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So, for Penn State Football…Now What?

12 Jul

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where the ESPYs were cancelled years ago.

Beaver Stadium on gameday (photo credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP)

The big sports-related story today, of course, is the announcement of the report detailing the results of Louis Freeh’s (and team’s) investigation into the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State.  I’ve blogged on this before, so I’ll suffice it to say for now that once again today I’m absolutely sick at what happened.  I hope that proper respect and restitution is paid to the victims, and I hope that those who are guilty pay the appropriate price for their dastardly deeds.  I think Christine Brennan of USA Today makes a pretty good statement here too…

Today, I’d like to focus on one (and perhaps under-reported, if that’s possible) angle of all this: sanctions on the football team itself.  The question has come up whether or not the NCAA or another governing body will impose any sanctions on the football program for the misdeeds of administrators and Paterno.  I’ve heard it argued both ways…but most of the talking heads right now don’t seem to want current program members to pay for the mistakes of those before them.    An interesting take, considering all that’s at stake here.

Personally, and with my PR hat on, I don’t think the NCAA, the Big Ten Conference and anyone else with a pulse has a choice: they have to punish Penn State, and come down hard.  The University, AND the football program.  Think of it from a public perception; unless you’re an alum, or a former PSU player, or someone with direct ties to the program, you identify most with the organization responsible for this scandal through its appearance on the field on fall Saturdays.  To the average Joe (no pun intended), to recruits and to the broader community, that IS Penn State football.  So, if no punishment is imposed that affected the program on the field, the average participant might not think anything happened at all.  Which, of course, isn’t even on the same planet of relevance…considering this is the most significant sports scandal of our time, and maybe any time.

So, what type of punishment is appropriate?  Obviously, punishment should be commensurate with the crime…and programs have been given the death penalty for less.  I’ll leave it to others to make this decision, but I think it would be well within the means of the NCAA and the Big Ten to shut down PSU football for a year or more until things get sorted out, the program and culture change, etc.  It would be an incredibly drastic step, one I’m not sure they have the cajones to take given the significance (and revenue-ability) of PSU football.

It’s unfortunate that innocent players, coaches, gameday staff and the like would have to pay for the mistakes of others, sure.  But let’s keep this in perspective, people…innocent people already have paid for mistakes.  Kids were raped.  By people who they trusted to keep them safe.  The abuse was covered up.  More kids were molested after the cover-up occurred, according to today’s report…which means that at least one if not several rapes should have been prevented.  This is as low as it gets, and it just so happens that it’s tied into Penn State and its football program.  The real victims here are the kids and their families, and to suggest anything else just seems to me to be out of whack.

That’s all for now.   I’m out like the American League.

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The Handler…Exposed

19 Jun

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where it doesn’t take the better part of two weeks to play the College World Series.

(photo credit: Deadspin.com)

I learned this morning that Deadspin now has a regular contributor called “The Handler,” a self-described PR pro with several high-profile athlete clients.  In this second piece in the series, this author tries to expose what he feels the world of working with athletes is really like – deceitful and sordid.  Now, having worked with athletes myself, I don’t doubt any of the alleged stories/details described in the column, as unfortunate as that is to say.  And I won’t even say that The Handler isn’t committed to his clients’ success, as any good PR pro should be.  But…as an accredited and seasoned PR pro myself, I’m concerned about a few things I see in the piece.

First – I’m bothered by The Handler’s apparent motivations here.  In the PR business, our clients and our companies get the spotlight; we are the counselors behind the scenes that help facilitate success, and then over time we build a reputation for good work and high integrity among our peers.  By even writing this piece, it’s clear to me that The Handler is isolated from other pros and tired of watching his clients get all the attention, and he wants some for himself.  Or, at least, he wants some credit for his self-described “professional accomplishments”…which really won’t come anyway because third parties assign credit/expertise, not individuals for themselves.  Ultimately, besides the money Deadspin is likely shelling out for the series, I’d bet The Handler won’t be fulfilled from writing this piece.  Attention and credit are impossible to receive when there’s no one earning the credit or no name for anyone to give attention/credit to.

Second – there are potential ethics breaches that come from this.  On the plus side, The Handler is contributing to the free flow of information and fostering open communication about a subject matter.  He also protects confidential information about his clients…only by not naming them.  (That, of course, would blow up in his face – and likely end his career – if his identity leaks out somehow.)

But that’s where it ends.  Without giving all the details (especially names) the public only gets some of the story and has to guess at the rest.  That’s no way to establish the facts and open up a truly productive debate about the issue at hand.  Also, what self-respecting PR pro in his right mind goes anonymous?  Quite simply, that’s code for “I’m afraid” or the cardinal sin of PR itself, “No comment;” it implies guilt and suggests that even by coming clean, The Handler has called his professionalism and integrity into question.   Finally, and most important, one of the key ethical tenets of PR is to work to strengthen the public’s trust in the profession and our clients; if we are not trustworthy, and seen as high-integrity, we cannot function as PR people.  I fear the average Joe reading this will now (again) associate PR with spin doctoring, covering up facts and protecting clients at all costs, legal and illegal.  That’s not what I want others thinking about what we do…because that’s NOT what we do.

Apparently, this column isn’t going away…Deadspin, after all, loves sensational stories that will grab web traffic.  Unfortunately, I have a hunch that means this could be the first of many posts reminding readers of the truths and practices of the PR industry that I know and love, inside and outside of the sports world.

That’s all for now.  I’m out like LaDainian Tomlinson.

BCS or Playoff, or Both?

13 Jun

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where the Stanley Cup forever reigns as the greatest prize in sports.  Seeing it always gives us chills.

Quick update: a little while ago I wrote about the University of North Dakota and its nickname controversy.  Just yesterday ND voters elected to drop the nickname, in the latest sign that reason is winning out over passion.  This quote from Tim O’Keefe, EVP and CEO of the UND Alumni Association and Foundation, says it all: “The price of keeping the name is simply too high.”  Exactly.  I know it’s painful, North Dakotans, but you’ve done the right thing.

What a 2011 playoff might have looked like (photo credit: ufrsports.com)

Meanwhile, as we speak, big shots from the major college sports conferences are in meetings in Chicago to debate the future of the BCS and whether or not to initiate a playoff for college football.  My thoughts?

This blog has long been a proponent of a playoff, and that hasn’t changed.  I think it’s ludicrous that the national championship isn’t decided on the field, like it is at just about every other level of every kind of sport.  Done right, such a set-up leaves an undisputed champion – and a ton of revenue and buzz, a la the NCAA basketball tournament.  Personally, I’d support a four, six or eight-team seeded tournament, with all games at neutral sites.  Select the teams with a selection committee, like in basketball, and let the chips fall where they may.  This is what is needed for the game…a pure process where biases, conflicts of interest and the like are as far removed as possible.

That said, as a former band member/letterwinner at the Big Ten’s University of Minnesota, I’m admittedly a bit of a purist.  The Rose Bowl is part of our DNA in this part of the world, and ever since birth I’ve been looking forward to the day that I could follow my team to Pasadena for a Rose Bowl.  I didn’t have the honor during my years wearing the maroon and gold, although we got close.  And in many ways, I’d rather see the Gophers play once in the Rose Bowl than two or three times in a college football playoff – it’s about the experience of it all.  Yet I understand that if/when changes are made, said experience will fundamentally and forever change.  I get it, and I think it’s necessary for the greater good, but I’ll still hold out hope that the Gophers are playing a title game someday…for the Roses.

That’s all for now.  I’m out like the Boston Celtics.

BountyGate and the NFLPA

11 Jun

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where holding all four Grand Slam tennis titles at once is a regular occurrence.

So much has been made lately of the concussion issue in the NFL.  What I find most fascinating about it is how the NFLPA is treating the issue.  On one hand, they’re working hard to secure benefits and compassion for injured players, especially retired players who didn’t make the millions that today’s athletes do…this played a major role in the labor disagreement that threatened last season.  But on the other hand, they’re now defending the very people who have emerged as a serious threat to their members’ safety.

I’m referring specifically to BountyGate, of course.  The NFLPA, very early on, had a very difficult decision: support the handful of players punished by the NFL and help defend their rights, or endorse Goodell’s rulings and condemn the guilty parties’ actions in a move to underscore their pro-health position for the rest of the league’s current and former players.  This was a decision they must have agonized over, but in the end they chose to support the handful.  The NFLPA is vigorously defending Jonathan Vilma and others, trying to get their suspensions shortened and the like.  I’m here to tell you I think they made the wrong call.

If there’s one thing the NFL and its fans have been adamant about over the past 6-12 months, it is preserving the health of players – current and former.  No one wants to see cases like Junior Seau’s, or others like it.  No one wants to see players carted off a field due to injury.  And, especially, no one wants to see actions on a football field that would be criminal off the field.  The evidence against the BountyGate players and coaches, at least the stuff that’s been released to the public, is jaw-dropping…and rock solid.  Yet the NFLPA still defends the handful, and undercuts its pro-health stance by doing so.  Put another way: by supporting the 1% on this issue, the NFLPA failed to support the 99%.  The result is that the NFLPA has brought into question where it stands on player injuries, and what side it will come down on in the future.

If I were a card-carrying member of the NFLPA (like Chris Kluwe, who’s ranted about this on Twitter @ChrisWarcraft), I’d be seriously concerned about whether or not the union I belong to really has my best interests in mind.  From the fan’s perspective, or the NFL’s, I’m seriously concerned that the NFLPA might not be committed to ensuring that the game continues to grow and prosper for decades to come.  Either of these matters is enough to generate a firestorm of debate and controversy for the NFLPA, and I think it’s only a matter of time before more people inside and outside of the league ask these kinds of hard questions.  The result could change the NFLPA as we know it today.

It’s simple, really: pick a side, and stick with it.  The NFLPA has acted to straddle both sides of the line on the broader topic of player injury, and I think it could blow up in their face before this issue runs its course…if it ever does.

That’s all for now.  I’m out like Francisco Liriano.

Why MLB Had to Suspend Cole Hamels

14 May

Welcome back to The Sports Ace, where we have a four-homer game at least once a season.

Cole Hamels (photo credit: The Bleacher Report)

Last week, Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels was suspended five games by Major League Baseball for intentionally beaning young phenom Bryce Harper of the Nationals.  A lot has been made of whether he should have enforced an “unwritten rule” of baseball, or whether he was suspended for hitting him in the first place or actually admitting it.  Personally, I don’t think any of this is really relevant.

MLB had to suspend Cole Hamels, and here’s why: Bryce Harper is the future.  Anytime you hit someone with a pitch, injury can result…and the kinds of injuries and lingering effects that players can sustain are still coming to light.  Bryce Harper is a player that some have compared to Mickey Mantle…he has an incredibly bright future as a top-flight superstar for the Nationals and MLB for years/decades to come.  Where superstars are concerned, so are gate revenues…team brands and fan-building opportunities…jersey sales…team competitiveness…the value of franchises…just to name a few.  It only takes one freak event; an injury to a player like Harper could/would have significant ripple effects and cost many parties money, time, momentum and the like.

Also, if I were MLB, I’d be concerned about preventing this kind of activity from becoming the norm, or discouraging others to follow Hamels’ lead in the future.  Eventually, someone would really get hurt, and the game will suffer.  Five games is significant, but Hamels will only miss one start…his wasn’t a statement-making suspension like the NHL and NFL have been handing down lately.  If anything, MLB missed an opportunity to render a more substantial punishment and more forcefully state its case.

MLB had to issue a swift, significant suspension in order to protect its own long-term interests.  It’s as simple as that.  And I think that most baseball fans, if they stopped and considered all that’s at stake, would agree that MLB did what it had to do to protect the integrity of the game.

That’s all for now.  I’m out like the Minnesota Twins.