The American Magazine Online
January 9, 2008
By Alan W. Dowd
The past year was not a good one for the sports world. Scandals smeared nearly every major sport, leaving fans wondering if there are any good sports left—and big-league owners and commissioners wondering what it means for 2008.
It’s not an overstatement to say there were almost too many scandals to keep track of in 2007.
-There was the NBA gambling scandal that began with one referee and ultimately enfolded the entire referee corps. As ESPN reported, “all of the league’s 56 referees violated the contractual prohibition against engaging in gambling, with more than half of them admitting to placing wagers in casinos.”
-Nor were the gambling problems confined to the big leagues. Just last month, as The International Herald Tribune reported, the Big Ten Conference announced that it “will consider whether it should continue to allow its officials to legally gamble in casinos.” This came in response to reports that a Big Ten football referee was bankrupt and in deep debt to casinos.
-There was the grisly, gruesome fall of former Atlanta Falcons QB Mike Vick. Once one of the highest-paid and highest-profile players in the National Football League, Vick was sentenced in December to 23 months in prison for financing a dog-fighting ring.
-Even as they marched toward their historic 16-0 record, the New England Patriots were caught using video equipment to illegally intercept the signals of their opponents.
-That followed what some call the biggest cheating scandal in NASCAR history, which saw several teams illegally use fuel additives to gain an unfair advantage at Daytona.
-Then there was the doping scandal that stripped Marion Jones of her Olympic medals and expunged her name from the Olympic record books.
And that brings us to the biggest sports scandal of 2007. No story had more legs—or biceps and triceps, for that matter—than Major League Baseball’s long-simmering steroid scandal.
The seeds of this scandal were probably sown more than a decade ago. Wanting to win back fans after the 1994-95 strike, baseball looked the other way as steroid-juiced sluggers turned the second half of the 1990s and early 2000s into a backyard game of Homerun Derby. But by 2007, as MLB’s seamy steroid melodrama was repeatedly thrust into America’s face, the heady days when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased the single-season homerun record seemed like a fairytale.
Instead of happy endings and banner headlines, the public was treated to grim reports of federal investigations. And a pall of guilt fell over MLB players.
Every homerun Barry Bonds hit in his relentless climb toward the career homerun record held by Hank Aaron exposed baseball to ridicule. During a game in Philadelphia, for instance, fans hoisted a massive poster behind the outfield wall to remind Bonds that “Ruth did it on hot dogs and beer.”
Each road trip offered baseball and Bonds more of the same. So it was fortunate for both that the record was broken in the friendly confines of San Francisco’s AT&T Park. Yet even as he dislodged Aaron last August, the questions and allegations remained. It didn’t help that Commissioner Bud Selig and Aaron himself were noticeably absent when the record finally fell. However, Aaron did congratulate Bonds via videotape, expressing his hope that “the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams.”
Bonds tried to blunt the doubts, declaring after the game, “This record is not tainted at all—period.” But to no avail. As The New York Times put it the next morning, “Let the debate about the authenticity of Bonds’ record begin.”
The debate didn’t last long. Just three months later, in November 2007, the new homerun king was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice relating to federal investigations surrounding the manufacture and use of steroids. The indictment indicated that Bonds had indeed tested positive for steroids and then lied about it under oath.
Through his spokesman, President Bush called it “a sad day for baseball.” Selig vowed to “take the indictment very seriously.”
But it was too little too late. While MLB looked the other way, Bonds and other players had rewritten the record books and transformed baseball—and themselves. ESPN noted that Bonds broke into the league “as a lithe, base-stealing outfielder.” A decade and half later, “he had bulked up to more than 240 pounds—his head, in particular, becoming noticeably bigger. His physical growth was accompanied by a remarkable power surge.”
And the numbers say as much as Bonds’ metamorphosis. As The New York Times details, Bonds took four years to reach 100 homeruns, ten to reach 300, but just five more to reach 500. He swatted his 600th, 700th, and record-breaking 756th in a five-year span from August 2002 to August 2007—these last milestones falling as an aging Bonds moved through his late 30s and into his 40s.
Just a month after the Bonds indictment, a report penned by former Senator George Mitchell—and sanctioned by Selig and MLB—hit the sports world as hard as one of Bonds’ homerun shots. The 400-plus page dossier named 86 players, ranging from “players whose major league careers were brief to potential members of the Baseball Hall of Fame.”
ESPN labeled the group “the most infamous lineup since the Black Sox scandal.”
Calling the scandal “a collective failure,” Mitchell leveled blame at commissioners, club officials, the players’ association and players.
He also stated an obvious truth: “Widespread use by players of such substances unfairly disadvantages the honest athletes who refuse to use them and raises questions about the validity of baseball records.”
A House committee has summoned Mitchell, MLB officials and big-league players to testify about the steroid scandal January 15 and 16.
One hopes they address how this impacts high-school athletes, many of whom are chasing their dreams by following Bonds’ path rather than Aaron’s. Estimates of how many kids are taking the steroid shortcut range from 2.3 percent to 15 percent. As The New York Daily News observes, “Even if five percent of them have taken illegal anabolic steroids, it puts the number of teenage users at 700,000.”
In response, Texas is launching a steroid-testing program at the high-school level. California is training high-school athletic directors to look for warning signs of steroid use. In other words, that pall of guilt now falls over all athletes, no matter their age or sport.
But as Congress investigates, high schools launch testing programs and the Feds keep digging, fan reaction to the steroid scandal of ’07 calls to mind MLB’s initial response to the juiced-up era. The New York Times reports that “every team currently shows an increase in ticket sales compared with the corresponding time the previous offseason.” In fact, according to the Times, MLB expects 2008 attendance to break 80 million for the first time ever—this following 2007’s record-breaking 79.5 million, which followed record-setting seasons in 2006, 2005 and 2004.
Those 80 million tickets translate into skyrocketing revenues for MLB, which expects as much as $5.8 billion in total revenue in 2008.
In short, it doesn’t seem that most baseball fans care about the scandal-soaked steroid era. They like the gaudy numbers, the towering homerun shots, the ageless pitchers. Perhaps they even like the scandal. After all, it keeps baseball in the news in the middle of January.