Saturday, September 22, 2012

Jim Devellano is a Diabolical Madman?

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Red Wings fans got some interesting news the past couple of days. Red Wings Senior Vice-President Jim Devellano gave an interview, in which he answered questions about the NHL's CBA talks. The response to that from the NHL was swift - they fined the Detroit Red Wings an undisclosed sum, however the figure thrown around the Twitterverse and Blagosphere was $250,000.

The reason for the fine as shared by the League was very explicit:
"The Detroit Red Wings' organization and the League agree that the comments made by Mr. Devellano are neither appropriate, nor authorized, nor permissible under the League's By-Laws," said NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. "Such comments are neither constructive nor helpful to the negotiations."
Quick sidebar, Mr. Daly, "constructive" and "helpful" mean the same thing. But that's not the point. The point is I'm going to say something that might shock the collective minds of my readers: The NHL had every right to do what they did and given the situation, they were absolutely ethically right in their decision. Curious as to why? We'll get to that but first I want to address a complaint I've seen voiced on Twitter and elsewhere on the Internet. "What about freedom of speech, NHL!? You can't just go crushing Devellano's right to free speech!" Actually yes, yes they can.
"Congress shall make now law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press..." (Bold text mine)
The United States of America is a wonderful and free place to live. We have wonderful rights and liberties that a lot of people don't enjoy, and the freedom of speech is one of them. However, the 1st Amendment only truly protects us against the government infringing upon our right to free speech. It offers little to no protection against private companies or organizations from silencing free speech. And in general, our right to free speech isn't inalienable. You can't yell fire in a crowded theater, you can't have graphic violence, nudity, sexual content or vulgarity on television or the radio, and you can't threaten to kill the President of the United States. The National Hockey League has every right and authority to punish one of its employees for something they've said without violating that employees Constitutional rights, with a handful of exceptions.

"Right, Jefferson, a painting of us is going to be used on a hockey blog.
And women will be allowed to vote someday, too. Idiot."
Now that I got that civics lesson out of the way, I said that the NHL were right in their decision to fine the Red Wings for Devellano, and I stand by that comment. Because here's the thing: The NHL has By-laws preventing League or team officials from commenting on the Collective Bargain Agreement negotiations. The only two people who are allowed to speak to the media on the matter are Gary Bettman and Bill Daly, which is why they're the only two you've heard anything from. I'm guessing the most that anyone else could say on the matter would be "All I can say is I hope we come to an agreement soon. Beyond that, you'll have to direct your questions to either Gary Bettman or Bill Daly." And even then, that first part could get you in hot water.

It doesn't matter that what Devellano had to say were mostly supporting the NHL's position during the bargaining agreement. If you allow those comments to the media by team officials, then you open the door to all comments and the last thing the League wants to do is to have a GM or team owner come out and undermine the League's bargaining position. If they don't punish Devellano for his comments, then next week the owner of the Buffalo Sabres could come out to the press and say that he's willing to reduce the League's demands if it'll end the lockout.

In that regard, the League was absolutely correct to fine the Red Wings. I think people should be allowed to say what they want without reprisal, most notably criticizing the League, League officials and the referees. But if thems the rules, then thems the rules.

What about the content of Devellano's words? When asked about the huge contracts like, among others, Shea Weber's, Devellano confirmed the existence of something many have speculated actually existed. After mentioning the salary cap forces teams to make decisions about salaries, he goes on to say, "They (Philadelphia) operated within the CBA and it's totally legit to do. Having said that, I will tell you there is an unwritten rule that you don't do that, but they did..."

I'm not a legal scholar or expert, but I do know that there are federal laws preventing collusion within an industry. It came out of J.D. Rockafeller and others working with railroads and other major industries to artificially fix prices. Which is effectively what this unwritten rule among the owners is doing: by agreeing that they won't use offer sheets on restricted free agents you are preventing the player market from better determining the value of of that players' labor. Does Shea Weber get the contract he does if Philadelphia never makes an offer sheet? Certainly Nashville was negotiating from a position that was informed by that unwritten rule. They felt confident that nobody would make an offer for Weber and so there was no real sense of panic to negotiate or capitulate to Weber's demands. Conversely, would Weber have landed an even bigger deal had he been an unrestricted free agent on the open market? Probably. Does this meet the legal definition of "collusion" and have the NHL owners violated federal law? I don't know. But it seems like if Congress can spend time and energy investigating steroid use in MLB, they could have the Justice Department look into this.

Other of Devellano's have gotten a lot of attention and flak. He basically tells the players to shut up and take the League's offer of a 10% swap, with the players taking 43% of hockey-related revenue and the league taking 57%. But more upsetting to many were his comments about the fans' intelligence and the value of the players. "It's very complicated and way too much for the average Joe to understand", says Devellano about the negotiations and the details of the CBA, "...The owners can basically be viewed as the Ranch and the players, and me included, are the cattle. The owners own the ranch and allow the players to eat there."

I'm not the smartest hockey fan out there, but I'm a pretty bright guy. And I think if the League and the players were more forthcoming with unbiased information and financial data, the fans could make a much more informed decisions and comments about the situation. Furthermore, this is further evidence of the owners and League officials having a hard time connecting with fans.

I can't imagine the players are going to take kindly to being compared to cattle. Granted Devellano includes himself in that category, but there really isn't much of a comparison to be made there. For starters Devellano is still working and drawing a salary from the Detroit Red Wings, whereas none of the players are (save for Patrick Eaves). It also conjures up more negative images of greedy owners without humanity, who view the fans as walking dollar signs and the players as cattle being lead to slaughter. Next time Sidney Crosby is forced to play through concussions, maybe he'll just view it as being "tenderized".

Nicklas "The Tenderizer" Kronwall

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