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Scandals Have Thrown Sports for a Loss

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 5, 2004; Page E01

Sex. Violence. And now, right in step, drugs -- the third soldier of this apocalypse, the third leg on this perfect and perfectly unholy triangle of sports scandals. If sports truly offers a window into our nation's soul, do we really want to look inside it right now?

This past week's revelations that New York Yankees slugger Jason Giambi and San Francisco Giants superstar Barry Bonds admitted using steroids thrust baseball into the unseemly corners of the newspaper's front page and the segments of the nightly news that were occupied in recent weeks by professional football and basketball.

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The images of Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens ogling actress Nicollette Sheridan as she dropped her towel during a taped lead-in to "Monday Night Football," and of Indiana Pacers star Ron Artest and teammates going into the stands to attack beer-throwing fans, have been replaced by shots of Giambi and Bonds, muscles rippling, launching baseballs into the stratosphere.

What has happened to sports? Can our games be reclaimed from the clutches of the vile, the obnoxious, the boorish, the needlessly provocative, and return them to the imaginations of children and the entrust of the decent? Or is it too late?

"I wouldn't reach that sweeping a conclusion," noted television sportscaster Bob Costas said in a telephone interview. "But one general conclusion I can reach is that a lot of the fondness people used to feel for sports is either greatly diminished or gone. Is it still exciting? Yes. Are there still moments that seem transcendent? Yes. But the whole tone has changed to the point where any sense of romance is pretty much gone.

"But it didn't just happen this week. It has been happening, gradually, for a long time now."

Perhaps it did not start this week with baseball twin steroid bombshells -- Giambi, then Bonds, on back-to-back days -- or last month with the towel-dropping and the "basketbrawl" incident outside Detroit, or even earlier this year, when Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Milton Bradley threw a bottle at the feet of a heckler in his home stadium, or when Texas Rangers reliever Frank Francisco hit a fan in the head with a chair after going into the stands in Oakland to confront a heckler.

But it certainly seems to have reached some sort of sordid apex these last few weeks.

Victor Conte, the "nutritionist" at the center of the BALCO investigation, could have been speaking for sports as a whole, and not just the Olympics, when he said on Friday night's ABC telecast of "20/20" that its "whole history . . . is just full of corruption, cover-up, performance-enhancing drug use. It's not what the world thinks it is."

The wasting away of society's accepted codes of behavior is not limited to sports, of course. It is visible in politics, in pop culture, on our highways and in our classrooms. But perhaps nowhere has the transformation -- from a culture of decency to one of confrontation and greed -- been as acute as in sports.

"There is no such thing as immorality," said former commissioner of baseball Fay Vincent. "We don't condemn any behavior, unless it's illegal. And even then we develop excuses for the people -- 'Oh, maybe he had a bad childhood, and that's the reason he's like this.' "

Recently, Thomas Tutko, professor emeritus of psychology at San Jose State who specializes in sports issues, spoke to a group of students at another university in California.

"I asked them, 'What is the purpose of sports?' " Tutko said. "The answer I heard back was, 'Money and fame.' No one mentioned 'character-building.' That's sad. We used to have a belief that sports was about character-building. And now we're acting as if that doesn't even count."

A towel drops from a suddenly naked woman's torso. Basketball players brawl with fans. Two star baseball players admit steroid use. What does it all mean when viewed all at once, or does it mean anything?

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