It’s apparently hard for some athletes to fake politeness

Most of today’s professional athletes grew up with ESPN. Teams have become increasingly savvy about the use of social media and have entire public relations departments to help spread good will in the community.

So how is it that the likes of Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco don’t understand how it sounds when they get defensive about their own team’s draft picks?

In a radio interview, Roethlisberger questioned the Pittsburgh Steelers’ decision to draft quarterback Mason Rudolph with a third-round pick:

“Nothing against Mason — I think he’s a great football player. I don’t know him personally, but I’m sure he’s a great kid,” Roethlisberger told 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh on Friday. “I just don’t know how backing up or being a third-[stringer] — well, who knows where he’s going to fall on the depth chart — helps us win now. But, you know, that’s not my decision to make. That’s on the coaches and the GM and the owner and those kind of things. If they think he can help our team, so be it, but I was a little surprised.”

On the other side of the NFL’s biggest rivalry, Baltimore’s Joe Flacco said even more by saying much less, opting not to answer questions after his team nabbed Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson in the first round. The Ravens were complicit in his silence.

Professional athletes, like top performers in any field, need a competitive edge that most people don’t have. Beyond that, anyone who has done excellent work for their employer for several years wants to enjoy some measure of job security. But unlike most people, Roethlisberger and Flacco routinely get microphones shoved in their faces for comments on their job.

It isn’t hard to know exactly what to say here. Any of the following will do:

  • “Everyone we draft has the chance to make us a better team.”
  • “I’m looking forward to playing with [GUY THE TEAM JUST DRAFTED TO TAKE MY JOB]. I’m happy to share what I’ve learned during my time in the league, and I bet I could learn something from him, too.”
  • “Hey, I’ll do anything to help the team win. I’ll start, I’ll line up at wideout, I’ll kick, I’ll carry water, I don’t care as long as we win the Super Bowl.”

It’s not hard. Boring? Sure, but the fans love that. Derek Jeter spent two decades feeding boring to the New York press and they practically built a golden idol of him outside Yankee Stadium when he retired. (He’s had some interesting times in Miami, and interesting isn’t going so well for him.) The New York Giants brain trust of coach Ben McAdoo and General Manager Jerry Reese benched Eli Manning last year. While it was obvious Manning wasn’t a fan of the decision, he wisely remained relatively quiet after it was made. Of course, he didn’t have to: Everyone who followed football knew the move was idiotic and said so.

Squeaky wheels don’t always get greased, either. Neither Reese nor McAdoo finished the season with the Giants; Manning is locked in as next season’s starter.

Come to think of it, the only time Manning had real controversy in his career happened on his own draft day, when he very publicly made it known he wasn’t interested in being a San Diego Charger. Notably, though, Manning himself has always refused to give any reason for what prompted his trade demand.

Typically, the less an athlete says (or implies), the better. Maybe that’s boring, but boring is a much better look than the defensive jealousy brewing right now in Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

Revisiting the Rooney rule

The NFL is looking to diversify its front offices, and turning to a play that has worked before:

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Thursday that the league will institute a Rooney Rule for women when it comes to all NFL executive positions

“You can see that progress is being made and our commitment is, we have something called the Rooney Rule, which requires us to make sure when we have an opening that on the team or the league level that we are going to interview a diverse slate of candidates.

“Well, we’re going to make that commitment and we’re going to formalize that we, as a league, are going to do that for women as well in all of our executive positions. Again, we’re going to keep making progress here and make a difference.”

Uh… Did anyone catch that? Maybe a female commissioner would know how to form a coherent sentence.

Let’s try again: The league is implementing a version of its “Rooney Rule” for front office searches, mandating that women are included in searches. When implemented in 2003, the rule required teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching vacancies and eventually front office jobs.

Surely, teams have brought in “check-the-box” candidates they had no intention of hiring just to keep on the sunny side of the rule. There is no mandate to hire minority coaches, only to interview candidates.

Yet, the rule has clearly worked – teams have hired more minority coaches in the past 13 years than they had in the previous eight decades. There is unmistakable progress.

Two possible reasons for this stand out.

First is the opportunity for media buzz. Coaching searches aren’t conducted in secret; as soon as an NFL coach is fired, local and national media speculate about who might be next. The candidates who make their way to team headquarters for an interview are duly documented. This puts even the minority candidates’ names out there as potential head coaches. Even if a would-be coach doesn’t get a job during one offseason, he strengthens his candidacy for the future. Hiring a first-time head coach isn’t easy for most notoriously risk-averse NFL front offices, but that option becomes more palatable if the candidate has been discussed as a head coach prospect.

Second, the Rooney Rule interviews may be dog-and-pony shows to the team executives, but they don’t have to be for the candidates. Thanks to the Rooney Rule, a minority candidate has a chance to prepare and endure the interview process. Again, it might not help him get the first job he interviews for, but go through a practice run can only help in future years, when his candidacy may be more serious.

Teams won’t hire unqualified candidates, but rules like this can help qualified candidates prepare. The ten minority coaches who have been hired since the Rooney Rule’s inception weren’t hired because their teams were forced to interview them, but the rule might have given them valuable experience or put them on teams’ radar when coaching vacancies popped up.

If the NFL is serious about getting more women in its front offices, this is probably a good place to start.


Why the NFL loves Deflategate

ESPN’s Steven Wulf recounts a non-controversy Major League Baseball faced in the early 1990’s, when they tried to enforce regulations about glove sizes. Wulf points out that MLB handled the situation quietly and without fanfare, in contrast to how the NFL seemingly flubbed and fumbled their way through Deflategate. Had the NFL handled Tom Brady’s appeal better, he theorizes, we might not have been talking about it for the past couple of weeks.

But would the NFL really want a situation like that – where people aren’t talking about the league?

It may not have been the actual strategy, but things worked out pretty well for the NFL. Sports media spent the back half of July talking about the league. Fans had something to debate and discuss among themselves. And the controversy wasn’t initiade by someone smacking a woman or a kid.

For all their bluster, the Patriots come out of this pretty well, to. They’ll have a chance to rest their 38-year-old quarterback for a quarter of the season, but have him ready to go for the playoffs. They’ll also get an extended look at backup Jimmy Garappolo so they can figure out how talented he is and what kind of draft picks they’ll trade him for.

For the league that thrives on constant attention and chatter, what could be worse than handling a situation like this quietly?

In sports, gambling is worse than steroids

ESPN was been all over sports gambling stories in June, weren’t they? This week it’s Phil Mickelson, last week it was proof that Pete Rose bet while he was a player.

Gambling has been a third rail activity for athletes since the Black Sox scandal, and yet it has shaped sports more than almost anything other than television. Fantasy Football has boosted the NFL, and just about everyone fills out a bracket when March Madness rolls around each year. For those with short attention spans, there are one-day fantasy sports gambling sites which promise the thrill of the wager without a season-long commitment.

Yet the players who become involved with gambling – Rose, the Black Sox, Paul Hornung and “George” from TV show Websterthe 1978-79 Boston College basketball players – meet with more disgrace than if they had committed any other sin against the integrity of the game. Gamblers Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson are banned by rule from Baseball’s Hall of Fame; PED users Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro weren’t elected but at least appeared on the ballot.

The fact that gambling is so interwoven into watching and enjoying sports is exactly why we don’t put up with it from athletes themselves. After all, if the players’ motivations aren’t purely focused on winning, how hard would it be to put down money on their chances?

We can’t have some schmuck messing up our Fantasy Teams just because the mob is threatening to break his thumbs.

The NCAA makes up for a bad call

Joe Paterno is dead. We can assume that, to the extent that final justice exists, he is getting whatever he deserves. His long time defensive coordinator and convicted predator Jerry Sandusky is in jail, where he can’t hurt anyone. Justice for him is delayed but inevitable.

The NCAA was right to reinstate the Penn State football wins which were stripped from the program after it was revealed Sandusky as a serial pedophile. It was a trivial penalty to begin with because the NCAA had no place in a scandal of this magnitude.

The scandal that rocked State College was unusual for big-time college football. This wasn’t under-the-table money to encourage recruits, or extra perks for current players; this was a legitimate question about whether a former coach was using his charity to abuse children – and whether the leaders of Penn State, including Paterno, swept it under the rug.

The sports czars have no authority over what was, and is, a criminal matter, but their actions are understandable. When big news breaks, people tend to look for immediate action. Penn State fired Paterno quickly and tore a statue of him down, despite little understanding of how or if he was involved. The NCAA stripped Penn State of its wins from 1998 to 2011, despite little understanding of how or if the school had moved to cover up Sandusky’s abuses.

But in a situation like this, that the scandal’s main actors are associated with the football program is irrelevant. Ultimately, Sandusky and any enablers had to answer to law enforcement, and Penn State’s board of trustees had to decide if the failures in leadership necessitated changes in leadership. The NCAA deals with sports, which really isn’t all that important.

Answering the Sandusky allegations with a football-related response doesn’t give the situation the attention and gravity it deserves. But I’m sure it made some people at the NCAA headquarters feel like they accomplished something.

The NFL’s failing affirmative action policy

New York Giants’ defensive coordinator Perry Fewell is interviewing for the head coaching position of the Tennessee Titans.  This is the fourth team Fewell has interviewed with this offseason, having missed the cut with the Browns, Panthers, and Broncos as well.  His consideration makes sense: Fewell was an interim coach for the Buffalo Bills for seven games, and his current job is a feeder position for head coaches (at least three current NFL head coaches are former Giants defensive coordinators).

But two words pop up in almost every single story about Fewell’s interviews: “Rooney Rule.”  The rule tells NFL teams that they are required to interview minority candidates for coaching vacancies, even if they have no intention of hiring them.  Fewell is black, so he allows teams to check that box.

The rule is a double edged sword at best.  Candidates who undergo the mandatory, just-for-show interviews over a number of years  may start to generate legitimate buzz as a head coaching candidate as they get to put their accomplishments on display.  But in any industry, job seekers who interview for any and every possible opening start to earn a reputation.  Similarly, Fewell’s 0-for-3 so far in the 2011 offseason – and the possibility of going 0-for-4, since the Titans already have a favored candidate – could earn him the label of an NFL coaching bridesmaid – someone good enough to interview, but not good enough to hire.  Since several of the teams were just using him to keep up appearances, most of those interviews were unnecessary.

Fewell will most likely be a head coach in the NFL.  If he does a good job with the Giants defense again next year, he’ll certainly deserve his shot.  What he won’t ever deserve is being treated like a token so that the NFL can pay lip service to diversity.


NFL Players getting off message

From the coverage of the worst All-Star Game of any of the major sports, the Pro-Bowl, comes this nugget from game MVP DeAngelo Hall:

MVP DeAngelo Hall had one of his team’s five interceptions and returned a fumble 34 yards for a touchdown to help the NFC match a Pro Bowl scoring record in a 55-41 victory over turnover-prone AFC. He gets a new Cadillac for his efforts.

“I was just about to buy another SUV,” the Redskins cornerback said, “so to come out here and grab one for free, I like that.”

Yes, he really did brag that he was thinking about buying “another SUV” – not a “new” SUV, but another, as in addition to whatever car or cars he currently has in his fleet.

Clearly, Hall is missing a either a sense of context or the spirit of brotherhood with his fellow union members (and possibly both).

Even the normally-overkilled Super Bowl coverage seems to be overshadowed by news that the NFL labor situation may devolve in the same type of players-versus-ownership animus that has cost significant playing time – and even championships – in each of the other sports over the past 20 years.  Matt Hasselbeck and Antonio Cromartie got into a much-hyped war of tweets over the potential lockout.  (The football world remains shocked that a member of the normally stoic and reserved New York Jets got into such a verbal spat with a fellow player.)

The NFL Player’s Association needs to get their members on the same page or risk losing the important PR war that comes with high-profile CBA negotiations.  One cornerback lashing out at the situation and another openly wondering how to arrange his fleet of cars won’t help it score points with fans.

The Bengals’ wired receivers

Here’s some NFL history in the making: the Cincinnati Bengals will have two wideouts lining up this year with their own iPhone applications, which may be a first.  Terrell Owens put the finishing touches on his on the eve of training camp. Chad Ochocinco already had his own app, plus has been a fixture in social media spaces like UStream and Twitter.

This could be interesting.  The concept of NFL teams dealing with larger than life personalities trying to exist in the same locker room is nothing new, but having those personalities connected to all the channels of communication available could make for some fireworks. Getcha popcorn ready.

Sunday Funnies: Actually, for ‘Skins fans, it’s not so funny

Not much has gone right in Washington DC over the last year, and that includes the hometown football team – which is looking more and more like it’s being run by the same people who run the Metro.

Last weekend, the Redskins managed to lose by missing a 23-yard field goal and allowing a 53-yard touchdown pass.

How sure was Washington’s victory?  Why, you could bet a 60-inch TV on it…

Like this guy did:

Stay on target

This commercial started running earlier in the NFL season, but seemed to get less airplay after Troy Polamalu’s injury.  With the safety back on the field for the Steelers, this commercial is back in the Sunday afternoon lineup.  And, for aspiring PR flacks, it offers a good lesson for staying on message:

Note that Polamalu answered his own questions – not the reporter’s – and even found a way to pivot off the reporters’ line of discussion (“You asked with your eyes…”) onto his own.  Textbook – even if it is just a commercial.