’s beside the point. The quest is for a recognition of their status as a key cog in the NCAA’s sports machine.

The NLRB regional office in Chicago agreed. In a 24-page ruling, Regional Director Peter Sung Ohr essentially agreed with the argument, at least as it pertained to scholarship players, that they function as employees of the university. The walk ons that dot the back end of Northwestern’s roster, on the other hand, are out of luck. Ohr said that they play “for the love of the game” and not the compensation that the scholarship players get. That makes them more in the nature of volunteers and not employees. No union for them.

Here’s where it gets tricky for the student/athlete/employees. The appeals process in labor actions like this is almost unending. There’s a long history in this country of employers using labor laws to avoid having to collectively bargain and the way those laws are set up, the appeal process can and usually does take years.

For example, the first step is for the NCAA to appeal the regional director’s decision to the full NLRB in Washington, D.C. That’s simple enough. But if they’re unsuccessful there, Northwestern has no immediate appeal to court. Instead, the convoluted process requires first that an election be held among the players. Rare is the union election that goes off without a hitch, which means that Northwestern will object to some aspect of it. That’s just more grist for the mill.

If the union wins the election, it will require Northwestern officials sit down and bargain with them. The university can and will refuse, setting up the inevitable court battle. Once the university refuses to bargain, complaining that the student/athletes aren’t employees and/or that the election process was flawed, that same regional director in Chicago will issue an unfair labor practice complaint. That will lead to a trial which then will get further appealed landing, eventually, in front of a Federal court of appeals. Once a decision has been reached by that court, the losing party can appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

If you have the sense that this process I just described might takes years or, stated differently, another 6 or 7 years of losing seasons for Northwestern football, you’d be correct. If you have the sense that at least the process has an end point, you’d be wrong.

Let’s say that after all this time and all these trials and appeals and elections that the determination that the Northwestern football players are indeed employees under the National Labor Relations Act, the university has more cards to play. Given how long that initial determination ultimately will take, every person who originally voted for the union will long since have graduated and left the university. This will give the university the opportunity to next argue that the original vote is no longer valid because it doesn’t reflect the desires of the current group of students and that a new one should be held. They’ll take that complaint to the NLRB And on and on it will go.

Maybe this gets resolved in a decade, maybe not.

Then of course is an entirely different issue to contend with: the application of this decision to other schools. This decision is specific to Northwestern, a private college. It has no application to, for example, public institutions like Ohio State, which aren’t even covered by the National Labor Relations Act. Student-athlete/employees at those schools will have to resort to a patchwork of state labor laws to try and form a union. Let’s just say that public schools in the south have nothing to worry about. Those states have a distinguished history of being unfair to organized labor. Just check out what’s been taking place in Tennessee and the United Auto Workers if you don’t believe me.

In other words, this decision has no impact if the goal of these players at Northwestern at this moment have any realistic hope of sitting down with the president of the university and hammering out a collective bargaining agreement.

Where the decision does have impact is further exposing the fraud of big time college athletics. Again, though not a party to the NLRB action, Ohr’s decision spells out in rather dry but stark words the enormous commitment the NCAA allows schools to impose on a college football player, particularly one at a FBS school, in order to keep the NCAA’s money machine going.

During the season, playing football even at Northwestern, is a full time job requiring somewhere between 50-60 hours commitment per week. Academics consume about 13-18 hours of class time per week plus whatever homework or labs are required. That’s a pretty taxing schedule for anyone, let alone a young adult. It was this disparity, more than anything, which seemed to catch the eye of Ohr in his decision.

On the surface that does look like the work dominates the academics so to that extent Ohr has it right when football is in season. But one of the flaws in the decision is that Ohr only considered the time commitment during the football season. These so-called employees are on campus for the rest of the school year, indeed the majority of the school year, when their time commitment to the sport is significantly less. Eventually the balance between what they provide to the university trends back toward the rather mundane existence of just being students.

No matter. The real issue is not these players anyway. This comes down to the gross inequity between what those who control the system receive and what those who fuel the engine get. The student-athletes, a term the NCAA simply made up to avoid other legal consequences decades ago, are starting to get the rather uppity idea that a free four year education is hardly enough. There are millions of damning examples but just consider one from last week: Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith got an $18,000 bonus because one of the wrestlers at the school won a national championship. The wrestler got nothing except the glory of having achieved a goal.

Wherever you come out on that issue is bound to change because the disparity literally grows every day and until there is a meaningful way to address it, the disparity will continue to grow and the protests will grow even louder.

The NLRB case, in truth, is a loud but minor distraction at the moment. The real case threatening the financial underpinnings of the NCAA and hence its very existence is that which is heading to trial filed by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon. It seeks a cut of the money the NCAA is getting from exploiting the likenesses of former players on such things as video games. It’s a massive class action lawsuit that also includes as its defined class current players. It’s what we call in the legal business “bet the company” litigation because if the company doesn’t prevail in court it doesn’t prevail at all. If the NCAA loses it will owe almost everything it has to pay for damages. Beyond that, though, the NCAA will find that it can no longer exist.

What’s fascinating to me in this whole debate is how utterly helpless the NCAA and the member schools seem to act as if they have no choice but to conduct business the way they do right now. They further that narrative under the guise that their most important guiding principle is preserving the myth of the student-athlete.

For the NCAA to actually reform will require that it and its member schools face the more complicated reality of all the intended and unintended consequences flowing from the system they cherish. In business terms, the NCAA needs a new paradigm and they’re the only ones that don’t seem to accept that reality. A key tenant of that new paradigm has to be the recognition, financially, of the players that keep this train running. A great education is worth plenty but it is hardly enough.

The system is headed for collapse if it remains on its current course. The NCAA can spend literally millions in legal fees to fight every skirmish like this one but doing so only threatens its ability to survive even further. Far better now to confront the damning unfairness of the system and fix it. That may not be easy but it is, after all, only money and there's enough of it to go around and make everyone happy instead of just a relative few. If they can't find to work through this most high class of problems themselves then someone, a court, maybe Congress, will do it for them. And if that happens then the house of cards is unlikely to ever rise again.



Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Numbing Sameness of It All, Again--Settling In Edition

If the Cleveland Browns are finally settling in as a franchise, it’s sure hard to tell at the moment.
In the last week or so, three different reports would suggest that the Browns’ front office is about as finely tuned as the ’86 Buick LeSabre that’s been sitting in your neighbor’s side yard for the last 10 years even as the team lurches ever closer to one of the more important college drafts in franchise history.
First came a column by Dr. David Chao, writing last Monday for the National Football Post web site, criticizing the Browns for not having a lead physician at the NFL Scouting Combine earlier in the month.  Dr. Chao wrote that in his 19 years of working at the combine he has never seen a team attend without a lead physician.
What’s the significance?  As Dr. Chao writes, with some bias perhaps, “medical has been referred to as the most important element at the Combine.”  That sounds a little over the top, but that doesn’t necessarily lessen the significance.  The value all NFL teams place on the draft cannot be overstated.  Ensuring that a player, particularly the early round types that perform at the Combine, is sound medically is a key factor in determining whether to invest millions into that player.

It’s not that the Browns didn’t have physicians at the Combine.  They did.  But the team was without a lead because for reasons that are undoubtedly purely financial, the team ended its decades long partnership with the Cleveland Clinic in favor of an exclusive partnership with University Hospitals and in doing so hasn’t yet settled on the final composition of its medical team.

This bit of dysfunction is exactly what we’ve come to expect from the Browns.  Seeking to monetize everything that is and isn’t nailed down, the Browns got caught in the transition between ending its sponsorship with one medical provider in favor of another.  All it did was impact their presence at the Combine but that surely isn’t nearly as important as making sure the check clears from University Hospitals and the signage is adjusted in the media room in Berea.
Not surprisingly, the Browns downplayed this bit of disarray in their usual way, by changing the narrative and not addressing the criticisms directly.  The other thing the Browns didn’t address was another key point made by Dr. Chao, that no one on the Browns’ medical staff has yet been admitted to the NFL Physicians Society.  As a result, no doctor at the Combine on behalf of the Browns was able to participate in all Combine-related activities.

In the grand scheme of all the loose threads that make up the fraying fabric of the Browns, this isn’t the most prominent.  But in a franchise barely hanging on, it’s just further evidence that the results on the field are not accidental but the consequence of a million other missteps well before each Football Sunday. 
On the heels of this report came two additional ones related to the pro days conducted by potential first rounders Teddy Bridgewater and Brian Bortles.  The Browns, a team in desperate need of a quarterback and possessing the first round juice to grab either one of these players, decided not to send their head coach, their quarterbacks coach or their general manager to either player’s workout.  The Browns’ P.R. machine, already buzzing at warp speed and on the brink of collapse itself, just decided to ignore the issue entirely.

So we don’t know exactly what message the Browns were sending by not sending key personnel to the workouts.  If this were a clever franchise, the more likely speculation would be that these pro days are as meaningless as Combine workouts, maybe more so, and by ignoring them the Browns avoid giving clues to other teams about their draft plans.  That’s if this was a clever franchise.
Far more likely, in the context of everything else, is a simpler explanation.  The same dysfunction on the business side that led to the inability of the Browns to field a full medical team at the Combine exists on the football side as well.  The Browns are still a mess in the front office owing to a poorly conducted head coaching search that took weeks, resulted in grabbing a guy no one else was even interviewing, and revealed the fissures within the organization that resulted in an overhaul of the front office.

Lending credence to this was an article in Crain’s Cleveland Business that indicated that the Browns’ front office under Joe Banner was organized in a manner unlike any other team in the NFL.  Instead of being split into distinct football and business operations whose leaders reported to the owner, the Browns had everything reporting directly to Joe Banner.  This worked to keep Haslam both insulated and unaware of what was taking place.  Indeed had Banner not decided to precipitously dump Rod Chudzinski, Haslam may never have noticed the source of the stench in Berea and Banner likely could have kept his fiefdom in place.

Taken together, what remains clear even to this date is that the Browns’ franchise is still highly dysfunctional to the point that they can’t even get their top people to the workouts of two quarterbacks that have to be high on their draft board.
And as if all of this wasn’t enough came still another report, this time from ProFootballTalk.com that restricted free agent center Alex Mack and his agents are busily trying to entice entire teams into crafting an offer that the Browns can’t match.  So far though, it isn’t working.

Now some of this is agents just being agents.  Still the more salient point is that instead of just trying to maximize his earnings, irrespective of the team, Mack and his agents are trying desperately to move Mack to another team.  Gee, I wonder why?  Could it be the revolving door in the owner’s office, the revolving door in the head coach’s office, the revolving door in the offensive coordinator’s office, the revolving door in the general manager’s office or the revolving door of blown draft picks coming and going that have him seeking greener pastures?
But I must confess one thing.  This is one area though where the Browns’ systemic dysfunction isn’t likely to have particularly ill effects.  Sometimes a team gets lucky that way.

Mack isn’t going anywhere and even if he is, does it much matter?  The Browns weren’t exactly a stellar offensive line with him so the drop off without him could hardly be noticed.
And if you think that’s a harsh assessment of a guy whose chief attribute to this point has been an ability to stay healthy, then listen to the market.  The sound that the lack of interest in Mack is deafening.  According to those same reports, Mack’s agents are having trouble drumming up any interest in him.  The $10 million salary he’s promised next season is a pretty tall barrier to get over and that’s just the value of the transition tag placed on him by the Browns.  To secure Mack in a way that the Browns, awash in cash they have to spend under league rules, won’t match will take an even greater investment than that. 

Virtually every other team in the league not named Oakland Raiders is smarter than the Browns so it’s not likely that anyone would invest that much in Mack. The reason?  Simply, there are plenty of centers to be had that could anchor this line and achieve similar results for less than $10 million a season.  The Browns will likely have the opportunity to draft one.  Remember, a team that’s won 4 to 5 games a year for going on a decade has no untouchable players.  Even if there are one or two, Mack isn’t them.
Still I’m sympathetic to Mack’s desire and not just because I’m a capitalist.  Mack has had to endure the business end of a whole lot of what’s ailed the Browns over the years and he like so many of his teammates is obviously worn down by it.  He’s probably thinking how nice it might be to go to a franchise where they’ve had a coach in place for more than a season and a quarterback who’s actually accomplished something in the league.

All of these reports highlight the inevitable outcomes of a franchise poorly run.  I know the Browns believe they have things fixed this time.  They’ll have to appreciate though that virtually anyone hearing them say that has heard the same thing before with the same predictable results. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Numbing Sameness of It All, Again--Cultural Overhaul Edition

If you want to know the real benefit of being the new regime for the NFL’s most pathetic franchise, it’s this: you can clear the decks of the mistakes that aren’t yours and no one will criticize.  Indeed you’ve set yourself up for praise.
That’s how it is at the moment for new Cleveland Browns general manager Ray Farmer and new head coach Mike Pettine.  In succession on Wednesday, Farmer settled most of the family business by cutting loose the two quarterbacks that started most of the team’s games last season, Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell.   For now, the only complaints are those directed at Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert, a long gone previous regime.
The moves weren’t unanticipated.  Nothing gives cover for making a harsh move than the absence of the knuckleheads responsible for drafting them in the first place.  Yet for those of you keeping track at home, this means that again as always the Browns officially are looking for a quarterback. Unofficially, nothing’s changed.  It also means that the books are now closed on the fate of the 2012 draft as both first round picks are no longer with the team, Trent Richardson having been traded to Indianapolis during last season.  Usually it takes a bit longer to evaluate a draft.
I’d have to do the kind of research that would really be a fitful waste of time to determine the last time a team had two picks in the first round and neither was with the team two years later.  Let’s just peg the number at zero because that’s what it probably is anyway.  (Interesting factoid:  3 times in this golden decade plus of the Browns 2.0, the team has had two draft picks in the first round.  The only non-bust of all 6 picks—Tim Couch, Courtney Brown, Joe Thomas, Brady Quinn, Trent Richardson, Brandon Weeden—has been Thomas.  Couch and Brown lasted 5 lamentable years with the Browns, Quinn 3 and Weeden and Richardson 2.  Fascinating record, isn’t it?)
That Weeden was a colossal waste of a first round pick is a given.  Weeden was a bad decision from the outset.  No one drafts a 28 year old rookie quarterback in the first round.  Check that.  No one drafts a 28 year old rookie quarterback in any round.  No one, that is, except the Browns.  The thought process at the time was that Weeden would be more mature.  That was supposed to translate, I guess, into a shorter learning curve.
If there was one thing that was clear about Weeden, though, it was that virtually nothing translated.  Whatever he studied, whatever he worked on almost didn’t matter.  Weeden had the unusually consistent inability to put thought into positive action or learn from his mistakes.  The 3 straight weeks of awful off-balanced shovel passes late in games is the testament to his trend.  In fairness, there was one mistake he did learn from and that was that he had to get off the field during pregame more quickly after having gotten trapped under the American flag being unfurled in his first game.  The fact that he got caught under the flag in the first place and the struggle to free himself from its clutches ended up being the perfect metaphor for his NFL career.
Where to place Weeden in the Parthenon that is the Browns’ colossal waste of first round picks is far more difficult for two reasons.  First, the list is long, the hall is filled.  Second, some of those picks (Couch, Browns) hung around longer than their shelf life because the regime that blew the picks hung around longer than its shelf life.  So tenure in and of itself is most irrelevant.
But let’s ponder it just for a moment anyway.  Is Weeden closer to Tim Couch or Brady Quinn?  Is he Gerald Warren or Courtney Brown?  Braylon Edwards or William Green?  Does it matter?  Not at this point.
This is of course what really ails the Browns most.  They have been systematically, almost deliberately, awful at the draft.  No matter the pedigree, no matter the resume, the paid professionals put in charge of picking from among the 10 or so best college players repeatedly guessed wrong.
This record, too, extends beyond the first round.  The Browns have been phenomenally unsuccessful in the second round as well during this 2.0 era.   Their most “successful” second round picks have been Dennis Northcutt and D’Qwell Jackson.  The least successful is a far longer list and includes the particularly golden trio, all drafted in 2009 by Eric Mangini, of Brian Robiski, Mohamed Massaquoi and David Veikune.
This is the key to why the Browns have been so awful for so long.  It’s hard to add depth when there’s no core to work with.  The inevitable undrafted free agents that fill out every team’s rosters end up holding much more prominent roles with the Browns because the supposed studs drafted as starters rarely have panned out.  No team can progress past a 4-5 win season until it can find a way to draft a player in the first or second round that can actually contribute not just immediately but for the long term as well.
All this is the history that Farmer has stacked up in his office in Berea like musty boxes in an attic or containers of yogurt in the back of the refrigerator. Someone had the idea that it was best to keep them but moved out before you could ask them why.  So the task fell to Farmer to clean the place up and that’s essentially what he did by parting with Weeden and Campbell.
Weeden may latch on to another team looking for a back up, similar to Colt McCoy, similar to Brady Quinn.  But his fate is cast.  A quarterback that fails in Cleveland doesn’t get a fresh start anywhere else.  Weeden is 30 years old now and has failed in two professional sports.  Farmer did him a favor.  It really is time for Weeden to move on to his life’s work.
So kudos to Farmer for not staying vested in a player based on his draft position.  The only way to build a new culture is to actually build the new culture and keeping players around that were responsible for the old culture can’t be part of the new equation.
Perhaps that was really the thinking behind Farmer’s free agent signings this week.  Farmer’s been active in the market but active in the same way that a person running on a treadmill is active. He likely feels better for having exercised but he’s stayed in place accomplishing that task.  Swapping out T.J. Ward for Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby for D’Qwell Jackson doesn’t necessarily signify progress unless the real goal is cultural overhaul.  Statistically, the players are interchangeable.
Undoubtedly there are more moves to make.  The Browns seem to have swung for a few fences, particularly in the case of Darrelle Reavis, and missed.  That’s not a surprise.  The Browns are a tough sell, as their coaching search attests.  But money often does trump nearly everything else so expect a few more signings to fill in some of the gaps.  Recently signed tight end Jim Dray is an example, Running back Ben Tate , if they sign him, is another.
Teams like the Browns can’t improve through free agency alone, even when the goal is cultural. But the key to the Browns’ free agent acquisitions stem from the new attitudes in the locker room.   Guys that sign big new contracts tend to bring a new enthusiasm and perspective. 
The real trick for Farmer will be the draft.  He has plenty to work with and a fairly deep draft class.  The most difficult decision he faces is the same faced by his predecessors.  He needs to find a permanent, competent occupant for the quarterback position.  It won’t be easy.  It hasn’t been for anyone else.
The popular thought at the moment is that the Browns will place their near term faith in Brian Hoyer, sign an experienced back up, and then take a quarterback a bit later in the draft with the hope of developing him over time.  That sounds like the typical NFL executive plan, the kind of thinking Holmgren used in drafting a quarterback late every year.  I’m still waiting for that plan to work just once in this era.
The Browns don’t need to draft a quarterback for the indeterminate future.  They need to draft a quarterback who can play tomorrow.  Quarterbacks out of college are far more prepared for the NFL than they’ve ever been owing to all of the specialized coaching they’ve received over the years.  Teams, and as importantly, fans expect as much production out of a rookie quarterback as they do out of a rookie linebacker. 
If this team wants to develop a quarterback then they need to take the plunge and draft one in the first round and throw him into the mix right away.  If Hoyer proves to be the better quarterback in training camp, great.  But the notion that a blue chip quarterback will develop down the road out of the scrap heap that is the later rounds of the draft is just wishful, worthless thinking at this point.
The fans in Cleveland can tolerate plenty, obviously.  But on the list of things that will push them over the cliff number one is a front office that continues to do the same things in the same way hoping for a different result.  There’s a reason Holmgren failed here and it starts and ends with his horse and buggy approach to constructing a NFL team.  This is Farmer’s time.  He’s begun the process of changing the culture and now he needs to take it to the next step by sending the clear message that there is nothing about how the Browns previously went about doing business, be it through free agency or the draft, is worth preserving.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

The Numbing Sameness of It All, Again--Crazy Is as Crazy Does Edition

At many manufacturing facilities, a sign is posted chronicling the number of days since a lost time accident. Each day a new number is added until an accident occurs. It’s a nice reminder to the workers there to be safety conscious.  At the Cleveland Browns’ facility in Berea they ought to consider erecting a similar sign, only this one recording the number of days since a major front office disaster.  By my count, it’s been nearly a week since they had to reset the clock.

Last week the bomb dropped that Mike Pettine was not the team’s first choice as head coach.  To anyone following, that bomb hardly made noise in and of itself.  What was news was the extreme measures the team was willing to take to avoid hiring Pettine, such as trading some of the draft picks they had accumulated to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for their current head coach, Jim Harbaugh.

That the story broke seemed to be a little vindictive slip from the lips of the recently deposed Joe Banner or, even more likely, those of Mike Lombardi.  Trolls like those two never quite go quietly, even when they’re being paid to leave.

Owner Jimmy Haslam, exhibiting all the savvy of a new owner, essentially confirmed the story when being tight lipped might have worked better.  As a result, a shit storm opened up in San Francisco (though who cares?) and it once again made the Browns look like the most ill run franchise since the last time they looked like the most ill run franchise, which was probably a week or so before that.

While we’ll likely never know exactly the package that Banner/Lombardi floated San Fran’s way to set up a twice year Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh in the AFC North, conclusions can still be drawn.  For instance, when assessing the team’s needs, the prior brain trust felt that coaching was the biggest hole to fill.  Forget Brandon Weeden’s misfiring arm and ability to read defenses, forget the absence of a running back, forget a defense that was weak at nearly every position.  What this team really needed apparently was a head coach with some street cred.  That is how much Banner and Lombardi hated the job Rob Chudzinski was doing.

To this point no one seems to have yet asked whether Banner and Lombardi pursued trades for any other coaches or whether it was Harbaugh or bust.  It seems like if they reached all the way across the country for Harbaugh that perhaps they tried other more geographically friendly coaches.  Did they pursue Bill Belichick?  What about John Harbaugh?  Did Haslam call one of the Rooneys and ask if Mike Tomlin was available for a few draft picks? 

And if Harbaugh, Jim not John, was the only target, why him?  That seems a little shortsighted, as if Banner and Lombardi didn’t realize how much fans in Cleveland hate anything and everyone associated with Michigan.  Isn’t that what Braylon Edwards claimed when he was in the process of blowing up his career in Cleveland?

It’s really intriguing to ponder what Banner and Lombardi thought they’d accomplish by trading for Harbaugh or another active coach.  In a sense it’s a suggestion that the players weren’t the problem all these last several years, it was the lousy coaches.  That’s a pretty big stretch considering that in 9 of the last 11 (Holy God, 11?) seasons the Browns have won either 4 or 5 games.

It is true that the Browns haven’t exactly been coached by the cream of the coaching crop during that woeful stretch.  And to this point not a single one of the team’s former coaches, most of whom are probably receiving checks from either Randy Lerner directly or the Browns franchise, has gone on to enjoy success as a head coach since they left the Browns.  Only two have gotten other head coaching jobs at all—Butch Davis at North Carolina and Romeo Crennel at Kansas City.  Neither of those jobs ended well for them, either.  So a point could be made that bad coaching is indeed at the root of all of the Browns’ evils.

But let’s not give short shrift to the various players with whom those coaches had to work.  It also reads as a who’s who of mediocrity.  Like the dispensed with coaches, none of the quarterbacks who failed here succeeded anywhere since.  Some, like Colt McCoy and Brady Quinn, on occasion, toil as back ups.  Most are out of football all together.  The same holds true for the running backs, defensive backs, linebackers, linemen, you get the picture.

On the one hand there’s a chicken and egg level dilemma here, at least as Banner and Lombardi saw it.  They figured that upgrading the coaching would eventually beget better teams.  Someone else might reasonably think that the coaches would have looked better had the players been better.  Irrespective it’s a riddle that need not be solved.

The common thread to all this are the people in the middle, the Banners and Lombardis of the world.  They’re the ones that have been doing the picking on both sides of the equation for all these years (except when a guy like Davis was doing both).  What the Browns’ incredible streak demonstrates above all else is that if you want to upgrade a franchise, upgrade the front office first.

I suspect that’s the conclusion Haslam came to as well, for what the Harbaugh trade story really does is illustrate how batshit nuts Banner and Lombardi really were as front office executives.  The rest of the story is that Haslam came to the same conclusion, just a week or so too late.

The Browns’ under Banner and Lombardi weren’t necessarily any different than say, the Browns under Holmgren.  Crazy is as crazy does.  Holmgren vacillated with Eric Mangini and fretted over whether he wanted to return to coaching.  He ended up with a dynamo in Pat Shurmur as a result.  Banner scoffed at Shurmur and went after Chudzinski in a fever and then praised the selection as if he had just married Jessica Biel after divorcing Paula Deen.

When Chudzinski didn’t measure up to whatever shifting metrics Banner and Lombardi were applying, they dumped him and undertook the most torturous, most troubled, most ridiculous head coaching search in the history of organized sports.  Haslam stood back and let it all be, including the ill fated trade for Harbaugh.  When Banner ended up with the 38th name on a list that was only 10 names deep originally, Haslam finally, mercifully pulled the plug.

Both Haslam and new general manager Ray Farmer now find themselves married to Pettine for better or worse, which is hardly where either would like to have been or should have been if Haslam had just pulled the plug quicker on the flea circus Banner and Lombardi were running. 

That sinking feeling Haslam had in his gut, the one he referenced when he fired Banner and Lombardi, didn’t appear overnight.  He had it for days if not weeks and instead of just watching the incompetence unfold beyond the point of no return, Haslam should have acted sooner. 

That’s water over the dam at this point but is instructive nonetheless because Haslam can’t abide Farmer not to be the next Gil Brandt and Haslam and Farmer can’t abide having Pettine flame out quickly, at least if they don’t want to have to keep resetting the clock on the banner outside of Berea that currently reads “7 days since our last implosion.”

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Human Stain

Whenever a societal hot button issue such as racism, sexism, gay rights, pick a similar topic, arises in the world of professional sports, confusion reigns.  Empty grandiose words flow easily from mouths and keyboards for a few days and then the conversation shifts once again.  Meaningful change isn’t discussed much mainly because most of the participants, from the players to the folks who cover them and the fans that watch them can’t reconcile the depth of the issue in the context of the frivolity of sports.

It’s why, really, when the Jonathan Martin story broke that so many knuckleheaded opinions got bandied about.  The incongruity of a physically big Martin playing in the most brutal of sports becoming overwhelmed by verbal taunting was hard to process for many.

Martin, a second year tackle for the Miami Dolphins, walked away from the team and potentially a lucrative career.  That he was willing to do so spoke volumes about the seriousness of the situation and yet many still tended to trivialize the conduct or Martin or Richie Incognito or, worse, compartmentalize the story in the safe, weird corner that is sports as if it had no larger implications.

NFL Commission Roger Goodell hired lawyer Ted Wells and his law firm to conduct an independent investigation and report the results publicly.  Goodell understood at least at a basic level the implications of the situation and its impact on the brand he was hired to protect.  Hiring Wells and commissioning him to publish a public report on his findings turned out to be a brilliant stroke, irrespective of Goodell’s motives. 

Wells’ report came out last week and as I picked through the ugliness of all the investigation revealed, I wondered first about the comments of some of Martin’s teammates like Brian Hartline, the Dolphins’ receiver, who came down hard and against Martin in the immediate aftermath of Martin’s departure.  He was hardly alone. 

I also wondered about the legislators at the local, state and national levels that have repeatedly opposed laws against discrimination as some sort of unnecessary burden on job creators.  And then I wondered about the job creators themselves, the ones who don’t want the administrative burdens of eradicating discrimination in their work place because they don’t see any relationship between human interaction and productivity and thus are all too willing to support politicians who will keep the political correctness police at bay.

The Wells report is much more than a simple report about an unfortunate situation taking place on one NFL team.  It’s a cultural touchstone, a reminder that there are real world consequences to the rhetoric that too many still accept as mainstream, both within and outside the workplace.

For me, I can’t help but see the Wells report and the conduct he uncovered as informed in part by the harsh words from those Republicans who strenuously and vocally oppose immigration reform that’s based on a principle that accepts the basic human dignity of those who entered this country illegally and are just looking for a path forward to rectify that wrong.  I also can’t help but see the Wells report and the conduct uncovered as informed by the ugly words of homophobics who use ginned up religious justifications for denying basic human rights to gays.  And I can’t help but see the Wells report and the conduct uncovered in the context of those who would claim they aren’t racist but are more than willing to have a laugh and pass along emails on a daily basis that make fun of the President of our country because of the color of his skin.

This country has a shameful and embarrassing history of discrimination that still courses through the veins of the mainstream.  Just last week, the legislature in Tennessee undertook consideration of a bill that would allow public servants (including police and fire) to refuse providing service to someone who offends their religious sensibilities.  That means, for example, that if you’re gay and getting beat up on the streets of Knoxville, a police officer can refuse to protect you because he, too, is offended by your gayness.  It won’t likely become law but the fact that it was introduced speaks volumes.

The state of Georgia recently and once again approved the issuance of specialty license plates that feature the Confederate flag, justifying it as a tribute to their southern heritage without even acknowledging the racially-charged and offensive aspects of that southern heritage.

The U.S. Senate, with bi-partisan support, passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that would make workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity illegal but the Republican controlled House of Representatives won’t even bring it up for a vote.  They have their reasons but all roads go back to the same place—they value the interests of shop owners over the seemingly trivial concerns of a wide swath of the people these shop owners need to get the work done.

University of Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam declared his sexuality openly in hopes of eliminating the whisper campaign that undoubtedly would have devalued his draft status.  And of course the minute he did there were NFL officials who privately surmised that indeed his draft status would be impacted not because his skills suddenly lessened but because someone providing “those kind” of locker room distractions apparently deserved to be paid less.

I don’t need to get into all the miscreants who play professional sports, from the drug addled to the wife beaters, which are welcomed back into the fold to make my point.  The fact that even one NFL executive would privately assume that a gay athlete would be a distraction explains exactly how the Dolphins’ situation could deteriorate to the point that it did.

The essence of prejudice is misguided assumptions and as a society we allow those assumptions to repeatedly guide us down the wrong historical paths.  This is a country after all that fought a war over the existence of slavery.  This is a country that denied blacks and women the right to vote.  This is a country that prohibited interracial marriage.  This is a country that still won’t recognize the workplace rights of gays and transgenders, let alone their familial rights.

The prejudices in this country, whether or not openly and unabashedly practiced, are insidious.  It’s a narrow-mindedness, sure, but it’s not isolated.  It’s open, it’s common and too often it’s accepted.  We should literally be screaming from the mountains at all the Bible thumpers who oppose gay rights but we don’t because we’re either just secretly like them or don’t want to defend those rights for fear we’ll be ostracized as well.  God forbid.

I see Hartline and the other Dolphins who defended Incognito at the outset (and now suddenly silent) as a marker for what ails this country most.  They’d be the first to claim that they don’t condone racism, just ask them.  But they were completely blind to the simple fact that words matter and actions matter even more.  Consumed by their own worlds, they lacked the empathy necessary to understand the private torment of their own teammate.  They heard the language in the locker room, they may have even repeated it.  They just didn’t think anything of it and they certainly never bothered to look below the surface because it never occurred to them that there was anything below the surface to see.

Eradication of racism, sexism, prejudice requires much more than a drive-by interest.  You can’t declare that you have gay friends as proof that you aren’t homophobic.  There has to be more.  For the Hartlines of the world to become not just team leaders but fully realized members of the larger society they’ll have to stick their necks out once in a while.  You can’t criticize Martin for not standing up to an insecure bully like Incognitio when you weren’t willing to do that either.

It is important to be completely invested in the experiences of others.  This isn’t about lopping guilt on the white bread existence of people like Hartline.  Instead it’s about getting them to recognize that the world of others is often much different

What the Wells report underscores more than anything else is the complexity of these kinds of situations and the extreme difficulties inherent in eliminating them.  The Dolphins fired two assistants and a bunch of players will undergo sensitivity and diversity training.  It won’t be enough.

Martin was tormented by his teammates and no one bothered to rally to him.  It wasn’t just the racist language, although that was part of it.  It was the constant and graphic sexual taunts about Martin’s sister and mother that ate at Martin.  The words were tough enough.  But they also fed into a deteriorating self image that Martin had of himself, an image of someone not strong enough to defend the honor of the two most important women in his life.

Martin’s upbringing, he theorized in particularly heartbreaking texts to his mother, left him soft when it came to street smarts.  In high school he felt bullied despite his size and it never got better for him.   That should sound familiar because it’s literally happening this moment still in every high school in this country.  There’s a black, a gay, a lesbian, a transgender, a nerd, a geek, a kid who’s too short, too tall, a girl who’s not pretty, someone who’s overweight, being picked on for being different and while we profess a willingness to stop it, while we pass anti bullying statutes and write rules, the truth is that we don’t stop it because we don’t really see it as the problem for what it is, a human stain on a society that isn’t so great. 

Heck, the Dolphins had well written anti-discrimination policies that Incognito and the rest of the players signed.  You can surmise that they didn’t take them seriously.  What’s more horrific to contemplate is that it never really occurred to them, to Hartline, to quarterback Ryan Tannehill, to head coach Joe Philbin, to the rest of the coaching staff, to most of the rest of the league and the people that cover it, that Incognito’s behavior on a daily basis for two seasons (and likely far longer) was violating every last principle behind those rules.

Some can handle taunts that way, others can’t.  But to celebrate those who can implies that the weaker among us deserve what they get.  Those who advocated, and there were plenty of them in the media and among current and former players, that Martin should have just punched Incognito in order to end the abuse see naked power as the answer.  It doesn’t occur to them that by standing by silently, they made Incognito who he was in the first place.  And if it occurred to them, then they just didn’t care enough to put an end to it for fear of upsetting some other delicate balance of a mediocre team.

Discrimination isn’t an individual problem.  It’s a shared problem over which all of us bear responsibility.

You can trivialize the Wells report or confine it to the context of professional sports, but that would be a mistake.  Human dignity is at the core of our principles as Americans and to suggest that the loss of it is more or less acceptable in some situations, because for example the participants make a lot of money or are bigger than others or don’t share what others consider to be mainstream beliefs, demeans us all.

Martin is today’s victim.  Tomorrow’s victim might be your brother, your sister, your nephew.  Maybe the best way to make sense of the Wells report is to remember the words of the poem by German pastor Martin Niemoller who was critical of the German intellectuals that didn’t rise up against Hitler.  They’re just as valid today:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me




Thursday, February 13, 2014

And Now The Other Shoe Drops...

About the only thing you can really conclude about the disaster that is the Cleveland Browns is that even when they make the right moves they still look like amateurs. 
Details spilling out from the inside pen of Monday Morning Quarterback’s Peter King aren’t particularly flattering or reassuring.  Despite all the prevarication from deposed CEO Joe Banner on the comprehensive nature of the Browns’ head coaching search, it appears as though it was that very process, ill conceived in designed and then poorly executed, that did in Banner and the apparition known as Mike Lombardi.
King writes, for example, that when Banner interviewed former Arizona Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhut once again for the Browns’ opening, Whisenhut asked Banner at the outset why the Browns simply didn’t hire him last year, the implication of course being that had they there would be no need for another “process” this year.
Banner was his usual smug self, telling Whisenhut it was because he didn’t think Whisenhut was going to be able to put together a championship caliber coaching staff.  That’s laughable for a couple of reasons. 
First, while former head coach Rob Chudzinski apparently was able to do just that, it still wasn’t good enough to allow him to keep his job anyway.  So much for focusing on the wrong subjects.  Second, assembling a champion caliber staff wasn’t a barrier in hiring new head coach Mike Pettine.   You won’t find anyone in the league who believes that Pettine’s staff meets the criteria of being championship caliber.  Jim O’Neil, the defensive coordinator, has never held that job.  Kyle Shanahan has had a mixed career thus far but nothing about it screams “outstanding" let alone championship caliber.  Below them it doesn’t get any better, either.
King also writes that both Bill Belichick and Urban Meyer called Banner directly to strongly recommend Greg Schiano for the opening.  Belichick in fact called him twice.  Had it been up to Banner he wouldn’t have even bothered to acknowledge either call.  Owner Jimmy Haslam decided to at least follow up on the recommendations and he and Banner flew to Florida to interview Schiano.  Per King, Banner was his usual smug self (does he have any other demeanor?) but Haslam was intrigued.  Nonetheless Banner won out and Schiano wasn’t seriously considered.
I’m not sure Schiano was the right fit anyway given his problems in Tampa.  Indeed that hiring would likely have hit fans in about the same way as Randy Lerner’s hiring of Eric Mangini.  Still, Banner’s conduct speaks volumes about his vaunted “process.”  We know though it did have an impact, a pretty unfavorable one, on Haslam.
This is really the telling point because more than anything else it completely discredits Haslam’s claim that the franchise’s reputation as toxic and radioactive is a media creation.  No, sorry.  The reputation is being spread by those inside the league who know that the dysfunction was a Banner creation borne out of his need to look important.  Maybe Banner didn’t get enough love as a child.
It also speaks to exactly what happens whenever the Browns are in the mix.  Nothing, but nothing can go right.  Banner was thrust on Haslam by the league but Haslam disclaims that it was a shotgun marriage.  He told King he could have declined to hire Banner but felt Banner was the right fit, much the same way that Lerner felt Mike Holmgren was the right fit.
Then of course is the story that was circulating earlier and not in the King column regarding former offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s impassioned and noisy departure.  Turner reportedly gave Haslam and Banner who likely was listening as he played Flappy Birds on his iPhone) a blistering assessment of the team's problems including that the treatment of Chudzinski was unfair and that he and the entire coaching staff did exactly as Banner had ordered and now were being fired for doing the job they were told to do.  Haslam had to love hearing that from someone with far deeper NFL experience than Haslam or Banner will ever gain.
The larger question that King’s column and the Turner story raises is exactly why Haslam didn’t jump sooner to kill the beast that he’d allowed to live.  Taken together it was pretty clear during the interview process that Banner was out of his element, Donny.  Unquestionably Haslam had his reservations, too, but treated them like a nagging pain in his gut that he couldn’t quite identify. 
Haslam waited until Pettine, nobody’s choice for anything but a defensive coordinator’s role in Buffalo, was under contract as the Browns new head coach before coming to the conclusion that Banner had to go.  Haslam had to support Pettine at the press conference because he had no choice.  That said, and despite suggestions to the contrary from others, Pettine can’t feel comfortable about how this has all gone down given what’s now come out.  If Pettine can’t grasp the essence and import of the issue, that Haslam is now questioning ALL of Banner’s decisions, then Pettine, too, is out of his element, Donny.
So in a sense, Haslam wasn’t quite impetuous enough.  Had he really followed his instincts and dumped Banner far earlier, it’s highly doubtful that Pettine would be the coach today.  More likely the Browns would have ended up with Josh McDaniels, Adam Gase or Dan Quinn.  That doesn’t mean that Pettine won’t succeed.  He might, particularly given the changes that Haslam belatedly made.  But his resume in comparison to the others available who wouldn’t come near the job with Banner in charge suggests that once again the Browns and their fans were shortchanged.
But hey, this is what you get when your franchise is a league laughingstock.  Things don’t go the way they should precisely because it is run, if not by idiots, then incompetents.  The sad truth in all of this is that Haslam is still trying to figure out exactly how much he doesn’t know but charging fans premium prices as he goes through his own learning curve.
Meanwhile, the Browns are sitting on some truly valuable NFL assets in the form of draft picks and cash and have probably the most inexperienced staff in the NFL guarding them.  Ray Farmer comes highly recommended but he hasn’t made a draft pick in his life and his first foray will be under the white hot lights of local and national scrutiny, the likes of which he’s never faced before. 
Farmer could very well be up to the task but why is it that Cleveland fans always have to be the lab rats for every bizarre experiment?  I’m glad Haslam rid the franchise of the evil Banner and the inscrutable Lombardi but that doesn’t directly equate to having faith that the rookies now in charge will be up to the task.
Haslam’s biggest risk in all of this is not that he jettisoned two discredited bumpkins.  It’s that he turned around and he gave the keys to his Ferrari to a kid with a learner’s permit.  I guess the good in all of that is that even if Farmer chokes it doesn’t make the franchise worse.  That, friends, would be impossible.  All it really does is lengthen the timeline to achieving the very modest goal of making this franchise respectable.  But heck, fans here are used to that anyway.  They’ve waited 15 years now, what’s another 15 among friends?