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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