Sep 15, 2013

September 15, 2013: The Achilles Heel, Duly Adjudicated Illegal Monopoly, Undeserving Few

“The Achilles Heel of Capitalism is inherited wealth."
---from The Quotations of Chairman Joe
 And now we turn to the duly adjudicated illegal monopoly that is the National Football League".
---Howard Cosell on ABC Radio's "Speaking of Sports"

November 22, 1963 is universally understood to have been the nadir of the American Experience in the 20th century.  But for those of us who lived in Michigan generally, and greater Detroit specifically, the day is marked by yet further damage to the collective phsyce.  For on this very afternoon, fresh from hearing the news of the slaying of our beloved President, William Clay Ford set about the business of purchasing the Detroit Lions. 

 The Lions had been one of the marquee franchises in the emerging NFL, winning championships under the colorful leadership of Bobby Layne and Doak Walker in the 50’s, and fielding a stellar defensive team in the early 60’s that included the likes of Alex Karras, Roger Brown, Joe Schmidt, and Dick “Night-Train” Lane.  Perennial challengers to the fabled Green Bay Packers the Lions on one Thanksgiving Day game at old Tiger Stadium held Bart Star to 12 yards passing in the first half, shutting down the Packer offense that included not only Star but also Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor. Long before there was the “Doomsday Defense”, the “Orange Crush”, the “46 Defense” or the “Purple People Eaters”, there was the vaunted defense of the Detroit Lions putting the franchise near the very pinnacle of the game.

 Then came William Clay Ford.  Ford bought the team and things quickly began to unravel.

When it came time for a much-needed coaching change in the mid 60’s the Lions had an assistant coach waiting in the wings to take over.  Ford and his General Manager deemed the young assistant not ready to assume full coaching responsibilities.  The young coach left the organization taking with him a young quarterback who had been a star in Michigan athleticism first at Muskegon High School and then at Michigan State University.  While the Lions fielded the likes of Jim Minowski, a young Earl Morral warmed the pines watching the games from the sidelines.  Oh yes, the young assistant coach leaving Detroit carried the name of Don Schula.

 Schula left Detroit to coach Baltimore taking with him the young quarterback.  When Johnny Unitas injured his hand in 1968, Schula sent in Morall who took the team to its first Super Bowl, eventually losing to the star-crossed New York Jets.  Later Schula moved on to Miami, once again taking Morall with him.  This time starting quarterback Bob Griese went down in game two of the now expanded 16 game season, for the next dozen or so games, Morall led the Dolphins to what would become the NFL’s only 16 game perfect season with Griese re-taking the helm late in the year. 

 More recently, Ford has presided over some dismal performances….sometimes having talent on the field but rarely able to demonstrate it consistently…to the point that the Lions have set a modern record for being the first and only team to have lost all 16 games in a  single season.  Taken together the Lions are hovering about 120 games below .500 since that fateful November day in 1963 when the once glorious franchise fell into his incompetent hands. 

 Now the NFL has been successfully sued by the now defunct USFL for unlawful restraint of trade and, having been duly found to be an illegal monopoly by an American jury in a court of law, as Howard Cossell loved to remind us, was fined the grand sum of one dollar.  To add insult to injury, the league sought and was granted tax-exempt status as a “Non-Profit” organization as a rider attached to one of LBJ’s poverty bills when the old AFL and NFL merged following the said Jets victory over Baltimore in 1969.  What we  have here is a form of corporate socialism wherein the legal system turns a blind eye to predatory business practices, the government grants tax free status, the league itself distributes monies equally to all teams, and the NFL draft, designed to insure parity of talent among the teams penalizes exemplary performance and rewards sloth.

 Enter William Clay Ford.  He has made a fortune in his own right riding on the backs of the legal protection afforded the NFL, the shared revenues from the other teams, and more than several tens of millions of dollars in direct subsidy by the good people of the State of Michigan.  I am referring here to the 30 or so years his team had use of the Silverdome in Pontiac for which the taxpayers of the state of Michigan annually shelled out $800,000 among other considerations of state and local governments.  In those 30 years Ford and his Lions paid exactly nothing in rents.

 How then could the Lions produce such a miserable record in a league that is so favored and does everything it can to foster parity and see that everyone has a chance?  After all, the league has seen many teams go from worst to first in a single season.  Lions fans have watched as expansion franchises are formed and such teams play in the championship Super Bowl within a few short years.  Meanwhile the Lions pogo from being downright awful to plain mediocre and then back down again.  They have won exactly one post season game in the 50 years since Ford bought the team.

 It is clear that William Clay Ford is not a manager, nor is he a football man.  That he is no judge of talent can be seen in his passing over Don Schula, as well as his hiring of Matt Millen.  That he is no manager can be witnessed by his keeping Millen on as General Manager for years after it became clear that Matt, likewise, was no judge of talent.

 Instead William Clay Ford stands as a poster boy for what happens when huge fortunes are put at the disposal of men whose only qualifications are that they happen to be the fortunate offspring of two wealthy individuals.  There is nothing about his demonstrable record to indicate that he has any business owning the Detroit Lions, much less directing the operations of the team.  There are no intrinsic management skills, no discerning judgment concerning the talent on and off the field.  He just happened upon it, and because he has inherited the fortune he can impose himself upon the fans, the taxpayers of the state, and the league itself, an imposition that costs us dearly but has managed to further enrich the undeserving few.

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