Monday, March 13, 2006

Don't Call it A Comeback

Of the current top 5 topics you don’t want me to get started on: (1) The Knicks (2) Tim Thomas (3) The Bush Administration (4) Haiti’s Recent Elections (5) Reinhold Niebuhr

Number two Tim Thomas is admittedly the least compelling and soon to be the first one off the list. His ascension to the top five was a surprise in itself. One day while reading Bill Simmons, aka,'s "THE SPORTSGUY", column I found myself doubling over in laughter as he brought up the peculiar saga of then Chicago Bulls' castoff Tim Thomas. As far as I, and most basketball fans know, the Bulls essentially asked Thomas not to bother showing up for work while they tried trading him and his expiring contract. This was bizarre for two reasons, one as Simmons alludes there was no reported Thomas outbreaks. Secondly, he was in the last year of his contract a year where NBA players usually play at a high level, thereby implying that he'd bust his bust behind this year and what NBA team could not use a gifted 6'10" forward capable of playing all three frontcourt positions giving his all on the floor as he plays for a new contract.
In fact the Bulls were in need of very such a player as they fought off early season injuries along their frontline and a Tyson Chandler slump.

What struck me most about Simmons' column (in which Thomas is only alluded to by the way) was the following claim:

Here's one of the underrated sports stories of 2006: What about the Bulls' acquiring Tim Thomas, burying him on the bench, then telling him to just go home while they try to trade him ... even though he's making $14 million this season. Has anyone ever made more money for doing nothing? Shouldn't magazines be assigning writers to hang out with him, just to see whathe does every day? If he's making $14 million, that means he's getting a check for about $525,000 every two weeks (minus taxes). Would you even work out if you were him?

The irony in Simmons's suggestion that "Shouldn't magazines be assigning writers to hang out with him, just to see what he does every day?" is that the very magazine/media empire that Simmons writes for did exactly what he was asking to be done for Tim Thomas. In fact, they did it twice in the past year.

First was last year's ESPN's hawking over Barry Bonds carried out by ESPN reporter Pedro Gomez . Gomez followed Bonds around during the entire 2005 baseball season, from spring training through when the Giants season ended last August. Given Bonds superstar status and the fact that he was on pace to break the all-time home run record, it's not that surprising that he might have a reporter following his every move, (I guess). But it is surprising when this athlete does not play until the last fourteen games of the season.

So instead of Bonds' chase for Babe Ruth's and Hank Aaron's home run records, we got Pedro's stalking of Barry which produced a lot of copy about his steroid allegations, a very serious public matter. However it also ratcheted up the volume on some of Bonds' very personal problems and struggles relating to his marriage and relationship with his children, the latter culminating in a bizarre interview conducted with his son at his side.

If Barrygate was not enough, ESPN followed that up with TOgate in the fall of 2005. Now TO, unlike Bonds, was a willing participant. He wanted to use the media to strong arm the Eagles into giving him a better contract, and the media wanted to use T.O. to... actually it never really became clear what use T.O. had for ESPN, so I guess why they were able to dispense of him so easily.

But during their shotgun marriage, viewers were provided with stories featuring T.O. working out in his driveway, getting booted from Eagles camp, walking back into Eagles camp, and boarding flights from Philadelphia to his home in Atlanta.

The private investigator, uh, I mean reporter, assigned to T.O. was Sal Paolantonio. Paolantonio did an excellent job of reporting the non-news that was often the trademark of the T.O. saga. Unfortunately all of this over-reporting trivialized the central issue in this case, the right of an employee to renegotiate with his employer. T.O. had a fair case, he outplayed his contract and deserved a new one. But the public quickly forget that nugget of information as it became a matter of his attitude, approach and feud with quarterback Donovan McNabb.
Instead of becoming a champion for worker's rights T.O. was turned into another spoiled, self-centered athlete who offered little character wise to his team or society.

Every once in a while during all the chatter about T.O. a football player would come on and talk about how NFL players hate the fact that their contracts unlike those of NBA and MLB players are not guaranteed. Which brings us to the case of Tim Thomas, NBA role player, who happens to be making 14 million dollars this season.

As you can see Tim Thomas is no Terrell Owens when it comes to physique and neither of them are Barry Bonds when it comes to stature. In fact these three barely belong in the same sentence. When placed alongside each other however, they do reveal a strange and rather disconcerting development within the sports world, in particular within, the ranks of the Disneyfied world wide leader in sports. A network founded on delivering sports news is struggling like general news outlets to keep the interests of its audience. Rather than sticking to their guns and doing what they do best, or selectively incorporating the elements of network TV, ESPN, has picked up the worst elements of network news and entertainment. The network has put a premium on entertaining its audience, while forgetting what made it entertaining in the first place, and that sports themselves are inherently entertaining.

Even their own ombudsman, George Solomon has addressed the troubling ramifications of the networks continuing ventures at blurring the lines between sports news/reorting and entertainment (see: here and here ) From simulated press conferences to the most recent attempts at stirring a feud between Kobe Bryant and Ray Allen during a televised game between the Sonics and Lakers on ABC, ESPN's sister station. A graphic outlining a comment made by Allen last year concerning Kobe was repeatedly brought on screen to remind the audience that there was a feud between Bryant and Allen. The comment was trivial at best, and the concocted feud was a wildly unimaginative way of drawing interest to a game that at first glance may have seemed undercast by the poor records of the two teams. However, Allen, Bryant and their teammates did what they were supposed to and played good basketball and in turn put on a spectacular performance for those in attendance and watching at home. They did not need broadcasters drumming up a feud, what they needed was a ball, two hoops and eight other guys willing to run, and once you gave them that Allen and Bryant were more than capable of taking care of the rest.

What does this all have to do with Tim Thomas you ask. Well Tim Thomas never got his show and ESPN never assigned a reporter to stalk him. Maybe the network was tired of going to the well or with Gomez and Paolantonio still assigned to Bonds and T.O. respectively, they could ill afford to dedicate other reporters to such limited beats.

It's a shame that in all this talk about players and their salaries the network has not done an expose on the owners that pay these salaries. It would have been really interesting to hear Jerry Reinsdorf explain to a city in which Hotel workers have been struggling to get a fair contract, and workers in general have been fighting for a fair minimum wage--to explain to these people how he can agree to the release of one of his top five players without any compensation. Workers throughout the city of Chicago who have put up far more earnest fights than Tim Thomas, who by the way is not even clear put up a fight at all, and can not get a deal half as good as he did. Even T.O. would have probably kept his mouth shut if he were dealing with Reinsdorf, and Bonds would definitely give almost anything for the three months of anonymity at full pay that Thomas was recently granted.

In either case, ESPN opted not make a story out of this and on March 1st Tim Thomas was bought out by the Bulls and then proceeded to sign with the Phoenix Suns with very little fanfare. In his first game back after this three month sabbatical Thomas scored twenty points in twenty minutes in 123 - 118 Suns victory over the Orlando Magic. I'm tempted to call this performance a comeback, but then again, who knew he was gone in the first place.

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