Friday, August 26, 2011

Lingering Items--Homecoming Edition

Maybe I’m running counter to the flow again, but excuse me if I can't get too excited either way about Jim Thome returning to the Indians. I wasn't one of those who said that he should be booed when he left and I won't be one of those who believe we should embrace him with open arms now that he's gone through his tour of duty with the major leagues and can't find anywhere else to play.

Thome left the Cleveland Indians for the same reason every really good player eventually leaves the Cleveland Indians: money. That's not a sin. It wasn't Thome's fault, for example, that the Indians decided Thome wasn't worth the same level of riches that other clubs were willing to pay him. It's the reality of the business of baseball.

Indeed Thome maximizing the value of his skills by selling himself to the highest bidder is mostly the American way. All the b.s. about how Thome should have given the Indians a hometown discount was written mostly by 5-figure sportswriters pushing a quaint notion of a bygone era that they themselves wouldn't follow if the next newspaper down the block offered them a 10% raise.

But having left the Indians in exactly the same way that Albert Belle left the Indians, Thome should expect nothing more from the local fans then the same level indifference he showed them when he left. Maybe he was conflicted about taking all those millions, I don't know. But he certainly wasn't conflicted enough to leave some of them on the table and I don't begrudge him that. But neither should he nor Indians management begrudge that same level of indifference returned in kind by the very fans they’re trying to placate.

If Thome’s return is bothersome, it’s not because of Thome personally but what he represents: all that is wrong with the way major league baseball is run in general and the way the Indians are run in particular.

I don't want to get into my 7,000th screed about baseball's lack of economic parity, but it is useful to remember that when Thome left, the Indians made him a very competitive, albeit inferior, offer. The Philadelphia Phillies, unconstrained as they were by any sense of economics, had the media market and all the ancillary revenue that spills over from that to dip into when they signed Thome.

Cleveland and many teams like it are just not similarly situated, which is a very odd circumstance in which all the teams in the league are supposed to be equal partners. Baseball has long since stopped caring about the plights of its lesser teams even as Commission Bud Selig claims to celebrate the fleeting successes of the Indians and Pittsburgh Pirates before the crunch time of the season really arrives. The only small market team in the playoff hunt at the moment is the Milwaukee Brewers.

The truth is that there is every chance that had the Indians signed Thome that contract would have been the same millstone around the neck of the team that is Travis Hafner's contract, the player ironically Thome is now being called on to replace. Baseball owners share revenues like Apple and Microsoft share software strategies. For teams like the Phillies, they can just throw more money at their mistakes and leave the lesser jealous and the fans jaded.

So it's not a surprise that when players like Thome, broken down, aging and with skills actually diminishing, reach the end of their careers and no other team really wants them they return “home” like a prodigal son. It becomes a nice feel good story for those who still believe in the romance of sports but the reality is that the “trade” that brought him here was just a mostly cynical ploy by the Indians management to deflect fan attention away from the sinking fortunes of another lost season.

**

A better feel-good story is the Browns’ signing of left tackle Joe Thomas to a 7 year contract for, I think, $100 billion, or something like that. The Browns signed Thomas just like other teams right now are locking up their versions of Thomas, because they can.

Whatever else you might think about the NFL’s system, and it’s been called all sorts of things by disgruntled players unhappy with their contracts, it works. The hard salary cap that exists in the NFL doesn’t keep teams from making mistakes, but it does limit how long it has to live with those mistakes. It makes general managers appropriately aggressive as a result.

The key to Thomas’ contract, similar to those being signed right now by other NFL stars, is that it’s not completely guaranteed. The stated value of Thomas’ contract is actually $84 million for 7 years but of that amount only a paltry $40+ million is guaranteed. By the time you figure in taxes and agent commissions, Thomas might only be left with about $20 million guaranteed.

NFL players went to the mattresses in an ill-advised strategy and came back with pretty much the same things they had when they left: a system in which owners are not required to guarantee player contracts. The firm money in Thomas’ contract is in the form of signing, roster and other easily attained bonuses and the more speculative and hence less lucrative money are the salary figures each year. The contract is structured to be as cap friendly as possible. Its length spreads the guaranteed money over the life of the contract and hence makes it easier for the Browns to have sufficient salary room to sign other players.

In short, even if Thomas’ career suddenly flames out in a year or two and he can’t protect Colt McCoy’s blindside any longer, the Browns won’t be strapped for either cash or cap space. If the Browns lose him to injury, the collective bargaining agreement offers them even more relief.

In Thomas’ case, unlike in many others, there’s every chance he’ll actually be with the Browns for the entire length of the contract. Offensive linemen of his caliber have about the longest shelf life in football. Even more encouraging is that there’s little chance that Thomas will suddenly turn into Chris Johnson, the disgruntled Tennessee Titans’ running back, and sit out if he learns a year or two into this contract that another left tackle is making more money.

Thomas is a stand up guy, a legitimate All Pro, and exactly the kind of player teams in any sport crave. His signing by the Browns not only represents a new high water mark for the franchise but underscores all that is right about the NFL and its economic structure.

**

If there’s one thing that preseason football should counsel, it’s perspective. The Browns sloppy play in a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday night can be mostly attributed to the dog days of training camp crashing into a short week to prepare for a game that they really didn’t prepare for anyway.

Teams that really want to win preseason games can. But that is no marker whatsoever for how that same team will play once the regular season rolls around. Teams that use the preseason for its intended purpose, to refine technique and evaluate players, generally are better rewarded during the regular season.

The Browns look to be a team in the latter category. They surely could have played McCoy and the starters much later in the game when the Eagles’ starters were off sitting in the locker room hot tub and watching the Kardashians or whatever it is that they do when they’re bored, and come away with a victory. But what would have been the point to that? A meaningless victory at the expense of trying to figure out how to make one of the league’s thinnest rosters a little more robust would have been time well wasted.

That doesn’t mean of course that there aren’t plenty of Browns’ fans with long faces on Friday morning. Any time the Browns lose there are plenty of long faces, which explains the mostly permanent mopey expression of many during the fall and early winter months.

For perspective’s sake, though, let’s not lose the forest for the trees. Quarterback Colt McCoy didn’t have a stellar performance statistically and was knocked around liberally. But he handled the adversity visited upon him by one of the league’s best defenses (and certainly one of the league’s best defensive backfields) well. Not every lesson is learned in victory. Most in fact are learned by after getting knocked down. So judge not the statistics but the bounce back come the regular season.

It wasn’t as if there weren’t bright spots. The Browns’ defense, particularly the line and the linebackers, looks significantly better under new coordinator Dick Jauron. There were a few blown assignments and some of the rookies got schooled by some of the Eagles’ veterans, but the difference in approach between last year’s unit and this year’s is almost as striking as the difference between an abacus and an iPad.

The offense is still a work in progress but as it struggled against the Eagles, perhaps some of it was best explained by Bernie Kosar while providing commentary for the game. He noted that the Eagles defense is used to practicing against virtually the same offense that the Browns run. There is nothing the Browns did, from the formations to the blocking schemes, that the Eagles haven’t seen over and over in practice during training camp.

That doesn’t mean that the offense isn’t going to struggle against teams less prepared. It will, particularly early. What remains to be seen is whether it will struggle to score on the same level as the Indians struggle to score. I doubt it.

So keep the loss in perspective. Everyone is still standing. Besides, with one tedious preseason game remaining, perhaps the only thing we can all say with certainty is that the regular season can’t arrive soon enough.

**
With Jim Thome’s return to the Tribe, this week’s question to ponder: Who would you rather have seen return to the Indians, Thome or Omar Vizquel?


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Now This Is What A Scandal Looks Like

Does there ever come a point where the Board of Trustees at Ohio State slaps their collective heads and wish that they had perhaps waited for perspective to sink in just a big longer before deciding Jim Tressel had to go?

They wouldn’t have had to wait long and they might have come to a different conclusion.

Given the state of major college athletics today, which combines outdated rules with an almost unbridled money grab fostered by the university hierarchies and their media partners, it was inevitable that a new scandal would develop and envelop the sport in a way that would make what happened at Ohio State seem quaint by comparison.

Well that new scandal has happened, perhaps quicker than anticipated, and it’s a real shitstorm of a scandal that looks to have the University of Miami Hurricanes engulfed for years to come. If even a quarter of the allegations bear out (and the way they are backed up by hard evidence rather than innuendo suggests that will be a minimum) Miami may have to abandon its football program completely.

OK, the Miami scandal isn't an absolute shitstorm yet because ESPN hasn't declared it as such by oddly giving as much if not more attention to minor claims by former Buckeye Terrelle Pryor's lawyer that Pryor supposedly acknowledged in Mayhttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif that he committed even more infractions then have been reported (since denied by OSU) then they have to a much more far reaching scandal in Miami.

Maybe that’s because ESPN can’t figure out how to report the Miami story without sending its viewers over to Yahoo Sports to read Charles Robinson’s incredibly well documented expose of about as wide ranging of problems in a college sports program that the NCAA has ever seen. Read the full report here

As Matt Yoder at AwfulAnnouncing.com said about the brewing controversy the “Miami case is OSU, GT, UNC and every scandal from the past year combined, multiplied by infinity, and exploded with a nuclear bomb.” He may have understated the case.

The Miami situation is so far over the top and beyond all bounds of what was even imaginable in this day and age and was apparently conducted in such an open and notorious manner that it truly does put exactly what went wrong at Ohio State in far better perspective. The Ohio State scandal, such as it was, actually involved just a handful of athletes involved with a small time criminal who offered them free tattoos in exchange for signing memorabilia. It was wrong, the players knew (or should have known) it was wrong, but plowed ahead anyway.

In terms of infractions, this hardly constituted the dirty bomb of a program that ESPN and Sports Illustrated tried to paint it as through the use of shadowy figures and unconfirmed allegations. And if that’s as far as the Ohio State story had gone, then we wouldn’t be talking about it much more.

But what set it apart were two factors. First, it was Ohio State. That apparently is a real line of demarcation for ESPN and Sports Illustrated because, frankly, the scandals at Boise State and Oregon, for example, are far more extensive in nature and far more greatly ignored by those two media outlets.

Second, the head coach lied about the problem. ESPN and Sports Illustrated, with no interest in perspective and no tolerance for explanation and because, it was Ohio State and not, say, the University of Connecticut basketball program, kept applying the pressure to the school’s board of trustees so intensely that they effectively gave them no choice but to issue Tressel the death penalty. See, problem solve?

Not so fast. There's no reason to rehash the Ohio State story except as to place it in contrast with the very next and far worse controversy that hit. According to Robinson’s reporting, the Miami scandal reaches to at least two athletic directors, several assistant head coaches and even, potentially some former head coaches, most or all of whom are now employed elsewhere in NCAA-sanctioned schools.

In a delicious bit of irony, one of the former athletic director’s involved, Paul Dee, also served as the chair of the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions. According to a report in the Miami Herald, Dee said he expects to be interviewed. Indeed he will.

It won’t be a case where, if Robinson’s story holds together, Dee can simply say he didn’t know what was going on. Ground zero for the extensive allegations was a very prominent booster of the Hurricane’s program, Nevin Shapiro, a convicted criminal of far more major proportions than the hood at the center of the Buckeyes scandal. Shapiro is now serving time in federal prison for running a Ponzi scheme, the proceeds of which Shapiro claims he used to shower the Hurricanes’ programs and players with things like cash, gifts, prostitutes and anything else I suppose a young athlete’s heart may have desired.

The reason the Dee connection is important to this story is because of how hypocritical it can be for a self-policing agency like NCAA to actually self police. It will be almost impossible for Dee to credibly claim absolutely no knowledge about what Shapiro was doing on some level because Shapiro was such a prominent booster that the athletic department named an athlete’s lounge after him. And if that wasn’t enough, Shapiro had access to the press box and once got into a physical altercation with a member of the athletic department’s compliance group during a game while in that press box.

Meanwhile, flushed with that knowledge, Dee was overseeing punishment for other schools guilty of far lesser crimes. I know this: if I was the lawyer representing a school who was punished under Dee’s tenure as chairman of the NCAA’s infractions committee I’d immediately seek to have that punishment revoked on the basis of self-dealing and conflict of interest.

What’s so amazing about the Miami story is the sheer breadth of the allegations. It doesn’t just touch prominent former players like Kellen Winslow, Jr., but also current players like Jacory Harris. It includes in excess of 70 players in all as well as several recruits. It involves alleged payments to players by Shapiro for putting vicious hits on opponents like Tim Tebow. It involves allegations of hooking recruits up with prostitutes. It even involves Shapiro eventually buying into a sports agency and then funneling cash to Miami players in order to represent them after they graduated. That’s a pretty wide swath and I’m just getting started. You really owe it to yourself to read the story.

What’s also so amazing is the difference between the initial response by Miami and that by Ohio State for what amounts to a pimple of a scandal in comparison. Where Ohio State tried to get ahead of the story and took much criticism for it, Miami has basically stayed silent except for the perfunctory “we’re cooperating with the NCAA” press release and that they're taking this seriously.

Maybe Ohio State University president Gordon Gee and athletic director Gene Smith and even Tressel conducted what was surely a rushed and clumsy press conference, they at least said as much as they could at the scandal’s flashpoint. Sure, that gave the critics more to work with and perhaps increased the pressure on Gee and Smith to distance themselves from Tressel, but at least they stood up from the outset and took the heat.

Miami, meanwhile, seems to be in a state of shock fully unable to even utter a coherent word. In their press release they shamelessly tried to deflect attention away from Miami by saying that this was a marker for the need for fundamental change in college football. That's true to an extent, but they can't very well avoid blame by blaming the system they cultivated. Moreover they haven’t even begun to take action by at least suspending the current players named pending further investigation, a usual first step.

And of course, it’s worth noting again that ESPN seems dumbfounded by the whole darn thing. On its Tuesday late night edition of SportsCenter, which was filmed well after the story broke, ESPN actually had a the negative reference about Ohio State and Pryor on the air well before it even bothered to mention that there was some sort of kerfuffle going on in Miami. Thirty-five minutes into that edition of SportsCenter and the Miami story hadn’t even been mentioned.

There’s little doubt that the overhang on the Miami-Ohio State matchup in a few weeks will be significant. But where ESPN tried to manufacture a far bigger scandal than actually existed at Ohio State in order to push an agenda, the Miami scandal looks like it could actually push that sea level change that’s actually needed. It will be interesting to see which story ESPN gives more prominence to in the run up to that game.

There are significant problems in college sports and everything that allegedly was going on at Miami and at the level it supposedly was taking place underscores just about every possible misgiving people ever had about the state of the enterprise. But solving those problems will be almost impossible when media outlets like ESPN, like crack dealers, are actually helping foster those very problems by showering certain programs (like Texas) and conferences (like the SEC) with millions upon millions for preferred access.

When these schools and conferences take that money to line their own pockets they and their bloated budgets get addicted to it and find themselves suddenly unable to say no, let alone solve the problems that all that money creates. As for the lesser schools and conferences trying to get their own piece of the pie, the message is sent: similar deals await similar successes. That pushes those programs more toward the edges and further away from the mainstream. The circle of NCAA life.

Meanwhile the kids who make those programs go see all the money changing hand, money fostered by the moralizing half-witted hypocrites at ESPN, and wonder when they’re going to get their taste. When the NCAA tells them they're amateurs and shudders at the notion of sharing the wealth with them, that hardly quenches their thirst. They just go underground and hence it's just a matter of time until the next great scandal.

It would be nice to think that all of this would scare the NCAA and their members school straight but it won't. There's no 12-step program for any of them to get clean.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Lingering Items--Competition Edition

Maybe the best way to really know that NFL football is back was how quickly the mind-numbing nature of exhibition games sets in. It didn't take long.

The Cleveland Browns beat the Green Bay Packers on Saturday night in a surprisingly easy fashion, 27-17. The starters played well, for the limited time they were out there, and overall it gave a nice little vibe to the upcoming season.

That doesn't mean it wasn't the mostly typical boring preseason game. It was.

For the average fan, which means pretty much everyone except stats geeks and assistant coaches, exhibition games, particularly the first one of the season, lose any sense of luster once the starters disappear at the end of the first quarter/beginning of the second. From there it's a race to stay awake, which is why I've been advocating for years that the game start no later than 4 p.m. (Ok, that last part is not really true, but it just occurred to me and it's actually a pretty good idea, isn't it?)

Of course none of that will stop Browns fans from dissecting the team's exhibition opener and the point that stands out above all others was was how in sync the offense under quarterback Colt McCoy looked with but just a few practices dedicated to learning a new system under their belt.

McCoy isn't always going to complete virtually everyone of his passes, so we can probably disregard for the moment the 9-10, 135 yards, one touchdown pass and another touchdown drive level of production. But it shouldn't really be that much of a surprise that he looked sharp.

First of all, McCoy is an accurate passer. It's his stock in trade. Second, this kind of offense plays to every one of his strengths. He moves around with ease in the backfield, can throw on the run and isn't required to throw 40 yards down field all the time in order to keep the team moving. I don't know if you can say McCoy is a “system” quarterback but if he were, this would be his system.

Before moving off the topic of McCoy, one thing I noticed from the small but obnoxiously vocal anti-Holmgren/pro-Mangini branch of Browns fans is how quickly they are to minimize any contributions from McCoy. In that vein, everything Mangini did was vastly misunderstood by a too anxious fan base while anything either Mike Holmgren (or his general manager surrogate, Tom Heckert) or McCoy does is consistently dismissed with a “we'll see, won't we?” sort of attitude.

I'm not sure McCoy is the second coming of Tom Brady, but right now, with essentially 8 regular season starts and exactly one truncated off-season in which he knew he would enter the next season as starter, McCoy has looked consistently far more impressive then any other Browns' quarterback in the new era of the franchise, Derek Anderson's one sublime season notwithstanding.

True, that's not saying much because McCoy is essentially competing against no one for that honor, but that still doesn't diminish his performance thus far.

Consider for example his work last season. About the best you can say about the Browns' offensive schemes under former head coach Eric Mangini is that they were too clever by half. A lack of overall talent on offense often leads coaches to devise gimmicky schemes to deflect attention from the inability to go toe-to-toe with most other teams in the league. And if that's why Mangini's offense looked so confusing most of the time, then so be it.

But McCoy came into that mess and took charge as best as anyone could. Jake Delhomme, when he wasn't injured, played mostly shell-shocked from a career that had gone on a season or two too long. Seneca Wallace showed the usual flashes that backups tend to but also all the flaws that backups tend to when forced to play for longer periods of time. It was McCoy, the throw in 3rd round pick, that came in and looked more like a starter than either of Delhomme or Wallace.

Not everything McCoy did was brilliant, of course. But he never lost his composure (even when those around him were losing theirs) and made the best of a confusing situation. Forced into the apprenticeship role, his reps from training camp through the regular season were limited. He basically had to learn by watching, not doing. Still, it was clear he paid attention and when given the chance his throws were accurate and the offense moved. Only the most strident Mangini supporters, who had little tolerance for a Holmgren pick succeeding, wouldn't admit as much.

Fast forward to Saturday night's exhibition opener. McCoy, in charge, looked like he and the team had been working with this new offense for years, not weeks. In some sense, McCoy actually had been in that system for years because it's mostly what he played in college. The wonderful thing though to watch was that his college experience had actually translated to the pro game in a way that should give all fans comfort that the team finally has a quarterback around whom it can build.

As for the rest of the game against the Packers, despite the way the team was playing thank goodness for the remote control and a relatively compelling Indians game on Sportstime Ohio.

That's not to suggest anything about the way the team played. It is to suggest that from the point the starters left the game until the game ended seemingly 6 hours later, there was nothing much going on to inform the average fan. For the coaching staff, though, that surely wasn't the case.

The garbage time of exhibition games that bore us to tears is the critical time in which decisions are made about the last 10 or so players to make the final roster. Coaches are looking at all the nuances of technique and positioning, things the average fan isn't trained to see let alone understand. It's important because the best teams in the NFL are those with the most depth. But for fans watching, it has about as much entertainment value as a video of someone listening to a book on tape.

It's always good to start with an actual victory in the preseason. But the real point of the game, as head coach Pat Shurmur said prior to game, was to check the team's progress. On that level, it was quite comforting to see progress made and actual, legitimate building blocks in place.

**

It will be interesting to check Saturday night's television ratings for the Browns game vs. the Indians game but if you want a clue as to how that turns out, look no further than the fact that the Browns exhibition opener had almost double the attendance as the Indians, or at least double the announced attendance of the announced attendance of the Indians.

If past is prologue, the television ratings will be similar proving, if nothing else, that Cleveland is a Browns town first and foremost.

It's remarkable, actually, that with the Indians clearly in the thick of a pennant race garner about half the interest as a Browns team in the thick of another reboot. But this town likes its football.

At this juncture of the season the Indians are, at the very least, an interesting if not completely compelling team. They are borderline awful on defense (with an infield dominated by rookies and a rookie in center field), are in the bottom half of the league in scoring runs, and yet remain strongly in contention because of a pitching staff that is far better than anyone imagined when the season opened.

It's not exactly a recipe for winning the World Series but it is enough at the moment, or should be anyway, for keeping fans interested. And while most fans seem to be keeping at least one eye on the team, they aren't showing up at the ballpark. The Indians are 25th in the league in attendance averaging just over 22,000 fans a game. By contrast, Minnesota, which is having a mostly nightmare of a season due to injuries, is still averaging over 39,000 fans per game, a staggering differential.

Certainly the usual culprits will be cited for the weak attendance: a bad economy, a dwindling population, a front office that's consistently come up short. But what seems to be taking place is a shift away from the generations long theory that the Indians are one of those “sleeping giant” franchises where fans, starved for a winner, are just looking for a reason to spend their money on them. Despite all its shortcomings as a pennant contender, the team has hung in their well enough, particularly against tough competition the last few weeks, to force fans to take better notice. Even the front office has cooperated by pulling off a rather important late season trade to make the team stronger.

Unfortunately with the Browns season now getting into full swing it's unlikely that much will change in the minds of Indians fans, most of whom really don't believe in their heart of hearts that this team came make the playoffs. Maybe it will take a few seasons for this to change but at least it's mid-August and the Indians are playing meaningful baseball. That's all you can really ask.

**
As a follow up to my column earlier in the week about ESPN's all too obvious vendetta against Ohio State, it still is worth noting that it's not as if ESPN didn't make a few good points in its flimsy Outside the Lines segment.

The underlying premise, that the university has courted an environment that trades on the the accomplishments of its student athletes, is essentially correct. The Buckeyes aren't alone in that, certainly, but there has been an atmosphere around the Buckeyes in which revenues have been maximized on the backs of its players.

As an example, you can go to the Buckeyes web site and bid on all manner of game worn jerseys and the like. If you attend a game at the 'Shoe, there is a weekly auction of literally dozens of pieces of signed memorabilia that takes place on the concourse by the entrances to the luxury boxes. The proceeds from these get plowed back into the athletic program and these ancillary revenues are important to maintaining a budget that supports dozens of athletic programs at Ohio State, but only a fool could deny that in some fashion that same athletic program wasn't at least partially complicit in sending a message to its athletes that their signatures on jerseys or helmets are quite valuable.

In that context it's not a surprise that some of those athletes might want to trade on their own names and reputations in order to put something in their own pocket. So in that sense ESPN makes a good point and it should have been a launching pad for exploring the same issue that is just as prevalent at every other college with a major football program.

Where ESPN went off the rails was in staying small with their story in order to advance their self-created narrative that the Buckeyes are a uniquely dirty program that deserves more justice than the NCAA will apparently dish out. That's why the ESPN story descended into the usual unproven allegations by anonymous shadowy figures instead of exploring the same issues on the campuses of say, Alabama or Auburn.

It will be interesting to see if Ohio State tones down its use of player-signed memorabilia as a fund raiser going forward. That, more than anything else, will serve as the marker for whether the university truly understands that a problem of this nature isn't just a function of a few bad apples but an outgrowth of seeds they themselves planted.

**

With the NBA in lockout mode and the only action being all the players who are contemplating playing overseas next season came news that LeBron James won't be one of them. That leads to this week's question to ponder: Is James' decision not to play overseas a function of his not wanting any more wear and tear on his body or more a fear of not being able to lead a team on another continent to a title?

Monday, August 08, 2011

Standing Outside ESPN's Lines

While factually the tide that’s been buffeting Ohio State these last several months is clearly receding, you’d never know that from the attitude of ESPN. In a continuation of the unusually intense and negative coverage the network has devoted to all things Ohio State, ESPN’s usually thought provoking and award-winning “Outside the Lines” show decided to step outside its own lines to once again hit the Buckeyes across the chops.

In sum and substance, the show essentially suggested that Ohio State and Jim Tressel set themselves up for this scandal by allowing autograph sessions with players after they had already used up their eligibility, a perfectly NCAA-compliant thing to do. But the innuendo was clear. The program itself is dirty and as proof they offered nothing. More interestingly,not a mention of the most salient fact: there is nothing new to report nor has there been since February.

On the surface this makes ESPN look, at best, petty and at worst, biased. Frankly it's both. The Buckeye haters, who ESPN is clearly courting, and many in the media too cowardly to challenge the World Wide Leader, dismiss any such claims as sour grapes.

But the facts are the facts. With a scandal every bit as troubling as the Buckeyes troubles brewing in Oregon Ducks Country, ESPN has done little more than give it cursory attention. It's devoted little air time to the matter and hasn't publicly attacked head coach Chip Kelly (let alone call for his dismissal). The reason is that ESPN has done little if any leg work on reporting the story, certainly nothing even remotely related to the time it's put in to trying to find dirt that doesn't exist in Columbus.

ESPN has devoted hours and made dozens of public records requests of the Buckeyes, seeking every bit of information it can possibly uncover to try and bury the team and the program. Meanwhile, it's made only two very perfunctory requests of Oregon, despite a level of activity that raises very serious issues about the program's integrity in general and Chip Kelly's in particular. But more on that diparity in a moment.

To get to the nub of the issue when it comes to ESPN's most recent hatchet job on the Buckeyes, it is well worth noting that nothing new was actually brought forth in its latest expose. In fact, while ESPN is reluctant to admit it for selfish reasons (would it do any good for ESPN to advertise a show to potential viewers that offers no information?), there’s been nothing new on this story since the initial facts were brought forth by the Buckeyes last February.

There were a handful of players that had sold memorabilia for free tattoos and other minor goodies and that former head coach Jim Tressel was warned about it and failed to inform his bosses about it.

The first part of the allegation was always the least troubling because it was basically dumb college kids doing dumb college things for chump change. The second allegation, that Tressel knew about the situation and lied about it, was always far more damning. In the end it cost him his livelihood.

You would think that ESPN might actually devote its one sports investigation show to contrasting how the media machine has an unquenchable appetite and has long since stopped discerning between the good and the bad it's fed. It could have showed, for example, how the NCAA had already determined that there was not a lack of institutional control and that, in actuality, Ohio State's compliance program was actually pretty good. That would have been the responsible thing to do.

But responsibility has long since left town, which is what happens when one media partner comes to dominate the spectrum, not to mention the fact that this would not have played well with the narrative that ESPN and Sports Illustrated have offered up for these last several months. It's almost as if ESPN in particular merely decided to double down, putting the Buckeyes program and its fans back through the wringer, almost for sport.

Most of what both outlets reported were sourced anonymously and never proven. Especially egregious was the Sports Illustrated expose by George Dohrmann that was actually repeatedly discredited by the facts. Sports Illustrated still hasn’t apologized and that piece of shoddy reporting still forms the basis for much of what ESPN has been doing since.

This kind of thing is certainly commonplace as the byproduct of a country founded in part on freedom of the press. Responsible news organizations sometimes get things wrong and that is the burden we all have to bear in order to have a more open and free society.

Indeed I have no particular axe to grind with ESPN simply because they may be wrong. However the axe I do have to grind with them is over their incessant need to appear to be not just correct but responsible all the while cloaking a bias for reasons that defy logic. By sheer repetition of the same unproven allegations and the almost total ignorance of the simple fact that this story hasn’t changed one iota since last February, ESPN has kept up the illusion that despite having its ratings driven in large part by college football (and hence the carriage fees it can charge for its service that gets passed along to those same fans via their cable or satellite bills), it can fairly cover that industry.

Hardly.

Ohio State may have a hundred pound gorilla of a football program but that hardly serves as an excuse for going after it as if it’s a piƱata to be poked periodically on the off chance that something will fall out. Even the lawsuit that ESPN filed over but a handful of records that were withheld from the volumes of records requested was done in part to add further cover to the illusion of responsibility ESPN is trying to portray in its antics.

What that lawsuit really does, in context, is shine a light on how irresponsible and unbalanced ESPN really has been toward the Buckeyes.

In an exhibit to that lawsuit, ESPN reveals the dozens of records requests its staff made of the Ohio State media relations department. That same exhibit also details the yeomen efforts that the OSU media relations department made to comply with those requests. The exact dispute of the lawsuit deals not with a general stonewalling of ESPN by Ohio State but with a very narrow group of records that OSU held back as allegedly exempt under privacy laws. OSU claims that the documents, which are records of certain individuals (none of which are OSU officials), are protected by the same privacy laws that prevents anyone from indiscriminately poking into the goings on of, say, students.

This is not to get into the merits of the lawsuit either way. It will work itself out as these things usually do. It is to get into the extreme and unfair efforts ESPN has made to try to uncover what they surmised was the dirt of the program, their almost complete failure in that regard and their abject unwillingness to apply those same shoddy standards elsewhere.

At the same time Ohio State was supposedly running a rogue program, the University of Oregon, another major college program but far from the media center of this country, was actually engaging in far shadier practices, as Yahoo Sports detailed.

Oregon and its head coach, Chip Kelly, were actually paying a private individual for supposed recruiting services. The amounts were far more than any player at Ohio State received for his memorabilia individually or the players received collectively. The recruiting services, according to Oregon, were to supplement the Oregon’s staffs’ own apparently inadequate recruiting efforts. As Yahoo Sports detailed, however, the payments were far more akin to a fee and agent, or Cam Newton’s dad, would get for bringing certain players to a certain program.

We know all this because Yahoo Sports (the same outfit that first revealed the Ohio State problems and did so without the attendant innuendo or overreaching) actually had the alleged recruiter on the record admitting as much. In fact, the alleged recruiter, Will Lyles, went further and described in rather sordid detail that he didn’t perform traditional recruiting services but instead was paid to exercise his influence over certain recruits. In this regard Lyles was a veritable font of information. He said that after Oregon came on to the NCAA’s radar, Oregon then asked him to prepare scouting reports on certain players as part of an after-the-fact justification for his services. He further details, for example, how he advised the family of LeMarcus James to transfer to another high school in his last semester in order to avoid a standardized test he couldn’t pass so that he could then be recruited by Oregon (an idea Lyles said Oregon congratulated him on). Lyles detailed other shady conduct and had the handwritten thank you note from Kelly to prove the intimate nature of his access to the Oregon program.

These are some deeply troubling allegations, far more troubling then what occurred at Ohio State (save for the allegations related to Tressel’s dishonesty), and have the added benefit of the benefactor of the cash on the record admitting what he had done. But it’s Oregon and they are out west and ESPN could hardly be bothered with the story.

How do I know? Well, let’s start with the fact that it’s barely been mentioned by ESPN in any of its formats or the fact that there has been no “Outside the Lines” documentary created to detail it.

But let me advance that notion a giant step forward. I sent a public records request to the University of Oregon media relations department to specifically get a copy of each and every records request that it has received from ESPN since December, 2010 about the Ducks football program.

Two weeks ago came back the answer: two. The first request was a list of all the revenues and expenditures from the athletic department. The second was for a list of anyone who received complimentary sideline passes since 2007. ESPN refined its first request when Oregon sent them back a financial report, by asking for expenditures the athletic department made for recruiting services. Ultimately though that’s the extent of their investigation into Oregon.

Contrast that again with the literally volumes of materials they’ve requested from Ohio State (as ESPN itself acknowledged in the lawsuit against Ohio State) and ask yourself whether ESPN really is being the fair and balanced outlet they claim to be.

For example, while ESPN was acutely interested in every email, text or phone call Jim Tressel or Gordon Gee or Gene Smith ever sent or had , in the material Oregon sent me ESPN didn’t even bother to request any such material from Chip Kelly, who the recruiter admitted he had direct contact with, or the athletic director.

There were no requests of Oregon into any internal investigatory materials, including their procedures manual, nor any requests of what Oregon may have sent to the NCAA. These same requests were made of Ohio State and for which Ohio State complied.

The difference between these two scandals has everything to do with geography and perception. Unquestionably the Buckeyes are the far more successful football program but it’s not as if the Oregon Ducks are some minor school. They played in the BCS National Championship game last season and in the Rose Bowl the season before that (and lost both). Before that the Ducks were mostly playing in minor bowl games but recent history shows that it’s a program on the rise and that Kelly is the reason.

ESPN can offer up any excuse it wants for the disparity of intensity with which its pursued these two stories, but the only explanation that makes any sense (outside of abject laziness) is bias. ESPN started with a theory about the Buckeyes and is hellbent on either proving it right or at least making sure others share that same unproven theory.

Ohio State, or rather certain individuals within Ohio State, did some wrong things here for which they’re being punished. That’s not the problem. Rather the problem is an irresponsible media, particularly ESPN, continuously hammering the program beyond all bounds of fairness while not applying those same standards to another Division I program with its own serious problems. That amounts to bias, a charge which ESPN would never own up to.

Having been affiliated with the “media” for years now there’s one thing I know and will readily admit before nearly any other media member: as professionals they are incredibly thin skinned. They rarely if ever accept any responsibility for the results of their irresponsible actions, wrapping themselves instead in the First Amendment and then claiming that the public are too big of idiots to understand exactly how journalism works.

What both ESPN and Sports Illustrated have done in the case of Ohio State is borderline journalism at best. It only qualifies tangentially as journalism because they were able to get some facts right—the facts that Yahoo Sports uncovered originally. The other stuff is the kind of currency that tabloids like the National Enquirer traffic in more frequently—breathless accusations anonymously sourced. Occasionally they get something right but mostly they are wrong an unapologetic for it. That’s not journalism any more than Page Six of the New York Post is journalism.

I said from the beginning that the Ohio State story had no victims but I was wrong. The victims are the profession of journalism and all those who use media as a proxy to uncover the real scandal. I never understood why journalists are so lightly regarded because so many of them do good work. But just like a rogue coach can sully that profession so too can the irresponsible many that dot the payrolls of places like ESPN and Sports Illustrated sully the good working journalists just trying to do a decent, responsible job.

The tattoo scandal and all it actually wrought is certainly not Ohio State’s proudest moment. The real irony though is that while Ohio State is already on the road to recovery from it the profession of journalism is all the worse for it.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Lingering Items--Men of Action Edition

The Cleveland Browns upcoming season promises to be a mess, a spectacular mess. For once, that's a good thing. The alternative was a non-existent season and if there's something Cleveland fans dislike more than a mess of a team is having no team to contemplate.

That's where the season was headed until the National Football League Players' Association, the about to be re-certified trade organization that operated as a union in all but name only for the last several months, finally got religion. Spoiling for a fight more out of revenge than oppression, the NFLPA under the guidance of labor neophyte DeMaurice Smith and a gaggle of resume-building lawyers seemed hell-bent on litigating the owners to death as part of a strategy that had no end game.

So when the litigation path proved to be nothing more than an expensive lesson in delay, Smith started to understand that he was running a labor organization that in one key way resembles any other labor organization. The bulk of its members just want to go to work, do their job and collect a paycheck.

It wasn't an easy process sorting out the mess the NFLPA created with its ill-guided strategy. There was litigation to settle and egos to soothe. And for awhile anyway it looked like the best fans could hope for was a truncated season that would end with a champion that would always carry an asterisk next to its name in the record book.

Pressured by players with work to do and bills to pay and a disapproving court of appeals, the NFLPA had no choice but to finally start bargaining. The details of the agreement at this point aren't even all that important to most fans. It's simply the fact that there is an agreement in place, it contains a hard salary cap and other financial constraints that ensure that the brains in the front office and not the checkbook of the owner will be the difference between the playoff worthy and the also rans, and it will be another 10 years before anyone needs to worry about this again.

That really is good news for all football fans in general and Browns fans in particular. Forget for now all that talk by those saying that the Browns were more adversely impacted by the lockout then other teams. There's no way to quantify that kind of argument. Instead focus on the beautiful mess that this season promises to be.

For example, this will be a season in which you won't be able to tell much without a program. (Aside: Here's a money making idea that I'll give Randy Lerner free: Electronic media guide app. Sell it for $2.50 and keep it updated with every roster move, and there will be plenty, in this upcoming season. You're welcome.) It's not just that their first round draft pick has the incredibly generic name of Phil Taylor or even the fact that Mr. Generic is, strangely, still holding out. It's that players will come and go with a frequency that would make even the Indians management blush. For example, remember Brodrick Bunkley? He's the players the Browns supposedly acquired from the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday but who instead was traded Monday to Denver. It will be that kind of season.

This is also the season where the Browns are rebooting for the sixth time since 1999 (I'm counting the brief stint by Terry Robieski, who took over for Butch Davis, as a reboot), which would be typical if the Browns were, say, the L.A. Clippers. But this time it's not a reboot of the control-alt-delete variety, but a hard restart where the technician tells you to disconnect from the power source and wait a minute or two before powering up again.

A new defensive scheme, which means new roles and new players, coupled with a new offensive scheme, with too many of the same players in the same roles, wasn't ever going to be easy even if the Browns had been granted an exemption and allowed to not just practice throughout the lockout but were actually forced to conduct two-a-days every day since the Monday after the last Super Bowl. As a result there will be comically disappointing blown assignments on both sides of the ball, particularly early on. The theme of the season isn't going to be anything approaching “just win, baby” but more like “just walk upright, baby.”

Still, it's the kind of mess that is the really hard work of any regime change. Eric Mangini had his own set of challenges when he came in, but his were mostly in trying to bring some level of discipline to a team that had turned into juvenile delinquents under the benign parenting of Romeo Crennel. But Mangini wasn't doing anything terribly different philosophically on either side of the ball. Shurmur has a more disciplined group of players but now has the more Herculean task of teaching them a whole new way of playing the game. It's like the difference between the challenge of getting your kid in college and getting your kid to make his bed.

The real excitement of this season will come not in the visceral progress of a won/loss record over last season's rather meager output, but in the actual progress of players like Colt McCoy. There's no question that the kid has the requisite leadership skills. There is question over how that will actually translate. If it does then this franchise will know that it finally has a quarterback.

Then there are the questions about the questionable receivers and the injury-prone running backs and a defense that for more than a decade now hasn't found a way to stop a decent running back. And really, how well will a West Coast offense perform in an East Coast (or thereabouts, anyway) environment or is there an appreciable difference between a 4-3 and a 3-4 defense?

The point, though, is that this is the really fun stuff of football. It's the kind of thing that fans really do want to argue about and not the boring details of preliminary injunctions and class action lawsuits.

The Browns are going to be a mess of a team this year, count on it. But the game itself and this franchise in particular is on as solid of footing as it's been on in a very long time. So no matter how it turns out, like a wayward favorite uncle, it's nice to have them back.

**
If there is one thing that the kids have gotten right these days, it's the shorthand of texting. So it would hardly surprise if the smartphones of a million different Indians fans didn't generate a collective “WTF” when the trade of its two top pitching prospects was announced.

For me the WTF was completely unrelated to either who the Indians traded or who they acquired. It was completely related to the fact that they made the trade. After dumping Cy Young award winners in two straight seasons, fans were led to believe that the Indians liked their pitching rotation like a sailor on leave in a foreign port likes his women—young and cheap.

Yet here was Chris Antonetti, making his Mark Shapiro/Bartolo Colon signature move, but only in reverse. This time it was the Indians giving up the prospects for the pitcher. Now the Indians fans have two new favorite hobbies, wondering when Ubaldo Jimenez will be traded in 2013 and watching how the careers of Alex White and Drew Pomeranz play out.

Actually, the Shapiro trade of Colon is instructive for evaluating this trade. The Indians did acquire three front line players—Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee and Brandon Phillips. But Lee and Phillips are long gone and Sizemore's career has been on the steady, injury-plagued decline for the last several years.

This proves the point of what fans should keep in mind about the trading of White and Pomeranz. Players are commodities to be used to buy other commodities. So much of the Indians' inability to pull of any trade of consequence in the last several years and move this franchise appreciably forward was a lack of such commodities. The real value of players isn't always what they do on the field but potentially what they can do on the field for someone else.

There's nothing fundamentally wrong with this trade, either. Jimenez has a track record, is tethered to the Indians rather cheaply for the next two seasons, and clearly fills a need in the pitching staff. (Ok, one small gripe. I hate trading for National League pitchers. They build a record, particularly an ERA, against teams with only 8 hitters in the lineup. They tend to struggle when they get to the American League.)

White and Pomeranz are hardly known quantities with absolutely no guarantee that either could develop even at the level of Jimenez let alone at the level of say, Lee or CC Sabathia. Prospects tend to be overvalued anyway because of their draft position though the correlation between draft position and productivity in baseball is only slightly better than the correlation between how many drinks you have and how funny/charming you become.

That's another way of saying that go back and look at every Indians number one pitching prospect in the last 25 years and ask yourself how many went on to great careers. Since 1985, the Indians have drafted 19 pitchers in the first round and only 4, Greg Swindell, Charles Nagy, Paul Schuey and CC Sabathia, could be said to have had decent to good careers. Remember Mike Poehl, Alan Horne, Jeff Mutis or Tim Drew? I didn't think so.

There's two points here and feel free to glom on to whichever one works for you. Pitchers are a mercurial breed who can't ever be counted on to develop like you think. Or, the Indians are lousy at drafting pitchers. Either way, it's hard to cry much over the loss of White or Pomeranz as if the Indians just re-traded Sabathia and Lee.

I'm glad the Indians made the trade and won't criticize them even if it doesn't work out in spectacular fashion. This franchise needed to show its fans and it did that it understood that the American League Central is weak this season and could be had for perhaps 85 wins.

But since the Antonetti started down the road it's a little disappointing that he didn't complete the journey. Having made this trade, Antonetti needed to finish the job of really getting this team in a position to make a run by getting that right handed bat the team so desperately needs. Without it, 85 wins could be a stretch which means that Jimenez, to his frustration, is probably in for a bunch of 2-1 and 1-0 losses.

**
Given the intersection of baseball and football in Cleveland this past week, here's this week's question to ponder: Which surprised you more, Montario Hardesty making it through his first practice without an injury of Ubaldo Jimenez passing his physical?