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Is it just me or has this been the best week in the history of American professional sports? Somehow, in the course of the last few days, the usual sports discussion has evolved to include steroids, the mafia, and the electrocution of pit bulls. None of these things are good things. In fact, they’re all bad things. But the flipside to that is that bad things are interesting. To me, the PR catastrophes that’ve hit every major professional league make this the most interesting sports week ever—or at least more interesting than discussing George Bush’s colon polyps.
Since we’re lucky enough to live in a world where countries settle all their differences through sports, I think it’s important to ask ourselves which of America’s professional sports leagues stands to lose the most from its latest developments. From baseball’s Barry Bonds problem to football’s Michael Vick problem to basketball’s some-ref-named-Tim Donaghy problem, the MLB, NFL, and NBA have all taken major hits this week. The question is, which league took the biggest? And will it be enough, in this age of overglamorized athletes, to cause one of the leagues to fall?
Let’s take a look.
Baseball: The same week toxicology reports revealed wrestler Chris Benoit was high on testosterone when he killed his wife and son and hung himself from the Bowflex in his basement, the national pastime’s most detested villain, Barry Bonds, hit two homers in a game against the Cubs, bringing his lifetime total to an astonishing 753—just two shy of the all-time record set by Hank Aaron. As Bonds prepares to surpass Aaron’s record once and for all, reports indicate baseball commissioner Bud Selig will not be present for the historic event.
Why is this important? Because Bonds has never been punished for violating Major League Baseball’s performance enhancing drug policy. True, his head has grown roughly 900 sizes since he joined the San Francisco Giants. But if he’s never been punished for using steroids, that means the league doesn’t recognize that he ever took them. If Bonds is technically innocent, and Bud Selig skips Bonds’s record-breaking 756th home run anyway, Selig is basically saying the record doesn’t matter, in and of itself.
If this record doesn’t matter, then nothing about baseball matters. Not even the sport’s most socially significant moments—such as Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier.
Way to promote your league.
Football: Unlike baseball, which is screwing up the Barry Bonds issue in spite of having years to prepare for it, the NFL is dealing with a story that sort of came out of nowhere, was largely ignored for two months, and then exploded on the scene. That story is the indictment last week of Atlanta Falcons QB Michael Vick on federal dog fighting charges. If the allegations against Vick are true, he’s not only been using his property to stage an illegal gambling ring, but he’s been raising pit bulls to maul each other to death for the sport of it. Dogs lucky enough to survive losing matches have been beaten, choked, drowned, and electrocuted.
It’s safe to say that a growing number of football fans would like to see each of these things done to Michael Vick himself. This is a problem for football, as Vick has been one of its poster children. To the league’s credit, however, commissioner Roger Goodell has told Vick not to attend Falcons training camp. Goodell is handling this situation much better than his baseball counterpart, Selig, is handling Bonds.
Even so, the NFL can survive this crisis much more easily than baseball can survive Barry Bonds. After all, we’re the same country that didn’t really mind Abu Ghraib.
Basketball: Finally, there’s the NBA, where it was revealed last week that referee Tim Donaghy was in bed with the mob, calling fouls to meet point spreads as well as betting on games. This story is big, because it strikes at the very credibility of basketball. If we can’t trust the refs, do the games even count?
But the thing is, no one trusted basketball refs anyway. Next to government employees, they’re perhaps the most criminally incompetent workforce around. Furthermore, if the NBA stands to lose from this crisis, it’s only because they’ve been putting out a terrible product that no one wants to watch anymore anyway. If anything, they should be thankful for Donaghy’s mafia involvement. Gambling is the only thing keeping basketball around.
Verdict: So what’s the verdict? Will the NFL fade away due to Michael Vick’s dog fights? Will the MLB prove so inept as to render itself meaningless by way of Barry Bonds? The answer to these questions is no. And even the NBA won’t prove to be this week’s losingest professional sports league. Truth be told, that honor belongs to the one sports league that had a good PR week: Major League Soccer.
This week, MLS introduced international superstar David Beckham to its Los Angeles Galaxy franchise. Like Pele and a dozen guys whose names I can’t remember before him, Beckham is the one-man show that’s supposed to revolutionize what Americans think about the world’s favorite game. This will never happen. When it comes to soccer, all PR is bad PR, because Americans just don’t care about it. Even hockey had a better week than soccer, by simply keeping quiet and pretending it wasn’t there.
As long as we have soccer in this country, football players could kill each other on the field; baseball players could jump in the stands, shooting needles in the butts of those in attendance; and basketball could just keep being basketball. None of these things are good things, but all of these things are better than soccer games ending in nothing-nothing ties.