Sunday, February 03, 2008

The righteous and the wicked

As fans we are typically raised in our own particular denomination - Sox, Yankees, Colts, Penguins. Sometimes it's because of family, sometimes it's regional.

We've been raised to believe that there is something pure and good about sports.

The character of Terrence Mann in Field of Dreams concludes his keynote speech with, "And they'll watch the game and it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh... people will come Ray. People will most definitely come."

The fact is, people that play sports - and I'm not talking about those of us that play pick-up games of basketball on Saturdays, or in softball leagues after work - no, those that were competitive enough to be in that handful of players to ever make it to the majors, the coaches, the trainers, these people are some of the most competitive people in the world.

They look for edges, often going out of the bounds allowed by their sport, sometimes venturing into the outright illegal. And this is not limited to American athletes or coaches.

Look at Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, Barry Bonds, Bjarne Riss, Roger Clemens, and Lyle Alzado to name a few. By all reports, these people are the ones who looked for shortcuts, looked for the edge that going outside the bounds of the rules of their sport, and sometimes the laws of their country.

If you doubt how competitive these people are, consider that Pete Rose ended the career of a catcher in an All-Star game. A game that didn't even count.

The history of professional sports is a history of cheating and controversy, as much as we would like to convince ourselves otherwise, as often as we try to convince ourselves otherwise, the fact remains that there is nothing clean about pro sports.

The Patriots have Spygate, the Chicago White Sox will always have the Black Sox Scandal, the Packers and Lions will always each have a highly regarded player (historically speaking) in the 1960's who were both suspended for a season for gambling on the game. The Reds will always have Pete Rose, and Rose will always carry the stigma of betting on baseball.

Questions will always dog Floyd Landis and Lance Armstrong. There will always be questions regarding the timing of Martina Hingis and the timing of her retirement in regards to an alleged positive test for cocaine, violating the WTA's drug policy.

In spite of mounds of incontrivertible evidence that pro sports is rife with cheating, we, as fans, get indignant over the fact that an opposing team cheated to win. We yell cheater(!) and point fingers, and try to claim the team that is the subject of our affections in a given sport is on some sort of moral high ground.

As a Red Sox fan, I always felt, from a public standpoint, that the Sox and the fan base lost the moral high ground on the steroid issue back in the mid 1990's when they added Jose Canseco to the roster. I felt it then, I feel it now.

Owners hold cities hostage, favorite players bail in favor of better money elsewhere, officials get nailed in gambling scandals. But we keep coming back, and we defend our teams with the rabid, one-mindedness of a pitbull. We are Crusaders for the Patriots, Giants, or Eagles.

Sometimes we are misguided in our attacks, sometimes because of misrepresentation by the press, sometimes because we are going to impress our preconceived notions upon a team we don't like, and have no desire for the making a judgment based on the facts. It is a religion, like all religions, based on faith and emotion.

And like religion, the government has no place in the games, unless the governing bodies of the games turn their heads and look the other way when federal and state laws are violated. For those of you who do, think about it this way - hypothetically, you own a contracting firm and are a member of your local chamber of commerce. You cut corners by setting studs two inches farther apart in your building than you are supposed to. Arlen Specter calls for an investigation into your business practices by Congress and compares your violation of building standards to illegal practices by the CIA. Anyone else sense the incongruity?

As for the Anti-trust Exemption that people claim give him the right. Let them remove it. See how football suffers. If football looses the exemption, then the draft goes away. The exemption is what allows the NFL to tell a player coming out of college that the Bills, or the Raiders, or the Panthers own a player's rights for a year. That goes away and the teams with the best profit margins - the Patriots, the Redskins, the Cowboys, and large market teams like the Giants are the only ones that can get the best talent coming out of college. Football becomes baseball.

Teams like Buffalo, Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Tennessee...they might as well kiss their collective futures goodbye.

As for Specter...this is a joke. His impartiality is questionable, at best, considering he's an Eagles fan and is pretty much tailoring his inquiry to the Eagle's Super Bowl loss to the Patriots, and his second largest contributor during the last election was Comcast, one of the companies locked in the legal dispute with the NFL over the NFL Network. He comes off more as a fan pissed about his team losing a championship than as an official trying to protect the integrity of the game.

And as a fan, he's wielding the cudgel that he he has - the Anti-trust Exemption - in a matter that was already handled in-house, as it should have been.

As for his claim that the NFL might need the evidence it destroyed at a different time, this isn't a court of law, nothing illegal was done. What need is there to hang on to evidence that had already leaked to the press to the embarrassment of the NFL? Specter is mistaking an in-house issue for something of the severity of baseball's steroid scandal, which did indeed violate federal law.

And people wonder why the Republican Party took a beating in the last election.

As fans, sometimes we need to temper our emotions. Sometimes we need to do a little footwork on our own, and not completely trust the media - they are, after all, in the business of selling papers and advertising. It behooves them to present stories in a way that will allow them the largest possible circulation. It's why the headlines were, "Pat's caught stealing signals," rather than, "Pat's caught putting together game film from forbidden location."

Presenting the story as taping from a location not allowed, but that stealing signals is...just not a sexy story.

It's why we'll never know what really happened with Terrell Owens just before the beginning of the season, but "attempted suicide" sells papers.

Sure, in our judicial system everyone is accorded the benefit of the doubt - innocent until proven guilty. But that's not the way the court of public opinion works.

For the detractors of the Patriots, this season will always be tainted - in spite of the fact that they were probably the most scrutinized team in the league this year, that the film was confiscated before the end of the first quarter of the first game and the NFL said that there was no way that the film could have been used, that nothing else untoward happened during the season. Those same people will always doubt the validity the 2001 win over the Rams due to unsubstantiated rumors that the Patriots taped the Rams' walk-through the day before. It's the nature of being a fan who doesn't like a team, or who resents a team.

But it remains the same for other teams that this happened to - the Yankees of the late 1990's will, in many people's heads, always have the taint of a large number of steroid users on that club. For some, it will always be remembered that the 1972 Dolphins were without a first round draft pick due to a penalty levied for tampering with a coach (Shula) who was still under contract with another team.

The instances of cheating and impropriety in sports are legion. And anyone who thinks they root for a team that's innocent, well they're just kidding themselves.

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