Bounties vs Targets—the NFL and MLB

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The New Orleans Saints have been given harsh sentences for defensive coordinator Gregg Williams encouraging a culture of paying cash bonuses for his players on hard hits and knockouts of opposing players. Head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the season; GM Mickey Loomis for the first eight games of the season; and Williams, who was hired as the defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams in January, was suspended indefinitely—NY Times Story.

On Sunday afternoon Peter Gammons, filling in for Jerry Remy on the Red Sox TV broadcasts, was talking with broadcast partner Don Orsillo about the NFL bountygate. Gammons said it was inexcusable and that if anyone in baseball did it, Bud Selig had told him that those involved would be banned for life. Period.

If it was a player, I’m sure the MLBPA would have something to say about that penalty.

In what was a conveniently timed sequence of events, Phillies’ starter Cole Hamels hit Nationals’ rookie Bryce Harper in the back with a fastball in Sunday night’s Phillies-Nats game in Washington and then inexplicably announced that he’d done it intentionally in an “old-school” method of initiation for an arrogant, hot shot rookie.

Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo called Hamels a series of names including “gutless” and said he was “opposite of old-school”. Ken Rosenthal said it was an overreaction on the part of Rizzo for a legitimate play from years gone by. Other sportswriters like Jon Heyman, admired the “toughness” of Hamels.

This is on the heels of Mike Francesa’s suggestion two weeks ago that the Mets, rather than give Jose Reyes a small video tribute on his return to Citi Field as an opponent with the Marlins, throw the ball at his head.

He said this twice.

It’s very easy to encourage these types of things when not actually standing in the box and facing the prospect of getting hit with a 95-mph fastball that can end a career or seriously injure the recipient.

I don’t have a problem with Hamels popping Harper; I do have a problem with him announcing it as if he wants credit for it. It was obvious to any longtime observer of baseball that it was done intentionally, but did the pleased-with-himself Hamels need to say, “Look! See what I did?”

In essence, because Harper is a former number 1 overall pick and is widely expected to embark on a potential Hall of Fame career starting now, he had a bulls-eye on his back and Hamels hit that bulls-eye.

We can debate the propriety of the decision by Hamels to throw at Harper just like we can debate collisions at the plate; umpires having larger strike zones for rookies to test them; or any other rites of passage that occur as a common hazing ritual for newcomers.

But you don’t announce it.

This all fits in neatly with Gammons’s discussion of the bounty program used by the Saints.

What’s missed in many of the analysis and commentaries regarding the Saints is that it wasn’t the program itself that got them in trouble. It was that the NFL told them to stop it, they said they would and didn’t.

And they got caught.

The NFL—conservative as a whole and run by Roger Goodell, whose father was a Republican U.S. Senator—is image-conscious and serious about their perception and disciplinary programs. Punishing the Saints is a combination of punitive measures and a message to everyone else not to do this.

Transferring one sport’s rules and regulations to another can be done in theory but is difficult to do in practice. There’s an overt failure to account for the differences between baseball and football. I’m not talking about the classic George Carlin comedy routine in which he declares the superiority of football to baseball—YouTube link. I’m talking about the fundamental differences between the two sports on and off the field.

MLB players have guaranteed contracts and 100% medical coverage. NFL players don’t. Because NFL players’ contracts are not guaranteed, there’s more pressure for them to play in order to keep those game checks coming in. They can be cut at anytime and be completely out of work. The NFL, such as it is, is a close-knit community and if a player is judged as not being willing to take shots and medications to get out on the field and play when he’s hurt, the rest of the league is going to know about it. It spreads like wildfire and affects their careers negatively or ends them completely.

For every star like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning who have the power to command their organization to make certain maneuvers, there are the rank and file players who have to adhere to the culture or else. It’s a brutal version of survival of the fittest and most resilient, rewarding the player who can live through the war of attrition in exchange continued employment.

This doesn’t happen in baseball.

When a player signs a $100 million contract in football, his stature as a talent predicates a large signing bonus which he gets to keep, but the rest of the deal isn’t guaranteed; therefore it’s not really $100 million even though that’s what the news reports say without full context of the disposability of the contract. We see situations where teams can’t cut a player they’d dearly love to be rid of (Santonio Holmes of the Jets for example), but can’t because of salary cap ramifications. But that’s due to overzealousness and a myriad of other factors such as arrogantly thinking “we’ll be able to handle this guy”. Historically when one team can’t “handle” a guy and gets rid of him based on that and that alone, no one—not the Jets; not the Al Davis Raiders of the 1970s and 80s—will be able to handle him for any amount of money. That’s a foundational error.

Contracts in baseball are such that when Albert Pujols signed a $240 million contract with the Angels last winter, it was guaranteed that he’d collect $240 million if he never plays another game.

How many MLB players do you read about committing suicide after their careers are over? Winding up in serious trouble with the law? Have debilitating injuries?

Just last week Junior Seau committed suicide and it was forgotten the next day because the “tragedy” of the day became Mariano Rivera tearing his ACL and being lost for the season.

Which is the true tragedy?

Both are future Hall of Famers in their respective sports; both were well-liked; but Rivera will collect his $15 million salary for 2012 and receive a similar contract for 2013; Seau was rumored to be having financial troubles and domestic squabbles and was entirely unable to adjust to the freedom, emptiness and depression of not having a season or game to prepare for to go along with the wear-and-tear of a 13-year NFL career.

You can call baseball a “contact” sport, but considering the uproar when a collision at home plate occurs and knocks out the catcher, it—clean or not—becomes the impetus for calls to outlaw the home plate collision entirely. It degenerates into a pseudo-contact sport. In football, the mandate is to hit hard—it’s inherent; in baseball, a hard hit is a rare, incidental and predominately unintentional byproduct.

In football, they’ve taken steps to reduce the injuries and number of hard hits because of the bottom line need for offensive production and the stars being on the field to keep the fans engaged and happy, but they’re still very large, well-conditioned men running into one another at full speed. People get hurt. If you can’t or won’t play through pain and the backup will, then your job and career are in jeopardy without any outlet for the aggression that led to an NFL career in the first place, nor the opportunity to make the kind of money they’re making once their careers are over.

Players don’t know what to do with themselves once their regimented lives as football players are done. The simultaneous addictions to the attention, painkillers, money, pain and the compulsive need to keep going in spite of the threat of long-term damage already in place is being exacerbated; irrationality and rudderless post-career lives are too often rife with financial missteps, legal entanglements, after-effects and early deaths.

Coaches and managers are not exempt from the urgency of their professions.

MLB managers and coaches are not working the hours that NFL coaches are. Rank and file MLB assistants are comparatively well-paid and their jobs are many times as a result of patronage, friendship, loyalty or payback. In reality, apart from the pitching coach, not many MLB coaches influence the team to any grand degree.

Not so with the NFL on any count.

NFL assistants work ridiculous hours and, apart from star coordinators, aren’t paid all that well and, like the players, if they don’t have friends in the league or a good reputation, they won’t have another job when they’re let go.

John Madden left coaching because of his ulcer and didn’t return because he replaced it by carving out a Hall of Fame broadcasting career. Jim Brown retired at the top of his game to go to Hollywood. Barry Sanders and Tiki Barber both retired while they still had a few years left in them, but also had their health.

How many other football players can say that?

Mostly they play until they’re dragged off the field knowing what awaits them in the aftermath.

The sporting ideal of competitiveness, honor and fair play doesn’t truly exist. Baseball players subsist in the bubble of individual achievement within a team concept. It’s one man against another when a pitcher and hitter square off. It’s not that way in football where no one player can function without the other ten men. Football players are warriors who know their time is short and every play could be their last with nothing to fall back on aside from a lifetime of pain and mounting bills for medical and family expenses. Baseball players are covered. Football players can’t just turn off that intensity and otherworldliness that allows them to ignore aches and pains that would hospitalize a normal man.

Baseball is languid; football is full-speed and frantic.

Comparing baseball and football is apples and oranges. They’re different. A bounty program wouldn’t specifically exist in baseball because how would it be enacted? A bounty program in football is easy because, in general, a player contract in the NFL is a bounty, but it’s a bounty the player places on himself. He knows when he signs it that one day, he’ll have to pay up with his physical and emotional well being.

Sometimes he pays with his life in quality and permanence.

They know that going in and, invariably, it gets them in the end.

The bounty a player puts on his own head is carried out by football itself.

And football is tantamount to the monolithic hit man that never, ever fails in its objective.

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WFAN Is The Place For Tiki Barber

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And not the way you’d think.

Tiki Barber’s now-classic interview with Mike Francesa was such a hit that maybe the former NFL star should make it a weekly appearance in which he, Francesa and Barber’s ubiquitous agent Mark Lepselter all appear together and have a sparring session.

I’m only half-kidding.

I discussed this when it happened in June. Francesa attacked Barber, in part I think, because they started on adversarial ground when Barber insisted on having his agent on the line to “protect” him.

It didn’t work. It made things worse.

You can listen to the relevant portion of the interview below from Youtube. It’s worth it.

According to Lepselter, Barber has “moved forward”.

Professional wrestling may be next.

Aside from that, what he’s going to do now is anyone’s guess.

It’s hard to have sympathy for Barber because this appears to be a mess of his own making. I’m not talking about his public split with his wife and relationship with an intern at the Today Show where he was working as a reporter. That’s no one’s business but his. I’m talking about his reputation as a divisive force in the lockerroom and relentless PR barrage announcing his comeback along with a series of maudlin—borderline pathetic—appearances on such shows as HBO’s Real Sports and with Francesa.

Who wants to deal with that for someone they don’t know can still produce?

Without this reputation and that agent, I’m sure some team somewhere would’ve brought Barber into camp and given him a chance to make their team.

The NFL is notorious for tolerating players who are considered malcontents as long as they can help a coach/GM keep his job; once that use is wrung out of them, they’re discarded like a smelly sponge.

At age 36, not having played for five years and with the baggage he’s toting, is it really something to be “flabbergasted” about that with the shortened NFL training camps, no one wanted to deal with the media circus and entourage?

Maybe there will be a desperate team to call him at mid-season—Michael Vick got a job after what he did and Barber’s issues are mostly self-made. He’s not a despicable human being who’s seeking redemption and a paycheck after vicious crimes.

But Barber detonated bridges when he crossed them into retirement and it turns out that those bridges were needed in his future.

He can probably still play, but it doesn’t appear as if he’s going to get the chance to prove it.

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Viewer Mail 6.24.2011

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Norm writes RE Tiki Barber and Mike Francesa:

I missed the interview but from what it sounds like, Mike was just being classic Mike— a bully who delights in ‘asking the tough questions’ from weak people on the downside…you won’t see Mike interrogating someone who just won something or who have their lives in order…then Mike reverts to obsequious, fawning Mike.

You can hear the interview here.

Francesa was being very hard on Tiki. I’m not sure why.

A large amount of the Francesa-vitriol seems jealousy-related; part of it is agenda-driven; the rest comes from people like you and me who don’t tolerate the hypocrisy of savaging people until they’re on the show when he’s nothing but complimentary.

In a different category are the people he’s truly going after like Tiki Barber. If you remember the interviews with Rich Kotite, they were in fact worse than what he did to Tiki.

On the opposite end were the love-fests with Bill Parcells.

Why?

Because Parcells was a Francesa friend and ally.

One thing that I have to ask of Tiki is why he’s going on this public relations blitz in the first place. It’s as if Tiki’s ego is such that he can’t take the negative press about his personal life, departure from the Today Show and questionable decision to try to return to the NFL.

He doesn’t have to defend himself for coming back to football for whatever reason—financial or the difficult to believe “he still loves football” bit put forth by his agent.

What’s the point of turning himself into a media circus?

Tiki didn’t deserve to be browbeaten that way, but in a way it was his own fault for being so forthright with his story.

Jeff at Red State Blue State writes RE Jim Riggleman:

Totally agree. What was he thinking? Goes to show that it’s not just young and dumb NBA superstars (*ahem, LeBron*) making completely stupid choices regarding their careers. Who would’ve said, “Yeah, that’s a good idea, Jim.”? Seriously.

Much like Tiki, I have to see how Riggleman’s spinning the details to save his reputation. Apparently Riggleman’s trying to frame it as a matter of “principle” that he wanted the contract settled.

But what about the “principle” of living up to the contract he signed? Isn’t there a “principle” involved in that? Or is it a matter of convenience as he threw a tantrum after not getting his way?

He signed the contract to manage the Nationals because no one else was going to hire him.

The circumstances are similar now except now no one is going to hire him—period.

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I Dunno Whys From Francesa vs Barber

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Mike Francesa conducted a classic interview with former football star and mediocre broadcaster Tiki Barber yesterday on WFAN in New York. You can hear the entire interview here—CBS Audio; and the relevant (juicy) bit below.

It’s good to know that Francesa can still do a bit more than rant, rave and clumsily try and bolster pre-season predictions with self-justifying, after-the-fact “analysis”.

I’m still waiting for the “Joba Chamberlain is a Tommy John pitchuh!!!” bellow. But for now, we’ve got Tiki.

Rather than rehash the interview, I have a series of “I dunno whys” to toss into the air.

Let’s take a look.

I dunno why Barber’s agent, Mark Leipselter was on the line.

Nor do I know why Lepselter talks with a deep Brooklyn accent; I could swear he said “aks” when he meant to say “ask”.

Lepselter’s presence on the call put Barber and Francesa on adversarial ground and there was no need for it. That he kept jumping in to protect his client is part of his job, but all it did was antagonize Francesa. Barber could’ve handled himself without his agent; it’s not like he’s been accused of a crime and needed to be shielded from self-incrimination.

I dunno why Francesa was so shady in his allegations.

It may or may not be true that Francesa has spoken to people at NBC who ripped Barber on his way out the door, but to reference “people I’ve spoken to” and to say “I know all of them” was weak and typical.

It’s not as if Francesa has a sterling history of providing the full context of these adolescently embellished stories he tells.

Barber was right—it was a cowardly and cheap. What could Barber say to defend himself from invisible people who were criticizing him? Nothing.

As for Francesa saying Barber was “fired”, there’s a difference between not having one’s contract renewed and being fired. It can be traced to semantics, but there is a difference.

I dunno why Tiki’s broadcasting career didn’t work.

I never watched Tiki Barber on the Today Show, but I can say that when a former player is as heavily-promoted and allowed to step into a job such as that, he’s got to be perfect and he’s got to bring in the viewers.

I couldn’t help but think back to Boomer Esiason’s much ballyhooed exit from the football field to the Monday Night Football booth. When Boomer was interviewed during the waning days of his playing career—I remember one in particular with NBC’s Len Berman—there was always a session of “tell Boomer how great he’ll be as a broadcaster”; Boomer would sit there with a grin on his face and knowing nod that, while saying “thank you”, he actually meant “tell me something I don’t already know”.

Boomer was a train wreck on MNF and Al Michaels loathed him; Boomer blamed everyone but the man he should’ve blamed—Boomer—because he wasn’t good. Period.

I dunno why there’s a reluctance to tell the truth.

I haven’t seen the HBO piece that spurred this blitz of spin-doctoring on the part of Barber and his agent, but from what I can gather Barber appeared depressed about his current circumstances.

There’s nothing to be ashamed of in that if he’s having personal problems with finances and relationships. If he has to return to football because of money, so what? Would that be such a terrible thing to say? This whole, “I love football and wanna come back” at age 36 is a bit farfetched.

No, it’s a lot farfetched.

The pure honesty would’ve played better with the public and made Francesa look bad in his aggression.

Barber’s agent should’ve known that.

It was a skillful collateral attack from Francesa, great radio and a bit sad that Barber was reduced to essentially groveling and trying to parry shots for which there was no effective counter.

Barber would’ve been better served to go on the radio—sans agent—told his story and been done with it. It probably wouldn’t have been as engaging, but would’ve served the initial purpose.

Barber and his agent are undoubtedly trying to frame this positively as we speak, but there’s little that can be done now short of retrospectives and making the best of a bad, embarrassing situation.

Barber and his agent botched this terribly.

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