Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Manny Ramirez and the sport of lies

By Tom Grant
PhD student, Center for Ethics

Manny Ramirez retired this week rather than face a 100-game suspension following a positive test for a banned substance.  And the taint of steroids continues to plague baseball. It's Manny's second positive test.

The Barry Bonds case continues to look like just the tip of the iceberg. Bonds' remains in the hands of the jury, though that group is deadlocked on all but one count. And the fate of baseball is in the hands of fans.

Will fans find it repulsive that so many players have been caught trying to cheat, using human growth hormone and designer steroids to try to gain a competitive advantage? Or will they quietly accept that baseball stars use the juice to get a little extra power. Some even dare to say that steroids saved baseball. They suggest that the muscle-bound home run hitters gave the sport excitement at a time when it was becoming upstaged in the public mind by football and basketball.

But to others, this writer included, baseball has become a sport of deceit, not much different from bicycling or professional wrestling. And it's not so much about performance enhancing drugs as it is about the lies. Who can trust any power hitter today?

Albert Pujols has been hailed by such top-flight media institutions as 60 Minutes as the new savior of baseball. He hits more than 30 home runs a year and has never failed a drug test. Yet the rumors continue even about Pujols.

The concensus seems to be that baseball players will do whatever it takes to improve their game, then lie about it. The Bonds' trial is about his lies. Ramirez's retirement shows that the steroid era continues. And so does the lying era.

Professional wrestlers were once the used car salesmen of sport. Then bicycling, with stars such as Tour de France winners Floyd Landis and Bjarne Riis admitting doping, became the sport of lies. And now baseball has so deeply mired itself in the liars and cheaters club that we can't trust the heroes of America's pastime.

You can say it ain't so, Joe. But in the back of our mind, we still won't believe you.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Character matters even in basketball

By Tom Grant
PhD Student, Center for ETHICS*

The Aggies of Texas A&M played great basketball Tuesday night, with Danielle Adams scoring 30 points in the second half to help her team to a win over Notre Dame in the women's NCAA basketball championship

Compared to the ragged play in the men's NCAA championship matchup -- which one writer called "cover-your-eyes awful" --  the women's game was a sign of what basketball at it's best can be: smart, aggressive and thrilling.

Adams represents the American dream in athletics. She was a great high school player and signed with Missouri. But that plan was derailed because she had to attend a junior college. She had to fight her way back. She used junior college to get her academic and basketball career on track, then signed at A&M after being named junior college player of the year in 2009. But she had a lot more work to do.

Here's what she told ESPN: "After I had to go to junior college, I knew it was a chance for me to work harder and get better," Adams said. "I thought, 'Maybe another team will pick me up that I really like.' And A&M gave me that chance."

Even that wasn't enough. Adams, a 6-1 post, was overweight. She needed to lose 40 pounds to get in shape to become competitive in Division I. And she did.

The Texas A&M team represents what is rarely seen in men's basketball, a team of  highly skilled and highly experienced players committed to a great team performance. A&M was led seniors Adams and Sydney Colson along with junior Tyra White. They were experience heavy, and had worked together for years.

In men's basketball, the one-and-done has changed the character of the game. John Feinstein writes that it's one of the things leading men's basketball downhill:

"Many college coaches call this the 'AAUization' of the game. Stars are coddled from the very beginning; no one tells them they have to play defense, no one teaches them fundamentals and no one gets on them if they don’t play hard. Why? Because if a star gets yelled at by one coach, he goes and finds a new coach. That’s why it is now common for players to go to three or four high schools and play on a different AAU team every summer. Then they come to college knowing they hold all the cards with their coach: They only have to deal with him for one year, so why put up with him if he makes unreasonable demands such as 'Would you please try on defense?'"

Feinstein says the NBA needs to change its rules, allowing high school players jump to the NBA if they think they're good enough but forcing those who commit to college to stay there for at least three years. Such a rule would mirror Major League Baseball's relationship with colleges.

Feinstein also argues that men's college basketball needs to clean up its act: "There is also the continuing issue of what everyone who cares about college athletics has known to be true for years: cheating pays. The team that just won the national championship is on probation for major rules violations. The Hall of Fame coach who just joined John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight as the only coaches to win at least three national titles will be suspended for his team’s first three conference games next winter because of a “lack of compliance” with NCAA rules. In English, a lack of compliance means you cheated."

NCAA men's basketball could learn a bit from Adams and A&M. They won their title with dedication, perseverance and hard work. They had to make the grades and come together as a team. And they did it without a blot on their recruiting record. And, in my opinion, they played a lot better game than the men -- and not just on the floor.


Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Respect for older NFL players

by Tom Grant
PhD student, Center for ETHICS*

At least one NFL player needs a lesson in respect, Hall of Fame linebacker Sam Huff said in a letter to The Washington Post.

He was aiming at New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, one of the leaders for the players in the NFL labor dispute.  Brees has been critical of some older players who think they deserve a place at the bargaining table.

The QB said in an interview: “There’s some guys out there that have made bad business decisions. They took their pensions early because they never went out and got a job. They've had a couple divorces and they're making payments to this place and that place. And that’s why they don’t have money. And they’re coming to us to basically say, ‘Please make up for my bad judgment.’ In that case, that’s not our fault as players.”

Former running back Mercury Morris says Brees was merely parroting the talking points of the union's labor lawyer, according to the New Jersey Newsroom. Morris says Brees and the players association have taken that stance to decline responsibility for older players.

Huff points out in his letter that modern players seem to have lost their respect for other athletes: "When I was playing, the players had a great deal of respect for each other, even for the opponents you tried to beat. I had a great deal of respect for both Jim Taylor and Jim Brown, two of my main opponents. There were great athletes and helped make football the nation’s favorite sport. I think that respect is not as prevalent today among the active players."

Part of his message to Brees is that players in the '50s and '60s made what seems like very little money by today's standards. Huff, for instance, made $19,000 in his final year with the New York Giants and $30,000 when he went to the Washington Redskins in 1964. Huff, who had a successful business career following his football years, isn't asking for help, but he pointed out that some older football players need it:

"I know about the players of the 50’s and 60’s, and they gave everything imaginable to make the game what it is today. Some of those players need help from the NFLPA. They deserve it, and Drew Brees needs better credentials before he makes such derogatory statements about those players," Huff wrote.

Brees would do well to consider former players such as Pat Matson, who has required more than 30 operations for injuries suffered while a player. "He admits he is fortunate despite the surgeries as he played 10 years and had a business career after football. He probably should be getting more than $1.064 a month in pension but that is considerably more than many who played for roughly the same amount of time during the same time period that Matson was employed in the AFL and NFL," according to a report in The Sport Digest.

Insurance companies are unwilling to cover old football injuries. When someone like Matson needs a knee or hip replacement, their current employer's insurance is apt to sidestep responsibility, citing pre-existing conditions.

Brees may be rich enough that when the day comes that his knees and hips begin failing, he'll have enough money pay the hospital. But for him to disparage players who made a paltry $20,000 or $30,000 in their prime shows how little he appreciates the people who paved the way for his multimillion dollar salary. That old football player's hip replacement is going to cost an easy $50,000.

Maybe Brees will take it out of his pocket.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Who's corrupt? Athlete or the system?

By Tom Grant
PhD student, Center for ETHICS*

There seem to be opposing views on the recent revelations about payoffs, strip clubs and sexual favors in sport. One side says sport needs to remake itself. The other says all that matters about sport is what happens on the playing field.

The latter view was expressed by LaVar Arrington in the Washington Post.  Responding to coverage of the Barry Bonds trial, Arrington says that when people pass judgment on Bonds, they're just responding to their own insecurities and fears. People rejoice at seeing athletes such as Bonds brought down because it makes the superstar seem more human and points out that no one is immune to bad judgment.

Arrington says people should focus on what the athletes did on the playing field. "My memories are based off of what I saw them do on a playing field; I don't know them beyond that. For what it's worth, it suits me just fine to leave it that way," Arrington wrote.

Bob Hertzel, writing in the Washington Times-Herald, took a different tack. Looking at the scandals involving Ohio State, Auburn, Michigan, Connecticut and the Fiesta Bowl, Hertzel the structure of college sports is crumbling.

He suggests major changes in sport, including separating the major revenue sports from the rest of college sport. He says major college football and basketball clearly have different goals that sports such as soccer or gymnastics, and they need to be run differently and under separate leadership. He thinks the money made in those sport should be shared with the players, and that college presidents should be calling the shots, not coaches.

On Fox Sports, Jason Whitlock ripped the NCAA for the way it uses and abuses young college athletes. "The kids are disposable," he writes. "They’re totally controlled by the NCAA rule book and dictator coaches. They have little value to the media. We in the media can’t resist exploiting them. We’ve wasted two decades of energy pushing college presidents to add a playoff system to college football. Could we spend a year or two pushing college presidents to do the right thing for football and basketball players?"

Frankly, they all make good points, and their views may not be as far apart as it seems at first glance. They all call for refocusing attention on the most important thing in sport -- the athlete. Our obsession in sports with money, winning and statistical glory now overshadows the purpose of the game and the people that play it.

Mr. Arrington, I do want to remember Bonds for the way he played. But if he used steroids to gain an unfair advantage, then he failed to perform honorably on the field and therefore I must judge him by that. But he's was also a great athlete before all this talk of steroids.  He's just one more indications that our obsessions with money in sport have corrupted the people who play the game.

Until we start thinking like Mr. Whitlock, and asking ourselves what's the right thing for the players, sport will continue down the same road. And we'll have more casualties. Mr. Hertzel's idea of letting college presidents call the shots sounds like a good one for college sports. College presidents, while still subject to the lure of big money in sports, at least understand that education is the primary business of universities.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Opening of baseball marred by beating

By Tom Grant
PhD student, Center for ETHICS*

The opening day of baseball should be the herald of spring. It should be full of hope. But this year baseball not only opened under the shadow of the perjury trial of San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds, but it also opened with terrible beating of a fan in Los Angeles.

Barry Stow, 42, is now in a coma. His only crime was being a Giant's fan at Dodger Stadium.

According to news reports, two men in Dodger clothing began taunting three Giant's fans, then attacked them. They were punched, kicked and knocked to the ground. Stow, a paramedic and father of two young children, was kicked repeatedly in the head.

Perhaps we can't blame baseball for every assault that occurs in the parking lot. But this sounds like a warning that some sports fans have taken tribalism too far.

Baseball is supposed to be the All-American sport. And if we're all Americans, why are we beating each other up over regional rivalries. For the Giants and Dodgers there will be another game tomorrow. For Stow, we wish we could be so sure.

Some in Los Angeles are raising the questions: Is it safe to go to baseball games? And should alcohol sales be promoted so  boldly around sporting events? After all, some criticize the Dodgers for being so eager to sell beer that they built Dodger Stadium without drinking fountains.

Fans in the soccer world fear British soccer hooligans. Now it appears we have our own hooligans of sport. It's time to begin controlling it.