Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Draft Day Story Time.

Happy Draft Day! With the black cloud of CBA negotiations hanging over the NFL's biggest off season event, how's about a little story time with Uncle Trav?

If it registered on your radar at all, it's been long since relegated to the backwoods of memory. On March 10, 2003, the Dixie Chicks were opening their "Top Of The World" tour in England, when singer Natalie Maines, speaking about the then-nascent Iraq war, told the crowd:

"Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas." (Where the band hails from.)

The backlash from country music, whose listenership is largely Republican and pro-war, was instantaneous. The immensely popular band was blacklisted by country radio across the nation, and disavowed by many of their own fans. Nashville essentially severed all ties. At the time, the firestorm of reaction struck me not only as absurdly disproportionate and ill-reasoned, but also as an incredibly poor business decision by the country music industry.

Most of the nation regards country as backwoods, backwards, and above all, deeply uncool. Outside of the Midwest and the Bible Belt, its fans are scarce. The Dixie Chicks were a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the genre to expand its fan base on a grand scale. Three attractive, hyper-talented women who sing catchy tunes and actually play their own instruments (a rarity in country.) A marketing department couldn't have cooked up a better formula in a lab. And the Chicks were already bridging the gap. Their songs were getting pop radio rotation, and charting not just in Billboard Magazine's Country category, but on the Top 40 list as well. They were pulling down Grammys left and right, and their assertive, feminist anthems were successfully battling for the affections of fourteen-year old girls normally obsessed with N'Sync. And of course, guys thought they were sassy and smokin' hot. It was a rare chance for country to use a group to pull more listeners in and turn them on to its other top artists, to make itself relevant and big-time, as it had done (kind of) with Garth Brooks a generation earlier. (That's exactly what happened with me. I used to hate contemporary country, until a friend got me the Dixie Chicks' first album as a gag gift one Christmas. I got hooked.)

Everything was fine and dandy, both the band and the industry were breaching the normally unassailable walls of Pop Music, until Mrs. Maines decided to voice her thoughts about the war and the President who was spearheading it. The reaction of the country industry and its fans broke the irony scale. See, more than any other music, patriotism plays a conscious and important role in country's ideology. (You know that song "God Bless The USA"? Country tune.) Yet here were legions of people crucifying their own, simply because they exercised their basic, Constitutional right of free speech and opinion. Instead of non-country fans using the Dixie Chicks as a bridge to discover more of Nashville's offerings, they embraced the Chicks but shunned the musical community that denounced them so vehemently. Because of a misguided moral high ground, country alienated many of the very people it could have used the band to reach, and insured that the Dixie Chicks would never align themselves again with the Nashville royalty they were once so close with. It was hypocritical, nonsensical behavior, and it cost the industry who knows how many new fans and how much revenue down the line. In denying the patriotic values so often espoused in its music, country put what should have been a genre-crossing cash cow out to pasture. To belabor the barnyard metaphor, Nashville loaded both barrels, took aim, and blew the golden goose to smithereens. "I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free!" apparently did not include the First Amendment as pertains to unpopular (to your fans) political views.

Did that parable remind you of anything? Like, say ... an equally hypocritical and irrational group of NFL owners during a lockout?

When judge Susan Nelson lifted the lockout two days ago, many players attempted to show up for work. However, on arrival at their teams' practice facilities, they found that the owners had, in lieu of a legal lockout, adopted a literal one. No weight rooms or treadmills for you, guys. Access denied. It was the latest and most petty transgression by the owners, but hardly the biggest one.

This whole unfortunate train wreck has been a parade of ego, greed, and false premises. After a season of bluster and rhetoric from the league regarding CTE and concussions, the inanity of owners pushing for an 18-game season is staggering. How can you hand out fines and suspensions for illegal hits, all in the name of player safety, and then coldly suggest that your athletes subject themselves to more punishment because more games mean more TV revenue and ticket sales? The owners counter the question by arguing that they'll accommodate the additional games by shortening the preseason, but there are two things wrong with that. First, coaching staffs need those four full preseason games. Rosters and depth charts have to be sussed out and solidified. Playbooks and packages need that crucial period of experimentation before the team can find its identity. Halve the learning process, and inferior play will be the result. Second, I've watched considerably fewer preseason games than I have regular ones, but the sample size is large enough to tell you this: the disparity in intensity levels is substantial. The punishment and injury risks elevate when the win column starts counting and everyone is going flat-out on every down, so claiming that the players won't be exposed to more potential damage by reducing the preseason in favor of two more actual games is bunk.

Despite revenue streams that have grown every year, the owners claim they're losing money, and that they need a $1 billion-augmented slice of the NFL pie in order to stay afloat. This statement has sparked widespread incredulity, but since the players and most fans aren't accounting majors, I'd be willing to believe that such is the case ... if we had any proof. Yet the owners are obstinately refusing to open their books and demonstrate where the losses are coming from. I'm not saying the NFLPA is blameless here. Certainly, the CBA needs to be restructured to prevent unproven rookies from banking $50 million contracts, and if the league as a whole can benefit from the players taking a little less, they ought to concede it. (Also, shame on them for attempting to dissuade the incoming draft class from actually attending tonight's draft. I understand the need to demonstrate player solidarity, but these young men shouldn't be deprived of their moment in the sun, a confirmation and realization of their dreams.) I believe the players need to give a little ground too, but as long as the owners refuse to provide evidence of their supposed fiscal difficulties, they majority of the blame lays at their feet.

Finally, the owners are shooting themselves in the foot as regards the draft. Without the benefit of the normal free agency period to fill holes in their rosters, teams will be playing a higher-stakes game of roulette with their picks than usual, drafting without knowing what current players they might acquire later. It's not an insurmountable challenge for front offices, but it could potentially harm a number of franchises. It's already a gambling scenario, and the owners are doing nothing more than hurting themselves by hampering their teams' ability to draft as wisely as possible.

Ultimately, I think the CBA will be hammered out, and we'll have a season to enjoy next year, albiet a possibly shortened one. Compromises will be reached, and at least quasi-satisfaction will be had by both parties. The question is: how much fan backlash will be incurred along the way? Like country music, football is too popular to die, but by behaving so foolishly, the NFL owners are putting that old golden goose in harm's way.

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