Monday, December 01, 2014

Face of the franchise

Buffalo Bills fans received a shock when they picked up their morning newspaper on Thanksgiving morning. The main story on the front page was on the problems faced by Darryl Talley, one of the most popular players on the Bills' roster during their Super Bowl years of the early 1990s.

As outlined by Tim Graham in an excellent, difficult-to-read report, Talley has fallen on all sorts of bad times. His body has given out, leaving him unable to stand or sleep for long. Talley discovered well after the fact that he played NFL football with a broken neck. He may have brain damage from his playing days. Talley's personal finances are a mess, thanks to the collapse of his small business, to the point that he lost his house. The ex-linebacker suffers from depression and has had thoughts about trying to commit suicide.

Suddenly, the problems of ex-players with physical problems has a face in Buffalo. It's one thing when another team's star had issues. Junior Seau, one of the best linebackers in history, committed suicide due to concussion effects. But in Buffalo, seeing Talley in this situation drove home the point of what a problem this can be now and no doubt will be in the future.

Talley's status raises issues - lot of issues.

The veteran is receiving a yearly disability payment from the league, but it is far from the maximum allowed. The initial reaction from many is along the lines of, how disabled does someone have to be in order to qualify for the max? In fairness, the lines are very blurry in such cases, and the financial stakes over the rest of a lifetime are enormous. Yes, the NFL has plenty of money, but no business would hand out settlements like candy at Halloween.

Then there is the reaction of the Bills' franchise, which has to follow the lead of the National Football League in such matters. Otherwise, the legal complications could be immense.

That, in turn, brings up the issue of the team's new ownership. Ralph Wilson had a connection to the team from 1960 to 2014. He knew all of his veterans over the years, and is said to have personally helped out some of them financially in tough times. But Wilson didn't advertise it, because he knew that might lead to anyone who showed up at a Bills' training camp who had lost a few dollars would come asking for help.

Wilson is gone now, and Terry Pegula has replaced him. Pegula does not have the same emotional connection to every single Bill, even if he was a fan of the team for many years. What will he do in such situations?

Even help from fans can be complicated. A grass-roots effort to raise money to help Talley collected more than $100,000 within a couple of days. The show of support and generosity took everyone's breath away, and proved what Bills' fans thought of their ex-star. But Talley and his family aren't thrilled about taking that sort of handout in good conscience. Understandable. If they don't take the money, what happens to it? If the funds go to some related charity, donors certainly could say, "I sent in a check to help Darryl Talley, and not to go to some organized nonprofit."

Pretty clearly, the number of Darryl Talleys will be coming at an ever faster rate in the coming years. There is a fund dedicates to helping such cases as part of a legal settlement, but even hundreds of millions of dollars can go to victims quicker than you'd think.

There's one other issue, but it's for the long term. How many mothers read that story on Thanksgiving morning and said, "My son is not going to play football"? Get enough of those parents, and it's easy to wonder if football will start to lose popularity in terms of participation.

There's plenty at stake here, and it was rather brave of Talley to open up his life for the story. He's changed the conversation among Bills' fans for good, and for that we all owe him a debt of gratitude.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Finish line

It's not often I get to be in the same photograph as two
marathon directors ... and two of my favorite people. Here Mary
Wittenberg of New York Road Runners is honored by the late Tom
Donnelly at the Western New York Running Hall of Fame
induction ceremony in August, 2014.
Whenever something happened in the running community in the journalistic sense around Western New York, I knew exactly whom to call for a reaction. Inevitably I would try to reach Tom Donnelly, the unofficial leader of that community, who was sure to give me an intelligent, thoughtful response full of perspective.

Imagine, then, what happened when the news came out on Saturday night that Tom had died of a heart attack of the age of 61. Who could put his life into the proper perspective? No one.

Basketball star Bill Russell once said, when he heard about the death of Wilt Chamberlain, "I am unspeakably injured." Many runners in Western New York have that feeling now.  

I could pinpoint more or less precisely the time when I started to get to know Tom. He was the subject of my third running column back in February 2005. I may have known him slightly before that through mutual friends, but we hadn't really talked one-on-one. That changed quickly. For nearly 10 years, I think he was the most quoted person in the column.

That's because talking to Tom was one of the major benefits of the job. We basically had the same goals for the sport locally, even if we approached them  in different roles. Tom and I both wanted the sport to grow in Western New York. We both thought that the Buffalo Marathon and the YMCA Turkey Trot could become signature events on the running calendar. We believed that there should be a way to honor the great runners of Western New York in the past. When so much is in common, it's easy to strike up a conversation ... and a friendship.

Whenever I needed to know what was going on in running circules, Tom would point me in a direction or introduce me to a person. In fact, he did so many introductions that it was nice last month to reverse the roles. In one of the last times we were together, both of us turned up at the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame induction dinner. Tom was somewhat excited about seeing some of the ex-Sabres in the crowd, so I called Derek Smith and Don Luce over to say hello. Tom was thrilled. 

Lives often can be divided into different "compartments," with relationships coming in different ways. In Tom's case, I knew few other members of his family, even though it was a big and happy one - based on the frequent Facebook pictures of reunions and events. I can't say we ever talked about his job at the NFTA; we never got around to it. Tom even had a "bridge" compartment, as he had a regular group of card players that participated in that particular game. He had the chance to play bridge with the legendary Warren Buffett. Even though I knew how to play the game, I never did sit across the table from him and be his dummy. So to speak.

No one locally, though, had a bigger "running compartment" than Tom. He had started the sport simply with a need to get in shape, and ran constantly for the rest of his life. Tom was always in great condition, except when he had gave in to the temptation of a Kentucky Fried Chicken dinner every so often. It was the only time he had an ounce of fat on him during the time I knew him. But the act of running wasn't quite enough involvement for Tom. When he had the chance to move into the business side of the sport, he jumped in with, um, both feet.

At the end, he was the director of the Buffalo Marathon, director of the YMCA Turkey Trot, president of the Checkers Athletic Club (which included many of the area's best runners), and the leader of the Western New York Running Hall of Fame. Oh, and he had a small business in which he designed logos for shirts given out at races. Where did he have the time to have any other compartments?

One way to do so was to find good people to help him. Tom used to say that he was no genius, but that he had surrounded himself with top-notch assistants. He was kidding himself in a sense; it takes a special type of person to be able to persuade people to give up their spare time to work on a project - particularly without pay. 

Tom was always willing to talk about running and runners. Our last conversation was rather typical of that. I was running in the Sarkin race in October, jogging down Delevan Ave. at my usual pace. Suddenly I heard Tom shout out some encouragement while doing a training run in the other direction. This sort of greeting, by the way, was a regular event for him; he knew everyone. This time, though, Tom went past me, turned around, caught up with me (not too hard for him, a former 2:35 marathoner), and started talking with me. This went on for more than a mile. At one point, Tom said that he thought we might be disturbing the woman running in our vicinity. She turned and said, "Oh, no. You guys are really interesting."

What's more, Tom was always willing to listen to new ideas. For example, I always believed that the Buffalo Marathon should sell licensed merchandise (shirts, hats, bags, etc.) in order to connect runners to the race. Tom replied that the Marathon didn't have the extra money needed to produce the items in advance of their sale. A couple of years later, I heard that a local company might be interested in supplying "official" items for the Marathon, giving the race a portion of the proceeds. I told Tom about it on Monday; he had completed a deal on Friday. That has to be a business record for speed. It's not merely good to find someone who appreciate your ideas and is willing to act on them; one cherishes it. Tom realized how that sort of action builds loyalty.

Admittedly, Tom and I were on different sides of the journalistic fence. We both realized that if something went wrong with one of his races, I'd have to ask the tough questions, and he'd have to answer them. But that never proved to be an obstacle for us. Our on-the-record conversations featured as many smiles as the personal ones.

Sudden deaths don't happen in your life very often, but they are shocking and unforgettable when they occur. In Tom's case that was particularly true because he was so active. His Facebook page became an instant memorial, with people from all portions of his life saying how much of a difference his attitude and upbeat approach made to them. Tom had a history of heart disease in his family. It was often as if he was determined to cram as much as possible into the years that he did have. If so, he certainly succeeded.

It's often said at such times that a departed person can not be replaced. That's very true in Tom's case; it will take five or six people to take on all of his jobs. Hopefully they'll carry Tom's dream with them and make running an even larger part of our community.  

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Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Untold story

The midterm elections are over, and commentators throughout the country are busy trying to read the tea leaves in an attempt to figure out, solemnly, "what it all means." Usually they and the candidates themselves try to put some sort of great overriding theme into the results, when in reality it's more of a case of many individual decisions that may or may not have anything to do with each other when you try to connect the dots.

With all of this analysis, there's one overriding factor that doesn't get discussed here. But listen to people talk or pay attention to their posts on social media, and the message comes across loud and clear.

People are angry at the campaign process itself.

Few people were talking about who might win a political race. They were more likely to talk about how much mail they received on a given day from campaigns, or how many phone calls they received from candidates or their surrogates.

Political battles have become something of a virus, infecting people unexpectedly. In New York, we're somewhat immune from the major battles. The state usually goes Democratic in Presidential battles, and elections for Governor and Senator have been relatively one-sided too. I can't imagine what it's like to live in Ohio in an election year these days.

This year, we had an odd set of circumstances in my State Senate district. Usually, the Democrat wins handily since the registration edge is something like three-to-one. This was not a typical year. Two years ago, Mark Grisanti switched parties to run and win as a Republican. Since then he voted for same-sex marriage and gun control, angering some Republicans. He lost the primary to Kevin Stocker, and then opted to run on the Independence Party line. Meanwhile, Democrat Marc Panepinto was waiting in the general election. Panepinto was mostly known for being convicted of election fraud 11 years ago - not a good sign for someone seeking elective office. None of them, by the way, would ever be called "the best and the brightest" when it comes to serving the public - at least based on their public statements.

Throw in another conservative candidate who figured to draw some votes, and no one had the slightest idea who would win. So special interests came out of the woodwork to back Grisanti and Panepinto, and they threw money at the voters in the form of television ads and literature. And threw it, and threw it, and threw it. You couldn't watch the local news without seeing political ads, with the same candidate sometimes promoted more than once within the half-hour cycle. Heck, at the end of the news I was starting to miss ads like Fred Thompson's support of reverse mortgages.

The day before the election, I received 19 pieces of mail - mostly about this particular State Senate election. To be fair, Stocker's campaign was rather quiet in this sense, but that was probably more a case of a lack of supporting funds. Keep in mind that I'm not affiliated with a political party, although my wife is. We both were overwhelmed.

We all know that negative campaigning works, otherwise candidates and groups wouldn't be so quick to use it. Political parties and other groups have been happy to spread negative thoughts about opponents, using anecdotes and conclusions that sometimes are only within touching distance of the truth. The literature often comes without the name of the sponsoring group attached, meaning that the recipient has no idea who is doing the attacking. (At least on television, the group paying the bills has to be identified ... briefly.)

By the end of the campaign season, the voters are pretty tired. When the phone rings, many check Caller ID to see if the call is from a number they recognize. Otherwise, it goes unanswered. If they do answer, they hang up quickly. This isn't new. I remember one time some years ago, a co-worker came to work at 5 p.m one late October., and I asked him how he was. "Lousy - Hillary Clinton woke me up from my nap," he answered. But it's getting worse by  the year.

On Sunday, I even was frustrated enough to fight back once. I got an actual person calling me asking if he could count on my support of Panepinto. I told him that the election fraud conviction really bothered me, although I never said it was a disqualifying offense in terms of a vote. The guy on the phone said that was 11 years ago, and I said it still showed very poor judgment. With that, the guy just gave up - said thank you and hung up. No room for discussion there.

What happens by election day? People are sick of everyone. No candidate comes through the process without scars. Most of my friends vote all the time, so they take it all with a grunt and move on. Still, can you blame anyone for not voting? The numbers haven't been good in terms of turnout for off-year elections for a few decades - under 50 percent. According to some early statistics, turnout dropped in more than 40 states this time as compared to 2010. Remember, this is apples to apples, and not compared to 2012 when there was a Presidential race.

My guess is that by driving away those who aren't fully invested in the process, you tend to get a larger percentage of the "true believers" - which translates into the left and right wings. Which leads to less of a willingness to compromise, more gridlock in government, and more anger at the other side.

I would think that we need to take a look at all of this in a rational manner, starting with making it easier and more convenient to vote. I know that some think that reducing the size of the electorate can work in a particular party's favor in a particular race. But let's agree on something, shall we? The goal in a democratic society (note the small D) is to make the process more inclusive. What we're doing now is driving people away. 

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Traveling man

One of the best parts about traveling is that you find out what other cities are doing with their resources. In other words, it's educational.

Let's take, for example, the city of Little Rock, Arkansas. Little Rock has a riverfront, and civic officials there obviously have put some effort into turning it into a gathering place, instead of a swamp. There are all sorts of walking and running trails, and the nearby historic district is filling up with shops and restaurants.

This amphitheater, however, is the part that caught my eye. It's obvious a nice facility, with a good-sized covered stage and some permanent seating (there are some grassy areas surrounding it as well). Looks like a nice place to spend a summer day or night, doesn't it?

Now. Wouldn't one of these look good on Buffalo's waterfront ... somewhere?

My personal choice would be LaSalle Park, which might be the most underutilized or at least underrated piece of public property in the region. It's right on Lake Erie, and there is something of a stage there now. Yes, it would take a little money to do the stage itself, with other funds needed for such elements as parking. But it could turn into a magnet for people. If the amphitheater wouldn't work at LaSalle Park, there are other spots that could work as well.

I've seen other cities with subways have stops that are physically connected to major facilities, so that no one has to be outside in the winter in order to enter. Think about that the next time you walk outside from the ugly subway stop for the First Niagara Center on a chilly night for a Sabres' game. It wouldn't take much effort to construct a new station down the street a ways.

I've also seen cities in northern locations connect buildings through tunnels and skyways. That would be a natural here, but I'm not willing to be so ambitious quite yet. We've made some fast progress in Buffalo lately, and I'm willing to borrow ideas from any source to keep the momentum going. Everyone else should be too.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2014

A unique position

Let's take a look at what happens to most professional athletes when they hit a period of time when their play is below their usual or necessary standards.

If it's a short slump, the athletes might come out of a particular game in favor of someone else. If a hockey player keeps giving the puck to the other team, he'll take a seat on the bench for a while. When a basketball players misses eight straight shots, well, let him think about things for a while sitting next to the coach. If a baseball pitcher can't get anyone out, off to the showers ... until the next opportunity.

In any of those cases and almost all of the others, the players receives another chance to do well. If it goes on for a period of time, the baseball hitter will be dropped in the batting order or platooned. The football player will see spot duty and find himself on special teams. The hockey player will be placed on different lines and/or see his ice time reduced. Even golfers have a chance at redemption in upcoming tournaments.

But there is one big exception to the rule, and it centers on the single most glamorous and single most difficult position in sports - the football quarterback.

Ask EJ Manuel.

The Buffalo Bills quarterback was replaced this week as the team's starter, as Kyle Orton will take over on Sunday against the Detroit Lions. Manuel had not been playing well lately, and coach Doug Marrone announced the move earlier this week.

Let's review here. Manuel was a first-round draft pick in 2013 by the Bills in something of a surprise move, since other teams had him projected much lower. It would be interesting to know if Buffalo had planned to start him right away last season. Plan A might have been to start Kevin Kolb at the beginning of the year and give Manuel a chance to get his feet wet a bit. But Kolb suffered a career-ending concussion in preseason, and Manuel was Plan B. Manuel didn't look like the obvious answer at quarterback when he played last season, but then again he was good enough that we didn't know that he wasn't going to be the answer some day.

Fast forward to this year. The Bills traded two number-one picks to Cleveland for wide receiver Sammy Watkins, in theory giving Manuel a big-time target. Thad Lewis showed up in the spring, and the backup quarterback apparently had forgotten how to throw a football. He was quickly cut in camp. That left a vacancy at quarterback, and the Bills spent major dollars - something like $11 million over two years - to sign veteran free agent Kyle Orton. That's one expensive insurance policy, but an important one since Manuel was injured three times last year and in the NFL these days your season is essentially over if your QB goes down and you don't have a decent backup.

It didn't take an injury to force a switch. Manuel had trouble completing a pass beyond 10 yards or so, checking down to his running backs frequently. Shades of Trent Edwards. The team won two of its first four games, and it wasn't enough to keep the fan base happy. After defending Manuel after the Houston loss, Marrone announced a switch in starters 24 hours later. He might as well have dropped a green flag announcing "Let the speculation begin."

Were the Bills giving up on Manuel forever? The denials about that possibility quickly came from the team, but some quick research revealed that quarterbacks put in similar situations over the years frequently disappear for good. Check with J.P. Losman. The switch certainly prompted questions about whether the Bills were as sold on Manuel back in August as they said they were in public, and thus had this at least in mind since then.

And what about the pressure to win now? Certainly, another poor season would not go over well for a team that hasn't made the playoffs in this century. But throw in the fact that the AFC East looks pretty mediocre at best so far, and there's an opportunity to march into the playoffs relatively easily if things stay the way they are. What's more, the Watkins trade was designed to help the team immediately. Another poor season would bring another top-notch draft choice ...  to Cleveland.

Overshadowing all of that, naturally, is that the Bills are about to get a new owner. It's tough to know what Terry Pegula will do with the team when he takes over. He made some changes in the Sabres' front office, but he left the hockey department alone for a while. The people in the NFL are always under pressure to "win now." Still, observers have been guessing how many wins it would take to prevent a major housecleaning at One Bills Drive in the offseason. The most popular number is nine.

If this situation had come up in any other position, Orton probably would have come in for Manuel in the second half last week. Then maybe Manuel starts next week or maybe he doesn't, but no one is suggesting he's at the crossroads of his career.

But we're talking about a starting quarterback here, and the rules are different.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Caught by surprise

The other day at work, I suddenly and surprisingly found myself in the middle of a journalistic battlefield.

I was working on the night's High School Extra for the newspaper, a daily roundup of some of the results from the prep schedule on a particular day. It's a handy way of giving publicity to all/any achievements in some of the "other" sports - which means anything but football at this time of year and is not meant to demean those who participate in soccer, cross-country etc.

It was a light night, and there was something going on with the Bills that night - a sale of some sort, as I remember - that guaranteed I wouldn't have much space to fill. It's a good thing, because exciting finishes or good stories were few and far between. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don't.

In order to start the column of notes, I talked to a coach of a local high school about her young team. She was quite articulate and gave me a few good quotes for my story.

Now comes the catch - the team in question was from Lancaster Central High School.

That may not send off alarm bells for those living outside the area. But those who know a little about Western New York know that Lancaster's athletic teams are called the Redskins. That, as you may have heard, is the same name of a Washington football team that has journalists and announcers boycotting the use of the team name while writing for print/Internet or talking for broadcast.

While a few newspapers have announced that they would not permit the use of Redskins on the pages, The Buffalo News has not taken that step. Still, some writers have said in public they will not use the R-word.

It's an issue that has been out there for quite a while, at least with me. At some point, I wondered how the team name could be allowed if at least some of the affected parties - in this case, the Native population - found the word offensive. And at least a portion of them on a national basis do. Put it this way - would you use the word "redskin" in conversation when describing anything but a sports team? Of course not.

At one point, I asked Sabres' coach Ted Nolan about the matter. He said the reaction in the Native community was interesting. There were some who wanted all such nicknames, which could include Indians, Braves, Warriors, etc., to be thrown into the ashcan of history. Other Natives could care less. Nolan went on to say that he didn't mind Braves and Warriors, but that Redskins was over his personal line.

When did I ask this question? In 1997. So this has been simmering for a while.

A few years later, I ran into a speaker at the lodge of Glacier National Park. He was of Native heritage, and took a great deal of pride in the Redskins' name. He collected Redskins' merchandise, including an expensive embroidered jacket, and followed the team closely from Montana.

Lancaster High got drawn into the discussion a couple of years ago, surprisingly late as these things go. There's been some discussion there about changing the name,and some current and former athletes say the name represents a link to the long tradition of the school's athletic history. But some other schools in New York with the same or similar team names have changed them in recent years. The Lancaster school board just had a public forum to talk about the issue in the near future, and sure enough it was lively. Some of the few Natives in Lancaster didn't mind, while others said they were quite uncomfortable. Naturally, there are Facebook groups on both sides.

How did I handle it while on the job? It was actually easy to use Lancaster as a first reference in the story, and then quote the coach talking about the team - using the words team or squad. Therefore, "Redskins" or even " 'Skins" did not appear in the story. However, if this were a 20-paragraph story on the team, I might use Redskins for the sake of writing convenience since there is no overriding directive on the subject. Meanwhile, while editing an NFL story, there was a note on Washington quarterback Robert Griffin - and we use the team nickname on first reference in such roundups. So Redskins' quarterback Robert Griffin it was.

In other words, it's a decision that's above my paygrade and up to the my bosses. But I won't go out of my way to use it, and I'll be quite happy when the R-word isn't used officially any more and can thus leave my vocabulary without fanfare. That day is coming, and soon.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The 24-hour rule

The cheering bounced all over social media, as well as in offices and homes throughout the area on Tuesday.

The Buffalo Bills' future in Western New York is secure.

Everyone wondered what would happen to the Bills once Ralph Wilson passed away and the team was up for grabs. If fact, we wondered for 20 years. Now we know. Terry and Kim Pegula sold some mineral rights, or at least went through the cushions on the living room coach, to raise more than a billion dollars, and apparently won the bidding process in relatively easy fashion. It's certainly one of the biggest sports stories in the area's history - maybe the biggest. And since the Pegulas also own the Sabres and Bandits, this might make them as important as Wilson in the area's sports history - although we'll have to see what develops in the years to come on that.

The fear, obviously, involved the fact that NFL teams are few and far between. What's more, a team in, say, Los Angeles was worth much more than it would be in Buffalo. Therefore, someone who wanted to move the team to a bigger market could afford to bid more, since a change of location might be worth millions and millions of dollars. I spent the last few months wondering if some rich hedge fund guy would come out of nowhere and make an outrageous bid to buy the team and ship it to his backyard.

Therefore, the unsung hero of the whole process was the unnamed person who came up with the idea of putting a huge "poison pill" into the Bills' lease for Ralph Wilson Stadium. It would have cost someone $400 million to move the team ahead of schedule, a number that certainly would give anyone pause. Take a bow, whomever you are. Wilson also gets credit for agreeing to it.

Part of the joy of the announcement came from the fact that the two losing bidders certainly weren't ideal candidates for the job. The Toronto group might have sworn on a stack of Bibles taller than the CN Tower that it wasn't interested in moving the team north, and no one would have believed it. Maybe someday we'll find out its real intentions. And maybe Jon Bon Jovi will be able to sell some CDs in this part of the world now, although I still wouldn't book him for a concert here for a while.

Then there's Donald Trump, who wasn't exactly the picture of reason during his days as an owner in the United States Football League. Some old-timers in the NFL might have thought twice into accepting him into their exclusive club. Besides, how many football owners want to be sure of receiving more publicity than the team's starting quarterback?

Given those three choices, this is clearly the best possible outcome for Western New York and its fans.

All right, we start with that celebration. Some football teams say they will celebrate a win for a day, and then move on. I'm willing to do that hypothetically here. So what will the landscape look like ... tomorrow?

That's an interesting question. The jury is frankly still out on what sort of owners the Pegulas will be, at least based on their time with the Sabres. No one is ready to compare them to, say, Bob Kraft of the New England Patriots quite yet.

Terry Pegula has shown a willingness to spend money on the product so far with the hockey team, and that's important. The team's record since his takeover, however, has been headed in the wrong direction - crashing at the bottom of the league last season. There's also the matter of Pat LaFontaine's arrival and departure, which was at best sort of clumsy and certainly raised questions about management decisions from the top. Considering the Bills' front office hasn't been known as particularly functional in the last several years, it's easy to wonder if help is on the way.

Then there are the matters that surround the franchise's future in Buffalo. A new stadium - or a major restructuring of the old one - is going to be necessary in the next several years. That's going to cost a billion dollars or so. That's a good-sized commitment for a facility which could be used only 10 times a year. (A domed stadium would increase usage but also increase the price tag.) The community - all of it - needs to have a discussion about whether it is willing to pay that price, and it might be a loud one.

A domed stadium also might help to solve another Bills problem - attendance. Plenty of people take a wait-and-see attitude about buying tickets for November and December games, which means Buffalo is one of the few cities in the NFL to worry about blackouts during the regular season. It's basically here and Jacksonville, with San Diego showing up once in a while. I have no doubts about the loyalty of existing Bills' fans, but the team could use more of them who are willing to open their wallets in cold weather. Even restaurant owner Russ Salvatore isn't willing to buy a few thousand Bills tickets every week. Meanwhile, new NFL stadiums are all about luxury boxes and club seats these days, and Buffalo isn't New York when it comes to Fortune 500 companies. The words "major league city" carry responsibilities as well as benefits.

But enough negative thoughts. Those other items are just details - important, certainly, but not at the top of the list. You have to have a team first, and Western New York will have one for the foreseeable future. That's worth celebrating ... for quite a while.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The old college try

College athletics haven't made a great deal of sense in a couple of generations.

It sure looks like the situation is about to get worse before it gets better.

The marriage of athletics and academics has always been a shaky one in our universities. In the olden days there was something quaint about having a college team in a variety of sports, just like what took place in high school.

Then someone, someone figured out that there was money to be made. That led to big stadiums in some cases, national publicity, media attention. Better yet, the players didn't have to be paid, at least legally. The college picked up the costs of their education, period. Well, OK, there always have been problems with boosters and their $50 handshakes, but that was always tough to prevent. But for years and years, it wasn't a bad deal. The students would get an education, the university would essentially hire them to work 20-odd hours a week in return. That wasn't a great trade for the biggest stars, but for 99 percent of the student-athletes it worked out fine.

But the stakes seem to be increasing by the day. College sports seemed to start embracing marketing when Don Canham, he of the 100,000-seat stadium at Michigan, took over in the late Sixties. That's a lot of seats to sell ... so why not try to sell them, week in and week out. Other schools saw the cash involved and wanted to play too. They all got better at the process. Been in a college bookstore lately? Not many books.

And then the television coverage blew up. In the quaint old days, there were about two college football games on every Saturday. Now there are five games on at noon on Saturday, and often one on Tuesday nights. Tuesday night football? Kind of tough not to miss classes for that road trip, which by the way keep getting longer and longer.

Naturally, we all didn't stop to look at the big picture. As in, why are colleges in the athletics business, with nine-figure budgets? How far away is that from the mission statement of a university? At the big schools, we've entered a world where offensive coordinators can earn a million dollars a year. You may have realized that no one ever paid to see an offensive coordinator do anything.

Some of these colleges aren't too good at making the financial numbers work. My newspaper ran a series this week on the University at Buffalo, which would like to become a larger force in athletics. Revenues for UB in 2013 were listed at $28.7 million, while expenses were $28.6 million. That would seem to be close to breaking even, except that $22 million of revenues comes from subsidies from the university. Most schools lose money on athletics overall. Alabama, one of the major exceptions, made $34 million last year - more than UB's entire budget.

Most of the colleges believe that athletics is something like advertising for the institution, attracting students and connecting with alumni. Is it worth it? If the numbers keep adding up like this, someone might ask about that eventually. But that person probably won't be in the athletic department.

Meanwhile, the players have been fighting back a bit. They have seen the enormous revenues generated by their efforts. They've also seen their jerseys with their names sold at the bookstore and on line, and seen their image in video games. So athletes headed to court; some of them filed to form a union at Northwestern; others took part in a class action suit over the video games. The schools cling to the public line that some sort of system embracing the amateur concept is needed, even though amateurism was shown years ago to be a way of keeping money away from those who earned it.

After some frantic realignment, we've gotten down to five major conferences - especially in football. There could be more shifting in the future, as four 16-team conferences would be a neat package for football. But in the meantime, the big conferences already received permission from the NCAA to make up some of their own rules. Think it's tough for the UBs to compete now?

We're clearly headed toward something new. Maybe the big conferences will simply call student-athletes employees at some point, and treat them accordingly. Perhaps those schools will have their own playoff system in football and men's basketball, leaving the others out. (So long for those cute upsets at the start of "March Madness.") Maybe those other schools will go back to the relatively old model, forming a second tier where a college scholarship is enough incentive to attract some "second-level" players.

I'm sure it's going to be an ugly process along the way. We can only hope that the ends, in the form of a better system, justify the means.

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