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Scandals Have Thrown Sports for a Loss

"In some ways, we've all wanted to rush to judgment very quickly to package [these three incidents] very neatly in a commentary on the state of sports today and to see it as a reflection of society as a whole, a connection we're always trying to make in sports," said Vince Doria, head of ESPN's news division. "But I'm not so sure we don't just have three separate stories, with three different issues, and that's all it represents."

Still, if there is one thing that ties it all together, it surely is money:

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The money that makes the athletes who have gobs and gobs of it believe they walk in a rarefied realm that has little to do with the masses. The money that network executives rake in thanks to one simple, irrefutable notion: sex sells.

The money that comes, in increasing quantities, out of the pockets of fans and into those of the athletes, widening the gap between the two entities and warping their expectations of each other.

The available money that confronts an athlete with a choice: stay clean and make a little, or risk one's health and reputation by juicing up in hopes of making a lot more. And the money that baseball itself raked in because of that very choice.

Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig, who is now facing the biggest crisis of his tenure since the 1994 strike that forced the cancellation of the World Series, spoke this week of the game's "enormous social responsibility" to keep its players steroid-free and its records sacred.

But in the mid- to late-1990s, when suspicions about steroid use first began to come to light, baseball's powers ignored the problem because, some would argue, those powers benefited financially from the game's increased popularity, which was traceable to the rise of a handful of charismatic sluggers -- such as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, who engaged in a memorable home run duel in 1998.

"There's no doubt that, coming back from the post-strike hangover of the mid-1990s, when the home run race took place and the nation was captivated," Costas said, "if there was any reason to question the legitimacy of what those sluggers were doing, baseball didn't want to hear those questions. Any person paying attention could see the changed body types in that period -- not just of [McGwire and Sosa], but of many players. But why confront those questions when it would hurt your business to do so?"

Baseball's numbers are sacred. So now, if you can't believe the numbers -- cold, empirical, egoless -- what's left to believe in? At least that's what the media ask.

But there is plenty of evidence that the majority of fans do not share the outrage of the sports columnists and talking heads when it comes to the steroid story. Even though everyone held strong suspicions that Bonds had some synthetic help on his way to setting all those records, the fans still turned out in droves and cheered him on. (And for that matter, sportswriters still voted him to his record seventh National League MVP award.) In an ESPN poll this week, 82.3 percent of respondents said the revelations about Bonds did not change their views of him, because "I always thought Bonds used steroids."

Fans seemed genuinely more disturbed by Sammy Sosa's corked-bat caper than the notion that his arms might also be corked -- perhaps because, as Costas argues, there was video evidence of it. And McGwire, who retired just before steroids became a full-blown crisis for the game, is looked upon as a big, cuddly ox of a man, despite admissions that he used androstenedione -- a then-legal "precursor" to steroids -- during his record-setting home run race with Sosa in 1998.

"We are still very much results-oriented," Vincent said. "We don't seem to care as a culture what someone does to succeed, no matter how unseemly. We seem to admire people like Donald Trump as a cultural hero, and I find that mystifying."

Perhaps, too, we overestimate the level of outrage regarding the NBA brawl between Pacers players and Pistons fans. Did everyone -- or Everyman -- feel as disgusted by what occurred as did the columnists and commentators who saw in it the fall of civilization?

Ben Mathis-Lilly, writing in the online magazine Slate.com, tells of watching a replay of the brawl play out on a television in a bar:

"Many of us had been primed for the highlights by enthusiastic cell-phone calls," he writes. "When it finally came on, most every patron in the establishment enjoyed, thoroughly and loudly, all of the hot-and-heavy action. That's right, we loved it. Sure, it was wrong for Artest to run into the stands, and wrong for [Stephen] Jackson to run in after him throwing haymakers, and wrong for the fans to douse the Indiana players with beer. But when a crazy basketball player charges into the stands and tries to pounce on some drunk jerks, I don't fly into a rage on behalf of the nation's children. Nope, I just kick back and enjoy the spectacle.

"In the bar where I was watching, I don't recall seeing anyone weeping inconsolably about the stain on the NBA, sport, and human civilization."

So the media were wrong. But are we also to blame? On one level, these scandals are simply grist for the never-ending news-cycle mill. The athletes are our creations. We build them up, then we tear them down.

"To tell the truth," said ESPN's Doria, "for people in the sports business who are covering the news, it's been a hell of a two weeks. . . . Is the media, whoever that is, guilty of [creating the monster that caused] this? I guess they are. But the alternative is to sit back and not do our craft. I see too much blame being ascribed to the media."

So what do we do now? It seems unlikely that we can go back to the way the games were played in the 1980s, let alone the 1950s. You can't dissemble the machine. You can't take the money back out of the games. You can't undo what has already been done.

"This genie doesn't get put back into the bottle," Costas said. "There are too many cross-currents and cultural forces at work, television chief among them. What can be done? I don't know if you can change anyone's attitudes, but within the bounds of the playing field, you can take a tougher stance towards legislating behavior -- as [NBA Commissioner] David Stern with his suspensions.

"If you really meant business, you can say to the TV networks who are your partners, 'You can promote anything you want, but we're not going to let you promote antisocial behavior.' And if you're baseball, you can say, 'We're not going to look the other way when people cheat.' "

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