The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
NFL arbitrator Stephen Burbank pleasantly surprised me Wednesday when he upheld the Saints’ use of the tight end franchise tag on Jimmy Graham. The immediate effect of the decision is that the Saints do not have to scramble and rework contracts or terminate players in order to make up the $5.3 million difference between the tight end tag and the wide receiver tag, which Graham coveted. The reason Burbank’s decision surprised me was that arbitrators are usually attorneys or former judges who often rely on language or precedent which limit their flexibility of reason when other factors might suggest another decision.
Specifically, Graham and his attorneys from the NFL Players Association argued that the current Collective Bargaining Agreement specifically states that a player must be franchised at the position "at which the Franchise player participated in the most plays during the prior League Year." Obviously, this provision was adopted so a nefarious club executive could not franchise a star quarterback at placekicker money. However, the lines between the tight end and wide receiver positions have blurred over the years through the increased creativity of NFL offensive schemers.
For example, the Saints in my day had two tight ends, Hoby Brenner and John Tice, who were more like extra offensive tackles. They were of great benefit in the running game, but were not much threat in the passing game. However, as Charles Darwin suggested, evolution can really screw up tradition! Today’s tight ends are often bigger and certainly faster than your father’s tight ends, and they are often the go-to weapon in modern offenses. Graham’s skills, speed and ability to outjump defenders make him an ideal poster boy for the tight end evolutionary chart.
What I feared from arbitrator Burbank was a literal reading of the CBA and that, yep, he would rule that Graham lined up more often as a “wide receiver.” If Burbank had ruled so, chaos would have rippled through the League like a wave cheer at the World Cup. Such tight ends as Rob Gronkowski and Vernon Davis would demand their contracts be renegotiated to the higher standard. Graham did line up either in the slot or out wide on 67 percent of his snaps last year, but Burbank agreed with the Saints and the NFL Management Council on the evolution of the position.
The tight end position has always involved a combination of splitting out wide to run pass routes and staying in to block. Burbank determined that Graham was officially lining up at the position of tight end either when he was close to his line or when he was flexed out into the slot "at least if such alignment brought him within four yards of (the nearest offensive) lineman." Burbank wisely said he only considered those plays because evidence showed Graham was lined up within four yards of the line on more than 50 percent of his snaps. Burbank determined it wasn't essential for purposes of the grievance to consider snaps where Graham lined up farther out.
As an interesting aside, one of Burbank's former subjects inadvertently gave a signal last weekend that I read to mean the arbitrator would rule in the club’s favor. Incredibly, Drew Brees admitted he had spoken with Burbank and had been told of the decision in advance. If true, that’s not good form for a neutral arbitrator, but Brees followed that revelation with a diplomatic comment that whichever way the ruling lands, both sides should get together on a contract. If Graham had won, I doubt Drew would have been that diplomatic.
So where do they go from here? If you look at the Brees grievance in a similar franchise tag dispute, Brees won and then dilly dallied on a contract until becoming the league’s highest paid QB just before training camp. Look for the same to happen in Graham's situation, although this time around the Saints have the leverage. They could lock up Graham for two straight years with the franchise tag at salaries of $7.053 million this year and $8.46 million in 2015. Of course, Graham could refuse to sign the tenders and hold out of training camp, but that would be bluster. When your team is prepared to make you the highest-paid player at your position, then you eventually sign their deal. And so will Graham.
I have this friend who is such a basic sports fanatic that I call him “Coach.” You probably know him. He’s the guy who walks up to you and throws out a non-sequitur that has nothing to do with anything in your sphere of interest, but exposes the fact that you didn’t watch the same college football spring game that he did. That’s not intended to reflect a fault as much as it is a fact of living amid various denominations of the church of football.
I saw him this week, and his opening comment to me was “Man, there is nothing going on now!” I had to think about that for a moment, especially in a week when the Essence Festival and Rev. Al Sharpton will be sucking up all the media interest in our little backwater, but I knew what he meant. He meant that nothing of a basic sporting nature was going on that would interest him. I emphasize the word “basic,” because in these parts that word carries a very tight spiral of specific definition. For those sporting fans who are more eclectic in their tastes, there is a lot going on, but for the aficionado of “basic” sports, like Coach, the time between the NFL off-season workouts and the opening of college and pro practices, is indeed, the Slow Season.
Coach probably has noticed that much attention is being paid to this thing called the World Cup which is just about the coolest thing in most of the world, but he knows that Americans who profess excitement about the USA’s progress are more patriotic Americans than soccer fans. They would have cheered the USA just as avidly in a donkey basketball tournament. His point was brought home to me last week when my rather pithy column about the USA’s advancing to the World Cup’s Round of 16 drew the lowest click-in rate of any column in the four years I've been doing this thing. That is explainable since my audience consists of followers of “basic” sports, like Coach.
I would like to inform him that a lot has happened in the sporting community since the end of off-season NFL workouts, but his response might be a glassy stare. The NBA had its annual tournament, but not all basic fans like pro basketball, especially since the Pelicans have not made the playdowns in several years. The NHL was contending Lord Stanley’s Cup at the same time, but ice is for cooling a beverage, and Coach never mentioned it. There was a flurry of interest around the Triple Crown, but, like Napoleon at Waterloo, California Chrome was exposed as mere mortal in the Belmont Stakes. Anyway, I think that was the weekend that Coach went to the beach. Of course, baseball is going on at this time of year. And on, and on and on, but since the Red Sox shaved, the so-called National Game hasn’t sustaining Coach’s interest. I would not dare ask him if he had heard the latest scores from Wimbledon this week or who he liked in the upcoming British Open.
Maybe Coach has a point. This time of year is just a No Man’s Land for the basic sporting fan. NFL camps don’t open for another month. Drew Brees and his kids are probably still in Maui, and Les Miles is sticking pins in his Nick Saban doll. After all, in late June and July, Death Valley is not a stadium in Baton Rouge. It reflects a desert of disinterest for the local basic sports fan.
I watched the USA and Germany Thursday in the World Cup, and the “beautiful game” is becoming increasingly clear to me. I learned that in World Cup you don’t have to win the game to keep playing. The USA lost to Germany 1-0, but they advanced because Portugal beat Ghana, knocking them both out of the tournament. That is because point differential, the 32nd tie-breaker in the NFL playoff format, is the most important factor in World Cup soccer.
The Yanks, with their 2-1, 2-2 and 0-1 scores in their three Cup matches, have a point differential of Zero which is slightly less than Eric Gordon's scoring average but better than both Ghana and Portugal, the latter of whom tied the USA over the weekend. Speaking of which, that goal was not scored in regulation time, but in something called “stoppage time” which, soccer fans can correct me here, is an arbitrary number based on obscure factors such as alleged injuries that occur during the game. I learned this is important. If you watch the game closely, you learn that every touch, most of which would be ignored as “incidental contact” by an NFL referee, is treated like a career-ending injury. World Cup players are encouraged to embellish every contact with an opponent to draw a penalty. In a year that college basketball instructed its officials to ignore flops and faux fouls on charges, World Cup players are avid practitioners of the maneuver. It's sort of like taking charge by taking a charge. Other contact is often subtle, like a pin-your-arms-back grab from behind that would do any NFL cornerback proud.
All this clarity did not come in the first half of the match. In fact, my attitude has been that watching soccer is not like watching basketball, but more like watching baseball. On Valium. After three Makers/rocks. FIFA might as well have been another government agency, like FEMA. However, FIFA obviously did not deal in disaster assistance, because there was little damage done in the scoreless first half. I felt sorry for ESPN host Bob Ley, who was attempting to make the scoreless first half entertaining. When he informed us he was going to show the “highlights” of the first half, he did not mean a Kawhi Leonard dunk or a Big Papi blast into upper ether. He showed the rain-soaked USA fans and two or three missed shots and a lot of on-field keep-away until he showed one true highlight that captured my attention: Video of U.S. and German allies watching the match together in Camp Marmal, Afghanistan. That was cool!
The second half appeared to be more of the same until Germany scored the game’s only goal in the 55th minute of play. Then it was more keep-away that had me looking for other tidbits of interest. The USA’s Kyle Beckerman needs a haircut. Teammate Michael Bradley needs hair. I wished I could read lips in German, because Coach Joachim Loew, a dead-ringer for Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura, was spewing invective for much of the game, mostly toward the officials and his own players. I liked how play-by-play announcer Ian Darke, the British Vin Scully, referred to the teams in the formal English plural rather than in the American singular. An example: “The U.S. will advance so long as Ghana don't go and win over Portugal.” Darke's usage sounded sophisticated, but it would have earned me an "F" in Mrs. Snyder's eighth grade English class.
Toward the 80th minute of play, the attention shifted away from USA-Germany to what I learned was another game that really would determine whether the USA would advance to the Round of 16. Portugal held a 1-0 lead over Ghana, but Ghana tied the game at 1-1 which was the brink of Doomsday. Entering Thursday, the United States had four points in Group G and a goal difference of plus 1, while Ghana had one point and a goal difference of minus 1. Portugal also had one point, but a goal difference of minus 4 likely ruled it out of the running. If two teams tied on points at the end of the group stage, the first tiebreaker is point differential. The second tiebreaker was total number of goals scored. If Ghana scored a winner against Portugal and the United States lost 1-0, Ghana would have advanced on the total number of goals scored. Oh, the suspense!
I immediately switched over to that game, on ESPN2, and my timing was again exceptional. Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, whose last-second goal had tied the USA on Sunday, was running around the field celebrating his go-ahead goal. American fans immediately forgave Ronaldo, Portugal held, the USA advanced, and I might even be back for the United States' next match on Tuesday.
You'da thought the University of Kentucky would have considered releasing news of its new $210 million athletics marketing deal after the O’Bannon trial. You remember, that's the one in which plaintiffs are trying to show that NCAA athletic programs are nothing more than money machines built on the images of student athletes. As announced Monday morning, Kentucky signed a 15-year, $210 million athletics multi-media rights deal with JMI Sports, one of the most valuable partnership in college athletics history.
"This partnership reflects the fact that the University of Kentucky is a national brand with the largest and most loyal fan base in all of intercollegiate athletics," UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said in a news release. "The size of this partnership ... will enable us to maintain and grow as one of the country's few financially self-sustaining programs, allowing us to continue to provide incredible educational opportunities to more than 450 young men and women as well as continue to partner with the university in unique and distinctive ways."
That sounds like a pretty good deal, especially when you consider it entails all the following: Radio rights to UK's football, men's and women's basketball and baseball games; Stadium and arena corporate signs and game programs for all home UK events, other than those hosted at Rupp Arena (which means more money later!); Naming rights to university athletics properties and premium areas; Sponsorship on UKathletics.com; Game sponsorships and game promotions; Coaches' endorsements; Pregame and postgame television shows and specials, and postseason highlight DVDs; Video features on video boards, other than at Rupp Arena; Opportunities to develop UK Athletics' Corporate Partnership Program; The potential, at the university's discretion, to market campus multimedia rights, creating the potential for an integrated approach to multimedia rights and marketing, which few universities are doing.
The deal includes something for academics, saying UK Athletics will continue to provide premium advertising inventory in support of the school's academic mission to the tune of $7.5 million over the 15 years of the contract. That's about 3.5% of the total deal.
But the O'Bannon trial will focus on the fact that nowhere does the deal include anything for the Harrison twins, Willie Cauley-Stein, baseballer A.J. Reed or QB Drew Barker. Right or wrong, the plaintiffs' case alleges that all those dollars would not come to a school if not for the athletes who make up the successful teams and whom the fans and advertisers pay to see.
I am a company guy through and through, but the NCAA and its member institutions are making it very hard to defend the status quo. You think NCAA president Mark Emmert is not going to be asked about the UK deal on his next visit to the witness box? Kentucky basketball's Wildcat Coal Lodge already has come up in the suit. Plaintiffs' attorney Bill Isaacson used athletic dorms at Kentucky, Ohio State, Alabama and other schools to argue athletes are given "luxurious" living quarters different from other students. Emmert replied that the NCAA requires that at least half of each dorm be occupied by non-athletes.
According to the Lexington Herald’s John Clay, the trial’s first two weeks have given us these other interesting tidbits:
1. The NCAA itself suspected there could be a future legal problem with using players' names, images and likenesses. In 2010, NCAA vice president Wally Renfro sent an email to then new president Emmert saying that it is "a fairness issue, and along with the notion that athletes are students is the great hypocrisy of intercollegiate athletics." Emmert testified that he disagreed with that assertion, but admitted he never discussed that with Renfro.
2. To hear Emmert and Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany talk, the NCAA would basically disband if it was forced to pay the players. Emmert claimed that fans would stop watching college sports if the players were compensated. Delany said the Big Ten would cease to exist if players were paid, and even claimed that the Rose Bowl would go out of business.
3. Texas women's athletics director Chris Plonsky also took the stand, and it was noted that the Austin school has the largest athletics budget in the nation at $165 million. There are 500 student-athletes at the school, or 1 percent of the student population.
4. Ellen Staurowsky, a sports management professor at Drexel University, testified that college football coach salaries have increased by 650 percent from 1986 to 2010. 5. In its defense of amateurism, the NCAA claims that its business model has always been based on athletes being students first. Yet Delany, himself a former basketball player at North Carolina, testified that athletes spend too much time on sports in season and that off-season training, etc., keep athletes from the true student experience, such as summer internships or being able to study abroad. When the basketball season is over, said Delany, "we should put a lock on the gym."
The trial is scheduled to end this week with a decision most likely coming down to a question that Judge Wilken has asked during the trial: Do the rules protect the student-athletes or do the rules protect the schools?Any more blockbuster announcements like the one in Lexington on Monday won’t help the NCAA continue to defend the status quo.
Line of the Week: Wife, entering the room where husband is watching the USA’s World Cup match with Portugal, asks: “What’s happening?” Husband responds: “Nothing is happening. It’s soccer!”
I don’t believe either the Saints or Jimmy Graham want an arbitrator to decide whether the talented pass-catcher is called a tight end or a wide receiver. If the arbitrator rules Graham is a tight end, the Saints’ qualifying offer of $7 million stands, and team gains some immediate leverage in the bargaining of a new contract. If Graham wins, he would stand to receive a one-year qualifying offer of more than $12 million that represents an average salary of the top wide receivers, and the leverage might swing his way. Either one would be moot if the two sides agree on a new contract, which is what I believe will happen.
Graham’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, is hanging around New Orleans after the hearing on Tuesday and Wednesday, and it's not for the Garden District homes tour. The two sides are bargaining, which makes sense. Both sides need to avoid the perception of leverage that an arbitrator's whim might provide and try to hammer out a contract that would make Graham the highest-paid tight end in the league and give the Saints maneuvering room with the Salary Cap. Graham’s $7 million number currently counts against the cap, but that number could be lowered in the first two years of a new contract with some of the creative ciphering that GM Mickey Loomis is known for.
I understand that Graham would like to be qualified at the higher number, but there is no way he wants to be defended like a wide receiver. Anybody who paid any attention to those 2013 games in which defenses assigned their best DB to Graham know that swift defenders like the Patriots’ Aquib Talib and Seattle’s Richard Sherman shut Graham down like last month’s bar tab. In last season’s 30-27 loss to New England, the Pats held Graham without a catch for the first time in 46 games, dating back to the middle of his rookie season. In other losses last season, Graham caught only two of six balls thrown his way at St. Louis, three of nine thrown at him in the Monday Night blowout at Seattle and only one of six chances in the playoff loss to the Seahawks. No, it’s much better for Graham when he is covered by a linebacker like most tight ends draw.
Meanwhile at the hearings, both sides have presented their positions that appear on the face to have merit. The Players Association, arguing on behalf of Graham, has focused on the specific language of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, basing the tag designation (and calculation) on the position “at which the Franchise player participated in the most plays during the prior League Year.” Graham lined up wide of the tackle, either in the slot position or at wide receiver, for 67 percent of his total plays in 2013. Thus, the language appears to provide a persuasive argument.
However, the NFL Management Council, representing the club, tried to shift the discussion from the CBA language to a deeper referendum on league-wide use of the tight end. They presented evidence to show Graham, Vernon Davis, Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez, Rob Gronkowski and others increasingly split out to create matchup advantages. Positioning according to scheme should not change their designation for tag purposes. The League lawyers also have stressed Graham’s official positional designation since entering the league. He played tight end in college, was drafted as a tight end, is listed on the roster and depth chart as a tight end and was voted to the Pro Bowl as a tight end. He attends team meetings with tight ends and even lists himself as a tight end on Twitter.
The entire brouhaha is similar to the Saints’ negotiations with Drew Brees two years ago in another franchise tag dispute, which Brees won. But either ruling gives the Saints some leverage since they hold the player’s rights for a year. The Saints are hoping that Graham, like Brees, covets long-term security. Some observers believe the Saints will wait until the July 15 deadline, and then make their best offer as they did with Brees. I think it could happen as early as this week. An offer from the Saints with as much as $20 million guaranteed might not meet Graham’s demand of $30 million guaranteed, but he would be hard-pressed to turn down that level of security compared to one-year earnings at either number. Especially if the 2014 opponents watched video of last season's St. Louis and Seattle games.