Tuesday, January 09, 2007

selling your franchise and/or sport.

(Disclaimer: I'm not claiming to be super-bright or authoritative on this matter. I'm just trying to sort it out for myself; as a result, I'm sure it rambles.)

If you are an NFL owner or GM in the lottery this year, do you want this face to be the face of your franchise come 2007? And if not, why?

I was snarking earlier about JaMarcus Russell and tossed off a "He better hope Al Davis doesn't care about black people" in a comment thread, and it got a slight reaction, wondering why color always seems to rear its head when it comes to QBs and the draft. Zach put it pretty well: Brady Quinn is a good-looking pin-up boy with an arm that can sell tickets; sell a franchise revival to people (if you are the Detroit Lions or Cleveland Browns, all the chiseled good looks on your QB in the world can't help you.)

In a perfect world, the subtext would have been utterly eliminated when Doug Williams led the Redskins in a rout over the Broncos in Super Bowl XXII, never mind when Steve McNair became a model of continuity for the Houston/Tennessee franchise (led 'em to a Super Bowl) and Donovan McNabb took the Eagles to three straight NFC championship games and one Super Bowl. McNabb is the lightning rod for all these perceptions -- from time to time, he has rows in his hair often, but he is the most heavily marketed black quarterback, bar none, and the last time this topic became quite so um....paramount was when Rush Limbaugh made his infamous remarks about Donovan (bad move on ESPN's part; despite Rush's sports background, it was like hiring Noam Chomsky to do NBA color commentary.) McNabb straddles the line -- he is marketable, but continues to be under the microscope not only in a city that is notorious for its perception for nastiness in its sports fans (I remember his booing at the draft because the Eagles faithful wanted Ricky Williams), but also because he has had chances and failed to come through, either because he's been injured or been asked to do it all (Westbrook shows up when he's injured, it seems.)

Daunte Culpepper was shipped out of Minnesota after the Lake Minnetonka incident. McNair got the heave-ho in Nashville, but is doing well in Baltimore; Michael Vick is about as much of a focus in this sort of talk as McNabb (Vick is a victim of his style of play; the most common slap on him is his passing game -- entirely valid, but brings up the old stereotypes). The burden is double -- not only do you have the pressure of leading your football team to victory, but the "black quarterback" continues to hang, no matter what you do -- Peyton Manning faces such scrutiny for having loaded Colt teams that don't get to the big game, but a lot of it is foisted off on the Colts' shaky D, as well as a less-explicit "choker" theory that doesn't break him down to base game elements that would imply a stereotype; his problem is that he runs into defenses that can read his patterns of audibles, and also exploit his lack of foot speed.

White athletes that are uncommonly good are "gym rats." Really fast black dudes, even if they only did the long jump, are "track stars," and it continues into other forms of analyst-speak (a lot of the black players are the "projects," maybe because there are more of them playing than anything else, but it's worth considering.) It's part of how teams grade athletes and assess them, and how we see them: the word "intangible" means so much, but everyone's measurement is different. Do you mean "intangible" as "instinct," meaning a Vince Young-style tendency or ability to recognize situations where he should use his feet. Or does it mean a Peyton-like ability to micromanage the offense? These are different types of instinct and football intelligence, but they are symbolic.

Corporate ownership is risk-averse by nature, so when teams draft for a franchise player, those concerns probably rear their heads again. Brady Quinn is an easy sell: marketers would push him as hard and in similar ways to Tom Brady. Peyton is ubiquitous in TV marketing; hell, even Matt Hasselbeck gets Chunky Soup ads now, and if Alex Smith develops, he'll be just as easy to put forward.

This is going to get more and more problematic as an issue as hip-hop centered athletes (and their look) becomes more and more prevalent -- we may see the same conflicts between ownership and players on rules and regulations that we see when NBA commish David Stern drives some draconian rule on the players and he gets lauded for ruling with an iron fist. I mean, it's a sign when the league hires a GOP operative for NBA outreach, never mind if you put in a dress code when half the players dress in baggy pants.

These perceptions are all tied into a base desire of fandom to me: whether conscious or not, it's nice to see yourself represented on the court, ice, diamond, or field -- and it helps determine whom we idolize, whose jerseys we buy, and which athletes we hold in the pantheon as young sports fans. When we get older, the more we stay with our viewing habits, the more we can appreciate the player's game on its own merits, disassociated from whether we identify with the athlete personally.

But, in going back to the initial question -- is Russell marketable? Sure, any star athlete is, and he will be too if he can get whichever team winds up drafting him some wins, but don't be surprised if you hear code words or phrases used in the draft previews -- big, mobile, athletic, if he has the smarts to play QB in the NFL. He will have extra hurdles on his way to the top. I mean, his name is JaMarcus. I do think I was hasty on saying he ought to avoid the Raiders -- maybe that is the home for him; the popular perception of Oakland's franchise is one of outcasts. Maybe it isn't Brady Quinn, but Russell who can change that franchise's futility (or at least send it in the right direction). I don't doubt that Al Davis has that in mind; the QB that can change his franchise's perception, but where will it lead him, and at what point will we be able to stop wondering if these questions will ever come up again?

(Note: According to ESPN, Mel Kiper, Jr., he of the petrified hair, has Georgia Tech WR Calvin Johnson at #1 on his draft board.)

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