Too Many Bad Apples?

The question facing professional sports right now – at least the major ones – is how many bad apples are there, and have they already spoiled the bunch?

The revelations of steroid use by Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi during supposedly sealed grand jury testimonies reflect a wider and more systemic plague sweeping through professional sports.

Jayson Williams shooting his limousine driver, Kobe Bryant's sexual assault trial, fans and players brawling in the palace of Auburn Hills, Ricky Williams' disappearance from the NFL, our own Sammy Sosa's corked bat, and the NHL lockout are far from isolated incidents.

The relationship between fans and players in the generation preceding this one is a far cry from the one that exists today.

In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, kids looked up to athletes as heroes and role models worthy of adulation. Today, kids view athletes as self-proclaimed gods who reside above the law, the rules, and reproach.

Adults back in the day might pat an athlete on the back and say "nice game." Now, it's "You are ruining my fantasy team." Because fans no longer adore the athletes, and instead tolerate them, the line between reality and incredulity becomes even fuzzier.

If fans want to point a finger at a culprit, they may not like the end result. Kobe Bryant argues that he never assaulted the young woman and merely committed adultery.

Oh, is that all? Even sadder is that the general public, expecting so little from these athletes, actually shrug off the adultery as a forgivable misdemeanor. Young women, those you would think would be most inclined to sympathize with the victim, hoist signs outside the courthouse and during Laker games expressing their support and love for Bryant.

Ron Artest vaults into the stands and claims "self defense." Barry Bonds says he didn't know that he was receiving steroids. I guess he must have thought his biceps doubled in size because of his rigorous workout of flying on planes and standing in left field for hours and hours.

Meanwhile, Sosa says he thought he was grabbing a batting practice bat.

Oh, so you cork the bats you use for batting practice? Makes sense to me.

Is the problem that these athletes continue to engage in this behavior, or that fans indulge it? Instead of holding players accountable for these absurdities, we swallow them and move on. What incentive is there for players to screw their heads on straight if fans still pack the stands and buy their jerseys, agents still pad their egos, the law continues to look the other way, and owners still deposit their paychecks?

The answer of course is that there is no incentive, so the behavior will persist unabated.

When Pistons fans descended from their seats and onto the court to go mano-a-mano with Pacer players last month, the physical line of no return was not all that was crossed. The fans broke a symbolic barrier that had, until that point, maintained a degree of order between players and fans. Now that line has crumbled, and we must wonder which wall will come down next.

I've spent a great deal of this column pointing out the problems plaguing major league baseball and other major professional sports without offering a solution (I am a Democrat after all).

The solution of course is to hold athletes accountable for their behavior. Sound impossible? Not necessarily.

Cub fans demonstrated a remarkable ability to do just that last season when it came to finger-pointing the broadcast team, Sosa's early game departure, and Alou's overall sour attitude. The fact is that fans do not boo because they want to celebrate a player's failure, but because they want so badly for that player to succeed.

Sosa could never grasp that concept, so he decided to give fans a real reason to boo him. Cub fans showed similar resolve by refusing to ignore Alou's damaging behavior despite his gaudy offensive numbers.

These are baby steps towards restoring more accountability between players and fans. Let's face it. Deep down we know that steroid use extends far beyond the BALCO scandal, yet we choose to wear blinders so that we can root and cheer with a clear conscience.

We carelessly forget about the DUI's, the sexual assaults and the adultery. If we want our athletes to do more than dribble, pitch and pass, holding athletes accountable for personal conduct is one game where we cannot remain a spectator.

Brian Lustig has been with the staff of ITI for nearly two years. Agree or disagree with Brian? E-mail him by clicking here.


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