Corruption In Sports - It is Time To Realize Anything Is Possible

Stew Winkel@stew_winkelSenior Analyst IMay 20, 2008

There has been a lot of talk lately about cheating and corruption in sports—steroids, Tim Donaghy, O.J. Mayo, Spygate.

But just like so many facets of life, some people—including fans, the media and those in positions of authority—would rather focus on the minutia, the little guy. They then pound their chest, climb up on that high horse and act as if they are really addressing the problem. 

The little guy or the individual seems to always be the one investigated and punished.  I am not saying this is necessarily wrong or unjust, but as fans if we are really concerned with integrity in sports, we need to start thinking about the big picture far more often. 

One of the reasons cheating and corruption in sports gets out of control at times is that those in a position to actually do something about it choose to ignore everything—or worse, act as if it just is not possible that something could be wrong. 

I watch and listen to those in the media, and part of the problem is that those covering the sport are usually also huge fans.

These people, one, don’t want to believe that something systematically might be wrong with the sport they love.  And, two, they have worked so hard to get in the position they are in that they would rather talk about what happens on the field or court then take an honest look at the sport. 

Neither of those are terrible, but as it is in all areas of life, improvement usually begins with an honest examination.

But sometimes, the reasons problems are ignored are not altruistic.  It is a matter of purely being naïve or a conflict of interest.  How closely will a certain network look at problems with a sport when that network also makes its money broadcasting the games?  The network has no problem outing an athlete for lying about his age, but then stops far short of actually examining the reasons that force someone to take such action.

For the most part, I will admit to being a conspiracy theorist. I love a good theory, and often will believe fully in it until proven wrong. As we have seen in the coverage of a videotaping scandal you may have read about, there are many in the media who—even when facing contrary evidence—refuse to give up on their conspiracy theory. 

But as much as I tend to believe a conspiracy, I am equally amazed at how quickly some, if not many, people are to dismiss what is going on. 

I’d say to such people, if I may quote George Costanza, “Don’t dismiss, you’re very quick to dismiss, don’t dismiss.” 

Today, on a prominent morning sports talk radio show, the two hosts discussed the latest news on the Tim Donaghy scandal.  Both thought it was absolutely out of the question that the NBA would ever try to bury reports of official misconduct, do anything with the officials to potentially influence games, or that the NBA would ever do anything to try to influence a potential government investigation.  Their rational - the NBA would have too much to lose if they ever got caught taking any of those actions.

I have to wonder if they, and I think there are many who think like them, have been paying attention.

I am not arguing here that the NBA has even done anything wrong—but what I am going to vehemently argue is that to think it is out of the question is simply being naïve.

What does the NBA have to gain by possibly influencing the results of games? The answer is simple, money. 

What does the NBA have to gain by possibly burying a story or influencing a government investigation? The answer is reputation, which simply translates to money.

We have watched a president break the law and then try to cover it up, leading to his resignation. We have watched another president have an affair with an intern and then lie to cover it up, leading to his impeachment.  Didn’t both of those men have a great deal to lose?

Take a minute to look at Corporate America.  I do not want to get into actual cases, but Corporate America is filled with numerous examples of million-dollar companies with executives who make millions of dollars. Then just to make a few more dollars for the corporation or the executives themselves, these corporations break the law, push the limits.  They risk everything—their company, their livelihoods, their freedom—just to make more money.

All the time we are reminded that sports are no longer only sports, but also a business. So why should this business be any different than all other businesses?

Would anyone be surprised to find out a business manipulated results to impact the bottom line? Absolutely not. 

Would anyone be surprised to find out a business tried to use its influence to deter a government investigation? Absolutely not. 

So should anyone think it is beyond question that a professional sports league, which is a business, might do any of these things?

A famous quote is that power corrupts—and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We have observed this proven true throughout history. 

Who wields more absolute power than the commissioner of the NBA who has been in the position for nearly 25 years? And maybe the NBA commissioner has more power than the commissioners of the other major sports, but the statement applies equally to them as well.

Again, I am not discussing here whether we think the NBA, or any league, has ever done anything wrong.  What I am saying is that for anyone to act like it is not conceivable is not living in reality. 

Anyone can believe that maybe one player is taking performance-enhancing drugs, or one college athlete is accepting money from an agent, or one team is using electronics for an advantage, or one official has improper motives.

But then try to take the conversation to the next level, and address these problems from a big picture perspective, and that is out of the question.

One of the interesting facets of the Spygate coverage is that although the Patriots were the only team caught, there have been several indications throughout that the Patriots were far from the only team using video to try to gain an advantage.  Jimmy Johnson admitted to such practices in an interview with WFAN back in September, and even Matt Walsh said that on one occasion he saw the other team filming the Patriots’ signals when he was filming.

Despite this, the focus throughout these nine months has remained on the Patriots. This is partly due to the team’s overall success and the general negative feelings of people outside New England towards Bill Belichick.

I believe another reason though is that people can understand one player or one team breaking the rules.  However, that a problem may be occurring on a league-wide basis or being caused from the top can be too abstract a concept.  

If people believe what the Patriots did was so wrong, shouldn’t these same people be eager to find out how widespread the problem is? I would think the answer would be yes, but it is clear the answer is no. 

In comparison, someone might read a story about a corrupt police officer or a corrupt politician.  That makes sense, it is understandable.  There can always be one bad apple. But try to address a story of corruption at the highest levels, and it just sounds too farfetched. 

The recent story with O.J. Mayo is another great example. I don’t know what happened, and maybe it is nothing, or maybe the stories are dead on.  But so much of the focus has been solely on O.J. Mayo. 

Personally I couldn’t care less if O.J. Mayo or any other college athlete takes money. I always find it rather hypocritical that those in the media get high and mighty with college athletes taking gifts when there is no group of people who likes free anything more than those in the media. 

I’m not above it either. Just last week, I went to some three-hour seminar about who-knows-what because I got an e-mail saying lunch would be provided. It was a waste of my time and I had to stay late at work to make up for it, but I didn’t care. I got a turkey sandwich, cookie and a Coke out of it. 

There is a serious issue with collegiate athletes receiving money and gifts. This isn’t breaking news. The athlete though should not be the focus of the attention.  It is long past time that the problem actually be addressed by examining the cause - the agents, the boosters, and their representatives. 

The story about Mayo came out, and some in the media acted as if this is some new problem and that we need to start thinking about addressing the influence of agents in college sports.

Are they out of their mind?  I remember reading “The Last Shot” by Darcy Frey about high school basketball in Coney Island, in particular a freshman named Stephon Marbury. It came out in 1994 - 14 years ago this book, and I am sure there are others before it, spoke to the problem of agents, shoe companies and people acting on their behalf getting ahold of kids in high school.

Nothing got done then and nothing will get done now to improve the situation. The media will villainize someone like O.J. Mayo or Reggie Bush. Give some lip-service to the idea of fixing the problem. Then a little time goes by, and it is back to business as usual. No problems, no worries and nothing has changed.

The next time the story pops up, it is the same cycle over again. The athlete receives the brunt of the criticism, a few words will be said about the real problem being the agents or boosters and not the athlete.

And in the end, nothing has been done. 

It is 2008. At all levels and in all sports, we have seen cheating and corruption of every kind.

It will continue to occur in all sports at all levels.  The only chance for change will be if those in charge, and who cover and care about these sports decide to admit there could be problems and act proactively against the causes—instead of always simply reacting to the results.


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