Sports Reporter Discusses Recent Sports Scandals
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a sudden outburst of scandal in the world of sports. In football, Michael Vick, star quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons, kept away from training camp after being indicted on dogfighting charges. In cycling’s Tour de France, news today of a cyclist who tested positive for a banned blood transfusion. In basketball, a gambling scandal involving a former referee. And the ongoing steroid allegations in Major League Baseball, including those concerning Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants, on his way to setting a new homerun record.
What’s going on? Well, that’s the question we now ask sportswriter, author, NewsHour contributor John Feinstein. His latest book is “Tales From Q School: Inside Golf’s Fifth Major.”
John, welcome. On the question of what’s going on, you wrote recently that these various malfeasances touch on the very core of what sports is all about in believing the results are real. Is it that serious?
JOHN FEINSTEIN, Sportswriter: Well, certainly the NBA situation, with the referee who may have been shaving points, may have been calling plays to influence the outcome of games, may have been giving out information to gamblers, inside information on games, cuts right to the core of competition, because the reason we are so fascinated by sports, Jim, is because we don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know what the outcome is going to be. It’s uncertain.
If there is a certainty placed into it because of cheating, because of a referee influencing the outcome of the game, or in the Barry Bonds situation, there is a certainty put into it because of cheating involving building up your body through illegal steroids, as in the Tour de France, which is a dog-bites-man situation — it’s a bigger story these days when someone doesn’t test positive in the Tour de France — but in those situations where there’s cheating, again, the competition is compromised.
JIM LEHRER: And the steroids issue in organized baseball goes beyond Barry Bonds, and it is unsettling to many baseball fans, is it not?
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Absolutely. I think that most people now believe that there was an epidemic of steroid use in the late '90s in Major League Baseball, that after the strike of 1994-95, the powers that be in the game, from Commissioner Bud Selig through the players' union, through the fans, through the media, and the players turned their back because they wanted Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to break Roger Maris' homerun record in 1998. That was good for the game. It brought fans back.
And it's now evident that many, many players were using steroids. There was no testing, Jim, in baseball for steroids until 2003, which made it very easy for these players to cheat. Barry Bonds, most of us believe, was one of those players who'd used steroids. His statistics changed radically. His body changed radically. And now, as a result of that cheating, he is on the verge of breaking the most coveted record in all of sports: Henry Aaron's record for the most homeruns in baseball history.
JIM LEHRER: Now, another issue here has been raised by the Michael Vick situation. Keep in mind Michael Vick is yet to be convicted of anything, but he has been indicted, of this dogfighting thing, but there have been all kinds of incidents recently involving professional athletes, on gun charges, on assault charges, on other kinds of drug possession charges. Is there more of that than usual, or are we just noticing it more?
JOHN FEINSTEIN: I think the Michael Vick thing has brought a lot of it into focus because it involved cruelty to animals, and that's something that affects so many people and offends so many people. But it's been going on for years, Jim.
I call it "athletes living in the land of never wrong." They're constantly told by their agents, by people around them, by their hangers-on, that they are above the rules. I've often joked, but it's not really a joke, that you always see athletes parking in handicapped parking places, because they don't believe that sign is there for them. It's there for normal human beings. And the Michael Vick thing simply takes this to another level.
JIM LEHRER: Well, what about the people who are running these sports, the commissioners, the owners, the people in the front office? Have they just permitting this to happen? Are they the ones that are letting these athletes believe that they are invincible and are all-powerful?
JOHN FEINSTEIN: I think it's a combination of commissioners, of owners, of front office people, of coaches, of media who build these athletes up to be bigger than they are. We've got these 24-hour all-sports networks. There's constant following of sports by millions and millions of people who are devoted to their heroes.
Athletes are made into heroes. We don't want to believe that our heroes are fallible, even though obviously they are. So I think it's a combination of many things.
Who would have thought, Jim, if you look at football and Michael Vick, basketball with Tim Donaghy, the referee, baseball with Barry Bonds, that the one commissioner in sports right now who's having a good time would be Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the National Hockey League, because no one is paying any attention to hockey since there's nothing wrong going on there right now.
JIM LEHRER: Is something really, really seriously going wrong right now, John, or is this just a combination of things that happened to happen at one time? Is this a serious problem within organized and professional sports, taken as a whole, all the things we've been talking about?
JOHN FEINSTEIN: I think, Jim, that there is something of a coincidence to all these incidents happening at one time, but I do think it's part of a pattern that, again, started years ago when these athletes began making so much money.
I mean, think about Michael Vick. His contract is worth $130 million. That means he's got more money than he can possibly know what to do with. All of these athletes are making extraordinary amounts of money. David Stern, the commissioner of the NBA today, said, why would Tim Donaghy, this referee, be in financial trouble when he makes $260,000 a year? That sounds like pretty good money, but it's less than the lowest-paid player in the NBA makes. That makes you think you're invulnerable, Jim, when you have that kind of money.
A sports-obsessed culture
JIM LEHRER: So all of these things, in a word, are related, at least in terms of motive?
JOHN FEINSTEIN: I think they are. And I think they happen because of the fact that these guys are told from a very young age, once their talent is recognized, that they are special. And they're told that by high school coaches; they're told that by college coaches.
The steroid thing is completely out of control. There was a survey done of high school football players -- teenagers, Jim -- a couple years ago, in which they were asked, "If you knew you could have a 10-year NFL career if you use steroids, but you would lose 10 years of your life on the back end, would you take the steroids?" Seventy percent of them said yes.
JIM LEHRER: Oh my, John. Hey, thank you very much.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Thank you, Jim.