As of this writing, there are three major sports scandals going on. For those of you who aren't into sports, your reaction is probably, "Who cares? It's just sports." But if that were so, these three cases wouldn't have been recently on the front page of the newspaper, pushing Iraq and the presidential campaign to lesser parts of the paper. If sports weren't so important, Congress wouldn't be constantly investigating it. Americans care about sports. Maybe too much. But we care.
The three cases involve the perennial home run hitter, Barry Bonds and his perennial steroids and tax problems; the Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and the allegations that he participated in some brutal dog fighting; and finally the charge that basketball referee Tim Donaghy bet on pro basketball games and may have helped "his" teams win.
Sports fans are more naïve than they should be. Despite all the previous scandals, we're still capable of being shocked or disappointed by a player's (or a ref's) behavior. Unfortunately, like most Americans, we don't feel that way about politics. We may be outraged by the behavior of political figures when they transgress, but we are so used to all the dishonesty and corruption that we're rarely shocked.
Some people say that the age of innocence in politics ended with the Kennedy assassination or with Watergate. Whenever it came, it came. I doubt that today's schoolchildren even react when they hear about a local official who took bribes, a presidential candidate who bent the truth, or an elected official who's off to jail. But ask those kids how they feel about a ballplayer who may have cheated or a ref who might have "fixed" games, and you'll get a reaction from them.
I always read the sports section of the newspaper first, and when I'm finished I'm disappointed that it didn't take me longer. That's because once I've read it, that means I have to turn to the pages about the real world. That's what sports are for many of us — a vacation from all the difficult or terrible things in the real world.
The role that sports has played in this country and the irrational worship of sports heroes was exemplified by the apocryphal moment during the "Black Sox" scandal of 1919. A player who appeared to represent baseball at its best and most ingenuous — "Shoeless" Joe Jackson — was allegedly involved in the scandal. As Joe came out of the courthouse, a young boy supposedly rushed up to him, pleadingly crying, "Say it ain't so, Joe."
But Joe couldn't say it wasn't so. Maybe our belief that sports are played and run by people who care more about The Game than anything else should have ended right then. But it didn't.
Intellectually, we know that sports are big business. Billions are involved, so there's bound to be greed as well as bad behavior by some who are suddenly wealthier than they ever dreamed of. But when we take our kids to their first baseball game, or when we settle down in front of the TV after a hard day's work, we don't think about sports as a business filled with temptation. We think of sports as the games we played and watched when we were kids.
From time to time, we may be shocked or disappointed by the behavior of some who play (or ref) the games. But we keep forgiving The Game itself. We may turn a blind eye to obvious cheating, or characterize a miscreant as "just one bad apple." We have a strong belief in sport, maybe because we need it so much. Without it, what would we use as an escape from the real world? The famous cry of "Wait till next year" doesn't just have to apply to the hope that our team will do better next year. It can also reflect our eternal hope that The Game might be better — more honest, more pure — next year. So many of us have lost the ability to hope for this in politics.
And that's sad. Wouldn't it be nice if we had at least as much hope about our political system as we do about sports? Wouldn't it be nice if somehow we got back to feeling that a corrupt politician was a "rotten apple" instead of the norm? Wouldn't it be nice if someday, a kid were so shocked and so disappointed by something in the government that he felt compelled to plea, "Say it ain't so, Mr. President?"
Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them written by honest people.
By Lloyd Garver