Category: Other

Deceit, Evasion — and Progress? Cheating in the sports and corporate world

The month of February was been tumultuous in the sporting world (remember when February volatility felt like it couldn’t get worse?). It started per usual: the NHL and the NBA are rolling towards the playoffs (and just passed trade deadlines), the European soccer leagues are coming to crunch time, and the boys of summer are ready to take the field for another season.

None of this is unusual, simply another month gone by.

Two massive scandals changed that – the two-year European ban for willful disregard of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play and the Houston Astros signal-stealing empire crashing. Specific details are at the bottom of the article.

There is strong, if not irrefutable, evidence that cheating the rules was beneficial. Manchester City spent heavily on players and infrastructure and have been the most successful over the past decade, both by league position and, depending how their non-arms length sponsorship is treated, on paper. The Astros have been World Series winners and finalists in the years in question. On paper both teams have succeeded.

Evidence in the corporate world is plenty. Easiest example: everyone from small investors and the largest companies in the United States have avoided taxation by offshoring cash and IP for decades to avoid taxation. The Panama Papers alone showed the massive operations built to support that fraud and few institutions have been exposed.

This bears the question I’ve been weighing: at the highest levels, does the benefits of corporate cheating outweigh the risk of punishment for getting caught? We want to say ‘no’ but clearly the answer is far grayer than we’d like. So what can be done to stop it?

Short answer, of course, is hard to say. UEFA has continually defended cases at the CAS and continue to tinker with FFP to make it stronger. MLB has done little to confront the issues, hoping that the presence of a champion will outweigh the storm caused after a season is out. Punishment in either case seems to have had no effect. Fines and the threat – or imposition – of criminal action has failed. We continue to do the same things and insist that people are learning.

Teams and businesses will consistently find ways to do what they’re motivated – or paid – to do. Win, grow and be profitable. As such, our deterrents need to specifically target that pathway.

UEFA has the best plan: Manchester City want to be the largest club in the world and build profile and earn significant money by playing in European competition. A participation ban is the strongest deterrent in their arsenal. MLB’s response should hit the history books and through the draft – no champion is better than a dirty champion and every baseball team is heavily reliant on the draft to refresh teams. I’d exclude them – and any others found guilty – from the draft altogether for a minimum of two years.

Corporations are more difficult – if fines will not work, implementation of business specific tariffs might. ‘Garnishing’ revenues of businesses (and all associates entities) for a certain period of time is enforced broadly for personal penalties and debts, surely corporations should be the same?

My broader argument: Something more creative needs to be done. We need to move past the simplistic ‘big teams or companies are evil’ trope. Those teams have thousands of fans, businesses employ millions of people and comprise the majority of pension holdings for workers and citizens around the world. We can want to enforce rules upon rules to encourage climate awareness or corporate rights but that’s a decades long process rather than months. Max Kellerman made this point excellently on the Woj Pod here; people will always do what they’re incentivized to do – whether we like it or not, and it’s absolutely incumbent on us and the world to find ways to incentivize better behaviour across industry.

Coles notes on Manchester City: Financial fair play regulations – known as FFP – were introduced to ensure that football clubs were viable business operations in response to a spate of club bankruptcies across Europe. Many reasons for this, but largely owners betting big on new TV deals, trying and failing to qualify for major international competition, using the club as a plaything to get bored of, etc. This, however, also restricted clubs with wealthy owners to build clubs and renown quickly. City and Paris-Saint-Germain we’re both caught multiple times using sponsorship deals from non-arms length businesses (in this case both are government owned, and those state enterprises utilized other state businesses as sponsors to be able to vary the size of sponsorship relative to the operating capital required to meet FFP minimum regulations). These arrangements were patterned after Roman Abramovich and Chelsea Football Club and were extremely successful. More about that here via the Guardian.

Coles notes on the Houston Astros cheating scandal: The Astros have been accused of stealing ‘signals’ that a catcher will convey to a pitcher to suggest type and placement of a pitch. An individual would watch the catcher’s signal and hit a garbage bin a certain number of times (or, yet corroborated fully, send a vibration to a buzzer on the batter) to communicate the next pitch. Whether this worked or not is impossible to say – but the Astros stellar home record and average away record would imply to most teams that it certainly did. The Astros won a World Series, Jose Altuve won an MVP and a home run title. More about that here via the WaPo. 

‘Soul’ and Basketball – Dan Le Batard, ESPN and the Soul of a Corporation

A particularly insightful podcast from the Ringer’s Bill Simmons (now two – makes me feel less bad about getting this out once the story is forgotten), brought forward a concept that I can’t seem to shake from my mind.

The precipitating event (it seems like years ago):

Dan Le Batard vs ESPN story from earlier in the week – especially interesting based on the circumstances of his departure from ESPN a few years earlier;

Bill references a conversation with Le Batard about challenging ESPN to punish him (which they did) for making that statement as it presents an obstacle for, paraphrasing as I understood it, ‘falling prey’ their journalistic soul on a subject he cared deeply about. Bill points to his Grantland, 30 for 30 and ESPN: The Magazine experience as moments, albeit pre-Disney takeover, where ESPN created content that provoked debate on the fringes (or perhaps even directly in) the realm outside of sports. Political impartiality, however, is a Disney requirement. America’s largest media outlet must appeal to the entire country without question. Le Batard used his live radio platform to share his outrage at the Racist Tweet scandal. Dan Le Batard dared them to take a stand and they did, in a sense, with a slap on the wrist to try and satisfy all involved.

Can’t say it worked. Bill’s point – and I concur – ESPN sacrificed their right to explore sports at the fringes of politics.

I wrote about the soul of the broader hospitality business being heavily diluted by the forest of new hotel brands being created in the past 5-10 years (more have popped up in the interim, of course, because there still aren’t enough apparently) and it’s a similar point in many respects. ESPN have sacrificed their journalism roots and focused on live-action sport. Some people inevitably feel that loss. Every business student, though, learns the cautionary Kodak tale on reluctance to change; in the face of streaming media and potential decline of written media of all kinds, ESPN chose a new path. I can’t help but feel that this is more nuanced than that though.

The concept of ‘soul’, in a business context, is a fluid intersection of qualitative and quantitative worlds to begin with (and, some might argue, impossible for ‘money-grubbing’ entrepreneurs). I define the soul of a business is the collective ideology of people within a business to describe its differentiating characteristics from its peers. Product, aesthetics, corporate culture, social responsibility, doesn’t matter. Products and services are generally interchangeable; our positioning, ‘look and feel’ of our branding and positioning – that’s what the soul of the business is.

ESPN, I assume, felt that sports content alone – rather than journalism – reflected its soul.

The realization for me (and perhaps for them) is that every change a business makes is a reflection on leadership’s interpretation of what that soul is. Every person in a business connects with that soul through a unique lens. Some people will stay believers, some will question their faith and some will simply abandon it altogether. Bill did. Maybe Dan Le Batard will. Perhaps Stephen A. at some point.

Smart people make these decisions. I don’t really know either of those businesses. Hard to say whether either of them will be successful. If the fundamental people in your business can’t find the soul of your business in what they’re doing, though, then how can you truly grow?

I can’t say I agree or disagree with ESPN’s stance. It’s quite literally not my business. It is disingenuous to me to ignore politics or business completely in a discussion of sport. I think ESPN – while they may not have to take a stance – can’t simply try and sweep their national platform under the rug when it comes to the pressing social issues that affect its viewership, the individuals that comprise its content and the influence that sport and sporting achievement has on the rest of the country.

No idea. Maybe they’re right. I still can’t shake the idea though, clearly. Please share thoughts.

Changing the Narrative: A Lesson from the Los Angeles Clippers

2019 is the first year a Canadian team has won the NBA championship, but, as the draft coverage noted, is also 10 years since the Los Angeles Clippers – and their then owner Donald Sterling – drafted their franchise-player-to-be Blake Griffin.

Who is Donald Sterling? Coles Notes. The audio speaks for itself, really.

Donald Sterling was, and remains, one of the least popular owners of a sports franchise. Ever. He moved his team from San Diego to Los Angeles without NBA permission, was routinely late paying creditors and fined repeatedly, sued four coaches after firing them (and lost four times), was sued for racial discrimination in apartment tenants (he settled), was sued for sexual harassment twice (one settled, one dismissed), heckled his own players, was rated as the ‘worst owners in sports’ by Forbes and the New York Times and had the lowest winning percentage of any team in the four major sports leagues during his tenure as owner – this despite having a winning record and selling out games for the last 4 years.

None of these, unsurprisingly, was enough for the Association to take meaningful action. The NFL treatment, basically.

His wife, rather than the league, finally forced him out following his recorded racist remarks to his mistress being publicized by TMZ in 2014 (though he fought it bitterly – the legal battle is fascinating in itself). Steve Ballmer, of Microsoft fame, purchased the team for $2 Billion dollars – a record at that time. That the Clippers were worth that amount is an article on its own but ‘the worst team in sports’ was in someone else’s hands.

The whole Donald Sterling tape – not suitable for all audiences, obviously.

Fast forward 5 years – the Clippers are a winning, well-run franchise, a leading contender for the NBA Finals’ MVP and have sold out every game played since 2011. Even if Kawhi doesn’t sign – and it appears he won’t – it’s still significant progress.

What can be learned from the transformation?

1) Hires that expect to change the organization

The first thing the Clippers did was probably the largest. Immediately following the transaction’s completion Gillian Zucker was hired as the team’s President of Business Operations. Her predecessor had worked for the team since 1984 and served as President from 2007.

Zucker’s hire showed an intent to shock the system. A well-qualified, experienced (and yes, female) executive in the sports industry laid down a marker for every employee of the franchise – regardless of role – that this Clipper team would be different.

These moves are vital to change culture rather than simply morale. Morale suffers in times of disruption – people afraid of losing jobs, colleagues and status within the organization adds stress. People will jump ship. Success – and recognizing contributions to it – is a huge part of morale and we can’t be afraid of that short-term pain of rehiring talent, rationalizing expenses and rebuilding a new team – of new hires and believers – for the new vision.  

2) Show the public a new face – early and often

Zucker’s reputation is largely built on her marketing prowess working to reposition NASCAR races and facilities to a larger demographic. She creatively and bravely sought to reframe the experience entirely in the face of the regional traditional demographic it received. Was it successful? The Clippers needed bravery.

The big refresh (courtesy of BrandNew and UnderConsideration – https://www.underconsideration.com/brandnew/archives/new_logo_and_uniforms_for_los_angeles_clippers.php)

The brand was relaunched in an extremely splashy way – a completely new branding package (there’s a great comparison and description of this here). Hundreds of shirts, hats and merchandise was given away to make a statement of intent that these Clippers shared no history with the years prior.

As much as a public eye can burn a business, changing perception still requires public acceptance. Starting a new product line, and retooling your product offering all require brand recognition for people to connect. Think about Tiger Woods – his self-destruction, humiliation and much-celebrated rebirth all occurred in the public eye. Some will only remember the first two; most will remember all three.

3) Blowing it up can be, and likely is, your best option to rebuild

Don’t try this at home. Or if you’re the Knicks, because with their record they’ll probably pay the ball a max deal and then miss the ground.

‘Lob City’ – the nickname given to the last of the Donald Sterling teams – featured three marquee players acquired during the last years of his tenure. Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Chris Paul represented the best team the Donald Sterling Clippers had ever had despite their underperformance in the playoffs – two trips into the second round of the NBA Playoffs – and were the face of the team upon Ballmer and Zucker’s introduction to the team.

They kept the band together for two years, introduced new talent and large payouts to the team’s big stars – the Clippers still failed. Enter Jerry West – one of the best players and executives the league had seen – and by the end of the 2017 season Griffin, Jordan and Paul, the last remnants of the Sterling era, were gone. Today’s Clippers represent the new regime, with an intelligently managed salary cap, good young team, an exceptional front office, and a premier destination for the NBA’s best.

Congratulations, Clippers. Please though – leave Kawhi in Toronto.

A true(r) picture of immigrant life

A recent opinion piece from the CBC – ‘The dangers of self-ghettoization in Calgary’ left me – (and undoubtedly many others) perturbed. The article (https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/self-ghettoization-calgary-israr-kasana-road-ahead-1.4864998), written by well-respected journalist Israr Kasana, eloquently and potently argued against the congregation of faith and culturally based groups in specific neighborhoods.

Israr’s viewpoint undoubtedly contains many difficult truths – ones every community in Alberta – immigrant or not – face. Our collective faith, culture and value systems in Canada are undoubtedly major drivers of our choices and communities to reside in, a ‘self-imposed’ stand to counter the pressures of assimilation and homogenization of North American life. Our First Nations communities face it – and have suffered immensely as a result; our Catholic communities face it – a flight from religion in an increasingly secular world and prompted by the grievous wrongs of certain clergy members worldwide; our farming community faces it – the slow departure of sons and daughters seeking a comfortable life in the big city rather than the discipline and wear of working the land. And yes – our newly-arrived immigrant population faces it too.

Most people prefer to surround themselves with other like-minded, similar looking, similar-thinking people. The President of the United States owes his office because of it. Consciously or unconsciously, rightly or wrongly (but really, wrongly) the general public largely encourages it, desire it, entrenches it. Rich people live with other rich people, first-time homebuyers live with other first-time homebuyers, renters live with renters, the poor live with other poor people. As such, the ‘proper place’ that our working poor and newly arrived immigrants ‘should’ live – and do live – are far more indicative of a housing affordability gap and of the challenge of adjustment to new cultures than an malicious intent to isolate themselves from the wider Canadian community. We prefer to live next to our mosques, churches, synagogues, temples, gurdwaras, favorite coffee shops, and transit locations, but decision-making first and foremost is where families can receive the most support within their budget. We cannot – and should not – be ashamed that.

I accept that I may miss some of the context that Mr. Kasana has. I have been extremely fortunate, undoubtedly. My parents immigrated to Canada in the early 1980s, penniless but ambitious like so many immigrants are but I never knew that struggle. I won the childbirth lottery to be born in this country, a proud son of Red Deer, Alberta. I am a Shia Ismaili Muslim – our community has extensive support networks to assist our newly arriving congregation. And, as a volunteer within our Ismaili community institutions, I’ve had the privilege of working with many Canadian immigrants as they try to adjust to this foreign life in the frigid cold.

Life is difficult for our future Canadian citizens. It’s confusing. It’s frustrating. It’s overwhelming. No doubt these families want to be surrounded by others to help make a transition to a new life. English can’t be learned overnight. Budgeting, credit and banking likewise. It takes years to be able to follow the puck in a hockey game – my first generation Canadian wife still cannot. How can we reasonably expect these new residents to integrate – even superficially – when the minimum cultural adjustment required takes years to achieve? I applaud the bravery of our immigrant professionals who sacrifice vibrant careers to be turned down for job after job due to a lack of ‘Canadian experience’. I feel for the blue-collar individuals who arrive on these shores, facing a need to support their families without a strong command of the local language. As Canadians we all should. I don’t begrudge them choosing a home or community more familiar to begin their lives in Canada in.

In an ideal world, we would not have ‘self-imposed ethnic enclaves’, absolutely. People would settle quickly, adjust to their new cultures without yearning of their families left behind and bravely move to other ‘mainstream’ communities. We would have an affordable and transitional housing scheme in every neighborhood, ESL classes at every community league, and free hockey equipment for any child seeking to learn the game. True and supportive integration.

Unfortunately, we have what we have.

Speaking as an Edmontonian, the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, the Bredin Institute, Northern Alberta YMCA and Edmonton Food Bank admirably serve these vulnerable communities. I am certain that many other communities across Canada have similar outstanding institutions.

If we truly want to see better integration, let’s not blame those that have arrived in our cold, foreign lands for the first time. Let’s work towards a cohesive plan to integrate all Albertans into all communities. Let’s support the community institutions and their tireless volunteers that welcome our new neighbors, colleagues and friends. And, most importantly, let’s return the excited smiles and good hearts that our new immigrants and cultural communities bring to their jobs and neighborhoods every single day.

That is a ‘win-win’ situation for all.

 

A remembrance for Facial Awareness Month

– As featured in Aboutface‘s September Craniofacial Awareness Month publication and Giving Tuesday drive –

We are drawn to faces. We unlock our phones, identify friends and greet people with them. We face people, face adversity, face forward, face backwards and turn face. We read faces, type faces, draw faces, scale the faces of mountains and read passion, anger, love, fear, joy and pain in each others’ faces. Faces form our first impressions, lasting memories and our common understanding with others.

This is why AboutFace is so important. For those with facial differences, owning the word “face” can be done. The AboutFace network understands the obstacles associated with living, eating, speaking and seeing the conditions we can have, the daily work to conquer and embrace them, and provides countless support, strength and resource required to be successful. I am and always will be extremely grateful to know that there’s a larger community that celebrates our unique, beautiful differences.

The word “face” arouses different feelings for us than others, and always will. Faces are memorable, ours certainly so. Accepting, appreciating and loving those faces, our one conspicuous difference amongst a seemingly endless sea of symmetry, is a lifelong effort. The support of our friends, family and AboutFace makes this effort much, much easier.

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