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Patrick Hruby

Ozzie Guillen, Bobby Petrino and the real business of sports

Ozzie Guillen is not in the business of winning games. Neither is Bobby Petrino. For that matter, nobody in sports is in the business of winning games.

The sooner everyone realizes this, the fewer oafish miscalculations we'll see.

First, Petrino. He won. He won football games -- lots of them -- at Arkansas, which is kind of like successfully engaging minority voters as member of the current Republican party. Only winning wasn't enough. Wasn't enough to save his job, not after the cheatin' and lyin' and apparent abuse of power, plus his egregious failure to deploy a motorcycle sidecar.

Then there's Guillen. He won with the Chicago White Sox. He was hired to win with the Miami Marlins. He may never get the chance to do so. Already suspended for five games, he could end up losing his job -- deciding when and where grown men throw balls and hit them with sticks -- for the crime of publicly praising Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, a severely insensitive, downright distasteful political opinion that doesn't play well in Peoria, let alone Southern Florida.

Two men. Two men gone stupid. Gone stupid in ways that have nothing to do with what happens on the field of play. So why are both in employment jeopardy?

In the business of sports, what happens on the field is a merely a means. Not an end in itself.

Winning on its own doesn't matter. It may as well happen on a desert island. Winning that excites the public enough to buy tickets, splurge for jerseys and tune in on television does matter. In fact, that's the only winning that matters. The ultimate point of revenue-generating athletics isn't building character or testing the limits of human performance or hoisting championship trophies; it's hawking merchandise and selling captive audiences to advertisers.

To put it in agricultural terms: public attention is the crop. Everything else is just fertilizer.

In this regard, sports business is exactly like the media business. My business. CNN, ESPN, the New York Times, take your pick - we're eyeball merchants. The middlemen of the trade. Like winning, news just happens to be a terrific way of attracting mass interest. And like winning, it can seem like our end product, as opposed to our primary production cost.

It's easy to lose sight of this. Especially for an individual writer like myself. Or, I suppose, an individual coach. And here, I think, is where both Guillen and Petrino miscalculated. At least a little. I have no doubt both men have complex and uniquely individual reasons for committing their respective blunders -- you don't need a weathervane to tell which way Petrnio's wind was blowing -- yet at the same time, I can't help but assume that each figured they were somewhat inoculated from career blowback. I said something offensive. I hired my mistress. So what? I win. Isn't that what you hired me to do?

No. In sports, you're hired to generate positive public regard. To promote crop growth. That's it. And winning isn't the only means to that end. Screw up in a way that retards said growth - by alienating Miami's Cuban-American community, or creating an embarassing public scandal that results in the inevitable Taiwanese Animation treatment (see above) - and you've failed on the job. Period. Winning might be the best deodorant, but it's hardly a Presidential Pardon.