Tuesday, July 01, 2008

I just can't help myself

I know that ESPN is all about puff these days. Trying to find something that actually analyzes sport or the business that surrounds it is difficult when pushing through all the flab of personality pieces, regurgitated press releases and "frat-fan" pandering. The most insipid content on ESPN.com are the feature columnists, who read like the editorial page of a badly out-of-touch regional newspaper, myopically hearkening back to a world that never existed outside of their heads, appealing to whatever they might believe will get Joe Fan out of their seat, spilling their domestic beer in righteous outrage, regardless of whether what they're saying is relevant or correct.

Knowing this, I should really stop a. reading it and/or b. stop writing self-righteous screeds about them on MFF. However, I can't help myself. I like sports. I like what sports journalism has a chance to be and if nothing else, I like letting off steam by taking people to task when I feel like they're using their platform in a less than meritorious fashion.

The target of today's bile is Good Ol' Gene Wojciechowski, a MFF favorite (along with Pat Forde) because he represents the worst of ESPN's "voice", that being an easy, middle-of-the-road white-bread "fan's view" that could very well be automatically generated by a machine in a Bristol basement and is almost always unfailingly bone-headed to the point where I wonder if a cranial cavity is involved at all.

The article in question.

The issue is whether NFL rookie contracts are too generous. I think that there's a pretty obvious answer there, which is: "yes". When teams are more interested in trading down and getting rid of higher (read: better) draft picks for purely financial reasons, then something is amiss and it's no surprise that the NFL would want to address the issue. Yes, NFL management made a mistake in letting this situation occur in the first place and yes, the player's union is absolutely correct in not wanting it to change. It's a sticky problem and it's unlikely that it will be elegantly resolved.

Which is why it's reasonable for Wojciechowski to chide the NFL management in terms of letting it occur and then appearing to the bad guys by asking the union to help fix things up. Fair enough.

Then he goes on to point out that hey, the Dolphins are pretty excited about this Chris Long guy, enough so that they signed him before the draft and sent his agent a medal for helping it get done. So, since a team appears to be happy with the player that they drafted first overall, a player who has yet to play a snap in the NFL, I guess this means that there isn't a problem. A single pick, taken out of context and heavily relying on supposition that the player involved will pan out, is proof enough that the system works. Huzzah!

After this, he points out that football players operate under different rules than the average working man. Good point, Gene! I commend you on not pulling out the "George Fanguy moves from Midway Accounting to Takahashi Inc. as accounting fans boo hysterically from the sidewalk" trope that mid-rate columnists like to drag out like a distentegrating corpse, instead restraining yourself to merely stating that people who earn astronomical amounts of money to play a game are beholden to rules and regulations that don't apply to say, somebody who runs a hot dog stand.

The next step is to needle Goodell for not taking a pay cut himself and then launch into a full-scale assault on the NFL for pricing out fans. While high executive pay and the rising cost of attending sporting events are definitely issues that deserve debate and investigation, I fail to see how they're relevant to the problem of high rookie contracts acting as a disincentive to the point where they become more important than actual athletic talent. For one thing, the NBA, which has a rookie contract system that Goodell would like to mimic, still has the executive pay and high seat prices problems of the NFL, which would seem to indicate that there doesn't seem to be a direct connection those and having a less grandiose system for determining rookie contracts. And if there's no connection, you have to wonder exactly why it would be brought up unless these are subjects that will appeal to the fan that is being priced out and spark a resentment of perceived elitism that creates a kneejerk response in lieu of actually having to write something thoughtful. Or maybe we don't, because that seems to make a lot of sense.

Wojciechowski then brings up that the league and its owners are making a shit-ton of money. This is not really debatable. Jerry Jones could pay for a facelift for every NFL fan worldwide and still have enough money left over to make the country of Bolivia dance for his amusement. The league itself has reached an unprecedented position of success in American sports and bestrides the continent like a money-stuffed colossus. What this has to do with the fact that draft picks have lost value because of the structure of rookie contracts, I'm not entirely sure, beyond acting as an incentive to rile up fans about how they're gettin' screwed by the fat cats in the NFL front office. Oh, looks like I answered my own question again.

The main problem I have with this piece is that it promotes this ridiculously simplistic worldview where if Goodell says "We are currently giving rookies too much money" the response is "Well, you've got lots and lots of money, so why do you have a problem giving it to the people who play the game?" It seems reasonable at first; however, once you start thinking about the situation, the issue isn't about total pay, it's about how giving untested players a lot of money right off the bat makes it difficult for teams to improve through the draft since the rookies are going to be taking up money from the cap that could be used for proven players, money that might as well be tossed into a furnace if these rookies (as many don't) don't pan out. The issue here is how rookie contracts affect competitive balance, something that is near and dear to the NFL's (black, oozing, money-stuffed) heart, not protecting the bottom line. (A conclusion that is made even more ridiculous by the fact that there's a salary cap.)

In closing: ESPN is horrible. Gene Wojciechowski writes intellectually dishonest columns. And we're a bunch of spiteful jerks. Everybody have a safe Fourth!