Sports have survived doubts about game-fixing (Chicago White Sox, 1919),
steroids (Ben Johnson, 1988) and fallen stars (O.J. Simpson, 1994). What makes
this moment so confounding is the confluence of events.
"For the life of me, I can't think of a time where there were three such burning issues going on at the same time in sports," says James Kahler, executive director of Ohio University's Center for Sports Administration.
Talking about the issues currently facing the NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball as though they are one is ridiculous. As I've argued ad nauseum, baseball's steroids issue ceased to be a crisis that threatened the ongoing integrity of the game (if indeed it ever did) once steroids testing came online in 2004. To the extent steroids in baseball remains a crisis, it is one which relates to the marginal players who are still trying to make the leap, not the game as played on the major league stage. The Barry Bonds "issue" is the stuff of extensive media bloviation, but it is of little consequence otherwise.
The Michael Vick story is undeniably sensational, but what makes it sensational is not what it means to the NFL or the product it's selling. Players get arrested for stuff all of the time and the NFL somehow manages to soldier on. No, this is getting the headlines it is getting because (a) the notoriety of the player involved; and (b) because it involves dogs, and everyone loves dogs. There have been countless incidents of lesser football players doing worse things to people rather than animals, and they have never caused commentators to question the integrity or viability of the league. While the press has been awful, this incident says a lot about Michael Vick as a person and almost nothing about the NFL as a league.
Basketball's problem, it seems, is a different matter in that the very validity of game outcomes was likely affected. If it was limited to Donaghy -- as I suspect we will find it was -- the problem, while still a major one, is manageable. If it involved other refs, Katie bar the door, but I'll leave that analysis up to more capable basketball minds.
Based on the three years he spent telling us that chickenshit was chicken salad during his time with the Bush Administration, I am loathe to praise Ari Fleischer, who is now serving as a spinmeister for Bud Selig. That said, he pretty much hits the nail on the head here:
"Sports is not grappling with a credibility problem," he says. "Baseball, basketball and football are beloved."
The media are misreading the mood of fans, he says. Fans may be revolted by the legal charges against an individual player such as Vick, but Fleischer thinks they are more likely to assign blame to an individual than an entire sport or league.
"The reputation of some individuals has taken a beating, and properly so," Fleischer
says. "If Micheal Vick did what he's accused of, he shouldn't be anybody's role model. But that doesn't mean people are going to stop loving Peyton Manning. Fans are sophisticated. They view these stories as somebody did something horrible — not there's something horribly wrong with sports."
Setting aside just how pathetic it is that Selig felt that he needed to hire high-powered professional PR help to navigate the Barry Bonds stuff, I think he's absolutely right. Fleischer's position with MLB probably prevented him from using Bonds as an example of a player who has "rightfully taken a beating," but he is probably the most applicable example. He and Vick and Donaghy are jerks and are allegedly criminals. At least as it relates to Major League Baseball and the NFL, the numbers clearly establish, however, that their misbehavior has not affected gate receipts or overall popularity of the sport. We'll see with basketball, but I suspect the same will be true there as well.
In the meantime, we are left with writers straining to see trends and relationships where they do not exist.