THE BUSINESS OF SPORTS AND POLITICS
Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) has decided that Congress needs to know more about the National Football League's decision to suspend Sean Payton, Greg Williams and Mickey Loomis following an investigation of the claims New Orleans Saints' players and coaches set up a bounty system to try and knockout opposing players.
Williams, who was hired as the St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator, is serving an indefinite suspension, Saints head coach Payton starts a one year suspension on April 1, Loomis, and the Saints' General Manager has been suspended for eight games although it isn't exactly clear what that means. Does it mean he cannot work the first eight games of the 2012 season but can prepare his team through April's draft, the Saints Organized Team Activities and training camp? Another assistant coach will be sidelined for six weeks. Joe Vitt cannot be around for the first six games of the season. None of the NFL convicted coaches/managers will be paid during their sentences.
So far no players have been suspended. That could come soon. There is no hint of criminal charges coming either. The NFL has been fortunate to avoid that, unlike the National Hockey League which has seen a number of players face court proceeding because of violent actions during games.
Senator Durbin wants answers, but the Illinois lawmaker is not limited to the scope of his hearing to just National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell. He plans to have Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern and National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman also explain how their leagues operate. Bettman's environment, hockey, has had experience with bounties in the lower minor leagues and a bounty was immortalized in the movie Slap Shot in the 1970s, a film that remains a cult favorite three and a half decades later.
Just why is Congress involved?
Because the National Football League and every big time professional sport and collegiate programs owe a great deal of their success to federal legislation. The NFL has benefited from the passage of four bills, the 1961 Sports Broadcast Act, the 1966 American Football League, National Football League merger, the 1984 cable television rules revisions and the 1986 tax code revisions. All four pieces of legislation gave NFL owners business breaks, which enabled them to grow the NFL from a third rate mom and pop sports operation in the 1950s to a business that generates billions in revenues today.
Goodell and NFL owners have managed to keep the business off of Capitol Hill for the most part. In 2007, the United States Senate pressured the league into moving the Saturday final season finale for the undefeated New England Patriots and the New York Giants from the NFL Network to a variety of television outlets after there was a storm of protest that the Patriots-Giants game was not available to the widest audience possible as the NFL Network didn't have a full scale cable TV penetration due to distribution problems and that only the New York and Boston markets were legally permitted to show the game on over-the-air TV.
Some Senators screamed, huffed and puffed and the NFL capitulated. Sports leagues generally give into the wishes of Congress and why not? Major League Baseball still enjoys some benefits from the 1922 Supreme Court of the United States decision that baseball was a game not an interstate business. Although most of that protection was swept away over the years, there still is enough leftover that gives the owners business advantages that no other sport enjoys. Major League Baseball can keep Oakland A's owner Lew Wolff out of San Jose and pretty much can protect the New York Mets and New York Yankees owners from competition from a third team in the New York area by simply saying “no” to a third New York City area franchise.
Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association came up with new rules for players who failed their performance enhancing drugs testing. Congress apparently doesn't like cheaters although the Solons of Washington haven't pushed for athletes arrests for using banned substances even though Congress set up laws that made possession of steroids without a physician's authorization illegal.
The legislation was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a man who was once considered a rising star nationally in the Republican Party, wasn't too happy with the Saints activities and the suspensions. Jindal is hoping that the NFL investigates other teams if there are rumors and allegations about a bounty program, but the governor remains a Saints fan and claims that the football team brings a lot of "pride" to the state.
The NFL New Orleans franchise should bring something to Jindal's state. In 2001, Louisiana Governor Mike Foster handed Tom Benson a $186 million thank you – a direct cash giveaway to the Saints' owner over a nine year span to make sure Benson was financially competitive with other NFL teams in a market without many Fortune 500 companies. The state also spent enormous amounts of revenue to fix up the Superdome and has given Benson other breaks in lieu of copious amounts of taxpayers’ money poured into the team. Jindal recently signed deals with Benson and the National Basketball Association that pours state resources into the teams.
Louisiana Republican David Vitter, a man of questionable character, is not too impressed with the Illinois Democrat Durbin's plan to have a hearing on sports in Vitter's chamber. Senator Vitter has called Durbin's idea "goofy" and thinks the august body should be utilizing its valuable time taking up other issues.
The Louisiana senator is technically correct; there are far more important issues than what goes on during a football game that impact Americans. But Congress created the environment for big time sports and an oversight committee is well within reason to ask questions.
The football industry is based on violence. The CBS television network had a loose affiliation with some of the NFL's 13 teams at the time and teamed up with the NFL to produce "The Violent World of Sam Huff" which was narrated by Walter Cronkite to glamorize football's hard hitting. A year earlier Huff was the first NFL player to appear on the cover of Time Magazine, again with a violence angle.
NFL violence has been sanitized by television networks, sportswriters who are umbilically tied to teams and the league and fans who enjoy a big hit. A bounty system has existed for a long team in the NFL. Hall of Fame member David "Deacon" Jones told stories of the gifts he received from Rams coach George Allen in the 1960s for doing his job well. Allen never "officially" ordered a hit job but there were prizes available like color TVs and stereos in the 1960s.
Hockey seems to still be living off of Toronto Maple Leafs founder Conn Smythe's words of hockey wisdom. "If you can't them out in the alley, you can't beat them here on ice."
Payton, Loomis, Williams and Vitt will be doing NFL time for their part in crimes against the NFL.
In 2005, the members of the Motor City Mechanics United Hockey League team coaching staff were suspended by the league for putting a bounty on a UHL player. Mechanics coach Steve Shannon was suspended for the remainder of the 2004-05 season and assistant John Blum for 10 games for after being accused of offering $200 if one of their players went after the Flint Generals' Kevin Kerr in a Feb. 2 game. Kerr was critical of NHL players who were locked out by NHL owners playing in the very low level United Hockey League and taking away struggling hockey players jobs.
That was the last public discussion of a bounty in sports until the Saints story became public.
The National Hockey League has been involved in a number of legal actions mostly in Canada. The Todd Bertuzzi-Steven Moore civil case will be heard in court in Ontario Civil Court in either September or October. In a February 16, 2004 game between Colorado and Vancouver, Moore hit Vancouver's Mats Naslund in a collision. Moore's shoulder went into Naslund's head which resulted in Naslund receiving a concussion and a bone chip in his elbow. The NHL ruled it was a legal hit, but Vancouver management and players were furious at the play and vowed to get even with Moore. Vancouver's Brad May seemingly put a bounty on Moore.
On March 8, 2004, the Smythe golden rule of “if you can't beat them out in an alley” seemed to kick in. Late in the third period in a Colorado-Vancouver game in Vancouver, someone decided to do something to even the score. Todd Bertuzzi went after Moore, punched him in the back of the head, and fell on top of him, followed by Moore's teammate Andrei Nikolishin and Bertuzzi's teammate Sean Pronger. Moore was knocked out and taken off the ice by a medical staff on a stretcher. Moore suffered three fractured neck vertebrae, facial cuts and a concussion.
On June 24, 2004 Bertuzzi was charged with assault causing bodily harm. On December 22, 2004, Bertuzzi accepted a plea bargain and received 80 hours in community service, a one-year probation and was barred from playing in any game that Steve Moore was scheduled to be in. Moore never played another game, Bertuzzi is still playing hockey.
Moore sued Bertuzzi and May along with the Vancouver Canucks organization. The case was tossed out but re-filed. The NHL was hoping that Bertuzzi and Moore would settle the case before going to court, but that hasn't happened. In 2008, Bertuzzi, who served a 20 game suspension for his attack on Moore, decided to sue his coach Marc Crawford for suggesting that Bertuzzi do something and that he was obligated to do what the coach wanted. But Crawford said he ordered Bertuzzi off the ice and that the player disobeyed him. Bertuzzi was planning to make Crawford a party to his case in the Moore suit but dropped the thought in January.
The Bertuzzi-Moore incident came nearly four years after another Vancouver on ice assault. On Feb. 21, 2000 Boston Bruins player Marty McSorley swung his stick and hit Vancouver player Donald Brashear in the head with three seconds left in the game. McSorley wanted to hit Brashear in the shoulder and start a fight. Brashear fell hitting his head on the ice and was knocked out. McSorley was charged with assault and received 18 months’ probation for the incident.
In 1988, Minnesota North Stars player Dino Ciccarelli spent a day in jail after hitting Toronto Maple Leaf defenseman Luke Richardson with his stick. Ciccarelli was also fined $1,000.
On Jan. 4, 1975 in Bloomington, Minnesota, the Boston Bruins Dave Forbes hit Minnesota North Stars player Henry Boucha with the butt end of his stick in the face which broke a bone near Boucha's eye and left the player with blurred vision. On Jan. 17, 1975 a Hennepin County grand jury indicted Forbes and charged him with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon--Forbes hockey stick. Forbes was the first pro athlete in the United States ever prosecuted for an action during a game. The
Forbes-Boucha case went to trail and ended up with a hung jury. The case was never retried.
A year later, a World Hockey Association player was charged with assault and attempt to injury during a fight in a playoff game between Calgary and Quebec in Quebec City on April 11, 1976. Rick Jodzio skated toward Marc Tardif and hit the Quebec player in the face with a stick and then started punching Tardif. The assault left Tardif with a concussion and knocked out a number of teeth. Jodzio entered a guilty plea to a reduced charge of assault causing bodily harm and paid a $3,000 fine.
Jodzio would eventually play in the NHL.
In a pre-season game in September 1969 in Ottawa, Boston's Ted Green and St. Louis's Wayne Maki of the St. Louis Blues started swinging sticks at one another, Maki chopped Green on top of the head fracturing Green's skull. The NHL suspended Maki for 30 days and Green for 13 games. Both were charged with assault and acquitted.
In November 1975, Detroit's Dan Maloney was charged with assault causing bodily harm after he attacked Brian Glennie of the Toronto Maple Leafs from behind. Maloney did not contest the charge and was sentenced to community service work and was unable to play any games in Toronto for two seasons
In 1976, four members of the Philadelphia Flyers Joe Watson, Mel Bridgman, Don Saleski and Bob Kelly were charged with assault after using their hockey sticks as weapons in a playoff game between the Flyers and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Bridgman was acquitted, while the other three players were found guilty of simple assault.
In 1977 Toronto's Tiger Williams was charged with assault after hitting Pittsburgh's Dennis Owchar with his stick. Williams acquitted.
In 1982 Winnipeg's Jimmy Mann punched Pittsburgh's Paul Gardner, breaking Gardner's jaw in two places. Mann was charged with assault by Winnipeg police but was fined $500 and given a suspended sentence.
In April 2011, the NHL's Director of Operations told the Toronto Globe that "we (the NHL) sell violence."
The Ontario and British Columbia governments have done reports on hockey violence, offered suggestions but have not been able to push hockey in any direction in curbing violence.
The NFL has never seen players charged with assault.
Sports leagues don't like the idea of ending up in court and loathe the notion that they have to testify during a standing committee of Congress. Sports leagues constantly reject the notion that players are criminally responsible for activities that occur in the course of a game. If something happens, the leagues not the criminal system should hand out punishment.
Sports, in the opinion of sports industry leaders and participants, should be above the law.
The "it is only a game mentality" has been a good alibi for more than a century but sports is a big business that depends on public subsidies and federal legislation giving the sports almost monopoly type status. The chance that Senator Durbin's review of the NFL-Saints bounty punishment will alter sports is very slim.
It will more than likely be an opportunity for politicians to complain about violence in sports and then everyone will go on their way. Washington Redskins games will remain the "hot-spot" for political operatives and elected officials in the fall and if New Orleans is hurt on the field and isn't as good as the team was in the 2009, 2010 and 2011, too bad.
Senator Durbin probably won't ask about the discarded players who gave their bodies to the NFL and now are on the public dole in the very safety net that some of his colleagues would like to fray, social security and Medicare long before their time. Instead there will be some talk whether the NFL can do anything to prevent bounties in the future and that the other sports beware because Congress is watching your violence level as well.
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy's 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on "The Politics of Sports Business." His book, "The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition" is available at bickley.com and Amazon and featured on Google books.