So far, in my estimation, there has been a surprising lack of reaction to the 60 Minutes expose shown on Sunday in which additional former teammates of cycling great Lance Armstrong went on record with accusations of foul play in the way of doping and PED use during Armstrong’s storied and inspirational reign of dominance in the world of professional cycling. Maybe the dull and ongoing roar of controversy that has already surrounded Armstrong’s career in recent years has given everyone ample opportunity to make their judgment on him long before this latest batch of news surfaced. It would seem that those who have been paying even modest attention to the saga as it’s unfolded have formed their opinion based on the magnitude of mud slinging, accusations and innuendo already out there, and few would have likely heard anything on Sunday that would have made them feel any differently either way. Maybe though, it’s the simple realization that the cutthroat world of professional sports is not exactly the romantic pursuit of a dream that we ultimately make it out to be. We’ve learned that karma doesn’t seem to exist in sports and that storylines that play out “too good to be true” usually are.
We sat in denial and were duped by the likes of Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, Raphael Palmeiro and Barry Bonds (well maybe not by Bonds). We marveled at the abilities of coaches like John Wooden and Pete Carroll for their abilities to utilize their prolific reputations and picture perfect campuses to land multiple top recruits at the same positions to compete with one another rather than to go places that would build programs around them, only to find out that with or without the coaches’ culpability, it was money that kept those programs waist deep in blue chippers. And at the end of the day we were forced to realize that the whistle blowers (without whom we’d have never gotten to the bottoms of such issues) are usually slimier than the parties that they’re outing.
Is it more embarrassing for us as a sports nation to have the wool pulled over our eyes by guys like Sam Gilbert and Victor Conte, or to have to rely on the likes of Floyd Landis, Brain McNamee and Jose Canseco to show us the light?
As a result, I can say that my faith (what I had left of it) has been shaken. My ability to witness and therefore believe the unbelievable is possibly the biggest draw of all for being a sports fan. Yet now, more and more, it’s getting tough to believe in the unbelievable and trust what my eyes are seeing.
Here are my top 5 indictable sports story lines. They are in no way meant to cast aspersions on anyone mentioned therein (in fact all listed seem to be above reproach, at least to our knowledge), only to illustrate the sad realization that otherwise historic achievements are getting tougher and tougher to believe and therefore enjoy.
#5 Tiger Woods
I rank this one 5th mostly because my understanding of golf is naïve at best. My grandfather was and enthusiast and they showed highlights on SportsCenter, so as Tiger Woods entered the scene, first as a storied amateur and then as a budding professional, I thought I had seen enough of him and of golf to make a few predictions. First, that Woods was good, but in comparison to his reputation didn’t seem poised to dominate. Which leads to the second prediction, which was that no one could really dominate in golf. While a handful of golfers seemed to stand out above the rest before Tiger, no one had been dominant in my lifetime, and the nature of the sport simply didn’t seem (in my estimation) to support one.
Tiger was obviously dominant, arguably more than dominant, arguably too good to be true. He is also obviously no longer dominant. There are lots of reasons to justify Tiger’s prolific slide, his personal problems and multiple knee surgeries presumably among them. Also notable, but not as bantered about during Tiger’s problems, were rumors about his level of intoxication at the time of his car accident and the substances that caused that state. There were also alleged links to Dr. Anthony Galea who had strong ties to steroids and HGH.
As I stated earlier, my understanding of playing 18-holes of golf is naïve at best, my understanding of juggling 18 or more…well you know, is even more naïve. I don’t know how much steroids, or prescription medications could possibly help a golfer, but it would seem that their presence and then their removal would be more likely to cause the kinds of lingering issues that Tiger seems to be dealing with in his golf game than would the end of a marriage that he obviously had very little regard for anyway. Surely the eye test at least reveals that Woods is a shell of his former physical self. All making Tiger’s storied and apparently ended run of dominance one of the toughest sports stories for me to believe.
#4 – Usain Bolt
Like baseball and cycling, track and field has the type of PED related history that leads us to be suspect of anyone who is able to dominate their competition. You could easily argue that Bolt is the most dominant athlete, at his respective sport, in the world today. He doesn’t just break records and dust competitors; he does it with ease. Bolt’s flamboyance while breaking world record after world record has led frustrated observers to speculate about just how badly he could have shattered those records if he actually ran hard for the whole race. It has also led to speculation that Bolt has decided to steadily trim the world record while collecting big money bonuses for each time he shaves it down a little more.
Bolt is running in Rome on Thursday, and that he’ll set another record seems all but a foregone conclusion. How believable that achievement actually is…possibly another matter altogether.
#3 – Duke Basketball
Call me a hater, call me a dyed in the wool Terps fan and call me crazy if you like, but you have to at least concede that the situation at Duke isn’t unlike those that existed at USC in football under Pete Carroll or at UCLA in basketball under John Wooden. For whatever reason, the most highly regarded of the blue chip crop of players have elected to go to Duke and fight for minutes with their teammates rather than going elsewhere to guaranteed playing time and chances to showcase their skills more freely and regularly against top competition.
In their defense, their has never been even a sniff of inequity coming from the program in now over 20 years of NCAA Tournament success, and Duke seems to typically land kids from good means who may not be looking for paydays at college. None of that though makes the run of dominance that Duke has had from both a performance and even more so a recruiting standpoint for more than 2 decades running any easier to believe. How could that not be just a little bit fishy?
#2 – Manny Pacquiao
Maybe it’s time to rethink this entire entry when I start endorsing arguments made famous by Floyd Mayweather, but nevertheless…
The world’s top regarded pound-for-pound fighter Manny Pacquiao started his professional career in 1995 at 107 pounds. He lived, and dominated south of 115 pounds until 1999, and then stayed at 125 pounds or less while continuing to dominate until 2005. Since then Pacquiao has gone to 130, 135, 145, 147 & 150 pounds while chasing purses and piling up notable victims. Early in this class jumping campaign, it became chic to doubt Pac-Man’s ability to pack on pounds and maintain his athleticism against guys regarded as the best in the divisions he was endeavoring to. At a certain point, we simply had to put that argument to rest, as Pacquiao has consistently packed on the weight quickly and efficiently, and fought much better than the pumped up 130-pounder that he actually is.
Still, while defying logic and signing up for possible severe beatings in chasing paydays and notoriety, Pacquiao allegedly allowed his unwillingness to submit to a blood test to stand in the way of the fight that would trump all previous paydays and cement his place in boxing lore for perpetuity. That combination, more than anything Marquez is likely to throw at Pacquiao in his next fight makes his stellar body of work a little questionable at least.
#1 – Jose Bautista
Joey Bats is hitting the cover off the ball in an era where you just don’t do that anymore, and he has the misfortune of doing it in a sport that has become synonymous with steroids and cheating, and his campaign sure looks like a lot of others that we saw and bought into over the last couple of decades as a result. Most curious about Bautista’s recent success though is that he was around for the steroid era, and if indeed he succumbed to the temptation back then his numbers surely didn’t show it.
From 2004-2009 Joey Bats bounced from team to team, fighting for playing time and roster spots, fighting to stay above .200 and collecting 59 homeruns (never more than 16 in a season) along the way. That he broke out last season with 54 was eyebrow raising to say the least. Still, everyone on the Blue Jays seemed to enjoy a power surge of sorts last season; a new approach and new hitting coach were given most of the credit. That Bautista hit his 54 taters while batting just .260 and pulling everything seemed indicative of a player swinging from his heels and generating lots of power or lots of breeze. That he has come back hitting .343 this season has added not only to the legend of Joey Bats, but the suspicion surrounding him too.
The sad fact of the matter is that these are stories that I should enjoy (personal rivalries notwithstanding) or at least be able to appreciate. Maybe sports are spoiling my belief in humanity, or more likely maybe humanity is destroying my belief in sports.