Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Ballad of Mike Brown

“There is, therefore, only a single categorical imperative and it is this: act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law. “
—Immanuel Kant

So Mike Brown came to his senses and traded Carson Palmer. The Bengals get one, possibly two first round draft picks, Carson Palmer gets out of Cincinnati, and the Raiders get the starting quarterback they desperately need. It’s a win-win-win situation, and odds are pretty good the Bengals will get the best of the deal. Everyone agrees it’s the right move, and yet I find myself sad that the standoff has ended.

I haven’t seen a good explanation of what exactly was Carson Palmer’s last straw. Second-hand reports suggest it was the oppressive cloud of losing, though common sense suggests it takes a more discrete rupture to make a man walk away from eleven million guaranteed dollars. Maybe something more happened, maybe he just got fed up and, after his demand for a trade was refused, put his foot down. His position here is pretty clear, a souped-up version of the standard NFL holdout.

I’m sad because Mike Brown backed down from a beautifully Kantian position. Its stark moral logic was as perfect as it was doomed.
“I’m not expecting him to be back. Carson signed a contract. He made a commitment. He gave his word. We relied on his word. We relied on his commitment. We expected him to perform here. He's going to walk away from his commitment. We aren't going to reward him for doing it.”
Mike Brown is a colossally shitty owner. He has nickled-and-dimed the team his father built for two decades now. He has chosen to act as general manager instead of hiring a real one for those twenty years, long after it became apparent he wasn’t up to the task.

And yet, he is roughnecked about what he thinks is right in a way that’s rare in pro sports. With millions of dollars in play with all high-profile maneuver, holdouts like Palmer’s are exercises in realpolitik. It’s not about the signed contract, the bond of a man’s word.1 He is endlessly loyal to those he feels deserves it. He named his stadium after his father, forfeiting free corporate lucre to do so. For the first six weeks of the season, he was willing to keep Carson Palmer on ice, to tie up the Bengals' salary cap in case he came back, and to pass on potential trade windfall, because Palmer had given his word, and he was not interested in rewarding a man for going back on his word.
1: Palmer, of course, was good enough that he was offered and signed a guaranteed contract. The asymmetry of non-guaranteed NFL contracts allows owners to hold players at their word while obviating any requirement that they hold theirs.
I’m glad the Bengals got value for Carson Palmer. I’m glad Carson Palmer gets to ply his trade outside of Hamilton County. But I’m sad Mike Brown backed down. He was picking a fight for virtue over convenience, or, in Kantian terms, for universal law over personal advantage. He gave up the fight, because that’s how the world works. Money trumps principle far too much of the time, because life is more full with shades of grey than objective rational law. In the world of big money sports, I will always pull for the man who takes a stand, however Quixotic.

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