You Got Served - Opening/exiting the circle

Happy Wednesday, friends, and welcome to You Got Served.  I finally have a running home computer, $500 and three weeks later, so I’m aiming to give you a good one here, to the extent that the current news environment allows.  Armed with Raekwon’s excellent new album Shaolin Vs Wu-Tang, excitement that the local Cleveland weather is breaking, and tentative plans to take Thursday off to play outdoor golf, I’m all set to get this thing started.  Ready… BEGIN!!!

1.  I haven’t written since my brief decertification reaction piece last Friday night, and a lot has happened since then - that is, if you’re measuring in public posturing by representatives of both sides and horribly ill-informed commentary by most football media types.  Good heavens!  Has it gotten too personal to reach an agreement?  Get used to this answer.  No.  It’s just business.

In terms of progress, all that’s happened is that the hearing to rule on the players’ injunction against the lockout was scheduled for April 6th.  My expectation continues to be that the injunction will be granted, and this will have been the most meaningless lockout ever.  I don’t consider it a foregone conclusion that 2010 rules will be adopted, as the ones from 2009 were much more in line with the concepts outlined in the 1993 settlement that became the last CBA.  A case could be made for either model, and I suspect that the outcome will be the result of a loose negotiation between the judge (presumably David Doty), and lawyers from the two sides.

After that, we’ll have free agency and trading of some flavor, and depending on the timing of a ruling, it will work in some sort of conjunction with the Draft.  Teams will either know who their rookies are before having access to free agents, or they won’t.  I don’t think the order matters, in either case.  As always, teams will have access to three player acquisition methods, period.

The negotiation/litigation will continue in the background, non-disruptively, and eventually, either some sort of settlement will be reached (more likely), or the judge will make some blanket rulings that find the NFL to be in violation of antitrust laws (less likely – the owners are fronting like they have the upper hand, but they absolutely do not if it gets too far into litigation).

In any case, we’ll have games this season, and that will take all of the urgency out of the process.  The players can live with either the 2009 or 2010 rules, because they have to be seeing a good chance for serious advances on the other side of this process, one way or another.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Sirius NFL Radio lately, in small bursts.  That’s because I can’t take the fans who call in for very long.  Usually, I’m annoyed that they don’t know much football, but lately, it’s worse because they have far less feel for this labor situation.  In either case, they all want to tell you why the players or the owners are wrong.  The Sirius crew has been conducting asinine call-in polls asking which side is to blame.  Sigh.

I think that the way the overall media presents and analyzes news has made us stupid in this country.  It’s all a function of politics - because anymore, all news seems to be presented with one political slant or another.  You have one cable news network, FOX News, that enthusiastically takes the side of the conservative political spectrum, and slants their coverage heavily in that direction.  Another, MSNBC, is liberal in its evening programming, because that’s where Keith Olbermann found an underserved audience who was tired of CNN.  It was all about moving up in the ratings for the network execs, in other words.  (Of course, MSNBC canned Olbermann recently, and the biggest shot-caller among the on-air talent is the low-rated former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough.)  Liberals were tired of CNN, because they’re so scared of being called liberal that they spend all of their time giving voice to both sides of every argument, even if one or both are absurd, and have no basis in fact.  They’d find somebody who thinks the sky is purple, and give him time to talk, if some liberal wanted to talk about how blue it was, and why.

The main problem I have with all three is that they all focus on the horse race rather than the ultimate policy questions at hand.  It’s all about internet polls, partisan analysts trading rehearsed talking points, and Jack Cafferty reading letters from idiots who don’t know what they’re talking about.

We never get to important facts in our public discourse.  Let me give you a quick example.  In the United States, we spend by far the greatest percentage of our GDP on health care of any nation, just about twice as much as second-place Switzerland.  (That chart comes from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which is headed by the owner of the Jets, interestingly.)  In spending all of that money, you’d expect that we’re getting great health care, especially as you listen to talking points about how American care is the best in the world.

Turns out, we’re last in health outcomes among 16 highly industrialized countries, according to the very reputable Conference Board.  (Coincidentally, I’m attending a series of very expensive webcasts by The Conference Board about leveraging social media for business benefit, which starts Wednesday morning.)

For this purpose, I’m leaving the politics of this completely out of the discussion.  I’m just saying that spending the most and getting the least is clearly a whole lot of FAIL.  There’s cost on the X axis, and there’s effectiveness on the Y axis.  What else need be discussed in determining the present state of American health care?  Given this context, nobody could possibly argue that Americans are aggregately getting their money’s worth, and at a minimum, that knowledge would have a good chance of encouraging us all to put our heads together in coming up with some solutions in competing with the rest of the industrialized world, rather than just lying to ourselves that we’re doing better than them.

I wonder why the news media doesn’t share measurements of cost versus effectiveness.  I don’t think it’s too hard for the average viewer to understand, especially if you put it in graphical form.  All I can guess is that the owners of the media don’t want that information to be widely understood, probably for a variety of reasons.

I went to a political candidate training seminar at Ohio State University seven or eight years ago, and their key point was that you needed to be able to speak in 10-second soundbites, or the media who parse your words will lose the message and it won’t be repeated effectively.  That’s tremendously counterintuitive to a guy like me; writer-types (like me) usually can’t communicate effectively in a political arena, because we get bogged down in nuance and developing our points in a logical sequence.  Radio guys (like Adam Schein) win in political communication, because they are very comfortable concisely saying bold things with no support or nuance.

On health care, the story went like this.  The President sent signals that he wanted to pass health care reform, like every Democratic president since the 1930s has wanted to.  On FOX, a lot of wealthy people who get good health care talked about how there’s nothing wrong with the system.  This is good for them, and from FOX’s perspective, good for America.  On MSNBC, the liberals highlighted the 45 million people who were uninsured, because they couldn’t afford it.  This is bad for them, and from evening MSNBC’s perspective, bad for America.  Jack Cafferty read letters from all sides of the argument and made it seem like nobody could agree on anything (so, by implication, we should just leave it as it is).

Meanwhile, the whole discourse devolved into a discussion about arcane legislative procedures like filibusters, motions to recommit, and the number of amendments allowed on a particular question.  Poll after poll shows that nobody really cares about how the sausage is made, but the networks relentlessly discussed it.  The internet polls showed declining support.  The anti-reform rhetoric became one of many forms of “they’re ramming it down your throat.”  Hell, who wants anything rammed down their throat?  Anybody’s support of something like that would erode.  The Democrats eventually passed a watered-down bill and got shellacked in the 2010 midterm elections, at least partly owing to fallout from passing it.

If we had an objective and/or intelligent media, the whole process could have been much more productive by helping viewers/listeners/readers understand the simple, undisputable fact that at an aggregate level, the United States was (and still is) massively failing at allocating their resources effectively in ensuring the overall health of its citizens.  At that point, armed with this essential fact, a constructive dialogue may have happened about how to reduce costs and increase effectiveness.  All stakeholders could have participated in the discussion, and I would hope that a real solution could have been identified.

So that’s a mini-essay on the media’s handling of political messaging around health care policy on a football blog.  I know some of you are thinking, Ted, WTF?  Why have you been going down these paths lately?  The reason is that I think that an enormous part of how the CBA/decertification/lockout story is understood can be traced to how political messaging works in the media.  I’m setting a framework, so it’s a good thing that I’m not running for office - because Anderson Cooper would have been lost a long time ago.  In a general way, I want everybody who reads me to get used to rethinking the way in which they experience and process things that members of the media say, even me.  Trust us less, and do your own thinking.

I started briefly down this path Friday, but I’m going to go further now.  Let’s start with a question:  What exactly has happened that’s bad, to where we need to blame somebody?  At the moment, we’re in a lockout situation, but nobody who is in the know thinks that that will survive the injunction hearing.  That means that some league rules will be established, an offseason player acquisition cycle will begin, and a season will occur, maybe/probably several of these processes, until a settlement gets reached. 

The way I see this, both sides have just used the tactics available to them to maximize their negotiating position.  They’ve each done exactly as you would expect them to.  Tim Ryan of Sirius NFL Radio is clearly still salty because his old teammate Trace Armstrong lost out to DeMaurice Smith for the NFLPA’s Executive Director position.  Ryan has said twice in two days that players have buyer’s remorse about Smith and that they shouldn’t have hired him, because he was a litigator who was bent on litigating.  Ryan has a good football mind, but he has no sense of business or negotiation.

If I were an owner, I’d be pleased with the job done by Roger Goodell, Jeff Pash, and the rest of the NFL’s negotiating team.  They’re staying in the box strong like the owners all want.  There was probably never any avoiding the decertification of the players, because they weren’t going to agree to the deal that the owners were pushing.  The thing to do, then, is to litigate it out for a few years, try to win the PR battle (the NFL currently is), profit as much as possible during the interim period (probably under the 2010 rules), and keep pushing for a favorable deal vis-à-vis the 2006 extension, even if it ends up being only minimally favorable.  They’re going to do the best they can.  It’s not the NFL’s job to roll over, and they didn’t.

If I were a player, I’d be equally pleased with the job done by DeMaurice Smith, George Atallah and their team to date.  The NFL was playing for a homerun here, and the NFLPA had no need to give them one.  It’s fairly clear that in antitrust litigation, the players are going to win.  They’ve known this since 1993, but the NFL gave them enough to keep them out of court.  This time, Smith and company correctly expected that that wouldn’t happen, and prepared for that inevitability.  Remember, Smith got the job on March 16, 2009.  (Today is actually his two-year anniversary.) 

The owners opted out of the 2006 CBA extension in 2008, which sent the strong signal that we were heading exactly where we are now.  The NFLPA’s executive committee read the tea leaves correctly in selecting a litigator, because this was probably always heading exactly where it has.  The players of the 32 NFL teams all unanimously voted to authorize the executive committee to decertify last September and October.  The other option was capitulation, and why would the players do that?  The NFLPA (trade association) will play this thing out over the long term and get the best deal they can.  It’s not the NFLPA’s job to roll over - and like the NFL, they didn’t.

We’re quite simply at a place right now where two entities that are trying to win are still trying to win.  The game is far from over, and that’s okay.  Neither side is right or wrong in any moral sense.  They’re just acting in their own best interests, like anybody with any sense would. 

In this era of participatory Cafferty-style “journalism”, this whole thing has become about raking the muck and encouraging everybody to oversimplify and blame somebody.  Callers!  We have open lines!  Call 877-NFL-KICK, and tell us who’s to blame!  Of course, there has to be a negative tone to it, or it wouldn’t be news.  If it bleeds, it leads, you heard?

Sirius NFL Radio is hosting the health care debate all over again.  In the morning, you might hear Bob Papa (an employee of both the New York Giants and NFL Network) subtly taking the side of the owners.  Maybe Peter King joins him and fawns a bit over Roger Goodell, who he clearly personally admires.  He might also occasionally make a point that agrees with the players.  (Pete wrote a pretty solid MMQB this week that seemed like he got this arcane business stuff better than most football writers do, so good on him.)  Maybe it’s Ross Tucker instead, who’s very bright and fearless and is very pro-player, having recently been one himself. 

Then it’s Adam Schein and somebody like Rich Gannon from 11-3 ET, and they’re usually careful to love on the people who appear on their show.  One day it’s Jeff Saturday, and they let him say what he wants and seem to respect his point of view.  The next day it’s Jeff Pash, and the same phenomenon occurs.  (My theory would be that Schein and accompaniment are happy to get good guests, so they normally don’t work to offend them.  That’s a reasonable operational approach to keeping a radio show going, but it doesn’t serve the listener base very well.)  Anyway, this plays out like Chris Matthews’ crappy Hardball show on MSNBC, where both sides get to say their talking points, even though both are telling 40% truth and 60% lies.  Schein and accompaniment conclude by throwing up their hands and saying, well, it’s the fans who are losing out.  Saturday and Pash can both gracefully agree with that statement and take their leave.  No clarity is gained.

In the afternoon drive slot, Pat Kirwan and Tim Ryan try to keep it more football related, but when they get into the CBA stuff, it goes further sideways.  Ryan doesn’t get what’s going on and pines for Armstrong, whom he thinks would have been a panacea.  Right.  He was going to convince the owners to take a player-favorable deal, for some reason.  Kirwan hasn’t seemed to have gotten the memo about the coming injunction, and he cautiously seems to blame the players' side - especially DeMaurice Smith.

Meanwhile, all these calls are coming in from people who don’t know the first thing about this.  That’s not their fault, of course - because labor law, accounting, and business theory are complex.  (I’m selfishly glad that knowledge of some of this is limited, because it keeps me employed at a respectable salary.)  These players either do the whole daddy-worship/love the rich thing, or they used to be in pipe layer’s Local 11, and they’re for the union.  I’m sure that all of this is just stirring up more people, and promoting more circular discussion so it can continue tomorrow.  At that point, I change the channel.

Neither side is morally right or wrong.  There’s no moral component to this negotiation; there’s only money, and tactics to get more of it.  It’s business, so let’s not be silly and understand this as some binary, right-or-wrong thing.  The participants all certainly understand this, because even though they’re posturing like the conflict is personal, it isn’t.  At some point, the sweet spot is going to be found, and we’ll have a deal.  Until then, we’ll have football.  For my part, I’m done writing about this situation for awhile, unless something real actually happens, beyond somebody saying some inflammatory posturing words.  I'm tired of the circularity of this discussion, so I'm exiting for awhile.

2.  Okay, I sort of lied.  This is the first of two quick follow-up points that I have to make.  The NFL says it offered “profitability data” for all 32 teams.  That sounds pretty good, until you hear that they were only offering one net profit number.  That’s useless, even if some independent auditor looks at the detail and confirms that the numbers foot, as the NFL offered to do.

What the NFLPA wants is to know what the owners are calling expense.  It’s highly probable that all of them are sandbagging their income statements with dubious expenses and reserves, and the NFL doesn’t want to show that.  Peter King actually did a solid job of listing some concerns and ways that owners could be doing this on Monday. 

Anyway, the NFLPA’s position that they needed to see justification for the need for any financial givebacks was reasonable.  When a publicly-traded company does a layoff or asks a union to make concessions, you can usually see in their 10-K financials that their profits are down.  That’s a justification, even if you can’t see it down to the specific account level, because their auditors have certified that there isn’t any monkey business going on.  If there’s some big reserve, though, you can see an explanation in the footnotes.

One number from the NFL is useless, because it does nothing to tell the story about how profitable each  team is on actual football operations.  That’s detail that could be provided, but the NFL doesn’t want to.  I don’t blame them, but that doesn’t make the NFLPA’s request unreasonable.  As for this stuff about how the sides should trust each other more, it’s a load of nonsense.  Neither side has any reason to trust the other until they do.   Do you automatically trust people, especially if you’ve seen them take plenty of liberties with the truth?  Of course not.

3.  Point two is that I’ve had Twitter discussions with a couple people over the weekend about whether or not the deal the NFL claims to have offered on Friday was good or not.  Their position was that the players were being greedy and should have taken the offer that Pash was crybabying on about.  My position was (and is) that it’s not the place of any of us to evaluate an offer for either of the consitituent sides, especially when the information provided is almost certainly some combination of cherry-picked, incomplete, embellished, and oversimplified. 

How do we know what is in the best interest of the owners or the players?  We all have ideas, sure, but to say that a deal was there to be made is kind of silly.  Pash was painting a really rosy picture, and the next day, Drew Brees was saying it was a bunch of distortions.  I trust them both equally, which is to say not very much.  Sayre from MHR thought that Pash wouldn’t lie on national TV, but I personally can’t imagine a good reason why he wouldn’t.  The same certainly goes for Brees.  Business… tactics… money… winning.  Have you been hit enough times by that hammer yet? 

Pash and Brees and the sides they represent are self-interested actors, who are appropriately acting in their own self-interests.  That’s the case if they’re negotiating, tweeting, or talking to Adam Schein on the radio.  They each have agendas, and they’re each trying to advance them.  Viva capitalism! 

I think you have to be rooting for one side or the other to win and/or lose in order to think that a deal should have been reached.  You players deserve to lose, and that was the most respectable loss you’re going to get.  What I don’t get is why any of us would have that much of a rooting interest.  I’m not getting any money out of this deal, and neither are you.  As long as we have football, which we will, I say we should all have a Coke and a smile, and let this thing play out the way it needs to, until both sides reach an agreement they can live with.

4.  Football time.  Everybody knows that I’ve been the big Nick Fairley cheerleader around here, and that I’ve been troubled by these reports that he’s fallen behind the lesser Marcell Dareus.  I happened across an article by a guy who I think is a total douchebag (Gregg Doyel) who writes for a total loser site (CBSSports.com).  In this article, Doyel nails it about what’s going on with Fairley right now.

I would generally say that this is the part of the process where the cottage-dwellers feel like they need to make it sound like things are happening, even though almost nothing is happening.  For that reason, they imagine/claim that names are moving around.

Trust me, nothing has changed on the film.  Fairley was the best defensive lineman in the country on film, and Dareus was merely a good player.  I think Fairley is a bigger, stronger version of John Randle, and Dareus is another Gerard Warren.  If the Broncos take Dareus over Fairley, I’ll be very disappointed, because it’ll be taking good instead of great.  (Von Miller, we can possibly talk about.)

5.  Assuming that 2010 rules are carried forward to 2011, I thought I should do a brief analysis of where that would leave the Broncos.  Like with anything, there’s good and bad.  For the four Broncos who were designated as restricted free agents, it’d be bad news.  The Broncos would be happy to keep Ryan Harris, Marcus Thomas, Matt Prater, and Wesley Woodyard for relatively small dollars though, I’m sure. 

Harris is the personification of a guy who I’d like to retain as an RFA.  He was excellent in 2008, hurt for most of 2009, and not as good in 2010.  I’d like to see how he starts 2011, and if it's well, consider offering him a long-term contract.  Thomas works similarly, in my mind.

Prater is one of the best kickers in the NFL, and I’d like to see him locked up long term, while Woodyard is a valuable special teams guy who may compete to start this season.  Restricted free agency will be a godsend for these four players, who would each be much more expensive if they were unrestricted.

On the flip side, it’s now looking fairly unlikely that there will be a rookie wage scale in place before this season, so that will make the #2 draft pick pretty expensive.  That will serve to diminish the trade value of the choice as well, so that hurts the Broncos.

Finally, some good players who would have been unrestricted now look they’ll be restricted instead.  It makes signing a DeAngelo Williams, or Eric Weddle, or Zach Miller, or Ray Edwards less likely.  What appeared to be a great free agent class probably gets pushed back a year.

These are strange times in the NFL, and we can only hope that the Broncos are as well-prepared to quickly adjust to whatever the rules will be as they say they are. 

6.  The news that the Broncos would be working out Jake Locker individually was very interesting, to say the least.  He clearly has a lot of physical talent, but I think he never became that good of a player at Washington.  I compare him unfavorably to Jay Cutler, in that Cutler was an outstanding player at Vanderbilt who was surrounded by below-average teammates.  He was good enough to be SEC Offensive Player of the Year as a Senior, even though the Commodores didn’t win many games.

Locker never became the college player that Cutler was, and he played in the PAC-10, which is not nearly as tough as the SEC.  Locker played Nebraska twice in 2010 - once in the Holiday Bowl, and totaled 9 completions in 36 attempts for 127 yards, with 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions.  That’s a 25% completion percentage and 3.5 yards per attempt against the only really good defense he faced all season.  Some of you will say that USC was a good defense, but I think it was pretty average.

Bill Williamson wrote a stupid article about what it would mean if the Broncos took Locker, but I think it’s pretty unlikely that it happens.  Teams need to maximize their available private workouts, and sometimes they will take a look at players whom they are actually unlikely to draft.  Usually the reason cited is smokescreening, but I think the more valuable tool is future pro scouting, which can be applied as opposition research, or also if the player is ever available as a free agent.

Someday, the Broncos are likely to face Jake Locker.  Honestly, if the Raiders had a first-round pick, I’d actually consider them a good candidate to take him in the middle of the first round.  He’s their kind of QB.  In any case, the private workout is an opportunity for knowledge acquisition, and it should be remembered that smart teams can benefit from that knowledge, even if they don’t draft the player.

I’m out of time for today, friends.  I’m finally working on the Hack 30, and I expect to have something on it for Friday, probably numbers 21-30.  I hope you’re having a great week, and I’ll see you back here in a couple of days.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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