Sports fans haveconsiderable forbearance. Year after year they endure escalating ticket prices,the abomination known as seat licensing and the implied mandate that taxpayersshould foot the bill for the new stadium or arena that will absolutely revivedowntown. They watch their favorite players come and go through free agency andtrades, and see their managers and coaches get shuffled like playing cards.They cringe as the news crawl on their screen reports a heinous transgressioncommitted by their son's hero, whose replica jersey just lightened their walletconsiderably. But they come back, because the games matter to them, and becausesports fosters a sense of hope.
This is an article from the July 30, 2007 issue
Hope seemed inshort supply last week, though, as a perfect storm of malfeasance rocked theworlds of baskets, blockers and bats. While pro sports have taken hits before,these were devastating blows, less to their solar plexus than to their verysoul. And if you've long ago lost your capacity for outrage--the O.J. Simpsontrial, after all, was 12 years ago--then put yourselves in the wingtips of themen who run the Big Three.
> As of Mondaynight, NBA commissioner David Stern, who preaches nothing so much as theintegrity of his game and the excellence of his referees, was expected to stepup to a podium in New York City on Tuesday morning and confirm one of hisgreatest nightmares: The league is cooperating with the FBI in theinvestigation of referee Tim Donaghy, who over the last two seasons allegedlywas coerced by organized crime members into shaving points. Donaghy is alsosuspected of gambling on games he officiated and supplying inside informationto gamblers. The 13-year-vet, who has resigned, will eventually surrender tofederal authorities. Stern was also expected to say that no other refs wereunder investigation and that the NBA did not know the feds were looking atDonaghy until after the Finals in June. Donaghy refereed five postseason gamesthis spring.
> NFLcommissioner Roger Goodell, whose first year on the job has brought new meaningto the phrase "baptism by fire," was dealing with the federalindictment of one of the league's marquee players, Atlanta Falcons quarterbackMichael Vick, on charges that he was involved in a multistate dogfightingoperation run from a house Vick owned in Smithfield, Va. Goodell came underfire for not taking immediate action given the shocking revelations in the July17 indictment, which alleges, among other transgressions, that Vick and twocodefendants killed underperforming dogs by hanging, drowning or slamming themto the ground (page 38). People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals picketedthe league office last Friday, and 61% of those who responded to an SI.com pollsaid they thought Vick should be suspended from the NFL for life if he isconvicted. On Monday, Goodell ordered Vick not to report to Falcons trainingcamp pending the NFL's review of the indictment. While the more gruesomeallegations have gotten most of the attention, sources say the league alsowants to further probe the extent to which Vick was involved in gambling andconsorting with known gamblers.
> Major LeagueBaseball commissioner Bud Selig, meanwhile, girded for the final installment ofthe melodrama When Bud Met Barry. Or, as the case might be, When Bud Did NotMeet Barry. Selig was not in attendance in San Francisco on Monday night whenBarry Bonds and the Giants began a three-game set against the Atlanta Braves.After that game Bonds was still two home runs shy of Hank Aaron's alltimerecord of 755, and Selig wasn't saying if or when he would show up to place thecrown of home run king on an ill-tempered, 43-year-old outfielder who allegedlybegan taking steroids after the 1998 season and is the subject of an ongoingfederal probe.
In the grandscheme, Selig's dilemma pales beside the nightmares facing Stern and Goodell.If you're scoring at home--and this might be like ranking the SevenDeadlies--it would be basketball, then football, then baseball. There was evena comic element to the home run saga. Selig, who attended Bonds's homerlessweekend games in Milwaukee, spoke with reporters for eight minutes last Fridayand never uttered the slugger's name. Imagine George Bush facing the WhiteHouse media without mentioning Iraq. Yet the issues in the three sportsdovetail in this respect: All involve the federal government, meaning they'reno joke. Which didn't stop Bonds's lawyer, Michael Rains, from actingpositively gleeful last weekend when he learned that a federal grand juryinvestigating his client for perjury and tax evasion had been extended for sixmonths. "I'll outmaneuver them at every turn," Rains told the New YorkDaily News. "I've kicked their ass in private, I'll continue to kick theirass in public." Nothing says national pastime like a legal mouthpieceplaying mine's-bigger with the feds.
Somewhere lastweek NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was lounging in his deck chair with a tallcocktail and a photo of Sidney Crosby at his side, saying, "Who cares thatthe Food Channel gets better ratings than the Stanley Cup finals?"
For the NBA, thehope must be that Donaghy, if found guilty, is a singular case, a lone ref whogot himself into financial difficulty because of gambling debts and tried toworm his way out of it. But the violation of public trust will no doubt furtherdamage a game that already suffers from sinking TV ratings--2007 marked theleague's lowest-rated Finals series ever--and the perception that the qualityof play has diminished over the last decade. Will Corporate America continue toknock down hors d'oeuvres in the luxury suites? Will an international fan base,still in puppy love with the NBA's larger-than-life stars, stop buyingjerseys?
Or worse: What ifDonaghy was conspiring with players or other refs? What if Donaghy's calls hada direct impact on determining the championship? The NBA, remember, has longbeen suspected by the conspiratorially minded of rigging the outcome of gamesand drafts, with Stern as the master manipulator. Never mind the myriadevidence that he has no such control, starting with the fact that the SanAntonio Spurs, far from a bright-lights-big-city team that would command maxattention, have won two draft lotteries and four NBA titles. The perceptionexists. And though it is little remembered, Donaghy is not the first NBA refconnected to gamblers. In 1951 the NBA suspended Sol Levy after he was arrestedand charged with conspiring to fix three games during the 1950-51 season. (Hisconviction was later overturned by a higher court.)
The organicconnection between basketball refs and the game is closer than it is withofficials in any other sport. "Uh-oh, we got so-and-so tonight" is acomment you often hear in NBA locker rooms when the referees are announced.Some are seen as predisposed toward home teams, some are known for havingpersonality conflicts with certain players. Donaghy allegedly alerted gamblersas to which referees were working specific games, information that is notsupposed to be public until shortly before tip-off.
No league can knoweverything about the private lives of its employees, but one league sourcesays, "When I heard that a referee was in trouble with gambling, I knewright away it was Donaghy." The 40-year-old ref, who worked 131regular-season and 20 playoff games the past two seasons, had been in hot waterbefore. In January 2005 his next-door neighbors in suburban Philadelphia suedhim for harassment and invasion of privacy. Peter and Lisa Mansueto claimedthat Donaghy vandalized their property and stalked them, even to the point offollowing Lisa around Radley Run Country Club, where Donaghy and the Mansuetoswere members. After an internal investigation Donaghy was suspended from RadleyRun for the summer and early fall of 2004. The suit also alleged that Donaghyset fire to the Mansuetos' lawn mower and crashed their golf cart into aravine. (The suit was dropped when Donaghy moved with his wife and fourchildren to Florida later in 2005.)
Stern may have nochoice but to review all of the games Donaghy worked since 2005-06--includingGame 3 of the '07 Western Conference semifinals, in which All-Star center AmaréStoudemire of the Phoenix Suns played only 21 minutes because of foul trouble,and the Spurs won 108-101, covering the 4 1/2-point spread. Conventional wisdomholds that crooked refs (and, for that matter, crooked players) normally arenot trying to affect wins and losses, but, rather, attempting to subtlyinfluence the point spread (sidebar). But a dirty ref who makes bogus calls atkey moments might do both, even altering the course of the playoffs. "Everyplayer is going to try to remember their games that he worked," saysforward Mark Madsen, the player rep for the Minnesota Timberwolves. "Ifthere were any close games or late calls, players are definitely going to thinkabout that. This is bad."
Whatever theultimate decision is on Vick, Goodell cannot ignore the culture of cruelty thatinfects his sport. When the Vick story became public, Redskins running backClinton Portis told a Washington-area TV station, "I don't know if he wasfighting dogs or not, but it's his property, it's his dogs." Portis alsoexpressed the learned opinion that if dogfighting is held behind closed doors,then it's O.K. (He eventually apologized for his statements.) And last weekformer Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith, the NFL's alltime rushingleader, opined that authorities are using Vick to get at others. "He's thebiggest fish in the whole doggone pond right now," Smith said at hisinduction into the College Football Hall of Fame, "so they're putting thesqueeze on him."
As difficult as itis to disbelieve a Dancing with the Stars champion, the portrait of Vick aseither a victim or a bit player does not ring true. If the charges in theindictment are valid, Vick was the bankroll behind Bad Newz Kennels, thedogfighting business he formed with three old friends. According to theindictment, Vick was involved in numerous high-stakes dogfights, and asrecently as April he and two of his associates executed about eight dogs inways that stunned John Goodwin, an animal-fighting expert for the HumaneSociety of the United States. "Why would someone kill a dog this way?"asks Goodwin. "The only reason I can think of is that they took somepleasure in it, which is just sick."
What shouldGoodell do about the alleged goings-on at 1915 Moonlight Road, an address thatnow carries a gothic chill? It's certain he will not follow the rhetorical pathblazed by Robert Byrd, the canine-loving octogenarian senator from WestVirginia, who in a speech on the Senate floor on July 19 thundered, "I amconfident that the hottest places in Hell are reserved for the souls of sickand brutal people who hold God's creatures in such brutal and cruelcontempt!" But neither would Goodell be wise to ignore the brutality inVick's alleged participation in this barbarous activity, especially consideringthe commissioner's new-sheriff-in-town persona. Since April he has suspendedTennessee Titans cornerback Adam (Pacman) Jones (five arrests and 10 policeinterviews since he entered the league in 2005) for the upcoming season andgiven Chicago Bears defensive tackle Tank Johnson and Cincinnati Bengals widereceiver Chris Henry eight-game suspensions for repeated legal malfeasance.(Johnson has since been cut by the Bears.)
For Goodell, Vickposes a more vexing problem. Though Pacman has the video-game nickname, it isthe Falcons quarterback whose likeness adorned the cover of the 2004 version ofMadden NFL. Vick's broken-field scamper was a can't-miss feature of a Nikecommercial that seemed to spool nonstop through the public consciousness acouple of years ago. Peyton Manning may be the face of the league, but Vick isstill an important cog in the marketing machinery, even if many of hisendorsements--Coke, EA, Hasbro, Kraft--have dried up in the last few years.
Selig has been onthe defensive ever since BALCO became as familiar to baseball fans as fielder'schoice. Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, both of whom embarrassed themselveswhile testifying to Congress about steroid use, are gone from the game, butBonds remains.
Even if it iseventually proved in court that he did bulk up because of illegal steroiduse--which Bonds continues to deny despite mountainous evidence that suggestsotherwise--the argument could be made that his behavior pales in comparison tothat of a referee who allegedly cheated and an athlete who allegedly executedanimals. But the Bonds saga has, to some degree, sucked the lifeblood out ofbaseball. We can't be sure what impact Donaghy and Vick will have on theirrespective sports, but in the eyes of much of the public, a cheat will soonpossess a record once held by Babe Ruth, the game's first titan, and HankAaron, a humble man admired as much for his grace under pressure as for hisfeats on the field.
What's acommissioner to do? If Selig, like Caesar's wife, pays heed to portents, thedecision whether to head to San Francisco must have been made tougher by anearthquake with a magnitude of 4.2 that jolted the Bay Area last Friday (no onewas killed), a possible sign that the gods were waiting for Barry's 756th. Butwhether or not the commissioner would be there to shake Bonds's hand, it'slikely that a little voice inside him is saying, Keep hitting home runs, AlexRodriguez. Your day will come.
That is one of theeternal blessings of sport: Someone always comes along to make it better. Andthose involved in the game, like the fans who watch them, have a great capacityto play through psychic pain. Nowhere was this more evident than in Las Vegaslast weekend as Team USA prepared for the Olympic qualifying tournament inAugust. Players and coaches were instructed not to talk about Donaghy, and forthe most part basketball topics carried the day. At a boisterous dinner at anItalian restaurant, attended by USA Basketball honcho Jerry Colangelo, U.S.coach Mike Krzyzewski, assistants Mike D'Antoni of the Phoenix Suns and JimBoeheim of Syracuse, and new Seattle SuperSonics coach P.J. Carlesimo, the talkwas mostly of talent and strategy. The dreaded name of Donaghy was seldomspoken.
But an NBA stafferput the evening in perspective. "I'm having a good time on theoutside," he said, "but inside my heart hurts." Millions of fansknow the feeling.
A special on cheating, including essays by MichaelBamberger and Jack McCallum.
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