Humor newspaper “The Onion” said it perfectly when assessing the current rocky and scandal-plagued image of professional sports with the headline: Barry Bonds provides sports’ feel-good story of the year!
Just last spring, Bonds was arguably sport’s most vilified athlete during his pursuit of the most treasured record in team sports. Because of the accusations that still surrounded him following the steroid controversy, it was a chase that many felt he did not earn.
The Aug. 8 home run that brought the San Francisco Giants slugger’s total to 756, officially halted Hank Aaron’s 31-year reign as baseball’s ultimate home run champ. However, even as Bonds was feeling the disdainful maul of vitriolic scrutiny, his alleged offense (cheating) was still preferable to the sheer skulduggery of his contemporaries.
From Tank Johnson’s gun conviction to former referee Tim Donaghy pleading guilty to two felony charges in an NBA betting scandal, the year’s hottest months saw the heat come down on sports figures at an alarming rate.
The worst was saved for last though, when NFL quarterback Michael Vick entered into a plea agreement on charges of conspiracy for his involvement in illegal dogfighting-a practice so horrid and cruel that even those who aren’t hardcore animal lovers, such as myself, considered joining PETA.
Years ago, basketball star Charles Barkley scowled at the cameras and claimed, “I am not a role model.” It was a powerful repudiation of every idea that most adults had about the influence of sports figures, but it was dead on.
Athletes live in lavish homes, marry supermodels, and drive their Lamborghinis to grandma’s house on the weekends. This is a lifestyle the average person will never achieve.
Athletes can commit offenses such as domestic abuse, but the strength of his play onfield or oncourt can rescue his career and salvage his image. When you or I are caught cheating, we’re thrown out of school. When an athlete does it, he becomes a home-run king.
Sports figures, particularly all-stars, are in the catbird seat. Owners lavish them with guaranteed contracts and incentives based on their performance. Fans cheer them on and wear their jerseys because they help their favorite teams win.
The message being sent is: Play well and you will reap the rewards of it, regardless of what your actions are off the court.
Today, athletes are too spoiled. Two generations ago before collective bargaining and Gatorade tie-ins it was not uncommon for athletes to have off-season jobs. This was true even for all-stars. Without the endorsement deals and highlight reels capturing their every line drive, jumpshot or endzone catch, they were less iconic figures and more like working men, looking to play well so they could stay on the field and feed their families.
In other words, much more like you and I.
This is not to say that winning was not a key ingredient in sports back then. However, players felt a greater sense of appreciation for being able to play sports as a career. They looked at it as a job and felt a need to represent themselves as professionals.
Do you think the black athletes who entered their respective leagues following Jackie Robinson’s desegregation of baseball would have been caught dead risking their careers by holding dog fights? They knew they were breaking down walls and opening up doors for the athletes who would follow. It was too important to risk.
We’ve also made it too easy for star players to be welcomed back into our good graces following their transgressions. Because of their name recognition and their attorneys, they will serve a fraction of the time the average person would serve for the same crime. They will be released and on a new team by the following training camp.
Why not send a message to athletes like Vick-that they are going to be treated like everybody else. If you commit a crime, you will be dismissed from the league without any chance of reinstatement for at least four years.
Make them feel what other former inmates feel when they apply for a job and have to decide whether to check the box next to “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”
Make them realize their actions will have long-term consequences. Don’t just chastise them in the media, then forgive them when they offer their disingenuous and scripted apologies at press conferences. Destroy the illusion of athletic invincibility by sending a message of zero tolerance.
“If you commit a crime, you will lose your license to play.”
It’s a wise move, but what owner wants to sacrifice 300 yards of total offense per game for a social conscience?