Friday, April 15, 2016

A TAXING SITUATION

              Whenever people have told me they were turned off by the money professional sports teams and athletes rake in these days, I’ve shrugged. “That’s your problem only if you make it one,” I’ve told them. “We fans are volunteers. The jocks get our money only if we choose to give it to them. If you don’t like it, don’t go to their games or buy their gear.”
             
               Upon reflection, though, I must confess that statement is false. Many if not most of us are compelled to support our cities’ sports establishments through the tax money that goes to buy and maintain the stadiums in which our teams play. Their paws are in the pockets of fans and non-fans alike; the only way to escape (at least for a while) is to put on camo, grab an AK47 and take to the hills.

              That thought intrudes increasingly of late, especially in the Phoenix, Arizona, area in which I live. Three of the four major-sport teams here—the hockey Coyotes, basketball Suns and baseball Diamondbacks— are agitating for new or upgraded playgrounds, paid for mostly by the taxpayers, of course.  The only local team not queuing up to the trough is the football Cardinals, but that’s only because state and local sources anteed up about $310 million of the $455 million it cost to build them a new stadium that opened in 2006.  Give them a few more years and they’ll be there, too.

              Every other U.S. major-league city is generous to its teams, but a few things set Phoenix apart. One is the lack of accomplishment of the aforementioned four. They have made Arizona their home for a total of 113 seasons and have only one championship—by the 2001 Diamondbacks—to show for them.  It’s a record of ineptitude few can match.

              More basic, however, are the area’s economic and political realities. Although the parts of it most tourists see sparkle with palm-lined wealth, the city remains a low-wage, Sunbelt burg whose average per-capita income trails the U.S. as a whole and is down from what it was in the year 2000. Further, it lacks the sort of corporate-home-office base that supports luxury-box and season-ticket sales in other places.

              The area and the rest of Arizona are notoriously tax averse, a trait that’s been worsened by seven-years-and-counting of one-party, Republican state rule, during which public budgets for education, health care and just about every other social service have been slashed. The state ranks 46th nationally in per-pupil K-12 funding and tuitions at its three four-year universities have about doubled in the last eight years as tax-based support declines. Getting blood from such stones is no mean feat.

              Finally, the once-popular notion that new stadiums are a boon to a locality’s economy has been debunked by just about every study of the subject that’s been published in the past several decades. Any kind of major building project brings a brief employment spike, but the big majority of long-term jobs that teams and stadiums create (ticket sellers, ushers, vendors) are part time and low paying, and almost all the money that passes through their box offices is locally generated and comes at the expense of such other entertainment enterprises as theaters, bars and restaurants. Indeed, the economic importance of sports generally usually is overblown; an analysis by Michael Leeds, a sports economist at Temple University, recently concluded that if Chicago were suddenly to lose all four of its big-league franchises the hit to the city’s economy would amount only to about 1%.

              With such givens it’s hard to rate which of the Phoenix teams exhibit the most chutzpah. That’s also because, while they’ve made clear that they want to leave their 24-year home in downtown Phoenix, the Suns have yet to make their demands clear. Maybe that’s because they had the fourth-worst record in the just-concluded National Basketball League season and want to wait until the odor clears. But maybe not.

              The Coyotes, in the area since 1996, initially shared the Suns’ playpen before quarreling over sight lines and revenue splits and began agitating for one of their own. They want out of the arena in the western suburb of Glendale that they’ve occupied only since 2003. They might qualify in the chutzpah race because theirs was the sweetest deal initially, with taxpayer-backed bonds paying the place’s entire, $180 million cost. They landed there after the arena’s developer, real-estate skate Steve Ellman, teased a subsidy from east-side Scottsdale only to jilt it for the better offer and steal off in the night leaving a derelict shopping center in his wake.

 Alas, but perhaps deservedly, the team has languished in the low-rent west, where it has gone through bankruptcy, National Hockey League receivership and numerous lease squabbles with its host city.  Now it declares that after next season it will stiff Glendale with a 17,000-seat white elephant and a $144 million debt and move to a more-foolish municipality, not yet named. Good luck to all concerned with that.

Until a few weeks ago the Diamondbacks had been laying low in their state-of-the-art, publicly financed ballpark now called Chase Field, where their 30-year lease is supposed to run until 2028. The place cost $364 million to build, of which $253 million has come from a quarter-cent, county-wide sales-tax boost that wasn’t enacted without bloodshed (a county supervisor who supported it was shot in the butt by a deranged citizen after attending a meeting on the subject). Then the team suddenly presented the county with a $187 million bill for improvements it says the stadium needs over the next few years. It’ll sue if the money isn’t forthcoming, it avers.

The Diamondbacks have taken heat for killing its season-opening buzz with its heist demand. It’s also been noted that the team is flush, having just inked a $1.5 billion local TV contract and committed a reported $206.5 million to a six-year contract with a single player, and a pitcher at that (Zack Greinke).

The cherry on the sundae is that the team’s principal owner, data-tech billionaire Ken Kendrick, is a generous donor to right-wing politicians and causes that say they want to get government off people’s backs.

And replace it with sports teams, apparently.
  


             
    
             
             
             

              

Friday, April 1, 2016

SPOILED SPORTS

              Back in my working days I was among a small group of reporters interviewing Ken Griffey Jr. in the Seattle Mariners’ locker room after a home game. As we spoke Griffey’s small son, maybe five or six years old, did what kids his age do, which was jump around, interrupt and pull on daddy’s leg.

 Griffey good naturedly tried to shoo him away. “Go play a machine,” he told the boy. “I gave you $50 this morning. You can’t have spent it all.”

The remark stuck with me long after the subject of the interview had faded. The notion that a parent would give a little kid $50 for a day’s spending money boggled my mind, and still does. Even 15 or so years go rich athletes like Griffey lived in a different world from most of the rest of us, one in which normal calculations of money and privilege don’t apply.

That thought returned forcefully a couple of weeks ago when the Adam LaRoche story hit the baseball spring-training news. It seems that LaRoche’s 14-year-old son, Drake, had been a Chicago White Sox clubhouse fixture since the veteran first baseman and designated hitter joined the team last season, wearing his own uniform, having his own locker, sitting in the dugout during games, joining in team drills and even accompanying it on road trips. When a White Sox executive told the player that professional considerations dictated that the boy should be an occasional rather than a constant presence with the club, LaRoche abruptly announced that he was quitting the team and the game. Family came first, he declared.

The episode led me to wonder how a 14-year-old could hang out all day with dad from March to October instead of being in school. It raised other questions as well, such as in what other business could a mid-level employee expect to take his child to work daily, get him a desk, have him take trips and sit in on meetings.  I can’t think of one.

Much was made of the fact that LaRoche forfeited the $13 million left on his two-year contract to make his statement, but less of the almost $72 million he’d already collected in a 12-season big-league career during which he never much rose above the rank of journeyman. aH Even after taxes that’s enough money to secure his family’s future for several generations if no member of it worked another day. A ballplayer who is a household name only in his own household is a card-carrying member of the top one-tenth of 1% of the nation financially and more than rich enough, at age 36, to tell his bosses to take their job and shove it.

Also instructive, I think, were the reactions of LaRoche’s fellow athletes both outside and inside the White Sox clubhouse, or at least of those who spoke for attribution. Several Sox players were vociferous in support of his action and rumors that the team would boycott a spring-training game in his honor made the papers (but they didn’t). Bryce Harper and Chipper Jones tweeted their approval. Derrick Rose of the basketball Chicago Bulls called the team’s stance “devastating.” By their lights, apparently, no athlete of any stature should ever hear the word “no.”

The same sense of entitlement pervades other facets of life in the jockocracy. Most adults understand the relationship of risk to reward when making investment decisions, but some (many?) rich athletes believe that reasonable returns on their money amount to “chump change” and are beneath them. They thus are easy marks for hustlers with the pie-in-the-sky promises. Just last week an “investment adviser” to whom ex-basketball star Scottie Pippen entrusted $20 million was sentenced to three years in prison for fraud. That was only the most recent in a long string of such developments.

Similarly, while the dollar amounts of the contracts top athletes sign now are routinely reported publicly, the non-monetary perks some get don’t receive as much attention. These can include  private hotel rooms when their teams travel, season tickets or a stadium suite for family and friends, team contributions to favorite charities and the use of the team’s or owner’s private airplanes.

Perks are especially important to the big-time college football and basketball coaches whose riches belie their sports’ amateur pretentions. Their seven-figure annual salaries often are supplemented by cash bonuses based on wins or home attendance, country club memberships, free use of autos, sneaker deals and fat fees to sit still for an hour or so of softball questions on their weekly TV or radio shows. I read that when Mack Brown reupped as the football coach at the University of Texas a few years ago he got a $750 gun-shop gift certificate in addition to the aforementioned swag.

About the only edifying part of the LaRoche affair was the light it shone on how baseball clubhouses are run these days. When players or teams want to limit news-media access their digs, as they do from time to time, they’re fond of saying that their inner sanctums are sacrosanct places where only serious business is conducted. In fact, they’re more like sports bars to which pre- or post-game credentials routinely are issued to players’ kids, male pals, agents and other business associates, “personal assistants” (i.e., gofers) and anyone else to whom favors are owed.

 When Pete Rose managed the Cincinnati Reds his weight-room buddies, who doubled as his bet runners, had free run of the place.  Try getting away with that at work sometime.
  







Tuesday, March 15, 2016

STARS WANTED

              It may sound odd to say it but the year 1994 may have been the high-water mark for American soccer. The U.S. hosted the World Cup that year and for the first time the American public got to see the rest of the globe’s most-popular sport at its highest level. The response was electric— total and average attendance during the month-long tournament set a record that’s yet to be exceeded despite the fact that the field was expanded to 32 teams from 24 at the next go-round, in 1998.
              
              Maybe better, the U.S. National Team, which had never qualified for the true World Series over a 32-year span (1954-86), and which fielded a semi-pro lineup and went winless when it finally made it in 1990, did far better than expected, tying Switzerland and upsetting Columbia to qualify for a round-of-16 berth and there losing to eventual-champion Brazil by a respectable score of 1-0. For a sports-proud nation that was just discovering the game of the foot, quick graduation to soccer’s highest level seemed inevitable. Hey, we’re Yanks, and when it comes to sports we can do anything we set our minds to. Right?

              But here we are 22 years later and the expected improvement has not come. Yes, the U.S. did reach the Cup’s quarterfinal round in 2002, and now fields solidly professional national teams, yet we’re still on the outside looking in at the game’s elite. The national team stood 30th in the latest world rankings, just one place ahead of the Cape Verdi Islands (no kidding), and while it’s still favored to make the next World Cup, to be staged in lovely Russia in 2018, that’s not a foregone conclusion. It finished 2015 with five losses and a draw in its last eight games, and didn’t make it to an important regional tournament. A home-and-home World Cup qualifying-round series with Guatemala will be played March 25 and 29, and “should win” has become “must win.” Nothing is being taken for granted any more.

              The problem isn’t that soccer hasn’t gained in popularity on these shores. Youth participation rivals that of our native sports of baseball, basketball and football, a national men’s professional league has taken root after several aborted starts and our women’s teams rule the world.  But while American men now can be found on the rosters of pro leagues around the globe they still aren’t among the best players on the best teams.  In brief, we’ve developed journeymen but not stars, and until that changes we’ll be soccer also-rans.

              The U.S. has produced some very good players but none of first-rank quality. The best, probably, was Landon Donovan, the scoring star of the 2002, ’06 and ’10 World Cup teams. Close behind him were the goalies Brad Friedel and, later, Tim Howard, who just about singlehandedly kept U.S. hopes alive into the playoffs of 2014 Cup play. Donovan, though, never really registered on the world scale, and although Friedel and Howard had solid careers in the English Premier League both were, after all, goalies, so their glow was muted. When your team’s best player is a goalie, you’ve got a problem.

              Our occasional phenoms, kids who showed preternatural skill, similarly haven’t panned out—the names of Freddie Adu and Jonathan Spector come quickest to mind. The Ghanian-born Adu, who came to the U.S. at age eight, was signed as a pro at 14 and moved to Europe at 18, but quickly plateaued there. Spector was signed as a teen by the powerful Manchester United franchise but never made the varsity.

 DeAndre Yedlin, Bobby Wood, John Brooks, Julian Green and Jordan Morris, all in their early 20s, have showed flashes of brilliance as young national-team members but have yet to develop dependable, well-rounded games. They may or may not be important parts of the current World Cup qualifying process. If they aren’t, that will leave any improvement to such veterans as Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore, good players but ones that don’t set the sport afire.

One reason the U.S. still lags in soccer, even after some strenuous trying, is the multiplicity of sporting options open to American kids. In most of Europe, Latin America and Africa, where soccer is supreme, any child who shows notable athletic ability is quickly funneled into the sport and heaped with all the attention and praise he needs to prosper. Here, basketball, baseball and football compete for the best, and in recent years that table has slanted so strongly toward basketball that baseball and football complain of talent deficits. What kind of soccer player would Stephen Curry have made? What kind of shortstop, for that matter?

 Another reason is, perhaps perversely, the recent establishment of Major League Soccer as an American sports presence. Offering good salaries and a comfortable playing environment, the league provides employment for most U.S. National Team members, but it’s a second-tier circuit, well behind the top leagues of England, Germany, Spain and Italy, so its players don’t get whatever benefits obtain from competing against their betters. Jurgen Klinsmann, the U.S. National Team’s German-born coach, is engaged in a running squabble with MLS over his preference that the better American players hone their skills abroad rather than staying home. So far he’s been losing.

My view is that soccer hasn’t been part of the national consciousness long enough to have made a genetic impression on American boys, who are happy enough playing the game as children but turn to the hereditary staples of B, B and F once they reach high school age. Darwin taught us that species change in time, but the span can be long.  The year 1994 was only about a generation away and it may take a couple more before our gene pool can create a Messi or a Ronaldo. As a nation we’re not long on patience, but it may be necessary here. Sorry.

             
                           


Tuesday, March 1, 2016

UNDERHANDEDNESS

              When I attended Roosevelt High School in Chicago (1951-55), Sam Edelcup was the basketball coach.  I wasn’t on his team (not nearly) but he was my gym teacher a couple of semesters, and I wrote sports for the school newspaper, the Rough Rider Review, so we became more than nodding acquaintances.

              He was a very nice man and a good coach—the 1952 Public League championship his team won was the school’s first and, as far as I know, last such title. But any athletic ability he’d possessed as a youth was hard to discern in what I judged to be his middle 50s. At 5-feet-3 or -4 inches tall he was a good foot shorter than some of his players, and his stocky build did not attest to agility.

              Nonetheless, Mr. Edelcup had a standing challenge to his team’s members to try to beat him in a best-of-10 free-throw-shooting contest, and legend had it they rarely did.  His method was to stand on the free-throw line with feet wide apart, grip the ball with a hand on each side, bend his knees slightly and from between his legs flip it basketward underhanded in a soft arc. Not only did the shot almost invariably go in, it usually did so cleanly, without troubling backboard or rim.

              Back in peach-basket days, I’m told, many players shot their charity tosses that way, but even by the 1950s two-handed shots of any kind had all but vanished from the sport, and not even many Roosevelt varsity players followed their coach’s lead. That’s despite the fact that his was a simple, natural motion that’s easily to emulate and usually effective. Rick Barry, a basketball Hall of Famer, learned it from his dad and used it throughout college and a 14-year pro career that he concluded, in 1980, as the best free-throw shooter in league history. His near-90% mark from the line still ranks fourth on the NBA’s all-time list, less than 1% behind that of the leader, Steve Nash.

              Barry was a flinty individualist who didn’t much care about appearances or what others thought. That’s crucial to this discussion. Athletes usually are the most suggestible of people, eager to try any fad or gimmick that might improve their fortunes. Yogurt diets, meditation, old sweat socks and all manner of equipment oddments come under this heading. If a baseball player shaved one side of his head and let the other side grow, and raised his batting average by 20 points, pretty soon you’d see half a league full of half-bald players. But ask them to try something that might make them look a bit awkward or uncool—or worse, feminine—and they’ll balk, even if what they’re doing patently doesn’t work.

              Harking back to the underhand method is pertinent because the NBA now has a problem with the consequences of bad free-throw shooting.  The phenomenon dates from the days when late in games trailing teams intentionally fouled Wilt Chamberlain, who was awful at the line (51% careerwise) in an attempt to gain cheap possessions, but it’s popularly called “Hack a Shaq” because the practice was revived during the more-recent tenure of the almost-equally-inept Shaquille O’Neal (and because “Hack a Wilt” doesn’t rhyme). 

              Today the most-popular targets are the Detroit Pistons’ Andre Drummond and the L.A. Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan, whose FT success rate (Drummond’s 38%, Jordan’s 42%) make fellow big men Shaq and Wilt look like Annie Oakleys.  Fouling them and other poor shooters down the homestretch of games, as opponents are wont to do, can turn the last two minutes of playing time  into a half-hour slog instead of the usual 20 minutes or so. Worse, some teams have taken to employing the tactic earlier, irking fans by slowing things further.

              The practice has reached the point where Adam Silver, the NBA’s commish, is saying he’ll be looking into rules changes to prevent it.  Any change, though, would require two-thirds approval by team owners, and such consensus can be hard to reach.

              A better way out, I think, would be to make the perps in question better free-throw shooters, possibly by going underhanded. A few weeks ago I was spinning my TV dial in search of after-dinner entertainment when I chanced on a University of Louisville basketball game involving one Chinanu Onuako. There he was, on the line in front of everyone, flipping ‘em up the way Sam Edelcup (and Rick Barry) did.

              A computer search revealed Onuako, who stands 6-feet-10 and weighs about 245 pounds, to be a good player on a good college team. A sophomore from Lanham, Maryland, he is employed primarily as a rebounder and shot blocker, but often scores in double figures as well and is rated as a good NBA prospect.
            
             He’s also a smart young man—an ACC All-Academic teamer as a freshman-- who has reasoned that better FT shooting would make him more valuable to his team and more attractive to the pros. That was what prompted his style change this season even though it has required a thick skin. “My teammates laughed at me when I started,” he told a writer from the ESPN website. Indeed, the writer couldn’t restrain himself from adding some rhetorical jabs, calling the practice “funny looking” and “granny style.” Such is the lot of the nonconformist.
             
              It would be nice to say that underhanded free-throw shooting has made Onuako into an ace. It hasn’t, but he’s upped his percentage to about 57% from 47% last year, and he’s just getting the hang of it. So let’s hear it for the boy.  I hope he thrives and prospers.
             
             
             
             

              

Monday, February 15, 2016

THE DOG THAT DIDN'T BARK

              As a sports columnist, and later as a blogger, I rarely wrote about the National Hockey League except to criticize it. I found its tolerance of extracurricular fighting to be an obnoxious pandering to its least-knowledgeable fans.  College hockey exists nicely without brawling and every four years the best professional players gather to stage a thrilling Olympics tournament while keeping their hands to themselves. A league that doesn’t respect its sport deserves no respect, I reasoned.

My unhappiness with the game was specific as well as general. In 1969, when I returned to my native Chicago after a 10-year sojourn, I fell into a piece of a season ticket for the NHL Blackhawks, and thrilled to the exploits of Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and their mates. The trouble was that Arthur Wirtz, the portly pirate in a three-piece suit who owned the team, raised the price of everything every year. When he let Hull, an all-time Chicago sports hero, jump to a new league in 1972 for an annual salary that was soon to become ordinary ($100,000 a year), I kissed the team goodbye.

Arthur died in 1983 and bequeathed the Hawks to his son Bill, nicknamed “The Commodore” for his fondest for tooling around Lake Michigan on his yacht. Bill was as rapacious as his dad but much less smart. I cheered when he ran the team into the ground in the 1990s, causing attendance to dive and ridicule to rise.  One news organization (can’t remember which) named the Blackhawks the worst-run franchise in U.S. pro sports during his ownership.

But Bill, too, passed on, in 2007, and the team went to his son, William Rockwell, or “Rocky”, who proved to be quite different from his forebears. From all reports he treats his team’s fans as customers, and thoroughly revamped its image and front office. In 2010, after some brilliant drafting, the Hawks won their first Stanley Cup in 49 years, and repeated that accomplishment in 2013 and last year. Chicago, which the great ex-Tribune columnist Bob Verdi once called “the city of broad shoulders and narrow trophy cabinets,” couldn’t be more pleased.

I’ve lived in Arizona for 18 years now but, I blush to admit, the Hawks’ success and my own nativism has sucked me back into hockey. I watched mostly playoff games in 2010 and ’13. Last season, thanks to expanded TV coverage, I watched some regular-season games as well, and this season I’ve further upped my viewing.

I was watching a Hawks’ game the other night when it occurred to me that, of late, the NHL had changed. Although I haven’t watched every minute of every one of the half-dozen contests I’ve tuned into, I couldn’t recall seeing a fight this season, and remarked as much to wife Susie, who watches with me. Last week Chris Kuc, who covers the team for the Trib, confirmed my observation with a story that said on-ice fights have been less frequent in the league as a whole, dropping to 236 in the 736 games that had been played to that point in the current campaign against 251 in that span the season before, 323 in the season before that, and 347 in 2012-13. A little math reveals that the three-year decline comes to about a third, a quite-substantial figure.

The piece was short on reasons for the reduction, venturing only that the recent advent of hard-plastic face masks, which deter fists as well as pucks, could play a role. It noted—significantly, I thought-- that neither the league nor the players’ union had taken any actions to address the issue during the period in question.

That leads to the unavoidable conclusion that the players have done this on their own—that they’ve wised up and decided, individually, that bare-knuckles fighting is a distraction from the skating, passing and shooting they are paid to do. Paid well, in fact, with the average salary in the league having risen to about $2.6 million. That kind of money has a way of making its recipients more protective of their careers, as well as their facial features.

 And, maybe, they’ve read the newspapers and learned that the kind of serious head injuries that have received the most attention in the National Football League can affect their game also. A lawsuit by 10 former players against the league, alleging that it ignored or underplayed evidence of the long-term effects of concussions, first was filed for 10 plaintiffs a few years back. Now the plaintiff list has grown to 105.

Additionally, six former players who filled the role of “enforcer” for their NHL teams (a unique position in any sport, by the way) have died between the ages of 27 and 49 since 2010, of suicide or drug overdoses. The connection to the lawsuit’s charges is not difficult to make.

There’s been no indication that the NHL is likely to follow the lead of the colleges and Olympics in cracking down hard enough on fights to make them rare, so the old joke “I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out” still will get laughs. Indeed, the continuing popularity of brawlers in the league was seen in the election of the pugnacious journeyman John Scott to the league’s recent All-Star Game, even though he’d been demoted to the minors for lack of other skills.


 Other players, though, seem to have concluded that that sort of celebrity comes at too high a price. Good for them and for my enjoyment of their exercises. 

Monday, February 1, 2016

QUESTIONS

              I turn 78 tomorrow (made it!) but find the world as puzzling as I did a year ago. Here are more questions for which I have no answers.
             
              --If “awful” means “terrible” why does “awesome” mean “wonderful”?
            
             -- So when did so many people start prefacing every remark with the word “so”?

              --Why is it news when an athlete who never has anything to say decides to stop talking to the press?

              --Why do people who decry very-large salaries for athletes not blink at $35m per for Roger Goodell, whom no one would pay to watch?

              --Would you spend big money to air a TV ad for a drug if you had to admit that its possible side effects range from constipation to sudden death?

              --Why does Hillary Clinton need dozens of paid advisers to tell her what she thinks? Most of the Republican presidential candidates receive the same service from just one or two billionaire campaign donors.

              --Why did the Republican presidential-candidate brigade knock itself out to win the goofy Iowa caucuses, whose last two GOP winners were Rick Santorum (2012) and Mike Huckabee (2008)?

--Why does every auto insurer claim that its annual premiums are $400-a-year cheaper than those of every other insurer? If that were true they’d owe us money.

              --Why are autos expected to have mufflers while motorcyclists can make all the noise they want?

              -- Similarly, why do bicyclists feel exempt from obeying the traffic laws that constrain motorists?

              --Why does anyone keep financial information in his computer when it’s clear that criminals can hack into it at will?

              --Has John McCain ever has seen a war he didn’t want the U.S. to join, not to mention the ones he’d like us to start?

              --In discussions of water use in the drought-stricken West, why is so little attention given to the 80%-or-so share that goes to agriculture? Is it worth five gallons of water to grow a single walnut?

              --If American Indians are great stewards of the land, why do they keep coming up with ideas like gondola rides in the Grand Canyon?

               --Why does Major League Baseball insist that team managers wear the same uniforms as the players? If it’s because managers sometimes go on the playing field, couldn’t an outfit be devised that doesn’t make middle-aged men look silly?

              --Isn’t it interesting that people over 100 years old have such different answers when they’re asked for the reasons for their longevity?

              --Isn’t it great that John McEnroe did a commercial for a toenail-fungus remedy? I thought he’d never amount to anything after tennis.

`             --Does any other industry go out of its way to infuriate its customers the way the airlines do?

              --Why must I suppress a snicker every time I see a guy about my age wearing an earring or a pony tail?

              --Has Donald Trump ever uttered a sentence that didn’t contain the words “I” or “me”? Does he have any answers to our national problems besides a vague promise to “fix” them?

              --What’s the big deal over same-sex marriage? As Robin Williams said, everybody who’s married knows it’s always the same sex.

              -- Do the people upset by Atticus Finch’s racist past understand that he’s a fictional character?

              --Could the Internet operate without the “recover webpage” box? You’d think all those smart nerds out there could create websites that wouldn’t keep needing to be recovered.

              --Do people who repeatedly use the word “incredible” think it makes them seem more credible?

              --How did all those little kids happily clacking away on computers learn to type?

              --How come people buy Vladimir Putin’s self-crafted image as a dynamic action figure? He’s playing a bad hand, ignoring mounting domestic problems to fight wars he can’t afford and eventually will lose.

              --How did the vaccines that are among the most important advances in public health become a subject of partisan wrangling in the U.S.? Don’t Republicans think their children can get sick?

              --Do gun owners know that if their weapons are fired in their homes the most likely victims will be family members?

              -- What makes people think that defeating ISIS on the ground would eliminate it as a terrorism threat? Al Qaeda controls no territory but still is able to pull off international nastiness. 

-- Are there any more-dispiriting words in sports than “there’s a flag on the play”? In its never-ending quest for officiating perfection the NFL has turned its game into a slog.

--Why is a short-term stock market decline of 10% or more called a “correction”? Is my new (lower) portfolio balance now more “correct” than it was a month or so ago?  Can I “correct” my bills in the same way?

--Who will back-seat drivers have to criticize when driverless cars come into vogue?

            
            Just askin’. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

UNREQUITED LOVE

              Carole King (nee, Klein) memorably asked the musical question “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” When the National Football League is involved the answer is “probably not.”
         
              This has been shown repeatedly in past years and once again this week, when league owners voted to allow the St. Louis Rams to move to the Los Angeles area, gave a “maybe” to the San Diego Chargers if they’d share with the Rams a yet-to-be-built suburban stadium, and a “probably not” to the Oakland Raiders, who could move if the Chargers don’t.  In the process they stiffed fans in one city and left those of two others in limbo. It amounted to musical chairs with only one chair for three contestants, a losers’ game if there ever was one.
         
             Not only fan loyalties were disregarded. In recent years few NFL stadiums have been built without taxpayer funds or loan guarantees, and even so-called private ones require the local municipality to pay up big in the form of tax breaks, land acquisition, access roads and game-day policing. The NFL puts a gun to cities’ heads and says “Your money or your team.” Even when the answer is “here’s the money” (St. Louis put together a $1.9 billion new-stadium proposal calling for $400 million in public funds), the league can pull the trigger.

              The tenor of the process was best exemplified by Enos Stanley (“Stan”) Kroenke, the real estate and sports billionaire who owns the Rams. In turning down St. Louis’s stadium offer he salted the earth by calling the city a “two-sport town” (the sports being baseball and hockey) and added that any team that might accept its plan was headed for “financial ruin.” Nice guy, huh? Interestingly, Kroenke is a Missouri native who was named for St. Louis (baseball) Cardinals greats Enos Slaughter and Stan Musial.

It’s true that the Rams are the team with the strongest ties to Los Angeles, but historically they’ve been peripatetic. They were started in 1939 as the Cleveland Rams and won an NFL championship in that city in 1945, but the next year moved west in search of sunnier skies and greater revenues. They stayed in L.A. proper until 1980, when they quit the vast Coliseum for Anaheim Stadium, 26 miles to the south. When that didn’t work out either, they moved to St. Louis in 1995. They were lured in part by a new stadium, now called the Edward Jones Dome. It was state-of-the-art when it was built 20 years ago, but that was then and this is now.

              Not being an Angelino I don’t know if any Ram sentiment still resides in the area, but the Rams never were notably successful there. You have to go back the 1950s days of Bob Waterfield and “Crazy Legs” Hirsch—or, at least, to the 1960s and ‘70s “Fearsome Foursome”—to remember much glory. To put the latter era in perspective, Merlin Olsen, the Foursome’s most-noted member, died six years ago at age 69.

              The Raiders were born in 1959 as part of the then-new American Football League. They stayed in Oakland for 22 years, but those were marked by almost continual struggles between their contentious owner, Al Davis, and the perennially hard-up city over the team’s accommodations at the Oakland Coliseum, built in 1966. The team won Super Bowls in 1976 and ‘80, adopted a motorcycle-gang persona and developed a devoted and sometimes bizarre fan base, but those folks loved the Raiders more than the Raiders loved them. Davis tried to move the team to L.A. as early as 1980, and when his fellow owners balked sued them under anti-trust law and moved anyway.  The team did well there initially on the field, winning another SB in ’83, but never caught on with fans and returned to Oakland in 1995.  Oakland has a financial proposal on the table but its funding is uncertain. The itch to move of Mark Davis, the team’s present owner, won’t help in that respect.

               Maybe the saddest story is that of the Chargers. They lived in L.A. only for their initial AFL year—1959-60—before moving south. They’ve been there since, a stretch of 55 years. For the last 49 years they’ve played in what’s currently called Qualcomm Stadium. It might have been spiffy when it was opened in 1967 but now it’s outmoded by any measure. San Diego has upgraded the place over the years but has balked at replacing it. A new-stadium proposal has been developed under NFL prodding, but can’t proceed until a referendum is held in June. Having renounced their long-time home, it’s hard to see how the team can continue to operate there.
             
               The argument often is made that having an NFL franchise is good for a city’s morale and economy. The first assertion probably is true but the second is questionable. A large stadium- construction project brings a short-term employment spike, but most of the other jobs such a place creates (vendors, ushers, ticket-takers, security people) are occasional and low paying. The big majority of people who attend games are locals who’d be in the city anyway and merely are shifting their spending from one local entertainment to another. If they have a meal on game day they bring it themselves (tailgating) or grab a hot dog in the stadium.
             
                Further, NFL tickets averaged $85 each (mostly for lousy seats) last season, beyond the reach of many of the families whose tax dollars help build the sports palaces. It’s another example of the poor subsidizing the rich in this land of ours.
              
                It’s far from clear whether two or even one NFL team will thrive in L.A. The Rams’ new stadium won’t be done until 2019, so they’ll have to play at least three seasons in the old Coliseum, not a formula for success. There’s plenty else to do on Sundays in warm-weather cities, which is partly why L.A. spit out the Rams and Raiders previously. Has that changed?    

The bottom line is that the NFL isn’t shy about rallying civic pride when it wants to come to a city, but doesn’t give a hoot about it when it’s leaving. Like many other things these days it’s about money—yours going to them. Keep that it mind the next time you buy an NFL jersey or paint your face in your team’s colors.