Welcome to the summer of discontent
Editor's note: This column appears in the August 6 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
The words "summer" and "cruel" shouldn't go together unless Bananarama is involved. By definition, summer should be happy. It's the stretch when you take family vacations, avoid work-related things and find dopey obsessions like "I wonder how long I can hold my breath underwater" and "Let's go online and figure out if Salma Hayek's boobs are real." So when summer gets tainted by unseemliness in sports, it's particularly galling. Nobody wants to return from the beach to see a somber Bob Ley showing footage of compromised referees or pit bulls ripping each other up, and nobody wants to see Barry Bonds' gravity-defying noggin. You want to spend the summer with a sunburned Erin Andrews happily reporting from the crowd in some meaningless baseball game. If there's a crisis, you want it to be a smoking-hot Olympic swimmer's being caught knocking boots with her coach, or a football player's getting nailed for sneaking The Whizzinator through customs. You don't want to think during the summer. You don't want to get riled up.
In the summer of '07, we got riled up. The sanctity of sports was demolished by five miserable stories: the reprehensible Michael Vick saga, Bonds' widely reviled quest to break Hank Aaron's record, the jaw-dropping Tim Donaghy scandal, David Beckham's overhyped foray into America and numerous reports that Rosie O'Donnell might join Friday Night Lights and invariably ruin the greatest sports show since The White Shadow.
It's impossible to rank these events from most depressing to least depressing, so I won't even try. Making matters worse, the enjoyable moments have been few and far between. Basically, it's been Joey Chestnut's toppling Kobayashi, Stephon Marbury's surreal Mike'd Up appearance and the actor who played Reggie Jackson in The Bronx Is Burning's inadvertently looking like C. Thomas Howell in Soul Man.
Just know that three summers have been ruined by sports in my lifetime: 1981, 1994 and 2007. Each one lingers the same way you'd remember a motorcycle accident or a tragic family event. In 1981, baseball went on strike for 50 agonizing days. Remember, there wasn't a lot to do back then -- we didn't have the Internet or iPods, we didn't have DVDs or videos, we didn't have fantasy leagues, we didn't have anything. Deprived of games and box scores, I remember throwing myself into pro wrestling, Intellivision baseball and General Hospital, which was on fire because Luke and Laura were saving the world from the evil Cassadines. That's how desperate things were: I watched a soap opera. Religiously.
Of course, '81 wasn't worse than '94, which kicked off with O.J.'s being accused of double murder, the threat of a baseball strike, the Knicks and Rockets butchering the Finals and our greatest living athlete (MJ) playing the wrong sport. In August, baseball went on permanent hiatus and O.J.'s trial took center stage. I spent my summer figuring out how many beers it'd take to be attracted to Marcia Clark, playing an unthinkable amount of NHL '94 and refusing to believe they'd ever cancel the World Series. Which they did. Never did I think that the sports summer of '94 could be bottomed, but it could happen in '07. In the interest of our collective sanity, let's flip those depressing stories upside down and find some silver linings for them:
Beckham: Every five years, people predict soccer could "take off" in America. Every five years, it doesn't happen. Why? Because Americans don't want to watch anything less than the best possible athletes. That's why the USFL and Arena Football failed as TV sports, that's why the CBA doesn't have a TV contract, and that's why ESPN2 doesn't show minor league baseball every night. Pro soccer can't become a major American sport when 99.7% of the quality players play overseas. It's a fact.
So what's my silver lining? That people keep stupidly perpetuating the "every kid grows up playing soccer -- those are the kids who become adults and who might buy tickets" argument. You know what else I did as a kid? I gave myself a Muslim name. I ate my own boogers. I seethed because Tom never caught Jerry. I checked my closet every night to make sure an evil clown wasn't there. I left my baby teeth under my pillow because a fairy gave me money for them. None of these things has any correlation to my life now. The fact remains: Americans will never care that Beckham is playing soccer in a league of half-decent guys, just like English people wouldn't care if they had a mediocre baseball league and the London team signed A-Rod.
Donaghy: Finally, an impetus to fix the worst ongoing problem in the NBA: consistently horrible officiating! We've been waiting for this to happen for 15 years. We're supposed to complain? I'm also excited for the premiere of NBA Hardwood Classics: The Donaghy Fixes.
Vick: It's been strangely entertaining to see so many people express shock and outrage that he could have done something so horrible. Um, he has the same DNA as Marcus Vick! That's like being shocked in 2012 when Lindsay Lohan's little sister gets her first DUI. Plus, Vick could have been accused of murdering a stripper, blowing up a shopping mall or funneling his Nike money to Al Qaeda, and people wouldn't have been even 1% as outraged as they are about the dogfighting allegations. You can get away with just about anything these days; just don't tick off dog lovers.
(And by the way, I'm one of them. I wish we could pay Roy Williams to horse-collar Vick from behind 200 times in a row. How could anyone cause pain to a dog? How could anyone want to be affiliated with a "sport" where dogs are electrocuted and you have to buy items with names like "rape stands"? Hopefully, this leads to a real-life Longest Yard sequel where Vick gets jailed and eventually leads a team of convicts against the guards, who summarily kick the living crap out of him for four quarters and turn his ACLs into fusilli. The end.)
Bonds: Look at it this way -- after he hit 754, did you turn the channel every time he came up? I bet you didn't. Besides, any saga that leads to a Schilling-Canseco feud and Bob Costas' being derisively called a "little midget" can't be all that bad. And in the end it won't matter, because A-Rod is breaking this record in five years.
Rosie on FNL: Sorry, I couldn't even find a bronze lining for this one.
Will things turn around? All I know is this: Back in '81 and '94, video games helped save me. Now Madden 2008 is saving me. After wrangling an advance PS3 copy last weekend, for the first time ever I didn't have to make shady trades to improve the Patriots offense; their roster was so loaded I just cued up Franchise mode, skipped through exhibition season and started things off with the Jets in Week 1.
For the first play, I had Brady wing a play-action bomb to Randy Moss, who hauled it in 50 yards downfield and zoomed down the sideline for six. Watching fake Moss celebrate with his fake Pats teammates, I found myself hoping the same play would work during the season. And when you think about it, that's what the summer should be about: hope.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available in paperback.