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.
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…