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The NFL players and owners can't possibly be foolish enough to kill a goose that lays $10 billion worth of golden eggs each year, can they?
Don't answer that!
As the historian Barbara Tuchman wrote, human history reflects a "march of folly" -- people and institutions go out of their way to do that which sabotages their own interests.
Probably the NFL dispute will be resolved; Monday's initial legal win for the players increases pressure on the league to improve its offer. But folly, clearly, is on the march.
Here is the core element of the folly: Under the 2006 collective bargaining agreement, the one canceled by NFL owners to trigger the current dispute, everything was fine. In each year of that agreement, ratings, attendance and merchandise sales hit record highs. In each year, players' pay and owners' revenue hit record highs. Now both sides are risking the creation of public contempt for the NFL -- even though everything was fine.
This, indeed, Tuchman would have called folly.
The previous agreement had room for improvement, of course. Health benefits for former players were poor. Bonuses for first-round draft choices were getting out of hand. But a routine negotiation could have handled such matters. There was no need for the owners and players to engage in a public meltdown that may damage both their interests.
Are players and owners a bunch of spoiled crybabies, millionaires arguing with billionaires about who pays for the champagne? The simplest explanation is often correct, and this is the simplest explanation. But there is a crazed dynamic at work -- one that must end, so American taxpayers with a median household income of $53,000 can stop subsidizing federal courtroom time for wealthy crybabies to shout at each other. Here's what is happening:
On the management side: Many owners believe they "lost" the 2006 bargaining round, held when the late Gene Upshaw led the union. This is a strange reading of the 2006 agreement, which objectively resulted in a win-win -- ratings, broadcasting revenue, ticket sales and merchandise sales hit record after record since the owners "lost" the 2006 negotiation. One reason NFL ratings and sales keep doing so well is that harmonious labor-management relations ensures consistently high-quality competition. People need food and shelter. They don't need NFL games -- they will only attend, or watch, if the games are good. Since the NFL and NFLPA switched to cooperative bargaining in 1993, the games consistently have been good, resulting in a win-win for players and owners.
Unfortunately, a faction of NFL owners is what Tina Fey would call the bossypants type. They didn't get exactly what they wanted in the last bargaining round, which makes them think they "lost" in 2006. Shortly afterward, the NFL staged a frontal assault on cable carriers Comcast and Time Warner, filing lawsuits and lobbying Congress. The owners expected an easy win, and instead were blown off the field by the cable giants. That left the bossypants cohort of NFL owners smarting, wanting revenge on someone. Vying for revenge against your own players -- who are the product; not many people come to stadiums to watch the owners -- doesn't make a great deal of sense. But human history is a march of folly.
Enter Bob Batterman, the first supervillain in this story. In 2004, the NHL was in financial trouble because its union refused to agree to a salary cap. Batterman, a union-buster of Pinkerton subtlety, was hired by the NHL, and led hockey through the 2004-05 full-season lockout, after which the players' union folded its cards and accepted Batterman's terms. A week ago, the NHL signed its first attractive U.S. television contract since the canceled season. Thus it took the NHL six years to recover from following Batterman's advice.
Believing they had "lost" the 2006 bargaining round, some NFL owners said words to the effect of, "Let's hire this [expletive] Batterman and crush the NFLPA."
But the NHL and NFL situations were entirely different. In 2004, there was a genuine risk the NHL would go out of business. The NFL, by contrast, rolls in money. And the NHL had no salary cap, while the NFL had the "hardest" cap in pro sports. The NFL salary cap was functioning smoothly and supported by the NFLPA, which, in an overlooked move last fall, offered to renew the salary cap for 2011 while negotiations continued. Plus the NFL shouldn't even want to smash its union, since a collective bargaining agreement helps the NFL maintain an antitrust exemption.
Nevertheless, in 2008 the owners hired Batterman as labor counsel. He laid out a plan to create a lockout, and that's what happened. What does he care if an NFL season is canceled, and the league's popularity declines? He gets the same fee regardless.
On the labor side: Upshaw, a former NFL player, was a gifted negotiator -- he won free agency for NFL athletes, steadily rising pay for them, and benefits for retired players. Because he'd been an NFL star, he was secure in his manhood. Because he'd played in the league, in all things he put the interests of the players first.
After Upshaw's death, DeMaurice Smith was elected head of the union. He is the second supervillain in this story. Smith never played pro sports -- for that matter, had no background in labor law or sports economics. He worked in the Justice Department, then became a litigator for Patton Boggs, a leading legal firm. The first impulse of litigators is to create conflicts; the second, to sustain them. The longer and nastier a conflict is, the more a litigator benefits, in fees and in personal importance.
So just as an owners' tactician who loves lockouts wanted to steer the situation to a lockout, a players' tactician who loves courtroom confrontation wanted to steer the situation to a courtroom confrontation. Skadoosh! The result was a lockout with courtroom confrontation. Batterman can benefit personally from an extended NFL impasse that does great harm to professional football. Smith can, as well: making his name in legal circles, even while causing financial harm to the players. Smith told players "we are at war" against the NFL. Declaring war against an organization that has allowed football players to attain wealth and celebrity doesn't make a great deal of sense. But human history is a march of folly.
Smith's legal confrontation strategy led to this lawsuit in which a few players, claiming to represent the class of all NFL players (whether they do remains to be seen), accuse the NFL of antitrust violations. If the lawsuit succeeds, and it may, the result could be the end of the NFL draft, the end of salary cap and free-agency rules -- that is, the end of high-quality competition in professional football.
Some players would benefit if Smith wins his "war," and the military analogy is apt -- since the lawsuit seeks to destroy an NFL system that has been extremely lucrative for football players. In a no-rules situation, the top handful of NFL stars would make more than they do today. It's no coincidence Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, among football's best-paid players, are lead plaintiffs in the suit. In an unregulated market, Manning might be worth twice his current football income.
But the majority of NFL players would earn less if Smith's lawsuit succeeds in blowing up the NFL. Suppose the Colts double Manning's paycheck -- the money will come out of the pockets of those guys whose names you don't know on the offensive line and on special teams.
And if the Brady lawsuit succeeds in blowing up the league, there's no way future NFL revenues will rise: Future revenues instead will decline. The brand-name stars will continue to roll in Benjamins, while typical players will earn less than today. Perhaps Smith hasn't filled in NFLPA membership on that part.
The path to a solution: First, the dispute must get out of the courts. It's embarrassing for NFL players and owners to expect taxpayers to subsidize their petty bickering. Player reps and owners need to look each other in the eye and settle their differences. The goal of the lawyers on both sides is to prevent the settling of differences -- and the lawyers will look out for themselves financially, thank you, as everyone else is shafted.
Once the dispute is out of the courts and back into negotiation where it belongs, the owners must get over their bewildering view that harming the union would constitute a "win." Union leadership needs to get over its puzzling view that NFL players are some kind of terribly mistreated group deserving public pity. Both sides need to grow up.
The league's March 11 offer wasn't good enough, but was close -- and contained notable gains for players, especially long-term health care. The players should spell out exactly what improvements to the offer they would accept. The owners should sweeten the deal based on the players' response. Then the two sides can shake hands and end this embarrassing nonsense before permanent harm is done the stature of professional football.In other negotiation news, ginormous signing bonuses for first-round draft picks should go down -- but signing bonuses for late-round choices should rise. See below.
In draft news, Thursday night at Radio City, the apple of the NFL's eye may be Cam Newton. He really tore it up at Blinn Junior College, where a recruiting scandal may be brewing in the Division of Fine Arts. How much cash is that euphonium player from Blinn demanding to sign with a big school?
What TMQ finds worrisome about Newton is he played for a BCS title team. That's a major negative; see below. But first, TMQ's annual mock of mock drafts.
1. Carolina Panthers. Vince Howard, quarterback, Dillon Panthers: With "Friday Night Lights" soon to exit the television stage, Cats nab star player of football's best team when there is one second left on the clock.
Panthers note: Last year, Carolina traded what's become the first choice of the second round, quite a valuable selection, to New England for a third-round choice used on receiver Armanti Edwards, who had no starts or receptions as a rookie. Television note: This item contains a hidden spoiler for the final FNL season, which just began.
2. Denver Broncos. Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior: A Colorado native, he's the one who bungled safety regulation of deepwater oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Yet he wasn't fired. Salazar would be ideal for shifting blame at Broncos' postgame news conferences.
3. Buffalo Bills. Daniel Aiken, long snapper, University of Virginia: The Bills haven't made the playoffs for a decade in part owing to wasting first-round choices on luxury picks. In 2009, Buffalo used the 11th selection of the draft on nickel linebacker Aaron Maybin, who best-case would play part-time; in 2010, Buffalo used the ninth selection of the draft on third-down back C.J. Spiller, who best-case would play part-time. Seems only a matter of time till the Bills become the first NFL team to use a first-round choice on a long snapper or a backup placekick-holder.
4. Cincinnati Bengals. Jim Tressel, camp counselor: After Terrelle Pryor and other Ohio State players were suspended for the first five games of 2011, OSU coach Tressel said, "I request of the university that my sanctions now include five games, so the players and I can handle this adversity together." I request more punishment! Tressel will leed Pryor and his buds in knitting quilts, making s'mores and singing "Kumbaya."
5. Arizona Cardinals. Charlie Sheen, calming influence: He can talk Cardinals players down from going bonkers in front of the cameras. As noted by readers, including Joe Cramer of McLean, Va., why did Sheen receive a taxpayer-funded, stopped-traffic police escort for a private event for his personal profit?
6. Cleveland Browns. Adrianne Palicki, Wonder Woman: Ohio-born Palicki has been cast as Diana of Themyscira in the "Wonder Woman" remake due in the fall. At 6 feet tall, Palicki can play an Amazonian -- and is a lot more pleasant to look at than the Browns are likely to be next season.
7. San Francisco 49ers. Leland Stanford, railroad tycoon: Founded by him, Stanford University has supplied the Niners with a super-successful college coach. How long until the NFL chews Jim Harbaugh up and spits him out? How long till Harbaugh wishes he'd stayed in the shadow of the Hoover Tower in Palo Alto?
8. Tennessee Titans. Bill Haslam, governor of Tennessee: A Republican, Haslam campaigned against government spending -- then awarded hefty raises to the state's top officials. Via this we find out that Teach for America, which asks young people to work nearly for free, was paying a vice president $230,000 a year. So Teach for America is a noble endeavor for the staff, a money-making scheme for management.
9. Dallas Cowboys. Jacques Clouseau, French detective: The bumbling "Pink Panther" detective will search for the missing seats at Jerry Jones' new stadium -- and perhaps, Clouseau-style, destroy the place in the process.
10. Washington Redskins. Samuel Gompers, labor leader: The D.C.-based NFLPA claims to no longer be a union -- yet is administering a strike fund and has reps at every team, while NFLPA leadership is running the anti-NFL lawsuit. DeMaurice Smith recently attested to a federal judge that he possesses "full authority" to speak for the league's players. If the union truly has disbanded, and Smith really is now a trade-association administrator, any individual player could make proposals to the league's negotiators. Lawsuit plaintiff Mike Vrabel said last week that players who don't like NFLPA confrontational tactics should "elect a new executive board," which is what unhappy union members do. Monday's initial court ruling took at face value the NFLPA claim to have stopped being a union. But this claim fails what law professors call "the giggle test." Of course, the league's claim to be in desperate financial straits is equally giggle-worthy.
11. Houston Texans. The Chick-fil-A flying cows: As the Texans continue to employ a lovely cow-inspired logo, they should have Chick-fil-A cows parachute into games. Note that in the hilarious commercial, the imaginary game pits the Bulldogs against the Eagles. These are the most common sports team names.
12. Minnesota Vikings. Susan Nelson, federal judge: The Minneapolis judge hearing the antitrust suit against the NFL could issue detention warrants for the star performers of Vikings opponents. Fun fact: her middle name is Richard.
13. Detroit Lions. A desk and chair: That's what Michigan, the sole state with declining population in the latest Census, is about to lose in the House of Representatives. If it's any consolation, auto manufacturing jobs in Stuttgart, the Detroit of Germany, have declined at a similar rate to the decline in Michigan.
14. St. Louis Rams. Shaka Smart, basketball coach: It's great that Smart turned down big bucks at Missouri to remain with underdog Virginia Commonwealth. VCU men's basketball has a strong graduation rate for African-American players, at 54 percent -- the Rams are a rare NCAA "revenue sport" program that is projecting a positive message regarding education. Fun fact: Smart holds a master's degree from one of TMQ's favorite obscure colleges, California of Pennsylvania.
UConn, which won the men's tourney, has a dismal graduation rate for African-American basketball players, just 18 percent. Jim Calhoun is facing a financial penalty because his program's academic performance is so poor. If all NCAA Division I football and men's basketball coaches faced money penalties over players' academics, the situation might change. No problems at VCU, where Smart benches anyone who skips class.
15. Miami Dolphins. Ferdinand Magellan, explorer: Since the NFL insists on calling the place where the Dolphins play South Florida, maybe Magellan could discover Miami.
16. Jacksonville Jaguars. Peter Parker, teen chemist: The Broadway musical "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" is awful. An excruciating production number of singing, dancing immortal spider goddesses "from the astral plane" who come to Manhattan to rob a shoe store -- I am not making that up -- cannot be described in any known language. But don't take my say-so: go. This is what thousands have done, despite the production's terrible word-of-mouth. Somehow a crummy show has sold lots of expensive tickets. That's the spirit the Jaguars need to fill their stadium!
TMQ attended preview No. 114 of "Turn Off the Dark" -- typically a Broadway musical has a dozen previews. A safety catch activated as Spidey swung over the crowd. The show halted and the house lights came up, in preview No. 114! Currently the show is suspended for revisions, pending an "opening night" in June, eight months after previews began. The production is on its third ending, with a fourth in the works. The Foxwoods Theater lobby should sell T-shirts that say, WHEN I ATTENDED, THE ENDING WAS and leave a box where you write in whatever the ending was at that performance.
17. New England Patriots (from Oakland). Cade Massey, behavioral economist, Yale University: In recent drafts, New England has made six first-round trade-downs. The Flying Elvii are following the Massey-Thaler prescription. These academic economists contend that low draft picks actually are worth more than high picks, because the odds of finding a good player are the same, but the signing-bonus expense declines. Bill Belichick is the sole NFL draft-master to have taken the economists' advice. The Patriots also hope to tab University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler, but only after repeatedly trading down to get Thaler cheaply.
18. San Diego Chargers. Harry Houdini, escape artist: The 2010 Chargers finished first on offense and first on defense, yet escaped making the playoffs. Incredible! Astonishing! How did they do it?
19. Jersey/A Giants. Matt Hoffman, linebacker, Rowan University: Hoffman gave up part of his junior season of college football to donate stem cells to a dying man. Unlike the many me-first types in pro sports, Hoffman truly deserves to be a first-round choice. In the second round, the Giants hope to tab slotback Matt Szczur of Villanova, who donated hemoglobin.
20. City of Tampa Buccaneers. Miss Clavel, chaperone: At age 34, Raheem Morris is entering his third year as a head coach in the NFL.
21. Los Angeles Clippers (from Kansas City Chiefs; projected trade). It makes absolutely no difference who the Clippers draft, and it never will. Note: I've been using this line in my mock of mock drafts for 10 years, and the Clippers have yet to prove me wrong.
22. Indianapolis Colts. Lydell Mitchell, running back: Last year, the Colts' leading rusher compiled just 497 yards, a season-long number out of the Arena League. Until Indianapolis offers at last a token running game, defenses can continue to overplay the Colts' pass.
23. Philadelphia Eagles. Larry Kornegay, president, America Veterinary Medical Association: Michael Vick played well in 2010, but kept getting injured. He hasn't started a complete season at quarterback since 2006.
24. New Orleans Saints. Tony Hayward, former CEO of BP: Exactly a year after the Deepwater Horizon spill killed 11 men, damaged Louisiana estuaries and served as a reminder of U.S. addiction to oil, Louisiana raised the speed limit in some areas to 75 mph -- thus ensuring even more gasoline waste. That reminder sure didn't last long.
25. Seattle Seahawks. Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, ingrate millionaire twins: They claimed to have had the idea for Facebook and settled with the company in 2008 for about $200 million; when Facebook's value appeared to soar, they sued demanding more. These spoiled millionaires, embittered though the world has showered them with money, can commiserate with Seahawks owner Paul Allen, a spoiled billionaire who feels ill-used though the world has showered him with money.
26. Baltimore Ravens. The Chippendales male strippers: Considering the Ravens are the sole NFL team that offers male cheerleaders to attract female fans, why not take the next step and field shirtless hunks?
27. Atlanta Falcons. A volunteer from the audience to be offensive coordinator: Current offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey spent time before Atlanta's home playoff opener against Green Bay campaigning for the Browns' head-coaching vacancy. Then he called a terrible game, including the worst coaching blunder of the 2011 playoffs, leading to a Falcons defeat. Why is it an outrage when a player under contract to one team shows interest in another -- but perfectly fine for a coach to stab his employer in the back during the playoffs?
28. New England Patriots. Justin Houston, linebacker, Georgia: Possible actual choice thrown in for variety.
29. Chicago Bears. Jim Messina, campaign manager, Obama for America: The president's Chicago-based re-election campaign really wants your email address and ZIP code. Despite this Big Brother touch, Obama is as likely to be a winner in 2012 as the Bears.
30. Jersey/B Jets. Grant Easterbrook, left tackle, Bowdoin College: The family will be watching the ESPN Chyron when the seventh round begins -- and not expecting to see anything; Grant's headed for the business world. But this was my last chance to mention my oldest in a football context. Note, Grant reports that after his recruiting visits, he chose Bowdoin because it had "the only coaches I visited who seemed to genuinely care about students' experiences outside of the football program." High school players who are getting recruiting calls from colleges: The odds are 80-to-1 that you will never earn a dime in the NFL. Pick your college with education in mind.
31. Pittsburgh Steelers. Robert Cantu, neurologist: With Steelers Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw acknowledging he suffers from brain harm, the concussion epidemic comes further into the light. Last week, the NFL said it had improved gameday concussion treatment standards, with a league medical consultant declaring it was wrong that Philadelphia's Stewart Bradley was allowed to re-enter a 2010 game after suffering a concussion that turned his legs to jelly. When that happened, NFL and Eagles spokespersons told TMQ it was fine Bradley went back in. Now, months later, with the media spotlight shifted to the lockout, the league admits it was wrong.
Safety good news: Colorado recently joined the small but growing number of states that require head-injury awareness training for high school football coaches, while Wisconsin joined the small but growing number that require a neurological exam before a concussed high school athlete can return to the field. Safety bad news: Even after the big-hits controversy of 2010, sports television continues to glamorize helmet-to-helmet hits.
Here are 2010 examples, from a variety of networks, of glamorizing or making jokes about vicious hits. Has this lesson already been forgotten? The March 31 episode of ESPN's "SportsNation" counted down a top-four hits of the college football season. Two were lead-with-the-helmet; one was both a helmet-to-helmet hit and showed a player's helmet flying off, making this seem cool rather than unsafe; one showed an open-field tackle made with the tackler's head down, the most dangerous move in football. Helmet-first, head-down hits can cause paralysis. "See what you hit" -- keep your head up -- is safe tackling form. Of course, "SportsNation" does not intend to set a bad example; neither do other shows, on ESPN and other networks, that extol unsafe hits. But when high school boys observe vicious hits singled out for praise on national television, they may think leading with the helmet will make them real men.
32. Green Bay Packers. Missing Democratic state legislators of Wisconsin: They fled across the state border to avoid having to vote on Republican Gov. Scott Walker's labor-bashing bill. If the Packers' defense of their Lombardi Trophy does not go well, players could flee across the border into Iowa.
Count the Cam Newton Red Flags: Newton may indeed be a franchise quarterback -- TMQ thinks Newton can be effective as a traditional pocket passer, if that's what his pro coach wants. But flags wave on Newton's horizon like the flags at One United Nations Plaza. If a team invests one of the top choices in the draft in this gentleman, and commits to a signing bonus that may exceed $50 million (whether there will be a rookie wage scale in the new labor deal is unknown), that team incurs significant risks. The red flags:
• Is there more to his recruiting scandal? It's easy to believe a starry-eyed teenager would not grasp that NCAA rules forbid cash in return for signing a college letter of intent. It's hard to believe Newton's father did not grasp this, and it's really hard to believe the full truth of the matter has come out. Any team that drafts Newton runs a risk the NCAA will at some point void Auburn's 2010 season, and Newton will return his Heisman. If this happens, a wave of negativity would wash over a franchise that's just given Newton a check for a staggering amount of money.
Maybe other quarterbacks entering the draft have issues in their pasts too. But the NFL is an image industry. Paying $50 million to someone with an above-average chance of bringing you bad press is quite a risk.
• Why did he leave Florida? Newton was at three colleges in three autumns -- University of Florida, then Blinn, then Auburn. The situation at Florida seemed ideal for Newton: backing up Tim Tebow, learning from a master in Urban Meyer, with the likelihood that as a junior, he would become the face of one of college football's best-run programs. Why did he leave, and suddenly? Not for the challenge of leading Blinn to the NJCAA playoffs. Reports say Newton was about to be expelled from Florida for cheating, which the school will neither confirm nor deny. There's something not right about the whole Florida business.
• A one-year wonder. Newton started 14 games at the major college level. Matt Cassel succeeded as an NFL quarterback despite no college starts. But since game-day experience means more to quarterbacking than at other positions, generally, quarterbacks with two or more college starting seasons do better in the NFL than one-year wonders (Akili Smith, Matt Blundin).
Now here's what really worries me about Newton:
• He played for a BCS title team. In his one year at Auburn, Newton was surrounded by premium athletes. Newton had stars to hand off to and stars to throw to. The blocking was exceptional. Oh mighty football gods, if I am reincarnated as a quarterback, put me on a stacked team.
Of the 11 BCS title-winning quarterbacks to enter the NFL, all were hot stuff in college; nine did little in the pros: Tee Martin, Chris Weinke, Josh Heupel, Ken Dorsey, Craig Krenzel, Matt Mauck, Matt Leinart, Chris Leak, Matt Flynn. The 10th, Tebow, has been in the NFL only one season; the sole (albeit current free agent) NFL quarterback with both a BCS title and a solid pro career is Vince Young. Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Vick, Matt Ryan, Josh Freeman, Philip Rivers, Joe Flacco -- none started on college title teams. They learned the hard way.
Newton sure looked great in 2010, but he looked great in a situation that would have made any quarterback look great. That's the big red flag.
"Friday Night Lights" Update: The final episodes, already aired on DirecTV, just kicked off their crossover run on NBC. For five seasons, this show has depicted things that actually happen to actual people. Considering network mainstays are preposterous action, zany sitcoms and superpowers, for a show about ordinary events to last five seasons was an admirable achievement.
FNL had lots of actuality but not enough football. Through the course of 76 hours of television, surprisingly little was said about football itself: tactics, training, why things are the way they are. Big issues in high school ball -- heat stroke and concussions, abuse of players by coaches, academic ineligibility -- got less air time, if they were mentioned at all, than Julie Taylor's love life. That should have been different.
When football was presented, it was reasonably realistic, but heavy on the Hollywood. In three of the five seasons, the star player was a sophomore quarterback. Sophomore stars do happen in high school football, but are very rare. Three of the five seasons concluded with SuperCoach Eric Taylor's team winning on a long scoring play as time expired. That happens too, but again is very rare.
The final episodes retain the show's mangled time sense. As TMQ has noted, the FNL reality is so time-jumbled that viewers can't figure out what month it is, or even what season of the year. In the finale, viewers see the Texas 5A championship game. Then the legend says, "Eight months later." That would be July. Yet it's dark out at practice -- it doesn't get dark until 9 p.m. in July -- and SuperCoach is heard telling players to be sure to do their homework for class the next day.
Many FNL characters were perpetual seniors, which is pretty time-confusing. Actor Scott Porter was 26 years old when he played a high school junior, actress Jurnee Smollett was 22 when playing a high school sophomore. In the series finale, a question is whether Matt Saracen, hero of the initial season, has matured enough to make a big decision. "How old are you?" SuperCoach bellows at him. Nobody can figure out how old anybody is on this show! Actor Zach Gilford, 29 years of age when the scene was shot, replies that he is 19.
Since the show attached significance to music, the late-season musical choices merit noting. There's a reprise of "Devil Town," the producers' favorite tune from the first two seasons. Once again this track is employed to suggest that any sane person would leave Dillon, Texas. (Here is FNL's DirecTV promo with "Devil Town" and beauty incongruously mixed.) Late in the series, "Spirit in the Sky" finally plays under a "Friday Night Lights" scene. The Norman Greenbaum song was featured in "Remember the Titans" and the Nike commercial in which NFL stars appeared as high school players: These things caused "Spirit in the Sky" to become synonymous with high school football. "Friday Night Lights" didn't use the song till almost the end, the way the old "Power Rangers" show, billed as inspired by the song "Kung Fu Fighting," didn't actually use that music until the movie that concluded the project. Here is Greenbaum's other hit, "The Eggplant That Ate Chicago." With all the alien invasion flicks, how long until a big-budget movie about a sinister interstellar eggplant?
TMQ has mixed feelings about connecting "Spirit in the Sky" with football, since the subject of Greenbaum's song is being judged by God. The Nike commercial manipulated the lyrics so audiences heard, "When I die and they lay me to rest/ gonna go to the place that's the best/ when I lay me down to die/ goin' up to the spirit in the sky." The Nike commercial dubbed out, "Prepare yourself you know it's a must/ gotta have a friend in Jesus/ so you know that when you die/ he's gonna recommend you to the spirit in the sky." Many corporations, including ESPN, have redubbed pop music to make songs fit a promotional theme. But there was something strange in the Nike commercial highlighting lyrics that suggest military-age young men can find glory in death, while avoiding lyrics that mention history's greatest pacifist. "Friday Night Lights," I am pleased to report, used all the lyrics.
The penultimate sequence of "Friday Night Lights" is a wordless musical montage in which we see the show's characters achieving some form of peace -- Buddy is even head of the Booster Club again -- as this sweet song by Delta Spirit plays. The montage was a nice way for the producers to bid farewell to the imaginary people they asked viewers to care about.
It is no spoiler to reveal that the downtrodden East Dillon Lions, perennial doormats until SuperCoach arrived, win the Texas state championship as the series ends, and of course the winning points come as time expires, in this case on a 63-yard Hail Mary. The scene is well shot: The play is not shown, rather, the faces of characters as they watch the play. All recurring characters from the show's years appear either in the finale or an episode just before the finale, except for Smash Williams and Lyla Garrity. In the background at a sports bar, we hear Smash being praised on "SportsCenter," but he's not in any fifth-season episode. Lyla, who got much of the screen time in the first three seasons, seems to have vanished from the face of the Earth. We don't see her in the finale or the buildup, and the characters don't refer to her. Let's hope actress Minka Kelly, now a big deal, did not become too swelled-headed to do a cameo in the show that launched her career.
One intriguing aspect of "Friday Night Lights" is that the series went to lengths to portray SuperCoach, played by Kyle Chandler, and his SuperWife, played by Connie Britton, as having a strong marriage. Usually on television, marriage is either absurd or a source of unhappiness: In "FNL," the Taylors bicker, but are lovers and best friends. For marriage to be depicted as fundamentally good is, by Hollywood standards, a radical idea. In the fifth season, a sub-rosa theme is that SuperWife, previously a frisky bombshell, has begun to age and lose interest in sex, while SuperCoach has gotten so wrapped up in his growing national reputation that he's ignoring his family. The finale essentially asks the coach: Which is more important, your marriage or football?
Though the answer already has aired on DirecTV, I'll say no more until the answer also airs on NBC. The series ends with a big surprise, and TMQ reserves the right to a last FNL comment after that.
Actual High School Football: Your columnist is in this new "PBS Frontline" documentary on high school football. The subject is high school football safety, an overlooked topic.
Safety concerns tend to focus on vicious hits in the NFL. The focus should be on high school, because there are 500 football players in high school for each one in the pros. And while NFL players are adults who assume risks in return for hefty amounts of money, high school players are minors -- most are children, legally -- and most will never receive any tangible benefit from football. Bear in mind, 98 percent of high school players don't get any NCAA scholarship or college admission boost.
For the past two years, the story in football has been NFL concussions. TMQ thinks the next story will be high school safety. As the PBS documentary shows, more catastrophic injuries occur in high school than in colleges or the pros, and some of what happens to high school football players who are minors comes perilously close to child abuse. If school districts begin losing lawsuits over seriously harmed football players -- this suit was filed recently -- that could move the prep injuries story to the front page.
This is one reason all networks that broadcast football -- CBS, ESPN, FOX, NBC and NFL Network -- need to take a long, hard look in the mirror about glamorizing dangerous hits. Sports broadcasting exists in a corporate promotion culture in which brutal contact is praised, safety is rarely mentioned, and young players who suffer serious harm are carted off and forgotten. The NFL and college conferences benefit financially from having their partner networks present vicious hits as having no consequences. That sends a disturbing message to the high school boys who suffer the majority of the sport's injuries. If sports programming stopped extolling dangerous hits, this might help football safety to improve.
Shift Money from the Top of the Draft to the Bottom: Assuming the players and owners don't kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, the new NFL collective bargaining agreement is likely to have limits on bonuses for first-round draft choices. Shifting the big payday to veterans makes sense. Last season, for example, rookie Sam Bradford, the No. 1 overall pick, before ever attempting an NFL pass, had a $50 million guarantee. Tom Brady, winner of three Super Bowls, was second in line with $48 million guaranteed.
But while bonuses (the guaranteed part of an NFL contract) at the top of the draft should go down, bonuses low in the draft should go up. Fairness should be a two-way street.
First-round bonuses lately have averaged about $12 million, while fifth-round bonuses have averaged about $150,000. Football is a team sport: Is a first-round player really worth 90 times as much as a fifth-round player? Nobody succeeds in the NFL without good players from low in the draft, or undrafted. The Packers -- who started undrafted Frank Zombo, Cullen Jenkins and Tramon Williams in their Super Bowl win -- can attest to that.
Players from the third round down typically receive bonuses of less than $1 million; by the seventh round a typical bonus is $50,000. J'Marcus Webb, drafted in the seventh round, started for the Bears last season and was a reason they reached the NFC title game. Should Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, a high first-round choice, really have received a bonus 400 times larger than Webb? Cutler may be worth more. He's a quarterback -- a plumber is worth more than a cab driver, too. But 400 times more?
There's another reason bonuses at the top of the draft should decline, and bonuses late in the draft rise. Many boys-to-men spend a decade of their lives training for football -- then their rookie bonus is the only payday they ever see. Many who end up in the sixth and seventh rounds were college stars. For them to receive a token $50,000 or $75,000 as their only income ever from the football establishment, while first-round choices are showered in huge amounts of money, isn't fair. Anyone who accomplishes enough in football's super-competitive realm to be drafted by the NFL, even if in the late rounds, should enjoy at least one significant payday as his reward for contributing to the success of the sport.
So how about a minimum rookie signing bonus of $500,000 for any drafted player? Given that the new CBA is likely to include a "salary floor" -- a minimum teams must spend each year on players -- fairness would shift some of that amount from the top, where everybody gets rich, to the bottom, where an extra couple hundred thousand dollars would make a large difference in players' lives.
Financial bias against late-round choices is not confined to their rookie contracts. One day last July, the Buccaneers gave Donald Penn, an accomplished veteran who is among the league's best linemen, a contract with a $20 million bonus; then signed rookie lineman Gerald McCoy, who had never taken an NFL snap but was the third overall choice in the 2010 draft, to a contract with a $35 million bonus. Penn was undrafted coming out of college -- this was held against him, lowering his value, even after he'd proved himself on the field in the NFL. General managers tend to assume that low-drafted or undrafted players should get the short end of negotiations, because they've been low-paid before. Reducing bonuses at the top of the draft, while raising bonuses lower in the draft, would alter this psychology.
There should also be nicer bonuses for undrafted rookie free agents. On the night the draft ends, NFL teams scramble to sign players who weren't picked. But there is almost never any money competition, which is cartel behavior by the teams. Most undrafted free agents are offered bonuses of $5,000 to $10,000. That's your reward for 10 years of round-the-clock dedication to football?
TMQ thinks a "moneyball" approach to the night the draft ends would entail quickly identifying the five undrafted players who seem most promising -- after every draft there are a handful who clearly should have been picked -- and being sure to get them under contract, by offering each a $50,000 bonus. Other NFL teams would be outraged, and view this as a violation of the gentlemen's agreement (that is, collusion) that undrafted rookies are never lured with money. But suppose you spent $250,000 on bonuses for five undrafted rookies ($50,000 times five), and one became a starter. That would be like buying an extra draft choice for $250,000. Any NFL general manager would pay $250,000 for an extra draft choice. A few years ago, Denver, for all intents and purposes, paid $3 million for a seventh-round choice; see the details of the Jake Plummer trade. (There's no hard number, because the NFL, unlike the NBA, forbids selling draft choices.) So a smart NFL team would go "moneyball" and spend $250,000 on bonuses the night the draft ends, in order to in effect acquire an extra choice.
Reader Peter Backof of Washington, D.C., made graphs of recent NFL draft results. What jumps out is his graph of Pro Bowl appearances since 2000. The "undrafted" category produced as many Pro Bowlers as the second round, and more Pro Bowlers than the third, fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh rounds. Why aren't NFL teams thinking in "moneyball" terms, and using their checkbooks to fish for undrafted talent?
It's an Ebenezer Scrooge mindset that the NFL is keenly interested in reducing bonuses at the top of the draft, but doesn't talk about increasing them at the bottom. Both things should happen.
Draft Facts That Must Mean Something: The Vikings are the sole team that has never traded up in the first round, while the Raiders are the sole team that has never traded down. The Cowboys have traded either up or down in the first round 17 times, most of any NFL team.
Next Week: Some highly hyped player will slip out of the first round, and draftniks whose boards were wrong will proclaim in unison: "I knew it all along."
In addition to writing Tuesday Morning Quarterback for Page 2, Gregg Easterbrook is the author of the new book "Sonic Boom" and six other books. He is also a contributing editor for The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly and The Washington Monthly. His website can be found here.
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