OF SPORTS AND THE SCANDAL
When a rogue Los Angeles city councilman recently (and wrongly)
announced that the Oakland Raiders were moving back to L.A., the
Raiders denied the report, disappointing the press. "You want me
to take the President off the front page?" owner Al Davis asked.
"I'm sure Monica would want me to." In the end football did not
displace Fornigate in America's headlines, except at the Green
Bay Press-Gazette, whose editors left Bill Clinton off the front
page during the five pre-Super Bowl days of the White House
Still, sports are central to this scandal. The apocalyptic
collision of Clinton and Monica Lewinsky was even foretold in an
ancient manuscript, encoded in a biblical urtext: The Baseball
You can look it up. In 1919 an American League team gave a
single start to a southpaw pitcher whose name betokened the rise
of Clinton. He was, as God is my witness, one Lefty Whitehouse.
In '35 that same club carried a catcher whose own improbable
moniker--Chick Starr--serves as a convenient composite of
Lewinsky and the independent counsel, Kenneth Starr.
This Whitehouse-Starr (or if you prefer, this Lefty-Chick)
quasi-battery belonged to the Washington Senators. Washington
senators may yet hold the fate of the President in their own
horny hands. So I ask you: Coincidence? Or conspiracy?
The First Lady alleges that the charges against the First Hubby
are part of "a vast right-wing conspiracy," a theory that
doesn't stand up. Last week Jaromir Jagr signed a lucrative
contract extension with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Anaheim
Mighty Ducks' Teemu Selanne continued to lead the NHL in goal
scoring, and any number of other right wings were prominently
preoccupied playing games on TV. Perhaps, Hillary, it's all part
of a vast designated hitter conspiracy?
In fairness, the story does bear suspicious links to sport's own
scandals. In 1990 Lewinsky's ubiquitous attorney, William
Ginsburg, represented Michael Mellman, the L.A. internist who
cleared Loyola Marymount basketball star Hank Gathers to play
before Gathers collapsed and died on the court. (Mellman was
dismissed as a defendant in the ensuing liability suit.)
Lewinsky herself was Tripp-wired by a faithless friend in the
bar of the Pentagon City Ritz-Carlton, the same hotel in which
Marv Albert found love at first bite.
Most tragically, the Lewinsky affair has already ended a
longstanding sports tradition. Lying low, Clinton didn't dare
call the Denver Broncos in their locker room after the Super
Bowl. Nor did he call the Packers, though he seemed to speak
directly to Green Bay coach Mike (Let 'em Score) Holmgren last
week during his State of the Union address. "This is like being
ahead in the fourth quarter of a football game," said the
President, ostensibly explaining the need for continuing the
allied troop presence in Bosnia. "Now is not the time to walk
off the field and forfeit the victory." --Steve Rushin
BATTLE BY THE BAY
49ers Ownership Squabble
The preeminent threat to the San Francisco 49ers' 17-year run as
the NFL's most successful franchise may not be the Green Bay
Packers or the Denver Broncos, but a reserved, 47-year-old woman
who, in the words of one Niners executive, "probably doesn't
even know what a football looks like." Or perhaps it's an
owner-cheerleader whose profligate ways may have damaged the
stability of his family business. At any rate, a dispute between
Denise DeBartolo York, who recently made a power play to seize
permanent control of the 49ers, and her 51-year-old brother,
former Niners chairman Eddie DeBartolo, has thrown the San
Francisco organization into disarray and cast doubt on the
construction of a new stadium that was barely approved by voters
last June. Last week NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, making
like Richard Dawson, said he might step in to mediate this
family feud, which threatens one of pro football's proudest
franchises, of which DeBartolo York and DeBartolo each own 45%.
The conflict stems from DeBartolo's possible indictment for
alleged improprieties in obtaining a riverboat gambling license
in Louisiana. Before his legal difficulties became known to the
public, DeBartolo, who insists he will be cleared of any
wrongdoing, agreed to step aside as chairman while dealing with
his legal concerns. He handed titular control of the club to
DeBartolo York, who, most observers believed, would cede the
day-to-day operation of the Niners to longtime DeBartolo
aide-de-camp Carmen Policy. But when two Louisiana papers broke
the news of DeBartolo's probable indictment in December
(SCORECARD, Dec. 15, 1997), DeBartolo York issued a press
release that made the ownership transfer sound permanent.
Angered by DeBartolo York's action, DeBartolo, who now seems
less at risk of being indicted than he did two months ago, has
reportedly balked at signing the agreement that gives her
control of the 49ers. Last week Debartolo York stepped up the
pressure and fired off another press release, this one saying
that the board of directors of the Edward J. DeBartolo
Corporation, the giant real estate development firm that is the
basis of the family fortune, had voted to delay a $350 million
stadium project that was part of the $525 million stadium-mall
deal. The release, which cited cost overruns as the reason for
the delay, appeared to be part of an effort by DeBartolo York,
who chairs the company's board (as her brother did until
December), to wrest control of the team from DeBartolo
permanently. In her latest release, Debartolo York emphasized
that "our board is doing all that it can to minimize any
disruption my brother's legal situation is having on the
operation of the San Francisco 49ers," and that "my brother is
no longer an officer or director of the Edward J. DeBartolo
Corporation or any of its subsidiaries."
Meanwhile, Tagliabue stepped into the situation, announcing that
he would use his authority to designate whether brother or
sister should run the Niners. Sources close to the family have
been quoted as saying that should DeBartolo York gain control,
she might sell the team. DeBartolo York has said only that
"statements that I would personally force a sale are
inaccurate." But it's hard to imagine that she would maintain
the touchy-feely, hand-the-players-a-towel approach that made
DeBartolo arguably the most popular owner in the NFL, or the
open-checkbook mind-set that helped the 49ers load up on talent
and win five Super Bowls. But as much as his players might hope
that DeBartolo beats the rap and regains control of the team he
loves, the days of Exuberant Eddie might be over.
HERE'S A WINNING TICKET
Penguins Cut Prices
The owners of the Pittsburgh Penguins have every reason to think
relocation. Their local TV deal stinks, the Civic Arena is
nearly 40 years old, and average attendance this season--for a
first-place team, no less--is 15,173, a drop of more than 1,000
from last year and the team's lowest figure since 1987-88.
Hence, last week's double-barreled announcement that the
Penguins were 1) signing star forward Jaromir Jagr to a
four-year, $38 million contract extension and 2) dropping
season-ticket prices for next year was nothing less than
startling. It's almost axiomatic in sports that when a team
signs a star to an expensive contract, it raises the cost of
tickets. "The prices were unfair to the fans around here," says
Jeff Barrett, the team's vice president of ticket sales, "and we
just couldn't put the burden on them anymore."
The reduction isn't huge--the most expensive seats, currently
$60, will be $57.50 in 1998-99, while the cheapest will be
reduced from $18.50 to $17.50--but the message is. By being
perceived as fan-friendly, the Penguins hope to gain points with
Pittsburghers and add as many as 2,000 season-ticket holders.
"I've been in hockey for 14 years and have never seen another
team drop its prices," says Penguins president Donn Patton, "but
it's the right thing to do."
EBERSOL-TURNER VERSUS THE NFL?
Rival League Pondered
The sports landscape is strewn with upstart leagues that never
made it, which gives one pause when considering the proposed
rival league to the NFL being discussed by the higher-ups at GE
and Time Warner, the parent companies of NBC and Turner
Broadcasting, respectively. (Time Warner is also SI's parent
company.) In December 1993, almost immediately after losing the
lucrative NFC package to Fox, CBS talked for months about
launching a competitor (its working name was the A League)
before the idea died for a variety of reasons, including a
paucity of deep-pocketed potential franchise owners. Going back
to the mid-'80s, even the participation of multimillionaires
like Donald Trump and Alfred Taubman couldn't prevent the USFL
from folding after three uneasy years.
But if the two point men for the latest effort--Dick Ebersol,
president of NBC Sports, and Ted Turner, the vice chairman of
Time Warner who oversees Turner Broadcasting--are serious about
a rival league, then it cannot be dismissed out of hand. And
Ebersol says they are serious. Discussion of the rival league
has involved not only Turner but also Ebersol's boss, Jack
Welch, CEO of GE, and Gerald Levin, chairman of Time Warner.
Ebersol has also contacted a couple of dozen other TV and sports
heavyweights, including NBA commissioner David Stern.
"There's not a smarter man in all of sports," says Ebersol, "and
he's also one of my three best friends. I'd be nuts not to talk
to David." Ebersol would not say what capacity, if any, Stern
would serve in the new league. Stern would not comment.
There is the possibility that the new league is Ebersol's
attempt to get back at the NFL; NBC and the Turner networks were
outbid by CBS, Fox, ABC and ESPN in the recent round of contract
negotiations. "Dick would like nothing better than to stick it
to the NFL," says one network insider. Ebersol says that this is
not a vendetta and that he will spend the next couple of months
gathering information to see if a new league, which would go
head-to-head against the NFL in the fall, can work.
Red McCombs, the former owner of the San Antonio Spurs and the
Denver Nuggets who is in the process of trying to buy the
Minnesota Vikings, says an NFL rival has a chance. "There are
plenty of people out there with money, and the opportunity to be
an owner in the NFL is extremely limited," says McCombs. "The
playing talent for two leagues is absolutely there."
On that last point McCombs is absolutely wrong. The talent is
not there, not for a sophisticated football audience that will
tune in only to a quality product. A new league could start with
Canadian Football Leaguers, taxi-squadders and over-the-hill
veterans, but, to succeed, it would have to engage in a bidding
war for the best free agents and college talent. We haven't had
that on a grand scale since the days of Joe Namath and the AFL.
PUT HER ON THE PINE
As the starting point guard for Indiana's women's basketball
team, junior Dani Thrush is known as a fiery, unselfish player.
She's not a good shooter, as her .351 percentage from the floor
through Sunday attests, but she led the Hoosiers in assists with
4.2 per game and averaged 4.5 rebounds. In short, she's a gamer.
And it's an outrage she's playing at all.
In December she pleaded guilty to assault with a dangerous
weapon, a charge stemming from an August 1997 incident in a
tavern in Keokuk, Iowa. At the tavern Thrush, then 20 (one year
below the legal drinking age), became engaged in a heated
exchange with a woman. A third woman, 23-year-old Holly White,
intervened and tried to explain that the woman with whom Thrush
was arguing was pregnant. Thrush broke a beer bottle over
White's face, opening a cut that required 16 stitches.
Thrush was sentenced in an Iowa district court to two years in
prison with all but 30 days suspended. She was also fined $1,500
and ordered to pay $968 in restitution to White. Fortunately for
Thrush, the judge ruled that she could serve the prison term
after the spring semester so she would not miss any classes.
In a more startling act of charity, neither Thrush's coach, Jim
Izard, nor the Indiana athletic department saw fit to suspend
her. Thus a player who committed a crime punishable by up to two
years in prison had played in all of the Hoosiers' 24 games at
week's end. This wasn't the first time Thrush got into trouble
with the law. In February 1994 she was charged with assault
after breaking another woman's nose with a punch; she pleaded
guilty and received two years probation.
Izard would not talk to SI, and an Indiana spokesman issued this
party line: "We handled this internally, and we are satisfied
with how we have resolved this transgression." They shouldn't be.
FIRST PIECE OF THE PUZZLE
Athletes in all sports routinely churn out strange melanges of
cliches and metaphors. Perhaps that explains why no reporters
batted an eye, raised an eyebrow or shrugged a shoulder when
they heard New York Islanders defenseman Scott Lachance offer
this postgame assessment of his young team's unexpected 6-1
victory over the Philadelphia Flyers last week. "The win is a
building block," he said, "and we're going to use it as a
Students at Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn were
curious when pianist Guy Livingston, the guest performer at a
recent assembly, walked on stage carrying two baseballs and a
well-worn catcher's mitt. For his first two numbers Livingston
let the glove and balls sit untouched, but to his audience's
delight he brought them into play for his finale, an avant-garde
composition by Annie Gosfield entitled Brooklyn, October 5, 1941.
The piece, which Livingston first performed at Lincoln Center in
December, was written to commemorate the fourth game of the 1941
World Series between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York
Yankees. That was the game in which Brooklyn catcher Mickey Owen
dropped a third strike, allowing Tommy Henrich--who would have
been the final out--to reach base and the Yankees to rally and
win. New York clinched the Series the next day.
Livingston knew that the evocation of that heartbreaking moment
would touch a chord at Poly Prep. Last season the Blue Devils
had been one out away from beating Hackley 1-0 for the Ivy
Preparatory School League championship when a pitch got away
from the catcher and a Hackley runner slid home with the tying
run. Poly Prep wound up losing 2-1 in 15 innings.
The students watched spellbound as Livingston rolled the balls
back and forth over the keys and reached inside the piano to
rake them across the strings. Then, donning the catcher's mitt,
he played groups of keys at once. At last, after striking the
piano's soundboard with a ball to create the final note, he
tossed it high into the air and caught it. "It's a piece about
risk," said Livingston. "You can't drop the ball."
--That WBC light heavyweight champ Roy Jones, who is considering
a fight against Buster Douglas, gets his head examined before,
not after, the bout.
--That before March, Dick Vitale finds some player who can't
"flat-out play" and some coach who can't "flat-out coach."
--That CBS, which will use 88 trackside and in-car cameras at
the Daytona 500, develops a Lipinski-cam for Nagano.
NBA teams (Clippers, Mavericks, Nuggets, Warriors) drawing fewer
than the 13,936 per game that the Tennessee women's basketball
team averaged this season through Sunday.
6, 3, 2
Armani suits, Remy Martin cognac bottles and Rolex watches among
the items stolen from Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez, whose
Miami house was broken into last week.
Value, in dollars, of clothing, cash, cognac and cigars stolen
North Carolina Central women basketball players suspended for
the remainder of the season after they admitted assaulting a
spectator in the stands after a Jan. 6 home game.
Fans who attended the Jan. 17 game at the CoreStates Center in
Philadelphia between the Warriors and the 76ers, at which 5,000
Beanie Babies were given out to fans 12 and under.
Fans at the CoreStates Center on Jan. 15, 1997, the last time
the Warriors visited Philadelphia, for a Beanie Baby-less game.
WHO'S THE MORE GLARING NBA ALL-STAR OMISSION?
He can easily drop in 20 points a night for some lottery-bound
loser, but he has chosen instead to become a member
of that vanishing breed--point guards who pass. It's hard
to understand the logic that denied Marbury but made
Nick Van Exel one of four L.A. Lakers on the squad. We need a
fourth Lakers All-Star about as much as we need a sixth Spice
Girl. --Phil Taylor
Although his critics would like to hang him inside the Liberty
Bell and gong him, the admittedly inconsistent Philadelphia
76ers guard is the game's most exciting player and by the turn
of the century might be its best...provided he keeps his mind
on hoops. His killer crossover is the NBA's signature move these
days, and signature players belong in the league's signature
With the NHL and the NBA All-Star Games and the NFL's Pro Bowl
falling within a three-week period, it's time to chart the
relevance of these celestial assemblages. How's the defense?
Does the couch potato care? Is there a hometown bias? Do the
players the fans want to see always show up? Judging by the
numbers from All-Star Games of the 1990s, baseball's, the
granddaddy of them all, seems to be the most real deal.
The No-D Factor
SEASON SCORING AVG ALL-STAR GAME
NBA 205.3 250.1
NFL 39.5 39.8
NHL 6.4 23.0
BB 9.1 8.6
REG SEASON RATINGS ALL-STAR GAME
NBA 4.8 10.8
NFL 13.5 8.6
NHL 1.9 3.0
BB 4.5 14.8
MVP from hometown team
ABSENT ALL STARS
THIS WEEK'S SIGN THAT THE APOCALYPSE IS UPON US
Less than a month before completion of its $1.2 million softball
stadium, the University of Hawaii athletic department discovered
that 1,080 of the park's 1,200 seats have obstructed views of
Houston Rockets forward, when asked if he had seen Titanic: "I
saw the Mavericks play the other night, and I saw Golden State
and Toronto last week. So, yes, I've seen Titanic three times in
the last month."