Friday, February 13, 2009

A Strange Time in Sports

Time was when sports was a way for people to escape the cares of their daily lives.

One of my favorite sports writers, Red Smith, once observed that people went to sporting events to have fun, then they picked up the newspaper the next day to read about it "and have fun all over again."

But these are strange days in sports.
  • Last weekend, I wrote on this blog about the trouble Alex Rodriguez was having with the revelation that he tested positive for steroids in 2003.

    Joel Sherman of the New York Post writes that the Yankee organization and Rodriguez's teammates will stand by him. Both are committed to him through 2017 because of the rich contract he signed with the Yankees.

    "As bizarre as it might sound considering current events," Sherman writes, "A-Rod actually has more job security than anyone in baseball."

    The Rodriguez revelation is another opportunity for some to play the race card. Jason Whitlock writes, for Fox Sports, that the "furor" over Rodriguez and Barry Bonds is really about protecting the legacy of a revered white hero, Babe Ruth.

    Now, I realize there are some differences between Whitlock and myself that affect our perceptions. He is black, I am white. I am also more than seven years older than he is, which may not be a lot in the great scheme of things, but it means I'm old enough to remember when Ruth's home run record was surpassed by Hank Aaron. I was 14 when that happened, and Whitlock was not yet 7.

    Aaron was one home run away from tying Ruth when the 1973 season ended, and he had to endure an offseason filled with the racism and the hate of those who wanted Ruth to remain the all-time home run king before being allowed to take the field and claim the record. But he did so with his natural abilities, just as Ruth did a couple of generations earlier. That, to me, has always been the difference between Ruth and Aaron and today's ball players who have exceeded (in Bonds' case) or who threaten to exceed (in Rodriguez's) the all-time mark with the help of performance-enhancing drugs.

    The "furor" has never been about racism for me. It's about cheating. Aaron and Ruth didn't cheat. Bonds and Rodriguez did.

    When Whitlock writes, "Barry Bonds threatened Ruth's legacy in a way Hank Aaron never could," it implies a lack of understanding about the reality of the times. In 1974, George Wallace was still a political force in America. School busing was still a prominent issue in America.

    If steroids had been a potential factor in the 1970s, I'm sure many in the anti-Aaron camp would have seized on it. But he could not be accused of cheating, so the underlying objection was about race. The passage of time — and the rise of Bonds and Rodriguez — may permit some, like Whitlock, to conveniently overlook that racism was alive and well in the 1970s, even if it was no longer legally sanctioned in places where it had been only a few years earlier.

    Rodriguez has been a respected star in baseball, who was often cited as proof that great things can be accomplished if a player relies strictly on his natural abilities. But the revelation of his steroids use has prompted many to second-guess their conclusions. Commissioner Bud Selig suggested, to USA Today, that he would consider reinstating Aaron as baseball's all-time home run king.

    Tom Knott writes, in the Washington Times, that, as far as the fans are concerned, there are already asterisks attached to the names of many modern stars.

    "Selig's sudden philosophical shift comes about 20 years too late," says Knott. "His anxiety over the record book comes late, too."

  • One of the all-time great football players (in my opinion) — Brett Favre — appears to have called it quits — for good, this time. But some continue to raise doubts.

    Dennis Dillon of The Sporting News, for example, suggests that Favre, who will turn 40 before the next NFL season ends, may be setting the stage for another return to football, this time with Green Bay's rivals from Minnesota, the Vikings.

    Dillon may prove to be right. Perhaps we won't know for certain until training camp opens in the summer. Maybe a few months off to rest will give him time to persuade himself, again, that he can still do things he did when he was 10 years younger. But, as I wrote on this blog in recent days, I think Favre may be finished this time. His December collapse with the Jets may have been the wake-up call he needed.

    I disagree with Mark Bradley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution when he says Favre "is the most overrated athlete of our time."

    For nearly two full decades, Favre played football in one of the harshest climates imaginable, but he took the Packers to two consecutive Super Bowls. It was a coaching decision that cost the Packers the second one, not an on-the-field decision. And Favre won three MVPs — more than anyone else in NFL history.

    And he also established a record for consecutive starts that may well last forever. In the process, he set many records that may prove just as elusive for future quarterbacks. He revived a franchise that had been given up for dead many times in the decades since Bart Starr was the quarterback and Vince Lombardi was the coach.

    Overrated? Hardly.
As I say, these are strange days in the world of sports.

But when hasn't it been a strange time for sports fans? I used to work on the sports copy desk for a metropolitan newspaper. During my days there, a great college basketball player, Len Bias, was thought to be the next star of the Boston Celtics when he was taken second in the NBA draft in 1986. But less than two days later, he died of a heart attack following a cocaine overdose.

When I came in to work that Thursday, I was immediately assigned the job of compiling information from the various wire services. I had envisioned, when I began working for the sports department, editing stories and writing headlines about games and coaching techniques. But that day, my attention was focused on real world issues, like drug abuse and drug laws and the death of an athlete at the tender age of 22.

I felt much the same way four years later. By that time, I had moved to a new state, where I was pursuing my master's degree, and I was working on the sports desk of another newspaper. College basketball star Hank Gathers collapsed and died during a game.

Gathers' death was not brought on by a drug overdose, but I still experienced a sense of "déjà vu." Once again, serious matters intruded into what should have been a pleasurable world.

I guess my point is that you can never completely escape from serious issues, whether you seek that escape through the sport that is in season or the darkness of a movie theater. The escape can only be temporary, and then, eventually, you are faced once again with the issue you sought to escape — be it the untimely death of someone like Bias or Gathers or the unpleasantness of seeking work in a contracting economy.

Escapism is temporary and fleeting. What remains is real, and it will always be there, waiting for you.

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