Brown makes a martyr out of a molehill

Thursday, December 10, 1998

Mike Brown
Lee Johnson deserved to be fined. You don't bite the hand that feeds you and expect dinner to be served on schedule.

Freedom of speech means freedom from prosecution, not freedom from repercussions. The man who publicly bashes his employer does so at his own risk. This is true in every business in America, with the possible exception of the American Civil Liberties Union. It is certainly true of the Cincinnati Bengals.

Bengals President Mike Brown had every right and ample reason to penalize his punter for some of his statements following Sunday's loss to Buffalo. When Johnson suggested he would sell his tickets rather than watch his team, he crossed the line between candor and subversion.

He had to know he was asking for trouble. He must have considered the consequences. He should not have been surprised that his salary was docked.

But leave it to Mike Brown to make a martyr out of a molehill. To fire Lee Johnson on the morning his remarks were published, and then fine him a week's pay ($20,588.24) on top of it is tantamount to swatting a fly with a sledgehammer. It is both Draconian and dumb. Brown claims Johnson was cut because of his performance rather than his pontificating. Perhaps this is true. Perhaps, as Brown said on another occasion, Sam Wyche really resigned.

Yet even if Johnson was waived by sheer coincidence on the day his criticisms appeared in print - a formidable leap of faith - Mike Brown should have been more sensitive to the perception that the act was punitive and petty. He might at least have waited a week.

Johnson expendable

Though Lee Johnson is certainly expendable at this stage of his career, cutting the last survivor of Super Bowl XXIII at this stage of this season can only be seen as cruel retribution. Cutting Johnson does not begin to address the problems of a 2-11 team, but it does say something about how a team gets to be 2-11.

Mike Brown knows enough about X's and O's to run a National Football League franchise. He is a former college quarterback, a smart guy, and he has surely gained some valuable insight after 30 years in the business.

But the small-market operator who continues to treat players like chattel is out of touch with the times. Athletes have more leverage now, more choices, and few would choose to play for the Bengals unless they had no other alternative.

"We're the talk of the town," offensive tackle Willie Anderson said Wednesday. "And all the talk is bad."

Only a draft that rewards failure and a system of revenue-sharing designed to prop up mom-and-pop franchises prevents the Bengals from going 2-11 every year. For even when they draft wisely, which is infrequent, the Bengals are hard-pressed to find enough talent to replace all their players who want out.

Mike Brown does not necessarily have to step down to solve these problems, but he would have to step up efforts to convince his players they are more than pawns. Some of this has to do with dollars, but a lot of it simply calls for sense.

In need of people skills

If Brown has a problem with one of his players, he should summon him to his office and discuss the matter instead of sending a subordinate to seize his playbook. He should show more people skills and less of the imperious Captain Bligh, unless his aim is to incite Mutiny On The Brown-ty.

Brown wants to run the Bengals as a family business, but he has yet to cultivate a family atmosphere. Pro football is notoriously cold-blooded, but there is less warmth at Spinney Field than Fairbanks in February.

"It's pretty bad right now," one Bengals veteran said. "It's frustrating. I wish I could say more, but $20,000 is a lot of money."

"I'm trying to stay PC (politically correct)," said quarterback Jeff Blake. "I'm pleading the fifth (amendment)."

Bengal players were reluctant to speak out Wednesday, and head coach Bruce Coslet repeatedly refused to discuss the Johnson case. For a day, Mike Brown had succeeded in stifling dissent. Hollow victories, however, don't show up in the standings.

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