Poor Sports

Protesters greeted Michael Vick in Richmond on Thursday as he pleaded not guilty to conspiracy charges.
Protesters greeted Michael Vick in Richmond on Thursday as he pleaded not guilty to conspiracy charges. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 29, 2007

At the end of a week that made no sense, the question was, Why, with millions of dollars at stake, with reputations earned over years of touchdowns, mountain climbs and traveling calls, would so many sports figures throw so much away at once?

It didn't seem to make much sense as Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick walked into a federal courthouse in Richmond to plead not guilty to conspiracy charges stemming from an alleged dogfighting operation. Nor was it clear why National Basketball Association referee Tim Donaghy, the son of an official, would risk a 13-year career by fixing games and providing inside information to others, as the FBI is investigating. Nor was it understandable why so many cyclists in the Tour de France, in a year when everyone was looking for doping evidence, nonetheless would fail tests for performance-enhancing drugs.

Today, 60,000 people will gather at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., to celebrate the inductions of two of the sport's most beloved stars of this generation -- Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn. But many other eyes will be on Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants as he closes in on Major League Baseball's career home run record despite an ongoing federal investigation into whether he lied about steroid use.

Is Bonds a hero, or a cheat? Why is it so hard to know what to think of professional athletes today?

Alan Goldberg, psychological consultant to many college and Olympic teams, blames an adoring public and the media, which he said help to create images of players as gods. Too often television, newspapers and magazines mythologize athletes, he said, giving an illusion that they have some kind of superior integrity when in reality they aren't much different than anyone else.

Then when a player gets arrested or is caught using steroids, the news unleashes screams of outrage from sports commentators and the public alike. "We created this thing," Goldberg said. "We created this idea that athletes are above the law."

Vick was the face of the Falcons and one of football's most dynamic players, at least until NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell ordered him not to report to training camp until the league completes an investigation into the conspiracy charges. According to the federal indictment against Vick, he partook in illegal dogfights for much of his professional career, even as Nike and other national companies poured millions into advertising campaigns centered around his likeness.

On Friday, Nike suspended Vick's endorsement deals without pay and halted sales of Vick-related shoes and other products at its retail stores. Reebok stopped sales of his No. 7 jersey.

If the allegations against Vick turn out to be true, it seems such a reckless thing to do, especially when many of the other athletes in trouble were breaking the law for the purpose of improving their own performance.

"Why did Vick do it? It's a great question," Goldberg said. "You can look at Michael Vick and say, 'Is he stupid?' Maybe he has bad judgment. Maybe he was insulated from it."

Many of those who study athletes for a living are convinced ballplayers feel a sense of entitlement. Their fame has afforded them privileges. They could skip study halls in high school, slip through classes in college and, if they proved to be really good as professionals, might find a different set of rules applied to them. Maybe they could miss the offseason workouts their teammates had to attend. Maybe they didn't have to travel on the team bus or stay in the same hotel as everyone else.

Such privilege gives athletes the sense they are indestructible, even to the point of being above the law.

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