The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
Forgive me if I did not take the time to comment last week on John Calipari’s interest in the New Orleans Pelicans or on the Saints’ new draft class showing up for off-season training, the SEC baseball tournament or even Bob Kraft’s acceptance of Roger Goodell’s draft choices and cash penalties in Deflategate. As you might say to a wedding invitation for the child of a high school chum you haven’t seen in forty years: “Regrets, but I had a previous engagement.”
My previous engagement was scheduled on May 19, 1996, when our baby, Charles Connor, was born. That blessed event affixed to my future calendar another milestone known as graduation day, when he would finish high school, which he accomplished Friday night. We had been through graduations before, with Lindsay from Orchard Park High School in Buffalo and Layne from Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans, but when girls graduate, a father is little more than a piece of the furniture. Mom and the graduate pick out the dress, plan a menu for the graduation party and decide upon a suitable gift that leaves enough money to pay the mortgage. Dad is invited only if he brings his wallet.
All that is also true when a son graduates, but then there is an assumption that Dad has some influence on the outcome. Mom can’t tie the boy’s tie or loan him a razor that hasn’t been dulled by ankle hairs or even give him the wizened advice that only a father can give, based on his own vast experiences. Such as “Uh, behave yourself!”
Charles Connor, an effervescent kid known to his legion of fans as “C.C.,” graduated Friday night from Jesuit High School in New Orleans, an all-boys school whose alums include singer Harry Connick, Jr., comedian Jay Thomas, current Mayor Mitch Landrieu and his father Mayor Moon Landrieu, new Florida basketball coach Michael White, NFL player and coach Richie Petitbon and baseball players Rusty Staub, Will Clark and Johnny Giavotella. We did not choose Jesuit for its alumni lists, however, but for its academic record, its moral and religious compass and its strict Jesuit discipline. Parents always believe their boys need discipline although the girls are the ones who probably need it more. But I digress.
Graduation week began with the Baccalaureate ceremony last Saturday night at the school that was followed by a party assembled by parents of C.C.’s closest friends. The week leading up to graduation day was filled with other parties to honor graduates of other schools in the area whom C.C. has met over the years. After graduation, a massive confab was held at a local hall where grads and their parents ate, imbibed and watched a great video loop that showed our boys in various stages at Jesuit. Two more parties were held at private homes on Saturday night for parents and graduates. Are we there yet? Whew!
Mom and Dad were not invited to all the parties that C.C. attended, but we still participated, lying awake until we heard the door open, male steps clomping down the hall and the announcement of relief: “Mom, I’m home.” He addresses his mother, because he knows Dad has been sound asleep for at least three hours, while Mom does not sleep until he comes in. He may be 19, but the rules of the house are in effect as long as he lives here. Which won’t be long, a fact that scares us to death.
He’s headed to Ole Miss in August, a place he should fit right in. Seersucker suits, bow ties, beautiful women, SEC football, all of which should be incentive enough for him to study hard so he can stay! When he reports to Oxford, and Layne enters LSU Nursing School in the fall, the lovely Miss Jean and I will rule over the dreaded “empty nest.” But that’s our problem. This is our son’s week. Hail to the Graduate, and let me take a nap!
As an amateur yet enthusiastic historian armed with the luxury of hindsight, I can conclude that John Paul Jones would have made one helluva NFL commissioner. Jones was the United States’ first well-known naval fighter in the American Revolutionary War and is called by some as the father of the U.S. Navy. However, his eligibility to lead the most popular sporting enterprise in the modern nation has less to do with leadership than with the proper use of tactics. John Paul Jones knew that when facing an enemy intent on blowing you out of the water, it is wise to employ a fundamental naval defensive tactic: Do not expose your broadside.
In modern parlance, they call it “attack surface reduction,” which means doing everything you can to reduce the target and deflect malicious intruders. When you intentionally present the enemy with a target, you’d best be prepared to suffer the consequences. Which brings us to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who last week exposed his broadside, his backside and every other side of his professional anatomy to intense fire from all sides in the Patriots' Deflategate controversy.
While I believe QB Tom Brady and Coach Bill Belichick got off too easy, others in the League believe the four-game suspension of Brady, the docked #1 and #4 draft choices and the $1 million fine against the club were too severe. Granted, the fine for deflation of balls and similar offenses is only $25,000, but Brady and the Patriots’ insistence on denying guilt for yet another violation of the rules justified the penalties. Penalties on serial offenders should be tough.
But now Goodell has waved a red flag in the face of his enemies. Goodell will preside over the appeal of the penalties, rejecting a request by the NFL Players Association for a neutral arbitrator to hear the case. Goodell’s decision to handle the appeal was unexpected after recent high-profile cases involving Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, in which Goodell appointed independent arbitrators to oversee their appeals.
Former U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones was appointed to hear Rice’s appeal against an indefinite suspension imposed by the NFL after video emerged of him knocking out his fiancée in a hotel elevator last year. Rice won his appeal and was reinstated by the league. Goodell appointed Harold Henderson, a former Management Council executive director, to handle an appeal by Peterson, who was suspended without pay by the NFL after facing child abuse charges. Henderson upheld the suspension but his ruling was challenged by the NFLPA in federal court in Minnesota. U.S. District Judge David S. Doty ruled that the league had exceeded its authority to punish Peterson. The league appealed Doty’s ruling but later reinstated Peterson.
And Goodell wants to face the inevitable court challenges of his authority? The 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement gives the Commissioner the right to make decisions for the good of the League and to punish any player, coach, employee or club that threatens it. The NFLPA agreed to that right at arm’s length bargaining, and ever since has been trying to get their friends in the legal community to let them out of the obligation. I know how the NFLPA operates, having seen it up close as a member of the NFL Management Council staff from 1981-86 and after that as a club executive. They agree to Item 1 to get Item 2, and then they find every way possible to get out of the obligation of Item 1. It’s labor relations 101, but, still, it does not answer the question of why Goodell wants to hear the appeal himself.
This is a good time to mention that the Patriots are owned by Robert Kraft, who has been Goodell’s biggest supporter among the owners. I am not sure this additional exposure of his broadside to Kraft is in his best interests. Talk around the League is that Kraft believes Goodell betrayed him by taking a hard stand against his team. That does not bode well for the Commissioner. Another round of TV negotiations will start soon, and Kraft is head of the TV committee who must work closely with the Commissioner. If Kraft bails from the committee, Goodell might find some of his support among the other owners evaporating.
Some praise Goodell for not playing favorites with such men as Kraft and attempting to paint himself as the Commissioner for the benefit of all. If the courts uphold whatever decision Goodell makes in the Patriots appeal, then he deserves credit. However, as we have shown, the NFLPA has been very successful at having arbitrators and courts reduce suspensions. Such a clear target as Goodell’s broadside encourages them to pull out all their legal weaponry once again and fire at will. And this time, it just might be Goodell’s ship that sinks to the bottom of the sea.
So Tom Brady is suspended for four games, which he will probably appeal down to two, and the team is fined a first-round 2016 pick and fourth-round 2017 pick. Oh, yeah, let’s not forget the $1 million fine that owner Bob Kraft will probably negotiate down to $99 and take out of petty cash. They might miss the draft choices eventually, but let this be a lesson to all of us. If we are going to break the rules, then dress up in a Patriots clown suit and tri-cornered hat and do it in an NFL jurisdiction!
This must be what prosecutors lament as having a good case tossed out by a friendly court. As I wrote here last week, I expected NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to issue suspensions and fines in excess of those he levied against the Saints in the so-called Bountygate episode. My reasoning was that (1) the issue of deflating footballs comes under the modus operandi of attempting to subvert the competitive balance of a game, and that (2) this offense was the Patriots’ second major violation of league rules. The so-called Spygate episode of 2007, where they illegally videotaped signals from Jets coaches, drew a punishment of a No. 1 draft choice and a $500,000 fine against Coach Bill Belichick. You might even add Reason (3) They lied about their involvement then, and Brady and members of the organization lied this time, according to the special investigator that the League dispatched to ferret out the truth.
Performance enhancing drugs are banned because it is cheating and upsets the competitive balance of a game. Cheating also means illegally taping the other team’s signals and illegally deflating footballs to gain a better grip, and presumably more control. A consistent pattern of cheating deserves the death penalty, and the first head I would put in the guillotine would be Bill Belichick’s. The early reports of the penalties do not mention the head coach, which suggest he is probably celebrating his own chicanery. If a college football or basketball program committed a major violation and was disciplined by the NCAA, a similar violation a few years later would likely be reason for the death penalty. Especially if the same people were in charge.
The relatively mild punishment in Deflategate points up again that the NFL believes a political violation of the rules is far more egregious than a competitive violation. Bountygate's excessive penalties were intended to deflect criticism during the League’s negotiations with former players over long-term effects of injuries. When you have as many potential offenders as the NFL has in its member clubs, then blatant disregard for players’ health probably could be proved. When you are commissioner and evidence drops into your lap as damning as a team paying players to injure other players, you can drop an anvil on the perpetrators with the assurance that, although those problems might have existed before, by God, they are not going to exist on my watch!
So the Saints were thrown overboard in penalties that crippled them for at least two seasons, while the Patriots can basically conduct monkey business as usual. Goodell commented in a statement: “We relied on the critical importance of protecting the integrity of the game and the thoroughness and independence of the Wells report.” I agree that the League’s integrity was at stake, and I think it just dropped a couple of notches.
Fans from 31 NFL teams, including those of our local heroes, are likely having a good laugh over the problems of Bill Belicheat and the New England Patriots. In fairness, we must report that the most pompous Patriot was absolved by the investigation into whether or not his team deflated footballs before their 45-7 AFC title win over the Colts. Of course, we have heard that one before, and it did not matter then to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell when he suspended Saints Coach Sean Payton for a full season in the Bountygate episode. Which brings us to the question of the day: What is the proper PSI – that’s Patriot Scandal Index – should be administered as a result of Deflategate?
Goodell could not over-inflate the penalties by exceeding those given to Payton, GM Mickey Loomis and the rest of the organization. And, with the Patriots, you are looking at a second offense after their 2008 conviction of illegally stealing opponent’s signals. But if not for that earlier offense, Goodell likely would not penalize the Pats nearly as much as he did the Saints, and here’s why. It’s all in the timing.
Bountygate was rife with political intrigue and a motivation to deflect criticism during the League’s negotiations with former players over long-term effects of injuries. When you have as many potential offenders as the NFL has in its member clubs, then blatant disregard for players’ health probably could be proved. I never saw evidence of abuse with the three clubs that employed me between 1986 and 2002, but when you are commissioner and evidence drops into your lap as damning as players conspiring to injure other players, he has no choice but to drop an anvil on the organization. So the Saints were thrown overboard with penalties that crippled them for at least two seasons.
But nowhere in the prosecution of the Saints did you hear the phrase “competitive advantage.” Did an alleged bounty system give the Saints a competitive advantage? Not likely, because the alleged infractions came under normal game activities, when one player is trying anyway to knock the jockstrap off another player. One could argue that putting the other team’s All-Pro return man out of the game would constitute competitive advantage, but I maintain that players do not try to hurt other players because they know it could happen to them. You hit my guy with a pitch, and your first batter up is going to eat an inshoot. Did deflating the footballs to make them easier to throw give Brady a competitive advantage over the Colts? Betcherass. Just ask the Colts defenders about Brady’s ability to complete passes over their heads like a fly fisherman tossing plugs to a poolful of hungry bass.
Any attempt to gain competitive advantage was anathema to Pete Rozelle whose singlemost objective was a level playing field. “On any given Sunday,” one team could beat another if all things were equal. But apparently trying to gain competitive advantage is not as odious a crime as it used to be. The Falcons were fined for piping in crowd noise and the Browns were fined for illegal texting between execs and coaches during a game. Neither of those constitute competitive advantage in my book. You want competitive advantage, look at Belichick’s last felonious foray - videotaping Jets defensive coaches' signals during a September 9, 2007 game. He was fined $500,000 for his role in the incident, the Patriots were fined $250,000, and the team was docked their original first-round selection in the 2008 NFL Draft. But, unlike the Saints, Belichick got to keep his job with no suspension, and, hey, with the exception of the draft pick, it was only money.
Deflategate, as a second offense, will undoubtedly exceed the Tapegate penalties, and they should far exceed those levied upon the Saints that included player suspensions. The player suspensions were later dropped, but no texts were cited as evidence to indict Saints players. Texts galore have been recovered that refer to Brady's aversion to legally inflated footballs.
Brady and Belichick both should be suspended at least for the 2015 season, along with the club personnel who were implicated. Goodell also should fine the team multiple draft choices and levy an appropriate monetary fine. And, because the offenses came in a game that vaulted the Patriots into the Super Bowl, the League should vacate their recent Super Bowl championship. I’m not naïve enough to think that even those penalties would halt players or coaches scheming for competitive advantages, but I bet it would give some owners a second thought or two.
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This will be my last column for another week or so. I am going on a golfing trip with three friends, and, barring a hole-in-one or subpar round, both of which are imminently unlikely, my next explosion of whim and wisdom will be May 18.
Random thoughts after a full weekend of sports wrapped around another great New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival ….
I’ve got to applaud the Saints’ selection of offensive tackle Andrus Peat in the No. 13 slot of the NFL Draft. The debate will rage about whether the team should have picked a player who could provide immediate help, such as my personal favorite of Kentucky pass-rusher Bud Dupree. Peat might not see the field for another year, but the Saints’ grade on the Stanford tackle was much higher than any other player still on the board.
At offensive line, you are talking about a ten-year starter. The Saints are comfortable with their current tackles, young Terron Armstead and not-so-young Zach Strief, who are more game-ready right now than Peat will be during his apprenticeship. But the team obviously believes Peat eventually could be better than either. It might be a cliché, but when a team truly does pick “the best player available, regardless of position,” it tells me that is a team whose management knows that the NFL is a marathon and not a sprint. They are in this for the long haul, and that should give Who Dat Nation some confidence …
My next-door neighbor and former Golden Gloves boxer Jay Sequeira invited me over to watch the Manny Pacquiao vs. Floyd Mayweather fight on Saturday night. I’m glad Jay has the big bucks, because I’m too tight to fork out $99 to see anything that doesn’t involve horses, music or alcohol. But it was a fun evening, although somewhat clouded with the after-the-fact news that Pacquiao had injured his right shoulder in training and that Nevada boxing commissioners denied a request for him to take an anti-inflammatory injection in his dressing room before the fight. You could tell Manny was not himself since he needed to throw a lot of punches in hopes some would land, and he could not get inside of Mayweather’s long reach that kept him at bay most of the night. It also appeared to me that Manny realized things were over about the ninth round and his thoughts urned to how much of that $400 million pot he would take home.
I’ve been a fight fan since I was fortunate enough to watch young Cassius Clay and the stable of great young fighters in Louisville in the Fifties and early Sixties. A television program called “Tomorrow’s Champions” at 6 p.m. every Saturday featured young fighters who hoped to become, well, champions of tomorrow. In addition to the young Clay, who would gain international fame as Muhammad Ali, I saw such boxers as Jimmy Ellis, Rudell Stitch, Marcus Anderson and Clay’s brother Rudy. It’s still one of my greatest thrills in sports to have met and shaken Ali’s hand at a Super Bowl party years ago ...
It’s a shame that my Kentucky Derby dark horse, International Star, was scratched on the morning of the race. He had made his name in New Orleans, and I know a lot of local race fans were pulling for him to spring an upset. I felt better after I picked the eventual winner American Pharoah in the blind pool we conducted at our family Derby party.
So, as has been the case after every Kentucky Derby, the speculation will rage about whether American Pharoah will win the Triple Crown. And I say “Why Not?” I agree with USA Today, which reported: "Why can't it be a horse that lived up to the greatest of expectations in a field packed with contenders Saturday in the 141st Kentucky Derby? Why not a horse of power and consistency, but also serendipity and whimsy? Why can't it be a horse whose name was misspelled in an online contest, but selected anyway, including the mistake? Why not a horse whose owner, Egyptian-turned-Jersey-boy Ahmed Zayat, has known only runner-up finishes at the Kentucky Derby, until Saturday? Why not a horse whose trainer, Bob Baffert, hadn't won a Derby in 13 years? And why not a horse whose jockey, Victor Espinoza, knows all about Triple Crown expectations, having ridden California Chrome to Kentucky Derby and Preakness victories just last year before losing the Belmont Stakes?" Why Not, indeed!