Scapegoats Save Professional Sports

At first glance, finding a common thread running between Major League Baseball’s tying Roger Clemens to the stake as part of its witch hunt against steroids and other performance enhancing drugs, and the National Football League’s public dressing down and fining of Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots may seem like a stretch. Yet in both cases the powers that be in an insular, money-making monopoly have settled on an unpopular scapegoat in desperate, tawdry attempts to shut down more comprehensive investigations into widespread cheating which could ultimately drop the cash cows of these two top sports to the killing floors of American sports as quickly as a shot of anthrax.

Let’s take Videogate first. Although there is a long tradition in American sports, professional and amatuer, to eke out every conceivable advantage by bending, avoiding, reinterpreting, evading, and finding holes in the regulations, there is also general agreement that some set of enforceable rules is necessary, as we say in the sports game, “to level the playing field” and prevent the competition from descending into abject anarchism.

The fact that teams were videotaping opponent’s sideline signals came as a surprise to no one – it has been a common practice for decades. Plus, in today’s always on, video-virte lifestyle virtually every aspect of the lives of the rich and famous is fair game for electronic enshrinement. Between cameras in pockets, cameras in phones, security cameras in lobbies, on corners, behind one-way glass, in parks and public plazas and sports stadiums, cameras suspended in the air and cameras on satellites, there is film available of  ANYTHING, if you know where to look and can get access.

So when teams said they were burning the midnight oil reviewing film in preparation for the next game, it is safe to assume they weren’t just looking at recordings of the network broadcasts of the opponent’s past performances.

Prior to the 2006 season, NFL Commissioner Goodell decided he wanted to establish order in the videotaping wilderness, and so he issued a set of rules.  Unfortunately, no one paid them any attention, and so the Commish felt he needed to make an example. The alternative would have been launching a large-scale investigation, hiring hundreds of investigators, hauling in the owners, general managers and video departments of all 30 NFL Franchises, thousands of hours of sworn testimony and an unrelenting poisionous public spotlight for the months and years it would all take to unravel.

Better to find a scapegoat and make an example. So, who to select to take one for the good of the game? Who would the national viewing public most like to see pilloried for conduct unbecoming? Who would provide the most satisfying cathartic closure when forced to take their medicine without the possibility of protest? Who could better afford the financial and competitive hit which needed to be extracted to give the rabid fans their taste of blood?

Why, the New England Patriots and Machiavellian Bill, of course.  Bellichick could have been an Emperor of the Ming Dynasty or a Borgia Pope in a past life, and given his ability to scheme and leave no stone unturned we are certain his video library, which was turned over to the Commissioner and supposedly destroyed, contained sideline signals, on-field signals, walk-throughs, open practices, closed practices, meetings, workouts, lip-reading and possibly private social functions.

The message to the other teams was clear. Destroy your own video caches NOW, so that I don’t have to go through this 29 more times over the next two years and drag the whole league through the mud again and again.

Unfortunately for the rest of the league, the unexpected corollary was to give the Patriots the motivation and focus to blast through their schedule like a laser through a smoky room.

Meanwhile, over at the other National Pastime, the choice was even more stark, and the situation more desperate.  Here the Commissioner is trying to keep the top on a scandal involving deadly, illegal drugs, affecting a third to a half of all players, and going back 20 years.

The situation is complicated because many of the drugs involved were not at first illegal, or were originally legitimately prescribed, creating a miasma of questions concerning what was taken, by whom, at what time and for what reasons. The only way to definitively establish who was guilty of what would be to embark on in-depth investigations of each of the 2149 current active players, as well as rosters going back say, 20 years ago.

Even given the well-documented affinity of members of Congress to jock-sniffing and photo ops, as well as wasting time and taxpayer money, we can’t see them sitting through that many hearings, especially after they stop televising every one. Perhaps they could start a separate cable channel for 24/7 replays of the Performance Enhancement Hearings.  However they handled it, it would be a disaster for baseball, fixing in the public mind for decades the sordid truth that professional baseball players are, by and large, cowardly, drug-addicted ego-freaks willing to cheat and lie in order to remain in their privileged bubbles and avoid working for a living.

Therefore, enter the scapegoats. We can see Commissioner Selig shuffling his Topps baseball cards, looking for a couple of likely losers – or rather, winners who needed to be taken down a notch. How about a pair of big mouthed, big headed egomaniacs, with reputations as pricks and few real friends in the game, who act as though they were untouchable and somehow better than mere mortals? And to avoid any possible charges of racism, lets pick one one black card and one white card.

Congratulation, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.  You have just been selected to take a bullet for the good of baseball. Your careers should have ended years ago anyway, so Selig is really just culling the herd by putting these bulls out to pasture. Since they are both financially set for multiple lifetimes, the only real hit is their almost certain exclusion from the Hall in Cooperstown. As a sports fan in general, we hope we are agreeing with a multitude when we say it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving twosome.

Will it be enough to satisfy the blood-lust of a vengeful public enraged to learn that the fix has been in in professional baseball for twenty years? Will they be satisfied with public humiliation for two icons, and let the hundreds or thousands of equally guilty miscreants slide, their transgressions swept under the rug so the nation can move on to another season of competition and entertainment?

Considering the alternative could very well be the discredit and ruination of two pillars of the American Brand, NFL and MLB, we suspect the viewing public will scarf down the scraps of red meat thrown their way, settle back comfortably in their Barca-loungers, and dream of ever-bigger hi-def screens.

About dowbrigade

Semi-retired academic from Harvard, Boston University, Fulbright Commission, Universidad Laica Eloy Alfaro de Manta, currently columnist for El Diario de Portoviejo and La Marea de Manta.
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5 Responses to Scapegoats Save Professional Sports

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