What's Happened To Our Heroes?

Aug. 15, 1983
Aug. 15, 1983

Table of Contents
Aug. 15, 1983

John Elway
World Track
Harness Racing
Yannick Noah
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

What's Happened To Our Heroes?

Each week brings news of athletes' misdeeds. How serious is the situation? Here is the result of an SI inquiry

By William Oscar Johnson

In the last few months alone, candidates for big-time sport's Hall of Shame have seemed suddenly to break out all over like an ugly rash. Just skipping lightly over various recent incidents and indictments, we find that a Houston Rocket was fined $300 and put on probation for drunk driving, two Baltimore Orioles were mentioned in connection with an ongoing drug probe, a Baltimore Colt quarterback was suspended for a year for an incredibly expensive gambling habit, a Los Angeles Dodger relief pitcher has twice confessed to cocaine dependency, and a former Heisman Trophy halfback, now gone to fat and counterfeiting, is cooperating with authorities in an investigation of a $6 million funny-money scheme. We have four NFL players suspended for four games each by Commissioner Pete Rozelle for possession of cocaine, five Dallas Cowboys involved (but not indicted) in a major federal cocaine investigation, an ex-New York Giant given three years' probation for possession of cocaine, and a Los Angeles Rams linebacker serving a one-year prison sentence for killing a teen-ager while driving a car under the ox-staggering influence of .23% alcohol in his system. We also have a Chicago Cub pitcher found guilty of assault on a police officer, a jockey (one of the top half dozen leading lifetime money-winners) who had an appeal denied and stands guilty of attempted bribery to fix races, a No. 2-ranked junior middleweight boxer sentenced to 35 years for aggravated sexual assault (among other violent acts), and a welterweight boxer sentenced to three to 10 years for breaking a man's jaw in a barroom brawl. Just last week a Super Bowl safety was arrested at his team's training camp and charged with taking part in a cocaine-selling operation, and a Kansas City Royal outfielder was accused of punching a woman in the face in a Milwaukee hotel room.

This is an article from the Aug. 15, 1983 issue Original Layout

These events have all been entered on the police blotters and court records of our land—or have been disclosed in continuing investigations—since the month of March. To randomly pick out a few other entries since, say, the decade of the '80s began, we find an even more diverse array of athlete-perpetrators: No fewer than seven top-drawer powerboat racers from Florida arrested and charged in connection with drug smuggling, a former WBC lightweight boxing champion given life for murder, a Chicago White Sox shortstop placed on probation for breaking into a department store while drunk, a manager and a coach of the Royals convicted of hindering and interfering with police during an altercation in the Royals Stadium parking lot, an ex-Chicago Black Hawk sentenced to six months in jail for illegal use of credit cards, a former New York Ranger found guilty of "criminal solicitation" (he tried to get someone to break the wrists and ankles of another man), and—in some lighter shades of shame—two members of the Eastern Hockey League Baltimore Clippers sentenced to a day washing police cars after being found guilty of urinating on a squad car and interfering with police, and a earful of cheerleaders from the University of Colorado jailed in Kearney, Neb. for driving while drunk on the way to a football game.

Now what—if anything—does this all mean? Have we entered an era in which bad apples are so prevalent in sports that you can't tell the players anymore without an arrest sheet? Are shame and fame becoming synonymous in big-time sport?

Well, we can quite safely say no to that kind of hyperbole. Crime still doesn't pay as well as most any first-rank NFL running back is paid—let alone any second-rank NBA forward. However, there is something happening out there that is pretty interesting. And maybe pretty disturbing. And definitely pretty puzzling to a lot of people. Various opinions, theories, ideas and arguments put forward by players, fans, owners and general all-round observers of the American body athletic are every bit as diverse as any promulgated by those medieval philosophers who gnawed and nattered at each other over how many angels might get together on the head of a pin. Today the one thing everybody agrees on is that we are not dealing in angels when it comes to the current problems of big-time sport.

The question of whether there is measurably more misbehavior among major league athletes now than ever before is being met with totally contradictory opinions. The venerable, voluble Buzzie Bavasi, 67, executive vice-president of the California Angels, says pessimistically, "I've been in the game 43 years and can't remember anything on this scale." Lou Gorman, 53, director of operations for the New York Mets, is just as adamant when he says, "I've been in baseball for 22 years and I don't really see any difference in players' behavior." And then there is Russ Nixon, manager of the Cincinnati Reds, who says with optimum optimism: "I think player conduct is a lot better today. You don't have nearly the drinking you used to."

The fact is, there may not have been any grotesquely major quantitative change over the years in the behavior or misbehavior of professional athletes in most sports. But there are two huge qualitative differences that affect the way today's athletes are perceived: 1) the media and 2) drugs. These elements are the keys to any examination of the I.Q. (Immorality Quotient) in big-time sport today.

First, the media. There was for decades a palsy-walsy, old-boy kind of relationship between athletes and newspapermen. As the Angels' Tommy John, 18 years a pitcher, says with a certain air of sadness: "When I came up, people who covered baseball were fans. They probably knew so-and-so was hung over when he pitched, but they didn't expose it to the whole world. They had the Ring Lardner 'boys will be boys' attitude. Now reporters aren't holding back to protect the image of ballplayers." Indeed they aren't. Partly inspired by the post-Watergate school of macho-journalism, partly forced into competition with the ubiquitous eye and sensitive ear of television, sportswriters today are constantly searching for—and finding—scandals to expose, and editors are not reluctant to publish them. Says Dallas Cowboy-turned-author Peter Gent, "Athletics became a spectacle years ago. But television came in and pumped the spectacle right into the homes." Says noted sports psychologist Dr. Bruce Ogilvie: "Let's face it. In 1960 you could commit rape and murder, but if you were an elite athlete the chances of conviction or even of exposure were pretty low. That sort of protection has ended. It's reflective of the press, really, rather than an alteration in the moral fiber of sports." The difference between the great old Golden Age "heroes" who seem to gleam so brightly when compared to our badly cracked idols of today is, in large part, simply a matter of how little of the bad was actually reported in the old days.

Babe Ruth's drinking and training habits were no secret to everyone who came near him, but they were largely glossed over by the newspapers. Other great tosspots whose social habits went under-reported in their heydays were Jim Thorpe, Hack Wilson and Grover Cleveland Alexander. George Gipp, the Notre Dame golden boy, was not only a gambler but often bet on games he played in. Red Grange was considered a tramp-traitor for signing a pro contract without getting a college degree. A bit more recently, Earl Cochell, ranked sixth in the U.S. in 1948, was banned from tennis for cursing at fans and abusing umpires, long before John McEnroe was born.

J Michael Kenyon, a former sportswriter and now a radio talk-show host in Seattle, says, "Baseball players were like pool hustlers back in the early 1900s. They were animals. The railroads would cordon off whole cars to isolate them from other passengers. Old-time sportswriters—Ring Lardner and Grantland Rice—rode on trains and played cards and drank with those guys. None of that stuff ever got in the papers." Dick Gordon, a writer for The Minneapolis Star for 30 years, recalls that an assistant football coach at the University of Minnesota beat his wife during the 1950s and not a word appeared in the papers. In 1966 when Lance Rentzel, then with the Vikings, was picked up by St. Paul police on a charge of exposing himself in front of a young girl, the story was buried deep in the papers. And John Owen, a Seattle Post-Intelligencer writer for 26 years, says, "Years ago, I would hear from beat writers at the University of Washington training camp about football players who had been charged with statutory rape or who had busted up a drive-in or gone into a drunken rage. And the coaches would get to the authorities involved and say, 'Look, this wouldn't be good for the university,' and it would be kept quiet."

Times have changed. While some subjects are still taboo—for instance, a player's sexual activities are often kept secret by even the most dogged reporters—some of the endless coverage given athletes' problems is irksome—and, in many a case, seems unfair. As Quarterback Ken Anderson of the Cincinnati Bengals says, "All athletes now are really under a microscope. If your neighbor gets picked up for possession of drugs, it's buried in the papers. If it's a player, it's headlines." Such are the hazards of being rich, famous—and a football star—instead of an insurance adjuster.

Along with new scrutiny by the media, professional athletes also seem to be getting more realistic treatment by both cops and courts. One day in 1963 Willie Mays parked his car in an illegal zone on a busy San Francisco street. When a policeman approached him, Willie said, "I'm Mays," and with impunity left his car for an hour. Asked whether 49er Quarterback Joe Montana would receive similar leniency today, a San Francisco policeman said, "If he didn't get a ticket, he'd have his car towed away. He's a great quarterback, but he's no hero to me." Dale Murphy, the Atlanta Braves' superstar, whose life-style keeps him about as far from cops and courts as Pope John Paul II, says, "It seems to me that athletes are being treated more like average citizens, and I think that's a positive step. We wear this uniform, but I think we should be treated like everybody else because we are like every body else."

One of the more recent courtroom causes cél√®bres involved Cubs Pitcher Dickie Noles, who was found guilty by Cincinnati Municipal Judge David Albanese of slugging a policeman during a ruckus at a local nightspot. Noles is out on bail—still pitching. But that is not what Judge Albanese, who handed Noles a 16-day sentence, intended, not at all. "I felt the crime was committed during the baseball season and that he should do his time during the baseball season," said the judge. "There has to be an impact." Noles's sentence is being delayed because his lawyers, who seemed surprised that Judge Albanese would not voluntarily postpone the sentence until after the season, are appealing the verdict.

So: because athletes' names are no longer regularly expunged from police blotters, and because even the friendliest of sportswriters is forced at times to take at least a semblance of an adversary posture, it is far more likely that athletes' transgressions will be broadcast far and wide. And the bigger the name, the broader the cast. Thus, even though sins, crimes and faux pas are likely being committed by approximately the same proportion of athletes as in the past, many more of these misdeeds are finding their way into print, which makes us feel that we are beset by a terrible epidemic of jock wrongdoing.

Still, the other new element introduced into the equation of the 1980s—drugs—is making life for professional athletes very different than even in the immediate past. Miami Dolphins Coach Don Shula, an NFL defensive back during the 1950s, says, "There are many, many more temptations now than there were back then. At that time you had alcohol, but you didn't ever hear anything about drugs. Now there is this whole frightening new dimension." Well, yes, it is frightening and it is relatively new. It is also—at least when it comes to buying, selling or possessing cocaine—a crime. (Interestingly enough, marijuana, the most talked-about "problem" of the '60s and '70s, is barely mentioned anymore, even though it is widely used by athletes and still illegal.) As for cocaine, it seems that many adult Americans (four to five million is the current estimate) are willing to overlook the criminality of it all and use the stuff regularly. Even among the general public there seems to be a grand ambivalence over the morality of using cocaine. Geoff Zahn, the California Angels' pitcher and a devout member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, says, "Society or whatever force it is—Satanism, humanism—has done an outstanding job of duping people into making things like cocaine, marijuana, intoxication by alcohol socially acceptable. We no longer think of it as something wrong but as an alternative, as a pressure release." Dr. Robert Kerlan, the noted Los Angeles orthopedic surgeon and team doctor for the Lakers and Rams, agrees: "I feel that the public in its vast personality is the cause of our permissive society, and it is this very permissiveness which is the reason that actions we used to consider totally unacceptable are now accepted."

So the big question is: How many professional athletes are actively accepting the unacceptable? There are almost as many answers as there are grains of that white stuff in a line. The Rev. Bill Little, a Baptist minister and psychologist from St. Louis, says, "Athletes are no worse than policemen, doctors, psychologists, clergymen or newspapermen when it comes to booze and drugs. Doctors still lead the pack in drug abuse, and I'd rather see a drug user swinging a baseball bat than taking out my appendix." Tim Stokes, a tackle for the Green Bay Packers, says succinctly, "America is a drug culture, so why should pro football be any different?" Some athletes still insist on clinging to the belief that it is, and that the sports world is a relatively clean one. Steve Largent, wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks, thinks jocks do better than America in general: "There is no question that some professional football players are dependent on narcotics. But I would guess that the percentage among professional athletes would be a lot less than among society as a whole—substantially less."

Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons puts it this way: "If there are 276 players in the NBA and 276 other people, of those 276 ordinary people, you're going to have 10 or 15 who don't conform to the norms of society, that do drugs. Well, that's what we have in the NBA: 10 or 15 of our 276—maybe not even that many. I think that's damned good."

It would be damned good, but it simply isn't so. As eminent a positive thinker as Rozelle admits that big-time sport has a more pervasive drug problem than does general society, saying, "Young and affluent people, through peer pressure or otherwise, seem to be the strongest candidates to be involved." Attorney Jack Manton of Cumming, Ga., an agent who has represented Herschel Walker as well as many other athletes over the years, says quite matter-of-factly, "Anybody who represents five or more pro athletes at some point in time will be confronted with some drug usage in his 'family.' " As for those persistent rumors of widespread coke use in professional basketball. Dr. Robert Albo, team physician for the Golden State Warriors, says, "I agree that 75 percent of the NBA has used it." Whatever the statistical truth may be, cynicism is rampant. Not long ago, when the Los Angeles Raiders received a player in a trade they were told that their new man was known to snort cocaine but that he definitely wasn't an addict. Replied a Raider official jauntily, "That's O.K. We were thinking about having a trophy this year and giving it to the guys who don't do any coke each week."

However many athletes are using drugs, there are many others who don't, and are sick and tired of being snowed under by the coke sniffer's image. Ram Linebacker Howard Carson is one of the more vociferous objectors to the general idea that anyone who plays pro football is automatically sweet on nose candy. "What bothers me," says Carson, "is that everybody thinks we all snort cocaine. In many social situations perfect strangers offer it to me, and when I refuse they simply don't believe me. They think I'm putting on a show."

Another man impatient with the drug scene is the Angels' Reggie Jackson. "I don't call it sickness, I call it a weakness in character, in your philosophy of life," he says. "I can't imagine any hardworking person in his right mind spending a thousand dollars a day on cocaine. I can see guys throwing games and all kinds of crap if they're spending thirty thousand a month on drugs. I think the problem is that life is very easy. When a guy's 25 or younger and he makes two, four, six, seven hundred thousand dollars a year, that's a difficult adjustment. They don't know what to do with that kind of money. Your Roses, your Carltons, your Garveys, it was 10 years before they were making half a million a year. These kids don't know how to cope with it. So they go to drugs." Of course, two years ago your Rose and your Carlton were among a number of Phillies who were implicated in an amphetamine-buying probe, suggesting, perhaps, that older athletes are certainly not immune to the temptations of drugs.

A lot of people agree with Reggie that money—big money and guaranteed money—is at the root of the evil. Bill Veeck, now 69 and a sage of baseball, says, "They get too much too soon. The whole atmosphere is bizarre. This sudden infusion of money and adulation makes normal balance hard to maintain. Money creates a world of fantasy. I think of Cesar Cede√±o tearing up his airplane ticket because he's not going first class. They're spoiled." Jim Finks, general manager of the Chicago Bears, adds, "All these young athletes have been looked after all the way from junior high school. Some of them have had doctored grades. This plus the affluence means there has never been any pressing need for them to work things out for themselves. They have no idea how to face reality."

Alan Ingham, an assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Washington, believes that the disintegration of athletes' morals begins at the lowest levels of sport. "In the early days of playground and high school leagues, one of the key issues was moral regulation," Ingham says. "You got sports, and you got Judeo-Christian principles thrown in, too. [Today] for the most part, the majority of things taught in sport are performance things." Ingham feels that it may be unfair to hold professional athletes up against the highest moral standards when their development has always been geared toward optimum performance.

So, when the going gets tough, they often turn to drugs. And is that so bad, considering the cross-cultural pervasiveness of drug use among everyday non-athletes? Well, here is a nightmare that Angel Pitcher John Curtis, one of the game's sharper thinkers, shared with The Boston Globe's Peter Gammons when asked what would happen if a World Series was decided on an error by a player later found to be dependent on drugs. Said Curtis: "It won't matter if it's an ordinary human error. People are going to say, 'The World Series was decided by drugs.' Others are going to go from there and say, 'Who supplies the drugs?' And they'll be convinced that the line is drawn to the suppliers and gambling. No matter how innocent the error might be, it would be a disaster."

Disaster, indeed. But, of course, it hasn't come to that, at least not yet. It is by no means insignificant that of the various violations, indiscretions and misdeeds perpetrated by athletes, very few have been terribly costly and none has done any serious damage to the ever-sanctified "integrity of the game." There is only that intangible matter of image: The ancient idea that athletes should somehow be heroic instead of human, that small boys will have their ideals dashed, their lives warped if their favorite centerfielder has failed to pay a parking ticket—or has been caught buying a gram of cocaine.

For if there is one fact in all of this that seems irrefutable, it is that no matter how often he might complain about today's athlete, the American sports fan really does not care very much whether jocks misbehave or not—be it a matter of crime or mere bad manners. Men's tennis, at the moment, is a golden example of such indifference. On-court boorishness has reached new levels of repugnance, and there are indications of everything from under-the-table appearance guarantees to the probability of tanked matches. Two weeks ago the Volvo Corporation announced it would drop its four-year-long sponsorship of the Grand Prix tour in 1985; a $25 million bid for a five-year extension was rejected by the Men's International Professional Tennis Council. "That was before all this negative stuff came out," says Volvo's Bjorn Ahlstrom. "Now we think it's worth much less." Oddly enough, he seems to be wrong. Not only is there no sign of a fan backlash against tennis, but at the Volvo International in North Conway, N.H., where Ahlstrom made his announcement, record crowds appeared. Tournament Director Jim Westhall was asked why he thought the ongoing churlishness in tennis seemed to have no effect on the gate. "Frankly, it doesn't matter in a bottom-line sense," said Westhall. "People come to see the players no matter what. In a moral sense, it's something else. Morally, I'm very disappointed in them. But if they don't rape and pillage and turn around and shoot people in the crowd, then people are going to come and see them perform."

Duke law professor John C. Weistart, co-author of the authoritative The Law of Sports, takes issue with sports czars who argue that to sell their product, they must make certain, through punishment and other deterrents, that their product is clean through and through. "There is a superficial plausibility to what the commissioners say," says Weistart. "They say that sport must have a certain image the way car dealers say that a Cadillac, for instance, must have an image as a product. My own view is that most of this argument isn't sound. First, in sports you're dealing with people who have rights that cars don't have. Second, I am skeptical that the fans would leave anyway. I always say the best parallels can be drawn to the entertainment world. Mickey Rooney had—what?—eight wives? And that didn't dampen people's enthusiasm for his movies. Marlon Brando was a controversial figure. Even more damning—Roman Polanski. He was picked up for statutory rape. You can develop some distance between what happens oh the stage and what's in their personal lives."

So it seems. There is no sign that sports fans can in any way be offended, shocked or morally violated enough to actually stop watching games. A fine example: During the NFL strike last fall, the highest-rated televised sports event on either CBS or NBC in the Sunday-afternoon time slot was a fight starring one of the sports world's most obstreperous violators of law, order and good taste himself—Leon Spinks. And with the NFL strike a distant memory, fans are coming back in their usual droves, coke users be damned. Indeed, in all the rash of bad news and bad actors in sports, both TV revenues and ratings have generally continued to climb. Says Robert Jeremiah, director of ad sales for ESPN, the sports cable-TV network, "I cannot cite one instance where an advertiser has expressed any hesitancy at all to get involved in sports programming because of some idea that it represents something morally distasteful." As George Karanicas, an owner of Ma Grundy's bar in Miami, puts it, "The big gripe I hear from people here is the money those guys are making. The drugs and stuff, hitting a policeman, getting drunk—they figure it's par for the course. They're not all that surprised. Maybe a little disappointed."

And the kids? What about their heroes? What about their disappointments? What about their role models? Adam Eliot, a 17-year-old honor and three-sport athlete in Germantown, N.Y., says: "I don't really see them as heroes. I kind of envy them and think they're lucky to have what they have. If I see a player I know has been into drugs or in trouble with the law, I may feel a little distrust or maybe even a little sorry for him. But I don't pattern myself after them. In fact, if a guy is into drugs or alcohol, I think less of him and try not to copy him—except, of course, someone like [Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher] Bob Welch, who admitted he had a big drinking problem, solved it and is helping others. That's more of my idea of a hero today."

Perhaps the fans' attitude toward the whole Hall of Shame syndrome is best expressed by Mrs. Jackie Green, a Dallas bowling-league director. "Look, I don't have any respect for anybody involved in drugs or anything like that," she says. "But I'm still a Cowboy fan, as crazy about them as ever." Or maybe it was put even better by Matthew Conal McGuire, 13, of Webster Groves, Mo., who says, "Well, all that stuff has sort of taken the glory away, I guess. I dunno. I do know I'm not that interested in collecting baseball cards anymore. I used to be a real big collector. Maybe that's why I quit—all the drugs and drinking and bad stuff. I dunno...."

ILLUSTRATIONSAUL LAMBERTCracks in the athlete's pedestal widen as reports of wrongdoing steadily mount.ILLUSTRATIONSAUL LAMBERTIn one of his roles, Rozelle dispenses justice in the NFL.ILLUSTRATIONSAUL LAMBERTIn the old days, players were allowed to suffer through their problems in private.ILLUSTRATIONSAUL LAMBERTToday the media spotlight makes the athlete's life an open book.ILLUSTRATIONSAUL LAMBERTThe fan doesn't really care about the player's woes as long as he has his tickets.