Friday, October 24, 2008

Sure The NFL Is Better

Longtime readers know that, on occasion, I marvel at just how much the NFL and its management treat the players like children or worse. Guys get cut and their contracts get torn up for any reason or no reason, often because they have the audacity to get injured. Players get shamed for demanding to renegotiate their contract upwards when they're highly valuable, and then are shamed for not renegotiating their contracts downwards when they're slightly less valuable. Old players die young or wallow in a concussive haze, begging for reasonable pensions that never come. It's really an ugly scene when you look at it closely.

No, this is not technically about baseball, but the reason I tend to highlight these kinds of things is because it makes us all appreciate that, in the grand scheme of things, baseball is a kinder, more human endeavor than big time professional football, and that's one of the many reasons I like it.

I haven't mentioned one of these in a while, but now that we're about to be done with the baseball season and are midway through the football season, I'll probably start picking up and highlighting more examples of this phenomenon. The latest: Kellen Winslow and the Browns.

Mr. Winslow recently spent some time in the hospital and missed a game due to a staph infection. This was no random occurrence. The Browns have had an outrageous number of staph infections in the past few years, causing multiple players to miss scores of games because of it. There's obviously a problem there, and it's costing Cleveland Browns' players their health and possibly their livelihoods. For whatever reason, the Browns have been unable to address this serious concern.

On Sunday, Winslow spoke out, revealing that he had a staph infection, saying that the Browns were trying to keep it quiet given their previous issues with it, and saying that he felt slighted by not being visited by Browns officials while in the hospital. The Browns weren't happy about this. Notably, however, they have not disputed that (a) Winslow had staph; (b) that the Browns were keeping it quiet;* and (c) that no one from the Browns visited Winslow in the hospital. They just wished that Winslow had, you know, kept his trap shut about it.

*The Browns cite HIPAA laws for their silence, but it's worth noting that as I'm writing this, I'm reading update #3,497 on Tom Brady's ACL as it scrolls across the screen, and no one seems to worry about that disclosure too much.

But when you're management in the NFL, you don't have to sit and simmer. You can suspend and fine players for basically whatever you want. As a result, Winslow faces disciplinary action which, if upheld, will cost him a quarter of a million bucks in salary. All for speaking the truth about an inexcusable health problem that, after four years, the Browns have somehow still been unable to effectively address.

How is this any different than docking the pay of a demolition worker for complaining about all that asbestos his employers are forcing him to breathe? How, after what could very well be base negligence on the part of the Cleveland Browns, is Winslow the bad guy here?

But hey, this is the NFL, where the TV ratings are really high and the players are fungible, so why not go after the guy with the life threatening infection?


mooseinohio said...

Maybe Donald Fehr or Genr Orza could drop their names into the pool of candidates to replace to Gene Upshaw as Union Head and NFL owners and commissioner experience a little of what Selig and others have had to deal with. Not trying to be critical of Gene Upshaw but the union/management relationship in football appears to understand that working together functionally more often than not is best for all involved - the same 'mutually beneficial' relationship cannot be found with baseball.

millicannon said...

Great post! I too came away with the same thoughts after reading the original article in which Winslow first was quoted about this issue. I had never been a fan of Winslow because of his infamous diatribe while at Miami and because of my casual dislike for Winslow Sr. as a football analyst - figuring like father like son.

But with the concerns raised by Winslow how could one view his situation as anything but unfair. Not one call from the GM during his stay in the hospital, yet his GM has the audacity to reprimand him for speaking to obvious concerns that any rational person would have. I do, however; find it odd that not one teammate has spoken up in his favor. Though, I'm sure good Germans must've felt the same timidity under Hitler's manner of rule. Sorry for the analogy but come on. How can any honest person dispute his reasons for concern?

Jason @ IIATMS said...

Somewhere, Joe Pos is smiling at your use of the asterisk, or Posterisk, as it were.

Craig Calcaterra said...

Everyone gives Posnanski props becuase he's a great writer, but really, the Posterisk is a damn useful tool that solves a real problem with blogging. In casual writing I rely too much on parantheticals that can be distracting. In formal writing, I'm kind of a footnote guy. Neither of those work with blogging.

So, since I'm not going to bother editing out the superfluous thoughts like I probably should (hey, this IS blogging) I'm happy as hell to have the Posterisk.

Ken Dynamo said...

bah - no one is holding a gun to these professional football players heads and making them sign these contracts. if its so bad they can all quit and become desk jockeys like the rest of us.

of course what you say is true, it is a brutal game and their labor deal sucks compared to baseball. if that type of stuff does really bother you there's always college football, where players are only there for their love of the game (note sarcasm).

Rabbi Jason Rosenberg said...

I have to really disagree with MooseInOhio - the original post shows quite clearly that football's kinder, gentler relationship between the Union and the League is not "mutually beneficial." Non-guaranteed contracts, draconian fines (in cases such as this, when they aren't deserved), a salary cap which keeps the money away from the players and in the hands of the owners, horrific neglect of injured former players - this shows what happens when the Union isn't strong enough to keep the owners from doing what business people will usually do (maximize their profits and power).

I'm not a fan of MLB strikes and other labor disputes, but that sure seems like the best of a lot of bad options out there!

Craig Calcaterra said...

I'll interrupt this dialogue simply to state and boast that I guarantee ShysterBall has the most Jason Rosenbergs in the readership of any blog out there!

(Gentile division).

mooseinohio said...

@ rabbi jason rosenberg - My reference was more in regards to the popularity of the game not in the regards to the items you reference so 'mutually beneficial' may have been a poor choice of words. While the majority of players may have suffered, or at least not benefitted to the same level as the stars - I suspect top players or draft pick would believe the system is very beneficial.

Side note - I believe that in both baseball and football the unions have a trickle down philosophy in that if the top players make more then all benefit from salary/cap inflation. Issues such as you are referencing should be a matter of importance to negotiation but that also mean current players have to demand that their union represents their collective interests - not just the interest of the stars. The players could have ousted Upshaw years ago for not protecting their interests or demanded that Fehr and Orza work on a steroids policy for the best interest of players health, however it appears that such demands were either never requested or believed in strongly enough to cause the unions to move on them.

matt said...

Tom Brady had problems with his ACL surgery??? Why isn't ESPN making this known?!

But really, I'm glad someone else realizes what a joke these NFL contracts are. In what other walk of life do you sign a contract that can be unilaterally terminated by your employer for no reason, but you're a bad guy if you outperform your contract and want to be compensated for it?

Crowhop said...

Shyster, what the result be if you publically spoke out (justly) against your law firm's labor practices?

Ken Dynamo said...

anyone else see harlan county USA, the documentary? those were disadvantaged workers who are being taken advantage of. millionaire pro football players who have tons of options and negotiating leverage are not victims. their union willingly signed off on the terms of their deal. please stop acting like they are being oppressed by their evil corporate overlords.

Craig Calcaterra said...

Crow: I see what you're saying, but there are many, many differences here. This is about a working condition related to the employee's health, and Winslow works in an industry where employees' health is almost always public information. Indeed, teams have gotten in trouble for NOT being forthcoming about players' health in the past. Now that the players' health problem may reflect poorly on the organization, however, they want him to keep quiet? Were these the same people who loudly berated Winslow in the media for hurting himself on the motorcycle a couple of years ago? Hey -- I think they were right to be hard on him then because he was being a dumbass and violating his contract. But please don't tell me that they now have the right to the moral highground when it comes to the working conditions in which they put their players.

More broadly speaking, if my law firm's labor practices were routinely placing people's health in serious danger I have this feeling that it would be the firm, and not me, who would be in trouble because of it (and if you don't think this was serious, do a GIS for "staph infection" sometime; warning: you won't want to do it right after lunch).

Ken: I grew up in factory and mining towns, so I am well aware of the fact that what an NFL player faces don't compare with what real labor faces in this country. That said, you don't forfeit your right to a safe working environment -- nor do you forfeit your right to being treated like an adult -- simply because you're well paid.

Anonymous said...

Craig, are you certain the number of staph infections related to the Browns is anything other than random or a statistical aberration? I'm not saying it is, but where's the hard scientific-type evidence that it's not?

Craig Calcaterra said...

Anon -- I don't know that, and please don't get me wrong: I'm not suggesting that the Browns are turning a blind eye or anything close to it. But abberation or otherwise, it does have to be of major concern to the players there, and thus I think it's understandable that guys like Winslow are going to speak out about it.

My issue with the NFL is how they treat players who speak out; not about whatever it is that is causing staph infections.

Anonymous said...


"This was no random occurrence...
outrageous number of staph infections...inexcusable health problem that, after four years, the Browns have somehow still been unable to effectively address.

How is this any different than docking the pay of a demolition worker for complaining about all that asbestos his employers are forcing him to breathe? How, after what could very well be base negligence on the part of the Cleveland Browns, is Winslow the bad guy here?"

These things are "not suggesting the Browns are turning a blind eye or anything close to it"? I see.

And I'm sure analogizing to a worker complaining about asbestos his employers are forcing him to breathe is very neutral and not designed to elicit an emotional response in favor of your (and Kellen's) version of the story. And "base negligence"? That must mean something difference than it meant when I went to law school. Otherwise, it's very hard to square with your last comment.

Anonymous said...

"Were these the same people who loudly berated Winslow in the media for hurting himself on the motorcycle a couple of years ago? Hey -- I think they were right to be hard on him then because he was being a dumbass and violating his contract."

Maybe. Would they also be the same people who paid him when they reportedly didn't have to after the accident?

Craig, you don't think it's possible the Kellen's righteous indignation is about his unhappiness with his current deal, do you? I'm not saying it is; I'm just saying there are at least two sides to every story. And clouding the issue with a lot of emotional language about staph infections and negligence and asbestos may not be the best way to figure out what's really going on.

Craig Calcaterra said...

Not to get too cute with language, but the would "could" is important here. I have no idea what's causing the staph infections. Maybe it's crazy coincidence that they've had so many of these in the past few years. Maybe they are trying desperately to prevent it but are being stymied by something unknown. Maybe they aren't taking it seriously as they should. None of us know what's going on there, but this has obviously been an ongoing problem for the Browns, and Winslow has every right to be pissed here.

And make no mistake -- just because I am taking greater issue with the response to Winslow than I am to the staph infections themselves doesn't mean I am attempting to be neutral here. No matter their cause and no matter how hard the Browns have tried to fix it, the fact is that it's still a problem.

Maybe the asbestos comparison was a tad over the top, but an unsafe work environment is an unsafe work environment whether or not their is some malevolence on the part of the employer.

Craig Calcaterra said...

anon -- I'll be the first to admit that Winslow has not exactly earned the benefit of the doubt over the years. I'll also admit that I'm not exactly contributing to a reasonable resolution of the issues (if I were the Browns or Winslow, I would moderate my comments a bit more in the interests of getting through this thing).

I just fail to understand how this situation justifies a response other than "we understand Kellen is frustrated. We are too. We dispute his claims that we don't care about him or his illness, and look forward to him making a full recovery."

What does docking him $200K+ accomplish?

Anonymous said...

OK, Craig. With all due respect, you're suggesting (sorry) that writing "could very well be base negligence" does not equal "suggesting the Browns are turning a blind eye or anything close to it"? Simply by pointing to the word "could"? That very nearly renders the language used here meaningless.

And again, what is the statistical significance of the number of staph infections? Don't we need to know things like this BEFORE we start throwing around "unsafe work environment" and having very strong opinions about the issues involved here? Seems like a better course of action than jumping to conclusions based upon what, as presented here and in the MSM, is nothing more than anecdotal evidence.

(I do like the blog, btw.)

Craig Calcaterra said...

Fair points, anon. I'll admit, I am being a bit scattershot here, and my strong characterization of the staph infections themselves probably overstate things. I am troubled by the fact that the Browns have had that many staph infections in recent years and I have heard of no other team with the same sorts of problems. I should probably leave it at that.

BUT: I am far more troubled by what appears to be the Browns' response, and while it is merely my opinion, I think that response is inspired by a dissatisfaction with the bad publicity Winslow's infection could cause them more than anything else.

Anonymous said...

Finally (I'm done after this, I promise), I agree with most of your larger point here, even if I'm not convinced this particular instance is such a great example. The NFL players do have a worse deal than MLB. I think it would be interesting to explore the societal, political and economic reasons for this (and I'm sure people have). That is, what pressures/issues keep the NFLPA from cutting a better deal?

By the way, if you really want to start talking about some workforce with a crappy deal, post more about the NCAA and "student-athletes" at big-time college programs. I'll eat that up.

Anonymous said...

Crap. One more thing:

One of my favorite movie lines of all time: "Every time I say it's a game, you say it's a business. Every time I say it's a business, you say it's a game."

Craig Calcaterra said...

Anon -- never promise to be done. The comments -- especially ones which give me a hard time -- are the best part of this blog. Go read stuff on a lot of other baseball sites: I guarantee you, the discourse here is way better.

Anyway: I'm sure someone else has written about this, but I think that two of key factors driving the differences between the deals the NFLPA and the MLBPA have are (1) the relatively shorter duration of your average NFL career; and (2) the fact that, once you get past the QB and some of the other skill guys, NFL players are kind of anonymous.

The first point means that every day a football player is on strike is worth way, way more than a day a baseball player is on strike. Lose a whole season in the NFL, and you've lost a quarter to a third of your whole damn career. It's not quite the same for baseball players.

The second point is the reason why the NFL owners were able to get away with the replacement players in 1987. Casual fans don't know or think about the individual identities of the linemen and other heavy bodies. In baseball, each player has his own independent stat line. Each time a new guy comes up to bat is an individual moment the likes of which football rarely sees.

What's more, if you replaced NFL players with scrubs across the board, you'd still be able to create something approximating an NFL contest. Sure, savvy people could tell the difference between the speeds of the receivers and size of the players, but on some level, it would still be equal talent matching up against equal talent. In baseball, however, there comes a point where a player of a certain caliber simply can't hit the ball over the fence in Dodger Stadium no matter how bad the pitcher is too.

Maybe this is all crap, but it seems to me those are a couple of factors which give baseball players a negotiating advantage before you even get to the strength of union leadership, the relative cohesiveness of ownership, etc.

As for college: oy, I agree. I am a huge Buckeyes fan, but to suggest that those guys aren't being taken advantage of is ridiculous.

Loztralia said...

Very crudely, it's always seemed to me that football offers a microcosm of what happens if you run your society along rampant market economics lines, and baseball what happens if you allow collective bargaining.

I'm sure a lot of football players aren't wonderful people but the hypocrisy of the way they get attacked for saying anything out of line, while the owners continue to get richer, sickens me. And why do team owners get to lift the trophy? There are millions of rich guys out there but hardly any who can play NFL quarterback.

Meanwhile in baseball the excesses of union power and the Boras situation don't impress anyone - but given that the pool of money in baseball is what it is you have to accept that it's better that players get a good chunk of it than not. Does anyone think that if they brought back the reserve clause the first thing that would happen is owners dropping ticket prices to pass on the savings to the punters?

Ken Dynamo said...

you're right, no matter how well paid these guys are they can still get screwed by the owners. the difference is the players of plenty of options to see that their grievances are redressed.

bottom line is their union signed a deal and each player signs their own deal. if a real injustice has taken place, winslow will be compensated, according to the rules both sides agreed too. if they dont like the rules, they can fight to change them when this contract is up. either way, as i said, i'll save my sympathy for other industries.

Dennis said...

In case anyone cares, some cursory internet "research" re: staph and the NFL:

It may be a Cleveland Browns issue, but it appears not to be limited to them.

David said...

I'll be the nerdy medical student here. Staph infections are a real pain the rearend. Without getting too specific you can have nosicomial staph infections and community acquired staph infections. Nosicomial infections are acquired in the hospital. It used to be that nosicomial infections were the ones that were most antibiotic resistent but now it's more of the community acquired that is resistent. That is why we have MRSA (methicillin resistent staph aureus).

Staph infections are most common in places like locker rooms. Staph has also gotten to the point of becoming vancomyosin resistent as well. That's twice as troubling.

The problem as Cleveland is experiences in my estimation is they probably are dealing with a strain of MRSA or some type of antibiotic resistent strain of staph aureus. It's not particularly easy to eradicate but Winslow is right to bring it to light.

Of course the old adage of using antibiotics too much leads to these resistent strands of bacteria comes into play here too.

It's a problem that the Browns are facing but I just wanted to point out that depending on the strand of the staph aureus it's not that easy to get rid of. At least that is my understanding. If some ID doc says this is all wrong, then I completely defer! :-)

Grant said...

I got a staph infection when I was in college (at least that's what the health center doctors told me it was...welt/boil things all over my upper body). It was both miserable and terrifying. That a institution as wealthy as a pro football team isn't properly addressing this is disheartening.