Are We in the Dark Ages of Sport?

Here's a poll for you — which is the most egregious violation of sports ethics?

A) Using steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs

B) Illegal videotaping of opposing team's signals

C) College recruiting violations not including paying players with money and/or promiscuous co-eds

D) Widespread academic fraud within a college sports program

No matter how you answer the poll, the wider point is this: these are the dark ages of sports morality.

Think about it. Every major sport has dealt with some sort of ethical catastrophe over the past few years. Baseball has this congressional circus, as if we need a bunch of mugging politicians to tell us the game was completely corrupted by performance-enhancing drugs. The Giants won the Super Bowl, but that's been barely a pimple on the ass of Spygate. College basketball has Kelvin Sampson, whose apparent blatant disregard for recruiting rules has tarnished both Oklahoma and Indiana.

College football had Florida State suspend more than a third of its team for receiving improper academic "assistance," not to mention the alleged Reggie Bush improprieties at USC. Hockey had the Rick Tocchet gambling scandal. The NBA had Tim Donaghy and Kobe Bryant in Colorado. Track and field had Marion Jones. Cycling had Floyd Landis. Racing had the Renault espionage scandal in Formula 1. Italian soccer was rocked by top clubs paying crooked refs. Men's tennis had the Russian mafia trying to force players to throw matches. Pakistan's cricket coach was murdered.

It's gotten to the point boxing is one of the cleanest sports out there. Boxing! One of the cleanest sports in the world! What in the name of Cecil Peoples is going on here?

To some degree, you can blame it on the media. That's always fun. We have the Mike Lupicas of the world waiting to pounce on the next athlete, coach or GM who dares go wayward from the straight and narrow. In this web-fueled, 24-hour-news-cycle mad world, even the most mild of transgressions can turn into windfalls of ethical carnage.

But that would be shortsighted. Lupica is no more responsible for the baseball steroid scandal or Mike Vick's dog fighting than a mosquito is culpable for spreading malaria. It's not his fault he's a bloodsucker. That's just the way he was born. And besides, the mosquito didn't invent malaria. That was God's fault.

So if not Lupica (or Skip Bayless or Gregg Doyel or Gregg Easterbrook or ten thousand idiots at their keyboards like I am now), then who?

***

The world has thousands of cultures. Many at are odds with each other. Some hate each other to the point they'd willingly kill one of their own just to kill a few more of their enemies. But one thing they all have in common is the will to win. Bill Belichick, Sampson, the frauds, and the juicers just wanted to win. That was more important to them than anything else. Humankind reveres nothing else like it reveres winners. It's always been that way and it always will. If you're not first, you're last. That's just the way it goes.

But why now? Why is it so bad now?

For the answer, I turn to Chris Rock, who once said men were only as faithful as their options. In other words, you could love your wife or girlfriend as much as anything in the world, but if Page 58 of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition starts getting sexy with you on the dance floor, you're going to have a hard time turning away.

Similarly, most people are only as loyal to the rules as their options are to evade them. Back in 1950, how many ways were there to cheat? A pitcher could cut a ball or use some kind of lubricant to get some extra motion. A basketball player could intentionally miss a few shots so the other team could cover the spread. And while those things might have worked, they also left the offenders in great peril of getting caught. All it took was a batter telling his manager, "Hey, I think that guy is putting something on the ball. It's moving funny." The manager goes out to the ump. The ump goes out to the mound. Badda-bing, badda-boom, ejection and suspension. Play ball.

Now, we've got an army of chemists working on ways to artificially improve the human performance. It's like technology. Most of us are only now finding out about the cutting edge of five years ago. Chances are that as Major League Baseball stumbles to find some way of testing for Human Growth Hormone (and getting the Union to agree with it), the next generation of performance-enhancers is already snaking its way into the market. This fact is and will always remain true — professional sports leagues will never catch up with the science of cheating. They can chase all they want (and it's debatable how much they really want to), but they won't catch up. Ever.

And with this reality in hand, what is the incentive to follow the rules? Oh, sure there's personal integrity and respect for the game. Those are great values I hope my son and daughter carry through their likely limited athletic careers. But if my son was going on year eight in the minor leagues and he thought a chemical could get him over the hump to the point he could start making some major league money and provide for his children's future, could I really damn him for taking the chance? Would you give up your lifelong dream for an ethic?

Belichick taped because he wanted an edge. Sampson called because he wanted an edge. Jones and Landis and Glenallen Hill doped because they wanted an edge. That thrill of victory is a cancer all its own, eating at the souls of those who have spent a lifetime in its pursuit.

And so maybe things will die down. Eventually the vultures back East will have had their fill of the carcasses of athletes gone wrong. Eventually Sampson and Belichick will retire and become footnotes of sports history.

But don't think their successors are going to be any better. There are only so many Tony Dungys to go around. We live in a culture of win at any cost. We want owners to spend tens of millions of dollars for just a slight chance at getting better. We want athletes to play hurt, to the point of crippling themselves for life. We want coaches to ignore their families so they can study more tape, get that edge. We want them to win. We need them to win. And we will boo the living hell out of them if they fail.

So whose fault is it? Nobody's really. But if you're looking for a scapegoat, go find a mirror. We've all got a hand in this madness.

Seth Doria is a writer based out of St. Louis. For the only daily column that mixes sports, politics, and entertainment news in one, visit The Left Calf.

Comments and Conversation

February 19, 2008

Dave:

Just a correction, in the end the Jamaican police decided that Pakistan’s cricket coach hadn’t been murdered.

February 19, 2008

Seth:

Sure enough, three months after ruling Bob Woolmer had been strangled and launching a massive criminal probe, Jamaican police ruled Woolmer had instead died of natural causes. I apologize for the error.

To the point of the column, though the allegations that Woolmer was murdered were put down by investigators, the investigation revealed some disturbing questions about the game, specifically allegations that match-fixing was taking place and that Woolmer was going to reveal information to support those claims. There’s no way of knowing if any of this is true or just a fabrication of untrustworthy parties (of which there were many during the investigation), but match fixing is very much a part of cricket’s history (South African captain Hansie Cronje banned for life for throwing matches as a recent example), leaving it in lockstep with the rest of the sporting world.

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