Monday, July 30, 2007

Ya Gotta Believe

Is there a crisis of faith in sports today? It seems that almost everyday we are hit with new allegations of wrong doing by athletes and even officials. Has sports, which used to be viewed as a distraction to day to day problems, simply become another one of the things in life which we all view with a somewhat jaundiced eye? The NBA last week revealed that one of their referee's was under investigation by the FBI for allegedly trying to influence the outcome of games that he was officiating. The NFL has the Michael Vick-Dog fighting scandal to deal with. Major League Baseball has the ongoing tainted Barry Bonds home run record chase to handle and the recently completed Tour de France saw the leader of the race actually disqualified for failing a drug test.

All of these problems come at a time when sports are more frequently coming under increasing scrutiny. The days of viewing athletes and the games they play as simple distractions are in the past. Athletes have always looked for ways to find an edge against their competition. Whether it was Gaylord Perry allegedly doctoring baseballs or baserunners sharpening their spikes or cornerbacks applying various sticky substances to their hands or NHL sharpshooters applying a little more curve to their stick, athletes have always looked for a way to better their chances at success. These were all seen as fairly harmless by the general public. Gaylord Perry even made light of his transgressions in his book called, "Me and My Spitter". The issues of today make those actions seem frivolous.

While there were gambling scandals in the past (specifically in the NFL and NCAA), I think the single event that led to the end of the "age of innocence" in sports was the Ben Johnson steroids scandal at the 1988 Olympics. That event was met with absolute shock and disbelief by most sports fans. The Olympics were the last bastion of "amateurism" (even though most of the top athletes were well paid by through endorsement contracts and appearance fees) and was still viewed by most as just athletes competing for the glory of the sport. The fact that even something perceived to be as pure as the Olympics could be would change that view. Of course during the Cold war period the "Soviet Bloc" countries were often suspected of using drugs to enhance the performance of their athletes (After the fall of the Soviet Union, a few scientists came forward and admitted that they had given their athletes steroids during the 70's).

Now it seems almost a daily occurrence to hear of some transgression by an athlete. A lot of that has to do with the increased coverage of athletes. There are many stories of alcoholism and spouse abuse that were simply not reported in previous decades. Reporters mainly stuck to covering athletes on the field and felt that their off the field activities were private. Can you imagine what kind of scandals Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle would have been subjected to if they were followed as today's athletes are? Today there are no such boundaries. The press feels justified in reporting on illegitimate children or late night trips to strip clubs or marriage infidelities or drinking problems or divorces or porn collections. It seems there is almost nothing that is considered off limits for the press.

The press had played a big part in removing athletes from the mantle that they once stood on, but the biggest culprit in this seed change has been the athletes themselves. Once upon a time, athletes were just working stiffs like the rest of us. Up until the 70's most professional athletes, had jobs in the offseason. They were well paid, but it certainly wasn't anywhere close to the kind of money today's athletes see. Today's athlete not only has vast wealth, but they were also brought up to believe that they were special and not really subject to the rules and regulations that the rest of us have to live by. Teachers, school officials, friends, parents, hangers on and society in general are all willing to mostly turn a blind eye to wrong doing by a young gifted athlete. Rules are bent and sometimes broken in order to accommodate an athlete. Combine a sense of entitlement with a seemingly unlimited bankroll and you get a person who doesn't think that they have to live by the same rules as the rest of society.

You may ask why an athlete as famous and as rich as Michael Vick would allegedly be a major player in a barbaric activity such as dog fighting? The simple answer is because he can. Professional Sports in America have become a multi billion dollar industry. The people who are paid to play are just part of a huge money making machine. The people who make their living off of sports are no different than the businessmen who make their living on Wall street. People who make their living dealing in money have a well earned reputation as sharks. Most of them play within the boundaries of the law, but there are a certain percentage who will do anything to beat the guy next to them. Sports are even more competitive because an athlete has a very limited amount of time to make their money. If the Wall Street crowd only had an average of five years to make as much as they could, it would be a blood bath down there. The notion of a dog-eat-dog world is taken to an extreme when it comes to athletes. The "work hard, play hard" moto can be a dangerous one in the wrong hands.

So are athletes any worse today than they were in the past? Well, the sports world has been populated by racists, murderers, rapists, wife beaters, alcoholics, dead beat dads, gamblers, cheaters, etc, for years. I don't believe that today's athletes are any worse than those that came before them. I do believe that the coverage of athletes has increased to a point where they now have to answer for on and off the field problems. Was Pete Rose any worse than Hal Chase? Was Sammy Sosa any worse than Gaylord Perry? Gambling is gambling and cheating is cheating. Michael Vick is the new poster boy for all that is wrong with sports today, but is he any worse than any of the other thousands of people who are involved in animal cruelty? Is he any worse than an avowed racist like Kenesaw Mountain Landis who was the commissioner of baseball? Is he worse than the NFL players who were suspended in the 60's for betting on the game? Is he any worse than the hundreds of players who beat their wives or slapped their kids? Is he any worse than the thousands of athletes who have cheated or lied to get ahead? Is he?

Sports has always been a fairly accurate reflection of society. And just as in the real world, there are saints and there are sinners. Sports and the people who play them haven't really changed much over the decades. What has changed is our perception of them. We are now just much more aware of the sinners than we have ever been before.



Blogger stopmikelupica said...

Great name!

I will try to check out your blog often now that I know about it.

Here's an interesting tidbit about the Ben Johnson steroid suspension in 1988 - Carl Lewis also tested positive for drugs during that same Olympics. Check out Carl Lewis' Wikipedia entry (which references the Sports Illustrated article in 2003 that brought this to light). It was semi-covered up by the American Olympic Committee.

Anyway, it just illustrates what you were saying... that in big money industries like sports, you can't realistically expect to find people with "morals" that sportswriters pretend exist. Or that they pretend existed back in "the good old days"....

12:09 PM  

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