Head to Head
All-Star center Pat LaFontaine walked into Buffalo Sabres president Larry Quinn's office on Sept. 5 with what he presumed was good news: That week, after nine hours of examinations, two prominent neurologists cleared LaFontaine to return to hockey. LaFontaine, who suffered the fifth concussion of his 14-year NHL career last Oct. 17 and played only seven games the rest of the season, says that as he entered Quinn's office, "I expected an enthusiasm equal to mine. I think the 25 other NHL teams, on hearing that their captain had researched the matter, had been seen by renowned neurologists and was now O.K., would have been delighted."
The response from Quinn and Sabres general manager Darcy Regier has been more restrained. They organized a conference call for early this week between the three doctors who last spring said that LaFontaine was unfit to play and the pair who had given him a green light. One of the latter doctors was James Kelly, whose Colorado Guidelines for the classification and treatment of concussions are used as standards throughout much of the sports world.
"Did Pat's doctors have all the information?" Regier asks. "We want all the data on the table. This is a medical issue." Not so, counters Don Meehan, LaFontaine's agent: "This is a money issue."
Meehan asserts that Buffalo is worried about LaFontaine's productivity and is looking for a way to get out from under his salary. LaFontaine is guaranteed $4.8 million for each of the next two seasons, 80% of which would be paid by an insurance company if he were medically unfit. Anyone who would turn down $9.6 million for not working should have his head examined again, but the 32-year-old LaFontaine, one of hockey's smartest players, is committed to making a comeback. If the doctors fail to reach a consensus, LaFontaine is prepared to go to an arbitrator in the hope that the Sabres would be compelled to take him back. He could also request a trade. Regier hopes any conflict can be resolved internally.
In either case the matter has become a big headache for Buffalo, which didn't need another public-relations disaster just two months after failing to re-sign popular coach Ted Nolan. The cash-poor Sabres are unlikely to win financially—since two doctors have given LaFontaine their blessing, it's doubtful Buffalo can even make a compelling insurance claim—or on the public relations front against the dogged LaFontaine, who has been working out and skating on his own. The Sabres' best course would be to graciously accept his perseverance, his 80 points and his note from his doctors.
Paint It Black
On the opening Sunday of the NFL season, half the 14 games were blacked out on TV in their home markets because the home teams failed to sell out by the required 72 hours before kickoff. After 21 straight games without a blackout, the Miami Dolphins have had two already this year; on Sunday the San Diego Chargers had their first since 1994. Last week the league sent out a release noting that only four games last weekend were being blacked out. One of them was at Minnesota, where the Vikings and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers squared off in the only matchup of unbeaten teams.
The NFL has the most dedicated TV audience of any U.S. pro league, but fans aren't packing stadiums to see the games. "There are lots of reasons you can identify," says Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen. "I think the least reasonable reason is that the game is not as popular." Bowlen believes that because the season started earlier than ever, on Aug. 31, fans weren't ready for football, and that the turnout will pick up in the weeks ahead. Others in the NFL say the high rate of blackouts is merely coincidence, that some of the softer markets just happened to be hosting games at the same time.
But it's also possible that rising ticket costs, a dearth of must-see visiting teams—the result of parity—and rosters constantly reshuffled by free agency have dampened fans' loyalty. The NFL, which has a $1.1 billion-per-year TV contract and will sign an even more lucrative deal next year when CBS tries to regain telecasting rights, may also be slow in catering to its stadium-going fans. "In many cities the clubs have to market the product better," says Bob Leffler, a Baltimore sales consultant who represents three NFL teams. "There's a slow realization that the automatic sellout is not there just for an NFL game."