Monday, July 23, 2007
Updated: July 24, 7:39 AM ET
How to survive the worst week ever
By Jim Caple
You know it's a bad week in sports when the brightest news is a soccer player with a bad ankle limping onto the field for the final minutes of an exhibition game.
An editor who has been in the business long enough to know submitted the past week as the worst in sports history, and if it isn't, it at least makes the playoffs as a wild card.
First, we had a player who wears a Size 11 batting helmet nearing the all-time home run record, the most cherished record in sports (or at least, what had been the most cherished record). Such is the public regard for Barry Bonds that the league's commissioner not only refused to say whether he would attend the impending record-breaking game, he didn't even speak the player's name during a 20-minute interview session a couple hundred feet from where Hank Aaron hit No. 755.
But at least there are fans rooting for He Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken By Bud Selig. How could anyone take any pleasure from the week's other headlines?
Michael Vick was indicted on charges for his role in a dogfighting ring. Among the gruesome details in the indictment: The Atlanta quarterback oversaw dogs being hanged, shot, drowned and doused with water and electrocuted. The charges are so ugly, even the Cincinnati Bengals are appalled.
As bad as that was, the NBA probably topped it. Its news went to the very heart of legitimate competition, when it was revealed the FBI is investigating referee Tim Donaghy for making calls to influence the point spread on games.
And just to round things out, golfer Gary Player said at least 10 players on the tour are using steroids, while Tour de France leader Michael Rasmussen was dropped from the Dutch national team for failing to make himself available for two drug tests in the past year.
Perhaps the only way the week could have gone worse is if a power outage struck Scottsdale and Ted Williams' head melted.
(Although Padraig Harrington probably has a different view on the past week.)
The question, however, is whether even a week this bad will diminish our passion for sports. And the answer is no, not at all. We love sports so much -- they are our new religion -- that we forgive virtually everything other than $8 beers at the concession stand.
People are justifiably outraged about Vick -- and the details are certainly sordid -- but how is this worse than when Rae Carruth was convicted for his role in the shooting death of his pregnant girlfriend? Or when Ray Lewis was arrested for murder (he eventually agreed to a plea bargain for obstruction of justice)? The NFL shrugged off those crimes, as well as countless others involving firearms, domestic abuse, drugs and even bigamy. Can it withstand Vick's charges? The prediction not only is yes it will, but if Vick is allowed to play this fall, you know thousands of fans will also pick him in their fantasy league drafts and cheer for him if he piles up points for them.
The Donaghy investigation, in some ways, is more troublesome because this isn't a case of one bad apple (or even a case of bad apples) misbehaving off the court; this is an official influencing the actual competition. If we can't believe the games are on the up and up, the sport becomes nothing more than a taller version of the WWE. And yet, most basketball fans are already convinced the referee screws over their team after every loss. So while this is bad for the league, unless it's proven that many refs were involved, the NBA will overcome this as well.
As for Bonds, the media loves to moan about how steroids are ruining the game, but you wouldn't know it from the record attendance or from the way fans cheer when their home team's pumped-up players go deep. It's been said many times that baseball is so great a game that not even the people running it can screw it up. Or as James Earl Jones says in "Field of Dreams" a little more eloquently, "This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again."
In other words, people will come. They will always come. No matter what.
You could look at that cynically, I suppose. That there is nothing anyone can do that is so bad (dousing a dog with water and electrocuting it?) that it makes us re-evaluate our love of silly games. But I prefer the other view. We aren't fools (well, maybe the fans who pay $4 for bottled water are). We know about the corruption in leagues and the misdeeds of athletes. Hell, how could we not know when we are taxed to pay for unnecessary stadiums that further enrich billionaire owners and further pamper self-absorbed athletes? But we love sports in spite of that. Sports, the new religion, mean so much to us that we refuse to give up on them no matter the actions of some, or even the high price of admission.
The sights, sounds, smells, drama, fun and most importantly, that oh, so rare feeling of community that sports bring us are so precious we will endure whatever is necessary to preserve them all. We're like Rocky in that respect. We suffer all sorts of abuse, but when the final bell rings, we're not only still standing, we're ready for the sequel.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net, with more installments of "24 College Avenue." His new book with Steve Buckley, "The Best Boston Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Boston Fans" is on sale now.