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  • Glenn Sonnenberg

Musings from the Bunker 6/14/20

Good morning!

It’s a weekend, so perhaps it’s time to keep it light, yet still deal with issues of galactic importance…



The NCAA, the NFL and Major League Baseball have a lot in common. They are each monolithic, inscrutable, undependable, and seemingly random in meting out sanctions. Let me be clear to distinguish between the sports themselves and their overlords. I love major league baseball and college football (I’m less passionate about professional football). Yet the organizing bodies of these sports have an uncanny ability to suck the joy out of the sport.



Organized baseball has toyed with my affections too much. That a sport could be so tone deaf as to not see the warning signs of a shrinking fan base, ever-greedier owners and players, and a game that seems designed to lengthen commercial breaks each half inning is beyond me. The game has gotten longer, the rituals and warmups of batter and pitcher have lengthened the game considerably, and mound visits and pitching changes cause an already slow game to a grind to a glacial pace in the late innings.

Baseball’s major failings include:

The failure to highlight its greatest players. Notwithstanding an anti-trust exemption, MLB has failed to identify and market their greatest stars. In watching the Michael Jordan mini-series, “The Last Dance,” one can see how the NBA has capitalized upon generational talents in a way that baseball has not.

Tradition can both celebrate and stagnate. When I was a kid, I read everything about baseball—biographies of players, histories of teams, even the backs of baseball cards. There was something comforting about the timelessness of baseball—that players of one era could be compared to players from another era—that there was a sense of permanence and tradition. Actually, this assertion is both true and false. While much of the game remains the same, the advent of night games, better exercise regimens, specialized trainers and coaches, highly specialized pitchers, the designated hitter, all are changes that render comparisons between eras more problematic. Time to revisit the 162 game season (it’s just too damned long, particularly with a longer playoff season), and changes to the game must be made to shorten it and make it fit the attention spans of our time.

Time for revenue sharing and a salary cap. But owners are their own worst enemies. Baseball, alone among the major sports, has turned the negotiation of terms for a shorter season into a high-stakes renegotiation of the basic structure of player compensation. Football and basketball have figured out that the players and owners are partners in growing the pie and expanding the profitability at the game, without constantly fighting over the pieces of the pie. It is a harsh reality that paying fans are at the core of a game with continued declines in ratings. The game must save itself.



On both the college and professional fronts, there are only two words to address the biggest problem…head injuries. I am beginning to think that, as a fan, I’m an enabler to a brutal sport that permanently damages a not insignificant number of former players. Rather than actually taking action to meaningfully reduce injuries (I, for one, like going back to leather helmets that cannot act like weapons), the powers that be resist acknowledging the problem and engaging in meaningful efforts to stem its devastating effect.

A few years ago I spoke with a former professional football player who has suffered from memory loss as a result of repeated concussions. He says he still would play the game he loves. He also says there are therapies available to arrest and even reverse the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (“CTE”). The stumbling block, he claims, is professional football’s unwillingness to even acknowledge the problem. So if you don’t acknowledge the problem, you can’t very well encourage players to seek treatments. It is shameful.



We have always known that Division I schools (or, as I like to refer to them, “NFL Farm Teams”) are in it for the money. TV contracts are lucrative, as are receipts and bowl season. But the money has all been going to the teams and the conferences, leaving the players, many of whom are from underserved communities, looking in from the outside. Finally, the NCAA is being forced by courts to share with the players some of the money earned by the sports that would not exist but for those players.

But what truly puts the lie to the concept of “student athlete” is how colleges are navigating the COVID-19 crisis. We all in our hearts know that there probably shouldn’t be college football this year. Perhaps one can argue that professional players can make the decision to play, notwithstanding the health risks, in order to provide for their families. But college football players have no such economic incentive. And while they are legally adults, colleges have a moral obligation to protect their students from infection. Most colleges seem to have resolved to have mixed programs of on-line learning and classroom learning, allegedly being careful to limit exposures and risk. But one has to wonder whether the sports are returning to college to help the collegiate experience or students are being rushed back to campus in order to justify big time sports.



The big news story this week for USC fans is that the university is prepared to welcome Reggie Bush back in from the cold. After 10 years of shunning demanded by the NCAA, the university can finally reestablish its relationship with this iconic player. I won’t even get into the absurdly severe punishment meted out to USC by the NCAA, for transgressions that pale when compared to the actions of Cam Newton and Auburn and just about every other SEC school. These arguments are well-documented. The NCAA has no moral high ground here.

I hope the New York Athletic Club will reinstate the Heisman Trophy that Reggie won fair and square for his superlative performance on the field; although I doubt this will happen. I hope the end zone will again sport Reggie’s #5. I find it ludicrous that OJ Simpson’s #32 graces the peristyle end of the Coliseum will Bush’s does not. Apparently your mother accepting some rent is a far worse act than murdering your wife and her friend. Oh, wait, OJ is still trying to find the killer…



While the NCAA has surrendered its moral high ground, I’m not sure Major League Baseball ever had any. Forget that players were banished for life in the 1919 Black Sox scandal, notwithstanding little evidence of wrongdoing by several of them. Forget the banning of Black athletes from the sport until the late 1940s. Forget the repeated evidence of cheating and gambling over the years. The ultimate in hypocrisy is the continued ban of Pete Rose from baseball and from the Hall of Fame. His transgression was gambling. He bet on his own team. Never against his team. And he has been contrite and a gentleman ever since his ban. If baseball could change its rules to allow sports gambling and as Las Vegas now welcomes professional sports teams, can organized baseball be magnanimous to welcome “Charlie Hustle,” the all-time hit leaders and leader of the Big Red Machine back into the fold of the game he loves?

That the Hall of Fame is home to Ty Cobb, who spiked opposing players, guys who threw illegal pitches, and any number of racists who played the game over the years, yet cannot honor one of its greatest players for gambling on his own team is scandalous.

Pete Rose deserves to be in the Hall.



Simon Furie shared his “most prized possession,” the Sandy Koufax rookie card:

Happy Sunday!


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