Friday, February 21, 2014

If Michael Sam Can Play, He Will Play. But Where?

It was supposed to be the Johnny Manziel Show, but the talk of this year's NFL Draft will center around openly gay University of Missouri pass rushing specialist Michael Sam.  His carefully prepared rollout of a public acknowledgment included placed stories in choice outlets designed to spark questions and, most of all, buzz.  Questions and speculation runs the spectrum from where will he be drafted to whether he will be accepted.

First of all, plain and simple, if Michael Sam has NFL talent, he will get an opportunity.

At 6'2, weighing 255, his height could be an issue. Ideally, NFL squads like pass rushers with more length than Sam offers.  He, however, excelled in the Southeastern Conference against NFL ready linemen.  If anyone had any questions about whether or not he has NFL talent, this fact alone answers it.

The bigger question is if he will be accepted in an NFL locker room.  Also, how will his team handle the blistering press attention?  Some compare his possible entrance to Jackie Robinson, others see loose similarities with Tim Tebow and even Manti Teo.

Former NFL linebacker Lavar Arrington on his drive time show in Washington DC's WJFK insisted that Sam faced many of the same pressures and potentially much of the same hostility as Robinson.  The most vulgar in opposing fanbases will never let him forget his sexuality.  Then again, you also have the viral video of a Jets fan from last season screaming for his own team's quarterback to tear his ACL. Fans will be fans.  Sam will get the taunts, no doubt.  Certainly they will sting in a way that no one outside of his situation could imagine.

No one can predict how a specific locker room might react, but certainly executives do fear the scrutiny and potential issues.

That is why Sam will likely be drafted lower than he should, but will most likely end up with a winning organization.

Winning organizations generally forbid chaotic locker rooms.  Witness the report on the hapless Miami Dolphins that described continual meltdown over several years.  Remember how Tim Tebow, personally the least offensive player one can imagine, polarized the locker room of the New York Jets.  Extra attention for non football attributes can rub people the wrong way, particularly on a losing team. No matter whether the player is gay, an evangelical Christian, or a famed balloon artist, there will be jealousy.

Winning organizations establish professionalism.  Players and coaches do not become automatons, but they do have a clear understanding of what they can and cannot do or say.  They want to stay with a winner, so they conduct themselves accordingly.  So Sam will likely end up playing for one of those well-established winners like the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, or San Francisco 49ers.  Winning stems from a professional attitude established at the top.  They also specialize in handling the press and putting public attention in its proper place.

And that would be the best possible outcome.  On a team like the Steelers or the Patriots, Sam simply becomes a player doing his job.  That was certainly not his intention when his people orchestrated his announcement, but that would be the best result for both Sam and whatever team drafts him moving forward.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Management Cannot Be Incognito When Employees Act Unprofessionally

For most of the last 40 years, the Miami Dolphins served as the southern flagship of the National Football League. Captained by Don Shula, steered by greats such as Larry Csonka and Dan Marino, the organization exuded class and success.

Those days are well past this franchise.  Now the private world of its locker room over the last several years is laid bare.  All the dysfunction and bizarre behavior exposed.

The initial string on the unraveled sweater comes from former offensive line starter Jonathan Martin.  He complained of a difficult working environment full of taunts, harassment, and bullying.  Some of it came his way, much of it was back and forth between others.  Martin left the team abruptly, then claimed harassment at the hands of teammate and fellow starting lineman Richie Incognito.

But the story didn't add up.  Teammates generally supported Incognito, even after the team released him. Incognito released hundreds of texts sent between the two men.  As a whole, they paint a picture of two guys whose talk about women and life in general sound like sailors on perpetual leave more than bullying.  

Martin also revealed that he suffered from severe depression and had been hospitalized in a mental institution. Incognito was one of the teammates texting to support Martin.  Hardly the stuff of bullying.

The problem with the coverage of this story is that the media takes Martin's word at face value.  Anyone suffering from clinical depression and bipolar disorder does not see the world as it is.  They have a skewed perspective of the people around them and can see slights and offenses where none were taken. Much like Montressor dwelling on the "thousand injuries" of the good time Charlie Fortunato, Martin likely saw himself as a target when he was not.

Proof of this lies in Martin's actual position.  Incognito did not bestride his narrow world as a Colossus.  These men are about the same size.  Both started on the offensive line.  Incognito had no real power or leverage over Martin.  Martin did not recognize that he is master of his own fate.  It was not in his stars, but the mental illness that gripped him that made him feel like an underling.  

That is not to say that bullying did not happen in that locker room or that Incognito was a pure saint.  He is guilty of taking part in taunting and pranking that did, in retrospect, perhaps hold the team back from developing.

Some responsibility lies on the shoulders of Martin.  Some lies on Incognito and other players who took part.

But most lies squarely on the organization.  Organizational culture must be established at the top.  That comes from clear expectations of professionalism by everyone from the owner down to the popcorn seller.  This doesn't mean that players have to act like they are in a golly gee whiz 1950s movie, or like automatons. But they have to understand that they represent an organization and a team mission.  That they are expected to conduct themselves in the locker room and on the field as if the whole world were always watching.  Which, increasingly, it is.

Some jobs will never be Oprahfied, turned into bastions of caring sensitivity.  The National Football League will have little problem accepting openly gay players, but it will always be relentless on those lacking mental toughness.  Martin had problems that likely would keep him from succeeding anywhere in the NFL. The constant competition, scrutiny, and pressure fold, spindle, and mutilate some people.  And he is far from the only one who could not handle the rigors of NFL life.   Pittsburgh's Kordell Stewart had every physical gift to make him a starting quarterback, but could not handle the pressure when losses piled up.  He was a great athlete and a good person, but lacked the mentality necessary to remain in his job.

Some will argue that it's just a game.  But it is also a product that earns millions for participants and billions for teams.  Fair or not, pressure comes with the position.

Organizations like the Steelers, Patriots, and others expect professionalism and subordinate everything to winning.  The Steelers' ownership quickly ships out those who undermine the locker room.  Bill Belichick expects a disciplined team.  His coaches even call out quarterback Tom Brady when they feel he has abused his receivers too much.

Incognito will play next year.  Martin likely will not.  Incognito's problems do not stem from the fact, as many in the media have claimed, that he is a "meathead."  His manner of expression and his behavior are not those of a particularly smart guy, but no one lasts long in the NFL without some smarts.  The best of all possible worlds for him is a team like the Steelers.  They need line help desperately, but are a strong enough organization to dampen any negative buzz around his acquisition.  He would likely thrive in an organization with a disciplined and winning mindset.

Plus, after the pat year, once with another team Incognito will behave like a sinner in the hands of an angry God.  Remorseful or not, he has one chance left in him and he knows it.  The whole world is watching and he is now aware.

For Martin to play again, he would have to prove that he has healed and matured.  One can easily prove recovery from a knee injury.  Scars from mental issues are more problematic.  

As for the Dolphins, they are in the same boat as anyone else whose deepest dysfunction just went public. Organizational chaos bred many of the problems they face right now, including chronic losing.

Incognito and Martin only revealed the deeper issues.  An executive left the team months ago, claiming he had been shoved out.  The head trainer, a coach and players relentlessly harassed an assistant trainer, implying he was homosexual.  A lot has to change in the organization, not just a Band Aid, but a cultural overhaul.  

The Dolphins took years to reach this stage.  Turning around will not happen overnight.  But for them to earn respect again, the Dolphins must take the first step on a tough journey.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Ten Interesting Presidents

Not the best ten.  Just ten interesting holders of the highest office in the land.

The American presidency has always had an allure unique among worldwide offices.  It grants many of the powers assumed by Augustus, first emperor of Rome.  The caveat is that office holders have a relatively short time to govern and that they must be chosen.

George Washington

Not just the greatest President.  Not just the greatest American.  Truly one of the great figures in world history.  Without his calls to action and leadership, the American Revolution likely dissolves into a society of complainers and philosophy students.  Guided the Constitutional Convention, often with glances instead of words.  Defined what a president should be and how one should act.

Those who downgrade his accomplishments forget that he had to also establish international respect for America's territorial integrity and national credit during a world war.

Not placing Washington in the top spot as president is sheer trolling.

Washington believed strongly in the dignity of office, even among close friends as Governeur Morris found to his embarrassment. His belief in republican simplicity extended to wearing black suits instead of military dress and forbidding music or announcements when he entered a room.  If a president deserves respect and attention, he will get it without the extra fuss.

John Adams

Obviously not a digital photo of the real John Adams.  This is Paul Giamatti from the outstanding HBO miniseries based on the outstanding David McCullough book.

Modern students of history love John Adams.  We all know someone like Adams.  Or maybe some of us are this guy.  Brilliant beyond measure.  But also jealous (rightfully) of not getting the credit he deserves.  Often grumpy and cynical (these traits usually soothed, but also occasionally stoked by his also brilliant wife Abigail.  And held legendary grudges against Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and others.

Adams just didn't fit in.  Not on his diplomatic missions to North Africa, Britain, and elsewhere; not with the intellectual set at the Constitutional Convention; not with men of action like Washington.

But without his intellect, work, and guidance, our Republic may not be here.  His 20 hour days keeping things together at the Continental Congress built the nation.  His presidency is remembered more for its foolish acceptance of bad laws than its creation of the United States Navy and successful fight against France.

The second president proves that social awkwardness and unchained, stubborn, untactful brilliance can succeed somewhere besides social media.  Then again, in our time, Adams may never have been able to break free of Facebook argument.

By the way, Adams owes David McCullough big time.

Andrew Jackson

Jackson needs more attention.  It is tempting to judge him directly on a single action, the Cherokee removal.  Here, Jackson violated property rights and federal law to assist gold prospectors (basically the kind of crony capitalism that happens regularly in Washington today.)

That being said, Jackson represented a new democracy that in many ways diametrically opposed his removal of the Cherokees from their home.  He stood for property rights, individual freedom, limited government, and workable state sovereignty.  For the first time, the West had a voice in government through the figure of the backwoods warlord. William Henry Harrison, James Polk and Lincoln would follow after.

Jackson's impact on the Democratic Party lasted longer.  Mistrust of big business and big government alike permeated the Southern backwoods.  Belief that the Democratic Party represented these values only died in the last generation.

James K. Polk

Polk was neo-con when neo-con wasn't cool.  This surprisingly Mel Gibson looking president represented the Democratic Party's return to running backwoodsmen who could pass as commoners (after the one term of New York businessman Martin van Buren.)  Polk stood for election on annexing Texas and Oregon.  As it turns out, most of the nation agreed.  As did Texas and the region of Oregon Territory ultimately added to the Union.

Polk gets blamed for the Mexican War.  Historians cite both Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee as sources blaming land greed for a war they deemed wrong.  Grant and Lee were also both in the Whig Party, which could give some context to their opposition.

Fact is that Polk may have wanted a war with Mexico.  But he did not want war worse than the Mexicans themselves.  Mexico picked fights repeatedly during the mid 1800s and lost all of them, including (I kid you not) the Pastry War with France.  The Mexicans refused Polk's offer to pay for Texas annexation, which was completely unnecessary under international law.  They declared war.  If Polk had set a trap, Mexico walked into it.

Polk's handling of the Mexican War should have blown up in his face.  He removed Zachary Taylor from command out of fears that the general would grow too popular and become president, a correct prediction.  But Mexico, under the leadership of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, lacked the organization and the economic strength behind the American forces.

Polk promised to serve one term.  He kept his promise.  That alone is worth remembering.

No Lincoln here

The most written about man in human history, which would have surprised him.  No need to write more.

Ulysses S. Grant

This is how America should remember Grant.  Grant's most well-known Civil War era picture shows the 21st century what swagger truly is.  Against his enemies both in the Confederacy and in the Union Army itself, Grant applied slow, steady, relentless pressure.  He used Northern economic and population superiority to wear down the South, while relying on Lincoln's support against military command rivals.

But America remembers the image that goes along with fifty dollar bill Grant.  Rounder face, protruding stomach tightening his suit.  History associates this Grant with his poor choices of friends and officeholders, many of whom betrayed him and the public trust.

Grant, however, earned his enemies while president by doing the right things as well.  He aggressively used the power of the new Department of Justice and the military to stamp out Ku Klux Klan terrorism.  Grant worked to treat Indians as humanely and respectfully as possible, blaming much of the friction on settler troublemakers.  These grew unpopular as Reconstruction lasted 12 years longer than the Civil War itself and as political officeholders found themselves booted from Indian Affairs jobs.

He also lost support during one of the worst depressions in American history.  Grant and the Republican Congress strengthened the dollar and did little else.  The economy bounced back in four years, as opposed to much longer stretches under Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama.  All of these unpopular moves required courage in the face of certain declines in popularity.

Grant was a great general.  He was also one of the great autobiographers in history.  But his virtues as a military man and a writer failed to serve him as a president or a businessman.

Rutherford B. Hayes

At the time of his nomination in 1876, Hayes had earned the description of "the good gray governor."  This came from a lifetime of being quietly competent and just.

Hayes' Civil War service started in the backwoods of western Virginia.  He was among the first to encounter the rise of guerrilla fighting as he marched his columns through narrow valleys.  Despite the frustrations, Hayes rarely let the situation get the better of him.  He upbraided a subordinate for the punitive burning of a courthouse.  Toward the end of the war, Hayes escaped the raid that captured two other Union generals.  He, Washingtonlike, shared the discomforts of his men by camping with them in frigid February 1865.  the other two stayed in a lavish hotel with few guards.

Reconstruction ended in 1877 as part of the deal bringing Hayes to office.  The razor thin margins threatened to unleash another Civil War.  Neither side particularly supported the quid pro quo and its contribution to the long term establishment of Jim Crow is undeniable.

So why is Hayes "interesting?"  Because he and his wife "Lemonade Lucy" (named so because she did not allow alcohol in the White House) may be the most boring of First Families.  Hayes lived quietly, administered the government, did not seek attention, and stepped aside after one term.  Like his military career, his presidency was quiet, effective, competent, and forgettable due to its success.  No one ever writes about cruise ship captains who never wreck.  And few are interested in a president so lacking in the dazzling show that the office has become.

And that is precisely why he is worth remembering.

William McKinley

Last of the Civil War officer presidents.  McKinley, like Garfield, Harrison, and Hayes all served in the West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky theater of war.

McKinley ushered in a generation of Republican Party dominance and straddled eras.  He was the last front porch campaigner who sat at home in the traditional way and let subordinates do all the work.  But his campaign started the use of mailed campaign literature.  Historians lump him with the 19th century presidents, but his annexation of the Philippines marked the United States' entry into international affairs.

McKinley fails to make the grade of "great presidents" in most academic lists.  He, however, won a war against Spain that he personally tried to head off.  Under McKinley the national economy boomed (albeit under anti-free market and probably unnecessary protective tariffs.)

It's hard to argue with success.

History's problem with McKinley is that he served right before Theodore Roosevelt, who was never supposed to be president.  Had McKiney not died by an assassin's bullet, he likely would have been succeeded by another honest competent senator, West Virginia's Stephen Elkins who was seen as the next Republican option.  McKinley was, however, assassinated by a terrorist and the polymath Roosevelt took office.

William Howard Taft

Taft, like Adams, has earned a spot in the hearts of historians (if not their rankings) because of his humanness next to a blue star of a predecessor.

He did not want to go to law school in the first place.  His father, however, insisted that law school provided more of a future than catching for the Cincinnati Reds.

Taft worked well when working with someone else.  Under Theodore Roosevelt, he solved problems across the globe, most notably in the Philippines where his conciliatory policies quelled a revolt.

He never wanted to be president.  Mrs. Taft, however, had enough ambition for both of them.  Jealous of the spotlight on her husband's friend Teddy, she allied with the president to badger Taft into a job he didn't want.

Roosevelt expected his friend to remain his cipher, following his policies to the letter.  The lawyer Taft, however, made decisions based on rule of law, as opposed to the Roosevelt way of favoring friends and skewering enemies.  This made an enemy out of Roosevelt who skewered Taft in the election of 1912, bringing an ignominious end to the political careers of both.

Taft got the last laugh, ending up with the job he coveted more than any other.  Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, making him one of the most accomplished men in US history that few remember outside of a certain bathtub incident.

Calvin Coolidge

Less talk.  Only acted when necessary.  Country remained at peace.  National economy boomed.

And he wore a dazzling array of cool hats.