7 April 2014

NCAA Sacrifices Student Athlete to God of Mammon

7 April 2014,

I have loved college basketball over the years. An Indiana University alum and fan, I have also liked the University of Kentucky Wildcats since my wonderful brother and sister-in-law live in Lexington and are fans. I am happy for them and all the UK fans and students who have always been rabid and knowledgeable.  Yet I wasn’t rooting for them in the NCAA Final Four semifinal match against the Wisconsin Badgers a few days ago.

Why? Maybe I am old-fashioned but to me college basketball is about a student athlete who takes classes and more than likely earns a degree. He combines education and athletics. There’s a purity that separates it from the pro game.

Until recently. A perfect example is when Wisconsin and Kentucky played last weekend—the Badgers played amateur student athletes and Kentucky essentially started non-student professionals. It was not a level playing field.

How did this happen? A few years ago the NBA and NCAA made a deal with the devil. They adjusted the age at which amateurs could turn pro and made a joke of the requirements for NCAA eligibility to be considered a student athlete. What’s required of players to be considered student athletes and compete against other student athletes?

  • Do they need to graduate? No.
  • Take three years of classes? No.
  • Take two years of classes? No.
  • Take one year of classes? No.
  • Take one fulltime semester of classes? Not even.


All that’s required of an NCAA student athlete is six hours of classes for a single semester (a full course load is 15 hours). They don’t even have to attend class spring semester. Student-athlete graduation rates will continue to nosedive from historical rates of around 70 percent.

The NCAA is motivated by greed. It didn’t want to risk losing to the NBA any of the top-20 talented basketball players it showcases each year and the television revenue that they create. The price to the cheering public is the death of an icon: The hardworking student-athlete balancing an education with athletics.

Welcome to the new era of the player who has zero interest in college and is essentially a hired gun who uses a year of college hoops to showcase his talent, drive up his value, and jump right to the NBA. He should be playing in the NBA or in the NBA development league and not competing against real student athletes.

However, you can’t blame the kids that are recruited by Calipari. They are 18 year-old kids who don’t want to go to college and just want to play pro basketball. Nothing wrong with that, just don’t go to college.

Calipari, though, lures them with promises of big notoriety and more money.  I might well say yes if I were the kid. The fault is our society, the NBA, the NCAA and coaches like Calipari, who in college basketball, stands in a class by himself.

I am told that Indiana University would not accept a Calipari style of recruiting. I hope that to be the case.

The NCAA and NBA may say they didn’t anticipate the new rules would be abused. True, most college coaches haven’t turned this loophole into a permanent strategy the way UK’s John Calipari has. Sure, Calipari follows the letter of the rule. Yet it is dirty pool in my mind. Sports aficionados know Calipari’s strategy but it’s not talked about much by the media (or the NBA or NCAA) because of the money involved. So public criticism is blunted by the people who control and make money off the airwaves

Calipari smartly muddies the water around the issue. He has two tactical defense strategies: 1) he focuses on a few token players (who play little if at all) who are good students; and 2) he employs savvy word-smithing to replace the “one-and-done” phrase that’s critical of his strategy with the elegant “succeed-and-proceed.”

Calipari simply avoids the central issue of false advertising surrounding calling his players “student-athletes.” Heck, even one-and-done is too generous because it suggests the players take classes for a year. “Two-classes-and-done” is the truth for too many players.

Yet it has yielded results in the NCAA tournament. During the past four years, Calipari’s semi-pro, virtual high school all-star team has got to the Final Four three times and won one (or two if they win tonight) national championships.

Wisconsin was too classy to call foul. Although Badger Coach Bo Ryan did say in a post-game interview how proud he was of his student athletes. College Basketball doesn’t mean students playing basketball anymore. Yet my admiration is great for the teams like Wisconsin that have true student athletes and give Kentucky’s hired guns all they can handle.

The NCAA had better be careful. As more and more people realize what is happening, they may sour on this charade. Most fans have a sense of fairness and a nose for false advertising. More and more, they will realize that these are not students-athletes they’re watching.

17 December 2012

Guns In America: The Elephant in the Room

17 December 2012,
 I have four lovely granddaughters ranging from 4 to 8 years old, I nearly lost one son in a car accident years ago, and another son wrote many articles for Newsweek about school shootings. That’s the context for how heartsick I am about the Connecticut shootings. I’m also sick to my stomach over political leaders who’ve shown zero leadership on passing minimal sensible gun-management laws. Laws governing toys and cars are more stringent.
There will be the familiar cries of politicizing this issue in the wake of tragedy yet I agree with The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein. He says conservatives’ “calls for silence” is politicization in and of itself, to protect their political construct and keep the status quo (loose gun laws), knowing that given time, the tragedy will recede.
This has nothing to do with the millions of wonderful hunters and sportsmen or those who have a gun in their home to protect themselves. By and large this group is responsible. National Rifle Association (NRA) leadership is another story.
Republicans are brazen about this issue. Until Friday, Democrats’ (including the presidents’) silence on guns has equaled complicity, even while America’s mayors and police departments outside the Washington bubble constantly make noise for better gun management.
Help me understand this:
·         On September 11, 2001, nearly 3000 Americans were killed in terrorist attacks and our politicians started two wars and spent 6000 lives (50,000 wounded) and trillions of tax-payer dollars
·         Every year, 11,000 Americans are killed in gun-related homicides and our politicians are silent
Nor do I understand this:
People kill people. Guns don’t kill people.
It’s what opponents of minimal gun management measures always say. The old saw is that murder sprees are caused by crazy people. Indeed, mentally ill people commit most mass murders … and they’re aided by the most efficient machine ever invented to express hate, a gun.

3 December 2012

AMC Theaters Gets Blockbuster’ed

3 December 2012,

I just saw a great example of a company—the theater chain AMC—become irrelevant overnight. AMC is big so let me explain. AMC La Jolla Theater just north of San Diego has always had big lines and tons of business. Mary and I have stood in them for years. Then a month ago, ArcLight La Jolla opened with a vastly superior business model: Pre-selected seating, comfy seats, lush lobby and theaters, alcohol, better food options, more and friendlier employees. 
Result? According to our eyes and an AMC employee, AMC La Jolla has lost half its business in one month. What was their response a month into ArcLight’s incursion into their territory? (After all, AMC had 18 months notice that ArcLight  was coming.)
AMC simply hung a sign at its theater saying they had more comfy seats on the way. Sorry, AMC. Too little, too late. Kansas City-based AMC used to be a leader. Now it looks like a weak follower.
You have to prepare for competition like you’re going to war. When I had Tires Plus, we got 18 months notice that Sears subsidiary, National Tire Chain (NTB) was invading our home base of Minneapolis-St. Paul. What did we do? Took multiple competitive espionage trips to their stores in other markets and upgraded our stores and people to insure NTB had zero edge when they arrived. In addition, during NTB’s grand opening we had our biggest promotion of the year and slashed our tire prices. Result? NTB closed all five of their stores, packed up, and left the Twin Cities 24 months after arriving.
No matter how big AMC is (they were recently bought by a Chinese company), whomever the CEO of AMC is should be fired for being asleep at the switch. If what happened in La Jolla happens in other markets, ArcLight (or Icon or Alamo) will play Netflix to AMC’s Blockbuster.
In the meantime, Mary and I will enjoy our movie nights at ArcLight La Jolla.

14 September 2009

Grading the Boss

14 September 2009,

It’s great armchair sport, grading the president’s first 200 days or 300 days—or in the case of President Obama his first major political gamble, health care reform. Grades land all over the board depending on one’s ideology or access to facts. Although objective observation generates the most accurate grades. All this got me to wondering how small business leaders could objectively observe and grade ourselves—our pluses, our developmental needs. It’s important to know those grades.

When is the last time you evaluated your own performance? How did it look? What did you do about it? It sure ain’t easy to get good evaluations. We beat up on ourselves too much or ignore faults altogether because that’s less painful. Denial and rationalization can rush in when we turn inward.

Here’s a quick primer on self-evaluation. I found many angles on this when I was Head Coach (aka, CEO) of Tires Plus, the 150-store retail chain I cofounded and sold to Bridgestone. I did an annual performance review of myself and added that to feedback from people who reported to me, submitted anonymously to our HR director. 

I still chuckle about the reaction this got from people a few years ago at the American Management Association’s CEO Conference in Quebec. When I mentioned feedback I got from an employee review other CEO’s were appalled that I had allowed my employees to talk about me like that. Ignorance is not bliss, I told them. I’d rather know what employees are thinking and saying and make corrections based on valid criticism. That’s how you avoid the Emperor-has-no-clothes syndrome.

Another evaluation tool I’ve always used is coaching myself on the run. “Nice job, Tom, on your helpful interaction with and advice to Charles,” I’d say to myself. Or: ‘‘Uh-oh, Tom. You got defensive again when John gave you feedback.” It’s healthy to talk yourself via objective self-observation.

You can also fix on how you’re doing by candidly asking people around you, “What do you like about what I’m doing? How can I improve?” Sure, at first they’ll hesitate to tell “the boss” what she’s doing wrong. But if you lead with the pluses, and keep repeating, you’ll pan some gold.

Indeed, it’s fine to grade presidents and employees but not to the exclusion of grading yourself. No one knows you better.

12 June 2009

Crazy CEO Pay Kills the Goose that Lays the Golden Egg

12 June 2009,

Now we have a “Compensation Czar.”

Yesterday President Obama named Washington attorney Kenneth Feinberg “special master for compensation.” How did we get to a point where the federal czar pool included somebody who has to watch Corporate America’s cookie jar?

Amid the chatter about poorly rated subprime mortgage bonds, financial weapons of mass destruction and loony corporate and consumer leverage, CEO and senior management pay hasn’t come in for an appropriate amount of blame for our Great Recession.

It’s sad that it has come to this. But maybe it’s the lesser of two evils. I’m hardly playing fast and loose with the word crazy to characterize the recent history of CEO pay. The ratio of CEO pay (salary, bonus, stock grants) to average worker pay was 24-to-1 in 1965, according to a 2005 Wall Street Journal report. In 2005, it had reached 262-to-1. (My pay was 8-to-1 when I was CEO of a $200 million per year retailer.)

You may ask, So what if these ratios are stratospheric? (You may also ask why I didn’t pay myself more, a subject for a later post.) Companies have various stakeholders: CEO and senior management, line employees, customers, shareholders, the community in which they operate. If the CEO and senior management take a large stake, it has to shrink the stakes of the other stakeholders.

It’s hard to take the stakes away from the customer since management competes every day with its rivals on price and quality. That leaves employees, shareholders and the community getting shafted. Employees, especially the lowest paid, are the most vulnerable. Before the crash, CEO’s engineered huge pay increases as they vigorously fought increases in the minimum-wage that hadn’t budged for a decade (see Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed”). The irony that must be lost on CEO’s and boards is that the declining real wages eviscerate their customer base.

Golden Goose, meet Death.

Meantime, the official memo from the corner office says that capitalism is so darn fair. Indeed, capitalism is fair … unless the egos and greed of CEO’s and senior management go unchecked. Then we have feudalism masked as capitalism; serfs working for overlords.

Shareholders feel the sting as well. For those who have made enough lately to pay expenses and taxes AND make investments, crazy executive pay has hurt their 401(k)’s and mutual funds. Anyone who invested in an index fund tied to, say, the S&P 500, has lost 27 percent over the last ten years.

Massive bonuses and stock grants without claw-backs encouraged reckless investing that led to 2008’s crash.

Finally, communities lose when executive pay eats into the share of profits that they often earn from their “pillars of the community.”

The good news? Thanks in part to Warren Buffet’s crusade more and more boards feel shareholder and community pressure to make sure that CEO’s and senior management don’t win at the expense of everyone else. One day, maybe CEO’s will learn that, as my dad always used to say, pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered.

[NEXT BLOG: How to terminate in an age of downsizing.]

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