Saturday, May 07, 2005

Football vs. Baseball cont.

There really is no disputing baseball’s historical significance in 20th Century America. Not only has baseball been a constant in the lexicon of our society it has been at the forefront of many turbulent and ground shaking events. The Black Sox scandal where members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox were accused, confessed, and eventually banned from baseball for life shook the foundation of sports. This event forever changed the way we viewed sports and tainted the reputation of the only significant professional sports league in America at the time. This sordid episode also shoved the problems of gambling and organized crime into the lime light.

However, the most important event in major sports history and perhaps in 20th century American history was Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball in 1947. Branch Rickey, then owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, had the courage to do what no one else did, hire an African-American player to play the nation’s most visible sport on its biggest stage, in New York. Up until ’47 baseball had been a staunchly all-white institution while hundreds of gifted black players starred in the now legendary Negro Leagues. Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Pee Wee Butts, Smokey Joe Williams, and other gifted black baseball players toiled away in relative obscurity while their arguably inferior white counterparts dominated the major leagues. All this for the sake of racial segregation.

That is until a man with a vision, Branch Rickey, chose to make a historical statement. Jackie Robinson was not chosen because he was the best Negro Leaguer but because he was the best suited to endure the hatred that awaited him in the majors. Had the best player from the Negro Leagues been chosen the unbelievably talented and volatile Josh Gibson would have pegged to break down the door for blacks in MLB but Rickey knew that Gibson’s arrogance and abrasiveness would have alienated the very fans he desperately wanted to embrace this experiment. And in Robinson Branch Rickey found the perfect marriage of talent and temperament. Robinson proved to be the right choice and he became the ambassador everyone hoped he would be. Jackie Robinson’s dignity and unflappable nature forever changed the climate of race relations in America.

Football has no such claim on historical significance, unless you examine its effects on American pop culture. The 1958 NFL Championship between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants is generally regarded as the first defining moment in sports television history and the moment when the NFL “arrived” on the scene. Since that night almost every major advancement in sports broadcasting has been pioneered in football. In 1970 the NFL and ABC struck a deal that would thrust football into the spot light forever. Monday Night Football drew huge audiences and massive advertising revenue. The marriage of football and TV was consummated, an arrangement that would vault the NFL into the position as America’s most watched, most followed, and most popular sport. The Super Bowl has become a cultural mainstay and a global phenomenon. It’s been estimated that over 1.5 billion people in 150 different countries tune in to what is arguably the single biggest sporting event on the planet outside soccer’s World Cup.

What is striking when you examine these two sports side by side is the overall health of the respective power structures. Since 1987 when the players union in the NFL was broken by a labor war with the owners (in 1993 after free agency was fully implemented the NFLPA was reformed as a union) there has been very little acrimony between players and owners. In fact not a single game has been lost due to labor disputes in the NFL since the ’87 strike. Since the 80’s the NFL has adopted a salary cap, comprehensive revenue sharing, a strict drug policy, and TV revenues and attendance figures remain steady. The NFL is now one of the strongest and most lucrative professional sports leagues in the world.

The same can’t be said about Major League Baseball. In 1994 baseball ceased operations ending one of the most exciting seasons in that sport’s history. Before play was stopped and the World Series cancelled for only the second time in one hundred years Tony Gwynn was making a run at .400 season average, Matt Williams was on pace to break Roger Maris’ 61 home run mark, and the Montreal Expos with the lowest payroll in the league were in first place. Only in the last couple years has baseball attracted fans on the scale seen before ’94. And trouble still looms large on the horizon. This year baseball finally adopted some semblance of a drug testing policy but the specter of steroids threatens to unravel the fabric of the most hallowed records in the game. Barry Bonds’ 73 HR’s in 2001, Mark McGuire’s 70 in ’98, and Sammy Sosa’s 66 & 63 in ’98 & ’99 all come with significant baggage. The death of Ken Caminiti, the admitted steroid use of Jason Giambi, and the cloud constantly hovering over Bonds’ head suggests that baseball still has an extremely difficult time policing itself. This is due to a dysfunctional brain trust that is more bent on reaping the spoils of war than in preserving the sport. Bud Selig is a puppet of the owners and his arch nemesis Donald Fehr is the Don Corlione of the players’ union. These two have had more public spats than Al & Peg Bundy. Together Fehr and Selig have worked in concert to destroy whatever credibility baseball may have once had. Franchise success in baseball is largely due to deep pockets rather than to professional competency. Why else would the Yankees be able to compete year in & year out for a World Series trophy despite having possibly the worst minor league development system in the game? Simple, because George Steinbrenner has the deepest pockets in the league.

Baseball for the most part is a rich get richer kind of league whereas football has a genuine competitive balance. In order to compete in the NFL you need to be an astute talent evaluator, be a master mathematician, and relate well to fans and players alike. In baseball you need only have a fat TV deal, a gilded bank roll, and a willingness to shell out $2.5 million a year for an average middle reliever. In 1998 the NFL inked $17.8 billion in network television deals that averages out to about $73.3 million per team per year. The average Major League Baseball franchise clears barely $11 million a year from network TV. Even if you factor in local television revenue the NFL still dwarfs MLB in the TV wars.

Another symptom of baseball’s dysfunction is the manner in which it flaunts its antitrust exemption. Baseball is the only major industry in America that has an exemption from antitrust laws. This means that teams can’t move without league approval, control of individual franchises can be stripped from owners (ask Marge Schott), and the league can contract teams at any time. Bud Selig flirted with this idea a couple years ago and the Expos and the Minnesota Twins were nearly wiped off the major league landscape. Instead the Expos were shipped to Washington D.C. to become the Senators. Another little ancillary effect of the antitrust exemption is that collusion amongst the individual teams has been commonplace, especially during the era of free agency. In the late 80’s the MLBPA filed three different grievances against the owners violating the anti-collusion clause of the 1976 Collective Bargaining Agreement. An independent arbitrator found that baseball owners were indeed guilty of collusion and awarded the players union a $280 million settlement.

When you view the picture as a whole you find that undoubtedly football is a better sport. You don’t find the acrimony between owners and players that exists in baseball, there is not the ominous presence of a massive steroid scandal that exists in baseball, and the athletes are superior in football. While baseball will always lay claim to being the more historically important sport the fact that the powers that be are a moronic band of nincompoops will always be, pardon the pun, strike one against our nation’s pastime. Strike two is the steroid problems baseball still refuses to address properly. And strike three is the nature of labor relations. The ’94 season was lost and it will happen again…guaranteed. Football is by far a more sound business entity with a more marketable product. I’ve weighed the merits, examined the history, and dissected the facts. The verdict is in and football is king.