Taking Back Sports in ’08

In the Big Lebowski, John Goodman’s character, Walter Sobchak, says: "You want a toe? I can get you a toe, believe me." I recalled the genius of Goodman when my editor here at SI.com asked me for what he called my "sporting New Year’s resolutions."


"You want New Year’s resolutions?" I said, "I can get you New Year’s resolutions."


And yet then upon reflection I thought that finding a human toe might be easier. New Year’s resolutions are usually a series of highly personal pledges aimed toward self-improvement: lose weight, quit smoking, stop quoting Coen brothers movies, to take three random examples. But what would the resolutions be for the sports world?


Where do you even begin? Two-thousand-seven was the year we saw one of the most famous football players in the country go to prison, the most accomplished hitter of all-time get indicted on perjury charges, the most dominant pitcher since World War II implicated on steroid charges, an NBA referee busted for affecting the outcome of games and the most valuable NBA franchise found guilty of serial sexual harassment.


The year also saw numerous pro athletes targeted in violent crimes, including the murder of NFL players Darrent Williams and Sean Taylor. And, of course, it was all brought to us 24 hours a day by a sports media quick to draw broad assumptions, as the push to put out opinions in the absence of facts has become an accepted hallmark of today’s information-first age. This was a particular catastrophe after the tragic slaying of Taylor and the irresponsible assumption that his death in a botched robbery was the result of a thug life gone awry.


William Blake may have said "the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom," but this lost highway of excess has led to a crisis of overproduction: too much scandal, too much chatter, too much drama masquerading as sports.


The Sports World needs to collectively resolve to see 2008 as a time to slowly mend fences with a fan base feeling the pain. The road to redemption begins with that staple New Year’s resolution we are all too familiar with: It’s time to shed the excess weight. And throughout sports, the superfluous baggage is flowing from the commissioner’s offices.


As the saying goes, the fish rots from the head. So let’s start with the rotting head of sports. In baseball we can lose an easy 160 pounds by throwing over board the man who presided over what George Mitchell calls "the steroid era" in the sport, Bud Selig. There is a social compact with fans that commissioners will look after the well being of the game, and in return we will enjoy their product. Selig has taken the game and driven it off a cliff. The idea that he can now posture as the person who will lead baseball to a new enlightened era is like asking Britney Spears to babysit your kids.


Baseball could also lose about 10 tons of hot air if congress would then allow the new commissioner a chance to be proactive and keep the politicians away from the sport. One would have to think Congress has more important things to do.


Basketball could also burn its share of noxious fumes as well. David Stern used to be King Midas, seamlessly raising his league to globalized spectacle. This past year, the enduring basketball memory won’t be the Spurs’ championship, but Stern using his bully pulpit to wax bombastic about what players wear, who they are seen with and which establishments they frequent. Meanwhile as he declared war on "Gangsta culture," one of his refs was in bed with a very real set of gangsters.


As for Roger Goodell, I would write something critical, but I fear that I might be vaporized, so frightening are his powers.


But we must demand that those who consider themselves leaders in the world of sports — whether a commissioner, jock, or writer — operate with a deeper sense of the judicious, and resist the temptations of excess.


This question of execrable excess affects all sports fans. We don’t need stadiums that bankrupt our cities. We don’t need athletes who treat fans like an inconvenience to be suffered in between checks. We don’t need sports telecasts that look like they were produced by Maxim. And we don’t need commissioners more concerned with PR than the basic health of their games.


Please resolve in this New Year, to stop making it so darn difficult to love sports.


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