COPING, FITFULLY, WITH THE SPORTS WORLD'S GROWING CASE LOAD
This is an article from the July 25, 1983 issue
The current wave of off-the-field wrong-doing by athletes has sports officials in a quandary. They reject the approach of many American corporations, which generally leave the imposition of punishment for away-from-the-office employee misbehavior to law-enforcement authorities. What makes their own situation different, sports officials say, is that they operate in a fishbowl in which misconduct by athletes can lead to public relations problems or scandals involving things like fixed games. Besides, the fans want action. "We're in the public eye," NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle said last week. "All of the money our sport derives comes from people who buy tickets or watch on TV."
The sports establishment has every right to try to keep its own house in order. League and team officials are plainly free to police activities that directly affect the integrity of sports, such as cheating, excessive violence and gambling by athletes on games. But dealing with other misdeeds is a trickier matter. Sports officials aren't as likely to try to dictate length of players' hair or to silence athletes' political views as they once were, and they've made some effort to approach compulsive drug and alcohol use not only in terms of whether those conditions may imply criminal conduct but also as the illnesses they're recognized to be. At the same time, league officials are still governed by a punishment mentality, even in cases in which the offenses don't have anything to do with sports.
With Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn's blessing, the Dodgers three weeks ago levied a $53,867 fine, the biggest ever for a ballplayer, against Pitcher Steve Howe for resuming cocaine use after having been treated for a drug dependency. That was in line with Kuhn's policy that players with such a condition may undergo treatment once with impunity but face punishment if they later slip up. Rozelle meanwhile was contemplating fines or suspensions for NFL players who've had scrapes with the law. These include Cardinal Linebacker E.J. Junior and Saints Cornerback Greg Stemrick, who pleaded guilty and no contest, respectively, to cocaine charges. Five Dallas Cowboys, including Tony Dorsett and Harvey Martin, have been mentioned in connection with federal drug investigations. Four other NFL players have been implicated in drug cases in other ways.
Oddly enough, it isn't clear just what Kuhn and Rozelle expect to accomplish with their disciplinary actions. One avowed objective is to deter wrongdoing by other players, but if existing deterrents, such as the risk of arrest or the danger of impairing performance and cutting short careers, don't keep players off drugs, it's unlikely that fines or suspensions will, either. This is especially true in view of the leagues' confused disciplinary policies, by which they presume to make their own determinations, based on nonmedical considerations, of whether a player is ill. For instance, they generally promise amnesty to drug users who voluntarily come forward for help but threaten to punish those who "get caught." This ignores, of course, that the users could be ill in either case. Furthermore, the gratuitous imposition of punishment only in those cases already dealt with by the police and courts really isn't much of a deterrent.
Then there's Kuhn's edict that drug-dependent ballplayers can be punished if they suffer a relapse. Not only is this likely to discourage some drug users from seeking help, it also amounts to having baseball people arbitrarily determining when an illness ceases to be an illness. Thus, when Howe showed up late for a game last week, pleading "very personal problems," he was first suspended by the club without pay and then reinstated after urinalysis showed him to be "clean." Howe's continued erratic behavior has unquestionably hurt his team, and the Dodgers would have been within their rights to fire him for that reason when he showed up late. Or, if he was suffering emotional problems (whether related to his cocaine dependency or not), they could have put him on the disabled list. Instead, by basing their decision to punish him on urinalysis results, they were persisting in baseball's curious an-illness-sometimes-really-isn't-an-illness approach to such problems.
Another rationale for punishment is that it protects a sport's image. This is where the fishbowl argument comes in. Some off-the-field offenses are so abhorrent to the public that fines and suspensions may well be justified. A case in point is Cowboy Wide Receiver Lance Rentzel's conviction in 1971 for indecent exposure involving a child; Rozelle suspended Rentzel, who'd pleaded guilty to a similar charge in 1966, for nearly a year, an action that withstood a strenuous court challenge. Yet the image of big-time sports may not be quite as fragile as Rozelle and Kuhn seem to suggest. After all, baseball and NFL attendance has remained robust despite the proliferation of drug use by athletes. This doesn't mean that fans approve this illegal activity. It merely reflects the sorry fact that drug use has become so pervasive in American society—particularly in the entertainment world, of which sports is increasingly part—that its prevalence in sports has come to be viewed as inevitable.
In punishing athletes for offensive behavior, sports officials are, in many cases, merely catering to the desire of fans that they "do something"—never mind that the actions are likely to be ineffectual. Or worse than ineffectual: Subjecting athletes to penalties ordinary citizens don't face contributes to the myth that those athletes are special characters, a notion, it's generally agreed, that has helped "spoil" the modern athlete and make misbehavior on his part more likely.
Instead of engaging in empty gestures, the sports establishment should try to get the message across that athletes are human beings who must be subject to the same laws as other citizens: They shouldn't receive special favors or special punishment. Unless the integrity of the game is directly affected, illnesses ought to be left to the doctors and crimes to the police. Sports officials should deal in punishment only when it actually accomplishes something. In the meantime, clubs have every right to get rid of miscreants. Teams will find life quite a bit simpler, however, if they base such actions, as other businesses usually do, on how a player's wrongdoing affects performance.
And what of the fans? In their authoritative book, The Law of Sports, Duke law professor John C. Weistart and Indianapolis attorney Cym H. Lowell make the argument that fans can no more expect to be wholly "insulated from unpleasantness" in sports than in other areas of their lives. This applies, incidentally, to young fans, the ones for whom, it's often flatly asserted, athletes serve as role models. But the present epidemic of wrongdoing reminds us only too vividly of the truth of the matter: While some athletes are indeed role models, others most certainly are not.
The ACC, which has held its conference golf championships at Northgreen Country Club in Rocky Mount, N.C. for the past four years and had planned to do so through 1986, is looking for a new course. Reacting to criticism about the propriety of holding the tournament at a club that discriminates against blacks (SCORECARD, July 4), athletic officials of the ACC schools agreed during a telephone conference call last week that the event should be moved elsewhere. Northgreen then spared the ACC further bother by announcing that it was bowing out as host. Noting that "racial discrimination is a public concern," North Carolina Athletic Director John Swofford said that ACC schools were doing "what is right and just, and what we're supposed to be doing as educational institutions."
Soviet diver Sergei Shalibashvili, 21, died Saturday in an Edmonton, Alberta hospital a week after suffering head injuries in the platform event at the World University Games. Shalibashvili was attempting a reverse 3½ somersault tuck, a demanding dive that was approved for international competition just last year. It involves lifting oneself away from the platform and then tumbling back toward it to complete the maneuver. Shalibashvili had been having so much trouble clearing the platform in practice that several U.S. and Canadian coaches said he shouldn't have been trying it.
One of them was Bob Rydze, the U.S. diving coach at Edmonton. "It's the coach's responsibility to make sure his divers are not attempting dives they're not capable of doing," Rydze said. "We knew there was a good chance he was going to hit. He had been short on the dive all week in practice." As to why he hadn't warned his Soviet counterparts of the danger, Rydze said, "It would have been real hard to say anything to the Russian coaches. It would have looked like I was interfering in their business."
In the interest of preventing other such tragedies, Rydze has a right to second-guess the U.S.S.R. coaches. But Rydze himself is subject to second-guessing for not having risked rebuff from the Soviet coaches by sharing his fears with them. This isn't to cast blame on him for Shalibashvili's death, but only to urge sports officials to speak up about such dangers when they see them, before it's too late.
SWIMMING RINGS AROUND MANHATTAN
When we left Julie Ridge (SI, July 11), she was hoping to become the first person to swim twice nonstop around Manhattan Island. Well, she made it. Ridge, an unemployed actress, took the plunge at 10:15 one evening last week in the East River at 89th Street. The late start was meant to get her through the nighttime portion of the swim when she was strongest. If anything, she was too strong. She breezed up the Harlem River, and then, while stroking down the Hudson, the lights of Manhattan to her left, she asked, "Have I passed 79th Street yet?" She was already down to 34th Street.
Ridge arrived too soon at the Battery, at Manhattan's southern tip. The East River, a tidal strait, was still flowing the wrong way. But as she moved into the current, the Brooklyn Bridge ahead, she saw "the most beautiful sunrise...." When the tide turned, she was so far ahead of schedule that she used the slower breaststroke part of the way back to 89th Street and swam in circles while waiting for the current in the Harlem to turn in her favor. Some New York policemen in two boats pulled alongside Ridge's launch, talked about the "unsafe" waters and threatened to give her a summons. Worried that they might stop the swim, Ridge jumped the adverse tide and stroked on. By the time she reached the Harlem again, it was early afternoon.
Later, as she once more neared the Battery, a tugboat loomed frighteningly near. A reporter-photographer team from the New York Post was aboard. This time Ridge thought, "I'm going to be killed." Her crew waved the tug away, but it came closer. The reporter, in a bathing suit, readied herself for a watery interview. A Ridge crew member shouted, "Do it, and we'll tear your arms off." The reporter stayed aboard.
It was evening now. Ridge was carried up the East River by a powerful tide. But at 89th Street the tugboat carrying the zealous newspaper duo blocked her way. This time Ridge's crew member leaped overboard. He swam to the tug and "splashed a Post photographer, ruining his camera," or so the paper claimed the next day. Minutes later Ridge was being dragged ashore by her crew. Time of the successful swim: just over 21 hours.
"What's next?" someone asked.
"I'd like to run a marathon," she said.
THEY SAID IT
•Mark Moseley, Redskin placekicker, on the importance to him of his Super Bowl ring: "It may end up in the gutter, but if it does, I'll be wearing it."
•Lee Trevino, on the rough at Royal Birkdale, site of the British Open: "At 15 we put down my bag to hunt for a ball. Found the ball, lost the bag."