Has there ever been a worse year than 2007 to be a sports fan? Locally I can’t imagine things getting much worse. The Ravens are in the midst of the longest losing streak in franchise history and there will be lots of questions to be answered regarding the direction of the team this off-season. The Orioles have been miserable for a decade, and are currently shopping the only two stars to come out of their Farm System since Mike Mussina. And Gary Williams and the Terps have been in a 5-year stretch where the only thing more disappointing than their win loss record is their graduation rate. What’s worse is that none of the aforementioned programs have much to get fans excited about for the future either. We probably should have figured that it’d be a tough year when it began with the Colts winning the Superbowl.
The disappointment that I will take away from 2007 as a sports fan though goes far beyond the achievements of the teams that I happen to root for. Winning and losing is par for the course as a fan, and sadly these days, so is scandal. As fans we have been conditioned to deal with occasional indiscretions from those who wear the laundry that we root for.
This however has been a year like no other for scandal, and no league has been immune. If you’ve been paying close attention, than you have serious reasons to be skeptical and to question the role of the leagues in ignoring or even perpetuating some of the problems that have surfaced. You are also probably growing wary of the media’s role in driving the court of public opinion, and hopefully you’re realizing too that as fans we are incapable of being objective when it comes to the players and teams that we support or disdain.
First there was the Tim Donaghy scandal, perhaps the worst of all. Donaghy was found to have influenced the outcome of games for the purpose of getting out of debt with a sports book. Prior to the Donaghy scandal there was already a significant amount of people who believed in the “big fix”, this will continue to fuel their fire for years to come. When it comes to officiating, basketball rules seem to be more subjective than other sports to begin with. I’d bet that more fans and players walk away from basketball games feeling wronged by the refs than in any other sport. This will continue to sit badly with fans for years to come.
Perhaps even more alarming than the scandal itself was the way that the league handled things. First of all it’s alarming that it was the FBI alone who discovered the issue. We’ve been conditioned to believe that the sports books are so scientific now that they should be able to spot this type of thing easily. Furthermore, I’d like to believe that the league routinely critiques officials’ performances and should have picked up on something like this. It’s certainly not like Donaghy had a low profile as an official.
And maybe most alarming of all was the quickness with which David Stern surmised that this was simply an isolated case of a “rogue official”. I cannot imagine what type of investigation he was able to conduct so quickly in order to make such a conclusion. And then to put the icing on the cake, nearly half of the leagues referees were found to have been in violation of league’s gambling policy and would not be disciplined. In fact, the league would look into easing the gambling restrictions because they were “too broad”. Granted, we are talking mostly about casino gambling here, there are certainly worse things a referee could be doing, but these guys were contractually obligated to stay out of casinos, plain and simple. The fact that nearly half of NBA referees had gambled in a Vegas casino within the past 12 months is not a big deal? I beg to differ, I wonder how that percentage compares to the general population, much less guys whose job description mandates that they don’t do it.
In the NFL we had Spygate. Maybe, in the grand scheme of 2007, this is the mildest of the major sports scandals. The Patriots were seemingly caught taping the New York Jets’ defensive signals during a week 1 game, and a season long storyline was born. Based on Commissioner Goddell’s “new sheriff in town” approach to discipline, fans expected league action to be swift and decisive, and to an extent it was. But the way that the matter was ultimately handled will have conspiracy theorists buzzing for years to come.
The game in which the Patriots were accused of the illegal taping was in week 1, specifically Sunday September 9th. After the game, Jets coach Eric Mangini accused the Patriots of taping the Jets defensive signals from the sideline, as well as illegally miking certain players for the purpose of stealing signals. It was also reported at that time, that the Seahawks has accused the Pats of the same offense and had the same photographer removed from the sidelines during a game in 2006. Just four days later the league stepped in with what it called the strongest penalty in the history of the NFL. That would seem like resolution, but actually the fun was just beginning.
The Patriots were forced to forfeit a first round pick if they made the playoffs, or a second and third round pick if they failed to make the playoffs, additionally the league levied fines totaling $750,000 against the team and Belichick personally. Many thought the penalty was too light, the Patriots after all still had the 2007 first rounder that they had gotten from the 49ers in last years draft. And many thought a suspension was in order, especially when comparing Belichick’s offenses with those of Wade Wilson who had been suspended for 5 games for using HGH. That too was just the tip of the iceberg.
Next, on Sunday morning, September 16th, Chris Mortensen reported that the Patriots had been ordered to turn over all spying materials to the league offices. That same night, on “Football Night in America” the commissioner stated in an interview that the Patriots had not yet complied with the league order, and that an additional fine would be imposed if they weren’t received soon. Also during that evening’s game broadcast, Patriots owner Bob Kraft came into the booth and stated that he was completely unaware of any of the alleged activities and that he all of his businesses were built on honesty and integrity. He went on to assure us that nothing like this would ever happen again. The following day it was reported that the Patriots had extended Belichick’s contract, and although the terms weren’t disclosed it sure looks like Kraft took care of that fine for him.
Nothing further was reported about the whereabouts or contents of the tapes until Thursday September 20th. Less than 96 hours after reporting that the tapes had not yet been received, the league announced that all of the materials associated with the investigation had been reviewed and destroyed. Huh?!?! No reports as to what was found on the tapes or how many there were? No word on whether the reports of unauthorized audio were true? How did the league go through everything so quickly and what did they find? And even more importantly, why were they destroyed so quickly?
The Patriots are on the way to possibly the greatest season ever, and have been the beneficiary of a few questionable calls along the way. No wonder conspiracy theorists are buzzing over this one. Maybe Belichick’s deviousness goes deeper than any of us could have imagined. Maybe he sent over some compromising tapes of the commissioner. Whatever the reason for their course of action, the NFL sure dropped the ball on this one.
And then there’s MLB and the Mitchell report. This is hardly a scandal exclusive to this year in baseball. In fact the Mitchell report brought back some names from the past that many had long forgotten. In the end I think the Mitchell report did little to enlighten us on the problem of steroids in baseball. I think we all knew that the problem was there. It seems like the Mitchell report was really nothing more than an advanced copy of three separate investigations without much more info than would be gotten when each of these plays out in court anyway.
Much like the NBA betting issue, it’s somewhat troubling at least, that the league had very little to do with finding the violators of it’s policies. Instead it was mostly the fruit of federal investigations that led to these players being outed. Drug testing is a joke. As it stands today, anyone who fails a league imposed drug test in any of the major professional sports, did so because they were either too arrogant or too sloppy.
It’s not the leagues’ fault that there is no known test for HGH, that is seemingly out of their control. But the fact that the leagues are using urine tests instead of hair follicle tests to detect drugs is a joke all by itself. Go into any head shop or vitamin store and you’ll find all kinds of ways to beat urine tests. There are teas that will actually cleanse your system pretty rapidly, and syrups that will make you “pee clean” for a given period of time. There are pills that will make you pee water, and even a rubber penis with powdered urine and a heating pouch that you can buy online.
I am in the financial industry. There organizations in my business that pay spies to follow around Ben Bernacke to see what he’s eating, and where he’s spending his time in order to try and predict what the Federal Reserve will do in advance. Do you expect me to believe that these leagues full of millionaires haven’t found a way to keep tabs on where the drug testing crew is heading? In the Army, you routinely knew whether you’d be on the “random” test list 2 days in advance. Then we find out that the testers were calling the teams days in advance to request parking passes, and expecting their visits to still be a surprise.
Furthermore, most of the most dangerous recreational drugs don’t stay in your system for very long anyway. Urine testing is simply a CYA maneuver by most employers, those who truly want a drug free workplace use hair follicle testing. Are these guys really going to argue that it’s too expensive? That’s the biggest issue for most companies.
What the Mitchell report showed me is that by identifying 3 distributors of performance enhancing drugs, the federal government was able to implicate nearly 90 current and former major leaguers, while random testing has caught nearly no one.
What else the Mitchell report proves, is that we cannot be objective as sports fans. Maybe the report should be looked at as a study in sociology rather than a steroid investigation. The Mitchell report proves that we like who we like, and we hate who we hate, and we will never be able to judge our athletes fairly.
Prior to the Mitchell report it was safe to assume that Rafael Palmeiro would never get into the hall of fame. For Raffy, the Mitchell report is vindication to a certain extent. Before Roger Clemens’ name was tied to this scandal, it was possible that Barry Bonds’ criminal indictment could have kept even the home run king out of the hall of fame. But given the early reaction to the report, and the seemingly soft stance taken against Clemens, there’s no way that they’d keep him out of the hall. So now Bonds and Palmeiro and maybe even Pete Rose will be granted admission, based on the fact that the “integrity of the game” factor may have to be waived when considering your ballot.
The court of public opinion is fickle. And when it comes to our athletes especially, it often takes shape without any real rhyme or reason. Why is the public so quick to want to crucify Mike Vick? Yet Leonard Little continues to go about his business basically unbothered because of the failings of our legal system. Why will Barry Bonds continue to be hated in for his assault on the record books? Yet Jason Giambi has been allowed to move on. Why do we care so much about steroids and HGH in baseball, but mostly give a pass to football players when they are caught?
This year in sports has certainly given us more questions than answers; more reasons to be skeptical than reasons to be hopeful. There will have to be lots of damage control by all 3 leagues in order to restore the faith of the fans.
On a positive note, it was the best year for boxing in recent memory. Perhaps that’s the most telling sign of all. Perhaps the fact that boxing is the one breath of fresh air in an otherwise shady year for professional sports, says it all about how bad things are. Here’s looking forward to 2008, and hoping that things can’t get much worse.