Commentary

Foul play and chicanery in the owner's suite

One-upmanship extends beyond the playing field, especially when owners can find creative ways around the rules. John Helyar looks at white-collar chicanery in sports.

Updated: August 10, 2007, 1:00 PM ET
By John Helyar | ESPN.com

Owners collude with each other. Owners connive against each another. Owners cook their books to a crisp.

Yes, cheating is as ingrained in the front offices of sports as it is on the playing fields.

It isn't that owners are bad people. (OK, some of them are.) It's that, like their cheating players, they eternally are searching for that little edge. It's also that they're put in a contradictory capitalistic position. On one hand, owners are partners in a joint enterprise called a league. On the other hand, they are also vicious competitors for championships.

How do you square those two? Here's one way: You cheat.

Bill Veeck
AP PhotoHere's Bill Veeck, right, as president of the Indians, along with Washington Senators president Clark Griffiths and Philadelphia Athletics president Connie Mack in 1947. Wonder who has the upper hand?
That's been true ever since our games turned into businesses. In the early days of professional baseball, visiting teams soon learned to monitor the host team's turnstiles, lest they be shortchanged on their share of the gate.

It isn't so much the ethics that have changed as the size of the stakes and the nature of the owners. The more that money is involved in sports, the more likely it is that owners will behave more like cutthroat capitalists than like stewards of the game. And the higher the turnover rate among owners, the more likely they'll consider each other the enemy as opposed to a fraternity member.

Dan Snyder bought the Washington Redskins for $800 million, and did we really expect him to happily share his team's revenue with fellow owners after that? If we did, shame on us. We should have expected moves shiftier than LaDainian Tomlinson in the open field so Snyder could keep the maximum amount possible in his own pocket.

That way, we wouldn't have been surprised when, in 2006, the Redskins held the line on most categories of ticket prices but hiked the cost of FedEx Stadium parking by 40 percent, to $35. Parking fees, unlike tickets, aren't subject to revenue sharing.

It isn't an unusual gambit, but Snyder was pushing the envelope. According to Team Marketing Report, the average NFL parking price last year was $18.

Is it cheating? Not technically, of course. But put it this way: It's in a vast gray area of rules that owners interpret and manipulate to their advantage. Even Bill Veeck, who chronicled his own colorful mischief in his memoirs, was loath to call that sort of maneuver "cheating."

"I try not to break the rules but merely test their elasticity," he wrote.

When Veeck owned the Cleveland Indians in the 1940s, he had a movable fence installed in the outfield that could be shifted by as much as 15 feet between series. How much Veeck had it moved depended on how the Tribe matched up against an opponent. And why not? Veeck could find no rule against it, although the American League adopted one in response after 1947, decreeing that fences be in fixed positions during a season.

Some of sport's most creative and crafty thinking has gone into boosting home-field advantage. A retired Metrodome building superintendent admitted in 2003 that he used to turn on air-conditioning fans behind home plate in the bottom of late innings of close games, giving the Twins' fly balls more carry. The superintendent, Dick Ericson, said the phantom wind was blowing out when Kirby Puckett hit an 11th-inning home run to beat the Atlanta Braves in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series.

The Twins have denied any knowledge of this -- of course.

Kevin McHale
AP Photo/Jim MoneThis is the swing with which Kirby Puckett hit the game-winning home run in the 11th inning of Game 6 in the 1991 World Series. Was it wind-aided? Even in the Metrodome?
Front-office cheating, in any event, is usually a white-collar transgression -- or crime, if you will. Often, they are crimes of frustration rather than crimes of passion.

Major League Baseball owners were one frustrated bunch in the 1980s. They effectively had controlled player pay and movement for nearly a century until an arbitrator struck down the reserve clause in 1976. In the next decade, the average player salary climbed sevenfold, to $369,000. Then, from 1985 to 1987, the lords of baseball colluded to freeze the free-agent market and seize back control. An arbitrator ended that, too -- and awarded the affected players $280 million in damages.

That piece of mega-cheating was a mega-setback for baseball labor relations for decades. The players' union had suspected the worst of owners through every strike and lockout dating back to 1972. After the collusion era, players were convinced of it. Every time there has been a lull in free-agent signings since then, union officials and player agents have cried foul about a recurrence. (The union filed a collusion grievance about the free-agent market of 2002-03, which was settled for $12 million as part of the labor deal reached in October 2006.)

Still, it's far more common for owners to scheme against each other than for them to collude against players. They circumvent rules to which they've all agreed for the greater good -- sharing revenue, imposing salary caps, things like that. Problem is, what's in the best interests of a league might not be in the best interests of a particular team.

When that's the case, consider the average owner's natural first question: What's in it for me?

This cutthroat capitalist didn't become a mogul by playing well with others, did he? He never once tapped the brakes on his competitive drive in any other industry, did he? He doesn't particularly trust his fellow owners to behave nobly and selflessly, does he?

The answers: no, no and no. So the owner does a little business that's a little fast and loose.

Kevin McHale
AP Photo/Jim MoneKevin McHale's manipulation of Joe Smith's contract in 1999 had him answering some tough questions about a forced leave-of-absence from the Timberwolves in December of 2000.
Exhibit A: Joe Smith. In 1999, the Minnesota Timberwolves wanted to lock up this forward with a lush, long-term deal as his rookie contract expired. But the team was bumping up against its salary-cap limits, leading owner Glen Taylor and general manager Kevin McHale to make a secret agreement with Smith's then-agent, Eric Fleisher. Minnesota would give Smith three skimpy one-year contracts, ranging from $1.75 million to $3.6 million, followed by a seven-year deal ranging from $40 million to $86 million.

That piece of cap maneuvering was outside the NBA's rules, and David Stern imposed stern discipline, fining the Timberwolves $3.5 million, taking away their next five first-round draft choices, suspending Taylor and McHale, and declaring Smith a free agent.

Exhibit B: Steve Young et al. In 1997, San Francisco 49ers president Carmen Policy made secret side deals with Young and three other players to clear out some cap room for the team. This, too, crossed the boundaries, and it came to the attention of the NFL Management Council, an ownership committee.

After hearing Policy's protestations of innocence, Jerry Jones reportedly asked fellow committee members, "How many of us believe what he said?"

The 49ers eventually reached a settlement with the league, which docked the club two draft picks and assessed fines against Policy and general manager Dwight Clark.

Most cases, though, aren't as open-and-shut. The line can be as fine in fiscal ethics as in physical or any other kind of cheating issue. Amphetamines are performance-enhancing drugs; but until 2006, they weren't on the NFL's banned-substances list. Were hopped-up players cheating all those years or just taking advantage of the existing rules?

The Dallas Cowboys once signed Deion Sanders to a mega-contract (by 1995 standards), despite seeming to lack sufficient cap room. How? Jones paid him a base salary of the league minimum $178,000, with a signing bonus of $13 million. The bonus could be spread out over the length of the contract for cap purposes. This left other NFL owners fuming but unable to declare it out of bounds. (It is now. The so-called "Deion Sanders rule" requires that the first three years of a player's base salary must at least equal the prorated amount of his signing bonus.)

The same goes for revenue-sharing matters. In MLB, small-market owners are forever suspicious that big-market owners in New York and Boston use their regional sports networks (RSNs) to shield big chunks of their broadcast income from being shared.

There is reason for this. In the 1980s, the Mets made a then-record $17 million-per-year cable-TV rights deal with SportsChannel. But the seller of the rights was technically not the Mets; it was a company called Leisure Productions, an entity controlled by Nelson Doubleday, then co-owner of the Mets. Leisure Productions allotted just 20 percent of the rights fees to the team, shielding most of the income from revenue sharing.

Today, the relationships between the Mets, Yankees and Red Sox and the RSNs of which they own big chunks (SNY, YES and NESN, respectively) are less blatant but still suspicious. MLB owners have set up a revenue-sharing committee to put related-party transactions to the smell test. Is the YES Network, for example, paying the Yankees a fair market rate to televise games?

Yet accounting dodges can be as hard to prove as HGH use, and in any event, fudged broadcast rights only scratch the surface of the joys of RSN revenue shielding. The Yankees own 36 percent of the YES Network, which is for sale. If the network fetches $3 billion, as some analysts project, the team's share is worth more than $1 billion. Babe Ruth will rise from the grave before George Steinbrenner willingly shares any of that.

The next great dispute frontier in MLB likely will be ballpark construction. Stadium financing costs can be deducted from teams' revenue-sharing tabs, giving the Steinbrenners and Wilpons (now the majority owners of the Mets) one more reason to love their new privately financed stadiums. This, in turn, gives other owners another reason to complain of chicanery. The accounting stretch is as much a baseball tradition as the seventh-inning stretch.

The sportsman owner is as dead as the wooden racket in every other big league sport, as well, of course. As today's highly paid, ethically challenged athletes reflect our grasping, winner-take-all society, so do today's owners. We abhor their transgressions, but we expect nothing less of them. Fans almost universally have adopted the motto of that early rogue owner, Al Davis: Just win, baby. Bless their cheatin' hearts, every one of them.

John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He previously covered the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine and is the author of "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball."

John Helyar

Sports Business
John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He previously covered the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine and is the author of "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball."