Wednesday, September 4, 2013

How MLB Won on NFL's Opening Night

For many, this Thursday has been circled on their calendars for weeks. Drafts both real and fantasy have taken place, bold predictions and optimistic bets have been placed. For many football is finally here. However, in its never ending quest to keep football relevant 365 days a year, this article is about a story that broke way back in March, the story about how Baltimore Orioles and baseball challenged NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and won. In order to beat Goodell baseball faced the three political grenades: religion, tradition, and bribes. A daunting task for even the most skilled of opponents.

At issue was the mid-March dilemma of scheduling the NFL season. The most public issue was the NFL wanting the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens to open the season at home on September 5 and kick off football with all the pageantry of a second parade on a national scale. Unfortunately for the NFL, MLB had created their schedule the previous September and the Orioles were set to fly in from the road and host the White Sox for a four game homestand beginning that night. Baltimore's layout does not allow both venues to logistically operate major events at the same time. It was here that the politicking began in earnest and ultimately we were left with a result few saw coming: the Orioles would stay in Baltimore while the Ravens would open the season in Denver. 

"Solutions" came early, often, and decidedly one-sided. Baseball should compromise, play in Chicago, play a Saturday double-header, anything so long as lord football got its way. Baseball fans pointed out the logistical nightmare of changing the schedules of the Orioles, White Sox, plus the Indians and Yankees their respective Wednesday night opponents . They next advanced the ideas that the NFL game could be changed (their schedule had not even been made) and just the year before the NFL opened on Wednesday so as not to compete with the Democratic National Convention (the one without Clint Eastwood talking to a chair).

As all good politicians do when faced with daunting logic that threatens to derail their best laid spontaneous plans, the NFL shot down the notion of changing to Wednesday by citing, wait for it, religion! The NFL stated they would not consider opening on Rosh Hashanah, never mind that they have done that in the past and revel in the opportunity to play on Christmas. Wise choice or convenient memory, by committing to play on Thursday night the NFL played the next card in the politicians handbook: tradition!

"The Ravens deserve to open the season at home because it is tradition for the Super Bowl winners to do so." If you have not heard this yet, just tune in to the NFL this weekend and you will some form of it plenty. The problem is the boy who cried wolf has more credibility than sports crying out tradition lately. Every little tournament, event or occurrence in sports these days is a classic or a tradition despite nothing being further from the truth. Notre Dame v Michigan is rivalry over 100 years old, despite most games being played only from the 1970's on. The NCAA opens up with over a dozen different basketball tournaments that are all "classics" despite most being less than 6 years old. The NFL to has fallen prey to this heritage link with opening night being reserved as a home game for last years Super Bowl winner, never mind that the last winner to open on the road was way back in 2003 way back in the pre-3D-TV ages, YIKES! Baseball had not even begun to seriously follow the Pirates ongoing futility at that point.

Religion set the date, traditions backfired, the NFL faced door number 3: bribes. This is not the NCAA where washing your car can get you into trouble, this is professional sports, the NFL the biggest, baddest sport going. More than that it is led by Sheriff Goodell slapping players with suspensions left and right for off-field infractions, rebranding "the league" into "the shield" even pushing Disney executives into stepping away from a public broadcasting documentary. This is the league that settled a massive lawsuit for $765 million dollars, without admitting doing anything wrong and all before a game that matters could bring it up as anything short of a positive.

Goodell has run a tight ship with a simple motto "what I want I get." Unfortunately for him, Bud Selig the loathable MLB commissioner has been living that motto for more than 20 years. Between Bud Selig and Orioles owner Peter Angelos, they were not going to give something away without a little kickback. Considering how rare this occurrence would be I find it hard to believe that this couldn't have been handled graciously and magnanimously in the media by all involved and somewhere around $1-2million dollars goes from a $9billion dollar sports entity to a $7billion dollar one somewhere down the line.

It was not a moral dilemma or pride that stopped Goodell from making that offer, it was shock at being told no. No, he could not simply get what he wanted. No, if he really wanted to have his way there were some wallets that needed lining first. Goodell puts on a strong face, but he is nothing more than a bully playing at expert politician. He has carved out a power vacuum for himself atop the most profitable sport in North America. Employees within and around the sport know who is in charge and he grew so used to stomping on others that it is second nature to him. That PBS documentary I mentioned earlier, Frontline, their people tried to break the story about how the NFL was trying to bury their piece on  “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth” by having ESPN back out. Goodell swooped in and rallied his followers with what really happened. (Goodell claimed to do nothing wrong and that the meetings were monthly occurrences about normal monthly matters) Goodell is back to fighting hard and grinding opponents, but the Frontline people had to feel somewhat emboldened by MLB's actions. Back in March, Goodell tried his hands at politics: he played the cards he had and he played them well, but he was no match for the elder statesman from MLB. For at least one brief moment someone stood up to the bully and the bully backed down. On this opening day the scoreboard will read NFL 0 MLB Won.



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