Archive for the ‘Sports industry’ Category

Who are the Real Champions of Sports Corruption?

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

sports-moneyGuest Post by Thomas Mattera

Though FIFA’s corruption scandal dominated headlines for weeks, the inevitable has happened: the revelations have slowed to a trickle and sporting world has started to move on. Most previously captivated onlookers will return to the scene of these crimes again for one of only two reasons: to see if the next two World Cups will be moved or if FIFA President Sepp Blatter will mercifully fulfill his currently hollow promise to resign.

In turning the page, many in the United States are confident that the sports they enjoy domestically are free from misconduct contained in the FIFA accusations.

Unfortunately, this is a serious misconception. Though FIFA and its Cups have deservedly garnered the spotlight for alleged misappropriation of public funds, cover-ups, and labor violations, American sports have many of the same issues. The important difference: here they have been legalized and, gradually, normalized.

It shocks the world when kickbacks and campaign finance illegalities facilitate a taxpayer-funded, $900 million World Cup stadium in Brazil that currently functions as a bus depot. Meanwhile, this is public policy as usual in the United States as massive amounts of American public dollars annually go to a small group of billionaires, leaving stadium boondoggles with features like a multimillion dollar aquarium behind home plate.

Heads roll at its Zurich headquarters when FIFA is accused of suppressing incriminating evidence. Across the pond, the National Football League never has to admit guilt as it litigates away its cover up of the discoveries it made regarding the serious health implications of playing football professionally.

Finally, there is no shortage of international coverage surrounding the fact the World Cup generates billions in profit while the impoverished, unrepresented construction workers who make it happen risk serious injury for almost no compensation. Strangely enough, there is an eerie American equivalent that, although often criticized, continues on mostly unchanged.

This is not to say that American sports are free from unsanctioned trespasses. One only has to look at the recent revelation that the St. Louis Cardinals of Major League Baseball allegedly hacked into the database of a rival team to be reminded of that.

Nor is futbol’s governing body without its own maneuvers that operate dubiously yet legally. Case in point: like the NFL did for decades, FIFA has billions in the bank yet still masquerades as a nonprofit to claim tax-exempt status.

However, the fact remains that the FIFA allegations captivated the the sporting world while events in American sports that yield similar outcomes go unpunished and comparatively unnoticed every day. Though their sport suffered great embarrassment over the past two weeks at least, world soccer fans can at least find solace in the fact that the sources of their sporting injustice have been revealed, reviled, and now hopefully redeemed. Unfortunately, that is far more than can be said for the everyday injustice of the sporting landscape of their fellow sports fans stateside.

California Schemin’

Thursday, June 4th, 2015
la stadium (2)

Rendering of proposed Rams Inglewood stadium

Guest Blog by Thomas Mattera

Most of the hot air released at last month’s National Football League owners meeting in San Francisco had nothing to do with ball deflation. Instead, the hyper-exclusive club, with three dozen members and a cumulative net worth of $77,000,000,000, discussed something much more important long-term than a month without Tom Brady’s chiseled jaw: the possible move of several teams to the Los Angeles area as early as the 2016 season.

The star-struck franchises in question, the St. Louis Rams, Oakland Raiders, and San Diego Chargers, have each ramped up their efforts in the last few months. The Rams have wasted no time imploding historic structures to make room on a plot of land in suburban Inglewood recently acquired by team owner Stan Kroenke. Meanwhile, the Raiders and Chargers are proposing a joint $1.7 billion stadium in nearby Carson, to be paid for largely by a certain vampire squid’s creative accounting.

These maneuvers are nothing new. Threatening to move your team to Los Angeles is as ubiquitous in the NFL as unpunished domestic violence and long term tax dodging. Since the league left the City of Angels in 1995, an owner claiming to be interested in moving there has become a perennial event, with more than half of the league’s franchises using the football-vacant city as leverage at one point or another. The playbook at this point is tried and true:

  1. Claim your current stadium is too old to compete for paying customers and is fast becoming structurally unsound.
  2. Insist taxpayers bear the cost of a new stadium or large-scale repairs to your old one.
  3. If demands are not immediately met, float the possibility of moving to Los Angeles.
  4. Champion the idea that a new stadium will bring much needed economic development to a struggling area. Pay no mind to the overwhelming evidence debunking this theory.
  5. (optional) If local officials still wont capitulate, fly in a theoretically impartial high ranking NFL official to seal the deal.
  6. When area politicians inevitably cave, announce that you will be staying because of your undying loyalty to the hardworking fans of (insert city here).
  7. Reap the near instant private rewards as the value of your team skyrockets while the city deals with the decades-long impacts of unforeseen construction costs and hundreds of millions in public debt.

The owners of the Rams, Raiders, and Chargers have shown no interest in deviating from this well-worn gameplan. Kroenke, a billionaire six times over who built his empire by marrying into the Walton family and developing shopping centers (many of them subsidized projects anchored by Walmarts), has yet to even sit bother to sit down with officials in St. Louis to try to broker a compromise. Yet this has not stopped the cash-strapped city from offering a new stadium deal replete with public financing.

Not to be outdone, the owners of the Chargers and Raiders recently announced in a joint statement that “If we cannot find a permanent solution in our home markets, we have no alternative but to preserve other options to guarantee the future economic viability of our franchises.” Unlike the Rams, however, both current California teams face fierce pushback against public funding for new stadiums from legislators and residents. These cities are indicative of how American municipalities are slowly realizing the error of their ways and beginning to demand an end to subsidized billion-dollar boondoggles.

If the people of Oakland and San Diego stay organized in their resistance, the owners of the Rams and Chargers may be forced have to skip all the way down to the fine print at the bottom of the owners playbook:

  1. If you cannot sufficiently extort a wildly favorable deal from your current city, just move to Los Angeles.

After all, teams do occasionally follow through on their threats and actually relocate. Case in point: The Rams left L.A. for St Louis 20 years ago, in large part because of the construction of the Edward Jones Dome, a building for which Missouri taxpayers still owe millions a year in annual maintenance payments for the next decade, even if the Rams move back West.

Additionally, there is an obvious reason teams have and continue to make the L.A. threat even if, for them at least, it is almost always an idle one. America’s largest traffic jam is the nation’s No.2 media market and in the past has shown it will support professional football. Moving there may be the best way for NFL owners to support their real favorite team: The Greenbacks.

These factors are not lost on the Rams, Raiders, or Chargers. Any of the three could ultimately decide to move past hypotheticals and formally propose a move at the next owners’ meeting in August. It is here where they will face a group significantly less generous than a bunch of local political pushovers. Any move to L.A. needs to be approved by 24 of the NFL’s 32 franchises, which figures to be a tall order. After all, with the L.A. vacancy filled what will the rest of the owners do the next time they feel the hankering for a shiny new stadium? Negotiate in good faith? Or..gasp..actually pay for it themselves?

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The Madness Continues

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

confettiGuest blog by Thomas Mattera

When the dust settles from March’s biggest battle, one group of winners will emerge with unimaginable spoils while others come away empty-handed. There will be heartbreaking results, ruthless opponents, and at least one pathetic defense.

And sure, there will be some pretty good basketball as well.

This is because no mere buzzer beater or timely block can match the maddest part of March: the monetary exploitation of collegiate basketball players by large corporations and their own school administrators.

Yes, the NCAA Tournament is in full swing and nothing has changed. Once again, unpaid, logo-covered young men race up and down the court on every channel round the clock, creating billions in revenue for some, millions in salary for others and little for themselves.

Of course, this is far from a new revelation. The ludicrous injustice of big time college athletics has been uncovered, covered, and re-covered. And the tide of public perception is slowly but unmistakably shifting. More and more people are seeing college amateurism for what is has always been: a thinly veiled attempt to avoid paying workers compensation for injuries as well as compensation in the broader sense.

However, many current players are not interested in waiting for things to change slowly from the outside. Instead, they have taken matters into their own hands, showing their discontent with the NCAA by rallying under the “All Players United” banner.

Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter took this effort even further eleven months ago, arguing that college athletes are employees and should be able to unionize. His stance was supported by an NLRB ruling last March. Unsurprisingly, Northwestern appealed and the players’ ballots are trapped in a sealed box while the matter makes its way through a litigious obstacle course.

Though they are far from a permanent victory, Colter and his allies have clearly rattled some cages. Case in point: In 2014, Michigan Governor Rick Synder signed a provision pre-emptively banning athletes from being considered public employees who can collectively bargain. This step was especially galling given that just a few months earlier the flagship University of Michigan football program re-inserted a visibly concussed player back into a game after a vicious hit to the head. The university initially claimed it had done nothing wrong before eventually walking back its story and apologizing in the wake of public outrage.

Meanwhile, the National Basketball Association and the NCAA are currently considering a mutually beneficial agreement that would force players to wait two years after high school to be eligible to play in the NBA. Under the deal, the NCAA would get two years of unpaid labor on often unguaranteed scholarships from the best athletes in the world. For their part, the professional ranks get a free farm system to scout the players before investing in them. Of course, the NCAA’s “corporate champions” won’t be complaining either as they use teenage athleticism as filler between $1,500,000 a minute beer ads.

There has been some progress in the struggle for fairness even as the Northwestern ballots remain in limbo. The last year has seen improvements in NCAA scholarship policy, better player healthcare, and in the fight for athletes to see some profits from the selling of player-specific merchandise. Yet this is far from enough

It is March once again, a year after college players took a stand and were vindicated. However, the biggest event in collegiate sports looks and feels no different: They will work, we will watch, and someone else will get paid. What is madder than that?

A Fair Game’s Wage: Athletes Confront the NCAA

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

cartel_branchGuest blog by Thomas Mattera

The biggest star of the 2014 Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament was not a person, but a phrase. When the event’s nearly 103 million television viewers tuned in for the first time, they were less likely to be greeted visually by any one announcer, coach or player than they were by the term “student-athlete.” The fourteen-letter camera hog was plastered all over coverage of each game, including on the elongated screen next to the court, where it was featured in a constantly rotating stream of advertisements for some of the tournament’s largest corporate sponsors.

Any why not? It is a phrase worthy of a hundred One Shining Moment montages, a romantic notion in tantalizingly hyphenated form. But what of the origin of this phrase? Did it materialize from the mind of James Naismith alongside the idea for the peach basket? Or perhaps it was a serendipitous typewriter error on the essay portion of Knut Rockne’s SAT?

Of course, the correct answer is neither of these. Rather, the term was concocted out of thin air sixty years ago by the NCAA in an (successful) effort to avoid paying worker’s compensation to the wife of a player who died from a head injury sustained playing college football.

This historical footnote serves as a perfect example of the absurdity of college sports and audacity of its bloated beneficiary, the National Collegiate Athletic Association.  A term that is now the foundational marketing tool on the biggest stage of college athletics is merely another in a long line of creative NCAA solutions to continue the exploitation and deny the players a slice of the pie.

Deeming the question of whether to reconsider the status quo of collegiate athletics a “debate” is an insult to life’s real unsolvable quandaries. College athletes provide unpaid labor for a mammoth industry, often devoting nearly forty hours a week to their sport while risking serious permanent injury and operating on year-to-year scholarships that can be terminated at the school’s discretion. In many ways, it is like the American healthcare system: one of its kind, wildly unjust, and mired in stagnancy by those who benefit from the current reality. It is no wonder that Bill Maher found so many who agreed with this now famous tweet.

Of course, this is no new revelation. As the television contracts alone have grown into the tens of billions of dollars while many players remain unable to afford life’s basic necessities, the inequity has become even harder to hide and the drumbeat for change harder to silence.  Just the last five years have seen crucial developments in changing public perception on the issue, highlighted by a lawsuit led by former UCLA star Ed O’ Bannon regarding video game likenesses and Taylor Branch’s scathingly brilliant piece in The Atlantic.

To counter these well-articulated and pressing criticisms of their system, the NCAA has done what those in the way of societal progress always do: stuck their fingers in their ears and screamed “lalalalala.” Well, not exactly. They have clung to a pair of stale talking points in rationalizing the way things are: the monetary value of a scholarship and the impracticality of determining individual athletic benefits.

The former assertion, championed most recently by NCAA President Mark Emmert ($1.7 million annual salary), hinges on the idea that the free tuition many athletes receive is more than adequate compensation for their sporting efforts. This argument states that these young people are primarily students pursuing a degree and that athletics are only a secondary focus of their lives on campus.

The latter point states that even if one believes in the moral validity of monetary compensation and better benefits for college athletes, there is no practical way to administer these funds. How would we figure out how much each athlete should be paid? Should the members of the football team receive the same treatment as the star-studded fencing squad? Even if we should reward these athletes, there is no equitable way to do so. Therefore, it is a pointless endeavor.

Both arguments have obvious flaws in logic. While free tuition and board may be enough to reflect the value of many athletes, what of the superstars who singlehandedly prop up marketing campaigns and sell out campus merchandise stores?  What about those like Johnny Manziel, who by one estimate made more than $250 million for Texas A&M over two years? Clearly, a meal plan, stack of textbooks, and unlimited free entry to a few lecture halls is not a fair trade for his services.

Furthermore, the idea that we should not compensate athletes simply because it is too complicated to figure out the wage scale is the logical equivalent of not racially integrating a school district because it would be too hard to figure out the bus routes. Or not allowing women to vote because ordering new ballots would be inconvenient. Logistical challenges can be overcome given the proper strategy, much like injustice.

Despite these deficiencies, the arguments had mostly gotten the job done for the NCAA, allowing it to claim plausible deniability and stifle change for decades even as public perception shifted. It seemed we were headed for a world in which everyone thought the NCAA should change their ways but no one could do anything about it.

That is, until the introduction of former quarterback Kain Colter and the effort to unionize the Northwestern Football Team. Seeking primarily to address the issues of medical expenses, autonomy in transfer decisions, a post-graduation player trust fund, and better protocol for brain traumas, lawyers representing the players made the case to the National Labor Relations Board that they are, in fact, employees of the university with the right to organize and collectively bargain. Peter Ohr, regional director of the NLRB, concurred with this idea and ruled in favor of the players in a strongly worded twenty-two page decision released on March 26.

Nestled in the text of Ohr’s assertions are the perfect counterpoints for both of the two arguments the NCAA has come to rely upon. First, Ohr discusses the time commitment of participating in big-time college athletics, at one point producing a schedule from Northwestern training camp in which players were forced to allocate 16 hours a day exclusively to football. So much for the sanctity of academics and the overwhelming priority of schoolwork versus sports. These young people are already working like full-time employees, Ohr asserts, so they should be treated like it too.

As for the question of how to determine how much each player should be rewarded? Say hello to the idea of collective bargaining, the tried and true method for determining the wages and benefits of a myriad of workers for centuries. If it worked for the Samuel Gompers and Walter Reuther, it can work for Johnny Football and Shabazz Napier.

So what comes next? The decision has set up a vote on April 25 in which Northwestern’s players will decide whether to formally organize.  Less than gracious in defeat, Northwestern itself seems intent on confirming the veracity of Ohr’s argument, immediately assuming its role as the anti-union employer as head Coach Pat Fitzgerald does his best Bob Corker impersonation.

No matter the result of the vote or the endless string of appeals Ohr’s ruling is sure to generate, the argument of collegiate athletic compensation has been permanently altered. No longer can the proprietors of college sports hide their bounty in plain view behind canned responses and loaded phrases like “student athlete”. Colter and his allies have formulated a new game plan, executed it to perfection, and the once invincible NCAA bully may get sacked.