Armageddon Comes to the Hockey Rink

The most important story in sports during the year just ending might also be the most important story next year and many years later. On Jan. 14 the National Hockey League team owners will meet w

Jerry Dowling

The most important story in sports during the year just ending might also be the most important story next year and many years later.

On Jan. 14 the National Hockey League team owners will meet with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. It wasn't immediately confirmed that the group will cancel the season, which already is half gone. But it seemed likely the owners in a major league would can an entire season for the first time.

It's the Armageddon team owners all over sports have been waiting to see, always hoping they wouldn't be the ones to do it. The NHL owners have their backs arched. The players recently asked for a new round of negotiations, during which they offered a 24 percent salary rollback — an enormous concession. The owners told them to come back with something serious.

The owners want some agreement reducing player compensation to 54 percent of revenues, down from the 75 percent league sources are quoting to The New York Times. They want cost certainty.

One wants to shout that the owners already have cost certainty if they want it. They could just say, "We're spending X on players" and stay within budget. But some teams will be able to set higher budgets. We see with the Reds how that works. They can't spend as much as other teams to break even, and they take the heat for it.

All it takes is a couple loose cannons and the player market goes crazy. Next thing you know, competitive zeal trumps financial prudence and teams are losing millions to win — or lose. The Florida Marlins won baseball's World Championship in 2003. Big deal. They lost $25 million.

The NBA and NFL live very easily with salary caps. Teams know how much they'll spend on players every year, teams that push too hard on the cap pay for it and players don't complain they could be making $8 million when they're making $4 million. This year's dismal NFC granted, the NFL is the widest open team competition we have.

With its detailed pay scales, the NBA arrangement is much like the arrangements between unions and other businesses. It's never a matter of players putting themselves on the market for the best deal, pitting disparate offers against legitimate suitors to maximize contracts. The NBA pay scale protects owners from each other and themselves.

The NHL owners want this protection from themselves. They believe it's so important, and the cost of canceling the season so low, that they'll go ahead and cancel the season if they can't have it.

The New York Times says NHL revenues increased last year to almost $2.1 billion from $732 million in 1993-94. During that period, average player salaries increased to $1.83 million from $558,000 as the league added six teams and new arenas with luxury suites, largely financed by the public, have sprung up all over the country. But the NHL evidently is willing to cancel the season for something like a salary cap.

The fallout from this bomb could land anywhere. Whether it destroys the NHL or the league comes back stronger than ever, team owners and player unions throughout sports will watch for clues about how hard they can play ball. It could become the most influential event in the sports business for the next decade.

Outside a safe, lukewarm Olympics in Athens, the only other national occurrence of true significance also is a local story. When Pete Rose admitted in January that he bet on baseball, he ended 15 years of his own denials, as well as the discussion that went with them. Suddenly, questions about what Rose did and what should be done about it were lifted from the air and it now is all but certain he won't see Hall of Fame induction until he's about 80, if ever.

The sordid affair reached its nadir with ESPN's movie said to be about Rose, but which was more likely about a fictional character who might have been named Pete Soprano. With miles of Rose interview footage available for study, the filmmakers offered such an inept characterization of the Hit King that even their sympathizers must have laughed off the interesting message, which was the portrayal of how Rose maintained his narcissistic supply as his vices stripped him of his virtues.

Public opinion turned sharply against Rose with his admission, the media was not as forgiving as it had promised and the story has gone away as a live baseball issue. Good for baseball, not good for Rose.

On the upside, Xavier's run toward college basketball's Final Four not only gave us a local Cinderella at the end of a season that hadn't been especially successful, but it also demonstrated for all who had doubted that the first two-thirds of the college basketball season almost couldn't matter less.

Further, the Xavier story illustrated college basketball's mercenary essence when the coach, Thad Matta, left for Ohio State not long after denying his interest. It is to be hoped Xavier can keep its ideal alive under the new coach, Sean Miller. But the ideal is always under pressure from the real world of college basketball, which is always about the big score.

On the UC side, the men's basketball team put together a hearty effort last season, only to go down during the first weekend for the seventh time in eight years. During the off-season, Bob Huggins took a DUI and the university used the occasion to force a three-month vacation. Now he's back and it's business as usual.

Same with UC football, despite the appearance of new coach Mark Dantonio. The Bearcats won barely more than they lost and won a minor bowl game. Next season UC sports are headed to the Big East. It will be an instructive year.

The Reds and Bengals both are in holding patterns. The Reds went cheap last season and lost too many games in middle relief. They appear to have found religion with the pick-ups of Eric Milton and Ramon Ortiz as a starters, along with Ben Weber and Kent Mercker as relievers. The Reds evidently will add $17 million or so to their payroll, and they're putting it on pitching. It won't necessarily make them playoff contenders, but they could end a string of four losing seasons next year by throwing a few key outs in the seventh inning.

Once again the Bengals will fail to make the playoffs or produce a winning season. But progress is tangible. A crew of young stars on offense has made the team competitive. The youngsters on the defensive side aren't as experienced, and they might not be as good. But it's only going to take a couple good defensive acquisitions before they become a playoff team.

That would be good news for next year. But here's hoping optimism for the new year isn't confined to the Bengals.

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The published version of last week's column left out a necessary step in the argument that paternalistic and libertarian positions both come down against steroid use in baseball. A flavor of libertarian recognizes not just freedoms to act, but freedoms to not be harmed or coerced — negative freedoms. Thus, an anti-steroid ball player of libertarian bent could argue his right for freedom from the necessity of endangering himself with steroids as part of the price to succeed in the game. In this case, the libertarian outcome comes to the same as the paternalistic position along the lines of, "You shouldn't use steroids because they're bad for you."

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