James Lawton: How a high-school hero was blown into the eye of an economic storm
Saturday 02 May 2009
Matthew Stafford, aged 21, is a pretty decent quarterback who, back home in Texas, was a high-school star and, while never looking like the next Joe Namath or Joe Montana, did well enough for the University of Georgia's Bulldogs to finish up No 1 pick in the recent National Football League draft.
This of course ensures his financial future to somewhere deep into this bedraggled century and all you can say is: "Well done, Matt, you made the best of what you had and, who knows, you might even hold down a job with arguably the worst team ever to play major league sport."
That was all very well, though, until the details of his contract with Detroit Lions – the champions of futility with a record of 0-16 last season, so inept that they achieved the apparently impossible by bringing fresh gloom to the most depressed city in the land – broke across the lines outside the job centres and the welfare offices.
Stafford's deal calls for him to be paid $72m (£48m) over six years, $41m guaranteed even if big-match nerves turn his first touchdown pass into the flapping of a winged mallard, and with another $6m offered in "fringe incentives". Imagine how they feel in Motown. They believe they are not only at the epicentre of economic madness but have also become the laughing stock of a society for much of which sport has always been the comforting thread of their lives. For Stafford the difficulty is that he is already hated before he throws a single pass for the no-hope Lions. Take me out to the ball game, goes the sentimental song. For Stafford such a request, while quite imperative if he wants to secure his mountain range of dollars, is asking for a journey to a peculiar corner of hell.
Of course, he is putting on a brave face, saying that he is operating in a free market, and that his agent, Tom Condon, did the negotiating and, heck, he is just a good ole boy from Texas who will do his best – whatever the discouragement of being booed in the blue-collar bars of his new town whenever his face appears on the television screen, which in the last few days it has rather often.
Stafford's special difficulty is that, while he is guaranteed $41m, the Lions fans, like most of the sports critics and a majority of coaching and scouting staffs across the NFL, cannot be sure Stafford will confirm his right to be the starting quarterback, a challenge which almost certainly won't even start until mid-season, when he is expected to come off the bench for the first time.
Stafford's contract is a 39 per cent increase on last year's rate collected by the offensive tackle Jake Long from Miami Dolphins – and more than double the mark of New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning five years ago. Agent Condon landed all three deals for a guaranteed total of $91m and, unsurprisingly enough, he believes he has delivered value to both his clients and their employers. "Money follows the football," asserts Condon, "and this reflects the importance of a quarterback to the success of the team. The teams get the point."
Not all of them, it has to be said. The San Francisco 49ers, who are coached by the former Chicago Bears middle linebacker Mike Singletary, of whom one victim swore that he could see foam forming on his lips before the snap was made, interviewed Stafford with the idea of gauging his psychological suitability for the pressures of the NFL. The 49ers had the 10th pick but if Stafford had passed their tests they might have been prepared to trade up with established players all the way to Detroit's first choice.
Stafford didn't pass the test, apparently largely because he objected to being questioned by a psychologist about the impact of his parents' divorce when he was still a budding high-school hero. No, there is scarcely a limit to the strangeness of this story of 21st-century values applied to the sports field.
The commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell, is, naturally enough, concerned about the story and believes there should be new controls on the budgets set for the recruitment of draft choices. It seems that he might just as profitably bay at the moon. The newly appointed leader of the players' union, DeMaurice Smith could hardly conceal his mirth at Goodell's idea before putting on a straight face and saying: "I'm very happy with the scenario we have now." Not quite as happy as agent Condon, of course, who in his three rookie deals raked in an estimated minimum commission of $10m.
This exceeds the combined earnings of whole generations of NFL players, men like Johnny Unitas and "Broadway Joe" (Namath), who made the game an integral part of American culture.
Namath was interviewed in a film studio on the West Side of New York City, where he was beloved not just for winning for the Jets the most dramatic of the early Super Bowls but, as a boy from the steel belt of Pennsylvania, who had embraced the spirit and the panache of the city. He was filming one of a series of controversial pantyhose ads, and was the most agreeable company, despite periodically punctuating the conversation by firing a wad of chewing tobacco from his mouth into a can some distance from where he was sitting. He didn't spit out a single interception and it is bizarre now to remember that at the time his commercial activity was considered to be "tasteless".
He was once asked how he liked the new, unyielding Astroturf, which was said to have shaved years off the career life of a player. "I can't say," he replied, "I haven't smoked it yet."
This week it has been hard not to believe that the NFL, like so much of big-money sport, has been back on the funny cigarettes.
NFL's riches have American boxing on the ropes
Despite widespread celebrations in Las Vegas over the potent drawing power of tonight's world title fight between Manny Pacquiao and Ricky Hatton, some old fight men are mourning what they see as the death of American boxing.
"I never thought I'd see the day when the biggest-selling fight of the year in Vegas did not involve an American," said Don Majeski, who left school at 16 to work for Ring Magazine and has spent a lifetime making matches in all corners of the land and in many places across the world. "The supply of fighters in America has just disappeared – and it's not hard to understand," says Majeski. "When a rookie quarterback like Matthew Stafford is given guarantees for life without throwing a ball as a professional, why would a naturally talented athlete want to go near the ring? Why would he want to see his livelihood disappear in the course of one fight?
"I could go to every school across America and ask the boys to put their hands up for the sport they wanted to be part of professionally. I fear not a single hand would go up for boxing. It's not hard to understand. In boxing you can get rich or you can get broke – but you can't make a living. Now this NFL kid goes to Detroit Lions and receives a guarantee for the richest possible life. It's poignant because Detroit gave American boxing Joe Louis and Tommy Hearns, and now the game is dying there too."
Here in Las Vegas last night there were two boxing shows, one at the Hard Rock Cafe, another off The Strip. The combined crowds scarcely reached a thousand. "It's probably true that boxing will never die," says Majeski, "but the vital signs are certainly disappearing here. American heavyweights don't exist anymore, not live ones."
It is why Evander Holyfield will be fighting in Helsinki at the end of the month for a version of the title. Holyfield used to be an American heavyweight. Now he is 46 and broke.
Little cheer for soccer in Florida
There have been times, from those of Pele and George Best to David Beckham's, when "soccer" was going to conquer its last frontier here in America. But it has never happened and nor is it ever likely.
For one reason why this is so we don't have to look much further than a decision by the Florida Schools Association. Because of budgetary pressure, it has ordered that certain sports must cut their playing programmes by 20 per cent. Soccer is part of the squeeze. It doesn't help that competitive cheerleading isn't.
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