THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
As someone who has been accused once or twice of being a grumpy old man telling young whippersnappers to get off my lawn, it was fascinating to hear Ron Wolf, the former general manager of the Green Bay Packers, accusing the disgruntled Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers of being a diva. Mostly because I had used the same word to describe Rodgers just a week before, in a football column, after Rodgers explained that he was happy about almost everything in Green Bay but wanted to leave anyway because of someone doing something unexplained.
Wolf is 82, which even in my terms is old, but what he yelled from his rusty lawn chair wasn't quite accurate. Now you can easily argue that was Diva behavior by AR, but Wolf, perhaps without knowing it, was addressing a bigger issue. He seemed to be speaking about both Rodgers and perhaps Deshaun Watson, who's refusing to report to the wreck of the Houston Texans (and also has accusations of sexual misconduct ranging from inappropriate behavior to rape laid against him by 22 different masseuses) when he said: "It appears that today's quarterbacks want to be more than quarterbacks. They're hired to play the position quarterback. That's what they're being paid for, and that's what they're being paid to do. These guys, they want to pick the coach, pick the players. It's an interesting dilemma."
It is indeed an interesting dilemma. You can almost hear Wolf, who is retired, echoing Tony La Russa, who's only 76 and came out of retirement to manage the Chicago White Sox. La Russa blew his gasket the week before, when one of his players, Yermin Mercedes, swung at a 3 and 0 pitch and hit a home run against Minnesota's Willians Astudillo, a catcher/utility man who was pitching in a game the Sox already led 15-4. La Russa had given Mercedes the "take" sign, in effect ordering him not to swing at the pitch, but he did anyway, and La Russa afterwards lambasted him for "disrespecting" the game, and even better, agreed with Twins' manager Rocco Baldelli when, in a game the next day, Baldelli ordered his pitcher to throw at Mercedes in retaliation for the "disrespect".
As it happens, the Twins have 13 pitchers on their 26-man roster. Most teams nowadays do, which has a lot to do with La Russa's penchant, back in the days of 9 or 10 man pitching staffs, for using relief pitchers to face one batter only. Now everyone wants to use more and more "real" pitchers, but there are those of us who might think that making position players pitch, especially as early as the seventh inning, is "disrespecting" the game. Some of us may also think that starting an extra inning with a runner on second base, as the new MLB tie-breaking procedure does, is "disrespecting" the game far more than a journeyman player doing what he is paid to do when he gets his chance to hit.
When one of La Russa's pitchers, Lance Lynn, took Mercedes' side, La Russa dismissed his comments. "He has a locker," he said, "but I have an office." On the other hand, Lynn, who is something of a journeyman himself, makes $9.3 million a year to pitch, and although MLB keeps managers' salaries close to their vests, La Russa is likely in the $3m range. And therein lies the rub.
La Russa and Wolf were addressing different problems, but both reflect two different dynamics in play in modern sports. The first is the obvious generation gap, and here it's easy to see pensioners trying to protect what they see as the integrity of the game as they knew it. We all do that. Everyone says they want the Hall of Fame kept small, admission only to the most deserving. Except they also want their six favorite players from their home team when they were 12 years old to get in. I confess to occasionally preferring things the way they were when I fell in love with sports my own self.
But what stands out is that both Wolf and La Russa were addressing a problem only in so far as it applies to players: not to managers/coaches, umpires/referees, general managers, owners or league administrators. As I implied in my criticisms of the larger roster of pitchers or the new MLB extra innings rules, those people are free to tinker with the game as much as they want, usually in order to make it more "fan friendly" (generally high scoring, less stressful to the attention span). But players are a different story. Mercedes, who probably grew up playing in games with mercy rules, didn't think he needed to go along with some old-time managerial rule that protects the integrity of a joke - using a position player on the mound. Yes, it's one team putting up the white flag of surrender, and you could look at his swing as something like shooting prisoners. On the other hand, baseball doesn't stop keeping score just because one team leads by 11! What if the Twins' batters suddenly cut the lead to 15-10? And on the third hand, when a guy like Mercedes goes in to negotiate his next contract, an extra homer ain't gonna hurt.
But keeping players in their place falls afoul of a second change, one that Wolf hasn't recognized. It's already happened in the NBA, but it's not as close in the NHL or MLB, and that's the growing ability of star players to dictate where they want to play. In the NBA, they gravitate together in what us crusty old guys see as an unsportsmanlike attempt to buy championship rings: like choosing up sides in the playground, only the second and third-best guys will only play on the same team as the best.
But they can do that because they recognize that it is players who are the stars, who draw the fans, especially in basketball, with only five guys on the court in shorts and sleeveless tees. They are ones who draw the spectators and the viewers: it's not the NCAA tournament where many of the players are unknowns but the coaches have continuity. My brother has argued for years if NBA players were smart, the 60 or 80 best would form their own league, choose up 10 man rosters, and play a barnstorming season. Oddly enough, professional lacrosse is trying something like that, though few care. Make their own TV deals, rent their own arenas, cut out the owners and the league from the profits.
Of course Aaron Rodgers has the advantage that the quarterback is the single most crucial player in any team sport. Yes a pitcher on a given day, or a hockey goalie on a hot streak can compare, but not game in and game out. The league knows this: when the NFL had its "schedule day" - a 24 hour media blitz and wall-to-wall TV programming based on, I'm not kidding, releasing the 2021 schedule - their hype was almost exclusively on QB vs QB matchups, the big exception being QB Tom Brady against his former team and coach, Bill Belichick's Patriots. As with Lance Lynn and La Russa, only way more-so, this is why Aaron Rodgers gets paid so much more than team president Mark Murphy (there is no owner in socialist community-owned Green Bay) and GM Brian Gutekunst put together. Probably coach Matt LaFleur as well.
What Wolf doesn't see is that the NFL is about where the movie industry was just after World War II, and Aaron Rodgers is like Olivia de Havilland. Her win in a lawsuit against Warner Bros, who were trying unilaterally to extend her contract to include time she'd missed when she was suspended for not agreeing to take roles she didn't want to take, changed the nature of the studio contract forever. That was in 1946; in 1948 the US Supreme Court ruled that studios' ownership of distribution and exhibition (theaters) was monopolistic. Times and courts have changed since then, but realistically now, almost the only thing holding the league back from taking control of its distribution is the possible loss of its anti-trust exemption which the availability of the country's favorite game on free to air TV still provides.
So think of Aaron Rodgers as an actor tied to a studio which doesn't take his input on projects. Who don't ask him whom he'd like to direct him in his next picture? Whose producers don't care which other actors he'd prefer in his supporting cast. His coach is like a director he may not respect (Mike McCarthy?), his GM the producer, whose aims may be at cross-purposes to his (not necessarily for bad reasons). And the president is like the studio head, Louis B Meyer or Harry Cohn if we were talking Cowboys and Jerry Jones. Cohn once emerged from a screening and told a director to cut seven minutes from his film. Seven minutes? asked the director. How do you know so exactly? Because, Cohn replied, my ass started to itch seven minutes from the end. Jason Garrett must have lasted so long in Dallas for a reason.
In Hollywood it took only a few years for actors (and their agents) to form their own production companies, hire their own directors, writers and casts, and then sell the finished product to the studio for distribution. Olivia de Havilland stopped having to make schlock like Government Girl and instead acted in To Each His Own, The Dark Mirror and The Snake Pit immediately after being set free. She died last summer, in Paris, at the age of 104. I wrote about her and explained her legal battle, in 2016 (you can find that at irresistibletargets.blogspot.com)
Anyway, that kind of freedom is a long way off in the NFL, but the point is that the league, and its crustaceans, need to realize this is the situation they and their marketing have created. People pay to see players, even though Roger Goodell hands the Vince Lombardi Trophy to the guy who signs the checks.
Football is too complicated for the players to do what my brother wants the NBA to do. You can force a trade in the NFL (your team always can). Julio Jones' departure from Atlanta was a huge win for Tennessee from a salary cap necessity for the Falcons. But you dismiss your star players when they start to question things at your own risk. Green Bay could hold firm, play the 2021 season with Jordan Love, and let Rodgers in effect pursue game-show stardom as opposed to the showbiz of football. They seem to hold all the cards, with Rodgers tied to a three-year deal. But if Rodgers seriously wants to play football at age 38, Green Bay provides him with probably his best opportunity to win - there's not an obvious Tampa on the horizon, and he's never indicated he'd take less money to move. Peter King suggested Rodgers return and the team guarantee him a trade after the 2021 season. It's a better idea than simply screaming at him to get off of your lawn. Especially when Lambeau Field still has real lawn, not artificial turf.