Monday, December 28, 2009

Time to outlaw the NFL?

I need to start this blog by saying that I grew up loving professional football, but in the last few years that I have begun to sour on the hypocrisy of college football and the brutality of the NFL, both of which receive a semi-free pass from a mostly compliant press corp.

The average NFL career lasts 3.5 years. Of the 100,000 high school kids who strap on pads every year, only 0.2 percent will have the pleasure of experiencing such a short career. These statistics are courtesy of the NFL Players Association. It’s hard to imagine another profession that so callously discards men after they have outlived their usefulness.

For the players, part of the allure is the money, the million dollar contracts. Only, most athletes struggle to hold onto those riches. A March 2009 Sports Illustrated article reported that:

- By the time they have been retired for two years, 78% of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress because of joblessness or divorce.

To do the math, the average player logs three and half year in the NFL and two years later, he’s a financial wreck. At least the guy has his college education, right? No, absolutely not.

The graduation rate for kids in big time football and hoops programs is lower than the national average, which tells you those boys are hitting something other than the books. Everyone in the system knows these kids don’t attend four year degree school with the notion of coming out of it holding onto a diploma. You only need to listen to one press conference to realize most of these kids would have trouble with English Lit 101. I could go on, but the Root’s Deron Snyder has a really good take on the hypocrisy behind pretending these young men are student athletes.

The NCAA would have you believe that graduation rates are going up. Instead of spouting these numbers as gospel, can we point out that the NCAA only looks at kids have scholarships for four years? If the coaches think a freshman will not be good enough to make the team in his sophomore year, he isn't offered a scholarship for the sophomore year. I think you have to count those numbers in the dropout rate. They don’t help.

Well, so we’ve seen that the NFL doesn’t prepare its players for life out of the game financially and the colleges don’t give them the educational background they need to survive without football. But that’s not the biggest crime.

Depending on position, the average NFL retiree has a life expectancy 20 years less than the average man in America. In case you missed it the first time, yes that number is 20 years less.

And the quality of life is dramatically less. Those who live long lives will face knee and hip replacement surgery, an inconvenient truth the media has ignored.

Then there are the concussions. In light of aggressive reporting by the New York Times, the league has acknowledged concussions leave lasting damage. You can file that under things that are obvious unless you are trying to ignore them, like snow is cold and rain is wet.

When we attend movies, another entertainment venue, we employ a trick called suspension of disbelief to help us imagine that a car chase could happen on Fifth Avenue during rush hour in New York City or that aliens would want to phone home. During one particularly bad Christian Slater movie, my father once remarked, “There isn’t that much disbelief in the world to accept this plot.”

I feel that way about the NFL. I can’t look at it without thinking we are willingly sacrificing young men’s lives for our entertainment, and not just the guys who are who make it to the big time, but also the guys who work hard but aren’t good enough to play in the league.

Here’s is what I wonder: a thousand years from now, will archeologists look at football the same way will look at Roman gladiators and be appalled by how we let this happen?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

What's next for Tiger?

One thing is clear: the firestorm created by Woods inability to drive straight -- ironically, his problem on the golf course for most of this year -- will not go away any time soon. Any woman who wants to make a name for herself can say she slept with Tiger Woods. Although, as we and Elin have learned, it's not such an exclusive club and the rewards of claiming membership have diminished.

What's left for Tiger? I think he goes the Marv Albert route: admit blame and focus on the job, in his case golf. The endorsements are gone, for now. But, let's face it, golf needs Woods. Before he came along, the game was fading from the media spotlight. Like today's pro tennis tour, fans would tune in for the major championships but ignore the standard weekly events.

Tiger changed that. When he played, ratings went up. When he was in contention on Sunday, ratings soared. That won't change. My guess is that the ratings for golf will remain steady because people will want to see how he goes about his business on the golf course.

From a public relations standpoint, all of this will be behind him in two years tops. Well it will be if the Marv Albert precedent holds. From a marketing perspective, you have to think that he gets back most deals that are targeted directly to men, think G or golf clubs, albeit at smaller dollars.

On question: how much differently would this have played out 20 years ago? How about 40 years ago when race would have been a bigger factor?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Image control - Michael Jackson style

If it's propaganda, that doesn't mean it's not true.

I said these words to a couple of family members after seeing This Is It, a fantastic documentary about Michael Jackson's last tour that will make people appreciate the King of Pop again.

Let's face it, the images most people had of Jackson, both the visual one he crafted for himself and the events of his life the media reported, were freakish. He has been accused of being a child molester, twice. He hung his baby off a balcony. The pale vampire face and off-putting cosmetic surgery, reinforced the freakishness of the man.

By giving us a behind the scenes look at Jackson preparing for his concert, the filmmakers showed us an entertainer in complete control of his craft. Jackson told musicians how to play HIS music and told stage managers when to cue the lights. Image Beyonce or Britney trying to play similar roles. I can't. I also can’t image how much it costs to produce a show like his tour, but I know the pressure to make it successful must have been enormous. I can understand way he had trouble sleeping.

As a piece of propaganda, the movie is a successful attempt to regain his legacy as the King of Pop. Simply by showing us Michael Jackson as a performer and performance manager, the movie reclaimed the King of Pop's role as one of the most important songwriters and entertainers of our time.

There is a reason Thriller is the best selling album of all time. Hint: it's the music stupid. Even a couple of decades later the riffs are infectious. Because MTV has stopped playing videos, most folks don't remember that releasing a killer video on MTV was a national event. The video for Thriller's title song remains one of the most parodied videos of all-time because it is so ubiquitous, and that's not even getting into Beat It or Billie Jean. Oh yeah, and he reintroduced the moonwalk.

Jackson helped shape music videos and he in turn was shaped by it. I tend think he got the dirtier end of the bargain. Few entertainers who find wealth and fame at an early age are enriched by the experience, or maybe we only hear about their abhorrent behavior precisely because it is newsworthy.

Thankfully and hopefully, the movie will push our memories of Jackson the Freak to the backburner. What will remain is the image of him gliding across a stage singing a song that has a killer hook. Propaganda is using media to shape emotions and that’s not always bad. For me, This Is It recreated an emotion bond to the performer I knew from childhood.

I’m okay with that.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Lessons learned from the Woods affair

So, now the story is out: Woods cheated on his wife. Raise you hand if you thought that he had remained faithful. Now, raise your hand if you thought his admitting it before the tape surfaced would have quelled the media firestorm. If you are honest, you wouldn’t have raised your hand either time.

If you are a PR person and thought Woods should have gotten out ahead of the story, here’s a question: which affair would you have had Tiger admit to? The nightclub hostess in Australia? The woman after the Masters? And you know there had to be more than one or two, so how many?

If you do an interview, how do you deal with the domestic violence question? What if you say it didn’t happen, but someone gets a hold of his medical records from the hospital? What if that wasn’t the first time? How do you answer the question, “Excuse me but when did your wife stop beating you?

It’s hard to know what was in the minds of the Woods camp. Did they think that no one would step forward with proof of his infidelities? Did he consider his personal life to be a personal matter? I can’t answer the first, but given how quickly the Woods camp issued a statement after the tape surfaced -- three hours – you have to assume they were ready for damage control if it did happen.

People will argue that it’s PR 101 to get ahead of the story, but that’s only part of the course. The other part of the course is to understand your objectives.

Proponents of the get ahead of the story argument insist Woods should have talked to the media and the police. I think most people understand now that he should not have spoken to the police because if they had suspected domestic violence, they would have been forced to arrest his wife. It's the law. Look it up.

I think PR pros who treat people like brands forget that their clients are first and foremost people. If you are not worried about the money, and Tiger has already ready made around a billion dollars for himself, you can afford to worry about your family. If I am Tiger Woods, I don’t publicly admit to an affair unless evidence forces me to do so. My wife knows that I cheated on her, but she doesn’t need the world to know it too. I think that was Tiger’s main objective. It would have been mine.

But, once the woman produced the tape, she let the cat out of the bag. You release a statement that you have had ready for this moment and you move on. That’s PR 101.

Again, I can’t believe the wall-to-wall coverage would have died down had he admitted to having an affair or two. And it certainly would have resumed once the tape and sex tests were made public.

Now, for an off-topic thought. You know who benefits most from all of this: Mike Huckabee. At any other time, the Seattle shooting would have been headlines across the nation, but a pure violence story was topped by a transnational story about sex, fame, money, a crash and violence. I wonder why.

And my last question, how much differently does this story play if it had been Elin who crashed the car and Tiger came to her “rescue” with a long iron? Would race have been an issue? Just asking.

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