A Sporting Chance
After Michael Rasmussen, the holder of the yellow jersey at the time in this year’s Tour de France, was taken out of the race by his own team for testing protocol irregularities, I heard they submitted a proposal to change the name of the event to “Tour de Pharmacy”. In the NBA, I’m sure David Stern is now really even happier about his decision to hold last year’s all star weekend in Las Vegas. I have this picture of Tim Donaghy co-hosting a pre-game party there with his good friends Hyman Roth and Lucky Luciano. NASCAR has had mechanical scandals with both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip. Barry Bonds is chasing Hank Aaron while being chased by a grand jury. At least one NFL quarterback’s career may have gone to the dogs. Don King is beginning to look comparatively clean.
In the meantime, we tell our own kids, “Go play soccer, baseball, football, whatever. Sports will help you build character.”
If athletics is supposed to be so wholesome and character building, what the hell’s going on?
Unquestionably, money’s a part of it. Perhaps the biggest shock to me about the Donaghy scandal was learning that NBA refs make two hundred and sixty thousand dollars per year which is a hundred thousand more than we pay U.S. Senators and perhaps more interesting it’s also at least sixty thousand more than you get for being a member of the U.S. Supreme Court. On the other hand, more Americans follow the NBA closely than the Supreme Court and more NBA refs are on a first name basis with Tim Duncan and Alan Iverson than any Supreme Court Justices.
That brings up the second matter. We just pay a whole lot more attention to sports than we ever did. It’s probably only right that I know more details about the Balco case than I do about the U.S. Attorney scandal. I’m not sure it’s right that Alberto Gonzales can say the same, but what the heck! This means that the monetary reward for successful cheating is far bigger than ever.
I don’t know why we should expect the Sports world to be any less corrupt than either the business world or the White House. For one, professional athletics is now much more nakedly simply an extension of rather than a respite from the business world. It is odd to me that people don’t yell “Cheater, cheater” as Conrad Black wanders the streets or even Martha Stewart. Still, if we lionize the business tactics of say Bill Gates, why shouldn’t sports people take the cue? After all Paul Allen, his former partner, does own two professional sports franchises himself. Ninety percent of franchises are controlled either by corporations or individuals who made their money in the business world. I wouldn't be shocked to learn that some did so like the De Bartolo family did.
While we claim “Cheaters never prosper”, the fact is that we pay inordinate attention to those who will do and did “anything to win”. Years ago, Lyle Alzado, shortly before he died from a brain tumor, published one of the earliest steroid mea culpas in Sports Illustrated. In the text of the article, Alzado went on at length about how what he did was wrong and that he now knew better. At the same time, the article included photos of Alzado’s attractive wife, pictures of him from his “glory” days, etc. Bottom line, read in a particular way, the article was an endorsement of steroids in that Alzado’s deal with the anabolic devil let him achieve all his dreams. It was just that he suffered through an early and painful death. There might be a lot of people who would have made that trade. Look at Jose Canseco. The guy sure had fun in his time and he still seems to get attention and opportunities that the rest of us only dream about. If say, Joe Rudi, picked up the phone and called a reporter for an interview, who do you thinks call gets answered first Rudi's or Canseco's?
Bottom line, there’s a problem with focusing so heavily on the perpetrators, we're helping them prosper. Even if you try to take it all away, they still got something highly desirable out of it. They got the attention that “winning” brought with it. Most of those who follow cycling would tell you that Floyd Landis won it in dramatic fashion then lost it due to a bad though still contested drug test. How many casual followers of cycling can tell you who won it in 2006? It was Oscar Pereiro, how many people remember that? Whatever happens with Barry Bonds, in terms of punishment, it’s too late. He’ll have his post 1999 records, the money, and the attention that comes with them. Even if he’s convicted and serves longer than Lewis Libby, he’ll be remembered for what he did so what if it’s tainted by how he did it. Consider this, I remember Ken Caminiti probably better because he confessed before he died than I do say Terry Pendleton, another one year wonder third baseman who won the MVP award and who has, to my knowledge, never been tied to steroids.
Let me offer a small confession in this regard. One of the most exciting things I ever saw in sports was Ben Johnson running away from Carl Lewis in the 1988 Olympics. Even now that I know how it happened, I still have the image of Johnson (albeit illegally) blowing away the then invincible Lewis. It's just one of those weird things. We tend to remember the image not the facts behind it.
We pay much too much attention to the “cheaters” maybe especially when we catch them. Sometimes I think about Ken Griffey Jr. whose name has never come up in connection with steroids. After multiple injuries, he’s still closing in on Willie Mays’s home run total. Once in a while, you’ll see some mention that Griffey has passed some notable on the home run list, but when Griffey makes it to 600 either late this year or early the next will we make a point of giving him more attention than when Sammy Sosa crossed 600 earlier this year? In a saner world, we should be giving the adulation to those who came by their accomplishments not only honestly but honorably. I mean why don’t we talk about Linus Torvald instead of Bill Gates? Okay, it’s not a fair test to ask it this week, but name one NBA referee off the top of your head!
I have no idea in sports as to who the really “good” role models are. A lot of it is just the result of having either a good relationship with the media or a competent publicist or some combination of the two. Clearly, some of the old time role models like Mantle and Ford wouldn’t have held up to the modern press. We once didn’t find out about mistresses, income taxes, salary negotiations, etc. Most of what we knew about our sports heroes came from either watching the games or from following stories that were carefully vetted by team ownership. I do, however, know that they exist. I sometimes wonder how it feels to be Omar Vizquel, the Giants’ fine-fielding shortstop and consummate teammate, whose name comes up about one time to every hundred that Bonds’s does.
Sometimes the stories do get told in the media. Most people do know about Pat Tillman for instance. When Sean Elliot shortened his own NBA career to donate a kidney to his brother, we certainly heard about it. Anyone remember Chiefs running back Joe Delaney? It’s just that we don’t remember those stories nearly as well.
Oddly, I’m writing this post the day after Gwynn and Ripken entered the Hall of Fame and on the day Bill Walsh died. He wasn’t necessarily a perfect human being, but for the most part he died having done things right. As a coach, Walsh succeeded within the rules. While there are Walsh players who had serious personal problems during their time playing for him, one doesn’t hear that Walsh mishandled those matters. In addition, Walsh played a key role in integrating the NFL’s coaching ranks with African-American students of the game. He is not the coach who won the most Super Bowls, but those that he did win seemed to be done so with a respect for the spirit of the game. Fwiw, I don’t worry about Walsh getting his due. It's not like we totally ignore those who do things the right way in sports.
As fans, we need to stop worshiping the whole business of “who did it most” or “who got the most for doing what he or she did.” These days, I’m reminding myself to pay more attention to “who did it best” and to make a point of honoring that. If we pass this on to our own kids, maybe they really will see sports as a place to learn character rather than a way to make money. In that world Dean Smith remains a great college coach whether or not he has the most wins, Martina is the most courageous tennis champion, and Jackie Robinson remains perhaps the most important baseball player despite modest career statistics. It won’t make the cheaters go away, but it’ll at least remind us that the who and how matters more than the what or how many and how much. It always did.