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The summer of shame

Published: August 31, 2007
Section: Sports


This has been one hell of a summer to be a sports fan. And thats not a sentence of praise. It is incredible how the problems with sports are very reminiscent of the wider problems of society in general the divide between the rich and the poor, players and fans, is at an all-time high, and the disconnect feels palpable.

Last I checked, sports are games the point of a game is not only to be competitive but also to have fun. Lately though, there is no fun to be had. Professional athletes are now little more than mercenaries. Their love for the game questionable, a vast majority in it to reach for something the billions of dollars owners collect from fans who have to pay $20 for two half-cooked hot dogs and watery cola on top of increasing ticket prices and for what? To watch the favored evolutionary specimens play a game that they seem to have lost love for a long time ago?

There is no respite anywhere. Football has been dealing with an onslaught of problems culminating with Michael Vicks facing prison time for his role with the now infamous “Bad Newz Kennels.” And why is Michael Vick looking at at least a year of imprisonment? Because for some reason, being a star football player was not enough of a rush for him and he had to get his thrills by chipping in thousands of dollars which felt like chump change to him at the time to participate in dog fighting. Its bad enough that he was placing bets and funding this operation, but he also personally tortured and killed at least eight dogs. I dont like dogs in general and pit bulls even less, but even so, what Michael Vick was involved in was just sick. You have to be seriously jaded or completely sadistic to make dogs fight and then, if they dont cooperate to your satisfaction, kill them;

and not with a quick gunshot or a lethal injection, but through drowning, electrocution or strangulation.

Of course, none of this is helped by the reactions of certain professional athletes namely Stephon Marbury of the New York Knicks and Clinton Portis of the Washington Redskins, who dont seem to understand why people, dog lovers and haters alike, find Vick's actions repugnant. Portis wants people to leave Vick alone because, ''it's his property, it's his dog. If that's what he wants to do, do it. People should mind their own business.'' Marbury and the head of the Atlanta NAACP, on the other hand, equate dogsports to deer hunting. Portis and Marbury, by the way, would later issue press releases attempting to “clarify” and express the remorse that they dont seem to have.

To make that equivocation with a straight face is sheer denial, or even worse, indifference. Im no fan of hunting, but hunting has roots in basic survival killing animals to eat. Even though were passed hunting to survive, the animals' deaths are usually very quick and hopefully painless Im assuming that, considering the increasingly hi-tech weaponry coming into hunting, not to mention yahoos like Ted Nugent who hunt with automatic weapons and the animals otherwise are able to run free with the exception of fenced-in preservations. The dogs, on the other hand, have no freedom of any kind. They fight because there is no alternative. If they dont fight, theyre killed, horribly and mercilessly. When they dont fight, they are chained and continually honed into killing machines. Whether its through drugs, starvation, or cruelty, the end result is a dog fighter that has no past and no future.

The Vick saga has been the latest of the tawdry affairs that have come across NFL Commissioner Roger Goodells lap. Pacman Jones is suspended for the entire season for his numerous run-ins with the law, culminating in his allegedly creating a situation at a Las Vegas Strip Club that led to three people getting shot;

one of them is paralyzed from the waist down. Jones continues to deny his involvement and is currently passing the time with TNA wrestling and making a hip-hop album, when he is not taking out newspaper ads proclaiming his remorse instead of spending time actually showing constructive behavior to the community.

However, the league had to deal with yet another another issue that bubbled up and has since been shoved aside in the wake of the Vick case the shameful abandonment of the disabled ex-veterans of the NFL. Make no mistake, these athletes pay a price for the years of pounding that they take. Take a look at Earl Campbell, for instance. A punishing runner in his heyday with the Houston Oilers, he is now confined to a wheelchair due to severe arthritis and, even though he is only 52, easily looks 20 years older. Mike Webster, the Hall of Fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, suffered dementia thanks in large part to the concussions and beatings he took in his long career. He died at the age of 50. His family had to sue for disability payments and was awarded $1.6 million in 2006. The NFL earns approximately $7 billion dollars a year and yet, only $20 million is split between 317 disabled veterans, which in turn comes out to $63,000 per player. Just $63,000 to compensate for the long-term injuries many disabled veterans face! Does that figure seem to come close enough to cover live-in care for players with Alzheimers and dementia? Many are reduced to selling off memorabilia to shady collectors in a desperate hope to make ends meet, or, like the late Mike Webster, end up sleeping in their cars.

Even the paltry figure aside, the fact that only 317 veterans are receiving disability payments is criminal. Where was the players union on behalf of its fallen comrades? The active players were nowhere to be seen, while the NFLPA head, Gene Upshaw, was more active threatening to break Joe DeLamielleures neck. On June 27, in front a Congressional sub-committee hearing, the NFL had the gall to say that there was nothing wrong with the system, even after hearing testimony and evidence and bipartisan sentiment that there was a problem. Ill bet Goodell and Upshaw are slightly thankful for Vick, because his problems keeps their abandonment of disabled veterans out of sight for the time being.

Of course, this is summer and summer is baseballs time to shine right? Wrong. Baseball has quite a few issues of its own, and not all of them involve Barry Bonds. While he was up in the league, the headache was a Tampa Bay rookie outfielder named Elijah Dukes. An extremely troubled figure with a long history before he entered the pros, he ended up sending death threats to his estranged wife through both text messaging and in person. While the NFL has been taking punitive action against their miscreants, baseball remains shamefully silent. When Brett Myers of the Phillies was seen assaulting his wife last season, he was there to pitch the next day. With Dukes, there was no suspension he didnt play but he was there on the bench in uniform. Of course, Bud Selig has long been powerless to do anything but be the malleable barrier between the MLBPA and the MLB Owners Association. In the end, Tampa Bay shut Dukes down for the rest of the season. By then, however, attention had long turned to Barry Bonds.

Barry Bonds breaking Hank Aarons home run mark should have been a proud moment, a feat to be celebrated, rivaling the night Cal Ripken eclipsed Lou Gehrig back in 1995, and when Mark McGwire was the first player to surpass 61 home runs in a season since Roger Maris did it in 1961. However, it was not, because the question on everyones minds was whether the record was valid, given the massive allegations of steroid abuse on Bonds part. Whether he did or didnt use steroids is not the issue anymore. It is far too late to do anything about it. Indeed, the new home run king is Barry Bonds, and what a sorrowful kingdom it is – there was never anything likeable about Bonds. Because he once was able to steal over 40 bases in a season and hit home runs, with or without the aid of steroids and human growth hormone (which MLB has no testing policy for, since the MLBPA has refused to allow blood tests and thats the only known way to check for HGH), he is placed on this pedestal. Im not even going to get started on the perjury and tax evasion probes being launched on Bonds.

Steroid cheats, spousal abusers;

what a joy to be a baseball fan!

Even cycling couldnt escape the savage storm of shame. The sport is still struggling to replace the presence of Lance Armstrong and reeling from the image of being “dope-soaked.” This image was only further enhanced by last years Tour de France winner, Floyd Landis, flunking a drug test.

Tour officials could ill afford another Landis-like debacle, so of course, this year was far worse.

Landis was not allowed to compete, and neither were Armstrong rivals Jan Ulrich and Ivan Basso after they were netted in a drug probe last year, and it only went downhill from there. Stage 15 winner Alexander Vinokourov was caught blood-doping, and Team Cofidis withdrew after Christian Moreni tested positive for elevated testosterone. It got exceptionally ugly, however, when Stage 16 winner and yellow jersey holder Michael Rasmussen was forced to withdraw after being caught lying to his team doctors about his whereabouts. Although he hadnt failed a drug test, the appearance of impropriety was still very damning. Even Tour winner Alberto Contador is hounded by doping allegations. Needless to say, it was a sorry day for drinking champagne on a bike down Champs-Elysee.

None of the developments, by the way, are any good for Lance Armstrong. Although he steadfastly maintains that he has never doped or failed a drug test, one has to wonder how a cancer survivor could win seven times when, at the very least, his main rivals were doping. It would be nice to imagine that hard work and perseverance are enough to overcome dope soaked opponents, but what is more likely, and it pains me to suggest this, is that Armstrong did cheat in at least one tour, if not all of them. Of course, like Bonds, there is no proof, no failed drug test, only a gathering trail of storm clouds continually swat at.

Of course, while cycling is very popular overseas, the NBA is here, which is why we all will remember the name of Tim Donaghy. If he was disliked before by his colleagues, one can only imagine the enmity they must feel for him after pleading guilty to illegal gambling, mob ties, and fixing games. Things will only get worse for NBA Commissioner David Stern because, as part of his plea bargain, Donaghy has been naming names, so even more refs, possibly over 20, have been involved in rigging calls to influence games. One can only imagine the cat calls and the scrutiny that refs will face this coming season. A non-call in the final seconds of a one point game – possibly suspicious? It is now, thanks to Donaghy. Still, despite the doom and gloom by many pundits, I can say that the NBA will survive as long as players continue to provide their aerial acrobatics for that dunk that turns a 30 point deficit into a mere 28 point loss. No, the only way the game will die is if there is a massive strike and, even then, a new league will arise from the ashes.

So many let downs, what can one say? We only have ourselves to blame. We put these men on pedestals far too high, channeling feelings and views that they cannot possibly meet. We view players of the past as gods, but all of them, past and present, are mere mortals. It is sad to see athletes who are thrust on to our pedestals of athletic wonder, and yet are not close to being prepared to handle it.

Take Eddie Griffin. Eddie Griffin was an athletic wonder out of Seton Hall. He entered the NBA draft after his freshman year;

the Rockets traded three first round picks to get him. Griffin recently died after crashing his SUV into an oncoming train. He had been out of the league for several years because of his substance abuse issues, which culminated with crashing his vehicle into a store while drunk and watching a pornographic film behind the wheel. It is tragic that his end came like this. Perhaps he would have self-destructed faster if he wasnt an NBA player, but the fame, money and attention were not helpful by any means and now, they had to use dental records to identify him.

However, nothing will ever change as long as the owners continue to get away with building their monolithic empires on overpriced tickets with overpriced merchandise for the public to purchase as they enter the state of the art stadium that was built by the city because the owner threatened to move the team to Oklahoma City. The only sport that is seeing a downturn is hockey (who knew that high prices combined with terrible television coverage provides little draw?).

Still, when the players are playing the game because they enjoy it and the fans arent being ripped off and the owners are actively committed to betterment of the team and fans as opposed to the bottom line, then sports can be a great thing. It is why Brandeis sports matches are a joy to cover. The community comes together and the players give it their all, while having fun.

And now, I shall follow up this look back on the sorry summer of professional sports and do something I have never done beforeplay fantasy football.