COMMENTARY : What Happens on Field Still the Thing


Last week was a miserable week in sports: Pete Rose, once the poster boy of baseball’s renaissance, was sentenced to jail for tax evasion. A transcript of George Steinbrenner’s hearing before Fay Vincent revealed a desperate, cowering man willing to throw everybody off the bus to save his well-heeled behind. The Redskins’ Ricky Sanders was charged with attempted murder and had to make bail before going to training camp. The NCAA finally wrapped its arms around Jerry Tarkanian after a 13-year wait, but Tark won’t suffer a loss of income or fame.

Indefensibly, players on this year’s UNLV team -- who were 7 and 8 years old when Tark was first caught -- are the ones who actually will be punished. Tark himself may soon tumble if the NCAA finds him dirty on the recruitment of Lloyd Daniels, a basketball vagabond of dubious academic merit. Cleveland State basketball coach Kevin Mackey was fired soon after police caught him coming out of a drug house with a woman who was not his wife. And in Pittsburgh, a leering slug of a TV producer sought to hire sportscaster Karie Ross to co-host “The Bubby Brister Show” to guarantee the “undertone of sexual nuance on this show. We want sparks to fly. Bubby has a reputation as a ladies’ man, and she’s hot looking.” God help us.

Where do we start?

Or do we just throw our heads back and scream?


All this in ONE WEEK. The Sanders incident recalls recent troubles for the Redskins: Dexter Manley’s disheartening relapse; Barry Wilburn’s problems with drugs and alcohol; Mark May’s successive drunk-driving episodes. In the past Joe Gibbs has brushed aside inopportune behavior with the hopeful thought, “We think it’s a one-time kind of thing.” Let’s hope it’s a one-time thing with Sanders, since the charge is attempted murder.

Provoking sexual heat between Brister and Ross on the air cuts a little too close to home, given the limousine event in a Georgetown alley. Tarkanian’s ill wind echoes Bob Wade’s, and sets a long, discouraging chain in motion back to Len Bias. And these are just local recollections; they don’t encompass the more notorious exhibitions of recent years: baseball’s drug trial; an escalation of assaults among college and pro football players; a steroid epidemic; the symbol of corruption in recruiting -- $100 bills popping out of an overnight mail pouch.

Scandal in sports is an old story. However, we’re struck by this avalanche in such a short time. There’s a temptation to try and find a common denominator.

In the case of Rose, Steinbrenner and Tarkanian it would be greed. Rose’s unrelenting greed -- not just for money, but for records and acclaim -- was his fatal flaw; his self-destruction mirrors Shakespearian tragedy.


Steinbrenner’s greed was for power. Why else would he break baseball’s rules to pay $40,000 to a known gambler for damaging information on Dave Winfield if not for the power it transferred? (While this slam-dance on Steinbrenner continues, it seems incumbent to point out that he wasn’t always a villain. When he bought the Yankees they were cadaverous, drawing as few as 3,000 people a game. Not coincidentally, baseball was at ebb tide, being eclipsed by the NFL. He was awed by New York, as only an out-of-towner can be, and he appreciated how the fortunes of the Yankees and baseball were intertwined. When he resurrected the Yankees, they became the rising tide that floats all boats.) Tarkanian was greedy in the way most coaches are, for wins. The big money that television pumped into college sports ensures that the more games you win the more money you’ll earn. But coaches cheated before the big money.

Greed won’t explain the sex and violence; that brand of self-indulgence is apparently rooted in an athlete’s sense of entitlement. We jack these people up so high, and start so young, they quickly learn to be devoted to nothing but their athletics. As they get older, and grow accustomed to people bending rules to accommodate them, they begin to believe they really are above the law. Since people keep throwing money, sex and other perks at them, why should they think any differently? They are, by and large, a tribe without conscience.

Romantics like to say everything was better in the old days -- that people had better values then. Values are just as good now, but fewer people share them. More people did cheat in the ‘80s; the S&L; scandal is the interest on a decade of class warfare under pro-rich presidents. The attitude of the ‘80s was amoral: I’m going to do wrong, and you’re going to have to catch me. Avarice and entitlement have become an oil spill, spreading to sports, polluting the last beach of the culture.

The lack of contrition is shocking. Arrogant throughout, Rose didn’t say he was sorry until the day he was sentenced to prison. Steinbrenner hasn’t said it yet. Capitals’ players never apologized for the shameful act of gang-sex with a girl of 17, just for the inconvenience the investigation caused. Kevin Mackey self-righteously berated the world, praising his own high moral stance, then after he was arrested admitted he’d had drug and alcohol problems for years. Tarkanian rails about how the NCAA is out to get him. A disturbingly common quote now from athletes is: “My lawyer has advised me not to comment.”

Yet with each new scandal, we flinch, but never truly turn away. Baseball is thriving despite Rose and Steinbrenner. College basketball is more popular than ever despite probations at Kansas and Kentucky, and the melodrama that was Jim Valvano. The Redskins will sell out every home game, their players will be adored. The Capitals will hardly feel a dent.

The American people are buying tickets and watching sports on TV in record, massive numbers. Because no matter how sullied sports are, we still see them as an escape. The games remain pure in the fan’s heart, and gentle on the fan’s forgiving mind.