Sports in Crisis
Except, of course, this disastrous July of 2007.
Let's check in:
In the NFL, Michael Vick is about to report to court in Richmond for Federal indictments alleging unthinkable cruelty as the head of an interstate dogfighting ring.
In baseball, a BALCO chemist responsible for designing untraceable steroids has named Barry Bonds and Gary Sheffield as users, this with Bonds two home runs shy of tying Hank Aaron.
Think those two are bad? They're nothing. The NBA is facing the single worst possible scandal in sports: the corruption of officials. Referee Tim Donaghy is under investigation by the FBI for fixing games to pay off a gambling debt to the mob.
The latest on Vick is that the Falcons were planning to sit his butt for four weeks, and had in fact already drafted the letter informing him of his suspension when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (whom I love more and more every day) interceded, ordering Vick not to report to training camp so that the league can hold their own investigation. I'll say this: Vick is done with the Falcons, and maybe with the NFL. Even if he's found innocent, dog lovers are always going to pick Fido over Vick.
It wasn't so long ago that Michael Vick was hailed as the future of the NFL, not just as a corporate face but as a style of play. Now the face is cracked, and it's been clear for a few years that a smart pocket passer will always be more successful than Vick's freewheeling style. Honestly, if Michael Vick ever plays in the NFL again I will be genuinely surprised. That's how bad this is.
The latest on Bonds is just now breaking. BALCO chemist Patrick Arnold invented "the clear," a steroid designed to be undetectable and coincidentally introduced around the same time sluggers' bodies began inflating like balloons. The link between Arnold and Bonds isn't direct, but runs through Victor Conte, BALCO's founder, whose defense in the face of evidence is just to deny, deny, deny. No one believes Conte and no one believes Bonds. This news naturally broke overnight as commissioner Bud Selig attended a Giants game just to observe Bonds potentially tying or breaking Hank Aaron's record.
What a mess this is. I don't believe that steroids in baseball are the be-all and end-all of scandal that they are presented as; pitchers are getting just as much advantage by juicing, and it takes much more than big muscles to hit home runs. However, the two most hallowed records in baseball (with apologies to Joe DiMaggio) are Maris' 61 and Aaron's 755, and it's clear that steroid users have already eclipsed the first and are on the verge of breaking the second. I don't believe in asterisks, but I don't know what baseball should do. Perhaps anyone who tests positive for steroids, corks a bat, etc. should have their records completely excised. One strike, you're out of the record books. Maybe that's the only penalty that fits the crime of compromising the game's integrity. Of course, neither Bonds nor Mark McGwire have ever tested positive. Much like Michael Vick has never been found guilty of operating a dogfighting ring.
But Bud Selig actually has it easy in comparison to Goodell and, particularly, his NBA counterpart David Stern.
An official fixing games on mob orders is the nightmare of all nightmares. The Black Sox scandal is a joke in comparison. I can not imagine a worse sports scandal than this. I feel terrible for Tim Donaghy, and hope he has loved ones near him to talk him down from the ledge, possibly literally, because he's clearly a victim of gambling addiction. This doesn't absolve him of responsibility for his actions, of course, but I feel tremendous sympathy for him. He is the most miserable man on the planet right now, and it's only just beginning.
Now every game Donaghy officiated over the past few years is under suspicion. Every championship comes with a question mark. This is the worst thing ever. It's going to hang over the NBA for years. If one ref can be fixing games, why not more? Bad calls that used to come with good-natured jeering of "Bought!" or "Fix!" now come with real and justified suspicion.
July really is a slow month in sports. The only big-league games going on are in baseball. But the sports pages still have column inches to fill, and the broadcasts have minutes to occupy. This is the worst imaginable time to have a scandal in your league, because it's going to be completely and totally exposed for the simple fact that there isn't much of anything else to talk about.
So where are we gonna go? Hockey? They shut down for a whole season a while back and can't even get on ESPN6 at this point. What are they on, OLN? I'm not even sure. All three above beleaguered leagues are in far better shape than the gasping, grasping NHL.
I recommend the Arena Football League, which has its championship game this weekend. AFL football is a blast, especially if you can see it live. But for pure sports bang-for-the-buck, most of America lives within an hour's drive of a minor-league baseball stadium. The Richmond Braves provide a really fantastic pure sports thrill 70 days a year. If you can find a single-A team to watch, that's even better. These guys are young and hungry, and the hot dogs are cheap.
If all this bothers you, I suppose you could watch the Tour de France, where half of the racers started late yesterday to protest the doping scandals that have made their sport more irrelevant than the WNBA.
(For the record, I like the WNBA.)