I can't say for sure that last week set a record for bad news in sports, but it will get my nomination until some historian can document a more depressing seven-day span. In this summer of Dick Tracy, let me ask you this: Did you recognize all those familiar names playing the villains on the sports pages? Was that really Pete Rose being sentenced to prison, or was it Al Pacino stealing another scene?
By week's end the poor sports fan must have felt like Mike Tyson in Tokyo—knocked silly and groggily fumbling for his mouthpiece. The really bad news, the Dick Tracy stuff, came as a direct result of cheating, lying and scheming—the very sins we once turned to sports to escape. Here are the datelines for this hellish week:
CINCINNATI—Although Pete Rose had lost all credibility during months of lying and denying, even his detractors had to feel a twinge of pity for him as he received a five-month prison sentence for filing false tax returns. No sports hero has ever fallen so far, so fast, so hard.
CLEVELAND—Alcoholism and drug addiction may be diseases, yet it was hard to work up much sympathy for Cleveland State basketball coach Kevin Mackey, who was fired after being arrested for driving while impaired and testing positive for cocaine. Mackey confessed to a long history of substance abuse and checked himself into rehab, but young athletes can surely do without his kind of role model.
July 29, 1990
NEW YORK—In his continuing attempts to explain why he paid $40,000 to a two-bit gambler named Howard Spira, New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner succeeded only in doing what was previously thought impossible—further staining the once-proud tradition of his team. The worst news, however, wasn't the shameful way in which Steinbrenner dragged his "good friend" Lou Piniella into the scandal by vaguely referring to Piniella's gambling habits (commissioner Fay Vincent immediately cleared the Reds' manager), it was that Steinbrenner said he intended to keep the Yankees, no matter what.
INDIANAPOLIS—The Athletic Congress, the governing body for track and field in the U.S., announced that Chuck DeBus, longtime Los Angeles Track Club coach, would be suspended for life for encouraging athletes to use banned substances such as steroids and providing them with the substances as well. Predictably, DeBus denied the charges and plans to appeal. His attorney said, sanctimoniously, that DeBus might be interested in returning to coaching "if there comes a time again when a good athlete and a good coach can accomplish something." The gagging you heard came from the three world-class athletes who testified against DeBus.
LAS VEGAS—By arrogantly choosing to fight the NCAA in court for a decade—and finally losing—UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian ensured that his current players would pay the price for rules infractions he committed some 13 years ago. Tarkanian should have taken his medicine when it was first dished out: The NCAA's decision last week to ban UNLV from next season's tournament came two months after Rebel stars Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon had decided against declaring themselves eligible for the NBA draft so they could help defend the NCAA title they led Vegas to this year. Naturally, an appeal is planned. Oh, by the way, the NCAA is apparently almost ready to hit the Runnin' Rebels with another bill of particulars involving rules violations of a more recent vintage.
SAN DIEGO—A grand jury is investigating allegations that the San Diego police department had such a cozy relationship with the Chargers in the early 1980s that when the Chargers' quarterback back then, Dan Fouts, was allegedly shot in the shoulder by a jealous husband or boyfriend, the incident was covered up. This was according to testimony given by Fouts's former teammate Chuck Muncie, who was sentenced to 2½ years in prison for a series of drug-related offenses. Though Fouts says it never happened, you can understand why the late Gene Klein disgustedly threw in the towel on the Chargers, selling them in 1984.
What makes all this worse is that many fans seem to have as much trouble dealing with truth, justice and the American way as their sports heroes do. At Rose's sentencing, some spectators in the courtroom booed the prosecutors. And in Las Vegas, a radio station spent the morning of the NCAA announcement playing the Rebel fight song and urging listeners to call the NCAA to protest.
Ah, but wait. Just when all appeared darkest, I heard the news about Eric Davis, the star outfielder for the Cincinnati Reds. Davis sent $5,000 to help his namesake, a two-year-old boy from Indiana who has a life-threatening bone-marrow disorder. I felt better. In sports, as in Dick Tracy, the villains may steal a day, even a week, here and there, but, in the end, the good guys will prevail.... I hope. And give me back the sports pages, please, because I just can't take any more of this savings and loan mess.