Thursday, March 29, 2012

Springsteen (and Little Steven) in Tampa

The first leg of Bruce Springsteen's latest tour, this time in support of his epic, land shaking, earth quaking, history making, album "Wrecking Ball" has barely started and already it is the stuff of legend.

Last Friday I had the opportunity to be in Tampa, Springsteen's only Florida at this point.  The back story to it is that I had to be in Florida on business and had the opportunity to hop over to Tampa in time for the show.  Through the good graces of The Rock and Roll Forever Foundation, started and supported by Little Steven, not to mention a sizable donation to it, I had the opportunity to meet Little Steven before the show.

He was quite the gracious host, considering we were within an hour of the kick off of the show.  Here's a photo:

After that we went on to witness a great show.  Springsteen is every bit as good now as he was 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago.  He enjoys performing as much as the audience enjoys watching and that's the secret behind the magic.  Here are two great moments from the show.

Talk to Me (a tour debut):

With the Trayvon Martin controversy still going strong in Florida, Springsteen broke out "American Skin" without comment.  A powerful moment that still resonates.  It lays no blame but underscores all the various factors that go into the making of this kind of tragedy, deeply held prejudices and perceptions crashing head on to a society that has been conditioned  by a political machinery to live in and respond to fear as a way of keeping its constituents loyal. Ultimately it makes the most salient point: "You get killed just for living in your American Skin."  As long as that continues to hold sway, we'll never fully progress as a society.  Here's the official video feed from "American Skin" in Tampa:

The next morning I headed to Newark on the early flight sitting in first class compliments of the good folks at United and the fact that I spend as much time in airplanes these days as I spend at home.  Seated next to me, oddly, grandly, was Little Steven, heading back home.  We talked briefly but it was clear he wanted to sleep and he did, for the entire flight.  It was a sleep well earned.

Luckily, the next stop on my own mini-tour is Madison Square Garden next Friday night.  It will be special, mostly because every Springsteen concert is special.  These moments, shared with the ones you love, are among that rare subset of things that makes life worth living.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Lingering Items--Mad Men Edition

The Cleveland Browns front office appears about as active as the writers for Mad Men were during their 18 month hiatus between seasons, which is to say not much.  A passive/aggressive internal dispute of sorts, a little progress on a few fringe players coming and going, a franchise tender signed with their kicker (and that speaks volumes about the lack of quality on this team overall, doesn’t it?) but mostly inactivity, at least publicly.

That doesn’t mean it is quiet behind the scenes.  Just like a good advertising campaign is the culmination of a number of rejected ideas, so too is the rebuilding strategy of a NFL franchise.  And if any NFL franchise has tried and failed at every manner of idea and concept, it’s the Browns. Maybe what it needs is a little help from Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce.

Indeed, if the Browns front office personnel had its counterparts at Sterling, Cooper, then club president Mike Holmgren would be Bert Cooper, walking around Berea in socks, sitting in conference rooms and waiting for meetings that won’t ever take place.  Occasionally he’d bitch about the old days and talk about greatness.  Meanwhile the ladder climbers like Pete Campbell, in the form of, say, Pat Shurmur, would be conducting meetings out of his sight. Then there’s Tom Heckert, hoping against hope that he can be this franchise’s Don Draper but resigned to being Peggy Olson, competent, ambitious in his own way but secretly contemplating his own worthiness as he looks for approval from his mentor. 

So as Cleveland’s own version of Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce try to take on the big guns like Young & Rubicam, or in this case the Pittsburgh Steelers as an example, they find themselves perpetually understaffed and often overmatched knowing that to be competitive they have to win by displaying more guile and a bit more cleverness, the occasional public silence belying the fevered pitch to get it right going on behind the scenes.

The problem with the Browns is that what they need most is what they lack most—Don Draper.  They lack the office rogue with the speculative background and prickliness to keep everyone moving in the same direction.  They lack that person who can reassure everyone inside their little club that it will work out because it usually does.

Heckert will never play the rogue but ultimately if he’s going to get close to being this team’s Don Draper, occasionally he’s going to have to actually pull a rabbit out of his hat at just the right time.  The upcoming draft would be a good time for that.

Like Don Draper contemplating a new approach for Conrad Hilton, Heckert is undoubtedly contemplating the multitude of draft scenarios and is even hinting now that the Browns could trade down a bit in order to get even more draft choices.  As a strategy that’s fine.  This team needs more help then Roger Sterling after an afternoon of pounding down martinis with Lucky Strike.  But this latest plot point coming on the heels of the failed pivot for Robert Griffin III does at time make one wonder if this team has lost control of its own narrative, like Richard Nixon in 1960.

All of this has left the fans frustrated and impatient, as if the Browns’ problems could actually be solved quickly, easily or cheaply.  This team took years to perfect a business model that could consistently produce 3 or 4 wins a season.  You think it’s easy to pivot off that into something that could even double that win total?  Have you not been watching all these years?

I’m actually not bothered by Heckert’s unwillingness to chase demons and fakers at the moment just as I’m not bothered by the seeming lack of direction at the moment.  There are good players out there, certainly, and when it comes to free agency all you’re really talking about is money.  What I was more bothered by was the pursuit of RG III that would have gutted this team of draft choices and otherwise still left it grasping at ways to score.
As much buzz as this season’s premier of Mad Men generated is nearly exactly the opposite of the buzz the Browns are generating at any level.

The other reality of this free agency season, at least as it’s practiced in Cleveland, is that the Browns aren’t exactly a hot market at the moment.  Money can and often does speak volumes and while most players will chase the last dollar, that doesn’t mean they’ll chase it in Cleveland. 
Players are competitive by nature and really do want to win even as they’re collecting a paycheck.  Right now, Cleveland doesn’t look like a place that’s poised to win anything substantial any time soon.  The Browns had no interest in Peyton Manning because he had no interest in them.  But he was hardly the only free agent to feel that way, which is another key reason why this off season has been so quiet.  It does take two to dance and right now the Browns and a few other teams are like students in the chess club being ignored by all the really good looking girls from Camp Mohawk.

We could have a healthy debate as to what position is the most critical need on this team but we all can agree that receiver is in the top two.  But it doesn’t help in the pursuit of free agent wide receivers when the club president and his general manager are out trying to swing a deal for a new quarterback and then come up short. If the front office isn’t publicly showing faith in Colt McCoy as the guy that can get this team in the end zone through the air on a consistent basis, why should a free agent feel any differently?  And more to the point, why should these free agents compromise their own productivity and hence their chances the next time free agency rolls around?  They won’t which is why they haven’t.

Whether or not a team, like an upstart Sterling, Cooper could be built through free agency isn’t a question that fans in Cleveland will have to ponder.  The Browns simply don’t have that opportunity and it isn’t about the money.  Right now it’s about reputation and the Browns don’t have one.  It’s why they can’t get the big clients.

So it’s the draft or bust, which Heckert and Holmgren have long since concluded.  It’s a slower process and no more or less certain than anything else.  But it’s all we have at the moment and all we’ll get.  In Cleveland patience isn’t a virtue so much as it’s the only choice.

Speaking of mad men, there are none madder then NFL commissioner Roger Goodell at the moment.  So incensed was he by the New Orleans Saints’ team sponsored bounty pool and head coach Sean Payton’s pathetic cover up attempt that he pushed Payton aside for an entire year, suspended the general manager for half a season and doled out enough fines to make even a billionaire owner in Tom Benson take pause.

If nothing else Goddell’s actions affirmatively answer the question as to which scandal was more serious—Spygate or Bountygate.  It was never much of a contest.
Professional football under the best of circumstances is violent at a level beyond which most others sports could ever contemplate.  If you watched, for example, ESPN’s recent interview with Jim McMahon, you start to get the idea of the sacrifice these players make in the name of entertainment.  Players talk tough when they’re young and paid to act like playing with pain is the ultimate badge of honor.  But the price they actually do pay in terms of a life of creaky knees, bent fingers, achy backs, scattered brains is nothing much to either be proud of or to joke about.

McMahon seems to live in a nice home, the fruits of the wages he was paid, but I got the feeling he’d trade that in a moment for a day in which his body didn’t ache and he could remember an hour after it was over what he had for breakfast.

The ranks of NFL retirees are literally filled with similar stories, which is why the NFL is facing so many lawsuits by so many retirees.  I don’t think there’s much merit to their lawsuits, but they do inform how Goodell must approach weasels like Payton.

 The implications to the league are grave.  Payton at best was deliberately ignorant of the bounty program that his defensive coordinator was running.  But the larger point is that because it was sanctioned by the management of a NFL team it exposes that team and the rest of the league to significant legal liability.

I find it almost comical to listen to Drew Brees defend Payton while simultaneously railing against NFL management for not doing more to keep the players safe.  I can’t tell whether Brees is clueless or stupid but it probably doesn’t matter.  His own teammates set out on a course to deliberately hurt fellow union members and all Brees seems to be concerned about is Payton.  That’s a fascinating turn of events in a very short period of time for such an allegedly staunch union advocate like Brees.

Another interesting aspect to the scandal is the near lack of publicity it’s gotten from ESPN in comparison to, say, the publicity the network gave to Ohio State’s tattoo problem.  I haven’t checked today but I suspect ESPN probably has a tattoo-related scandal posted somewhere on its web site. Yet the implications to the NFL, its integrity and its players from Bountygate are far more reaching then anything involving tattoos.

So much about most college scandals derive from the collision between the NCAA’s antiquated and unfair treatment of so called student athletes and the billions that its sports generate.  Ultimately though these are victimless crimes.  But the scandal in New Orleans claimed plenty of victims, including players who got carted off the field because they suffered at the hands of deliberate intent.  It’s not unfair to suggest, either, that the recent successes of the Saints, including their Super Bowl victory, are every bit as tainted, if not more so, then the successes realized by college teams caught in the NCAA’s nets.

But maybe are tolerance for scandal at this point is so high that we are no longer moved by much.  If that’s the case, then there’s no question that it’s the seeds we’ve sown for becoming so emotionally involved in the fleeting triumphs and defeats to the teams and programs that we follow.
All this talk of Mad Men leads me to this week’s question to ponder: who is a worse mother, Betty Draper or Gloria James?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Never Building, Always Rebuilding

Cleveland: a city where the skies are grey, the sports teams are consistently rebuilding and the front offices are always saying the same thing.

At about the exact same time that Cavaliers general manager Chris Grant was explaining why the Cavs traded away an opportunity to get into the playoffs now for an opportunity to get into the playoffs later, Browns’ president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert were offering similar reasons when explaining to season ticket holders why not doing anything now will give them a better opportunity to do something later.

The Cavs on Thursday traded Ramon Sessions to the Los Angeles Lakers in order to acquire another first round draft pick.  That gives them seven first round picks over the next four years, which is less impressive then it sounds since the NBA draft is but two rounds.  Still, the Cavs also have four of the first 40 picks in the next NBA draft.  So to the extent that the next draft is deep, the Cavs legitimately benefit by acquiring 10% of the 40 best players available.

Of course the key is to make the correct pick at each particular slot and when you hold anything other than the first or second pick of the draft, pick a sport, it becomes more and more of a crap shoot.  But putting that bit of mystery aside for the moment, the bigger story revolves around the conscious decision by Grant not to make a playoff run this season.

Grant couched it in terms of making the best decisions for the team right now and for the future because in Cleveland the future always holds more promise than the present.  Yet Grant isn’t necessarily off base, as odd as that seems on the surface.

In the NBA, hell isn’t reserved for those teams missing the playoffs.  It’s reserved for those who just make the playoffs.  The bottom feeders get in the lottery.  The next tier gets the few extra bucks a playoff series brings in exchange for a near perpetual invitation to the NBA’s version of the Jetsons’ treadmill.

The only way off that crazy thing and onto a the upper tiers where the real contenders hang out and drink Cristal while reciting lines from Party X is to spend big in free agency.  The draft isn’t going to be any help.  But even if you’re Pat Riley and notwithstanding the antics of players like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, spending in free agency just isn’t as easy as it used to be. 
The NBA’s rules, further enhanced by their new collective bargaining agreement, make it far more lucrative for free agents to re-sign with their own team.  The players that move tend to be on the back sides of careers and are usually a missing piece or two and not, say, a centerpiece.  

The problem is that these bottom run playoff teams, particularly those at the very bottom, are generally more than a missing piece away.  They usually have fundamental issues.
The Cavs illustrate the point.  They are only a few games out of a playoff spot right now but does anyone really think that this team could either a) do anything exciting in the playoffs or b) improve the team by ending up with a worse position in the next draft? 

That’s essentially the point that Grant made yesterday in talking about the Sessions trade.  In language that will sound hauntingly familiar in a moment, he talked about the need to build for the future and that such building can be a slow process.  It takes time to work your way through the next two or three drafts and to find the right pieces to complement what you already have.

It’s a story, even if true, that we’ve heard over and over before.

But in the kind of synchronicity that underscores the nature of professional sports in this town, if you had your eyes closed and just listened, Grant’s words were almost word for word what Holmgren and Heckert were telling their beleaguered season ticket holders and with roughly the same effect.

The news out of the conference call getting all the run was Holmgren’s furled brow and chafed backside over coming up short on moving up to the second pick of the draft so that the team could draft Robert Griffin III.  Apparently Holmgren doesn’t like hearing himself criticized on local radio.  He felt the team made a spirited run but were done in by what was mostly an inside job between friends, you know sort of like when Bob Lamonte steers all of his clients toward the Browns and not other teams.

Holmgren’s words were not without subtext.  Heckert told the media a week ago that fans shouldn’t get amped up like a college kid on Red Bull over the prospect of any big name free agent signings.  That meant no quarterback (enjoy the sun, Matt Flynn, this generation’s Kelly Holcomb) and no front line receiver.  What it did mean was some spare parts, akin to the kind the Indians tend to sign in their version of free agency, who could add depth to a sport where the lack thereof all but kills any playoff chances.

I’m all for bench strength, but the Browns have a plethora of bench strength, assuming you relegate most of the current starters to the bench in favor of legitimate starters.  It’s something Heckert and Holmgren know but cannot say.  So instead they talk about the long haul, about building methodically, about their future days in the sun and a plea again to be patient.

Truthfully, who would have expected anything different and what choice is there anyway?
That means, of course, that the Browns now have to pivot back to Colt McCoy and in a bit of damage control, Holmgren and Heckert  then took to rebuilding his psyche by claiming with straight faces that they think he’s just fine as a quarterback, has a high ceiling (coachspeak for potential)and that if they could just get him some better players, things will be fine.

If you’re starting to see a circular nature to all of this, you aren’t alone.  But it’s that circular nature that is at the core of the entire fan experience.  The only thing worse than not winning it all is winning it all.  The pressure on the Green Bay Packers to repeat as Super Bowl champs was so much so that an otherwise wildly successful year, particularly if measured against any season in Cleveland, ends up mostly in disappointment and despair in Green Bay.

What keeps fans as fans is the eternal hope that things indeed will one day be better, even if fleeting.  So Grant, Holmgren and Heckert mine that tract repeatedly knowing that if they can suck the fans into tomorrow, they’ll still buy tickets today.

I’m not bothered by the underlying cynicism of it all because this sort of back and forth with the fans’ emotions and expectations is the grist for the mill of professional sports.  

But let’s face it, Grant can maneuver like JLo in a Pepsi commercial but he’s not going to be able to move the needle nearly as much as he’d like us to believe.  In the NBA, the rebuild process is about 10 years, minimum.  That seems impossible to believe given the relatively small rosters, but their entire system precludes a quick turnaround.  The rewards go to the truly patient.  

Once in awhile a player like James comes around and there’s a chance to shorten the time frame, but even then not significantly.  As much as one player should make a difference in the NBA is as much as one player rarely makes that big of difference in the NBA.  That James came to the conclusion that he couldn’t win a NBA title on his own sooner than Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant came to that conclusion underscores that fact.

You have Grant talking about taking a methodical approach over the next few years as a sort of implied promise that he’ll buck historical trends and get this team in the NBA Finals sooner if not soon.  Don’t count on it.  Even with clever drafting, the Cavs won’t find themselves lounging in the penthouse for years.

At Cleveland Browns stadium, the odds are weirdly much better for a faster turnaround, all results of the team’s operations for the last decade notwithstanding.  In the NFL, teams are constantly turning at least 1/3 of their rosters a year, sometimes more as they build around a core that was created through good drafting.

It’s not the system that’s kept the Browns down.  It’s been the Browns.  Too many incompetents at too many levels for too many years are the reason this team can’t improve.  If Heckert and Holgrem can buck that trend, then the system will reward their efforts far more quickly than the system will reward Grant and the Cavs.

That’s another reason Holmgren’s pursuit of Griffin is so puzzling.  I understand the notion that if there’s a once-in-a-lifetime player, you do all you can to grab him, which is why apparently the Browns pursued RGIII in the first place.  But in truth the team is better off with actually doing what Holmgren and Heckert now seem resigned to do: surround McCoy with better talent by using all of those high draft picks they’ve cultivated over the last few years.  It’s what the system wants and what the system needs.

The only hiccup, and it’s a big one, is that the Browns have so many holes to fill that there simply aren’t enough high draft picks to go around.  That’s why the Browns being content to sign the Frostee Ruckers of the world is likewise so puzzling.  The Browns don’t have to sign a guy like Mario Williams and bust the cap.  But they do have to do something meaningful and it will only cost them money and not their blood.

Holmgren gave his crowd one last bit of red meat to chew on and that was the notion that incremental improvement next season, like a 6-10 record for instance, is not going to be satisfactory.  That sounded good, too.  But until he oversees a front office that’s not satisfied moving at the current snail’s pace, he better start getting next year’s speech ready because he’ll have to explain to an even more skeptical season ticket base exactly how a 6-10 record was part of the plan all along.

Monday, March 12, 2012

A Position of Strength and Weakness

In football as in life, it’s always best to deal from a position of strength. The corollary is likewise true: it’s never best to deal from a position of weakness. But as bad as that may be, it’s always worse to deal from a position of weakness that is contrived, which is why the Washington Redskins’ stupefying trade for the rights to presumably draft Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III is so, well, stupefying.

The Redskins, like much of the NFL frankly, wanted an upgrade at quarterback. Believing that Griffin is the next coming of fill-in-the-blank, the Redskins over exaggerated their need to the point where they made a deal unlike anything the NFL has seen since Mike Ditka traded away every one of his draft picks in order to obtain Ricky Williams. Does anyone remember how that worked out?

When desperation meets stupidity, bad things often happen to a franchise.

You could analyze the trade in every conceivable way but keeping it simple illustrates how completely dumb Redskins owner Dan Snyder really is. It’s something we’ve known for years but still appreciate the occasional reminder.

If you believe, as most likely do, that RGIII is a better quarterback prospect then Sam Bradford, the St. Louis Rams’ quarterback, then the case could have and should have been made that the Rams should have held on to the pick and traded Bradford, a fine prospect with some significant but not RGIII-caliber market value.

But the Rams, knowing that good is good enough at quarterback in the NFL, felt it was far better to stand pat with the quarterback already in the fold and work from a position of strength by picking the pocket of the addle-brained Snyder. It kept them from having to perform the more complicated calculus of building around RGIII, who would have arrived with the same sort of limitations that (along with injuries) plagued Bradford last season, namely a flimsy supporting cast.

As it is, the Rams now have 5 first round picks in the next 3 drafts, courtesy of the Redskins. Even for teams with mediocre drafting ability, those kinds of odds bode well for creating massive improvement, particularly when compared to the work the Redskins will have to do without the benefit of decent draft choices in the next several years.

Just watch how much better Bradford suddenly will get with blue chip talent around him.

I’m sure that Snyder mollified himself with the bromide that if RGIII is who they think he is, the first round picks he gave up will be late in the first round anyway and hence less valuable. Could be, but let’s remember, they’re still first round picks, which always trumps them being second round picks.

The Redskins end up with RGIII (presumably) and now will have to overpay in the free agent market over the next few years if they are to have any hope in creating a credible support system for their new asset. And let’s just be charitable and say that under Snyder, the Redskins have participated in the free agent market with disastrous results. If we were being unvarnished, we’d point out that the reason Snyder is so disrespected as an owner has everything to do with the ridiculous bets he’s made in free agency. Another column for another day, I suppose.

On most days the malfunctioning of Snyder’s stupidity alarm would be the top story in the NFL. Right now, though, it’s competing with storylines involving a handful of other quarterbacks, such as Matt Flynn, Peyton Manning and perhaps Tim Tebow for adequate air time. That’s because teams like the Browns, who made a spirited push for the draft’s second pick, are impacted by all the other machinations involving quarterbacks, including the bonehead move the Redskins just made.

All this demonstrates once again that left tackles are prized and speedy wide receivers are coveted, quarterbacks are still the most important assets in the NFL. But even as the most prized, their value has a limit.

When Browns’ general manager Tom Heckert decided not to pull the trigger on giving up both of this year’s first round picks in order to be able to draft Griffin, it served as a reminder that the only way to cultivate the most important asset in the NFL, you have to surround him with adequate weapons. As important as the quarterback is, he’s not so important as to sacrifice the rest of the offense.

It means, too, that Heckert likely reached the same conclusion of McCoy that St. Louis reached of Bradford. Good often is good enough.

It’s amazing, really, how good or bad a quarterback can be based on the players around him. McCoy hasn’t yet sold himself to Heckert, Mike Holmgren or head coach Pat Shurmur. But it’s pretty clear that McCoy’s done enough to keep Heckert from having to deal from a position of complete weakness in trying to craft an acceptable trade for the Rams. Limits do get drawn and Heckert, far better than someone like Snyder, understands that constructing a good team has much in common with completing a 1000 piece jig saw puzzle then it does in finding one corner piece.

Heckert, in just two seasons, has demonstrated that his ability to draft good, solid football players eclipses any other who’s held a similar role with the Browns in the last 12 years, at least. Granted, it’s not a high bar he’s had to scale, but he’s scaled it nonetheless.

The fact that Heckert set a reasonable price to trade up for RGIII and then wisely got out when Snyder went all in is reason enough to continue to trust that Heckert is doing the right things for this franchise now and for the next several years to come.

Heckert is correct, for example, when he underscores the simple fact that free agency is no way to build and sustain a football team. There are gaps that can and should get filled but it’s rarely done by overpaying for a superstar.

Yet if Heckert had made that trade, he would have been forced to dip deeply perhaps in the free agency pool to get Griffin a viable supporting cast. It wouldn’t have been a one and done dip in that pool, either, but a sustained effort for the next few seasons in order to bridge the gap created by surrendering so many draft picks in the first place. That gets expensive fast and hasn't proved to be successful for any team, including those aforementioned Redskins.

This is what brings it all back around to Snyder. The NFL has watched in both horror and amusement as Snyder has run the Redskins franchise in the ground for a variety of reasons, including one imprudent free agent acquisition after another.

Indeed the case could be made that the Redskins were so desperate to get Griffin because of all the personnel screw ups they’ve made in the last several years. Yet here they go again, seemingly covering up one mistake while simultaneously opening up new holes.

It reminds me of when the Texas Rangers and owner Tom Hicks signed Alex Rodriguez to a contract worth in excess of $250 million. Unencumbered by a salary cap, Hicks went all in and then spent what he didn't have without even stopping to consider two important points. Rodriguez couldn’t play all 9 positions at once and it takes even more money to surround Rodriguez with enough talent to actually win a World Series. Hicks more than demonstrated that an endless bankroll does indeed have an end.

It’s not an accident that the Rangers got better after they unloaded Rodriguez on the Yankees. And it won’t be an accident when Snyder wakes up some time in the next few years and realizes that he was a tad impetuous when he mortgaged his team’s future for one player. That will probably come when his fortune dwindles and he's forced to sell the team like a junior Art Modell.

RGIII has every chance to be a very special player in the NFL. But there isn’t a scenario where it would have made sense for the Browns to match the Redskins’ offer or, God forbid, better it for the Heisman Trophy winner. The Browns are far more likely to get better faster without Griffin then with him, at least at the price he would have cost both directly and indirectly.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Another Masterpiece

Bruce Springsteen has just released his 17th album and he can't seem to get much love. For reasons of both outsized expectations and abject misunderstanding, a number of critics and fans are at the least unenthusiastic about the release. It's not the first time so many will be on the wrong side of history. It's not as if the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was unopposed.

Wrecking Ball isn't an accomplishment on the level of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, certainly. But in the long and tortured history of art and artists, it's an epic accomplishment that history most assuredly will eventually hail as one of the key pillars in the career of one of America's most accomplished, most respected, most talented rock musician of all time.

I'm not so much interested in reviewing Wrecking Ball on its own merits. There are those better suited to that sort of thing then me. But I am interested in having a conversation about Wrecking Ball and its rightful place in contemporary music.

Given Springsteen's age and iconic status, I rather doubt that this album will receive airplay, if that's even a concept these days. My interaction with terrestrial radio mimics most of the rest of society these days, which is to say that it's not much. It's still the best place for news on the hour and traffic reports when you're stuck bmper to bumper on the interstate, but as an abiding outlet for the discovery of music, it's usefulness has long been supplanted by any number of other options. So airplay as a goal seems so 1982, doesn't it?

Where music is heard and experienced these days is far more a function of social media. But even at that, I don't see the majority of Facebook or Twitter users or whatever equivalent platform someone is using these days giving much buzz to the album. Whatever else Springsteen may be, he's not Adele.

It's way too late for Springsteen to be the next flavor of the month anyway, not that he ever made any effort in that regard. So the album will be experienced if at all by those who deliberately seek it out. And those who seek it out will be prodded often by the reviews they read about it. In that sense, getting the review correct carries a fair amount of responsibility.

Most of the negative reviews focus on the simple: The lyrics and themes seem too familiar, almost cliché. The melodies aren't interesting. The production is boring, strange, weird take your pick. And if I have to hear one more pennywhistle, just shoot me.

In some sense, the lyrics and themes may be familiar but that is because Springsteen, particularly in the last 10-15 years, has become much more familiar. Early in his career he was media shy. During the last two presidential elections, he was everywhere. He gives plenty of interviews where lazy reporters/journalists/entertainers ask the questions he's answered already. If you don't know where Springsteen stands then you deliberately aren't listening.

When Springsteen talks about the distance between the American Dream and the American Reality, we have heard it before. It's what's on his mind. That he would push his art in that direction shouldn't be a surprise. That's what artists should do. In that context it makes the “lyrics and themes” argument silly.

At the same time, what these reviewers consistently have missed is how Springsteen can take those familiar themes and personalize and localize them in a way that he hasn't quite done before. For example, the desperate two-bit criminal in Easy Money may at first blush not seem all that different from the desperate two-bit criminal in Highway 29 from The Ghost of Tom Joad album. But on further review they couldn't be more different.

In Highway 29, there's no sense of that criminal's motivation. In some sense he's a continuation of the theme first developed in Nebraska that there's just a meanness in this world. But you also get the sense that he robbed the bank not out of desperation as much as boredom. He was a thrill seeker who had picked up a girl in a shoe store and off they went.

The criminal in Easy Money is acting out of both desperation and defiance. He didn't just watch but lived the picking of his pockets at the hands of forces he couldn't control and decided to turn the paradigm on its head. He figures “why shouldn't I do what's been do to me?” “Why can't I grab what I need when a banker can gut the financial system and send the economy into a near death spiral and get away in plain sight?” It's a far different question that Springsteen is trying to pose even if the theme seems familiar. Can there be morality in a more honest, direct crime?

That's true, frankly, of every song on Wrecking Ball. I could listen to Jack of All Trades 10,000 times and have my heart broken each and every time. The melody is incredibly simple, yes, and amazingly effective. The narrator expresses the thoughts we've all had at one time or another. Who hasn't said that they would flip burgers if that's the only work left and you had a family to feed? Well, the narrator isn't just faced with the prospect in theory. He walks the street every day in search of work only to come home empty handed to a wife that's growing increasingly worried. What can he do but reassure her that everything will be all right? Can he? Will it?

Springsteen has said that this is his most direct album he's ever written but in typical Springsteen fashion, I suspect that statement has been misinterpreted. On many songs over many albums, Springsteen's point of view can be far more ambiguous. A song like 41 Shots, for example, if written for Wrecking Ball might have taken more of a position then it does. But it's just this gift for ambiguity, of understanding that there are more then just a few points to any story, that's made Springsteen such an effective songwriter for so many years.

While the points of view on each song on Wrecking Ball may be far more direct, they don't lack for nuance. Who exactly is the narrator of Rocky Ground? It could be any number of people—a priest, a parishioner, a man on death row-- and it still works. What about We Are Alive? Are those the ghosts of heroes past, who fought the other wars worth fighting, talking or are they just the thoughts that are in our heads?

I just don't buy the view that Springsteen is mining familiar ground instead of breaking new. Indeed, you don't have to look all that hard to see the new ground broken on this album. That's what makes this such an astonishing accomplishment for a songwriter as prolific as Springsteen. He still has something new to say and something worth saying despite a career that's spanned 45 or so years at this point.

Then there's the argument that as a soundtrack for the Occupy Wall Street movement, the album falls short of capturing the sentiment. This line of thought suffers from a faulty premise or, as we say in the legal business, from facts not in evidence.

On a basic level, three of the songs precede the Occupy Wall Street movement. From that standpoint alone it could hardly be said it's purpose was to give voice to the cacophony emanating from that movement. But I suspect it never occurred to Springsteen to try and give voice to that movement in the first place. Rather, this work is borne out of the same set of circumstances that gave rise to the movement. In that sense, it's at best intended as a companion piece and not a 5,000 foot observation.

Maybe the real problem for certain reviewers is that Springsteen didn't try to give voice to Occupy Wall Street like Dylan and others gave voice to the Viet Nam protest movement. God knows it could have used it. The Occupy Wall Streeters had a real opportunity to create a viable counterpoint to the Tea Party nabobs but blew it out of an abiding sense that there was more virtue in being disorganized. Their message got diffused and derided not because it wasn't valid but because it wasn't coherent. There's a real and palpable frustration still with an economy that is too slow in recovery and a government that is too cynical to act. It's a movement that should have a voice and here's hoping it finds one. But to blame Springsteen for not stepping forward to fill that void or, worse, to assume he has and then fell short, is an unfair burden and clouds the judgment.

At its core, Wrecking Ball is both a product of these times and of all times. When this album is still celebrated decades from now, some enterprising types will dig up some of these old reviews and shake their heads and laugh at the foolishness. Art is often best appreciated in retrospect so there is precedent.

But there's no reason not to enjoy the gift that's here and now, those opinions aside. Wrecking Ball is a gift that will keep on giving even if the jaded among us are too hip to notice.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Lingering Items--Bounty Hunter Edition

The NFL, which is no stranger to scandal anyway, has another full fledged problem on its hands. After taking longer to investigate the New Orleans Saints’ bounty system then the Warren Commission took to investigate the assassination of the John F. Kennedy, the NFL concluded what had long been assumed anyway. NFL players are motivated by money to the point that they'd injure their opponents for more of it.

But the subtle subversion of the salary cap system, not to mention the tax laws, by paying defensive players to injure opposing players, is the least of the NFL’s problems. Far more of a problem is the pending lawsuits from dozens of former players who are claiming that the NFL did little to protect them from concussions and how these revelations play into that.

It’s one thing for a group of defensive players to pool their money and reward each other for particularly vicious hits. It’s a whole other matter when the activity was institutionally sponsored, as it appeared it was in New Orleans. That kind of thing tends to get the attention of plaintiffs lawyers.

And if this kind of unofficially official activity was present elsewhere around the league, and there seems to be evidence that it was, how can the NFL adequately defend itself from allegations that it was doing its level best to protect the players from unnecessary injuries?

The “Spygate” incident was a public relations nightmare for the NFL but it wasn’t team sponsored assaults on opposing players. But this Bountygate business creates a boatload of legal issues for the NFL just as it’s trying to defend itself from claims that it looked the other way as players came up lame over the years.

Gregg Williams, the defensive coordinator for the Saints in 2009, the year in which this activity appears to have peaked, has acknowledged that he oversaw this “reward” system not just in New Orleans but pretty much everywhere else he’s coached. That may tell you plenty about what a lousy coach Williams really is, but it also tells you plenty about why certain ex-players, those still suffering from the effects of all those concussions for example, feel the way they do about the league.

Williams may be portrayed as just some rogue coach and if I’m the NFL’s lawyers, I’m arguing just that. But the fact remains that Williams was a member of his team’s management and he had the power if not to fire players directly, to effectively recommend them for that fate. If Williams is telling players to injure opponents and is paying them to do it, what choice does a player have not to participate?

If you follow the Twitter feeds of NFL players, it’s been an interesting few days. Just as they did for James Harrison, you have a number of players defending the Saints' actions as just a part of the game. That should be expected, mainly because many players aren’t particularly deep thinkers.

But just as there are those that see this as no big deal, there are plenty that feel differently and I suspect most of them go by another name, “plaintiff.” They’re the ones suing the league who now have powerful evidence in the form of the league’s own report to help make their case.

The NFL knows it has a problem on its hands and though it should be given credit for announcing the results publicly, the low key approach to this situation as compared to its bombastic response to “Spygate” is directly attributable to the vast difference between the two situations.

“Spygate” was incredibly stupid and overblown. The NFL acted as if stealing another team’s signals, which is at the heart of the allegations, impacted the integrity of the game, despite the fact that no one gives a second thought, let alone raises integrity issues, when baseball does the same thing night after night.

“Bountygate” on the other hand spells real trouble for the NFL and they know it. Because the NFL can’t look as if it condones sponsored violence, except of the more typical variety for which it charges fans a small ransom, it will come down much harder on the Saints and their management then they did on the Patriots and its management in Spygate. Expect significant loss of draft picks and significant fines. If Williams is allowed to coach in the NFL this coming season, it will be a miracle.

The NFL really has no other choice. If it is ever going to defend itself against accusations that it is not indifferent to player injuries, it actually has to not be indifferent to player injuries.

When the Browns allowed Colt McCoy back on the field without adequately checking whether he was still functioning adequately, it didn't help the league's cause. But that was a mostly isolated incident. Long term sponsorship of brutal, incentivized head-hunting is a whole different matter. And the fact that it took this long for the NFL to root it out doesn't much help their cause either.


There's a local angle to this Bountygate and it involves one of the team's best defensive players, the self-aggrandizing Scott Fujita.

As reported initially by Sports Illustrated's Peter King, Fujita is more than implicated in Bountygate. According to King, Fujita was one of a handful of Saints defensive players to pledge between $2,000 and $10,000 to the overall bounty pool, something Fujita both admits and denies. Yes to the pool, no to the whole injury aspect of the pool.

While King talks about all the good Fujita has done for Steve Gleason, a former player suffering from ALS as well as the work put Fujita put in on the NFL’s labor council, that doesn’t lessen the gravity of Fujita’s involvement here. If anything, it enhances it.

Fujita, who railed against the NFL this past offseason for all manner of sins, including what he termed was its lack of concern over safety issues, is nothing if not a hypocrite. While he was chidling the NFL for its approach, he knew full well that he was accomplice in it, not so much because he was a hard-nosed player but because he allegedly sanctioned with his own money bounty hunting on opposing players.

Off the field and completely away from football, Fujita may be a wonderful sort. But on it or near it is a different story. What we really know about Fujita in that regard is that he’s not just a hypocrite. He’s a phony. At no point did Fujita come to Colt McCoy’s defense publicly when James Harrison deliberately tried to sever his head. Instead Fujita took to criticizing team management and NFL brass for not having good enough procedures in place to deal with concussions, ignoring the fact that McCoy’s concussion was completely preventable. Maybe Fujita supported McCoy behind the scenes. I hope so. But given Fujita’s apparent role in Bountygate, his not backing McCoy publicly at the expense of Harrison now makes far more sense.

Screaming about solutions when you're part of the problem isn't the best recipe for success. But there's more.

We also know that Fujita isn’t just a hypocrite and a phony. He’s also a coward. During the heat of the NFL’s labor dispute, Fujita had his wife “write” (most likely ghostwrite) a column for The Nation in which she excoriated NFL owners for exploiting the players as mere pawns in a game of high commerce. (See my column here on this subject) She railed about their relative indifference to the care these fat cats showed for injured players to underscore her point.

Maybe she wrote those eloquent words without knowing that her own husband was effectively undermining her arguments by allegedly helping to incent his co-workers to injure opponents through whatever means possible, late hits or cheap hits be damned. But Fujita let his wife publish those comments knowing full well his role in all of this, which is a pretty cowardly act for a guy who paints himself as one of the NFL’s tough guys.

There is much that can and should be done to reduce injuries in the NFL. As much as I love the game, it’s frustrating each year to see teams decimated by injuries. Playoffs and Super Bowls increasingly aren’t won by the best teams but the least injured. So purely from an entertainment value, the quality of the NFL’s product is repeatedly compromised by the absence of so many players nursing injuries.

But the far bigger concern is the lingering effects of those injuries. You need only to meet retired players to understand how all those hits add up to permanent damage. It may be the mentality of NFL players that injuries are part of the game and must be endured. But is it really the mentality of NFL players that unnecessary injuries are a part of the game?

And while the primary obligation may fall on the NFL to find the best ways to reduce injuries, through a combination of technology and rules, it’s all for naught when players find ways around it just to earn a few extra bucks from a bounty pool.

If it turns out that Fujita actively participated in this system while in New Orleans, he should be punished and I wouldn’t care if it were for an entire season. The near term hit to the Browns is worth it if it brings this kind of activity to an end.

Indeed, if it does turn out the Fujita was one of the ringleaders, then considering that the Browns are trying to rebuild with better players of higher character, cutting Fujita would certainly qualify as addition by subtraction.

With the Bountygate scandal is expanding to other teams, this weeks’ question to ponder: Given the relatively weak performances by past Browns defenses, is it possible their was an organized effort within the Browns to pay players for deliberately trying not to hurt opposing players?