The Oakland Raiders Put Tennessee On Notice

March 14, 2009


“As you are undoubtedly aware, Mr. Kiffin is involved in arbitration with the Raiders. Not withstanding the fact that Mr. Kiffin must have told you about the pendency of this proceeding, we want to put you on notice of it, and the University’s involvement in some of the underlying facts.”

The Raiders have been feuding with Lane Kiffin since before they fired him near the beginning of the 2008 NFL season. The team believes that Kiffin broke NFL rules, breached his contract, and “induced” assistant coach James Cregg to breach his contract by leaving before the end of the season to work at Tennessee.

CBS Sports managed to get a copy of a letter the Oakland Raiders sent to the University of Tennessee, and the quote right at the beginning is in it. It details the team’s list of grievances against Kiffin, but that’s not all.

The Raiders apparently plan to use some of the statements that Kiffin and Tennessee Athletics Director Mike Hamilton made about the Raiders. At Kiffin’s introductory press conference, the two laughed about Oakland and called it “dysfunctional.” The team, however, says any dysfunction was a direct result of Kiffin’s alleged rule breaking and lying to the team and media.

The letter is also notice to Tennessee that the Raiders plan to get access to all of Kiffin’s employment agreements with the university. They feel those documents are necessary evidence for sorting out the grievance Kiffin filed with the NFL over whether he was entitiled to the remainder of the money in his contract. Oakland’s front office refuses to give him any of it since it believes he breached his contract.

That request for documentation really isn’t the biggest deal of this whole thing. UT is a public university, and those documents can probably be obtained as a part of whatever freedom of information act the state of Tennessee has.

The biggest accusation is that the team believes that it is “quite possible” that Kiffin gave information about the Raiders to opponents while unemployed. The Raiders also estimate that the arbitration process will occupy some of Kiffin’s time over the next five months.

The idea that Kiffin would give inside information to opponents should not sit well with any fans, and it certainly wouldn’t go over well in the SEC if proven. For instance, a contingent of Alabama fans became vocally upset last December when news broke that former Utah and current Florida head coach Urban Meyer discussed Alabama with his friend and current Utah head coach Kyle Wittingham.

The idea of devoting time to this case over the next few months will also probably chafe Kiffin himself. After all, he was the person who (fictitiously) said he fired someone over being 25 minutes late to pick him up from the airport to illustrate how much time he wanted to devote to his job.

Whether much comes of this, I can’t say. It seems to me that at this point, just about everyone has his or her mind made up on both the Raiders and Kiffin. If you read the letter it will become clear though that Oakland will drag Tennessee into this arbitration process, and the team practically advocates for UT to fire him:

“It cannot be in the best interest of the University to continue to serve as his ally in his personal, though misplaced, war to rewrite the past.”

I think this will be a story worth watching regardless of what Kiffin has said and done over the past couple of months. I cannot remember ever seeing an NFL team publicly feud with a university, so this fight makes for a unique precedent.

All those who were cheering Kiffin on as he made Tennessee “more interesting” had no idea just how right they were.


Kiffin and his lawyer have fired back:

“Starting with Al Davis’ nationally televised press conference publicizing the firing the head coach Lane Kiffin last fall, the Raiders have continued to attack coach Kiffin in the media…

“Starting next Tuesday at a hotel in Oakland, the Raiders will no longer be able to rely on unsupported allegations made in the media, as a key Raiders personnel, starting with Al Davis, will finally have to answer questions under oath at their depositions, a process that coach Kiffin is confident will demonstrate that he was fired by the Raiders without cause and show that the continuing assault of allegations being made against him are false.”


Spending Freely Can Maintain, but It Rarely Builds, Success

July 9, 2008

Off topic, but it was the Bleacher Report “open mic” topic of the week and it sounded interesting. Sue me. Sub in “boosters” for owners and T. Boone Pickens and Phil Knight for some of the names, and it still works for college football.

One of the things that makes Major League Baseball unique from the other four major North American sports leagues is its lack of a salary cap. It is the only sport left without one after the NHL adopted a cap in the aftermath of its lockout.

Because of that lack of a salary cap, it is frequently singled out as the league with the biggest problem of free-spending owners. The sentiment has been repeated many times: the big market teams keep the small market teams from competing. We hear that more and more despite some small market teams like Minnesota, Arizona, Florida, and Oakland making impacts in the pennant races over the last decade.

While baseball has the biggest image problem in relation to lavish owners, the other major sports are not immune. Mark Cuban and James Dolan are two owners who are not shy about stretching the NBA’s soft cap as far as it will go. Some NFL owners are perfectly willing to break the bank for $100 million free agents and $60 million first round draft picks.

However, handing out lots of money does not guarantee success. Only the New York Yankees have been able to maintain a high level by simply throwing money at big names. The Mets and Tigers both have payrolls in the neighborhood of $137 million in 2008, yet both are mired around a .500 record and are well behind the Tampa Bay Rays and their $44 million payroll.

The large sums of money certainly are impressive, and they no doubt intimidate some of the more fiscally conscious teams. That intimidation factor works into the hands of the owners of largess, who can change the landscape in the free agent and trade markets just by appearing interested in players. It is a strategy employed routinely by big companies as they can sometimes freeze competition out of a market by simply saying they are interested in it.

The 1997 Florida Marlins, who basically bought their championship, are the rare exception. If you look at the repeat champions of each of the major sports in recent years, from Michael Jordan’s Bulls to this decade’s Patriots, you’ll find that most of the key players were either drafted by or primarily developed by those teams.

Great parallels in this respect can be drawn between sports teams and the titans of America’s technology sector.

The New York Yankees and Microsoft have been the big bad bullies for a while. Both really took off in the mid 1990s – the Yankees with their 1996 championship and Microsoft with Windows ’95 – with players and products that were developed in-house.

This decade however, the Yankees have been unable to win another title and Microsoft’s stock has been basically flat. They each have been making large purchases, but those buys have yet to make much of a difference. Only recently has either shown interest in winning by using the method that got them on top in the first place.

Microsoft’s traditional foil, Apple, is more like this decade’s Oakland Athletics. They both place a premium on talented leadership and management, with Apple assembling an all-star senior management team and the A’s using guys like Bill James and Billy Beane.

Once they got their teams of visionaries in place, they focused almost entirely on in-house development. However, they each have a reputation for not getting over the hump that they can’t seem to shake. For Oakland, that challenge is winning a playoff series; for Apple, that challenge is greatly expanding its market share in computers.

What about Google, you say? That company is like the Atlanta Braves of the 1990s. Google has had a lot of interesting products come out and has made some splashy purchases like buying YouTube. Atlanta had a lot of position player cogs come and go too. However, each had and has only one real moneymaker that sustains the rest: for Atlanta, it was the Maddux/Smoltz/Glavine rotation and for Google it is its search advertising business.

What does this all mean? Big spending alone can keep a team or a company elite top once it becomes elite, but it seldom is the route to the top. Just ask Dolan or Daniel Snyder of the Washington Redskins about how well that works.

In the end, the depth of brainpower running an organization is far more important than the depth of the pockets financing it.

Charity Bowl Update: Over $20,000 Raised

May 16, 2008

If you recall, earlier this week I implored you to give for the EDSBS/ Charity Bowl. It was a donation drive for cyclone, tornado, and earthquake relief.

I am pleased to report that between Monday morning and 8 pm EDT Wednesday night that the donation total was $20,176. That’s phenomenal, considering it was mainly spearheaded by college football blogs and we are now in the depths of the off season.

The winning school was Michigan, coming through with $7,260. It was by far the most and more than the next 6 schools combined. Thanks to the Wolverines for stepping up. Ohio State finished second (natch), with $2,550. Florida finished a respectable third with $1,820.

This really makes me hope that we try this again during the season when readership is at its highest. If we can raised $20,000 in three days while over 100 days from the start of the season, there’s no telling what we could do in the Fall.

The Logistics of Paying College Athletes

May 15, 2008

The firestorm surrounding O.J. Mayo allegedly taking benefits for the last four years was quickly followed by the same litany of questions surrounding NCAA athletics that have lingered for years. The issue I am focusing on here is the question of paying players.

It’s a very emotional argument for many people. Some think it’s nothing short of a crime that players of revenue sports don’t receive a salary. Others prefer to keep college athletics strictly an enterprise for amateur athletes, and not paying players is about the last thing they have left for arguing that college football and basketball players are still amateurs.

There are some very complex logistics to go over for setting up a player payment system, some of which I’ll detail below. Just remember: for the NCAA, image is everything. Whatever system is set up will have to have the image of being equal to both large and small schools, even if it breaks down in the details. That’s why the Patriot League still gets auto-bids to the NCAA tournament.

Issue 1: Scholarships

Scholarships, and their accompanying benefits like housing and meal plans, are the compensation that college athletes currently receive. They have real value, and the money to pay for them comes from somewhere. Just because athletes can’t convert their meal plan allowance into cash to buy a TV doesn’t mean scholarships don’t count as compensation for playing.

Will they count as a part of the salaried athlete’s total compensation package? After all, a scholarship to FIU and a scholarship to Stanford are drastically different in value. If so, then expensive schools will have a disadvantage because they won’t be able to pay as high a salary. If not, then expensive schools have an edge since they will be offering a more valuable total package than less expensive schools.

For simplicity’s sake, I’ll assume that scholarships won’t count towards the payment. Athletes don’t pick schools by trying to get the greatest amount of free tuition, and the NCAA doesn’t seem to mind that scholarships have unequal value. I still would expect the issue to come up in any serious internal NCAA debate.

Issue 2: How much?

This issue is the most critical. The professional leagues set salary caps based on total league revenue, but college athletics are a lot less centralized. Plus, the professional clubs have only one team and sport to worry about.

TV contracts in college are done with conferences, not the NCAA, so each conference starts off with a different amount of TV revenue. Add to that the differing sizes of fan bases and drastically different sizes of stadiums and arenas, and you have a huge financial puzzle to try to solve.

The NCAA won’t let some conferences pay more than others, because that would not be an equal system. It won’t go with a salary cap and floor, because some schools will have no choice but to pay the minimum while others take advantage by paying the maximum. With that in mind, how do you set the pay rate?

If you base it on the conference with the least ability to pay, then you get a large gap between revenues and player compensation at the big money makers and little has changed. If you base it on the conference with the greatest ability to pay, then you price out the little guys even more than what we have today.

Once you’re done figuring that out, how do you determine where to set the pay rate for each different sport? And how do you know which sport generated a hat or shirt purchase if it just has the school logo and nothing else on it?

Issue 3: Revenue Sharing

Revenue sharing does exist on some level in college football, since smaller conferences get a cut of the BCS money whether they had a team in the BCS or not. It will probably have to exist in a much bigger way if player salaries get approved.

The revenue sports provide the money that allows all other sports to exist. Even with football and basketball being generally profitable ventures, some schools’ athletic departments struggle just to break even. Others don’t even come close. If the NCAA is going to force teams to pay players on top of everything else, some sort of revenue sharing will have to occur.

The money disparity within even major conferences can be pretty large. The amount of money that Florida, Georgia, and Alabama can spend is significantly greater than what Ole Miss and Mississippi State can spend. Beyond that, I have a hard time seeing Jim Delaney wanting to allow any profits generated by his baby, the Big Ten Network, paying for player salaries at Bowling Green or Akron.

When a pro team doesn’t spend a lot of money, a new owner can purchase the team and spend more on players. You can’t tell a small university to suddenly expand its student base to bring in more athletic fees, graduate more future boosters, and better pull its weight in generating money. Let’s also not forget that colleges have to build and maintain all their own facilities; pro teams get city, county, and sometimes state taxpayers to pay for theirs.

Then you get the issue of donations. The big money schools make a lot of money off of donations. There’s no way whatsoever that the NCAA can take donation money away from one school and give it to another. How heavily do those gifts factor in the revenue sharing equation when divvying up TV money?

Issue 4: The Star Treatment

I don’t know if it would ever come up in real NCAA discussions, but I know a lot of fans have expressed an interest in having star players get more money than others. If the NCAA did talk about uneven play scales for players, it would probably get dismissed pretty quickly because that’s not equal for everyone.

I can’t imagine the schools supporting it either. Inevitably, someone will promise a pile of money for a high profile recruit. That will cause everyone to have to do the same to have a chance of landing the kid. Then, someone like Tim Floyd or Billy Gillespie will start promising money to ever younger athletes as they already have done with scholarships. I doubt many coaches will want to get into bidding wars over middle schoolers.

If you try to make pay adjustable based on performance, you would open a Pandora’s Box of lawsuits. If Jimmy Benchwarmer is upset that he doesn’t get to play, he might suspect his lack of playing time is because the coach has secret deals ensuring levels of payment to other players. There have been many coaches in college football’s history that would do that very thing, and it would get very ugly if Jimmy’s dad is John Benchwarmer, Esq.

Issue 5: Pay All the Divisions’ Athletes?

How many divisions are going to have to pay players? Will I-AA football teams have to pay players too? What about the bottom of Division I basketball? Will Binghamton of the America East Conference have to pay as much as Wichita State of the MVC will? And will WSU have to pay as much as Duke will?

If the NCAA tries to make some sort of rule saying a program has to make a certain amount of money in order to pay players, there could be some interesting cooking of the books to avoid that threshold for schools that don’t want to pay players. Or, aspiring schools might fudge some numbers to appear above that threshold to get the recruiting benefits that come with paying players.

The NCAA already doesn’t spend enough on rule enforcement. I can’t imagine it wanting to spend a fortune on auditors too.

Issue 6: How Many Sports?

How many sports will the payments extend to? Football and men’s basketball are the obvious targets, but other sports could be revenue generators at other schools.

Until Bruce Pearl showed up, I’d bet that Tennessee made more money off of women’s basketball than men’s basketball. UConn probably makes a nice amount off of that sport too. However, most schools don’t make money off of women’s basketball.

Will only some schools have to pay their women’s basketball players but not other ones? If that happens, all of the best players will all sign exclusively with the schools that pay players. The barrier to putting together a successful women’s basketball program will have been significantly raised.

What about the non-revenue generating sports? It’s not the swimmers’ faults that thousands of people don’t flock to meets. Universities are non-profit organizations, so the usual rules of capitalism don’t strictly apply to them. And what if a school voluntarily wants to pay athletes in non-revenue sports? Will that be allowed?

Issue 7: Title IX

Title IX is the biggest issue, primarily because federal law is now in play. The law states:

“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

That’s right; violate Title IX and you can lose federal funding. No university wants to play with that fire. A school can prove it is in compliance by passing any one of the “prongs” of the “three-prong test”:

  1. Prong one – Providing athletic opportunities that are substantially proportionate to the student enrollment, OR
  2. Prong two – Demonstrate a continual expansion of athletic opportunities for the underrepresented sex, OR
  3. Prong three – Full and effective accommodation of the interest and ability of underrepresented sex.

The sudden new spending on player salaries in revenue sports – generally football and men’s basketball – would require a proportional increase of spending on women’s athletics to stay in compliance with Title IX. The alternative would be continuing to eliminate other men’s sports to help bring back balance.

Neither of those alternatives is appealing to universities. Even the most cutthroat football factories still do care about fielding teams in as many different sports as they can afford, but they are not going to want to have to pour huge sums of money into sports that don’t provide financial returns. Until and unless Title IX is amended to exempt football, paying players a salary is very unlikely to happen.

* * *

If anything, I hope I have showed that the issue of paying players is a lot more complex than just increasing stipends for football and basketball players. Plus, one of the reasons the BCS plus-one system was rejected was that it would make college football too much like a professional league. There’s plenty wrong with that statement, but “preserving amateurism” is a big deal for the NCAA and the conferences.

It certainly seems unfair that athletes in revenue sports bring in a disproportionate amount of money compared to the value of their scholarships. However, I honestly think we’ll see a college football playoff before we see college athletes get salaries. In other words, don’t hold your breath.