Column: Character in Sports

Columnist John Williamson asks, does character matter in sports? With the athletic fame scene now rife with steroids along with rampant off the field illegal activity, is anyone being held accountable? John shares his perspective inside.

Fay Vincent on the radio, talking to the sportsblabs. I am drawn into the conversation by the intelligent, clear voice and the flowing logic of the former baseball commissioner. I am amazed that I didn’t realize before how impressive he is. He says that Pete Rose could have rewritten his hall of fame history when he was confronted about gambling by simply saying," I’ve done a terrible thing, I’m sorry and I’ll make amends however I can". Former President Clinton is off the hook because he did exactly that.

About steroids, he remembers that in his day the problem was cocaine, but even then the union was so strong that it took Steve Howe seven offenses to get kicked out of baseball. He thought at the time, as did others, that steroids were a football problem. Bulking up wouldn’t help baseball players so why do it, he reasoned. He blames all concerned for the present train wreck, particularly Don Fehr of the players union. I want them to ask him if he thinks that the drug induced home run derby of McGuire, Bonds, Sosa and others "saved" baseball. I want to know if he really thinks the NFL is rife with "juice". I want to know if the fact that such drugs are against the rules of every sport is enough, in his judgment, to penalize and ban players. And I want to know if other kinds of cheating and illegal activity should exclude people from participating in hero worship laden, groupie filled, professional sports. I want to know, I guess….


Mike Krzyzewski, Duke basketball coach, talking to Mitch Albom, columnist in the Detroit Free Press –

"When we recruit a kid, we look for certain things," Krzyzewski said, "I watch him when his mother asks a question. Is he respectful, does he listen, or does he roll his eyes or scratch his leg?

"Usually, the kids we want have already shown they have character. They don’t fight you. They’re believers. They believe in being part of something bigger than themselves."

That was last week, from one of the winningest coaches of all time, but it sounds old fashioned doesn’t it? In the current world, a college basketball career consists of one, maybe two seasons unless you’re really good, then you skip college completely. Free agency has pretty much ended the concept of something "bigger than themselves" in professional sports. The teams are often put together for a single season and the emphasis, at least to the athlete with an agent properly managing his career, is on the entertainment value of the individual, not the "Celtic Pride" or the "Pride of the Yankees" or other great sports traditions. Given that, is it any wonder that Terrell Owns spikes the ball on the Cowboys logo or that Randy Moss mock moons the crowd. You can be pretty sure these guys would not have played BBall for Duke, but does anyone else care?

I have often thought that following sports in general is to adults what reading comic boys is to kids – mindless, escapist entertainment. Television, particularly big screen television with remote controls, stop action, instant replays and the like has made perfect the argument that even to get up to go out and do your spectating in person may be a waste of time. (Except for fishing. Fishing is pretty much boring in and of itself. Watching someone else fish and enjoying it should cause some introspection. Watching someone else fish on television should bring forth the intervention team.) A person who follows sports on the internet probably has too much time on his hands. A person who participates in an ongoing discussion forum dedicated to a specific team playing a specific sport is mentally impaired and should be watched day and night. I confess to being one of these. What gives me pause daily is that the others who participate similarly seem so intelligent, often advancing well thought out arguments in support of esoteria so precise that great philosophical conundrums crumble at the comparison. I have to remind myself that, like talking to the well reasoned Ted Bundy I suppose, these people are insane, don’t fall under their spell, and I suppose they say the same to themselves about me. They should.

Now, having strayed from the point long enough, here’s what bothers me. My friends in cyber space don’t seem to pay attention to any of the characteristics of players other than their sheer athletic ability. When the Minnesota Vikings traded Randy Moss there was discussion about whether the Detroit Lions (my team, heaven help me) should have tried to obtain him. I wasn’t alone against the effort, but I was in the minority huge. Now we are talking about the NFL draft. Many people want to take Adrian McPherson, a player expelled a few years ago from Florida State University after he was caught stealing, forging and cashing a check, and was involved in gambling. He is eligible for the draft this year after biding his time playing arena football. I take the moral high ground, sanctimonious online snob that I am, and talk about how proud I am that the Lions have avoided players with this kind of background in the past. I explain how I feel that if we had more Williams Clay Fords simply refusing to employ such people and less Al Davis’ welcoming the morally challenged with open arms, maybe those higher expectations would put some constraints on the physically talented but unburdened by polite custom youngsters that mere authority in their life fails to do. Others point to the won/lost record. Am I right?

I happened to be sitting in the Men’s Grill at a Detroit area country club when Steve Yzerman was telling a group of his acquaintance that he was certain he would not be back with the Red Wings that fall. The trade, he said, was either already accomplished or at least imminent. He was still there on opening night of the NHL season and the trade rumors were still there too, in the papers each day. At the game, the Wings introduced every player on the team as they do for the home opener each year, saving Yzerman for last because he was the captain. The fans rose to an ovation that lasted a full five minutes. Ever timed five minutes? That’s a long ovation. Yzerman raised his hands after a minute to ask for quiet and was ignored. At about the two minute mark the other Red Wings dropped their gloves and applauded along with the fans. By the four minute turn the fans were yelling, the other team had dropped their gloves to clap and the referees were applauding. Yzerman had to just stand there and take it. The Red Wings owner, Mike Illitch, was in his box and he saw all this too. Yzerman was not traded and he went on to prove he shouldn’t have been. This is how sport can be – red hands, lump in your throat, proud and happy to be there – at its best.

Maurice Cheeks puts his arm around the terrified little girl who forgot the words to the Star Spangled Banner and sings along ending her (and everyone else’s) embarrassment. It is a defining moment for Mo and, in spite of the fact that he can’t sing at all, he becomes the finest singer in the history of the NBA. Cheeks has never played on or coached a team I cared at all about, but I care about Cheeks now and I hope he coaches here someday.

Neither the Yzerman nor the Cheeks incidents impacted a game or mattered in the stats or standings but they mattered a lot to a lot of people. When Charles Barkley threw a fan through a plate glass window; when Ray Lewis and/or his friends (allegedly) shot someone outside an Atlanta club; when Allen Iverson threw his naked wife out in the snow; when Jayson Williams shot his chauffer; none of these things impacted a game. These people all went on to continue to lead millionaire superstar lives. Should they have?

Peter Karamanos, owner of the Carolina Hurricanes and ONE SMART COOKIE let me tell you, told me that the fans often didn’t understand professional sports trades because they didn’t know the players personally. They didn’t know, for example, which guys were hated by their teammates or by management; which players fermented laziness or party time and which hard work and winning. He gave me an example of a player he once traded primarily because he just didn’t want to be on the same team as him anymore. So if the owners care enough to get rid of a particularly bad egg, they can, but it doesn’t influence the offender much, he’s just on a new team. And should the owners be judge and jury anyway?

John McCain and the congressional panels that are trying to blow the whistle on baseball told you just what you needed to know when they didn’t subpoena Barry Bonds. They are trying to preserve the purity of the sport, but they don’t care about the character of the individual players. One Congressman looked Bud Selig right in the eye and told him baseball needs new leadership. But no one forced an answer out of McGuire, or out of Giambi, or even talked to Bonds. As Fay Vincent said, they didn’t think this was a problem in baseball, because they didn’t think being overly muscular was an advantage. So, do you think the NFL may have a problem? Have they said anything about being proactive in their own investigation? Have you seen a picture of David Boston? If baseball players drug use is imperiling the nation’s youth, what about football, and basketball, and boxing and weightlifting and whatever? Is this a problem that is solved by Congress? By franchise owners? By league commissioners offices? Or do we have to just start putting some value, some emphasis, some material, tangible fan based yes it matters to me priority on the individual character of the people we hold up for admiration?

Here’s my plan fellow fans:

First, stop letting the sports marketing and media people treat us like idiots. When the publicists change their mind on what exactly Iverson did, and then the sports writers change theirs, DON’T CHANGE YOURS. The little creep did it no matter how many points he scores. Chris Webber did not get all that money from an outfit connected numbers runner because he was a big U of M fan. (And I’m sure there was no connection between the lost FBI files and the affirmative action suit that was a centerpiece of the Clinton Administration, and that the University fought to the death, right?) These guys are on the same team now, so they’re easy to spot. It is highly probability that Ray Lewis is a violent criminal, Kobe is a rapist, OJ is a murderer and all the indignation in the world won’t change these things. OK the system wheels turned and they’re all innocent, so I’m not saying they should be in jail. I’m just saying they shouldn’t be selling you cars and beer and soda. Shoeless Joe Jackson got a lifetime suspension because the baseball administration thought he purposely held down the score. Have we changed so much?

Next, let’s have some standards. I don’t see why you should be able to behave in front of 60,000 people in a way that would get you thrown out of a corner bar if you were a regular. I don’t mean you should behave like you’re a Bellamy from Upstairs, Downstairs, but a person who makes over a million dollars a year should be able to show some little bit of class. T.O., Moss, that little idiot Freddie Mitchell, should be subject to some kind of sanction or fine or penalty for behaving as they do, and it should take the form of a least a game suspension. If it did, it would affect the coach and the other players, and it would start to change things. And as fans we shouldn’t cry out "Look, the league administration has wronged our team" (read extra closely Pacers fans), they should wonder if perhaps Mr. BigDeal the superstar isn’t a little less valuable because of his poor behavior and the likelihood of future suspensions. They, we, should put the blame where it belongs.

And there should be some absolutes. There are ethical standards for lawyers, doctors, insurance underwriters, CPAs, and a lot of other professions. Even movie stars fall off their pedestals for certain behavior. Why shouldn’t athletes be prevented from entry into the celebrity life for such behavior? You don’t get second chances in many other professions that are not as glorious or as lucrative as sports. Sexual offenders, wife beaters, check forgers, violent thugs, drug dealers, car thieves, need not apply is what the sign should say. I know these kids have been pampered, idolized icons since junior high, but this is not a disadvantage, impairing their judgment. It is an enormous advantage, and with that comes responsibility. If you handle that responsibility so poorly that you fall into one of these categories before during or after the pro sports spot light swells up your image then you should fall back down into the same life as the rest of your high school buddies. Perhaps among those who lost their jobs because of drugs or violence or law breaking?

I don’t know if our disapproval will be sufficient to change the cast of characters whose names we wear on game day jerseys, or to influence behavior immediately. I don’t know if we could make character a stat, like rushing yards or ERA. I have been telling my fifteen year old son anecdotes about players for years, good and bad. I’ve told him about Iverson, Barkley, Moss, Webber, Lewis, Ray Carruth, and we’ve discussed the steroid issue at length. We’ve talked about drugs, college players beating up girlfriends and having babies with multiple women. But we’ve watched the tape of Maurice Cheeks too, and I told him about Derrick Coleman paying for the restoration of all the outdoor courts in Detroit. With his young moral compass still calibrated perfectly, he inevitably changes his decisions about who he cheers for when he gets such information, and that’s enough for me. We all get the same information. So why deny it, or pretend that it doesn’t matter, or just wait until you don’t remember it? Watch your kids, or your conscience. Think about the rules and the good guys and then ask yourself if all that matters is playing well. It’s not if you want to play for Duke and not, I’m relieved to know, if you want my son to cheer for you.

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