The Boston Trade Party–Acquiring Draft Picks Like Taking Candy from A Baby (Part 2 of 4)

In any sport, a proven player usually has a degree of increased value over a draft pick, who is an unknown commodity. However, the NBA pushes this adage past the extreme. This problem of properly valuing future draft picks is one of the reasons why there is so much tanking in the NBA.

The one franchise that seems to easily recognize this league-wide fatal flaw is the Boston Celtics. They have been capitalizing on it consistently for over 50 years, and at this point it looks like they are taking candy from a baby.

The Celtics started sniffing out this weakness in the year 1956. In the 1956 Draft, the St. Louis Hawks traded the Celtics the number two pick in the draft in exchange for Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan. Those were two excellent players and the Hawks had hope after coming off a trip to the Western Division Finals. However, the only problem is that the Hawks gave away the pick which resulted in the greatest NBA player of all time getting drafted: Bill Russell. While many people today give the GOAT mantle to Michael Jordon, it’s sure hard to ignore that Russell won 8 NBA championships…in a row! Russell totaled 11 rings in his 13 NBA seasons, won 5 league MVP’s and was the player/coach for three of those titles. All that output from Russell for Macauley and Hagan? Red Auerbach sure had the Hawks seeing Red.

It had to be a difficult for the Hawks to pull the trigger on this trade because they knew which  player would be obtained with their pick. However, think about how much easier it is for NBA teams to part with picks for future years, when the value of the pick is a complete unknown.

On September 6, 1979 the Celtics traded Bob McAdoo to the Pistons for two first round picks.  One of those picks became the first overall pick of the 1980 draft. How could the Pistons make that trade? It’s like they saw McAdoo and fell into a “draft pick trance” and just lost their mind. They saw McAdoo as a new car and their future pick as an old bicycle and they traded accordingly.

Auerbach then used this pick from the Pistons to really cash in. Right before the 1980 draft, the Celtics traded the rights to this first overall pick and the 13th pick to the Warriors for the 3rd pick and Robert Parish. The end result of the trade was that the Warriors traded Joe Barry Carroll and Rickey Brown to the Celtics for Kevin McHale and Parish.

For the Celtics, the “T” in ‘Boston Tea Party’ might just stand for “Trade”. They had done it again, and the Warriors saw their future being poured into the Boston Harbor.

Clearly Auerbach could evaluate talent on trade day much more astutely than the Hawks and Warriors could do at these times. But his trade with the Pistons reveals how little some teams value their future picks. If this happens once it could be seen as a mistake, but when it happens over and over, it looks more like an addiction or fatal flaw. This lack of value for future draft picks is at the heart of the tanking problem.

Danny Ainge has picked up where Red left off in snatching candy from babies. In 2013 Ainge took a look at his aging roster and started a fire sale, but somehow the sum of what he got in return was startling. Ainge’s return was exponentially larger than what he gave, so much so that it indicates some type of problem. The only defense that the other teams can really make is the Twinkie defense.

Many of these trades involved role players for salary cap purposes, and two were complex three team deals. But in the end the Celtics received a total of 9 first round future draft picks and the rights to swap picks next year with the woeful Nets! Following is a cliff notes version of the key pieces that were given and received, in order of significance:

  • Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce on the downside of their careers, as well as Jason Terry to the Nets for the Nets unprotected first round picks in 2014, 2016, and 2018 as well as the option to swap first round picks with the Nets in 2017.
  • Rajon Rondo to the Mavericks for a 2015 first round pick, Brandan Wright and Jae Crowder.
  • Brandan Wright to the Suns for a first round pick that is top 12 protected.
  • Jeff Green to Memphis for a future first round protected pick, in an unspecified year.
  • MarShon Brooks and Jordan Crawford to the Warriors, Warriors trade Toney Douglas to the Heat, and the Heat give the Celtics a 2015 first round draft pick and a 2016 first round draft pick.
  • Future second round pick to the Cavs, Cavs trade Tyler Zeller a first round pick to the Cavs (protected from 2016-2018 and unprotected in 2019), Cavs trade Jarrett Jack to the Nets, and the Nets give the Cavs the draft rights to 3 past European draft picks.

These trades are all highway robbery. The Celtics took an aging team with no future, dangled a few big names and had cap space take on unwanted players from other teams, and somehow received a king’s ransom.

Why can’t NBA executives accurately value the equivalency of future draft picks for current talent? The easy answer is that NBA executives are judged by how many games they win each year and they are desperate to keep their job and maximize this number, even if it results in teams trading away their future. But it’s way more complex that this, because no GM wants to look like a fool in the long run and end up on the wrong side of history.

Whatever the reason, GM’s have trouble containing themselves, and the upshot of having so many protected picks floating around leads teams to tank. For example, the Lakers draft pick next season is top 3 protected due to their Steve Nash trade, meaning the Lakers will only keep this pick if they have one of the three worst records. They have incentive to be one of the three worst teams this season.

Tanking in the NBA is already dangerous enough with teams like the 76ers openly losing to get high draft picks and defiantly calling it “the process”. But now the plethora of protected picks everywhere further creates a tanking environment. It is ironic that protected picks were designed to protect teams from giving away the number one pick in the draft, but in return they increase tanking.

Part of the solution to tanking must involve getting GM’s to start valuing their future picks in a rational manner and limiting the number of protected picks from changing hands, if this is possible.  And it may not be possible, because it’s never easy to fix a fatal human flaw. How could the lessons learned by the St. Louis Hawks and the Pistons of 1979 be ignored by the Nets of today?

Shortsightedness and the need for immediate returns in the NBA appear common. Once a GM feels they are close to competing for a title, they unload their future draft picks for the pieces they think they need, feeling as if their future is now. But sometimes it isn’t.

If the Celtics end up getting potential superstar Ben Simmons next year with the first pick in the draft from the Nets, it could be the biggest steal since 1956…and 1980.

Next in Part 3: Designing an Anti-Tank Weapon

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It is Difficult To Even Process How Ridiculous Tanking is, But Here is How To Stop It (Part 1 of 4)

If you want a fascinating vantage point into the yin and yang of the competitive spirit, all you have to do is take a look at four NBA teams this season who share one thing in common: they are all not very good.

However, while it may be true that no member of this off-key quartet will be raising a championship banner this year, two of them are fighting with the ferocity and urgency of Davy Crockett at the Alamo. Their spirited fight–which ironically is not entirely voluntary because their past bad trades demand it–reminds me of what makes professional sports great and what the future of the NBA should be about: franchises doing all they can to win all of the time.

These four teams here with rosters not ready for prime time are the Nets, Kings, Lakers, and 76ers. While the Nets and Kings are doing everything they can to win, the Lakers and the 76ers are engaged in an art form that has been crafted to perfection in the recent NBA: tanking.

Tanking is when a front office purposely fields a team that will lose a majority of its games, with the end goal of securing a high draft pick. It has become such a reality in the modern NBA that no team can really criticize the practice, because they have probably done it themselves.

Even the Warriors recently did it in 2011. They finished that season 5-22 because their upcoming draft pick was top 7 protected, meaning if they finished with the 8th worst record they would have to give it to the Jazz. Voilà! The Warriors barely nudged into the 7th worst record on the last day of the season and they then picked Harrison Barnes the following season. Tanking can be very beneficial for a team and actually a good long term strategy. But is this what the NBA really wants?

These last couple of seasons the 76ers have taken tanking to a level never seen. They have been doing it nonstop for a while and there is no end in sight. The 76ers front office has even tried to give their tanking strategy some bravado and swagger: they actually named it. They dubbed their continual losing “The Process“.

That’s right, this perpetual state of ineptitude is affectionately referred to by 76ers executives  as “the process”–as if something clever and strategic is taking place. But let’s be honest here: the 76ers may need the help of a process engineering consulting company, because now even league executives are calling it “a failure”. This must be difficult for the 76ers brass to process!

The Nets and the Kings, by contrast, are doing the opposite of tanking. They are trying. They may have rosters that could merit a tanking strategy, but from the ball boy to the owner they all want to win every possible game. That’s because these teams get absolutely no benefit from being bad, because they either traded away their future draft picks or given other teams the right to switch picks with them. In fact, the more they lose the more humiliating it is for all of them because another team may actually benefit from their poor play by getting the draft pick they would otherwise have received.

Hmmm…feeling bad about losing, shouldn’t that be a given in professional sports? Seeing what happens when non-superpower teams really want to win is in itself interesting. Take the Nets: here we are still weeks before the All Star Game and they already fired their coach and GM in a desperate attempt to salvage their season and turn things around. In addition, even before this their effort was turning heads, in November the Nets took the undefeated and uninjured Warriors to overtime in Oakland. It turns out that when bad teams are put in the position of needing to win every game possible, it is gripping and entertaining stories emerge.

The NBA looks like a more fun place without tanking. But before figuring out a potential remedy, it is worth the time to understand how tanking has become engrained into so many layers of the NBA.

Next in Part II: Trading future picks is like running up credit card debt, and the NBA sure likes their credit card.

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Trump Would Say Anything for Attention, But He Won’t Say That

Judging from the public’s response to words from Presidential candidates, it’s become clear where the American public is most sensitive. This is an area so raw that it can trigger a public backlash strong enough to decisively ruin a candidate.

Spoiler alert: it was revealed four years ago.

Donald Trump has called Mexican people coming across the border “rapists”, mocked war hero John McCain for “getting caught”, said he wants to exclude all Muslims from emigrating into the United States, ridiculed the physical appearance of both Carly Fiorina and Rand Paul, appeared to make fun of a reporter with special needs, and referenced Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle. Trump re-tweeted racist misinformation to his 5.3 million followers regarding the racial breakdown of domestic shootings–and then defended himself by saying it wasn’t coming from him, but was a just a “retweet”. Huh!? This is the current leader in the polls for the Republican Party, and it’s hard to believe.

These comments are 100% detestable. But notice how Trump has no insults for the “47%” that Mitt Romney insulted. That’s right– the subject of income inequality appears to be the most sensitive spot for the American public.

In the “47%” video, Mitt Romney mocked the poor and essentially called them entitled free-loaders. He said, “47% of Americans pay no income tax” and “they believe they are victims (and that) the government has a responsibility to care for them”. He went on to say “I’ll never convince them to take personal responsibility”. Romney claimed he was just talking about his election strategy but the damage was done and he was done.

This tells me that Bernie Sanders is really on to something. His message of combating income inequality has enabled him to set the all time record for the most individual donations ever during the year before the election. He just passed the record President Obama set of 2,209,636 through December 31, 2011. Sanders claims that 99 percent of new income is going to the top 1 percent in the United States, and that the top .1 percent have as much wealth as the bottom 90%. Setting the record for the most individual donors ever at this point in the campaign shows his message is resonating strongly with many people.

I wonder if all Trump’s ridiculous statements are hurting Sanders more than any other candidate. As the news cycles are filled with feigned shock and rubber necking at what Trump said, Trump’s words are having a result opposite to Romney’s, and that’s quite ironic. Trump is saying shocking things that are taking attention away from the issue of income inequality, and it’s helping him win in the polls.

While Trump may insult everybody in disgusting ways, I’ll bet he never insults anyone for being poor. I wish he would.

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The Pen is Not Too Mighty When Penned Up

There have been some disturbing happenings in the past year that hint at a growing challenge to the free press in our country. In November, 2014, the Senior Vice President of Uber threatened to dig up dirt on a journalist who was reporting on his company in a less than flattering way. It’s hard to believe that a representative  of such a high-flying company would say this, but yes, this actually happened! It is true that the executive thought he was speaking off the record at a company event, but think of the implications here, and the audacity it took to say this out loud as a potential ‘strategic communications’ strategy.

The journalist, Sarah Lacy, was reporting on a lack of safety in Uber rides, and what she perceives as a misogynist attitude in the company. Uber could have ignored these reports, or factually countered them. The choice of this Uber executive to go on the attack and dig up personal dirt on the reporter demonstrates a factor that a free press may be up against when perhaps billions of dollars hinge how a company is perceived.

And what happens when a multi-billion dollar company decides to bypass the dirty business of private detectives and even blackmail, and just buys the media? Amazon’s purchase of the Washington Posdid save the struggling newspaper, but the question that still remains to be answered is how this may affect the news. Do you think the Washington Post would ever do any hard-hitting reporting on its owner the way the New York Times recently did? How much power could Jeff Bezos and Rupert Murdoch wield in the newsroom to benefit their businesses?

Sometimes, powerful people can literally push the press around. At some of Donald Trump’s political events, security keeps the press in what they call the “pen”. This Trump pen prevents the press from walking around to observe and film protestors and events so that they can report on them fully and accurately. Believe it or not, the press are actually required to have a security escort when they leave the pen to go to the bathroom.

It takes boldness for a reporter to rip into a powerful corporation over and over again. It’s been encouraging to see some local Bay Area writers do this, and I applaud sports writers Tim Kawakami, Lowell Cohn, and Ann Killion. Sometimes sports is a window into the dynamics of our society–and these writers show the best of what can be seen through that window.

The San Francisco 49ers are a powerful corporation. Not only do the 49ers have millions of loyal fans, they also have a new stadium that is triggering the construction of a metropolis around it. But all of this power hasn’t stopped these writers from tearing into the 49ers ownership and front office when necessary.

Kawakami describes having GM Trente Balke “glaring” at him for his reporting, even calling it a “death stare”. Cohn says that team employees like announcer Ted Robinson, whom he has known for over 30 years, have stopped talking with him. When multiple writers receive such  treatment for reporting on a billion dollar corporation, chances are it is a story that the public deserves to know about.

In my blog, Stay Classy, Santa Clara I wrote about the 49er follies back in August. Since then Jed and his team have only gotten more bizarre and comical. After allegations that Jed leaked negative stories to the press last year regarding Jim Harbaugh, somehow the press recently found out that earlier this season Blane Gabbert read his iPad playbook four to five times more than Colin Kaepernick. Obviously, the 49ers care enough about how they are portrayed in the media to leak information about a player’s personal computer usage. What’s next–leaking to the press how many sugars each quarterback puts in his coffee? It is naive of the 49ers to think that the public won’t realize that they were the ones who leaked this information.  But there is a certain arrogance and smugness that the 49ers ownership has been showing since the so-called firing of Harbaugh, and it is refreshing that these reporters are not afraid to endure some uncomfortable moments to report on what is happening.

When corporations do ridiculous things like leak information to “win the press conference”, no matter how powerful and beloved by the public this company may be, it is a benefit to society for the press to be able to report this from many different perspectives. It is no secret that Fortune 500 companies are booming while American print journalism is financially struggling, and this only makes it more tenuous to displease big business. When an emerging billion dollar reputation is on the line for a company like Uber, or when millions of dollars may hang on a single news story, it is scary to think that at some point, a reporter might just decide that trying to use the so-called freedom of the press is just not worth the cost.

The last point I will make about challenges to the press and to accurate reporting  is the advent of social media, where the line becomes more blurry as to what is a story and what is an individual blogger with an ax to grind. Mainstream news outlets are now more important  than ever, because they are vetted analysts, and when they take a stand on an issue, it may not be the true story, but at least it’s more likely to be. In this case, the publications behind Kawakami, Cohn and Killion are the San Joe MercurySanta Rose Press Democrat, and San Francisco Chronicle. I hope these newspapers are ready to go after a local Fortune 500 company with the same zeal that they are going after the Jed York and the 49ers. If they are, the Bay Area free press seems in good hands–except when they are stuck in a pen.

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Feeling the Burn of Non Competitive Elections

If the Democratic Party had a tag line for this year, it would be ‘Elections without Competition’.

Or maybe “Let’s Make a Deal”.

The Democrats seem to be perfecting this at both the national and local level, and I’m pretty sure that this is not what the founding fathers had in mind.

I thought the purpose of elections was for people to have the opportunity to choose between competitive and viable candidates. And yet, there is Hilary Clinton running for the Democratic nomination for President, with her chief rival being a self-described “democratic socialist”.

I love Bernie Sanders and I’ve been ‘feeling the Bern’ as much as the next person. Perhaps his powerful words could have the impact of taking Clinton more to the left. However, if this lovable and unelectable guy is the only competition, the burn is really on us.

This election year so far would make even Putin look like he’s scrambling for votes every four years.

In my lifetime, there has never been a Presidential election in which a party ran only one electable candidate, unless that candidate was an incumbent. The most accomplished and ambitious Democrats with a chance of being elected decided to sit this one out. Why does Hillary have no viable Democratic opponents? It seems to me that a deal was cut to set the table for Hillary and it’s as clear as day.

I’d trace this deal back to 2012, leading into the Democratic convention. Obama was trailing Romney in the poles and President Bill Clinton gave a speech at the convention that brought the house down and immediately shifted the campaign. The Washington Post wrote that Clinton “delivered for Obama”.

But it didn’t stop there. After this speech, Bill Clinton campaigned with Obama and generously filled in for Obama at events. Politico wrote that Bill Clinton “zig zagged” across the country for Obama.

Here is an article entitled “How Bill Clinton Won the 2012 Election”. Even Mitt Romney said, “If there’s one thing we’ve learned in this election season, it is that a few words from Bill Clinton can do a man a lot of good”. So where was Bill Clinton in 2008 for Obama? Why was he suddenly so enthusiastic about Obama in 2012? Do you think Bill offered this support in exchange for the lack of competition we currently see for Hillary? And if so, would deals like this be an acceptable way for us to practice democracy?

An election is not a lifetime achievement award, and both Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party would be better served if the most competitive field of Democrats joined the race.

One would think that after eight years of loyal service as Vice President, Joe Biden would have earned a full and enthusiastic endorsement from the President he served for so many years.  I would think a Presidential committee would have been started for Biden not soon after Obama became a lame duck President in 2013. But none of this ever happened for the Vice President.

Elections with a foregone conclusion are not happening just at the national level. At the local level in San Francisco, incumbent Mayor Ed Lee did not face any legitimate competition in the general election.

That is, unless you count one of Lee’s biggest rivals, a candidate who goes by the esteemed name of ‘Broke Ass Stuart’.

It’s not just the election process that appears to be broken.

Broke Ass Stuart actually finished in fourth place–only five percentage points behind the second place finisher! This second place finisher, singer and community activist Francisco Herrera, ended up a whopping 44 percentage points behind Ed Lee.

San Francisco is not your average American city. The opposing sides in the mayoral election are not usually Democrat vs. Republican but rather Democrat vs. Progressive. This year, the parties decided to party with each other and let the Mayor run unopposed. As the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out, the most competitive candidates chose not to run, names like Sen. Mark Leno. City Attorney Dennis Herrera, Public Defender Jeff Adachi, and Assemblyman Tom Ammiano. The candidates backed away as if Ed Lee were the best Mayor in the history of America.

Even the most trusting and transparent thinking people would have to consider the possibility that somewhere in the ‘Mayor Lee running unopposed” narrative lies a backroom deal.

So what is an election without real competition? I guess we are finding out this year.

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The House That Bonds Built

The construction of AT&T Park a.k.a. Giants Stadium did not rely on any government financing or public bonds. However, if not for Barry Bonds and his decision to come to San Francisco in 1993 this ballpark would probably not exist today.

Let’s not forget that in the year 1992 the San Francisco Giants signed a memorandum of agreement to sell the team to a Tampa Bay group that would move the team to Florida. Giants owner Bob Lurie made this shocking decision after four ballot measures seeking public financing for a new stadium failed and private financing efforts were unsuccessful. I remember being at a game once when the buzz in the crowd was that financier George Shinn was in attendance and he might be interested in buying the Giants and keeping them in San Francisco. There was even a sign that night that read “Shinn Happens”.

Well, Giants fans really felt like Shinn during these times when a move seemed imminent and getting a baseball only stadium for the Giants seemed impossible. It’s startling today to think that no local buyers emerged in 1991 or before and that Bob Lurie decided to sell the team to the Tampa Bay group for $110 million.

Flash forward to the year 2000, when the Giants unveiled their new San Francisco stadium with its short right field fence, giving a power hitting lefty the chance to get a ‘Splash Hit’. The picture above is of Bonds hitting a ball into what would someday be called McCovey Cove as ground broke for the new ballpark.

How did this stadium finally get done at this time, after years of failed attempts and inactivity? People like Peter Magowan really helped and I’m sure the dot com boom didn’t hurt. But there is no person or event more responsible than Barry Bonds.

It is fitting that Bonds arrived in San Francisco the year after that sale to Tampa Bay fell through. He brought exactly what San Francisco baseball needed: swagger, excitement, and wins.

When Bonds chose the Giants in free agency he was the biggest name in baseball and the most famous free agent the Giants had ever signed. He already had won two MVP’s with the Pirates and he brought a superstar quality that the Giants had not had since Willie McCovey.

Whatever Bonds did was national news, and as soon as Bonds signed, the interest level and national TV exposure for the Giants spiked. This excitement surely helped galvanize the investors who came together to buy the Giants and privately finance the new stadium.

Can you name the most famous free agent the Giants signed before Bonds? Rennie Stennett? You see, the big name free agents did not want to play in windy freezing Candlestick. On the flip side, Bonds loved the Giants and his family history with the team. He chose the Giants and Candlestick when every team in baseball was laying out the red carpet for him, a decision that, looking back now, was a crucial tipping point in the history of the team.

Bonds brought a lot more than hype and a super star swagger, as the team immediately improved upon his arrival. The year before Bonds arrived in 1992 they had a record of 72-90. In 1993 their record improved to 103-59, a stunning change. Bonds won his third MVP that season, a total that exceeded all the MVP’s won by Giants in their entire history in San Francisco.

A historical snapshot also shows a shift in performance on the field. In the 10 year period before Bonds’ arrival, from 1982-1992, the Giants had a record of 787-833 and a winning percentage of 48%. Going back another 10 years, from 1972-1992, the Giants record was 1,552-1633 and still that same winning percentage of 48%. Contrast this to the ten years after Bonds arrived, when from 1992-2002 their record improved to 840-715 and their winning percentage increased to 54%. This success continued into the 20 year vantage point, when from 1992-2012 their winning percentage was 53% and their record 1685-14

I’m not saying that Bonds single handedly created the new stadium for the Giants or won all those games. But when Bonds decided to come play in Candlestick for a team that had been sold to Tampa Bay just the previous year, he made a giant difference both on and off the field.

So however you may feel about Barry Bonds, when you enjoy the Giants in their sparkling stadium by the bay, you might want to ask yourself if it would even exist had Bonds not chosen the Giants in 1993.

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Corporate Giant Park

Have you ever heard the place where the Giants play called anything else but AT&T Park? Whether it be in a coffee shop, at a gym, friends talking on the phone, it’s always the same. The Giants play in “AT&T Park”. It’s not Giants Stadium, or any other more apt description of the place, but strictly the name given by a corporate entity. It seems that a corporation can buy naming rights and thereby enter private conversations. We just follow along, as if their purchase price makes inroads into our constitutionally given freedom of speech.

If you were told to start calling that bridge the “Golden Arches Gate Bridge”, would you?

I can already hear voices of the Bay Area coming together in outrage, saying “a hard line will be drawn if they paint the Golden Arches Gate Bridge yellow!”

I understand why announcers and team employees toe the company line here; they have to. They could face disciplinary measures if they don’t. But last I checked, neither AT&T nor the Giants or MLB have the muscle to fine or sue you if you decide to stop your involuntary personal advertising campaign for a corporate giant.

How about instead of calling it AT&T Park, we go for a half measure and call it Corporate Giant Park?

Or really just go crazy and call it Giants Stadium?

I’ve heard people say “see you at AT&T Park” when what they are actually planning is to meet at a Giants game. Talk about corporate control.

Or my favorite is: in the same breath that someone takes to complain about corporate control in America, they say that they love AT&T Park.

Remember the outrage of the entitled FaceBook users who were upset when the company introduced ads into the FaceBook newsfeed?  That was just a company putting ads into the users line of vision. Well, in regard to stadium naming rights, people apparently don’t have any problem at all ceding advertising space in their own personal newsfeeds a.k.a. their conversations.

At least the 49ers made an effort to show some creativity and connection on stadium naming rights–they went with Levi’s stadium to honor the connection to the jeans that those 49ers in 1849 wore when they were mining for gold. Still, that bit of cuteness does not even make it remotely worthwhile to work that brand into every conversation that takes place about what happened at the last 49ers game.

How about a movement, the modern day equivalent of a sit-in, where we come together and try to thumb our nose at the subliminal influence of power and money. Let’s call that place where the Giants play baseball Giants Stadium.

While it may not be in the cards to tell FaceBook not to put ads in their newsfeed, we can clear our own newsfeed of ads.

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