By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) It’s rare that I go to the mat for a pro sports league commished by the Count from Sesame Street, but, hey, the International Olympic Committee and its tentacles have a strange way of making other detestables into your friends.
There’s a reason I don’t often back management. See, sports leagues and the suits that run them are inherently bad. You can love players and coaches, but management in major sports on a long enough timeline always reveals itself to be utter trash, if for nothing more than figuring out billionaire owners can curry favor with fans by getting them to idiotically side against millionaire players time and again.
The lampreys running the IOC enter as a wild card in the suit-jersey relationship because the IOC sucks in a totally independent way — by gorging itself on all the money it can from cities often hemorrhaging infrastructure funds to begin with who then idiotically think hosting an Olympics will be a swell idea. The IOC is also incredibly cheap. A year ago it said it wouldn’t pick up the travel bill for NHL players to participate in the next Olympics. What a scummy organization that makes more than $6 billion in revenue, right?
So on Monday after a long back-and-forth with the IOC regarding loaning its players in the middle of its season so that network TV can mess with viewers via tape delayed games, the NHL said its players wouldn’t be going to the 2018 Olympics in South Korea.
I was close to applauding the NHL for this, too. After recently learning to love the World Baseball Classic, my being bothered by pro hockey players in the Olympics hasn’t changed. The WBC doesn’t interrupt the MLB season, unlike Olympic hockey vis-a-vis the NHL. This is the biggest foul of it all. Hey, let’s pause a pro sports league, send its best players overseas for wear and tear in competition that can only hurt their jobs and then tell non-Olympians to just flip the switch back on when the NHL starts up again.
Also, the WBC isn’t part of some corrupt organization hell bent on wringing funds from tapped veins under the guise of glory of international competition (the WBC reportedly doesn’t make much money at all). And nothing about American Olympians winning medals in hockey or slalom makes me feel pride in my country, particularly in the state it’s in at the moment.
But commissioner Gary Bettman — who sent NHL players to the Olympics in the first place almost 20 years ago — had to mangle even something this simple. Making the IOC the bad guy in this, which the league’s statement does, is a no-brainer.
“A number of months have now passed and no meaningful dialogue has materialized,” the NHL said in its official statement before concluding it would go ahead finalizing its 2017-’18 schedule without an Olympic break. “Instead, the IOC has now expressed the position that the NHL’s participation in Beijing in 2022 is conditioned on our participation in South Korea in 2018.”
If everyone in the IOC was made to toil in our salt mines for the rest of their days, I’d be cool with that.
Still, it wouldn’t be pro sports honchos making a big decision like this without totally disrespecting the concerns of labor. The NHLPA released the following statement Monday evening:
“The players are extraordinarily disappointed and adamantly disagree with the NHL’s shortsighted decision to not continue our participation in the Olympics.
“Any sort of inconvenience the Olympics may cause to next season’s schedule is a small price to pay compared to the opportunity to showcase our game and our greatest players on this enormous international stage.
“A unique opportunity lies ahead with the 2018 and 2022 Olympics in Asia. The NHL may believe it is penalizing the IOC or the players, or both, for not giving the owners some meaningful concessions in order to induce them to agree to go to PyeongChang. Instead this impedes the growth of our great game by walking away from an opportunity to reach sports fans worldwide.
“Moreover, it is doing so after the financial issues relating to insurance and transportation have been resolved with the IOC and IIHF. The league’s efforts to blame others for its decision is as unfortunate as the decision itself. NHL players are patriotic and they do not take this lightly. A decent respect for the opinions of the players matters. This is the NHL’s decision, and its alone. It is very unfortunate for the game, the players and millions of loyal hockey fans.”
Now, despite my apathy (if not loathing) of sports patriotism and a huge hatred of stopping operations of a pro sports league for a Ponzi scheme masquerading as purity of athletics, I favor no side here because the NHL went a terribly petty route by bus-tossing the players in one of the few situations in which the average fan is already inclined to be in favor of the players.
“And the NHLPA has now publicly confirmed that it has no interest or intention of engaging in any discussion that might make Olympic participation more attractive to the clubs,” another part of the league statement reads.
Because villainizing the people whom fans tune in to see and who want to represent their respective countries is always the decent thing to do. All roads involving sports executives lead to money.
There’s also the fact that the NHL Players Association wasn’t going to allow Olympic participation to be a chip the NHL played in extending the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, which would have been another ‘game-changer’ for the owners.
I still can’t side with the players here, even though my reflex is almost always to favor labor. Expecting your employer who has millions invested in you to be cool with you not only compromising your health and perpetuate the season’s fatigue while providing no benefit during that time for said employer is a bit much to ask. The players also have the quadrennial World Cup of Hockey, which doesn’t interrupt the season, so any moans about patriotic duty being oppressed ring a bit hollow.
But the NHL could have capitalized on this in much smoother fashion. They almost got me to pat them on the back. Almost.
There’s a reason praise for the likes of Gary Bettman is so rare.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.