Friday, October 28, 2016

Dangerous Faction

As published in The County Times (countytimes.somd.com)

I’m going to blatantly ignore the unceremonious end to the professional baseball season.  You good with that O’s fans?  Nats fans?  Thought so.  A furry mammal, a 30-year-old football team and a wig-wearing American legend is on the docket… 

The 1985 Chicago Bears are, for my money, the greatest NFL team of the Super Bowl era.  After a 15-1 regular season (11 of those wins were by double digits), the Bears won three playoff games, including Super Bowl XX, by a combined score of 91-10. 

Chicago’s offense featured future Hall of Fame RB Walter Payton, flashy but gritty QB Jim McMahon, and lightning fast WR Willie Gault.  The identity of that great Bears team, though, was its devastating and historic defense.  Middle linebacker Mike Singletary and defensive lineman Dan Hampton and Richard Dent are in the Hall of Fame.  Outside linebackers Otis Wilson and Wilbur Marshall wreaked havoc off the edge.  Defensive lineman Steve McMichael was a two-time All-Pro and safeties Gary Fencik and the late Dave Duerson were as good as any in the league.

More than a collection of talented football players, the ’85 Bears were a crossover pop culture phenomena.  Rotund DT William “The Refrigerator” Perry caught the nation’s fancy with his lovable girth and touchdown plunges.  McMahon was a professional wrestling persona in cleats.  Head Coach Mike Ditka was the perfect booming, unpolished personality to lead this band of bandits and brash defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan made sacks, turnovers and shutouts cool.   

Collectively the Bears played hard, won often and embraced fame.  They shot television commercials and, true to the MTV era of the mid-80’s, made a corny music video - The Super Bowl Shuffle.  Always a sports documentary in the making, ESPN recently made it official by featuring the ’85 Bears in a “30 for 30” episode.    

One question has lingered about those fabulous and fun ’85 Bears: Why did they manage just one Super Bowl appearance?  They had a nice run – five consecutive division titles from 1984-88 – but that single championship is a lonely piece of hardware for a roster with dynastic capabilities.
The answer was revealed in that “30 for 30” piece and explained by James Madison, unsuspecting football whisperer, in Federalist Paper No. 10 (a centuries old political document): The Bears were a fractured group. 

Ryan was hired as defensive coordinator in 1978, four full season before Ditka was hired as head coach.  His defensive unit was fiercely loyal, even lobbying ownership to retain Ryan in 1982.  By 1985, the defense was dominant, among the very best in league history; the offense was…okay.  The performance delta created tension between Ryan’s defense and Ditka’s offense and between Ryan and Ditka personally.  In a way, the defense was its own faction, existing and operating as an isolated entity.

So what does a founding father have to offer about NFL football?  Well, in arguing for a new form of government in late 1787, Madison, noting the human compulsion for factious discord, wrote, “A zeal for different opinions…have in turn divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good.”  He went on to comment that “So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities”, the new government shouldn’t seek to combat the cause of inevitable faction but only seek, “…the means of controlling its effects.” 

That is brutal commentary on our species, but it is, unfortunately, spot on.  The division within the Bears teams of the mid 80’s was insufficiently controlled and, ultimately, diminished its accomplishments.  There was too much defense versus offense and not enough prevailing, unselfish commitment to a common cause. 


Be it 1787, 1985 or 2016, and whether the test subject is a personal relationship, a professional team or our representative government, the challenge is to promote spirited, constructive debate and avoid rogue faction.  Our next big test arrives on November 9 when we will wake up either excited, disappointed or indifferent; but, regardless, we will still be Americans tasked with the responsibility of building a more perfect union.

You’re Making How Much?

As published in The County Times (countytimes.somd.com)

The interview went well.  An offer was made.  The job was accepted.  You landed in cubicle village hungry to produce, earn respect and advance.  After learning the ropes and chatting up veteran members of your new work family, your suspicions were confirmed: your position or department isn’t highly valued in the organization and, even among your second-class peers, you aren’t making an equitable salary. 

With professional careers now spanning well over three decades and job-hopping increasingly common, this is a situation – feeling underappreciated and underpaid - nearly everyone will experience (unless, of course, you follow the path of a certain presidential candidate who has never struggled to pay a bill or spent a day chasing a middle-class life). 

There are perfectly legitimate reasons, of course, for such predicaments: an inaccurate assessment of market value, a new entrant to the workforce, a temporary gig, starting a second career or a financially hastened employment decision.  And legitimate or not - and at the risk of sounding na├»ve and dated – it can be a temporary state if the tried and true trilogy of hard work, a positive attitude and shrewd maneuvering is deployed.   

In the meantime, working harder while making less than the slacker in the adjacent cube, despite the same job description, can be demoralizing, a natural and understandable reaction that retards the employee’s potential and threatens the development of a successful organizational culture.

It is this common sense lesson on human behavior and organizational health which makes what is happening in professional sports so fascinating.  The financial landscape in the NFL, NBA and MLB is being redefined yearly.  Monopoly money is being thrown around: $200M contracts and $20M annual salaries are the new normal. 

It is an indisputably good time to be really good at sports.  But, the bonanza is concentrating wealth in just a few positions and producing salary structures within individual teams that are grossly misaligned with talent and production. 

Consider these statements.  Golden State G Stephen Curry is the fourth highest paid Warriors’ player and will make less than half of teammate Kevin Durant’s 2016 salary.  The top six MLB salaries and eight of the top 10 belong to starting pitchers.  NFL quarterbacks claim the 14 highest 2016 salary cap figures and are the most expensive player on 23 of 32 teams.

Closer to home, John Wall, the second highest paid Wizard, will make roughly $17M less than Bradley Beal over the next three seasons.  Bryce Harper’s salary ranks tenth on the Nationals.  Joe Flacco ($22.5M) and Kirk Cousins ($19M) have the highest cap figures for the Ravens and ‘Skins, respectively, and make exponentially more than all-world Ravens G Marshal Yanda ($4M) and ‘Skins RT Morgan Moses ($864K), two offensive lineman tasked with protecting those expensive quarterbacks.

Lies, damn lies and statistics?  According to Spotrac.com, all of it is true. 

With collectively bargained time-of-service-based salaries and structured free agency qualifications, this disparity is somewhat understandable.  Still, consider the environment such financial chaos creates.  Ultra-competitive athletes with an abbreviated career – those that last 10 years are rare – are asked to buy-in completely, give maximum effort and play hurt despite often either earning far below market value or a fraction of a lesser-talented or more valued teammates.

The point isn’t to prompt pity for offensive linemen or the Wall’s and Curry’s of the NBA; a professional athlete’s life is a glorious gig.  But those fortunate elite athletes are still human, manage a unique career arc and face the ever-present reality of an injury altering their career and financial outlook in a split second. 


It is amazing, then, and a credit to athletes and coaches (who no doubt double as psychologists), that holdouts aren’t prevalent and more teams aren’t compromised by the evolving business of professional sports.  Maybe players are just appreciative of the opportunity.  Of course that’s easy to do while making millions and hoping to make tens of millions.  Still, there’s something there, some hint of solace for the struggling cube dweller who is dutifully implementing the aforementioned trinity – hard work, a good attitude and strategic networking – and awaiting a deserved market correction of their own.