Column: Computerized Umps On The HorizonControversies in baseball are virtually endless. The Designated Hitter, Instant Replay, Inter-league Play, Wild Cards, Pace of Play - and on and on it goes. Here’s another topic that is starting to heat up: Robot Umps.
According to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred the technology to accurately call balls and strikes will be available sooner rather than later. He’s right, but the availability of the technology isn’t the question; after 150 years of players, fans and the media (mostly) complaining about umpires, should MLB eliminate one of the human elements from the sport?
Baseball purists will undoubtedly express outrage at the further intrusion of technology into the game. And they have a point. Most MLB umpires are very good at their jobs. Of course, there are umpires in the minors better than some of their MLB brethren. But union rules prevent incompetent umpires from being replaced, no different than the situation in other walks of life.
The idea of using computers to determine whether a pitch is a ball or a strike is hardly new. The basic technology was first introduced by a company called QuesTec, which began automatic pitch data collection more than 20 years ago. Statheads are familiar with Sportvision’s technology popularly known as PITCHf/x, which is used in all MLB stadiums to determine the location of every pitch. A company spokesperson claims that its system is accurate to within half an inch. In most sports, everyone plays by the same rules, regardless of the location of the competition. Baseball is the outlier. While NFL fields and NBA and NHL playing surfaces are uniform, the same can’t be said for baseball fields beyond the infield. The distance between the bases is 90 feet, but the foul ground area and outfield distances in ballparks can vary by 50 feet or more. And that’s before we consider the idiosyncrasies of stadiums. The nooks and crannies of Fenway Park mean the game plays differently in Boston than it does in a symmetrical ballpark like Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City.
Like ballparks with different dimensions, no two umpires have the same strike zone. Data is available to show which umpires have high strike zones, which ones expand the plate, and which umpires are woefully inconsistent in pitch calling. And unlike a checked swing, which is a “judgment call,” pitch location is finite. Yet MLB condones inconsistency from its men in blue even though we know that the strike zone, as interpreted by the plate umpire, has the greatest impact on the outcome of a game.
Pitch calling goes to the integrity of the game. The strike zone is defined in the rulebook – Rule 2.00 – so incorrectly calling the strike zone is a violation of the rules of the game. We don’t allow players to violate the rulebook, why should we condone such action from umpires?
Manfred’s claim that the technology to call balls and strikes more accurately than humans doesn’t exist rings hollow. We had the technology to land men on the moon in 1969. Scientists have mapped out human genes, the building blocks of our existence. Computers perform invasive surgery. Can the technology to call balls and strikes – track a white sphere crossing a white plate from a distance of 60 feet away – be more challenging than those examples?
It seems more likely that the will to eliminate the human element in the game is more of an issue than the ability to do so.
In 2015, a computer was used to call balls and strikes in an Independent League game between the San Rafael Pacifics and the Vallejo Admirals. The players – and umpires – praised the consistency of the system. Although the experiment hasn’t been repeated, it will be, perhaps during a Spring Training game or in the Minor Leagues before baseball adopts it in the Majors.
Regardless of how you feel about the concept of Robot Umps, the time is coming when humans will no longer be calling balls and strikes.
Column: Disney Joins Cord Cutting RevolutionIn a nod to the “if you can’t beat them, join them” idiom, the Walt Disney Company has decided to join the cord cutting revolution.
In a stunning move that shocked the media entertainment industry Disney announced plans to introduce not one but two streaming services, one built around sports programming and the other focused on movies and television programming. The former will be unveiled early next year and will include live baseball, hockey, tennis and college sports. The service will stream an estimated 10,000 regional and national events in its first year alone. Subscribers to the new service as well as cable and satellite subscribers will have access to the sports service through an enhanced version of ESPN’s current app.
The second of Disney’s new streaming services, expected to debut in 2019, will put the company in direct conflict with its current distributor, Netflix and its cable providers. Netflix is guaranteed to lose some if not all access to new Disney and Pixar films which it currently streams online. Cable providers pay hefty fees to distribute Disney’s family of ESPN and other channels. Disney acknowledged that the company hasn’t spoken with cable providers, but said it was confident it would be able to maintain “favorable” deals with them.
Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chairman and chief executive officer, didn’t mince words in describing the company’s new business model. “I would characterize this as an extremely important, very, very significant strategic shift for us,” he told analysts on a conference call to discuss quarterly earnings. Clearly, the move was related to those earnings results which saw a slight decline in revenue and a 9 percent drop in net income, the continuation of a two-year decline that Disney is trying to stem.
Disney’s new streaming services will be powered by BAMTech, a technology company that handles direct-to-consumer video for MLB and HBO, among others. Last year Disney paid Major League Baseball $1 billion for a 33 percent stake in BAMTech with an option to acquire a majority stake at a later date. That date came sooner than expected. Simultaneously with the announcement of the new streaming services, Disney acknowledged it had recently spent $1.58 billion for an additional 42 percent of the company.
What all this means to consumers is still a bit hazy, but people who loath paying for programming they don’t watch will rejoice. Those who favor sports won’t have to pay for movie channels they ignore. Others who prefer watching movies will soon have exclusive access to new Disney films, including a sequel to “Frozen,” a live-action version of “The Lion King” and “Toy Story 4” without paying for sports programming. Presumably, subscribers to the movie service will also have access to Disney’s vast library of content including movies and television programming from Disney Channel, Disney Junior and Disney XD. Another benefit to consumers is a promise by Iger that the new service will not have advertising.
Netflix, which specializes in providing streaming media and video-on-demand online, is definitely the loser in this new environment. The company currently has rights to new Disney-branded films, rights Disney will take back. However, Iger suggested that some Disney films – Marvel and Star Wars, for example - may continue to be licensed through Netflix.
Disney isn’t the first network to introduce a direct-to-consumer subscription streaming service. CBS did it in 2014. However, Disney is a media goliath and now that the company has joined the fold, expect more networks to follow.
Iger wouldn’t say how much the new service would cost although he said the goal was a price low enough to encourage adoption without cannibalizing traditional cable and satellite subscriptions. That balancing act may be difficult to pull off. Traditional subscriptions to ESPN have been on a downward spiral for the past two years and fell an additional 3.5 percent in the most recent quarter.
However Disney’s new day unfolds, chalk up its recent announcement as a big win for consumers.
Column: Can Gum Chewing Boost Sports Performance?Jordan Spieth won this year’s British Open, golf’s oldest tournament, in dramatic fashion but that may not be the most enduring memory of his performance.
During the first two rounds of the tournament Spieth could be seen vigorously chewing gum. That sparked a debate about the role, if any, that gum chewing plays in sports performance. The discussion began during live coverage of the rounds on the Golf Channel and was flamed by social media. Did chewing gum contribute in any way to Spieth’s performance or was it merely coincidence?
Researchers have left nary a stone unturned and sure enough, there is scientific research on the effects of gum chewing on physical and cognitive performance. And not surprisingly, the findings from those studies are far from uniform.
In 2011, researchers from St. Lawrence University in upstate New York published a study that explored the cognitive advantages of chewing gum. The study found a positive correlation between chewing gum and the speed at which the brain processes information, which could benefit an athlete in any sport. However, it should be noted that the St. Lawrence study was unrelated to sport. The purpose of the research was to determine if chewing gum helped improve the cognitive ability of students. The results indicated that chewing gum moments before an exam - but ironically, not during - actually helped improve a student's performance.
As with most research, there is a caveat. The study indicated that the benefits are realized only after the gum is chewed and discarded, not while it is being chewed. Spieth chewed his gum through the entire round, an estimated five hours, so query if his gum chewing had any positive impact on his performance or merely acted as a placebo.
In a 2013 study conducted by Tokyo Dental College’s Department of Sports Dentistry researchers measured both the physical movement response time and the reaction time of the long fibular muscle in athletes while performing with and without gum. Their findings, published in a paper titled The Effects of Gum Chewing on the Body Reaction Time, showed significant positive impact to physical performance while chewing gum.
Various other studies have shown that chewing gum can lower stress, improve alertness and mood and even increase reaction time. A number of those benefits would certainly apply to golf, especially lower stress levels. When you’re chewing gum your mouth is open, which means you can’t clench your jaw, an act that increases tension. One study found that women relied on gum more than men to reduce the stress of competition. Of course, in a sport like swimming, chewing gum could increase the risk of choking.
Golf isn’t the first sport that comes to mind when conjuring up an image of a gum chewing athlete. Although the late Payne Stewart was a known gum-chewer, the habit has never been widely practiced on the links. On the opposite end of the spectrum, generations of baseball players wouldn’t think of stepping on a field without a wad of bubblegum in their cheeks.
NBA great Michael Jordan, who favored watermelon Bubblicious, was a prolific gum-chewer, often blowing bubbles in the face of opponents to taunt them. Shaquille O’Neal, another NBA great who was notorious for chewing gum, favored Big Red.
While the science goes both ways, there is consensus in one area. Caffeinated gum is a performance enhancer. Caffeine, which is perfectly legal in golf and most other sports, has been proven to boost athletic performance in numerous studies - including ones that involved golf - by up to 10 percent. A 2015 study published by the American College of Sports Medicine found that caffeinated golfers drive the ball further and hit their irons with greater accuracy than their non-caffeinated peers.
Spieth pooh-poohed the possibility that chewing gum benefitted his performance. But similar to the scientific studies, the evidence goes both ways: He chewed during the first two rounds of the tournament but disdained the product during the last two.
Column: Big Money Salaries In Sports Can Be SustainedNBA free agency opened on July 1 and teams wasted no time in signing their own or other teams’ free agents to what may appear to be exorbitant contracts.
Stephen Curry re-signed with the Golden State Warriors for five years and just over $200 million. Kyle Lowry signed a 3-year $100 million contract to stay with the Toronto Raptors. Gordon Hayward left the Utah Jazz to sign a 4-year $128 million contract with the Boston Celtics. Blake Griffin decided to stick with the only team he has known, the Los Angeles Clippers. You would too if they agreed to pay you $173 million over five years despite being plagued by injuries, as Griffin has been during the past few years.
The flow of money didn’t stop with the stars. A rising tide lifted all boats, or contracts. How else to explain the one-year $23 million contract J.J. Redick received? That’s an absurd amount of money for someone with his talent, or lack thereof.
Most of the money that fuels player salaries comes from television revenue. The NBA will begin the second year of a 9-year deal with ESPN and Turner Sports that will pay the league a whopping $24 billion, or $2.6 billion a year, through 2025. The NFL disperses $7.8 billion annually among its 32 teams from deals with CBS, DirecTV, ESPN, Fox, NBC and ESPN that run through 2022. MLB has 8-year contracts with ESPN, Fox and Turner Sports that will pay the league $1.55 billion annually through 2021. That’s less than half the total television revenue in MLB when local television contracts are added in.
Cleveland’s LeBron James, who knows a thing or two about the potential largess available to a free agent athlete, wasn’t shocked at the monopoly-like money swirling around the NBA this summer. After Curry’s contract figures became public King James tweeted: “Steph should be getting 400M this summer 5 yrs.” Not everyone agrees with James.
Michael Leeds, a sports economist who chairs the economics department at Temple University, told USA Today that television revenue is heading for a fall. “I do see a significant correction coming. With the cord cutting and all of the chaos at ESPN, I think that there’s every reason to believe that we’re seeing a major change, a sea change,” Leeds said. “And the (leagues) … could be in for major changes the next time things come around. This era in which you had huge rights fees being paid for the NFL, for the NBA… that’s going to be, to a great extent, a thing of the past.” Maybe, maybe not.
It’s true that cord cutting is accelerating and traditional TV viewing is falling. But as streaming and other alternative means of consuming sports become popular, there will be new revenue streams through digital and subscriptions. And ratings have been falling for years, in direct proportion to the number of channels available to the viewing public. That doesn’t mean live sports programming isn’t as important to networks today as it has been in the past.
But the big elephant in the discussion of future league revenue, which will impact player compensation, is gambling. No one knows for certain when gambling on sports will become legal in this country but it will happen, sooner rather than later.
Estimates of the amount of illegal gambling on sports in the U.S. range between $160 and $400 billion a year. Ten percent of the latter figure, or $40 billion, is a reasonable estimate of the sum that will flow to the leagues. That’s almost three times the total television revenue for the four major league team sports. With revenue sharing guaranteed in three of those four leagues, players stand to benefit enormously from the legalization of sports gambling.
Every boom in stocks and real estate is followed by a bust. But as long as we have an insatiable appetite for sports, don’t believe the prediction that massive player contracts are destined to drop.
Column: Relegation In US Sports Leagues A Tough SellFour billion dollars. That’s a significant sum in virtually any context, unless we’re talking about the federal budget. And yet Major League Soccer (MLS) said “No thanks” to an offer that would have netted the League that amount over a 10-year period.
Riccardo Silva, founder of MP & Silva, an international sports media company, made the proposal in exchange for MLS’s worldwide media rights. But the offer came with a condition. MLS would have been required to adopt the promotion and relegation system that is utilized in European sports leagues. Simply stated, pro/rel is a process where teams “transfer” between two leagues or divisions based on their performance during the previous season. The best teams in the lower league/division are “promoted” to the higher level for the next season, and the worst teams in the higher league/division are “relegated” to the lower level for the following year.
The system has obvious benefits to fans and players. Under the pro/rel format, teams tend to go all out to win. If such a system existed in baseball, imagine the two teams with the worst records in MLB one year relegated to Triple A the next season. The financial consequences for each team would be staggering. MLB teams receive approximately a quarter-of-a billion dollars a year from the League’s Central Fund. Triple A teams don’t share in the Central Fund.
If the Houston Astros had faced relegation to Triple A, would they have been content to finish with the worst record in baseball for three straight years, 2012-2014? That tactic netted them a bevy of high picks in the annual draft, which led to the best record in the American League this year. And Triple A teams would have as much incentive to finish first as MLB teams would have to avoid finishing last. However, adoption of a pro/rel system is only one change that would be required in baseball. Minor League teams would have to secure their own players, rather than depend on their MLB affiliates for talent.
Players would also benefit from a pro/rel system in the form of higher salaries. MLS players currently average around $300,000 while their English Premier League counterparts average ten times that amount, a function of teams’ desire to win.
Silva had an ulterior motive in making his offer. He happens to be a co-owner of Miami FC, a North American Soccer League club. The NASL is one of two leagues below the level of MLS, which means under a pro/rel system Silva’s team would be eligible for promotion to the upper league. Not so coincidentally, MLS has granted a Miami expansion franchise to a group led by former MLS star David Beckham. The group has spent years trying to put together a stadium deal and if they are successful, as expected, Silva’s team could be in jeopardy.
The benefits of Silva’s offer to MLS are less certain. The League would more than quadruple its media rights until the current contracts with its media partners expire after the 2022 season. But would expansion suitors, knowing not all teams will be guaranteed perpetual membership in the League, be willing to fork over the current minimum expansion fee of $150 million? Expansion fees currently sustain the League financially. MLS has never operated in the black, despite all the fancy new stadiums and high attendance figures. There are plans for at least four more expansion franchises, but the operating model needs to change before the League runs out of viable expansion cities.
As much fun as it is to contemplate a pro/rel system in the United States, it’s nothing more than a pipe dream. It would require teams to approve a system that would guarantee financial ruin for some of their brethren each year. While Silva’s financial offer must be tempting to MLS owners, the requirement of a pro/rel system make it a non-starter. Still, the thought of teams – and players – competing for their financial lives is every fan’s fantasy.
Column: LPGA Fashion Police Out OF Control “I know it when I see it…” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart,
struggling to define pornography in Jacobellis v. Ohio.
Beware! The fashion police are coming to a golf course near you.
The LPGA announced a new dress code that went into effect prior to last week’s Marathon Classic. Reaction from the media and touring professionals was mixed. Some pros supported their organization, others panned it for being sexist and out of touch with the times.
LPGA Chief Communications & Tour Operations Officer Heather Daly-Donofrio said the negative media comments are "much to do about nothing." She added, "There was not meant to be, nor will there be, a discernible difference to what players are currently wearing out on Tour.” Golfer Lydia Ko was among the touring professionals who agreed with Daly-Donofrio. “(I) view the updated dress code as more of a refresher than an all-out change."
Christina Kim was even more emphatic than Ko in her support of the new dress code. “I think players should look professional. Do you really need ventilation for your side-boob? It's not going to make your score better.”
Other pros weren’t as supportive. Sandra Gal spoke for a number of her fellow golfers when she said, “Our main objective is clear: play good golf. But part of being a woman, and especially a female-athlete, is looking attractive and sporty and fit, and that’s what women’s tennis does so well. Why shouldn’t we?” Former LPGA pro Anya Alvarez, writing for The Guardian, said “because golf is already a sport under scrutiny for its conservative and old-fashion nature, the story only helps the critics who believe golf is hopelessly out of touch.”
The controversy was initiated on July 2 when LPGA player president Vicki Goetze-Ackerman sent an email to female golfers on tour. The message spelled out new wardrobe restrictions, effective on July 17. Among the new rules:
• Plunging necklines are NOT allowed.
• Leggings, unless under a skort or shorts, are NOT allowed.
• Length of skirt, skort, and shorts MUST be long enough to not see your bottom area (even if covered by under shorts) at any time, standing or bent over.
• Appropriate attire should be worn to pro-am parties. Dressy jeans are allowed, but cut-offs or jeans with holes are NOT allowed.
• Workout gear and jeans (all colors) NOT allowed inside the ropes.
• Joggers are NOT allowed.
Goetze-Ackerman included the caps for emphasis and also added this warning: failure to abide by the new guidelines would result in a $1,000 fine for the first offense, which will double with each successive offense.
No mention was made of how the LPGA plans to police their new policy. More problematic, the rules seem both specific and subjective. What constitutes a “plunging neckline?” Earth to LPGA: Women have different body sizes and shapes. What looks revealing on one player may not look so on another. Will tour officials carry tape measures on the course to quantify the exact degree of plunge? What is the definition of “bottom area?” You can see how the new code could quickly descend into absurdity.
What is clear is this is no longer your mother’s LPGA. Gone are the days of Laura Baugh, the pin-up model better known as a sex symbol than a golfer. Baugh was the richest golfer on the tour, but the majority of her earnings were from commercials and endorsements. Although she brought much needed attention to women’s golf, Baugh never won an LPGA tournament.
The LPGA isn’t the first organization to stumble over the implementation of a dress code and it won’t be the last. The concept of “appropriate” dress is vague, fraught with uncertainty and subject to interpretation. And who should decide, LPGA executives or the golfers themselves? In the case of Jacobellis v. Ohio, it was Justice Stewart, whose comments reminded us all how difficult the task. Good luck to the LPGA as it embarks down a perpetually slippery slope.
Column: MLB All-Star Game Now An ExhibitionThe MLB All-Star Game is now the equal of its counterparts in the NFL, NBA and NHL – an exhibition, not a game.
Last week baseball’s best players gathered in Miami for the sport’s annual Mid-Summer Classic. Once the game began, it was obvious the participants were more focused on having fun than the score. For the previous 14 seasons, the game meant something: The winning league earned home-field advantage in the World Series. Almost everyone – fans, players, television and MLB – seemed to embrace the new format. Bud Selig may have been an exception.
The former commissioner must have cringed as he watched the game from the comfort of his living room. It was Selig who, in 2003, instituted the format designed to make the game more meaningful. Selig dictated the change after the previous year’s game ended in a 7-7 tie after 11 innings because teams ran out of pitchers. Who can forget the image of Selig, a pained expression on his face, huddling with the managers when they gave him the news?
The embarrassment was accentuated because the game was played in Milwaukee, home to Selig’s former club, in a ballpark he had spent years lobbying for. Selig thought making the game “count” would change how managers utilized their rosters and lead to increased fan interest. But fans never embraced the new format, perhaps because it was roundly criticized by the media. Those who ridiculed Selig and his creation conveniently ignored something even more ridiculous. Prior to 2003, home field in the Fall Classic was alternated between the leagues regardless of a team’s regular season record.
Players didn’t like Selig’s rule either, because during negotiations on the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement they asked that it be eliminated, and MLB acquiesced. Home field for the World Series this year and for the foreseeable future will now go to the team with the best regular season record. That’s consistent with the NBA and the NHL. The NFL plays its Super Bowl on neutral turf. For the record, the American League went 11-3 in the All-Star Game while the Selig rule was in effect. But their dominance in the Mid-Summer Classic did not carry over to the World Series, where the National League was 8-6 over the same span.
This year’s hijinks included Seattle’s Nelson Cruz pulling a phone out of his back pocket prior to stepping into the batter’s box and asking a surprised Yadier Molina, the NL catcher, to snap a photo of him with home plate umpire Joe West. Later, after Molina hit a game-tying home run, he received a high-five and glove slap from Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor as he rounded the bases. Houston outfielder George Springer and Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper were interviewed by the Fox broadcast crew while playing the field. Alex Rodriguez, a member of the Fox team, was on-field conducting interviews between innings.
Cruz’ photo was a hit on social media even if he went hitless in two at bats. Perhaps the new emphasis on “exhibition” rather than “game” was the reason for an eight percent bump in viewership over last year.
Gone are the days when managers played to win and starters played the entire game. Now, the goal is to mimic a Little League game - insert every player into the lineup. That may be appropriate, given that fans vote for the starters. The players were clearly relaxed during the game and maybe that’s as it should be. There’s plenty of pressure on them every day of the season and fans rarely get to see their human side. Minor League Baseball executive Mike Veeck, son of legendary promoter Bill Veeck and a promotional genius in his own right, authored a book on having fun in the workplace titled “Fun is Good.” That would be an appropriate motto for MLB’s annual exhibition, where there’s no longer anything at stake. The new format may not please everyone, but the emphasis is now on fun, camaraderie and entertainment.
Column: MLB Ump Sues League For Racial DiscriminationOn the eve of baseball’s celebration of our nation’s birth, MLB umpire Angel Hernandez filed a lawsuit against the league and Commissioner Rob Manfred alleging racial discrimination against minority umpires.
Hernandez’ suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati, comes on the heels of two discrimination charges he filed against MLB with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in June. Why Hernandez chose to go public with his complaints at this time is unknown.
What we do know for certain is Hernandez should consider himself extremely fortunate to still have a job as one of MLB’s 92 umpires. The Cuban-born Hernandez, 55, began his MLB career as a part-time umpire in1993 and was promoted to a full time position in 1995. Throughout the past 25 years, he has consistently been rated among the five worst umpires in the league.
In a 2010 ESPN survey of players, Hernandez was chosen as the third worst umpire in the league. To prove that ranking wasn’t a fluke, a year later Hernandez again finished third from the bottom in another player poll conducted by Sports Illustrated. Informal polls over the years have rated him the worst umpire in the league. Even when other umpires trump Hernandez in incompetence, they tend to exhibit a better personality and demeanor.
Hernandez claims in his suit that MLB discriminates against minorities in promotion and post season assignments, which carry additional compensation and prestige. Hernandez says he has been passed over several times for a chance to work the World Series despite high marks on evaluations. The suit also charges that although Hernandez was made a temporary crew chief in 2005 and 2012, he was passed over for a permanent assignment even though he applied four times. As a result, Hernandez is seeking back pay and unspecified compensatory damages from the league.
One allegation in the complaint is MLB has only promoted one minority umpire, a Hispanic, to permanent crew chief in the history of the game and claims only one non-white umpire has worked a World Series since 2011.
In his lawsuit, Hernandez says he has seen “other, less experienced, generally white umpires” promoted ahead of him. However, by any standard of measure those same umpires were more qualified than Hernandez. Ironically, Hernandez was selected to umpire first base in this year’s All Star Game in Miami, his third such assignment. He also worked the 2002 and 2005 World Series. Last season Hernandez was part of a League Championship Series crew for the seventh time.
You might think since the introduction of instant reply, an umpire’s effect on the outcome of a game has been minimized. However, that isn’t necessarily the case. Not all calls are reviewable, including ball and strike calls, which means an umpire’s impact on the outcome of a game remains huge. In the suit, Hernandez states his performance ratings were solid until 2011 but declined thereafter. That's when former New York Yankees manager Joe Torre was named MLB's chief baseball officer, a position that includes oversight of the league’s umpires. Hernandez and Torre have history and Hernandez says in his complaint that “Torre's general negative attitude” towards him “permeated (the umpire’s) yearly evaluations."
Hernandez may be right on one count. In a league where 31.9% of players are of Latin descent and 42.5% are of color, only 10 of the 92 umpires are black or Hispanic. But unlike players, whose average MLB career lasts six years, umpires are similar to Supreme Court judges: They are employed for life. No umpire has ever been terminated for poor performance, although a number of them have been fined and suspended for letting their ego run wild or for forgetting the rules.
The lawsuit states, "The selection of these less qualified, white individuals over Hernandez was motivated by racial, national origin and/or ethnic considerations.” However, even if Hernandez is right that racial discrimination exists in evaluating umpires, he’s hardly the one to be making such a charge. Column: Bill To Eliminate Stadium Tax Benefits DOASound the trumpets, Congress has introduced yet another bill to eliminate the federal tax benefit of using municipal bonds to finance the construction of sports stadiums.
Senators Cory Booker, D-N.J., and James Lankford, R-OK. are sponsoring a bill that would prohibit teams from using municipal bonds to help finance stadium construction. In a statement accompanying the introduction of their bill, Booker said, "Professional sports teams generate billions of dollars in revenue. There's no reason why we should give these multimillion-dollar businesses a federal tax break to build new stadiums. It's not fair to finance these expensive projects on the backs of taxpayers…"
Currently, interest on municipal bonds used to fund the construction of sports stadiums is exempt from federal income tax. The benefits to bondholders is obvious: They collect the interest tax free. That could result in a savings of up to 39.6 percent depending on the taxpayer’s tax bracket. There is also a corresponding benefit to the municipality - the bond payer. If the bonds are tax free, they will sell for less than taxable bonds, resulting in lower bond payments. In effect, tax- free bonds shift costs from local to national taxpayers.
How much money are we actually talking about? The most current study, published by Brookings in 2016, compiled data on sports stadiums in the four Major League team sports from 2000-2016, forty-three newly constructed facilities and two major renovations. The estimated revenue loss to the federal government was between $3.0 and $3.7 billion depending on the discount rate (5% or 3%, respectively). To the average citizen that sounds like a lot of money, but over a period of 17 years, that’s approximately $200 million per year. That figure pales in comparison to the 2016 federal budget of $3.9 trillion and deficit of $587 billion.
On the surface, it may be hard to dispute the Senators’ claim that the tax law is unfair on this issue. The cost of the federal subsidy is spread among all taxpayers, regardless of where they live or how much benefit they receive from the stadiums in question. It should come as no surprise that taxpayers in New York City received the most benefit. Tax free bonds were used to build the new Yankee Stadium at a tax loss of $431 million and Citi Field for the Mets at a cost to taxpayers of $185 million. Those two facilities combined for almost one-fifth the total federal subsidy for the period covered in the report.
Should taxpayers in states such as Montana and Idaho, who arguably receive zero benefit from the NYC stadiums, be upset? Perhaps. But examples of socialistic tax policy, where one group of taxpayers subsidizes another, abound. Bankrate.com lists eight of the largest tax breaks granted by the federal government. They include employer-provided health care, mortgage interest, capital gains and dividends, pension plans, earned income credit, state and local taxes, charitable donations, social security and railroad retirement benefits. Estimated cost to taxpayers between 2014 and 2018: almost $4 trillion.
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, Congressional tax policy has no rhyme or reason. The only certainty is the wealthiest among us benefit the most. One example is the aforementioned deduction for mortgage interest. While mortgage interest on your home is tax deductible, lease payments on a home or apartment you rent aren’t. That seems patently unfair considering that most homeowners are wealthier than tenants.
Not to be overlooked is that tax benefits to billionaires from municipal stadium bonds is also seen as a benefit to average taxpayers who revel in their sports teams. They’re voters too, just like the folks who receive direct tax benefits from other government. That’s why the bill introduced by Senators Booker and Lankford will die a quiet death, just like a previous iteration introduced by Congressman Steve Russell, R-OK. last year.
If Congress really wants to cut the federal deficit, there are more fertile areas to mine than subsidies for sports stadiums.
Column: Redskins Win Legal CaseOn an 8-0 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) effectively overturned a U.S. District Court case that decided the Washington Redskins name violated the disparagement clause of the Lanham Act. The irony is that the Redskins weren’t even a party to the case.
The Lanham Act, passed by Congress in 1946, allows the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to deny federal registration for trademarks that “may disparage ... persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs or national symbols.” Any trademark – defined as a word, symbol or other mark that distinguishes a source of goods from others – can be denied protection, even cancelled, if it disparages a substantial percentage of a distinct group of people, be it a racial, ethnic, religious or political group.
The case decided by SCOTUS involved an Asian-American alternative rock band named The Slants. The group chose their name in an effort to turn a derisive slur against Asians into a badge of honor. When the USPTO refused to register their name, the band sued. The U.S. Court of Appeals sided with The Slants, ruling that the law violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court agreed, saying federal trademark registration may be granted even in those cases where words or symbols are considered derogatory. The Court’s unanimous ruling – newly confirmed Justice Neil Gorsuch did not hear the case and therefore did not vote – was not only a win for the band, but has broad implications on how the First Amendment is applied in other trademark cases. Which brings us to the Redskins.
The USPTO relied on the disparagement clause when it cancelled Washington’s federal trademark registrations for “Redskins” in 2014. The team sued, lost in U.S. District Court and appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The case was put on hold pending a decision in The Slants case, a clear indication by the parties and the Court of Appeals that a decision in the band’s case would also apply to the Redskins.
In his 2015 ruling in the Redskins case, U.S. District Court Judge Gerald Bruce Lee said the federal trademark registration program is “government speech” and therefore immune to free-speech challenges. But when it came to the musical group, the Supreme Court rejected that argument, saying registration doesn’t convert private speech to government speech. Justice Samuel Alito Jr. wrote, “If the federal registration of a trademark makes the mark government speech, the Federal Government is babbling prodigiously and incoherently.”
The Court went on to say the government cannot decide which viewpoints it likes and doesn’t like. The goal of trademark law is to assist consumers in distinguishing between products and to safeguard companies’ investments in their name and brand, not to regulate free speech. The Supreme Court cited multiple examples where the USPTO registered marks that refer positively to groups – including Asians – but refused to register marks that it deemed offensive. According to the Court, it’s not the role of government to pick and choose which speech it finds offensive and which it does not.
All that remains for the Redskins to do is file a request with the U.S. Court of Appeals to reverse Judge Lee’s decision based on the Supreme Court’s ruling in The Slants case. Once the Court agrees, as it should, the legal debate over the Reskins’ trademark is effectively over.
But while federal law cannot compel the Redskins to change their name and logo, expect the political and social debate to continue, not only in the case of the Redskins, but other professional sports teams as well. In January, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred met with the Cleveland Indians to discuss their use of the Chief Wahoo logo, which a number of Native Americans view as a slur.
This is a controversy without end. Unless and until sports teams are negatively impacted in the pocketbook, don’t expect them to relinquish their trademarks, regardless of how many people those marks may offend.