Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Injuring Sports

To dope the racer is as criminal, as sacrilegious, as trying to imitate God; it is stealing from God the privilege of the spark. ~Roland Barthes

The late Chief Justice Earl Warren once said, “I always turn to the sports section first. The sports page records people's accomplishments; the front page has nothing but man's failures.” Fortunately, the Chief Justice is not around to read today's sports pages, which look more like a cross between a police blotter and the “Wall Street Journal”. A day does not pass without some said piece about cheating, doping, franchise financial troubles, or athletes' exorbitant contracts. On a really bad day, we can get all of them at once.

On today's sad news front, American Floyd Landis has been essentially stripped of his Tour de France title because his second drug test came back with the same results as the first. Landis continues to maintain his innocence, saying he normally has abnormally high testosterone levels, he was dehydrated, he was taking medication for his hip, and so on. Unfortunately, his body also appears to create synthetic testosterone, which is a little hard for anyone to explain. Landis still has avenues of appeal, and part of me wants him to be exonerated because, lordy, I am so tired of having wonderful sports moments destroyed by athletes cheating in some way.

In other news, Maurice Clarett, the one-time Ohio State hero and attempted NFL draft-buster, has been arrested again. You may have lost track of Mr. Clarett after he failed in his attempt to beat the NFL draft rules. He was ultimately drafted legtimately in 2005 in the third round by the Denver Broncos, who cut him before the season started. He was later arrested for aggravated robbery, for which he was awaiting trial when he managed his latest headline-grabber.

Bobby Bonds is under a continual threat of indictment by a grand jury for his involvement with BALCO and for tax evasion. Jose Canseco writes a tell-all book about steroids, which is roundly criticized until it is found to be extremely accurate. Rafael Palmeiro sits in front of a Congressional committee and swears up and down that he has never, ever, ever taken any illegal drug then promptly fails a drug test (if there were a Nobel Prize for stupidity ... ).

I don't know who started all this drug -taking, but football was into steroids years ago, often quite openly. It wasn't illegal, and, despite not knowing the long-term effects of steroid use, no one seemed to mind. No one cared, that is, until Lyle Alzado died from brain cancer, which he and others linked to his steroid use. Weightlifters and bodybuilders used them. Ultimately, baseball players, claiming to have gone on weight programs, were found to be using them.

Baseball players, of course, already had a long history of "greenies" and other colorful "uppers" to keep them going.

Then there's the ever-increasing number of stories of athletes at all levels getting caught by police doing all manner of stupid things. The ultimate incident had to be the Duke lacrosse team, getting accused by a woman of rape. Even if the rape story is untrue, the kind of party these guys were throwing was certainly inappropriate.

Lacrosse players. Good lord, what next? A scandal involving the Chess Team?

Sports has always had a seamy side, but it used to be winked at. Babe Ruth missed huge chunks of one season because he had syphilis, but newspapers went along with the team's cover stories about indigestion. Problems with booze, battered wives, and other legal scrapes were carefully hushed up to maintain the image of "clean, character-building sports." But, in the 1950's, college basketball point-shaving scandals could not be covered up. It seems that once the press started admitting that the ivory tower of sports was built on a foundation of sand, the whole structure started looking rotten.

I heard about an interesting study, for which I wish I had a link (however, an equally interesting and depressing study summary can be found here ). The study involved which college athletes had the best moral reasoning abilities, in essence, which ones were the most ethical. It turns out that at the top of the list were golfers, followed by tennis players. At the bottom of the list were – you'll love this – lacrosse players. Right above them were hockey and football players. Apparently, soccer, baseball, and basketball finished somewhere in between.

The conclusions drawn from the study ran something like this:
  • In sports involving individual integrity, where the athletes call their own penalties and keep their own scores, the athlete is less inclined to cheat.
  • In team sports, the object is to sneak fouls past the officials. In fact, “good” coaches actually teach illegal techniques to their players, giving them methods, for example, to hold in football without being caught. Add a weapon (like a lacrosse or hockey stick) and you simply make matters worse.
On a side note, one announcer, interviewing someone about the study, allowed as how perhaps the reason golfers were so honest is because they come from a more “elite” (his word) portion of society. He is, of course, an avid golfer. In one instant, he managed to show himself to be elitist and racist (consider the number of black golfers besides Tiger Woods). To his chagrin, the study had taken socio-economic factors into account and found no correlation between social/ethnic background and being a cheat.

Cheating is as old as sport. In the olden days of professional baseball, when there were only two umpires, runners would occasionally take the straight route from first to third, ignoring second base. The other team would complain, but if both umpires were out of position, there was nothing to be done. Early football was an organized mugging that got so far out of hand that President Teddy Roosevelt considered having the game banned.

So, it's always been with us, but now it seems to be getting out of hand. Winning is not the main thing, to paraphrase Vince Lombardi, it's the only thing. Millionaire coaches lose their jobs for having a 9-2 football season. Athletes think that they are above the rules, both in sport and in real life.

Don't get me wrong. I love watching many sports, and I like my favorite teams to win. But, when winning begins to corrupt the sport, when adulation for star athletes completely warps their sense of right and wrong, it's time for us to take stock in ourselves to see if we really understand what's important. If coming out on top is all that counts, we lose the joy of participation. We forget that these are games and that games are supposed to be fun for both the participants and for the fans.

When success always implies cheating, we lose all sense of honor. I don't mean to imply cosmic significance to sports, but sports mirror our behavior in other facets of life. If we can't play a simple game honorably, how can anyone be trusted to deal honorably with anyone in business or legal affairs?

Come to think of it, I think the front pages Earl Warren mentioned are telling that story.

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