SBJ/June 12 - 18, 2006/Opinion

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  • Examining sports as a family business

    I was lucky to work for my father.

    It was the summer of 1982, and I was told to fill some of my free summer hours by working in his dental practice in our small Vermont town. I was the not-so-valuable utility player: I answered phones, booked appointments, did the ever-tedious filing of charts and patient history, ran errands, sorted mail, and did other odd jobs. It certainly wasn’t hard labor or a back-breaking way to spend the summer. In fact, I mostly enjoyed the interaction with his patients, whom I found in good spirits despite dreading their time in the dental chair.

    The lasting gift of that summer was observing my father practice his craft, watching him calm and treat worried patients with his gentle nature, and display constant professionalism, compassion and business savvy throughout long days on his feet. That made the biggest impact on an impressionable 13-year-old whose idea of hard work was playing a few hours of tennis on summer afternoons.

    My father made his practice a “family business” in every sense. My mother was the office manager, most of my siblings took turns at the front desk and one of my sisters eventually became his dental assistant. We all spent hours helping the man we most admired. Many figured I would take over the “family business” and follow my father in dentistry. The joke was we wouldn’t even have to change the name on the wooden street sign outside his office that read, “Abraham Madkour, General Dentistry.”

    While I never followed his career path, I have tried to follow the sterling example he set for me that summer — and every day he’s been my dad.

    The father/son dynamic in the workplace is rich in its history, and our pages this week are filled with memories of fathers and sons who work together and discuss how they observe each other, learn from each other and develop a stronger love for each other.

    In our newsroom one day, Senior Writer Bill King heard a colleague on the phone asking to speak to “the father or the son” who ran a sports franchise. It sparked Bill’s idea to showcase these family relationships in the workplace, which is often our most challenging environment. As we talked more, we became increasingly excited to drill deeper into an area that would naturally provide lush, human tales.

    We pegged our first look at Families in Sports for Father’s Day, celebrated this Sunday.

    We identified about 40 family ownership groups in MLB, the NFL, NBA and NHL that met a basic criteria: more than one generation working actively in the front office. We reached out to numerous fathers and their sons and, surprisingly, we were met with a tepid response. Many of our potential subjects chose not to participate or share their memories on the record. Others did, though, and this week, we share with you vivid anecdotes by good storytellers like Lamar and Clark Hunt and Jerry and Stephen Jones. We hear not only about their day-to-day challenges, but also about the long-term gratification of working closely together in pressure-filled, high-stakes businesses.

    Our goal is not to stop with these vignettes, but rather to uncover similar stories on other family relationships in sports: husband/wife, father/daughter, brother/sister. We hope you’ll share your experiences as we develop additional features that bring you more stories on sports as a family business.

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  • Leave baseball history in the past

    One thing that separates baseball from other sports in my mind is its historical grounding. Baseball has eras. Baseball has periods.

    This is a fact that should influence Major League Baseball’s response to what has become a media-driven steroids controversy. I say media-driven because fans just don’t care about this issue; you can tell that from the fact that real baseball news drives out steroid news once the season starts. That was the case last year and will be the case this year, despite Barry Bonds’ home-run record chase. Bonds will make history this year and he will deserve every possible accolade.

    I hope the commissioner’s office realizes that baseball is history and history is context and one can’t change history. Major League Baseball and the players union made their first mistake on this matter by letting Congress dictate to them. I see nothing wrong with obeying the subpoenas, then telling those grandstanding politicians that baseball would be happy to implement the same drug-testing policy that’s in place for Congress. (FYI: There is no drug-testing policy for Congress).

    The bottom line is that there was a steroids era in baseball, that era is part of baseball’s history, a lot of home runs were hit in that context and nothing will change that. Just leave it alone.

    For those who want to diminish Bonds’ achievements I point out what experts have said: No steroid ever made a player a better hitter. If Bonds’ increased strength due to working out with steroids enabled him to hit a ball farther, then let’s estimate how many of his home runs during the steroids era became home runs due to a steroid-strength effect. How many more feet on average would a baseball fly due to the steroid-strength effect? Five feet? Ten feet? Then let’s examine each Bonds home run during the steroid era for those that became home runs by that number of feet and eliminate that number from his total. See the absolute absurdity here? Leave baseball history alone.

    But for those who want to adjust or reduce numbers that were put up in a particular historical context to reflect today’s standards, I suggest we adjust Babe Ruth’s numbers to reflect that he did not have to bat against the Bob Gibsons and Fergie Jenkinses of his day. If we take Gibson’s strikeout numbers and extrapolate them to Ruth’s at-bats using some algorithm or model to arrive at a new race-adjusted home run total for Ruth, we are being just as ridiculous as those who want to throw out Bonds’ totals. And how did Ty Cobb, an avowed and committed racist, get into the Hall of Fame? Was it because his attitudes and beliefs were not so out of line for his historical context? Racism is worse than steroids. Isn’t it?

    All of these influences, steroids, racial exclusions, dead balls, whatever, are in the past; leave them alone. There is no positive outcome available to Major League Baseball from conducting an investigation into the past. All this investigation will accomplish is to provide a platform for steroid news throughout the season. To whom is baseball responding by conducting this investigation? Certainly not the 75 million fans who attended games in 2005 and the hundreds of millions who watched games on TV and the Internet and listened on the radio. There simply has been no outcry from baseball’s customers about steroids. Is this investigation for Congress? Journalists? Leave it alone.

    The commissioner’s office has produced a resoundingly successful World Baseball Classic, with huge implications for baseball’s future on a global scale. Focus on that potential, not the past. Baseball is the greatest game in the world, and Major League Baseball is the best baseball in the world. Barry Bonds will soon be the greatest home-run hitter in Major League Baseball history. Baseball is history. History is context. One can’t change history. Just leave it alone and love this great game.

    Z. Dwight Billingsly is the managing director of Team Sports Business Initiative.

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