There’s a very effective TV ad that warns young people about the dangers of steroid use, showing the ancient Greek statue of the discus thrower crumbling.
The grievous scandals and tragedies surrounding professional sports of many types today makes one think of that same image, applied to the sports, themselves.
As a practical matter, the loss of trust by the millions of us who pay all that money for tickets, food, parking and concessions to participate in a professional sporting event could eventually bring the whole thing down.
This matter of trust, the lack of it, has grown to new heights with three almost-simultaneous and very serious scandals shaking the foundations of professional sport right now. It is hard to know which is worse.
In the case of the Atlanta Falcons’ superstar quarterback Michael Vick being indicted on charges associated with dog-fighting, the matter is isolated to a single individual in a sport with a lot of big stars. But it is a particularly disturbing case involving heartless cruelty toward scores, if not hundreds, of “man’s best friend.”
In today’s emerging GQ-driven “metro-sexual” male jock paradigm, the literal care and feeding of household canines, in particular, is held in high esteem. Manhood is being redefined to include enjoying puppy licks on the face and meandering walks after work to permit the hound to “do his business.”
It doesn’t cut it to dismiss the cruelty of dog fighting to the vagaries of a cultural divide between wealth and poverty. It is a sick and twisted human being that engages in such things, and as the Vick case demonstrates, not something confined to the remote garages of the dirt poor or deprived.
Someone guilty of this kind of activity is an anti-role model. What parent would want their child to worship, as they tend to do, such a person as a sports hero?
Then there is the case of Barry Bonds, about to set a new home run record for major league baseball that is shrouded in growing controversy.
This case is altogether different than the Vick one insofar as there is no depraved cruelty toward helpless animals involved. The steroid-use allegations suggest that the abuse is perpetrated against, in one sense at least, Bonds’ own body.
But the issue here is one of public trust, and it is unfortunate that Bonds has made himself, by virtue of his achievement, the sole lightening rod for a real frustration among fans about players cheating the system and, as a result, them.
We know well that “performance enhancers” are widespread in baseball, especially since its top brass encouraged home run hitting to recover the sport’s fan base after a disastrous strike destroyed a season in the mid-1990s. There’s already a long list of monster home run hitters that have been shown to use steroids or other supplements outlawed in many sports, and of course, this kind of abuse is not limited to baseball.
While Bonds ought not be singled out over all the rest, he’s being so because he symbolizes the bigger problem, being seen as violating the greatest record in the sport and with that, the legacies of Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron and others who’ve climbed high up that ladder of sports immortality.
The only question concerns when distrust carries over to disgust and fans start walking away.
The alternative would be for sports fans to simply accept the inevitability of their heroes becoming drug-enhanced monsters and to relax and enjoy the ride. The Vicks and the Bonds’ of the future, and what they could evolve into, will become par for the course. Of course, forget about raising your kids to strive to be like them, unless you are a monster, at least mentally, yourself.
Finally, and even potentially the most disastrous for sport, is the scandal involving Tim Donaghy, the National Basketball Association referee charged with betting on games that he, himself, refereed. NBA damage control is in full force asserting that his is an isolated case. But his case threatens an entire sport and the gravy trains of every player in it.
This sport depends on some of the highest ticket prices anywhere because of the smaller venues compared to baseball and football stadiums, and a narrower TV market. It is already beset with controversial calls by the refs, with the art of “flopping” and other ways of faking or exaggerating fouls by players only adding to the problem.
It will take an enormous “willful suspension of disbelief” for fans to not be overcome by crippling suspicion now that the lid has come off this one case.