1. The Longest Season
“I think the Patriots actually live by the saying, ‘If you’re not cheatin, you’re not trying.’” — LaDainian Tomlinson of the San Diego Chargers
The sports scandals of the last months already feel old.
O.J. Simpson returned to retrieve some of his collectibles at gunpoint in a caper that seemed like a YouTube PR stunt. It’s time to ask the really tough question: Was he a greater running back than Jim Brown?
New England Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick, winner of three Super Bowls, went from resident genius to resident evil when his spycam was spotted at a Jets game stealing defensive signals. The Jets’ coach Eric Mangini, a former Belichick assistant, may even have been the snitch. The NFL punished Belichick and the Pats swiftly and harshly, but did nothing a week later when Jets defensive players were accused of shouting out signals at the line of scrimmage to confuse the Baltimore Ravens, also against NFL rules.
A few weeks before the Belichick revelations, one of the Patriots’ stars was suspended for using Human Growth Hormone (the current big-boy drug of choice), while a number of major league baseball players are now being investigated for receiving HGH shipments. Meanwhile, the New York Knicks have just found themselves on the losing end of a high-level sex-harassment suit involving Isiah Thomas, their coach and president. (Their star player merely had his way in his truck with an intern.) And don’t forget Marion Jones, long the sweetheart of track and field, finally admitted that she had used drugs to help her win five medals at the 2000 Olympics.
And those are just a few of the top scores from the scandal season.
Maybe your inclination is to blame the seeming erosion of sports ethics on the Bush role model, but increasing numbers of studies reveal that jocks cheat more often than non-jocks. It’s part of their conditioning. You can’t blame it all on Karl Rove.
So let’s take a look back at the summer’s scandal season with an appropriate attitude of Belichikian paranoia. After all, the powers-that-be love to promote sports scandals which encourage a hopelessness about the world as well as our ability to change or control it. Sports scandals liberate us from having to stand up, vote, demonstrate, move on. What’s the use when everything — including our games and pastimes — is so obviously fixed, or at least a little bit crooked?
Even so, the onslaught of scandals that roiled SportsWorld this past summer were classics we should never forget, because they did more than encourage that cynical shrug that precedes the next channel change; they also distracted many of us just long enough to avoid seriously confronting withdrawal, impeachment, or the other great issues of the day.
What chance did troop numbers in Iraq have against Barry’s home-run numbers?
Forget about death and dismemberment abroad, we have some dead dogs in Michael Vicks’ Bad Newz kennel!
Who needs support from a European community that promotes something as corrupted as the Tour de France?
Alberto Gonzalez might be crooked, but so is pro basketball — as the summer’s crooked ref scandal made so clear!
There is, however, one “sports” scandal that refuses to die, one thoroughly entwined with the battlefield, one that, it seems, could yet give us hope.
So let’s kick off a new season of Jock Culture notes with a mild aperitif of distraction — and then work our way up to the dogz.
2. We’ll Always Have the Pyrenees
“The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart.” — Iris Murdoch
Suddenly, it looks like a good thing that the cheese-eaters and their Euro-trash allies didn’t ride with us on the Tour d’Iraq. How can you trust surrender monkeys who can’t even pedal up a hill without pumping themselves with steroids, spare blood, and Dieu knows what else? Wouldn’t those junkies have been a big help going house to house in Falluja, stopping every so often for an injection?
Truth is, Americans hardly care about bike racing in years when Lance Armstrong wins, so the disintegration of the Tour de France last summer wasn’t exactly giant news here. For the past two years, the Tour’s early favorites were mostly disqualified for failing drug tests and the winner’s yellow jersey was passed to the back of the pack, most notably to Floyd Landis, who won in 2006 with an engaging smile, a bad hip, and — according to the drug-testers — some help from synthetic testosterone.
Earlier this month, an arbitration panel convened by the United States Anti-Doping Agency upheld the charges against Landis and the subsequent stripping of his championship. While he may appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the damage is done. Teams, including one sponsored by the Discovery Channel and partly owned by Armstrong, are disbanding.
My first reaction was to wonder whether Karl Rove had pumped up this scandal — since the bicycle is such a subversive instrument: inexpensive, healthful to the rider and the environment, sort of a MoveOn.org with wheels. If more people rode, we would be in better physical and mental shape to fight the greedheads. We wouldn’t be so dependent on oil. If we were riding as a nation, maybe we wouldn’t be in Iraq.
My second reaction, of course: Rove was a genius — having already convinced us, after all, that the most competitive bike rider in the country was George W. Bush.
I want the drug that Karl was taking.
3. Stealing the Game
“The only thing our refs shave is the ice.” — a Billboard ad by the Dallas Stars of the National Hockey League referring to the basketball scandal
Years ago, as a cub covering pro basketball, I couldn’t understand the waves of seemingly inappropriate cheering and booing that swept through Madison Square Garden at less than crucial moments in the game. It was a while before I was schooled in “the spread” and “the over-and-under” (gamblers’ terms for betting on a game’s score differential rather than who won or lost). In retrospect, was I stupid or in denial — or was I just less interested in basketball than I should have been?
I’ve never been as enthralled by hoops as other smallish white boys of my caste so often are, which is not a boast. I grew up in New York during the City College scandal of 1951. (My father, a City grad, was almost as wounded by the betrayal as C.L.R. James.) I also started to lose interest in rap (post-Chuck D) when it seemed less political expression than music for the hard-court stampedes — two sets of black artists moving units for smallish white businessmen… such as National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern, who has brilliantly globalized his game, but now faces a challenge to its integrity.
A referee, Tim Donaghy, has pleaded guilty to federal felony-conspiracy charges, alleging that he passed inside information on games to gamblers. He also bet on games he was officiating and made wrongful calls to support those bets.
How could the NBA’s vaunted security apparatus not have picked this up earlier? And, of course, there are those nagging questions: How widespread is this? Are other refs involved? When Donaghy’s trial begins in November, is it possible that he’ll snitch on colleagues?
Commissioner Stern has, of course, framed the Donaghy affair as an aberration, a localized cancer to be cut out. The equivalent of a rogue guard at Abu Ghraib.
Then again, hoops fans have always complained about incompetent officiating. At least, now we know that Donaghy wasn’t merely stupid. And, as an off-season scandal, it’s certainly been distracting enough.
4. The Syringe Is Mightier than the Surge
“You’ve always been a great hitter and you broke a great record.” — President Bush to Barry Bonds in a phone call on Aug. 7, 2007
The President’s congratulatory call was, I suspect, one of relief. I recognized the feeling; The days leading up to Barry breaking Hank Aaron’s career record of 756 home-runs felt like those leading up to Y2K when all the computers in the world were supposed to crash. With one stroke, the world as we knew it would end.
Hating Barry was too easy. His excellent biographer, Jeff Pearlman, has labeled him “a truly evil man.” A normally solid, thoughtful columnist for ESPN.com, Jemele Hill, actually called on God to “smite” Bonds before he could break the record.
The journalists who have driven the Bonds’ story, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams of the San Francisco Chronicle now write that, rather than “poised to emerge from its steroid crisis… [baseball] appears headed deeper into the drug abyss.”
They foresee more reports and revelations on performance-enhancing drug use, notably of HGH by high-profile players and a continuing steroid investigation marked by revelations from Kirk Radomski, an admitted steroids dealer and former New York Mets batboy. Kirk has a little list, so far sealed, of some two dozen names.
Charles Yesalis, professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University and a recognized steroids expert, told the Chronicle reporters, “Fans who believe baseball has cleaned up the game with its toughened drug-testing program are exhibiting ‘a childlike naÃ¯vetÃ©.’”
Baseball doesn’t even test for human growth hormone and, according to Yesalis, players who want to cheat are certain to discover that, “with growth hormone and low doses of [the steroid] testosterone that can’t even be detected on the tests, you are good to go.”
And we’re good to go, too. Everything should be asterisked (not just the record-breaking home-run ball itself, marked by the fashion designer who paid $752,467 for it and has reaped millions in publicity from it). Nothing is pure. Why bother? Have another Bud.
Meanwhile, having used him to help build their new ballpark and fill its seats, the Giants recently fired Bonds, which probably makes him more vulnerable to his legal pursuers. Did he lie to a grand jury in 2003 when he said he never used steroids? His friend and trainer, Greg Anderson, is still in jail for refusing to rat Bonds out.
But it doesn’t matter anymore; the case against Michael Vick was strong enough to make him the new designated demon du jour, the Saddam to Bonds’ Osama. And just like Saddam, Vick had a posse to disarm and land to invade.
Less than a week after Bonds broke the home-run record and four days before Michael Vick’s pals rolled on him as a killer of dogs, Karl Rove quit the White House to “start thinking about the next chapter.” We were suitably distracted.
5. Who Let the Gasbags Out
“Personally, I’d like to see Vick locked in a cage with six to eight of those pit bulls and nothing but his hands to use in his own defense. Goodness, yes, an eye for an eye is sometimes the only just punishment.”– Michael Wilbon in the Washington Post, August 25, 2007
The moralizing of sportswriters is a critical aspect of our limited charm. It is expected because we are democracy’s cheerleaders; our moralizing is a cultural signifier. The Vick avalanche was, in part, brought down by the animal rights lobby. (As one sportswriter pointed out on TV, Vick would have suffered less had he committed rape. He was right, of course, and lost his TV gig for the comment.) Also at play were the notions that star athletes have social responsibilities and that a vicious crime requires a punishment.
Underlying it all, I suspect, was the frustrated fury of the sports media in the wake of Bonds’ crime without punishment. For several years now, the media had raged at Bonds’ alleged steroid use, mocked his engorged body and head, sniped back when he showed his undisguised disdain for them. He ignored them and pounded on. He may even come back next year to add to his record.
How else, I wonder, could the Washington Post’s nonpareil Wilbon wax so violently above — or his splendid colleague Sally Jenkins have written in such a similarly vehement vein (as in this passage)?
“If an animal didn’t perform well enough, if it wasn’t champion enough, if it was in Vick’s judgment flawed, he strangled it, drowned it, electrocuted it or beat it to death on the ground. Vick and his pals deliberately enslaved and tormented weaker creatures, and killed those they considered inferior. The dogs had faces and voices that would have eloquently expressed their agony, and Vick hurt them anyway, repeatedly. The crimes may have been committed against canines, but at issue is basic humanity. Commit those crimes against people, and the words we’d use for it are fascism, and genocide. Don’t kid yourself: The people who are so angry at Vick are angry for all the right reasons.”
They may well be. But their barking made it hard for me to think of anything else.
I found a calm center, though, in the work of two columnists I have long admired. Their views were not universally popular and some claimed to find whiffs of self-hate, racism, even pandering to the power structure in them, but I thought each represented a smart, bold stand that needs to be considered seriously.
Jason Whitlock of the Kansas City Star wrote:
“[Vick] threw it all away because he bought into the self-destructive, immature, hip-hop model of ‘keeping it real.’ The Atlanta Falcons and owner Arthur Blank introduced and ushered Michael Vick into a brand-new world, a world that required Vick to carry himself in a more mainstream manner, a world of wealth, privilege, responsibility and the appearance of ethics and morality. It’s a world all starting quarterbacks are asked to join. The position is the most prestigious in sports.
“Vick wanted to do things his way. He wanted to customize the position in terms of style of play and off-field demeanor. He wanted to keep it real by keeping his feet in the seedy world he once knew and the new world that demanded a squeakier image.
“The worlds don’t mix.”
Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote:
“Somewhere between Jackie Robinson and Michael Vick, things got all fouled up. ‘Street cred’ became the anthem of the modern black athlete, this misguided notion that the only way to appeal to the young demographic of the sneaker-buying public was to adopt the negative attitudes of the thug life popularized by black hip-hop/gangster rappers. Vick…. got hijacked, and we all let it happen. We let it happen by passively condoning this mess. We did it when we turned Allen Iverson into a marketing icon and rejected someone like Grant Hill because he lacked ‘street cred.’ We allowed it to happen every time we gave Vick the benefit of the doubt when he kept stumbling and offering weak alibis for his stupidity. We allowed it to happen slowly, insidiously over the past 20 years. The problem is the hijacking of African-American culture by the hip-hop generation that has helped glorify every rotten, foul and disgusting racial stereotype it took generations to eradicate.”
That’s not the whole story, of course. Go check out the fascinating dust-up between two of my favorite Nation writers, Dave Zirin and Katha Pollitt. They write about the NFL’s culture of violence (where could the League have learned that?), as well as racism and individual responsibility.
In any case, Vick, too, was a great distraction of the summer. Zirin asks, “How can we rally for the pit bull when one million Iraqis are dead and the US media barely yawns?”
6. Pat Died for Our Sins
“Was his death by fratricide an accident or a homicide? After all, he had reportedly advised fellow Rangers to vote for John Kerry and, on his next leave, was looking forward to meeting Noam Chomsky.”– Robert Lipsyte, Tomdispatch, January, 2007
If the sports media ever decides to get serious about its ranting, the Pat Tillman case would be perfect. The promising young pro football player with a reputation as a risk-taker and free thinker, Tillman was no Bush poster boy when he joined the Army after 9/11. He was a patriot. The spinning of his death in Afghanistan three years ago as a heroic defense of his comrades was yet another act of deadly cynicism and/or desperation by the current administration — particularly after it was discovered that he had been killed by friendly fire.
And then it got much worse. This summer, while we were counting down Bonds and counting out Vick, the Associated Press, using documents dug up through a Freedom of Information request, reported just why the Army had buried the findings of a post-mortem on Tillman. He had been shot three times in the forehead at close range.
According to the AP on July 27, “U.S. Army medical examiners were suspicious about the close proximity of the three bullet holes in Pat Tillman’s forehead and tried without success to get authorities to investigate whether the former professional football player’s death amounted to a crime…; The doctors — whose names were blacked out — said the bullet holes were so close together that it appeared the Army Ranger was cut down by an M-16 fired from a mere 10 yards or so away.” Oh, and by the way, “No evidence at all of enemy fire was found at the scene — no one was hit by enemy fire, nor was any government equipment struck.”
How could this bombshell explode so quietly? Where was the sports media? Where was the media period? Forget about the relative importance of this story compared to drugs, dingers, dogs; just think about the chance to rumble and rant
You don’t even have to be a casual viewer of CSI to deduce that Tillman could well have been murdered by another U.S. soldier. You can imagine the detectives’ hunches — a soldier who hated him or his politics, maybe one who went psycho or thought Tillman was leading them into a trap, took him down at close range. And then there could be room for more Belichickian paranoia: Officers ordered Tillman killed to prevent him from coming home and telling people what he had seen and how he now felt about the war.
Nobody picked it up and ran with it. Too dangerous? Too political? Are sportswriters too lazy, too wussy, or just too smart? Landis and Donaghy and Bonds and Vick can’t hurt you so long as you carp from a distance. Karl could kill you by text-message.
I’m no fool. I’m going to keep this story alive in fiction. Change names, do it as a movie, which I want to develop with Steven Soderbergh, David Cronenberg, and Peter (“Friday Night Lights”) Berg.
The shooting would then become a hit ordered by Karl Rove for reasons that are revealed after the Tillman character miraculously recovers from his wounds and comes home to lead us into the second American Revolution.
In a motor home called Liberty Two, he drives the NASCAR circuit telling crowds of more than 200,000 what he has learned of the government’s greed and betrayal. This audience is particularly responsive because it’s their siblings, children, relatives, and friends who have been doing most of the fighting — and dying.
In the last scene, as Tillman heads for Washington, D.C. leading a convoy of more than one million vehicles, Karl Rove shows up to offer his services.
While I wait for the green light to write up the script, I’ll be keeping an ear cocked toward the NFL. Last month, a group of veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan asked Commissioner Roger Goodell to help obtain all the documents in the Tillman case.
Of course, the Commissioner has also been busy with Vick and the dogs.
Robert Lipsyte, the Jock Culture correspondent for Tomdispatch, is author of the new Young Adult novel about a stock car racing family, Yellow Flag.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), which has just been thoroughly updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture's crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.]