Summer of scandal and the death of sport?

I love sports. Always have. I grew up playing all the usual sports and eagerly tried out a lot of others when I got older. I’ve always been a big spectator, too, watching everything from football, basketball and baseball to soccer, track, cycling, volleyball, water polo – whatever was on, you know?

But these days I watch less sports than at any point in my life, and it seems likely that this downward trend is going to continue. The why is pretty simple. I was raised old school by a grandfather who grew up playing through the Depression. People who knew him back then and saw him play said that under different circumstances he might have been good enough to play in the Bigs. Maybe. Hard to say, because the hard realities of life intruded on the dreams of many in his generation. So he wound up working for a few dollars a week and playing ball on the weekends.

There was a right way and a wrong way to play. Hard, but fair. Sportsmanship mattered. Team ethics mattered. And no game ever happened unless the chores were done and the academics were satisfactorily completed. I was taught to love sport but to understand its rightful place in life. We hear a lot of talk about how sports teaches lessons – yeah, it does. And I was one of the ones who learned it the right way.

I look at the sporting landscape today, though, and I feel like I’m the only one. With each passing day it gets harder and harder to watch sports without feeling the need to take a shower afterwards. If you’re a principled, thinking person, you may spend a lot of time, as I do, realizing that your continued attention to the game is helping finance all the things that are wrong, and you wonder how much longer you can take it.

For instance…

Baseball. Any day now a high-rolling miscreant is going to break the most hallowed record in the game. It seems more than evident that Barry B*nds, a privileged brat with an inexplicably large chip on his shoulder against the very establishment that has given him everything he’s ever had in life, swatted a lot of those majestic four-baggers while on enough illicit pharmaceuticals to choke The Incredible Hulk. (Google returns nearly a million hits on this search – knock yourself out.) The man whose record he’s breaking is Hank Aaron, a legend, an icon, a role model for the ages, and a man who never consumed anything more performance-enhancing than a cup of coffee. Further, while “The Clear” carries on like he’s a feral dog fighting for the last scrap of meat on Earth, Aaron endured real abuse during his run-up to Babe Ruth’s mark – after all, how dare a filthy Negro get so uppity as to think he can break a white man’s record?

Of course, B*nds isn’t the thing itself, he’s merely the most visible symptom. The thing is the rampant doping that the league tolerated in an attempt to win back all the fans it lost after shooting itself in the foot with a protracted player strike. In essence, cheating was deemed the cure for stupid. We honestly have no idea many players shot how many liters of horse tranquilizers into their overpaid diva buttocks, but there’s no argument that the record books over the last decade need a large, collective asterisk and a heavy measure of what the world of theater calls a “willing suspension of disbelief.”

For me, it’s hard watch a game when I have reason to suspect that a significant number of players are cheating and I know the league is doing a small fraction of what it could and should be doing to put an end to it.

Football. Where to start? I love watching college football – can’t help myself. But let’s be honest – what percentage of the people associated with the Big Money D-1A game would you let into your house? (And I’m including coaches and administrators in this, too – the kinds of enablement that are involved in getting and keeping players eligible is an affront to the very concept of what an institution of higher learning ought to be.) Sure, some programs are better than others (you can generally find those toward the bottom of the conference standings) and yes, these programs produce some superstar human beings. We all ought to celebrate those outstanding young scholar/athletes.

At the same time, we ought not confuse the difference between the rule and the exception.

It also doesn’t help that the money in the system makes college football the only sport on the face of the planet that doesn’t even make a real attempt at determining a legitimate champion. But I digress.

Then there’s the pro game. Now, let me be reasonable here. Anytime you have a league with a couple thousand players there are going to be bad apples. So I don’t want to make too much over the all-too-common blotter reports featuring overpaid jocks. And yes, so far I’ve been happy with Roger Goodell’s apparent willingness to stomp the nards of the worst recidivists.

Now, though, we have a case where they’re going to throw it all away – Michael Vick, who may eventually go down as the worst scum to ever play in the league. So far Goodell’s balls aren’t dragging the ground quite like they were when he was bitch-slapping non-megastars like PacMan Jones around. And so far Falcons owner Arthur Blank is acting like a man who talks a better game about integrity than he’s willing to walk. The league has all it needs to suspend Vick indefinitely already, and Blank has already made clear how morally bankrupt he really is.

Horrified by the dogfighting allegations against their star player, the Atlanta Falcons planned to suspend quarterback Michael Vick for four games until the NFL asked them to hold off while the league conducts its own investigation.

Four games?! That’s something like one game for every 15 dead dogs they dug up on the grounds at Vick’s custom-built fighting compound, and the gods know how many more animals he was responsible for torturing, maiming and killing.

“But the bargaining agreement says that four games is all they can do, Sam. You don’t know what you’re talking about!” I’m almost sure the CBA allows you to cut a player. If that costs you money, so what? Blank is the guy who built Home Depot, and he’s not in danger of starving anytime soon.

But the league isn’t going to do the right thing. The Falcons aren’t going to do the right thing. And so far, it doesn’t look like a lot of the sponsors are, either. Not unless we help them understand that we will not spend a penny with any business that supports and subsidizes dogfighting.

Basketball. Obviously I’m troubled by the league’s growing list of criminals. I’m bothered that the sport glorifies an ethos that’s directly opposed to my own old-school ideologies. Although, in fairness, I’m way past drawing too many conclusions from appearances. A lot of people think I look like a thug, and frankly I’ve always liked Allen Iverson’s cornrows and tattoos. So this isn’t about fashion.

College hoops is fun, as always, but a variety of factors (all about money) have conspired to make it less watchable than ever before. And the pro game? Well, for years a lot of people have complained about the officiating, and with good reason. Stars get calls and rookies don’t. Home teams get calls down the stretch. Things that are fouls in the first quarter aren’t fouls in the fourth. And so on. The level of discretion refs have to interpret the rules fosters an arbitrariness that severely damages the game, and a lot of nights you might as well be watching football. (Want to know why games are so unwatchable? It isn’t because defenses are better, exactly – it’s that defenses are better because of the level of knock-you-off-the-ball physicality in the game these days.) No, calling hoops isn’t easy, even at the low level I used to ref at. But the NBA’s ratings are a direct result of their own policies.

In the midst of all the suspicion over officiating – and conspiracy theorists have argued that the fix has been in for years – erupts the Tim Donaghy scandal, which may evenutally evolve into the worst trainwreck in US sports history. What do you know – games were fixed! How many we don’t know yet. And whether or not Donaghy was a rogue with a gambling problem or merely the tip of the iceberg – that we don’t know yet either. But stories like this tend to get larger, not smaller.

So how many NBA games have I watched in the past few years where dirty officials changed the outcome? Hard to say. And as long as I’m even asking the question with any measure of credibility, what impact do you think that has on my ability to watch the games at all?

Hockey. Honestly, I’m still not over Todd Bertuzzi’s attempted murder of Steve Moore and the league’s gutless response. I’m not sure why I should be, either – last I checked Bertuzzi was getting big dollars and Moore still wasn’t back in the league.

Soccer. I watch a lot of futbol, and especially love the English Premiership, which is widely regarded as the best league in the world. But being a big-money sport in most parts of the world, it’s subject to the same corruptions we get here in the US. For instance, this time last year Italy’s Serie A (one of the world’s three best leagues) was wading through a nasty match-fixing scandal that eventually saw several teams (including my favorite Italian side, Fiorentina) docked points, relegated and stripped of hardware. And the level of racism in the European game is simply appalling.

Cycling. It seems like another rider gets kicked out the Tour de France for doping every day – yesterday the stage winner, overall leader and likely winner was booted by his own team. The Floyd Landis case still isn’t resolved. And Lance Armstrong may have been clean, but if he was it looks like he was the only guy in the last decade.

And so it goes. It’s getting to the point where I feel like every game I watch contributes to an ugly downward spiral. I don’t expect sports leagues to go out of business anytime soon, but we’re certainly witnessing the moral death of sport – seriously, given the current state of affairs, do we spend more watching children learn from sports or cautioning them not to learn?

As much as I love all these games, with each new instance of anti-social behavior I feel like the perpetrator is looking directly into the camera and asking me “what are you going to do about it, bitch?” With each fawning organizational failure to address these problems, I feel like the Commish has edged his way into the camera shot and said “yeah, punk – what are you going to do about it?”

I don’t know. So far what I’m doing is watching less, which means I’m seeing less of the advertising that supports it. I’m spending zero on merchandise these days. I’m not going to the arenas, paying for concessions or parking, etc.

And I’m writing about it, asking other people what they’re doing about it…

18 replies »

  1. Thanks for that overview of our troubled sports scene, Sam.

    While the gambling problem may be resolved and safeguards instituted, performance-enhancing drugs is a much bigger challenge. Since they’ve not going anywhere, let’s stop wringing our hands over the situation.

    Why don’t the major sports, especially baseball, just fund research into safer performance-enhancing drugs? Like methadone addicts, the athletes can register and line up for their fixes. The records of who’s taking what can be made public.

    Meanwhile, on another summer sport, this from my colleague at Freezerbox. . .

    Live Eat

    Rotating a hot-dog eating contest’s venue (think Darfur, Somalia, Mali, Iraq) can only add cachet to it.

    By Rich Herschlag

    I skipped watching the Coney Island Hot Dog-eating contest this year. This is not an event I relish. That said, this is a sport that takes guts, and millions of Americans with guts of their own tune in. Some people just can’t seem to get enough of the egg-swallowing scene in the movie Cool Hand Luke. And we wonder why other countries hate us.
    Apparently, it’s okay to be outthought, outworked, outdone, and outclassed, but God forbid you are out-eaten. There is nothing worse in America than coming home from the big nosh less bloated than your opponent. It’s hard to even look your morbidly obese parents in the eye.

    Though some find it hard to swallow, we have seen the future of American sports, and it is a wiener. Finally, a sport that makes poker look athletic. Big pot or big pot belly — pick one. But in the intense world of pro sports, the game must evolve in order to thrive. Unless they can find some viable way to combine competitive eating with a record-setting roller coaster marathon, they’re not really taking full advantage of the Coney Island experience. Speaking of which, how about competitive shtupping? They can hold that one under the boardwalk. If it’s a tie, they can hold a rubber match.

    Moreover, arbitrarily awarding this noble competition to Coney Island every year encourages slothfulness. If nations can vie to host the Olympics, why not competitive eating and a whole array of other gluttonous, revolting contests? Rotating the venue (think Darfur, Somalia, Mali, Iraq) can only add cachet.

    Naturally, as competitive eating finds its niche, it will undergo the usual corporate evolution. Critical to this marketing is a one-word name for the sport: glomming, gorging, scarfing. Teams will emerge: the Philadelphia Cheesesteaks, the Boston Chowder Champs, the Hartford Hogs, the Pittsburgh Pigs, the Portland Portlies, the Florida Flatulators, the Harrisburg Heifers, the Los Angeles Lardasses, the Denver Doughboys, the Corpus Christi Corpulents.

    Specialized stadiums funded by public bond issues will spring up everywhere — wholesome family-oriented places where mom and dad and the kids can root on their favorite gorgers while stuffing their own faces with fried dough. Krispy Kreme will be the official donut of the American Gorging League (AGL), and superstars like Kobayashi will grace the packaging. Forget bat day, batting glove day, and bobblehead day. AGL franchises will sponsor trans fat day, love handle day, and cellulite nite. The league will promote the growth of the sport at a grassroots level. Vomitoriums will dot this great land of ours, and before long, there will be a huge youth movement.

    Of course, while competitive eating rubs salt in the wounds of millions of starving people all over the world, the only way to rub pure iodine in those same wounds is a food fight. A genuine, well-organized food fight is clearly a more efficient, thorough, selfish, indefensible waste of food than competitive eating ever can be. With a food fight, there is no reasonable chance that even a small portion will reach the digestive tract of a competitor or any other living being for that matter. Food fighting is a pastime for purists. All you need are a cafeteria, a few trays, and a dedicated group of young men and women who have seen Animal House a few times too many.

    Welcome to mega-consumerism, where simple conspicuous consumption is no longer enough. Competitive tanning, anyone? First freckle to metastasize wins. In competitive bleeding, medieval heeling techniques are utilized, as would-be hemophiliacs square off in a thrilling death match that won’t leave a dry eye in the house. Did we mention competitive brushing? Even better with Chinese toothpaste.

    How about competitive purging? David Blaine can host. Nicole Ritchie, Lindsay Lohan, and Mary-Kate Olsen will judge. Here’s my vote for competitive meth smoking. That, of course, can be consolidated with competitive shtupping. Lest we forget competitive defecating. Actually, we’ve had competitive defecating for quite some time now. It’s called cable television. The point is, there are still six other deadly sins available for franchising. This was just the appetizer.

    Rich Herschlag is the author of a new book, Before the Glory: 20 Baseball Heroes Talk About Growing Up and Turning Hard Times Into Home Runs.

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  3. I have been to half a dozen baseball games this summer – Susan’s grandson’s team won the state title for Cal Ripken Little League, and we went to the tournament. I can’t watch the majors because it starts me thinking about Bonds, et al.

    An interesting note: I heard Peter Gammons today offer this explanation for the pharmaceutical revolution that has changed sports so in the last decade and a half or so – he pointed to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the release into the West of the methods of “enhancing performance” that the East German “women” enjoyed, for example. It made sense, but it doesn’t make the pain of watching sport turned from what we grew up with into what the Russians and East Germans practiced in the Olympics (i.e., cheating to win).

  4. I heard that same Gammons interview. And as you say, it illustrates the point that understanding the why and how doesn’t automatically lead to satisfaction.

    And if you’re trying to break in and you know other guys are cheating, and you know you can’t beat them unless you do, too, it leaves you with a fun choice – cheat or go back home and be an assistant Jr High coach.

    This is why it makes it harder for me to play the “all the responsibility rests with the individual” game. There IS a system and there are people whose job it is to make sure the system is clean. When you tolerate a crooked system it dramatically limits what one honorable 2nd Baseman can do, especially if he’s a borderline Major/AAA talent.

  5. Vick hasn’t been convicted of shit yet. The last I heard; A man is innocent until proven guilty. Barry Bonds is getting ready to break
    Hank Aaron’s home run record. Everybody and their brother knows
    that his ass used steriods. However, prove it.
    Vick should be allowed to both train and play with the Atlanta Falcons
    until this is resolved.

    By the way, who ARE the falcons………


  6. Sarge, surely a man of your experience and education doesn’t need to be reminded that “innocent until proven guilty” is a worthy ideal for any government, but that businesses operate by radically different standards. The NFL is in no way obligated by the rules of criminal law, and can take action when it sees reason according to its own rules.

    And by its own rules, Vick is already WAY over the line.

  7. As millionaire players became employees of billionaire owners, sports became a business. Sportsmanship was reduced to the ethics of doing anything to win and never being caught. Few men can handle the power that real money brings without feeling above the rules by which mere morals must live.

  8. We’re with you Sam. We don’t watch as much as we used to, and it has been years since we plunked down money on professional sports. Sick bastards like Vick have trashed any notion of decency. Why the Falcons or anyone would want to deal with that overrated, overhyped, overpaid dog killer is beyond us. By not taking action against Vick (serious action), the Falcons, the NFL and their sponsors are complicit in dog fighting and we will not support them. They want thugs and punks? They can have them and they get what they deserve, but we’re the ones who can afford playoff tickets and merchandise, not an idiot 20-something from the ‘hood.
    Barry Bonds is a tragedy. The MLB might as well join forces with the WWF, it might help their credibility.
    The NBA? What a bunch of losers. You can take the boy out of the street, but you can’t take the street out of the boy. Why pay $90+ for a Bulls game when I can go outside in my neighborhood in the south side of Chicago and see the same b.s., brawls and all – for free!
    Still, we have to have our sports fix, even though we are weaning ourselves off slowly…looks like it’s curling and Ontario League Hockey!

  9. Like you, I love sports, and am pained at what is tarnishing what should be fun and positive experiences.

    I also wrote a column today about the Michael Vick situation. I am NFL obsessed, hence the column.

    If you like the column, let me know if you are up to a link exchange, since I get some pretty decent traffic.

    Also, I am competing at the bloggers choice awards, although not in the sports category.


  10. I used to be a Cricket fan (you know, that long sport that takes five days to play, involves a whole bunch of guys standing randomly in a field, and may end in a draw). Then the South African cricket captain Hansie Cronje was caught for match fixing. The corruption was astonishing. His claim, believed by the vast number of South Africans, “The Devil made me do it.”

    After that I stopped believing anything about the sport.

  11. Cricket is a game that I’d like to know more about, but it seems positively arcane in rules and terminology. I’d never heard there was a fixing issue, but I guess it is a sport with money involved.

    Not to overgeneralize, but there seems to be nothing about large sums of money that brings out people’s ethical side.

  12. Kel and Joe: the one salvation is that while I can barely stand to watch it, I CAN play. And do. The purity of the sport is still there when I step on the field.

    I don’t look forward to the day when my knees finally get so bad I can’t do that anymore….