Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Vick and Donaghy and Vinokourov, Oh My! - Headlines Look All Bad in the Sports World

Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ballgame, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame, no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.
- Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis the day after the 1921 acquittal of the eight White Sox players implicated in throwing the 1919 World Series

I picked up the sports section of my New York Times this morning looking forward to reading about the Yankees knocking off the formerly surging Kansas City Royals last night, but what I found was a collection of stories about sports scandals.

The banner headline across the top of the section covered NBA Commissioner David Stern's press conference to discuss the revelation that Tim Donaghy, a recently fired referee, was being investigated by the FBI for piling up gambling debts, consorting with unsavory characters, divulging information about players and teams to those unsavory characters, and, most damagingly, using the power of his whistle to affect the scores and/or outcomes of games.

Lower down on the front page, an article discussed how Alexander Vinokourov, one of the pre-race favorites to win the Tour de France, who had won two stages after suffering injuries in a brutal crash earlier in the competition, tested positive for an illegal blood transfusion, resulting in the withdrawal from the race of not just the rider, but of his entire team.

Looking for relief in the interior pages of the sports section was not much help, since Page 2 featured a story on Falcons owner Arthur Blank's reaction to the NFL banning Michael Vick from Atlanta's training camp until more is known about his federal indictment for running a dog fighting operation, including the savage execution of many dogs by especially gruesome means.

A turn of the page would, again, only reveal more trouble, this time the news that a chemist who worked with the infamous Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (better known as BALCO) and did time for conspiracy to distribute steroids told HBO that Barry Bonds and Gary Sheffield took banned substances provided to them by BALCO.

Suddenly, Alex Rodriguez's "Ha!" heard 'round the world in Toronto, not to mention his stripper seen 'round the world in Boston a few days later, seems quaint. What the hell is going on in the sports world?

Based on the size of the sport in the U.S. and the gravity of what has been alleged, the NBA ref scandal is by far the most serious (at least to Americans who, unless there is a countryman wearing the yellow jersey, care less about cycling than they do about soccer, which is saying something). The idea of an NBA official altering the outcome of games (including a key playoff contest) is the greatest threat to the integrity of a professional sport since the Black Sox scandal of 1919 led the commissioner of baseball, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, to suspend the eight players involved for life in 1921 (when he made the statement quoted at the top of this piece).

While it is unknown if Donaghy actually handed games to anyone, there is some pretty compelling circumstantial evidence that there was something fishy going on. In his column on, Bill Simmons points out that in May after Game 3 of the Spurs-Suns Western Conference playoff series (long before there was any knowledge of a ref scandal), he wrote the following: "Congratulations to Greg Willard, Tim Donaghy and Eddie F. Rush for giving us the most atrociously officiated game of the playoffs so far." He went on to write that the crew was responsible for "the latest call in NBA history (a shooting foul for Manu Ginobili whistled three seconds after the play, when everyone was already running in the other direction)." Somebody put together a clip and posted it on YouTube that shows the announcers' reactions to some of the calls in that game.

In the Times Article, Stern said that while they do not know of any other official under investigation, he could not say for sure that Donaghy was the only one involved. With the popularity of the NBA slipping even before this sordid affair, a scandal that goes beyond one official could knock the sport down to a level it hasn't seen since the 1970s, when the finals were not even shown on television live in prime time (the games were aired tape-delayed, late at night). This is definitely a story that will bear watching, and the NBA desperately needs it to end with Dongaghy's guilty plea.

To me, the Vinokourov and BALCO stories are far less important (and not just because the Tour de France is such a niche sport in the U.S. that it airs on Versus). Both of these scandals are old news. More than half of the top contenders were not even allowed to start the Tour de France because of their implication in past doping scandals. The 2006 winner, American Floyd Landis, tested positive for steroids during last year's race and is in danger of having his title taken away. Sponsors are dropping teams left and right, and other companies are thinking seriously about exiting the tainted sport.

And yet, it's not like people haven't continued to attend and follow this year's race. Crazy cycling fans continue to run in front of the racers, even causing crashes (a search of Yahoo! photos with the words "Tour de France spectator" came up with 22 photographs). I don't get the whole thing with letting the fans so close to the riders. Can you imagine if someone ran into the street and crashed into a contender during the New York Marathon? The idiot would find himself in a room in the bowels of a New York Police Department precinct with his nose becoming intimately acquainted with the fists of one of New York's Finest. Regardless, the Tour is going strong despite the fact that the competitors have more drugs in their systems than Kate Moss and her boyfriend. Hardcore cycling fans don't seem to care. Maybe they suspect that since all the riders are juiced, it's a fair race. Whatever it is, the scandals don't seem to be killing interest in the sport.

Same with baseball. Bonds is about to break Henry Aaron's career home run record. Commissioner Bud Selig, coincidentally an old and close friend of Aaron's, looks about as comfortable as Scooter Libby at Valerie Plame's family reunion as he dithers as to whether he should attend the game in which Bonds passes Aaron (the latest is that he'll be there, but don't look for a lot of smiles). And yet, baseball is breaking attendance records. In fact, helped by a Yankees' separate admission, day-night doubleheader, baseball recorded its second highest attendance day ever on Saturday. The league is thriving, despite the steroids controversy.

Plus, Bonds and Sheffield have already told a grand jury that they took substances given to them by BALCO that might have turned out to be steroids. It's not like someone grabbed a photo of Bonds with a needle sticking into his butt. So, the BALCO chemist story is a total yawner.

Which brings us to Vick. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a vegetarian and a strong supporter of animal rights, so, clearly, I found what Vick allegedly did to innocent dogs horrifying. But, I am also an attorney and have a strong belief in defendants being innocent until proven guilty. So, the rush to judgment makes me a little uncomfortable.

The bottom line is that while the NFL is the biggest sports league in the country, and while, in the larger picture, it's nearly bulletproof, the one issue it is concerned about, and the one issue that commissioner Roger Goodell has made his signature cause, is the league's image. In the last few years, the league has had a parade of arrests and ugly incidents that have given rise to the perception that NFL players are a collection of thugs. Since Goodell took over his job last year, he has cracked down on players who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law, handing out lengthy suspensions to such serial offenders as Tank Johnson, Pacman Jones and Chris Henry, even though only Johnson was actually convicted of something.

But, the culture of NFL players is the real story here. It is not surprising that these guys find themselves in so much trouble. They are, by and large, young men who were raised without a lot of money but were told at every level of their youth that they were special and better than everyone else. Every time they got into trouble, their behavior was excused or glossed over so they could play. And, then, they are handed millions of dollars with little guidance on how to behave. Of course, they are also being paid these unsightly sums of money to participate in a sport that rewards them for committing acts of violence. If they are a maniac on the field, they are made stars. But, they are expected to turn that instinct on and off at will. And, maybe most troubling, they are functioning in a culture that glorifies criminal behavior, from illegal dog fights to drugs to antics at strip clubs that would get the establishments closed if the authorities found out about them.

Vick is a product of that environment. Of course he thought he was above the law. Of course he thought he could lie about his involvement in the dog fighting and not get caught. After all, he is Michael Vick, with sneakers named after him and a $100 million contract in his pocket. Just like Jones hit a strip club in the wee hours when he was in New York to meet with Goodell about his many transgressions, and just as Johnson was speeding in the middle of the night after he had pledged to behave so well he would be the league's Man of the Year (even if it turned out that he was not above the legal alcohol limit). Does this excuse their behavior? Hell no. The players will and should pay the price. But, the problem runs deeper than one star quarterback savagely abusing dogs. Goodell's problem is really the culture of the league that promotes, condones and encourages the players' bad behavior.

Goodell's suspensions have been a good start. Maybe they will serve as a wake-up call that the culture of the league needs to be addressed. And, like Landis (the commissioner, not the juiced-up rider) nearly a century earlier, I don't think Goodell will need a criminal conviction to send Vick packing for a while. Based on what has been reported and the conviction rate of those federally indicted (reportedly in the 95% range), it seems that Vick's biggest problem may not be an NFL suspension but a stint in prison.

In the days ahead, I suspect the headlines will be returned to on-the-field stories. I'll read about the Yankees' resurgence and, if/when it happens, their subsequent fall back to earth. Stern and Goodell are hoping that their leagues don't nudge the Yankees out of the headlines until they actually start playing. In Stern's case, if the ref scandal gets any bigger, he'll look at Goodell in envy, wishing his biggest problem was deciding what to do with Vick. At least he can look at the Tour de France for solace, since the NBA has only had one incident of fans confronting players on the court. On second thought, maybe not. I'm sure the last thing Stern wants is fans thinking of Ron Artest and Jermaine O'Neal throwing down with Piston fans. Maybe Stern should just forget his problems and watch the Yankees' progress with me. What do you think, Commish? Will Mussina get his groove back tonight?