The latest sign of the apocalypse

The Chicago Tribune reports:

A judge will hear arguments Wednesday on the controversial finish to a high school playoff football game, the final outcome hanging in the balance despite the lack of a flying pigskin or crunching tackles.

Regardless of what happens in the Daley Center courtroom, the fiasco involving the contest between Fenwick and Plainfield North high schools has brought to the forefront issues of sportsmanship, ethics and a basic question that does not have a simple answer: What’s the right thing to do?

As it stands, Plainfield North is listed as the victor of Saturday’s Class 7A semifinal game. The Tigers defeated Fenwick 18-17 in overtime. Or did they?

The convoluted turn of events has led to a debate over rules and bylaws, contracts and lawsuits, while drawing the customary, if always unfortunate, pointed fingers at officials. It has also prompted a discussion about the best way to act after an agonizing defeat and a debated win, a victory which all parties agree occurred because of a mistake.

“There’s a difference,” said Michael Josephson, founder and president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics, “between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.”

While those conversations take place at coffee shops, on social media and sports talk radio, lawyers for Fenwick, a private Catholic school in Oak Park, will stand before a Cook County judge to urge her to overturn the result by ruling on their lawsuit against the Illinois High School Association.

“To allow this unjust result to stand would fly in the face of everything the IHSA stands for in its administration of high school athletics — fairness, reliability, accountability and integrity,” the lawyers write.

How the schools arrived at this point is complicated, even for football fans.

Near the end of regulation in Saturday’s semifinal game, Fenwick was clinging to a 10-7 lead and had the ball at its own 15-yard line. With four seconds left, the Friars’ quarterback threw a deep pass on the fourth down for an incompletion, seemingly ending the game. But the officials ruled that play to be intentional grounding, a penalty. The officiating crew then (mistakenly) awarded Plainfield North one play with zeros on the clock, allowing them to kick a game-tying field goal.

“Not sure what just happened,” the Fenwick athletic director posted on Twitter.

In extra time, both teams scored, but Plainfield North ran in a two-point conversion, setting off a wild celebration for the Tigers and eliciting anger and confusion from the Fenwick faithful.

“It would be one thing if it was a missed holding call or if it was a judgment call, but this was not a judgment call,” Fenwick Principal Peter Groom said Tuesday. “This was a rule that was not applied when there was no more time left on the clock. I don’t know how I tell my kids (to accept the outcome) in this situation.”

Several hours after the game, the IHSA issued a statement that stated the officials erred when they gave Plainfield North one final play after the passing penalty. The IHSA then cited bylaw 6.033, which states “the decisions of game officials are final,” and those decisions are not reviewable. Executive Director Craig Anderson offered “my sincerest apologies” to the Fenwick coaches, players and fans.

The IHSA board of directors convened an early Monday morning conference call about the game, determining the association’s bylaws did not allow a review of Fenwick’s appeal.

Groom said he resigned his position on the IHSA’s board of directors Monday when the school decided to file a legal challenge. He said while he bore no grudge against the organization, a lawsuit was the only way to fix what he considered an injustice.

He said the IHSA needs to have a mechanism to overturn game results in cases of clear and definitive error — he gave the example of a scorekeeping mistake in a basketball game — even though he said he understood the hazard of opening that door.

“It’s a slippery slope,” he said. “Believe me, I get it. This is a horrible situation we’re all in.”

In the 41-page lawsuit, Fenwick’s lawyers seek “a declaration to ‘fix’ a breach of contract by IHSA officials. By express written contract, all parties agree that the IHSA officials lacked authority under the contract to force the teams to continue to play after the clock expired.”

Fenwick wants the judge to issue a temporary restraining order, declaring the game to have ended when the clock reached zero in the fourth quarter.

Others are urging a more gracious solution: that Plainfield North give up the spot in the championship game as a gesture of goodwill, acknowledging their win was the result of an error.

“If we care about ethics, if we care about sportsmanship, when is it justified to hang on to a medal you didn’t earn?” asked Josephson, of the ethics institute. “The greater issue is why are you holding on to a victory you know wasn’t fairly won?”

Tom Hernandez, spokesman for Plainfield Community Consolidated District 202, said district and Plainfield North administrators and those associated with the football team empathize with Fenwick, but the IHSA “is the sole and final arbiter of this.”

“The team is practicing and they’re preparing to play at 4 p.m. Saturday,” Hernandez said.

The school is not considering forfeiting the Fenwick contest, nor giving up its spot in the championship game, Hernandez said.

Fenwick players also took to the field to practice Tuesday in case the judge rules in their favor.

Several parents of Plainfield North players lamented the situation but criticized Fenwick for taking the matter to court.

“I think everyone feels bad it happened this way, but there’s lots of bad calls in sports,” said Bill Stoll, whose son plays on the team. “At the end of the day, it’s a game. Everyone in sports has something go against them. The rules are in place for a reason.”

Football parent George Miller finds it “hilarious” that many at Fenwick have called on Plainfield North to step aside for the title game.

“It’s tragic,” Miller said. “Our kids played just as hard as Fenwick. But for them to tell us to ‘do the right thing?’ There’s a snowball’s chance in hell that if it were Fenwick in our position that they’d do that. It’s not for us to do. We played within the perimeters of the rules, and the refs made a mistake. It is what it is.”

Bruce Howard of the National Federation of State High School Associations, which writes the rule books for high school sports, said the organization had no directive governing when the results of a game can be overturned.

While some state associations have overruled the final outcome of a game, including a 2008 decision by the IHSA in a wrestling tournament, Howard was unaware of a judge changing the result. He pointed to a 2014 case in Oklahoma in which a high school sought to replay the final minute of a playoff game after officials mistakenly took away a touchdown that should have counted.

The judge declined to intervene, saying such a move “will inevitably usher in a new era of robed referees and meritless litigation due to disagreement with or disdain for decisions of gaming officials — an unintended consequence that hurts both the court system and the citizens it is designed to protect.”

The NCAA has a similar rule declaring that the score of a game is final once a referee declares the contest over. But high-profile officiating errors have prompted some to advocate for a change.

The most recent episode came in a September football game between Oklahoma State and Central Michigan. Just as in the Fenwick-Plainfield game, Oklahoma State tried to kill the clock by throwing the ball out of bounds on the fourth down, only for a referee to call intentional grounding and mistakenly award Central Michigan a final play.

Central Michigan ended up scoring on a miraculous 51-yard pass and lateral, giving the school a 30-27 victory even though officials later conceded that the play never should have happened.

“We were told the result is final and there is nothing we can do about it,” Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder said after the game. “In my mind, it is incomprehensible that a misapplication of the rules after time has expired can’t be corrected.”

An NCAA spokesman said Tuesday that while officials have had informal discussions about changing the rule governing final results, nothing official has been proposed.

Before everything else, it is hard to believe that, after a highly publicized bad call, the exact same call was made two months later. Football rules prohibit a half ending on a defensive penalty, but intentional grounding by definition is an offensive penalty, even on fourth down. If there is no time left, then the opposing offense should not have gotten that one play.

So what did the judge do Wednesday? The Tribune reports:

A Cook County judge on Wednesday turned back a legal challenge by Fenwick High School to overturn its disputed loss in a football playoff game last weekend.

The ruling by Judge Kathleen Kennedy came in a lawsuit filed by Fenwick against the Illinois High School Association, which had refused to hear an appeal by the private Catholic school in Oak Park, citing a bylaw declaring that decisions by officials shall be final.

The decision clears the way for Plainfield North High School to play in the Class 7A championship against East St. Louis on Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

“Here, as on the playing field, one side wins and one side loses,” Kennedy said as she announced her ruling after hearing about 45 minutes of arguments from lawyers and taking a lengthy break to mull over her decision.

A Fenwick spokesman said the school will not pursue further legal action and wished Plainfield North luck in the championship game.

Kennedy ruled in a Daley Center courtroom packed mostly with Fenwick supporters and a few players. Fenwick’s lawyer had warned the crowd to stay quiet and show respect for her ruling no matter how it went.

A mistaken call by officials with no time left allowed Plainfield North to tie the game with a field goal in regulation and then win 18-17 in overtime on a two-point conversion.

Fenwick’s lawyer, Peter Rush, said officials didn’t have the authority to continue the game and by doing so violated IHSA bylaws that rules will be enforced.

Rush disputed the IHSA’s claim that its bylaws blocked it from correcting the controversial loss, saying the agency did just that with a downstate soccer game.

David Bressler, an IHSA attorney, said officials make hundreds of bad calls every week and that courts would be flooded with lawsuits if Fenwick won the legal fight.

“I wish there was a way that Fenwick could participate in the game, but there’s not,” Bressler said. “Sometimes the law is not fair.”

Packer fans know about that:

So, for that matter, do fans of Cedar Grove–Belgium, which lost its state championship game because of what appeared to be an incorrect call:

Bad official calls, however, are not and cannot be grounds for lawsuits. The Cook County judge had no choice, because the first judge who overturns a game result on the basis of an incorrect official’s decision will open a Pandora’s box that will never be closed. (And as it is no game is ever decided in retrospect.by one play, even the Interceptouchdown.)

Moreover, what is the school teaching its students? When a human error occurs, sue? When things don’t go your way, find a lawyer?

 

Things that may amuse only me

I wrote Thursday about announcing a state football championship game, to which a friend wrote:

I would appreciate it if you could send in some of your game tapes to FOX as Joe Buck desperately needs to be replaced. What a great announcer story. Big guy from small conference in middle America hits the big time! Almost as good as the game itself.

Independent of the fact that Fox shows no inclination to replace Buck, to think Fox would replace Buck with a part-timer who has never done network TV at any level is most kind but most unlikely. I do maintain, however, that Fox and CBS should hire announcers for each team, and then using the Second Audio Program allow viewers to choose their announcers instead of being stuck with whoever Fox assigns, similar to what TBS has done with NCAA Final Four games.

This, meanwhile, amuses me even more:

Another avocational highlight today

I have the privilege of announcing today’s WIAA Division 7 football championship game between Shullsburg and Edgar from Camp Randall Stadium in Madison for WPVL (1590 AM), available online worldwide at http://www.am1590wpvl.com.

It occurs to me that for someone who does this only as a part-time thing, I’m doing pretty well. In the past four years, I have announced state football, boys basketball, girls basketball, girls volleyball and, as you know two weeks ago, boys soccer. I’ve also announced college basketball, and numerous non-state games that have been great games to announce regardless of where  they are or who’s playing.

 

A personal highlight today

I have a doubleheader of sports to announce today, ending with Lancaster at Clinton in Level 3 football at 6:45 p.m. on WGLR (97.7 FM) in Lancaster, available online at wglr.com.

Before that, I will be announcing state tournament soccer, Rice Lake against Mount Horeb, in Milwaukee for Rice Lake’s WAQE (also 97.7 FM), also available online at waqe.com and msbnsports.net. (Which marks the first time I have ever announced games for two different radio stations on the same frequency in the same day. I hope I keep one separate from the other, lest one get an unscheduled format change, given that the first is a Hot Adult Contemporary station and the other is a country station.)

When I was asked to announce state soccer, it occurred to me that there was someone residing in Presteblog World Headquarters who would know something about Mount Horeb, since the Vikings ended his season last week. And so …

… Platteville/Lancaster goalkeeper Michael Prestegard will join me on the broadcast. He’s certainly seen enough of my on-air work from the booth (including when I accidentally hit him in the face with my clipboard), but today will be his on-air sports broadcasting debut. (To add to various things he and his brother and sister have done for my main employer the newspaper.)

The closest I have come to this before now is when my father accompanied me on two interviews with microbrewery owners for a magazine story. The owners and he kind of monopolized the conversation, but I got enough material for the story just by listening and taking notes. (My father’s career was not in journalism, but if you can talk to people, that’s a start. My kids already know Who, What, Where, When, Why and How and What Does This Story Mean to the Reader.)

Mrs. Presteblog has been with me for many games over the years …

12472305_989009767856767_7295244210856932688_n

… but sadly not today due to this thing called work.

It’s a much smaller scale than, say, having Chip Caray work with his father Skip and Skip’s father Harry …

… or the numerous other father–son baseball teams (Marty and Thom Brennaman, Harry and Todd Kalas, etc.). But today will be a personal thrill for me.

In case you missed it …

The Chicago Tribune:

Grown men and women wept.

Fireworks lit up the sky in both the city and suburbs, while school-aged children gathered on sidewalks long after bedtime to cheer honking cars.

Thousands poured into Wrigleyville, forcing street closures around the ball park and prompting CTA trains to bypass several stops in the area because of crowding.

This is what it looks like when a 108-year-old dream is finally realized.

Chicago erupted late Wednesday night as the Cubs won their first World Series in four generations, ending professional baseball’s longest championship drought and giving its long-suffering fan base cause to celebrate. After a century of heartbreak, humiliation and good humor, the North Side faithful enjoyed a moment unlike anything they had experienced since the Theodore Roosevelt administration.

With raised beers and voices, the fans toasted a young, fearless team that never cowered to history. They applauded themselves for a steadfast loyalty that was finally rewarded. And they celebrated a city, which has found a small cause for happiness amid a soaring murder rate.

“First of all I’m going to cry. I’m going to be a babbling 47-year-old baby,” said Dan Yunker. “My sons, my daughters and my wife are texting me. This is a huge deal. This is history!”

At Simon’s Tavern in Andersonville, a wall-to-wall crowd spent the last innings vacillating between unrestrained joy and dread. Optimists in the crowd, weary from hours of baseball and alcohol, assured the others the Cubs would still win, even as the Cleveland Indiansgave cause tor doubt.

As the Cubs made the last out, the bar exploded into screaming, dancing and hugging.

“I feel so wonderful,” said Joan Kufrin, 79, of Chicago.

Sadly, Harry Caray missed last night’s win, but thanks to YouTube and editing skills …

Another baseball team, and another bad baseball team

Sunday morning I got a text:

Remember 3 years ago when the Cubs lost 96 games and you were questioning Theo Epstein and the Cubs’ plan when they were selling off all their “star” players for prospects and not wasting money on starting pitching and high-priced batters while the majority of their hitting prospects were still in the minors?? Remember when you again questioned the plan a year later when the Cubs lost 89 games in 2014 and I told you not to doubt Theo, the prospects were almost ready and they would go get the pitching they need – an ace (Lester) and a closer (Chapman), a decent 2/3 (Hendricks) – and they would dominate the Central for the next 4-5 years?? Well, Theo’s plan worked, regardless of the World Series outcome. And, hopefully I can send you a similar text in 3-4 years reminding you of this year when you ridiculed the brewers for selling of their players for prospects, not spending for quality veteran pitching or a first basemen and not really trying to be competitive this year cause they were certainly going to lose 100 games (they lost 89). Wouldn’t that be great?

Great? Yes. Likely? Where is the evidence?

The most cynical perspective says that the billionaire Cubs owners (of TD Ameritrade) screwed their fans to the tune of selling multiple seasons of bad baseball for premium prices for the chance of good baseball at some point. The most cynical perspective also says that the nouveau yuppie Cubs fans deserve to have wasted money on bad baseball. And to no one’s surprise, as the text writer noted, the billion-dollar owners went out and purchased the needed added parts to seal their win.

There is little resemblance between this Cubs team and the Cubs teams I watched, with day home baseball on free (cable) TV, and Harry Caray merrily mispronouncing names, (allegedly) drinking to excess during his broadcasts, and above all showing off Cubs baseball as something fun regardless of result. Irrespective of the benefits, or lack thereof, of Cubs ownership by the Wrigley family (a few World Series, the last in 1945, and the epic 1969 collapse) and Tribune Co. (1984, 1989, 1998, the 2003 Bartman and 2008), today’s Cubs have about 1 percent more charm than the White Sox, who have none. None of the people I know (including my father) who have been long-suffering Cubs fans will be enjoying the World Series anywhere besides their TV, or their favorite bar’s TV.

Up Interstate 94, the Brewers sucked again this season, though not to the level I thought they would. (To correct the text author: I believe I said they would lose 140 games this year.) It is impossible to say when the Brewers will not suck, and it is entirely possible their dump-players-of-any-value plan to build for the future will result in no better results than today. The ratings of minor league systems apparently don’t place any value on things like team results within their minor league or players finishing near the top of their leagues in offensive, defensive or pitching categories.

Does this look like progress to you?

  • Brewers:  73-89, 30.5 games out of first, 14 games out of the wild card.
  • Colorado Springs, Class AAA: 67-71, 12.5 games out of first place.
  • Biloxi, Class AA: 72-67, 8.5 games out of first.
  • Brevard County, Class A Florida State League: 40-97, 42.5 games out of first.
  • Wisconsin, Class A Midwest League: 71-69, 15 games out of first (though the Timber Rattlers were briefly in the Midwest League playoffs).
  • Arizona, rookie Arizona Fall League: 24-29, eight games out of first.
  • Dominican Summer League: 26-44, 24.5 games out of first.

Even if you grant that the purpose of the minor leagues is development and not necessarily wins, and even if you grant that some players may have been moved around thus harming their former teams’ fortunes, if the Brewers minor leaguers were developing better than similar-level players, the Brewers farm teams should be better than this. The supposed best minor league prospects won’t be in Milwaukee for at least three years, and at that point between the Cubs’ possibly winning the World Series and this presidential election (a major-party choice between Lucifer and Satan) we may all be dead anyway.

(This gives me an idea: Until the Brewers become contenders, they should cut day-of-game ticket prices by the dollar figure equal to the number of games they’re out of first place, down to zero. That would be their way to apologize to their fans for their team’s continued poor play.)

The Brewers’ best player is outfielder Ryan Braun. He is likely to be traded this offseason, and reports claim he’s headed to the Dodgers in return for malcontent outfielder Yasiel Puig, who is reportedly hated by most of his teammates. If that trade does take place, Puig will be hated by his Brewers teammates by Memorial Day. (Claims of the benefits of a change of scenery are usually illusory. People do not change, though they sometimes become worse. Ask the ’90s Cubs about Sammy Sosa.)

This is not all the Brewers’ fault. The economics of Major League Baseball continue to be terrible, and continue to benefit big-market franchises and a few smaller-market franchises who know how to run their businesses (i.e. St. Louis) because teams do not share their local broadcast revenues. The season is too long, which will be proven by World Series games at Progressive Field in Cleveland and Wrigley Field with lows in the 30s and 40s. TV will be fine with this; the fans may need hypothermia treatment afterward.

It should not take several seasons to build a winning franchise. The National Football League is famous for teams coming out of the previous season’s nowhere into the Super Bowl, and then going back the next year. (Tampa Bay, which finished last in its division last year, is ahead of Carolina, which played in Super Bowl 50. Dallas finished last last year and is in first this year.) If you are charging major-league prices for a minor league product, the fans have not merely the right, but the obligation to not buy tickets.

What kind of business would stay in business very long if it put out an inferior product for years and years, telling customers they’re trying to get better, ,but failing to do so? As a part of the entertainment business, every professional sports team owes it to its customers (paying fans, sponsors and broadcast outlets) to try to win every single season. Every single season, no exceptions, no excuses. Is that happening at Miller Park?

 

 

 

Ratings Deflategate

Forbes.com reports on a disturbance in the National Football League force:

I have been writing for a while that the protests of the national anthem by NFL players was hurting the league’s television ratings.

Some scoffed at me, while others said hold on, it’s way too early. And others wrote recently that there was no reason to believe ratings would contintue to dorp.

But I believe the league has alienated many fans who either do not want politics to enter their NFL experience, or simply are disgusted with players being disrespectful of our national anthem.

We are almost finished with week four of the 2016 season and Sunday Night Football, while still the top rated show of the evening last night, are getting worse each week.

The numbers are even worst when compared with last year.

As reported this morning by Deadline Hollywood, the SNF game with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs on NBC came in with a preliminary 6.1 rating and 16.68 million viewers  in the early numbers. Last year’s week four SNF contest between the Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints drew a 14.1 rating and 24.2 million viewers.

That’s a drop of almost one-third year over year.

More bad news for the league: Sunday Antonio Cromartie, the former Jets cornerback who became the first member of the Colts to join the Colin Kaepernick-led protest last week, raised his fist and kneeled during “The Star-Spangled Banner” Sunday at London’s Wembley Stadium.

Meanwhile, president Obama weighed into the debate over the national anthem protests sweeping across the US a few days ago, saying he hoped it would  prompt Americans to listen to others’ concerns and not just go into separate corners.

But neither the protesters, NFL or the president apparently get it. Many viewers have had enough!

The Washington Times adds:

Nearly one-third of American adults say they are less likely to watch a National Football League game because of the growing number of Black Lives Matter protests that are happening by players on the field, a Rasmussen poll found.

Thirty-two percent polled online and by telephone said they’re willing to skip NFL games this year because of player protests over racial issues, the pollster said on Tuesday. Only 13 percent said they were more likely to watch the games because of the protests, and 52 percent said the protests had no impact on their viewing decisions.

Twenty-eight percent of African Americans said they were more likely to tune-into an NFL game because of the protests, compared to 8 percent of whites and 16 percent of other Americans, the poll found.

Whites were twice as likely as blacks to say they are less likely to watch this year. …

The NFL, which has refused to do anything about the protests, has had its ratings collapse this season. Although some have blamed blow-out contests, and others point to the presidential election, some see the protests and #boycottNFL online campaigns as the root of the ratings free-fall.

The stupid thing is that it’s very easy for the NFL to do something about the protest without abrogating players’ First Amendment rights — tell teams to play the National Anthem while the players are in the locker room.

By now, though, that’s only going to deal with the first symptom. For one thing, the media is chiming in, as SI.com reported:

Numerous members of the NFL media made a show of support Sunday for players who have been kneeling during the national anthem. In unison at 1 P.M. ET, they tweeted: “I stand with those who kneel.”

The act of kneeling, which 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began in the preseason, has become a widespread practice throughout the league for players protesting racial inequality and police brutality in America. Among those who tweeted their support for the kneeling players include The MMQB’s Peter King, The Nation’s Dave Zirin and ESPN’s Jim Trotter.

None of those aforementioned sportswriters, nor any other I’m aware of (the Forbes writer is a sports business reporter), have chimed in on the NFL’s dropping ratings, as far as I know. Which is rather gutless of them.

Unless, of course, to quote Gertrude Stein, who wrote of Oakland that “there’s no there there,” the theory falls apart under evidence: Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch:

In a particularly troubling trend, ratings for Monday Night Football were down 19% prior to Monday’s Giants-Vikings game, including the lowest-ever viewership in the history of the series when just 8.047 million viewers watched the Saints-Falcons. (That game went head-to-head with the first Presidential debate.) The Giants-Vikings drew a 9.1 overnight rating on Monday, which was the highest MNF overnight of the year. That’s the good news. The bad news? It was still down 8% from the 9.9 for last year’s Week 4 matchup (Seahawks-Lions) that didn’t feature the New York market.

More troubling data: NBC’s Sunday Night Football drew an 11.0 overnight for Steelers-Chiefs on Sunday, down 26% from the same window last year with the Saints-Cowboys. That’s an alarming drop, even with Dallas as the NFL’s best television draw and a blowout game. (The NBC Sports p.r. department said in a release that the Steelers’ 22–0 first quarter was the most-lopsided opening quarter in 155 NBC SNF games. One can admire the rapid response team, but you can’t spin lemonade out of tomato juice.)

On Sunday, per Sports Business Daily, Fox led all Week 4 NFL broadcast windows with a 14.8 overnight rating thanks to the Cowboys-49ers, but that number was down 10% for the comparable Week 4 matchup last year.

CBS did see an increase on Sunday, drawing a 10.6 for its singleheader window, up 2% from a 10.4 in 2015, per SBD.

So what’s up? Well, one theory making the rounds—and it’s very plausible—is that the craziness of this Presidential election campaign has siphoned viewers (particularly males) away from football. In a terrific piece by Sports Business Journal reporters John Ourand and Austin Karp, two of the sharpest observers of sports television ratings, the reporters detailed how the news networks—Fox News, CNN and MSNBC—have gained significant viewers against the losses of the sports networks. One of the executives quoted in the SBJ piece was Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports’s senior vice president of programming and research, who said that the opening weeks of the NFL season reminded him of the fall of 2000, the only year from 2000 to 2010 where all four NFL TV packages dropped from the previous year and a year which saw a very tightly contested Presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Interestingly, Ourand and Karp pointed out that World Series viewership dropped by 22% in 2000, mirroring some big events this year (such as the Summer Olympics) and long-running series (Sunday Night Baseball), which had big drops in viewership.

Personally, I’m buying what Mulvihill is selling. I believe the hyper-insanity of the political news cycle and the reality show nature of Trump’s candidacy has taken some viewers away from sports. I don’t think it’s the sole reason, but I think it’s a big one. What would back up this thesis would be an uptick in the NFL ratings from the middle of November to the end of the season.

I’m also of the belief that the league has been hurt this year by a number of factors including a smaller group of star quarterbacks (no Peyton Manning or Tom Brady), an awful set ofMonday Night Football games, a potential slowing down in fantasy football growth, some fatigue from what Mark Cuban discussed as the NFL expanding its television package to an additional night, and some truly awful games on Sunday.

There’s also this: Nothing goes up forever, and the NFL was due for some sort of ratings correction.

There are those who posit that the migration to digital services and cord-cutting from television are responsible for the drops, and long-term this will impact the ratings, for sure. But the shift this year feels too dramatic for that to be the primary reason. Plus, if you look at the overall viewership numbers on, say, Twitter’s broadcasts of the NFL, they are minimal.

I think the big tell will be how the NFL does from the middle of November to the end of the regular season. The election will have passed (we hope), and the winter weather will keep many at home on Sundays. If the ratings are flat versus 2015 or tick up during the last six weeks of the NFL’s regular season, you’ll know the Presidential election campaign had a lot to do with it. If not, well, then we’ll re-examine some other theories.

Deitsch doesn’t explain why people would watch more news and less sports. (One political answer: Political commercials during games.) I suppose we’ll know by Thanksgiving (assuming the presidential campaign and/or a Cubs World Series win hasn’t brought on the Apocalypse) whether Deitsch’s theory is correct.

Anyone who has spent time in business knows that businesses that don’t listen to their customers go out of business. To be blunt, what the players think is rather meaningless, because they are very replaceable. The First Amendment, remember, protects government’s incursion on your free speech rights, not necessarily anyone else’s (including your employer). Viewers not watching or fans not going to games affects the bottom line, which is what the entertainment business is all about.

 

The hairiest story you will read today

Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch writes something you may have a hard time believing:

Fox Sports announcer Joe Buck feared for his broadcasting career five years ago when he suffered a paralyzed left vocal cord. The ailment struck him a few weeks before the start of the 2011 baseball season, and it wasn’t until October of that year that he truly felt his voice was back. At the time, Buck told people that he had developed a virus in the laryngeal nerve of his left vocal cord.

But that was a lie.

This is the story of what really happened, revealed for the first time here and explored in more detail in his upcoming memoir, Lucky Bastard: My Life, My Dad, And The Things I’m Not Allowed To Say On TV. The book will be released on Nov. 15 (you can pre-order using link above) and was written with Sports Illustrated senior writer Michael Rosenberg.

As a young man, one of Buck’s overwhelming fears was losing his hair, and the possibility soon consumed him. So at age 24, in Oct. 1993, he flew to New York City to get his first hair replacement treatment. He writes that, after the procedure, “I, Joseph Francis Buck, became a hair-plug addict.”

Buck said that whenever he had a break in his schedule—usually between the end of the NFL season and the start of baseball—he would fly to New York to have a plug procedure.

“Broadcasting is a brutal, often unfair business, where looks are valued more than skill,” writes Buck. “I was worried that if I lost my hair, I would lose my job. O.K., that’s bulls—-. It was vanity. Pure vanity. I just told myself I was doing it for TV.”

A few weeks before the start of the 2011 baseball season, Buck underwent his eighth hair replacement procedure. But something went wrong during the six-hour-plus procedure. When he woke up from the anesthetic, Buck could not speak. He believes his vocal cord was paralyzed because of a cuff the surgery center used to protect him during the procedure. A doctor not part of the operation theorized to Buck that the cuff probably got jostled during the procedure and sat on the nerve responsible for firing his left vocal cord. Buck was also going through personal stress at the time, as his marriage to his high school sweetheart was ending. That stress, Buck theorizes, could have made him more susceptible to nerve damage.

Panicked, Buck sought a voice specialist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St, Louis, Dr. Bruce H. Haughey, who told him he had a paralyzed vocal cord and there was no guarantee on when his voice would come back.

Given his embarrassment over what had happened, Buck lied to his bosses, to the media, to friends. He told people that he had a virus and that his voice would come back. “I was too scared and embarrassed to tell them the truth,” Buck writes. “But I’m doing it now.”

In an interview on Wednesday with SI.com, Buck further explained why it was important to him to reveal publicly this episode in his life.

“When I started thinking about writing a book, this was the main reason why,” Buck says. “It wasn’t about stories with my Dad. I wanted to detail the time in my life where I had a lot going on and I was stressed, a time when I started to take anti-depressants and was going through a divorce. Then I had this situation with my voice that rocked me to my knees and shook every part of my world. I’m 47 years old now and willing to be vulnerable sharing a story. Whether the book is read by one person or one million doesn’t concern me. Getting this out and being honest, really telling my story, that was was the impetus behind this.”

Stories about Buck from 2011 described him as having a virus that struck the laryngeal nerve in his left vocal cord. “This is a nerve issue,’ Buck told The New York Times in 2011. “It’s not like I have polyps or a strained vocal cord. I’m waiting for one of the longest nerves in the body to recover. Nobody has said this is something that won’t come back, but they told me it could take six, nine or 12 months.” Buck continued to discuss the impact of losing his voice as late as last year (see this profile in Cigar Aficionado) but never the reasons why. Few people knew the truth beyond Buck’s immediate family and some close friends, including his NFL broadcast partner, Troy Aikman. Most people at Fox Sports will learn of this upon reading this piece.

“I was lying,” Buck said of the stories about his vocal cord issues. “I think people bend the truth all the time, unfortunately. It was really for self-preservation and ego for me. As I look back, I gave partial truths. Where I lied was when I said the reason why. People would ask, ‘Why is your vocal cord paralyzed?’ I said it was a virus. I didn’t say it was an elective procedure to add hair to the front of my head. It was embarrassing. There’s an embarrassing element to that. Any surgery done to improve one’s looks is not really something someone wants to talk about. So it’s very cathartic to get this out. There are a lot of people across the country, for as silly as this sounds, who obsess about hair loss. I would tell myself I needed to look younger, I needed to have thicker hair, I don’t want to look older than I am. The truth of it is that it was an ego thing, whether I was on TV or not.”
In the book, Buck candidly discusses taking Lexapro to relieve his anxiety from the stresses of his personal and professional life. Eventually, Dr. Hughey referred him to a doctor in Boston named Steven Zeitels, a professor of laryngeal surgery at Harvard Medical School and the director of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Center for Laryngeal Surgery and Voice Rehabilitation. Zeitels had worked with well-known voices including Adele, Bono, Roger Daltrey and Dick Vitale, among many others.

As part of the treatment, Zeitels injected Buck with a long needle and filled his vocal cord with Restylane, a filler-like substance most often used for lip enhancement. Buck returned to Zeitels every three months for additional shots. The doctor told him the more he used his voice, the more the vocal cords would swell from usage and the better he would sound. Buck’s voice got a little better in August and September of 2011, though nowhere near where a network-level announcer should be. Buck said because of the equity he had built up Fox Sports and by having a strong relationship with his bosses, he was allowed back on the air when he should have been replaced by other announcers. By October, his voice was rapidly improving. Buck said by Game 6 of the 2011 World Series between the Cardinals and Rangers, he felt like his old self. He does, however, still think about the strength of his voice prior to working games today.

“I am an extremely lucky and blessed person, but I’m pretty self-aware,” Buck said. “I’m a flawed, hard-working, hard-trying person. I didn’t write this book to change anyone else’s life. I wrote this book to be as open and as honest as I can be. If there is any mission statement, I wrote it to give viewers and people who think they know me a better and clearer picture of who I really am. If you read it, great. If not, that’s great, too. But I am just glad that it’s out there.”

One might have thought that seeing his father …

… might have been a tipoff for the younger Buck about his follicle future.

The bigger point here, other than arguing over Buck’s hair (which requires bringing up non-hirsute baseball announcers Joe Garagiola, Jon Miller and John Smoltz, among others who have less hair now than they once did) is the cutthroat world at the top of broadcasting, particularly in our social media world, where those who don’t like an announcer can let the world know that:

Buck might have learned some of that from watching his father, who was first hired by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1954. (Jack Buck worked with Harry Caray, which, according to Buck and others … well, let’s say that Caray was a better announcer than coworker.) Jack Buck was then fired in 1959 because the Cardinals wanted to hire an announcer with more name than Buck had at the time. (That came four years after Caray’s and Buck’s partner, Milo Hamilton, was punted to bring on Garagiola.)

Two years later, the announcer for whom the elder Buck was fired, Bud Blattner, left, and so Buck, having not burned bridges on his way out, was rehired. Buck got the Cardinals’ lead announcer job when the Cardinals fired Caray, allegedly for an extramarital dalliance with (depending on whom you ask, and I’ve heard multiple versions from people who knew the parties involved) the daughter-in-law or girlfriend of the Cardinals’ owner, Gussie Busch.

Jack Buck then went part-time with the Cardinals when he was hired by NBC to host its “Grandstand” show, which turned out to be a poor career move for reasons mostly not Buck’s fault, at least according to his book. Fifteen years later, Buck was named CBS-TV’s number two baseball play-by-play announcer, getting the number one job after CBS fired Brent Musburger. (I saw the headline for that in the Chicago Tribune on April Fool’s Day. It wasn’t a joke. Musburger’s firing announcement was the day of the 1990 NCAA basketball championship game, which he announced.) CBS fired Buck after two seasons, allegedly for poor on-air chemistry with partner Tim McCarver (ironically a former Cardinals catcher).

So if you’re keeping track, that’s three firings for reasons that didn’t have very much to do with Jack Buck. Between that and the fact that Joe Buck’s on-air demeanor is off-putting to some (not myself, as a fellow member of the ironic ’80s), can you blame Joe Buck for being a hair (sorry, couldn’t resist) professionally paranoid?

The irony, perhaps, is that if for some reason Fox fired Joe Buck, another broadcaster, and certainly the Cardinals, would hire him in a second, even if that meant pushing out another announcer to make room.

 

The exception to the rules

Will Leitch observes, with two weeks left in the baseball season, about voices of baseball and the greatest of them all:

The modern baseball broadcaster provides a public service to sports fans everywhere: He receives our hatred; he’s a magnet, or a receptacle, for our frustration. To talk for three-plus hours extemporaneously, particularly during a game as leisurely and mannered as baseball, is to invite listeners to pounce on every poorly researched remark. Each year the baseball site Fangraphs.com asks its readers to rank all 30 teams’ announcers; perhaps the nicest thing written about one was that he was “phlegmatic to a fault.” Snarking on broadcasters is a fan’s sport within a sport.

The rise of hate-listening tracks the decline of the Big Broadcast Personality. Today, baseball announcers pretty much sound the same. John, Dave, Tom, Marty, Joe, Jack, Dan … They are interchangeable and anonymous: Choosing one over another would be like choosing between brands of paper clips.

There are, of course, a few grandfathered-in exceptions to the bland-yet-hated rule: Hawk Harrelson in Chicago, Mike Shannon in St. Louis—and most exceptional of all: Vin.

Vin Scully, who now enters his final month on the job, began broadcasting for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950 as an apprentice to Red Barber. Three years later, he was the team’s lead broadcaster. By 1958, when the team moved to Los Angeles to play in the Coliseum, he was so vital to fans – many of whom had difficulty following the game in a stadium far too massive for it – that they packed transistor radios so they could listen to Vin in the stands. By 1976, fans elected him the “most memorable personality” in Dodgers history. That was 40 years ago.

Over the decades, the sports-media landscape changed dramatically, and Scully’s once-beloved profession was whittled down to those Johns and Daves and Toms and Joes we like yelling at so much—but he never lost his touch.

The key to Scully’s success is his calm, intimate vibe. While many broadcasters call games as if they’re trying to talk anonymous hordes out of looking at their iPads, Scully is having a conversation with you – and only you. “I’ve always felt that I was talking to one person,” he said in 2007. “But I’ve never envisioned who that one person is.”

To listen to Scully is to be drawn in by a storyteller—and a fellow traveler. Scully has seen nearly 10,000 baseball games but he never sounds like a jaundiced expert. He’s excited to find out what happens just like you. It’s a baseball game. Let’s watch it together.

In 1950, you listened to Vin Scully because you wanted to know if the Dodgers were winning and he was the only way for you to find out. Now, in an age of push notifications and Twitter alerts, it’s difficult not to find out the score. And we have an absurd number of ways to follow along. We can watch the game on our TVs, our iPads, our phones, our video game consoles or even our wristwatches. We can listen to national audio feeds. We can turn off broadcasters altogether and just listen to the crowd. But still we choose Vin.

Ask any baseball fan. When they’re flipping around MLB.tv looking for a default game, just “which game should I turn on right now?” the determining factor is always, always, “Are the Dodgers at home?” Because if they are, Scully’s calling the game, and that’s the one you choose. Sure, the score of that Diamondbacks-Rockies game might be a little closer. But you’re going to turn down the chance to listen to Vin? In his last season, no less? The Dodgers are in first place, but even if they were on a 100-loss pace, they would be must-watch all season. That’s because of Vin.

Though he’s been around forever, he’s not some nostalgia play. He doesn’t complain that They Just Don’t Play Like They Used To or invoke the Good Ole Days, perhaps because he realizes they’re not behind us.

Baseball is the game we love to lament. Fans yearn for the time when it was America’s pastime in more than name, back when every theoretical American was rapt to attention, Ovaltine in hand, to watch the Mick. But that’s not how it really was. (Yankee Stadium was one-third full when Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s record.) In reality, more people are watching baseball right now than did in 1950, or 1960, or 1970, or any other time in recorded history. The newer fans are a more diverse group, more global, more liable to GIF a Mike Trout catch at the wall than keep a scorebook at the ballpark.

What unites the newer fans to the past is that they adore Vin Scully. The man in the booth – doing the job we now love to denigrate – is more beloved than the players he describes on the field.

His voice has served as the soundtrack of baseball even as that game, and the way we interact with it, has evolved. We’ll choose him right down to the very end. And then we’ll get back to booing the other guys.

%d bloggers like this: