So it has come to this: The Bears play in prime time on Sunday, and I’m sorry to be missing even the increasingly cartoonish X-Files. In fact, I’m sorry that the Fox network isn’t playing one of its world’s-most-gruesome-police-chases specials, because it would truly be a dilemma whether to watch that or the Bears, whose season has been one long accident, a train derailing on a bridge and slithering into the water.
There is no pleasure to be derived from watching the Bears at this point, unless one takes a sadistic pleasure in the suffering of Dave Wannstedt. There is no player worth watching on this team, not in the way Minnesota Vikings rookie Randy Moss is worth watching. Moss comes quickly to mind because he and the Vikings humiliated the Bears 48-22 Sunday night in front of a national (if thankfully merely basic-cable) TV audience. Moss, a rangy receiver whose college drug problems prompted the Bears and 19 other NFL teams to pass him over in this year’s draft, put on a clinic against the Bears, catching eight passes, three for touchdowns. He also scored early style points, gently pushing off the Bears’ Walt Harris for a TD reception, making a tippy-toe sideline catch, and gliding across the middle for a pass as the Bears’ defensive backs treated him like a streaker, someone to be ogled, not touched. He finished with style too. Taken down by frustrated Marty Carter in blatant pass interference in the third quarter, he lined up on the other side of the field on the next play and burned Harris for a touchdown bomb. The only Chicago person worth watching turned out to be Wannstedt, in response to Moss’s heroics. The familiar hangdog expression in which Wannstedt’s eyebrows turn down at the corners progressed to the more familiar beat-dog expression and eventually, as his eyes glazed over, to the dead-dog-in-the-street expression.
Wannstedt wouldn’t know how to spot talent at a Las Vegas hookers convention, and he lacks the strategic sense and teaching ability to mask the shortage of talent–even if he does affect professorial spectacles now and then on the sidelines. The Bears are worse than ever under his tenure, and the reasons are obvious. They’re now finding out that Steve Stenstrom can’t play quarterback because Wannstedt didn’t try to find out what he could do a year ago, once that season was a washout. He has stuck with fragile old players like Erik Kramer because he hasn’t been able to develop new ones. The players know he has no sense of talent, and so they lack the confidence to make the plays Wannstedt says they need to make to win. The Bears right now are a team no player wants to belong to, because what does it say about one’s ability that only Wannstedt and his staff can appreciate it? There are some players on this team, but they’re hard to see in all the muck. Harris is the proverbial boy with a finger in the dike at cornerback. I’ve always liked linebacker Barry Minter, but in the middle of the Bears’ defense he looks like a cowboy trying to stop a stampede after getting knocked off his horse. It looks as if defensive tackle Jim Flanigan can play, but it’s hard to say how good he is when there’s no one around him to help out; in any case, he’s no Steve McMichael. Top draft pick Curtis Enis is a load at running back, but went down with a knee injury it’ll be tough to make a full recovery from, and tight end Alonzo Mayes is a load too, but the Bears’ quarterbacks can’t get the ball to him. Even Curtis Conway, the Bears’ burner wide receiver, has fallen into a funk this year, and in fact played a large part in making the team’s awful performance worse. After the Bears recovered from losing their first four games to win three of the next four before a week off, they returned to play a miserable game against the Saint Louis Rams in which Conway not only let a touchdown pass go through his arms but also threw an incomplete pass to a wide-open Bobby Engram on an end-around option play that would have gone for a score. The Bears haven’t come close to winning since.
So the Wannstedt era is about to end. It’s doubtful that even Bears owner Mike McCaskey could bring him back at this point, though I wouldn’t put anything past him. The Bears are disgraceful, but what does he care? He sells his tickets, and given the Bears’ lease at Soldier Field he doesn’t lose concession money on no-shows anyway. The Bears are going to have to crash and burn the franchise in hopes of rebuilding through the draft, because McCaskey has proved unwilling to spend the money and make the deals it takes to circumvent the NFL’s hard salary cap. So who knows–he might keep Wannstedt around just to absorb the punishment. After all, who cares how many times somebody kicks a dead dog in the street?
When it suits their purposes, sports owners are fond of saying that sports is an entertainment business, as if this guarantees them the right to a profit. They’re right that sports is entertainment, but I don’t remember anyone from Adam Smith on down saying that TV networks or movie studios or record companies or even symphony orchestras or ballet companies–much less sports teams–are entitled to exist simply because they provide entertainment. The history of entertainment is rife with failed ventures, some of which gave the audience, for some brief time, exactly what it wanted. Actually, the present state of entertainment argues forcibly against sports team owners who insist that costs (usually labor costs) have to be contained for them to survive. In movies, music, and publishing, a big profit almost always requires a big investment, whether it be the $200 million spent on Titanic or the huge contracts extended to groups like the Rolling Stones and R.E.M. or the stupefying advances given big-name no-talents ranging from Marcia Clark and Chris Darden to Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky (no doubt in days to come). It’s no different in baseball and basketball than it is in books: Now more than ever, you’ve got to spend money to make money.
So why do conservative sports fans and newspaper columnists agree that a salary cap is necessary to ensure fair competition in basketball or baseball–as if the very idea of fair competition weren’t an oxymoron. George Steinbrenner is fond of saying that he bought the New York Yankees, not the Pittsburgh Pirates, and shouldn’t be expected to subsidize owners who bought in on the cheap. By the same token, why should a relatively small-market club that provides its fans with a competitive team playing in a glittering new stadium that sells out the season before it even begins–one like the Cleveland Indians–be expected to contain its costs just to provide “fair competition” with a major-market owner who’s done nothing but alienate his fan base, like Jerry Reinsdorf with the White Sox?
More to the point where the NBA lockout is concerned, why should the athletes be expected to guarantee the owners a profit by accepting contracts at less than their fair market value? If Michael Jordan has caused the worth of the Chicago Bulls franchise to increase by hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of his career, why shouldn’t he be paid a salary in the $30 or $35 or even $50 million range? No newspaper columnist I know would accept the idea of a salary cap at the Tribune or the Sun-Times, much less one that would put those papers on an equal footing with the Daily Herald or the Daily Southtown. Imagine the response if Hollywood movie producers decided to impose a salary cap of, say, $50 million on any film, thus restricting the megastar’s salary. Is Jordan overpaid at $30 million for playing basketball? Compared to a schoolteacher, maybe, but compared to Adam Sandler, who may soon be cranking out three or four crappy movies a year at $20 million a pop, not hardly.
Sports has always been a battle between the haves and the have-nots, and I don’t know how anyone can say baseball today is in worse shape competitively than it was in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, when the behemoth Yankees were winning year after year by outbidding other teams for bush-league talent. Not to get too Marxist about it, but all entertainment–and just about any other field one can imagine–is the same. The have-nots must discover new ways to get a return on their money, which is how a lot of what turns out to be progress is made. Before the baseball strike the Montreal Expos had built the best team in baseball in a small market, and I’m convinced they could do it again. (It’s less baseball economics than Dave Dombrowski’s working address that has changed.) At some point, talent sets its own salary limits. If I decide Robin Ventura isn’t worth $8 million a year, and I decide to take the $5 million I was paying him and give it to somebody (anybody but Ron Schueler will do) to find me a replacement–a promising player in high school or college or, more likely yet, someone unscouted in Mexico or the Dominican Republic–I think that’s defensible. The Pirates, often cited as a small-market success story, got great results a year ago when they let high-priced free agents go and instead brought in unknown pitching talent from Mexico such as Esteban Loaiza and Ricardo Rincon.
So let’s get one thing straight, whether we’re talking baseball or basketball: It’s up to the owners to set salaries in negotiations with the players. Let the market decide. If an owner can’t make a profit, let him or her be forced to sell the team. Inevitably, salary caps don’t squeeze the stars so much as they squeeze the rank and file. And if you want to see the worst possible result of a salary-cap system that almost guarantees owners a profit, look at the Bears.