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Feinstein: Greed, Not Common Sense, Rules Sports

Doing the right thing – or the thing that makes the most sense – should be easy. But greed gets in the way, John Feinstein says

John Feinstein
April 18, 2018 - 10:59 am

During the NFL lockout in 2011, I was talking to someone in the NFL, someone who knew the details of the dispute. At one point I said to him, “David Stern and Gary Bettman both pleaded poverty during their lockouts and they sounded ridiculous. If your guys try that, people will laugh out loud.”
He looked at me and said, “The owners aren’t pleading poverty. They’re making plenty of money. What they’re saying is they think they should make MORE money.”
I applauded his honesty.
Greed is the word that defines and explains most things that happen in sports—and, I guess, in life. It starts with little league parents who see their talented kids as potential human ATM machines. I mean, what is a parent thinking when he or she sends a child to a gymnastics ranch or a year-round tennis or golf academy? Almost never does the kid say, "I want to do this."
If you don’t believe me, read Andre Agassi’s book. Or talk to Jim Courier. Or any of the girls forced to spend hours and hours a day training to become gymnastics stars. Or figure skaters.
Move up the ladder to high school stars—especially in basketball—who are suddenly surrounded by AAU coaches, agents, shoe-company reps AND relatives who just want to "help" in any way they can. Sonny Vaccaro, the man who basically invented shoe-company domination of basketball, used to say, “I just want to help kids.”
Of course, the kids Sonny helped always happened to be able to dunk or make a three-point shot. Coincidence, no doubt.
Gary Williams, the Hall-of-Fame basketball coach, retired from Maryland in 2011, not because he didn’t still love his sport, but because the games he had to play to field a competitive team had worn him out. He simply couldn’t bring himself to suck up to the shoe salesmen and AAU thieves who had control of many of the players he recruited. And the worst part?
“You finally get a kid after two years of telling him and everyone around him that he’s the greatest player on earth, that your dream in life is to coach him, and then, on the first day of practice, you have to explain to him that he doesn’t know the first thing about playing defense,” Williams said. “Most of the time, they just laugh in your face.”
And, nowadays, the most talented ones are gone to the NBA before they even consider the notion that playing defense might be important. Three years ago, I said to Mike Krzyzewski that Jahlil Okafor was about as bad a defensive player as I’d ever seen in a Duke uniform.
“He can’t guard anyone,” I said.
“Not true,” Krzyzewski said. “He can guard. He just chooses not to.”
I thought about all of this on Tuesday, reading Anthony Rizzo’s comments on April baseball. The weather has been especially bad this spring, with a record number of games postponed either for rain or snow. Many games have been played in frigid conditions completely unfit for baseball. It feels as if half the players in uniform are wearing ski masks.
Tuesday night, flipping from game-to-game, I came to the Rockies and Pirates. It was snowing. I don’t mean snowing a little, I mean snowing a lot. The game continued because, I guess, the powers-that-be didn’t want to have to schedule another doubleheader.
On a Chicago radio station earlier this week, Rizzo, who is one of baseball’s more thoughtful people, made a simple suggestion: let’s play fewer games in April even if that means players make less money.
The idea makes absolute sense. The baseball season is WAY too long as is, with postseason now stretching into November because 12 teams make the playoffs. Once upon a time baseball seasons lasted six months—mid-April to mid-October. That’s why Jackie Robinson Day is April 15th. Back then that was opening day. Now the season is seven months-plus.
Of course baseball’s isn’t the only season that’s too long: Both the NHL and NBA play 82 games to eliminate less than half the teams. Then they stretch the playoffs out forever to accommodate television.
Why are seasons so long? We all know the answer’s the same as why kids get sent to gymnastics camp: money. The owners want to bleed every dollar they can out of their fans and their TV contracts.
That’s why when games are rained or snowed out they are almost always re-scheduled as split—as in separate admission—doubleheaders. The owners don’t care if almost no one shows up for the afternoon end of one of those doubleheaders—or the night end on a Sunday as the Tigers were going to attempt last weekend before weather mercifully intervened—because they’re still collecting from their season ticket holders and anyone else who shows up is a bonus.
Why, you wonder, do NCAA Tournament basketball games seem to take forever? Well, if you add in 10 required TV timeouts of about three minutes each and a twenty-minute halftime—which is usually closer to 22—and throw in 30-second timeouts that take at least a minute, you are talking about ONE hour of required dead time. The dolts on the NCAA basketball committee shrug at this, point out that CBS and TBS pay their bills and could care less about what all the starts and stops do to the quality of the games, not to mention the fan experience in the arena. The 10:30 starts? Who cares? The so-called "student-athletes" do what they’re told.
The presidents, the ones who always want to be called, “Doctor,” and constantly refer to "student-athletes" – as if that will somehow prove that big-time hoops and football aren’t an academic sham – couldn't care less about any of this. As long as the golden goose of TV is laying those golden eggs, they’re happy. The FBI investigation? Oh, they’re SHOCKED that cheating’s going on.
NCAA President Mark Emmert, shakes his head, clucks a little bit, appoints a commission headed by that noted sports expert Condoleezza Rice and tells his fellow presidents, "That will keep things quiet for a while."
We all know people need and want to make money. I’m being paid to write this column (not enough, but still…) and everyone works for a living. But Rizzo’s saying something that should be listened to: where’s the tipping point? What if the owners and the players union got together and both sides agreed that they can all afford to make a little less?
Baseball’s always bragging about setting attendance and revenue records. Players salaries have skyrocketed. The current minimum salary for a Major League player is a little more than $500,000. What if that went down to $400,000? What if owners’ revenues went down, say 10 percent? Would anyone starve?
No. But it won’t happen. If a union leader or commissioner stepped to a microphone and said, "We need to play less and make less," he’d be out of a job in a matter of hours.
Greed rules—not common sense or doing the right thing.
People often like to point out that they have the RIGHT to do things: own a gun; lay people off from jobs; raise ticket prices; start basketball games at 10:30 at night.
There’s no arguing any of that. But there’s a big difference between having the right to do something and doing the right thing.
It would be nice if SOMEONE in sports at any level decided this was the time to do so. I’m not holding my breath.
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,” was a New York Times bestseller for five months. His new Young Adult mystery—“The Prodigy,”—set at the Masters, will be out this summer.