10 Questions: What's Wrong With Sports?
1) Has, in fact, the sports world gone mad?
It is impossible to cover sports in this world for some 35 years, as I have done, and not come away from the experience with a keenly cynical, skeptical view of all things having to do with Sportsworld. Having said that, however, I must add at once that the news stories that have broken---with the scandals literally lined up, cheek by jowl, on sports pages around the world---have had the effect of boggling even the most jaded of sporting minds. The wheels are clearly coming off the wagon. From the now-tainted National Basketball Association to the world of cycling with its Tour de Fraud, from the dog's world of the National Football League to a blown-up Barry Bonds haunting us daily in his depressing quest to pass Hank Aaron as baseball's homerun king, it is as though the freaks are in charge of the circus. Reality has gone on sabbatical. Sportsworld has become an interstellar bar scene out of Star Wars.
Never in history have our three major sports commissioners---the NBA's David Stern, the NFL's Roger Goodell, and Major League Baseball's Bud Selig---been so embattled all at once.
Selig is actually attending Bond's games as Mr. Stay-Puft closes in on Aaron's mark, and this is viewed here as appropriate punishment for the man who presided dociley over the game as it grew bloated with muscle-enhancing drugs in the late 1990s. No doubt Bud is squirming grimly in his seat in anticipation of reading the November issue of Playboy Magazine, the one in which Barry's very angry ex-girlfriend, Kimberly Bell, will talk about her relationship with the ball player---she has already testified before a grand jury about how Bonds told her of his steroid use in 2000---in a spread that will include her posing in the nude.
Goodell, the new football commissioner, gets up every morning to face a world that now strongly suspects that one of his league's indubitable stars, the Falcon's Michael Vick, was involved in a dog-fighting conspiracy on land that he owns in Surry County, Virginia, a conspiracy in which dogs were slaughtered and in which his land took on the bleak aspect of a killing field for pit bulls. A reading of the charges in the federal indictment is enough to make your skin crawl. In one, Vick and two defendants are accused of executing "approximately 8 dogs that did not perform well in 'testing' sessions...by various methods, including hanging, drowning and slamming at least one dog's body to the ground." Every dog-fancier in America, of which there are close to 300 million, will be tuned in to the trial, making this the worst nightmare imaginable for the image-conscious NFL.
And then there is poor David Stern. The NBA Commish faces a scandal the likes of which could marginalize the NBA, undermine it as a viable sports league, or even bring it down. No wonder Stern called it "the most serious situation---the worst situation---I've ever experienced." Referee Tim Donaghy was under FBI investigation for wagering on NBA games and for passing along information to others so they might profit on betting the games. Millions of people bet billions every year on sporting events, including those in the NBA---it is the source of sports' great popularity---and nothing would kill a league faster than the revelation that insiders were somehow arranging the outcome of its games.
And cycling? Every time you turn around, some cyclist was being led away in shame after failing yet another drug test. The latest was the very leader of the current Tour de France, Michael Rasmussen, who was fired by his own team, Rabobank, for misleading team officials as to where he was training. He claimed he was in Mexico, but it turns out he was in Italy, the Sodom of cycling. Suddenly, Rasmussen was dead man biking. With all the cheating going on in this sport, does anybody really care about it any more?
2) Are these coincidences, or has professional sports been looking the other way?
These scandals and controversies blowing up at once is clearly a coincidence, but the abiding tendency of major sports institutions, such as Major League Baseball, is to take the easy way out, the path of least resistance, when it comes to tackling tough issues. Baseball dragged its feet on the steroid/growth hormone issue until it culminated in this puffy-looking cartoon-figure making a mockery of the greatest record in the sport.
3) Which league faces its biggest challenge? The NBA? NFL? MLB?
Without question, the NBA is in the deepest trouble here. The Vick case involves allegedly criminal off-field behavior, and the league is praying that the allegations stay confined to one player and not a network of players who fight and kill dogs. The Bonds story has been on-going now for years, and each home run he hits makes the embarrassment only more acute.
The NBA is fighting for its core, for its integrity--for its very life. Stern has repeatedly said that he does not think the FBI investigation is focusing on any referees other than Donaghy, and you have to believe that Stern and every franchise owner in the league--and every NBA official and player--is utterly terrified at the thought that the Feds might sweep other alleged gambling referees into its net.
4) What does the Michael Vick case mean for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who's been on the job less than a year?
A migraine headache of enormous intensity and strength. But another chance to crack the whip on criminal behavior off the field.
5) Does Michael Vick still have a career?
Not if he goes to jail for six years. Meanwhile, as talented as Michael is, if you were the owner of the Atlanta Falcons--and you had every dog lover in America bombarding you with letters of protest, and every animal-rights organization picketing your offices, demanding that you get rid of him--would you defy them and play him anyway? Or would you cut your losses and cut him loose? Unless all of this is a mistake and he is exonerated completely, I can't imagine him ever playing a game in which he is not hounded, booed and jeered by thousands seeking to make him pay for his crimes. Does the NFL want to go through all this?
I don't think so.
6) How do these huge salaries figure into the equation? Referees make a small fraction of the players …
I don't see how they figure into it. NBA refs make a good living, and I don't see a connection between Michael Vick's huge salary---he signed a 10-year, $130 million contract with the Falcons in 2002---with his alleged involvement in dog-fighting.
7. How does the NBA referee scandal compare with, say, the 1919 Black Sox scandal, when eight players on the Chicago White Sox team were accused of throwing the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds?
It is certainly too soon to judge how big this NBA gambling scandal is going to get. The Black Sox scandal shook the underpinnings of the National Game. Baseball was genuinely imperiled as a going enterprise until the owners, in the smartest thing they ever did, retained a crusty judge named Keenesaw Mountain Landis as the commissioner of baseball, with powers to bind and loose, suspend and banish. He ruled the sport with an iron bat, and gradually baseball got its integrity back. If Donaghy is guilty of rigging games but it turns out he was a loner, Stern will announce some initiative to correct the matter and the league will recover. More problematic, I think, is if the FBI finds that a network of referees are involved and rigging games for gamblers has been going on for years and is more widespread than anyone suspects.
8) How much influence does an NBA ref have on a game? Did Donaghy really have the power to change the outcome of games? And if he's found guilty, should an asterisk be put next to games that he refereed?
A referee can have a turning influence on the course of a basketball game. Not only do referees make large numbers of calls during a game, but many of them are close calls that determine who has possession of the ball. For instance, how many times have you seen two opposing players go for a loose ball, both reaching out their hands, with the ball carooming from them out of bounds. It is often difficult to see who touched it last. A borderline call. Another close call is often made on charges and blocks.
As to the asterisk, would that be like putting the scarlett letter 'A' on Hester Prynne's forehead?
Let's leave the asterisk to baseball.
9. So the baseball world shouldn't be celebrating when Bonds breaks Hank Aaron's record?
Whether we should celebrate this inevitable event seems to me to be a matter of personal choice and taste. Whenever it occurs, I plan to be watching the Animal Planet.
10. What is the significance of all this for non-sports fans?
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