The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
I might be a dinosaur in things such as this, but does anybody else take offense at Marshawn Lynch’s childish actions at Super Bowl Media Day this week? The Seattle running back burnished his own thuggish reputation by sitting on his platform for less than five minutes, refusing to say anything more than: “I’m only here so I don’t get fined.” He made the point over and over, repeating that phrase or variations of it a total of 29 times, then abruptly departed when his cellphone rang.
Media Day is a long and largely fruitless exercise for both media and players, but it feeds the NFL’s publicity beast by making players available to all. Reporters from the major print and electronic outlets are present (they might get fined if they aren't), rubbing notepads and camera cables with their peers of a lesser ilk. Players are required to sit at tables scattered around a large venue and answer stupid questions, primarily from those credentialed media members from one-lung radio stations, bloggers and weekly newspapers who do not have daily access. When I was spokesman for the NFL owners during the 1982 Player Strike, it wasn’t the New York Times or CBS reporters who made my life difficult. It was the guy from Morristown, New Jersey, who wanted to impress his heroes with off-the-wall questions and claims. But you have to treat them with the same attention, if not respect.
Open access to the media has been an NFL tenet since Pete Rozelle, an old PR guy who understood the value of good press, became commissioner. Not that Lynch ever heard of Pete Rozelle, but he is in store for a major shock, probably next week after the game, when the NFL does, in fact, fine him for not cooperating with the media. Lynch has already been fined $100,000 by the league for refusing to speak to the media after games and has been fined twice this season for making an inappropriate gesture after touchdowns. Based on that, it would seem that his Sphinx imitation this week was an IQ test he failed in magnificent fashion.
Lynch’s actions exposed him to another likely fine, for violating the NFL equipment code by wearing unsanctioned gear during his appearance. His cap bore the logo of “Beast Mode,” which happens to be Lynch’s nickname, and is selling for $33 on the company's website. Ask Brian Urlacher if the NFL fines players for not wearing approved brands. The Bears linebacker was fined $100,000 for wearing a Vitamin Water hat during Media Day at Super Bowl XLI in 2007.
Not surprisingly, the players have rallied around Lynch, tweeting comments that his reluctance displays his own right of free speech or that he’s a guy who is uncomfortable speaking in public so why make him do it? Even some pundits have taken his side, claiming if the League makes players accessible to the media, then it’s only right for Commissioner Roger Goodell to take his turn in the media barrel with a weekly press conference.
Other than being irretrievably old school, I guess my distaste for the likes of Lynch and his loudmouthed (but refreshingly interesting) co-conspirator Richard Sherman is that we lose focus of other team members who play the off-field games as required without complaint or demonstration. QB Russell Wilson is thoughtful, bright and projects a positive image. But we seldom see him, because of guys like Lynch who make guys like me hope the Patriots win 50-0.
It’s a frightening thought, but we could have a new president before we have an uncontested owner for the Saints and Pelicans. The revelation last week that Tom Benson was cutting out daughter Renee and grandchildren Rita and Ryan from anything to do with the city’s major sports franchises has far-reaching implications, not the least of which is an extended and bloody legal battle. The sides have already given us a glimpse of what to expect, with Benson’s position that wife Gayle offers more stability for the future, while the family group says Mistah Tawm is a senile puppet dancing at the end of his manipulative wife’s strings.
I have my dog in this hunt, having worked for Benson for ten years that at times left me frustrated, but ultimately I emerged with great respect for the man. I also have my moles in the organization who have over the last decade or so kept me regaled with some of Rita’s escapades and examples of her decision-making ability. But one thing stood out to me in the volumes that have been written and spoken the past week. The players love Gayle.
Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham, among others, complimented her on her warmth and her connections with their own families, whom she hosts for holiday dinners and other events. Gayle should have been around years ago when I went to Benson at the request of some players’ wives who thought it would be nice for Tom to host a Christmas party for staff and players. Tom’s answer to me was not at all receptive and ended with the comment: “They should throw ME a party!” Well, we were all younger once! The point is that the players would welcome Gayle Benson’s oversight.
So if you are still confused about which side to pull for, let me offer a brief history of ownership in the major sports leagues and how the players' view is important. A “stable” ownership in the players’ minds is one that supports them and creates an environment that they want to be a part of. This is very important when it comes to free agency. Some players can’t wait to get out of town and look for a place that affords players due respect. Players already in such situations are receptive to talking about staying where they are. The Saints to this point have been such a franchise, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants and New England Patriots are other organizations that players identify as stable situations. Those teams are successful in keeping players they want and attracting players who can help.
And then there are other situations that can only be described, charitably, as "stability-challenged." I covered the Baltimore Colts when owner Bob Irsay had everyone in the organization fearing for their jobs. I recall one example of Irsay, fueled with 33rd degree firewater, marching down to the field in the middle of a game to fire the defensive coordinator. Of course, he was seldom around and did not know what DC Maxie Baughan looked like, so he walked down the sidelines to one coach wearing headphones and loudly fired him. The only problem was that Irsay had “fired” offensive line coach Whitey Dovell while Baughan was hiding behind two or three of his defensive linemen.
Episodes like that persisted to the point when Pro Bowl QB Bert Jones was asked about some negative comments made about him by Irsay, he replied “I always learned you don’t get into a pissing contest with a skunk!” Other sports have experienced the same type of player-averse ownership. His players claimed that the Black Sox Scandal of 1919 was prompted by owner Charles Comiskey’s penurious ways. They hated him, so they didn’t mind taking money to embarrass him. The NBA has had two recent examples, one in Donald Sterling, whose L.A. Clippers protested after the owner’s taped comments that his mistress should not be seen with black people. Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson was forced to sell his share of the team after writing a racially offensive email regarding Hawks fans.
This is not to suggest that Rita Benson Leblanc is a budding Bob Irsay or Donald Sterling. But neither has she achieved much in her decade-plus association with the team that fills staff members or coaches with any confidence that she suddenly will blossom into Margaret Thatcher or Queen Victoria. She might have had more credentials if she had only given some suggestion that she would be as hands-off as Georgia Rosenbloom Frontiere, late owner of the Rams. Georgia was flamboyant and loved the trappings of ownership, but she was smart enough not to interfere and let the football people do their jobs. Firing more than a dozen administrative assistants in a decade does not engender the same feeling.
Despite being the mild, low-key guy that I am, I do not often refuse the opportunity to appear on one of the local sports programs. The local TV guys like Doug Mouton (WWL), Rob Masson (WVUE), Fletcher Mackel (WDSU), and their colleagues always give me an opportunity to push whatever book project I am working on in exchange for my thoughts on the issue of the moment. So it was uncharacteristic of me on Wednesday night and Thursday morning to turn down three offers to come in and comment on Tom Benson’s surprising announcement that when he passes on he is leaving the city’s two beloved sports franchises to his wife Gayle.
Everybody wants to know why he would do that instead of leaving the teams to blood relatives? The Saints had announced some time ago that the Saints, Pelicans and other business properties would be run by Benson's daughter, Renee, and her children, Ryan LeBlanc and Rita Benson LeBlanc, who has been involved with the team for the past decade. But Benson’s announcement on Wednesday took his daughter and her children out of the equation. In fact, their names and faces were removed from the Saints’ online media guide.
Rita made a quick move to contest the decision, filing suit on Thursday declaring Benson was "incompetent" to make a decision of such magnitude and that he was influenced by a "manipulative" wife. The fact that Rita is out does not surprise anyone who has been close to the organization. People I’ve spoken with have questioned her work ethic, her judgment, her personal behavior and her ability to make decisions that could determine the direction of two major sports franchises. This sounds like a major family feud that's going to last for a long time.
But the question that each one of the TV guys asked was “has this ever happened before in the NFL?” My answer that a similar episode was a part of Saints’ lore raised their eyebrows, either for their short memories or my aging frame of reference. Doesn’t anybody remember Steve Rosenbloom, Saints GM during their lamentable 1-15 season of 1980? Here’s the story:
The owner of the Los Angeles Rams was Carroll Rosenbloom, father of Steve, who had risen to GM. But when Carroll drowned in mysterious circumstances in 1979, his will left ownership of the team to his second wife Georgia. To say that the Rosenbloom children and Georgia did not get along is to say that Bill Belichick doesn’t have a tire pump in his office. Carroll had left his first wife, Steve’s mother, for Georgia, a one-time urologist’s secretary and actress whom he met at a Palm Beach party hosted by Joseph Kennedy.
A few months after Carroll’s death, Georgia fired Steve, who was left six percent of the Rams in his father's will. Still liked and respected around the NFL, Steve Rosenbloom was quickly hired by Saints owner John Mecom following the '79 season in which the Rams went to the Super Bowl. Rosenbloom had a short tour of duty with the Saints. When the team finished 1-15 in 1980, the quirky Mecom fired Rosenbloom and brought in Bum Phillips to run the football operation.
Steve remained in the New Orleans area, and when Jim Finks became President and GM in 1986, he brought Steve to the Saints’ office one day for lunch. Steve remained in the Covington area where he concentrated on investments and real estate, but he obviously was still simmering from his treatment by his stepmother. In a 1994 interview with the Baltimore Sun, he vented his anger at Georgia and the “new” type of NFL owner. "I don't miss the game because of what it has become," he said at the time. "We used to have a great group of owners who were football-oriented. Today, they have used car dealers who've been turning back odometers for 20 years.”
Hmmmm! Maybe the TV guys should try and find Steve Rosenbloom. Now that’s an interview I’d like to hear!
So who are you pulling for in the Super Bowl? I don’t like either the Seahawks or the Patriots. I can guarantee that in the NFC championship game, NFL purists were pulling for Green Bay, the old-line, white collar NFL establishment team against the brassy, Day-Glo, trash-talking new wave Seattle. I’ve never been a fan of loudmouths or crybabies, and Seattle has one of the loudest in CB Richard Sherman and one of the All-Pro whiners in RB Marshawn Lynch.
But you have to give them credit for their performances on the field. Sherman played much of the game with an elbow injury that he says will not keep him out of the Super Bowl. Lynch’s runs looked almost super-human, a grim reminder to Saints fans what he did to them in the 2010 playoffs. I might be more generous if all their comments came from Russell Wilson, their superb young quarterback, who handles himself with aplomb in front of a zone blitz or a microphone.
I was also rooting for the Colts, having been a Colts fan since Johnny Unitas’ days and having covered them for four years with the Baltimore Evening Sun. It’s hard to root for Bill Belichick, who always seems to be accused of cheating. After Sunday’s game, reports surfaced that the Patriots used deflated footballs in the game because an under-inflated ball is easier to grip, which would have been advantageous in the pouring rain Sunday night. QB Tom Brady completed 23 of 35 passes for 226 yards and three touchdowns, with one interception.
The NFL confirmed it was looking into the matter that some are already calling #DeflateGate on Twitter. The NFL rule book states that game balls must be inflated with 12.5-13.5 pounds of air. Both teams at each game must provide a dozen balls each to be tested and approved 135 minutes before game time. The home team must also have 12 reserve balls available for testing, with the road team also having that option in outdoor games. A pump is to be furnished by the home club, and the balls shall remain under the supervision of the referee until they are delivered to the ball attendant just prior to the start of the game.
If the NFL determines that the balls were deliberately deflated, and proving intent is the key, punishment might involve the loss of draft picks and/or fines. The outcome of the game would not be affected, but the Patriots have been here before. They were stripped of their 2008 first-round pick after the league determined they videotaped signals used by opposing coaches in SpyGate. Bill Belichick was fined $500,000 and the team $250,000.
So who are you pulling for in the Super Bowl? The loudmouths or the cheaters?
A buddy of mine likes to say the first thing he does when he wakes up is to check the obituaries. If he doesn’t see his name, he goes on about his business, confident that he is still vertical for at least one more day. That kind of sounds like the bashers of SEC football who are boldly declaring that they have read the obituaries and that the noble strain of college football dominance that has prevailed below the Ohio River (or at least the Tennessee River!) is dead.
As Exhibit A, they point to Alabama’s unexpected loss to Ohio State in the playoff which was preceded by a mediocre performance by SEC teams in bowl games. Already, the predictors of the 2015 rankings have virtually ignored every SEC team except the Crimson Tide, which they begrudgingly slot at No. 3, behind Ohio State and TCU, and ahead of Baylor, Oregon, Florida State, Michigan State and USC. My response to all that is the same as Mark Twain’s when informed that reports claimed his demise: “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated!”
SEC football is not dead, Bubba. It’s just suffering from a sudden shock to the expectations and overhype that southern football is invincible. It’s not, but it is in better shape than college football anywhere else. Support for a quick resurgence can be found in a column that appeared this week in the online version of Bleacher Report. As a public service, and encouragement to all who are teetering on the ledge, I have excerpted it below. R-E-L-A-X and enjoy:
“The SEC is not surrendering to Urban Meyer. Y'all think the Mississippis and the Tide and the Dawgs and the Tigers, both of them, look like potted plants right about now, but their answer to the Urbanator is coming the next three weeks on national signing day, February 4. Of ESPN's Top 300, 56 of the top 80 prospects are in the SEC footprint. Of the 75 players on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's thoroughly researched Super 75 for the state of Georgia, more than half are heading to SEC schools. That's one state. Eight of the top 20 schools on the Rivals recruiting board are SEC schools. Meanwhile, NFL teams will sign more players from the SEC than those conferences in the Midwest, East, West and Southwest. The SEC has had the most players drafted for eight straight years, which proves the conference hauls in talent and develops it. Alabama is still the NFL's 33rd franchise, not Ohio State.
"There is no question Meyer is back as the best coach in college football. At the Sugar Bowl, he used motion and formations to get Alabama unbalanced and then ran around the end. It was great scheming. Matt Hayes of Sporting News wrote that Meyer is the new king of college football because he is relentless. You want relentless? Alabama had a ferocious defensive line, and it will welcome into the 2015 rotation the best defensive line prospect from 2014, Da'Shawn Hand. He will team with A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen to give Alabama a defensive line better than Ohio State's. LSU just hired a superb defensive line coach, Ed Orgeron, who also happens to be a terrific recruiter. How is this for relentless? Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and LSU are relentless at stockpiling talent. They will do it again on national signing day.
"Meyer has won one title at Ohio State. Alabama had three in four years. The SEC just finished a run in which it was in eight straight title games with four different teams.The Big Ten just won its first national title since Ohio State beat Miami in 2002, with the help of a late, late flag that is still fluttering in the air. And the Buckeyes are supposed to be all things 'Bama?
"There are some things to detest about the SEC. The number of junior-college players. The number of juniors who leave school too early because they are going nowhere academically, and they want the money for their families. The fraudulent courses football players take are abominable. The 40-hour work weeks for football players to help a coach keep his multimillion-dollar job are distasteful. What should not be troubling is the future.
"Signing day will affirm the SEC's superiority in college football. Ohio State is still in Ohio. The best football players are still in the South. That casket being lowered into the ground, the one supposed to contain an SEC corpse, is empty."