So Many Scandals, So Little Time
A lot of ground to cover, but below I’ll cover the ESPN town hall on Barry Bonds in some depth.
It’s been a crazy few days in the world of sports. Last week, in a post about ESPN, I complained about the police-blotter approach so common these days in sports journalism. That was after the Vick indictment, but before the Tim Donaghy investigation became public knowledge. Those two newsmaking events, plus the ongoing homerun chase, featuring the intensely polarizing would-be king, Barry Bonds, still the subject of an endless grand jury investigation, has led many sports commentators the past few days to wonder which of the three major commissioners has it roughest right now. There’s an obvious answer – David Stern faces a threat to the integrity of his sport in a way that neither Roger Goddell or Bud Selig does. But, it’s all a dream come true, in a way, for sports media, as July is generally lamented as a slow sports month, and if you’re not a baseball fan, it’s the month many sports fans consider the worst of the year. With basketball in the rearview mirror and football tantalizingly close but still not under way, July is purgatory for the sports news cycle. Until this week, anyway.
And, for good measure, there is the almost comical level of cheating in the Tour de France. Michael Rasmussen, the leader after sixteen stages and the likely winner of the 2007 Tour, was thrown out of the race yesterday by his team for violating team rules clearly related to his skipping earlier drug tests. I have argued before that I am not convinced performance enhancing drugs should be illegal, but when it comes to cycling, I am absolutely convinced that the Tour de France will never again have a legitimate champion as long as it tries to ban PEDs and related activities.
Concerning former NBA referee Tim Donaghy, there has been much dire talk the past few days about what serious trouble the league is in, especially if it turns out, as some media reports have suggested, that Donaghy names names of other officials who might have bet on games in which they officiated and, additionally, helped influence the outcome of those games. Mike Francesa said yesterday that this scandal can “collapse your sport” and that’s been a characteristic reaction throughout sports media.
But, while the Donaghy revelations are extremely serious – we all understand that integrity of outcome is the single most cherished principle in competitive athletics – I am not convinced this is all quite so dire for the NBA. Reporting in Tuesday’s New York Times (the story was written before Stern’s Tuesday news conference), Richard Sandomir noted that the NBA, on June 27, inked new TV contracts with ESPN and TNT for eight-years at a total value of $7.4 billion. Sandomir wondered out loud whether the NBA should have informed the networks of the Donaghy investigation, of which it was aware for a week at the time the new TV deals were signed. (The NBA didn’t because the FBI told it not to).
But, whatever ethical quandaries the withholding of such information might raise, there appear to be no hard feelings:
By their reactions, the networks seem to believe that the accusations against Donaghy are isolated and that the league will upgrade its referee-monitoring efforts. Or they’re just too in need of N.B.A. programming to gripe.
“We believe the N.B.A. acted in good faith,” John Skipper, ESPN’s executive vice president for content, said in a statement. He added, “We don’t expect this to have a material impact on our agreement.”
Even if it turns out that Donaghy is not the only implicated official, I don’t think the NBA will suffer too terribly. Its major source of revenue is unlikely to be affected. Ticket sales might take a short-term hit, but I don’t think that will last. The NBA has an officiating problem – its the most arbitrarily and erratically officiated major sport in America – but that’s an old problem. If anything, this scandal will prompt the commissioner to take more seriously all of the complaints about officiating that afflict the league, to the long-term benefit of the product. The league would be damaged in the longer term if evidence of officials’ malfeasance continued to trickle out over time. But, if the current investigation identifies the wrong-doers now, the NBA will survive this.
Then Commissioner Stern can return to the serious business of making sure that players stand up straight for the star spangled banner, dress appropriately when they’re not in uniform and chew gum with their mouths closed.
ESPN held a Townhall meeting tonight on Barry Bonds, facilitated by Bob Ley. ESPN put together a good panel representing varied perspectives on Bonds. Former teammates Ellis Burks and Kirk Rueter were on it, as was Bonds’ long-time manager Dusty Baker. All three were adamant that Bonds was innocent until proven guilty and were more interested in emphasizing his greatness as a player than his foibles as a person. Lance Williams, co-author of Game of Shadows was there, as were Bonds critic and long-time sports columnist Bryan Burwell (interviewed by Michael Tillery for TSF not long ago), and veteran baseball writer Buster Olney. Juan Williams, veteran columnist for the Washington Post and contributor to FOX news was also on the panel, for reasons I can’t quite figure. The ninety-minute affair, held at the Palace of the Arts in San Francisco (in front of a very Barry-friendly crowd) was not really a Town Hall meeting. It was a panel discussion that allowed room for the very occasional question from the audience, and a couple of asides to allow ESPN’s Amy Nelson to read select viewer emails.
A few noteworthy points:
1) on the question of evidence of Bonds’ guilt, Game of Shadows co-author Lance Williams laid out the case against Bonds: the leaked grand jury testimony, tapes of Greg Anderson describing how masking agents help users beat drug tests, other interviews corroborating the above evidence. Ellis Burks responded by wondering out loud why, if there’s so much evidence, Barry hasn’t been convicted yet. Bonds, of course, has not yet been tried, but I have wondered something similar for a long time. We have all heard how rigged the grand jury system is in America in favor of the prosecution. And yet, the Bonds grand jury has been sitting for something like two years now (and just had its term extended by six months), and still haven’t handed down an indictment. Getting a conviction at trial is one thing – getting an indictment from a grand jury is an entirely separate matter. I want to make clear here that I am not saying that the lack of indictment proves Bonds’ innocence. But, if there are lawyers out there who can illuminate this process for me, I’d appreciate it. Because, to repeat, I am baffled that, given all the apparent evidence against Bonds, and given how relatively easy it is to get an indictment, why have federal prosecutors not yet secured one against Bonds after all this time.
2) Buster Olney has been unique among major journalists in declaring mea culpa about the steroids era. In a blog entry from earlier in the week, Olney described his own failures as a reporter who “did a lousy job of getting information on the growing steroid problem into print.” Olney repeated those sentiments on the panel, chastising Commissioner Selig for his hypocritical attempts to distance himself from Bonds and wash his hands of Bonds’ presumed transgressions. On his blog, using words similar to those he uttered on the panel, Olney wrote:
But history will remember this, too: Bud Selig’s statistics also were built with the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
The record attendance, the revitalization of the game in the mid-’90s, the explosion of the sport’s multimedia ventures? Grown at a time when the game, by many accounts, has been saturated with the use of steroids and amphetamines, and at a time when Selig and other leaders in the sport ignored years of red flags.
If the commissioner intends to avoid games and teams and players touched either directly or indirectly by performance-enhancing drugs, he might as well forget about Major League Baseball and instead devote himself to the local Milwaukee Little League.
3) Juan William, arguing with Dusty Baker about the obvious change in Bonds’ performance level at an age when that shouldn’t have happened, was sloppy with his numbers. He said that Bonds had fourteen years with thirty homers, and then “suddenly with fifty and seventy homeruns. You’re talking about something that’s way out of line given his age and proportion. Look at Hank Aaron, who never even hit fifty homeruns in a season, but that’s someone who, through discipline and excellence is achieving the goal.”
A couple of points here. As I’ve written before, there’s no doubt about the change in Bonds’ performance level from 2001-2004. He was a fantastic player, an all-time great, prior to that time, but went stratospheric in that four year period. But, contrary to Williams, Bonds hit forty homeruns three times in the 1990s, including a pre-2000 career high of 46 in 1993. Bonds was already a great homerun hitter, having averaged nearly forty homers a year between 1993 and 1998, before the period under suspicion. Additionally, though the jump isn’t nearly as dramatic, the fact is that Hank Aaron hit his career high of 47 homeruns when he was 37 years old in 1971. In 1971, Aaron also set his career high in slugging percentage and OPS-plus. In 1973, Aaron hit forty homeruns in less than 400 at bats, an absolutely staggering performance in an era in which offensive production was dramatically lower than it has been for the past fifteen years. He was 39. So, it’s not unheard of for great homerun hitters to enter a period of great production in their late thirties. Aaron himself is proof of that. And, again, I am not claiming that Aaron’s late thirties production was nearly at the level of Bonds’, or nearly as out of proportion to the rest of his career. But, Williams caricatured the career paths of both Bonds and Aaron. He also created an unnecessary, and false, dichotomy. There is little doubt that Bonds possesses, in abundance, discipline and excellence. That he may also have cheated does not change that fact. Williams is trying hard to make a point about character here, and in the process is mis-stating the question at hand.
4) on the question of fairness in the treatment of Bonds, Olney argued that “institutional context is lost.” He pointed out that Jose Canseco was asked about steroid use as far back as 1988 and that, by the mid-90s, there were very widespread suspicions throughout the sport. In other words, singling out Bonds misses how widespread the issue has been (and, for his part, unless he has definitive proof, Olney will not base his Hall of Fame ballot on suspicions. With that in mind, he did vote for McGwire this year, and would vote for Bonds). Bryan Burwell said that the question of media fairness was an important one and pointed out that there is a 44-year old pitcher (Clemens) who has shown almost no drop-off in his performance and whose name has come up in a federal investigation involving steroids. He also noted that Lance Armstrong has gotten a relative free pass. Burwell, nevertheless, balked at using those examples to exonerate Bonds. For Burwell, Barry “did something wrong” and those others also did something wrong. Here, Kirk Rueter chimed in to rebut Burwell, insisting that he could not assert that Bonds did something wrong without proof.
There has been an ongoing divide between fellow ballplayers on the one hand, and media and fans on the other when it comes to Bonds and to the issue of steroids use in general. The panel was a representative microcosm of that, with Burks, Baker and Rueter testifying to Bonds greatness while being generally dismissive of allegations against him. Jeff Pearlman, among others, has written that this is all the product of a stupid code among ball players, that they will never rat out other ballplayers. But, I suspect there is more to it than that. On Mike and Mike, Golic has repeatedly argued that discussion of steroid use is overblown and said that Bonds is being singled out because he’s chasing a record, not because he’s done anything unique. Yesterday, Greenberg argued that what was so bad about performance enhancing drugs was that they denied to fans their ability to engage in unabashed hero worship. Greenberg said that what fans granted to athletes was that athletes could do things that ordinary guys, like Greenie, never could. But steroids called all of that into question, raising the possibility that cheating athletes were no better than the ordinary fan. Golic asked why, if that was the case, no one cared about Shawne Merriman using steroids, since Greenie’s argument should hold true across the board.
But, though Golic didn’t say it, there’s another argument here – that pro athletes are different, physically superior individuals, and they know it. And, when someone among their number stands out in their greatness, even relative to their peer group, they admire that. Some may think that drugs conferred an unfair advantage on a ballplayer. But, the admiration for Bonds’ greatness among his peers strikes me as genuine. Whatever drug use may or may not have done for him, virtually all of his peers understand that he has gifts that surpass their own. So, perhaps more than a code of silence, there is the fundamental respect for greatness that, among athletes, might be more heightened than it is among ordinary fans. Just as a great classical pianist might better understand and be better able to admire the talents of an even greater pianist than could an ordinary listener.
5) on the question of race, naturally there were differences of opinion. Ley introduced that subject by reporting the results of an ABC-ESPN poll, in which 46% of Blacks and only 25% of Whites thought that Bonds was treated unfairly. Of those who believe Bonds is being treated unfairly, 27% of Blacks believe that is so because of race, whereas only 1% of Whites believe race is the reason.
Dusty Baker said “this is America” so, of course, race is a factor, though only a part of the reason for the antipathy to Bonds, part of which, Baker pointed out, “Barry’s brought on himself.” Baker also pointed out that it wasn’t just Aaron who received hate mail, that he himself received hate mail as recently as last year, and he assumes Bonds has also been receiving hate mail. (Given that Boise State running back Ian Johnson, famous for proposing on the field to his White fiancee after BSU’s incredible victory over Oklahoma in January, is receiving threatening mail, I think it’s a fair bet that the much higher profile Bonds is also receiving hate mail).
Juan Williams pointed to the recent Sports Illustrated cover with Hank Aaron on it and said “I think they compare him as the good Black guy to Barry Bonds, who’s posited as the bad Black guy. I think you can go back to Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier and see that Whites would identify, especially conservative whites, with Joe Frazier versus the controversial Ali.” In David Remnick’s book on Ali, he notes that White America similarly gravitated to Floyd Patterson as the good Black, as against the “thuggish” Sonny Liston.
Burwell said he thought the race issue cut both ways: “I believe wholeheartedly that there is significant portion of whites who dislike Barry solely because of the color of his skin. I believe a significant portion of Blacks support Barry solely because of the color of his skin.”
6) on the question of whether Bonds should be in the Hall of Fame, Juan Williams suugested that the Hall would be “corrupted” by the entry of Bonds. Other panelists, like Baker and Rueter, noted that other cheaters are in the Hall, like Gaylord Perry, at which Williams bristled, since Williams believes that you cannot compare scuffing a baseball to steroids. Baker’s retort: “have you ever seen what scuffing a baseball does?” and motioned with his hand to suggest a dramatic change in movement. It’s an interesting and, as yet, unsatisfactorily answered question – why do certain kinds of efforts to gain an illicit edge – whether monkeying with equipment (corked bats, scuffed baseballs), or taking less scrutnized drugs, like amphetamines – get so much less attention than the group of drugs broadly called steroids?
7) Juan Williams criticized the Selig era by noting that he was an owner and was put in place by owners as a powerplay by them to take over the commissioner’s office. This corrupted the office, according to Williams, and led him (and the owners) to turn a blind eye to the steroids era. Selig, according to Williams, “has yet to take a principled stand on the issue” of Bonds and steroids, because he himself is so compromised.
With all the complaining about what a joke sportscenter has become, and ESPN now and all that, ESPN did well last night to devote ninety minutes to a serious discussion of an issue that is getting so much attention.