Column: Republican Tax Bill Targets SportsNovember 9, 2017

Column: Republican Tax Bill Targets SportsThe long-awaited Republican tax plan unveiled last week contained proposals which would benefit some taxpayers and negatively impact others. The sports world is no exception.

One provision specifically targets professional sports and another is aimed at college sports. A proposal to eliminate tax-exempt financing for sports facilities takes direct aim at the professional ranks. Even if it’s adopted, governmental entities could still pay for new sports facilities but they’re likely to cost more. Cities may be forced to seek alternative sources of revenue or reduce the size of facilities. Major League sports, considering their substantial resources, will be less affected than Minor League sports.

The elimination of this tax break will hardly make a dent in the federal deficit. According to some estimates, tax revenues may only increase by $200 million over the next decade. It’s more likely the proposal is designed to mollify the masses and convince them “the rich” are being affected equally by the new tax bill.

The proposal targeting college sports fans is the elimination of a tax deduction for 80% of donations to college athletic departments for the right to purchase tickets and receive other perks, such as preferred parking, for sporting events. A similar proposal was made during the Obama administration but was never enacted into law. Not surprisingly, college officials are concerned a change in the tax law would put a damper on alumni giving.

Other provisions of the bill have broader aims, but would cover sports as well. One would end the deduction available to companies for a portion of their spending on entertainment, e.g., attending a sporting event. Currently, if such attendance is associated with, or directly preceded or followed by, “a substantial and bona fide” discussion related to the company’s business, a portion of the cost of luxury suites and season tickets is deductible.

Another proposal would impact a variety of tax-exempt non-profit organizations, potentially affecting colleges. So-called “private-activity bonds,” a form of financing that has been used by colleges for construction projects, including athletic facilities, would no longer be tax exempt. The change would result in higher construction costs of those facilities.

Here’s one proposal that is unlikely to generate sympathy from many Americans: Tax-exempt organizations would be subject to a 20% tax on compensation in excess of $1 million paid to any of their five highest compensated employees. The proposal would apply to dozens of college coaches and athletic directors, including the nation’s highest paid coach, Nick Saban of Alabama, who will earn $11.132 million this year.

The Republican tax proposal is just that: a proposal. Both Houses of Congress must approve the bill before it reaches the President’s desk. Before that happens, there will be hearings and amendments galore. It remains to be seen whether all, or any, of these proposals will be adopted. What we can be sure of is the sports industry, like every other segment of society that believes its ox is being gored, will be lobbying against the provisions adverse to their interests.



Column: Baseball Managers Have Never Been More DisposableNovember 2, 2017

Column: Baseball Managers Have Never Been More DisposableBaseball managers have never had much security, with the exception of Connie Mack who remained in the dugout for 53 years. Of course, Mack owned the team so he never had to worry about a pink slip from his boss. Managers are hired to be fired and they have never been more undervalued than they are today. The end of the 2017 season is a stark reminder of that.

Examples of managers who were relieved of their duties include John Farrell, who was discarded by Boston after leading the Red Sox to three American League East titles and one World Series flag in five years. The Nationals decided to move on from Dusty Baker who led the team to back-to-back National League East titles. Farrell and Baker committed the same sin: Losing in the Division Series in successive years. Perhaps the best example of the lack of respect accorded a manager occurred in the Bronx, where the Yankees elected to replace Joe Girardi.

During his 10 years managing the Yankees, Girardi accumulated a .562 winning percentage, six playoff appearances, and one World Series title. The decision not to bring Girardi back was made by Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman. Their relationship had deteriorated in recent years, and it played out publicly this season. It’s doubtful even a World Series title this year would have saved Girardi’s job.

The characteristics Cashman, indeed, virtually every MLB team, is looking for in today’s manager is someone who can embrace analytics and simultaneously command a clubhouse. A manager must be willing to take input and direction from executives in the front office – many of whom have never played the game - and communicate with players on their terms. Neither task is easy and Girardi struggled in both areas.

Analytical analysis dominates today’s game and managers must accept that trend. Older managers in particular struggle with analytics. It may not be coincidence that two of the older managers in MLB this year, the aforementioned Baker and Terry Collins of the Mets, weren’t asked to return for 2018.

On the other hand, the managers of the two World Series teams, A.J. Hinch of the Astros and Dave Roberts of the Dodgers, are prime examples of men who have successfully done that. Both managers rely heavily on information provided from above for day-to-day decision making – e.g., who to play against a certain pitcher and which pitchers to employ against opposing batters, decisions that were once the sole province of the men in the dugout.

Girardi also failed to connect with his players. Although the team overachieved this year, Girardi seemed perpetually tense and uptight, with players and the media. Throw in his increasingly fractured relationship with his boss and the end result was predictable.

Players are more difficult to replace than managers so inevitably, it’s the men who sign the lineup cards who take the fall when teams fall short of expectations. As long as analytics rule the game, you can expect to see front offices place less and less value on managers.



Column: NCAA Punts On UNC Academic FraudOctober 26, 2017

Column: NCAA Punts On UNC Academic FraudOne of the most recognizable sports acronyms is NCAA, which stands for the National Collegiate Athletic Association. After the governing body’s recent ruling on the University of North Carolina (UNC) academic fraud case, it might as well stand for “Not Concerned with Academic Accountability.”

In 1993, UNC began offering independent study courses in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies. Over a period of almost 20 years approximately 3,100 students took the classes, almost half of whom were athletes. The courses required no attendance and only one gradable component, a paper at the end of the semester. After the scheme was uncovered, the NCAA conducted a three –year investigation, ultimately agreeing with UNC’s position that it did not violate any rules.

The charge against UNC was providing extra benefits to athletes. The University presented a two-prong defense to the charges. First, the University argued the governing body had no jurisdiction in the case, claiming it was an academic curriculum issue the University and/or its accrediting body should deal with. That view mirrors the longstanding NCAA position, even in cases of fake classes.

Second, UNC accurately pointed out that the paper classes were open to all students, i.e., non-athletes benefitted from them as well, which negates the NCAA’s charge of extra benefits. The NCAA had previously determined such things as adding cream cheese to a bagel and giving an athlete a ride across campus in a golf cart constitute extra benefits. But the Committee on Infractions couldn’t reach the same conclusion in the UNC case for the simple reason that the “paper courses” were available to the entire student body, not just athletes.

The Committee ignored the fact that in addition to the phony courses, professors in the department regularly entered grade changes and administrators forged faculty signatures to help athletes remain eligible. If those activities don’t qualify as “extra benefits” then the phrase has no meaning.

The NCAA was guilty of a gross strategic error in the UNC case. Instead of levying an extra benefits charge they should have charged the University with a lack of institutional control, as they have done for much less egregious actions. It’s almost as if the governing body didn’t want to find against UNC for fear of opening Pandora’s Box when it comes to the issue of academics. But it may have done exactly the opposite. After the UNC decision, what’s to prevent other schools from mimicking UNC? Don’t tell me it’s the shame of being exposed because the only shame in big-time college athletics is the shame of losing on the playing field.

After the NCAA ruling, the UNC athletic program can exhale. The rest of us can laugh...or throw up, depending on whether you find the NCAA’s decision and rationale humorous or disgusting. One thing is certain: No longer can we pretend that the phrase “student-athlete” has meaning. The decision affirms there is no longer any connection between college athletics and academics. It’s time to drop the word student from the NCAA vocabulary.


Column: Jeter's Success As MLB Owner No Sure ThingOctober 19, 2017

Column: Jeter's Success As MLB Owner No Sure ThingDerek Jeter, Major League Baseball team owner. The title may not be as familiar as shortstop/captain of the New York Yankees, but after MLB owners approved his group’s offer to purchase the Miami Marlins, Jeter is now a part owner of the team.

During a Hall of Fame career spanning 20 years, Jeter was ultra-competitive and confident on the field. Those traits, along with an unmatched work ethic, made him a stalwart of the Yankees teams of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s that won five World Series titles. Jeter’s confidence was never on display more than in 2004 when the Yankees acquired Alex Rodriguez in a trade with the Texas Rangers.

A-Rod, a natural shortstop, was a better hitter than Jeter and more importantly, a much better fielder. The logical baseball decision would have been to move Jeter from shortstop to third base and install A-Rod at short. But Jeter would have none of it. He refused to accept the fact anyone was better suited than he was to man the most important position on the field. Rather than create controversy for his new team and manger, Rodriguez graciously accepted a move to the hot corner.

During his playing days Jeter made it clear he wanted to own an MLB team and there are good reasons why MLB would want him in that role. He was a superstar player with a clean public image, recognizable on and off the field to fans and non-fans alike, someone who could bring new, younger fans to the game. However, rarely does an owner become the face of a franchise, drive interest in the team or sell tickets. Jeter may be an exception to the rule, as Michael Jordan has done, in part, with the Charlotte Hornets.

But the real question is whether Jeter’s past experiences on the baseball diamond will translate to the executive suite? The skill set required to be successful on the field – physical tools, instincts, competitiveness, confidence – won’t guarantee success off the field. In his position as head of business and baseball operations for the Marlins, Jeter will be responsible for turning around a franchise that is swimming in debt and hasn’t finished with a winning record in nine years.

Communication, leadership, personal skills, and dealing with the media are skills Jeter will need in abundance. He was known for being a quiet leader as a teammate but that won’t suffice in his executive role. Jeter must supervise employees, delegate important tasks, make trades, and oversee the drafting, signing and development of players. In short, he must be a businessman, not a ballplayer.

As they say in show biz, you only have one chance to make a good first impression and Jeter failed to impress on his first move. Before his purchase was approved, Jeter asked the Marlins to fire four highly respected and popular employees, Tony Perez, Andre Dawson, Jeff Conine and Jack McKeon. Perez is a Hall of Famer, a Cuban native who has ties to the substantial Cuban population in South Florida. Dawson, also a Hall of Famer, played his final two seasons with the Marlins and has worked for the team since he retired in 1996. Conine played for the team for eight years. McKeon was hired as manager mid-season in 2003 and is beloved for leading the team to their second World Series title.

Not surprisingly, Jeter’s request was a public relations disaster in Miami. One wonders how somehow who so carefully burnished their reputation as a player could have been so naïve and callous. To his credit, Jeter had second thoughts. Almost immediately after gaining MLB approval, Jeter began walking back his decision and has reportedly reached out to all four men.

Only time will tell if Jeter has the business acumen needed for the daunting task that lies before him. One thing is certain. Having the ability to hit .300 and excel in the baseball playoffs doesn’t necessarily translate into business success.




Column: Bribery Kickback Scandal Rocks College BasketballOctober 12, 2017

Column: Bribery Kickback Scandal Rocks College Basketball “I rob banks because that’s where
the money is.” Willie Sutton

Last week a New York federal court handed up indictments charging a number of assistant coaches, agents, financial advisers and shoe company employees with corruption in recruiting amateur basketball players.

Ten men were arrested on criminal charges including conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering. During a press conference to announce the arrests, Joon Kim, acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said the investigation is ongoing, sending an ominous signal that this is merely the tip of the iceberg in unmasking a scandal that has been an open secret for years. Prosecutors will no doubt use the prospect of jail time to coerce defendants into identifying more schools, coaches, and companies involved in the corruption, kickbacks and bribery schemes to funnel top-level athletes to certain programs.

A number of the most storied and successful college basketball programs in the country have already been ensnared in the probe, including Arizona, Oklahoma State, USC, South Carolina, Auburn and Louisville. Also at the center of the scandal is apparel and shoe company Adidas, one of the world’s most recognized sports brands. A top-level Adidas executive was charged with conspiracy to pay tens of thousands of dollars to families of high school recruits to induce them to sign with major college programs, many of which were Adidas clients.

In one case detailed in the indictments $150,000 was funneled through agents and financial companies before it ended up in the hands of the player and his family. The expectation was when the player turned pro, he would sign with a specific agent who in turn would recommend Adidas as the player’s sponsor.

Louisville immediately suspended head coach Rick Pitino, the highest paid basketball coach in the country at $7.8 million per year, and Athletic Director Tom Jurich. Later, Louisville moved to terminate Pitino’s contract for cause, which means he could lose out on $55 million.

For his part, Pitino professed ignorance of a black- market system that has profited him handsomely. In a statement issued after the indictments were made public, Pitino said the allegations “come as a complete shock to me.” Those words echo the position he took when the NCAA disciplined him and the University last summer after an investigation determined the Uber coach failed to monitor a former staff member who arranged strip dances and sex acts for players and recruits at a Louisville dormitory.

If you’re wondering what role the NCAA is playing in the investigation, the answer is none. The Association that professes to regulate college athletics was intentionally left on the outside looking in. The feds chose to conduct their activities in secret, fearing any leaks would jeopardize their investigation. NCAA President Mark Emmert claimed the announcement caught him off guard, but pledged his organization’s full support.

Like Pitino, the NCAA most certainly knew what was going on, but because it is powerless to do anything about it, chose the ostrich approach. The NCAA doesn’t have the investigative tools available to federal prosecutors, including subpoena powers and threats of incarceration. Better to feign ignorance than to be unmasked as impotent.

Recommendations aimed at preventing future scandals are plentiful. Among them are allowing players to have agents, paying players a portion of the billions of dollars that flow into college sports coffers, and permitting players to market themselves, all of which are currently prohibited under the NCAA’s archaic and restrictive rules. But even if all those options – and others - were adopted immediately, believing they would cleanse the recruiting system of illegal and corrupt practices is delusional.

The problem with college sports, specifically football and basketball, comes down to one word: money. There’s so much money involved in college sports it’s become a magnet for the greedy and criminal elements of society.

For the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks, scandals like the one currently engulfing basketball are destined to plague our nation’s colleges.


Column: Trump Takes On The NFLOctober 5, 2017

Column: Trump Takes On The NFLLeave it to President Trump to stir up a controversy at a time when he should have been dealing with the myriad issues confronting the country. But as untimely as his actions to take on the NFL players and owners may have been, that doesn’t mean he was entirely wrong.

The President castigated the players for taking a knee during the national anthem and accused the owners of being afraid to take action against them. Trump said the players showed “a total disrespect of our heritage…a total disrespect of everything that we stand for.” When the players suggested that Trump’s comments were “racial” (the NFL is approximately 70 per cent African American), the President shot back: “The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our country, flag and national anthem.”

From the players’ perspective, it’s all about race. When former San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem last season, he said he wasn’t “going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Statements by players and teams after last week’s protests reinforced Kaepernick’s position. The Seattle Seahawks were one of several teams that skipped the anthem altogether. The team issued a statement in support of the players, which said “We will not stand for the injustice that has plagued people of color in this country.”

The protests have been defended as an exercise of free speech, and prohibiting them as a violation of the constitution. While the First Amendment guarantees every American free speech, an employer may adopt rules that limit those rights in the work place. In other words, players have the freedom to protest the national anthem at, say, a mall or a rally, but not on the playing field if the employer (i.e., the NFL) prohibits such action. Such rules are no more a denial of free speech than when a government employer prohibits the use of the employer’s equipment – phones, computers, copy machines – to campaign for a political candidate.

In a world where sports and politics intersect, business – money – trumps both (no pun intended). Hence, NFL owners weren’t about to enforce the league rule – “policy,” according to a league spokesperson - that requires players to be on the field 10 minutes prior to kickoff. Similarly, the NBA has a rule requiring players, coaches and trainers to “stand respectfully” for the national anthem. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said he “expected” players to comply with the rule, although he didn’t say what would happen if they didn’t.

The reality is neither the NBA nor the NFL has any intention of enforcing their rules. Owners fear such actions will serve to galvanize the players even more than President Trump has. If the players elect to walk out, there won’t be any games, and owners will take a hit to their pocketbooks.

On the other hand, by ignoring those rules both leagues are sending the message that not all rules are required to be obeyed. Are players then free to choose which rules they obey and which ones they ignore? Can players violate their league’s drug policy without fear of being disciplined? Doesn’t such action, if universally adopted, inevitably lead to chaos?

This is the greatest country on earth, although we are far from perfect. There are ways to work towards correcting those imperfections that don’t involve kneeling for the national anthem. One of the greatest gifts we have, one that so many men and women have fought and died for, is the right to exercise free speech. That includes the right to protest, albeit in a legal and peaceful manner.

However, the U.S. is a country of laws and rules. We don’t get to pick and choose which ones we obey and which ones we ignore. Unless, of course, we are prepared to suffer the consequences. On that issue, President Trump was correct.




Column: NFL Overestimated LA MarketSeptember 28, 2017

Column: NFL Overestimated LA MarketGreed can motivate human beings to do things they might regret upon hindsight. NFL owners, despite being billionaires, are no different from ordinary folks in that regard. Their decision to storm back into the Los Angeles market last year after a 22-year absence was motivated by greed. As so often happens in such instances, the league and some team owners may be experiencing a severe case of buyer’s remorse.

In 1995, the Los Angeles Rams bolted LA for a new, state of the art stadium in Saint Louis. Along with an array of revenue streams and fancy suites, perhaps the best part of their deal was a clause in the lease that required Saint Louis to guarantee the stadium would always be one of the top-ten in the league. If at any time the stadium was deemed to fall below that standard, the team would be free to move. Two decades later, the inevitable came to pass and Rams’ owner Stan Kroenke printed business cards that read, “NFL team available for the best deal.”

The greed in the NFL-LA equation is readily apparent, beginning with Kroenke. The sports magnate, whose financial assets include an assist from his wife’s inheritance as a Walmart heir, had been drooling over the LA market for years. After intense lobbying among the owners, Kroenke out-maneuvered both the Oakland Raiders and the San Diego Chargers for first dibs in LA. Part of the incentive for his fellow owners to anoint Kroenke as the league’s standard bearer was his commitment to self-finance the construction of a $2.6 billion stadium in Englewood. The development potential to a nearly 300-acre parcel Kroenke owns will create a steady stream of revenue 365 days of the year, justifying the exorbitant cost of the stadium. In addition, Kroenke agreed to pay the league a $550 million relocation fee.

The league also mandated that Kroenke accommodate a second team in his new stadium, which is scheduled to be completed in 2020. The Chargers “won” that contest, which netted the league another $550 million relocation fee. Rather than playing as a lame duck for four years in San Diego, the team immediately moved to LA, in the process forsaking a rabid and loyal fan base. The move cost the Chargers tens-of-millions in moving expenses and lost revenue. So far, the team may be having second thoughts, at least privately.

Early evidence suggests that the NFL clearly overestimated the demand for professional football in the LA market, which is another way of saying greed trumped objectivity. Until they become a tenant of the Rams, the Chargers are playing at the 27,000-seat StubHub Center in LA, by far the smallest facility in the league. The Rams are using the LA Coliseum, a 94,000-seat relic, as their temporary home. The teams’ combined attendance for home games has been less than that of the University of Southern California, which also plays at the Coliseum, suggesting that LA may not be quite ready for NFL prime time. Perhaps the move was merely premature. Moving a team into a market without a fancy new stadium is always risky. Fans today demand and expect modern amenities, which neither the Rams nor the Chargers will be able to provide for at least three more years. Those who view the glass as half-full claim interest and attendance will rise significantly when Kroenke’s new Taj Mahal is completed. Others add that the teams must improve on the field, where they have been consistently horrible.

There have been recent reports, officially denied by the NFL, that the league is seriously considering forcing the Chargers to move back to San Diego. Such a move would be unprecedented and the details – including the disposition of the relocation fee – are anyone’s guess. After spending more than 20 years trying to put a team back in L.A., could it be possible the league may end up moving one out? If that happens, common sense will have prevailed over greed.



Column: The Intersection Of Sports & Politics Is MuddledSeptember 24, 2017

Column: The Intersection Of Sports & Politics Is MuddledThe synergy between sports and entertainment has existed since time immemorial. ESPN paid homage to that notion when it was founded in 1979. The “E” in its name stands for Entertainment, which perhaps not ironically comes before “S,” or Sports.

Sports and politics have likewise had a symbiotic relationship, but since the advent of social media, that relationship has become even more pronounced. And once again, we need to look no further than ESPN to recognize that. SportsCenter hostess Jemele Hill took to twitter last week to issue a series of vitriolic accusations against President Trump, accusing him of, among other things, being “ignorant, offensive, unqualified and unfit to be president, a bigot, an incompetent moron” and most controversial of all, “a white supremacist.”

Hills’ tirade forced ESPN to defend itself against the inevitable attacks that followed, including one from the Twitter-in-Chief himself, Trump, who demanded a retraction. His spokesperson went further, alleging that Hill committed a ‘fireable offense.” By week’s end, Hill hadn’t issued a retraction nor was she fired. ESPN issued a milquetoast statement disavowing her comments and allowed her to continue her role as SportsCenter hostess, although one report suggested they tried to replace her but backed off when they feared it would trigger an internal revolt.

In their statement, the network said, “The comments on Twitter from Jemele Hill regarding the President do not represent the position of ESPN. We have addressed this with Jemele and she recognizes her actions were inappropriate.” That response generated additional criticism, especially from those who believe ESPN promotes a liberal agenda. While ESPN has repeatedly denied that charge, the reality may be murkier in light of the network’s checkered history on freedom of speech.

Last April, former All-Star pitcher Curt Schilling, who was hired post-career by ESPN as a baseball analyst, was fired for sharing a Facebook post about the North Carolina transgender bathroom law. “LET HIM IN! to the restroom with your daughter or else you’re a narrow-minded, judgmental, unloving racist bigot who needs to die,” the post said. Schilling added, “A man is a man no matter what they call themselves. I don’t care what they are, who they sleep with, men’s room was designed for the penis, women’s not so much. Now you need laws telling us differently? Pathetic.”

ESPN referred to Schilling’s comments as “unacceptable,” similar to their response following Hill’s rant which used the word “inappropriate.” However, unlike Hill, Schilling was fired. “ESPN is an inclusive company,” the network said at the time. “Curt Schilling has been advised that his conduct was unacceptable and his employment with ESPN has been terminated.”

The seemingly inconsistent responses from ESPN beg the question: “What’s the difference between the statements made by Schilling and those made by Hill?” The answer appears to be fuzzy, at best. Last spring, in response to a politically charged environment, ESPN issued revised political and election guidelines for its employees that, while allowing for political discussion on the network’s platforms, recommended connecting those comments to sports whenever possible. Neither Hill’s nor Schilling’s comments did that.

The new guidelines go on to say, “The presentation should be thoughtful and respectful. We should offer balance or recognize opposing views, as warranted. We should avoid personal attacks and inflammatory rhetoric.” Could either Hill’s or Schilling’s comments be considered “personal attacks” or “inflammatory?” Of course, but as with many journalistic policy questions, the answers are subjective.

Another comparison between Schilling and Hill: Schilling had previously been suspended for a social media post ESPN had also determined to be “unacceptable.” Likewise, Hill had been suspended for invoking Hitler in a column on the Boston Celtics. However, unlike Schilling, Hill wasn’t fired for a second offense.

Oh, and a number of critics also pointed out that Schilling is white and Hill is black, claiming their disparate treatment “proves” the network leans left. Whether you agree or not inevitably depends on which side of the political aisle you inhabit.



Column: Sign Stealing In Baseball Is A KerfuffleSeptember 14, 2017

Column: Sign Stealing In Baseball Is A KerfuffleThe Red Sox-Yankees rivalry is alive and well, on and off the field.

The American League East rivals have conducted a season long battle for the Division crown. With three weeks remaining in the season, it’s still uncertain which team will finish first. But the more interesting news may be taking place off the field.

Last month Yankees’ General Manager Brain Cashman filed a complaint with MLB accusing the Red Sox of violating regulations banning the use of certain electronic devices – specifically, walkie-talkies and mobile phones - in the dugouts. The ban was designed to prevent players from viewing game broadcasts and using that information to steal an opponent’s signs.

Sign-stealing in baseball is as old as the game itself and there is no rule that explicitly prohibits it. None other than MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has said as much. But beyond that generality, there’s sign-stealing that’s permitted within the rules of the game and sign-stealing that may be prohibited.

The matter is under investigation by the Commissioner’s office but when confronted with the charges, the Red Sox didn’t refute them. While members of their training staff were sitting in the dugout they received signals on their Apple Watches from video replay personnel who were watching a live feed of the game. The information was then relayed to the players who signaled pitches to the hitter.

In what may be a childish display of tit-for-tat, the Red Sox responded by filing a complaint against the Yankees, claiming they use an exclusive camera from their YES television network to steal signs during games. Speculation on the punishment, if any, the Commissioner may impose on either or both teams ranged from nothing, to fines and possible loss of draft picks.

With so much technology available inside and outside of ballparks, it was inevitable that teams would use it to steal signs. It’s the natural progression of a practice that has existed as long as the game itself.

There have been a number of well-documented – or at least, oft-repeated – incidents of sign- stealing in baseball. For the most part teams rely on the acute ability of certain team members to decipher an opponent’s signs. But creativity has also been demonstrated. In 1948, the Cleveland Indians engaged in what for the times was an elaborate scheme to steal opponents’ signs. A team employee sitting in the center-field scoreboard used a telescope to spy on the opposing catcher’s fingers. He would then decipher the code used to call pitches and signal the next pitch to the batter by putting up a white or dark card in an opening in the scoreboard.

Team owner Bill Veeck was unapologetic about this scheme, saying that “sign-stealing, even when it is done from the scoreboard, is part of the real byplay of baseball, part of the battle of wits.” Coincidental or not, that was the last time the Indians won the World Series. Not all teams that have engaged in the practice of sign-stealing have been as successful.

The motivation behind sign-stealing is to obtain an edge. If the batter knows what pitch is coming, the assumption is he will be more successful. Still, the batter has to execute, a task easier said than done. Case in point: If the Red Sox were stealing the Yankees’ signs, their success rate didn’t reflect it.

Cheating in baseball is endemic to the sport. Every team does it. One example is the use of foreign substances by pitchers. As long as it isn’t too obvious, no one dares to complain about an extra dab of suntan lotion strategically located on the forehand behind the pitchers glove.

The Red Sox-Yankees spat may be good for the sport, refueling a rivalry that has been dormant for some time. Whether you are amused or outraged by the charges and counter-charges probably depends on your degree of allegiance to the teams. But there is one certainty: Regardless of the outcome of these cases, sign-stealing in baseball will continue.


Column: MLB To Enact Fan Code of ConductSeptember 7, 2017

Column: MLB To Enact Fan Code of ConductIn the aftermath of a racially charged incident at Fenway Park earlier this season, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred announced that the league would adopt a Fan Code of Conduct beginning with the 2018 season.

On May 1, in a game between Boston and Baltimore, several fans hurled racial slurs and peanuts at Orioles’ centerfielder Adam Jones, who is black. The incident was quickly denounced by the team and Jones received a standing ovation from Red Sox fans and players prior to the following night’s game.

MLB immediately began canvassing member clubs to determine what procedures were in place to address this and other incidents of inappropriate and boorish behavior. Turns out all 30 teams have some form of code of conduct that governs fan behavior at the ballpark, although the details of each vary in content, scope and enforcement. Effective next season, that will change.

Details of the universal code of conduct are yet to be determined but Manfred indicated that no recommendations will be made until MLB determines what each club is currently doing. A league source indicated that by adopting a league-wide policy, MLB is seeking to establish a set of minimum behavioral standards and consequences that are uniform across the league, something that isn’t the case today.

MLB won’t be the first professional sports league to adopt a uniform policy. In fact, they will be the last of the four Major League team sports leagues to do so. The NFL took the lead on the issue in 2008. According to the league, their fan code of conduct is “designed to set clear expectations and encourage a stadium environment that is enjoyable for all fans.” Teams are permitted to add additional provisions to the standard code based on local circumstances or preferences. At the beginning of each preseason, teams are required to communicate their code of conduct to season-ticket holders and fans through mailings, online, in-stadium signage, and other messages.

The NFL code requires fans to refrain from:

Behavior that is unruly, disruptive, or illegal in nature.
Intoxication or other signs of alcohol impairment that results in irresponsible behavior.
Foul or abusive language or obscene gestures.
Interference with the progress of the game (including throwing objects onto the field).
Failing to follow instructions of stadium personnel.
Verbal or physical harassment of opposing team fans.

The policy goes on to say that, "Event patrons are responsible for their conduct as well as the conduct of their guests and/or persons occupying their seats. Stadium staff will promptly intervene to support an environment where event patrons, their guests, and other fans can enjoy the event free from the above behavior. Event patrons and guests who violate these provisions will be subject to ejection without refund and loss of ticket privileges for future games."

Specific consequences and prompt enforcement, similar to the language found in the NFL code, are the keys to any code. Without those, the words are meaningless. Other leagues agree. The NBA mandates that fans who don't comply with its standards of behavior are subject to ejection, revocation of season tickets and possible arrest or prosecution if they're found to be in violation of city ordinances. The NHL code prohibits, among other things, "abusive language or obscene gestures" under penalty of ejection.

Most MLB teams combine their fan code of conduct with policies and procedures. For example, in their Fan Code of Conduct posted at the entrance to their ballpark, the Los Angeles Dodgers include prohibitions against tailgating, smoking and bringing alcoholic beverages into the stadium, activities that would ordinarily lead to the incident endured by Jones.

On May 2, one night after Jones reported being the target of racial intolerance, the Red Sox issued a lifetime ban to a white man who was overheard using a racial slur to describe a Kenyan woman who had sung the national anthem. That’s the kind of swift, definitive action required for a fan code of conduct to be effective.


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