Athletes in the Action: The Tradition Continues

Commentary published the week of June 14-20, 2000

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This athletes-on-the-crime-blotter thing is getting out of hand, isn't it?

Consider just a few recent outrages:

A Rams linebacker gets blindly drunk and kills someone while driving. A Super Bowl safety is arrested at training camp on charges of selling cocaine. An ex-New York Giant gets three years' probation on cocaine charges, and five Dallas Cowboys are implicated in a major federal coke investigation A former Heisman Trophy winner is nailed in a counterfeiting scheme.

It's not just football players, mind you. A Kansas City Royals outfielder is accused of punching a woman in the face in a Milwaukee hotel room. A Chicago Cubs pitcher is convicted of assaulting a policeman. One boxer gets a 35-year sentence for aggravated sexual assault; another gets three-to-10 for busting a guy's jaw in a bar fight.

We've had enough, haven't we? The only good news is that this stuff is finally out in the open, so that maybe massive public indignation will force the sports millionaires to police themselves, right?

Maybe not.

You see, I should mention one little detail here: Every one of these "recent outrages" was cited in a 1983 Sports Illustrated story titled "What's Happened to Our Heroes?"

Yes, 1983.

The Rams linebacker wasn't Leonard Little. He was 8 years old at the time that Los Angeles Rams linebacker Mike Reilly got a one-year sentence (and a yearlong suspension) "for killing a teenager while driving a car under the ox-staggering influence of .23% alcohol in his system," Sports Illustrated reported. (There's some irony for you).

Carolina Panther wide receiver Rae Carruth, facing murder charges today, was 9 when star athletes were criminally running amok in 1983. Mark Chmura, the grizzled Green Bay Packers tight end who retired last week in the face of charges that he sexually assaulted a 17-year-old, was himself barely a teenager.

The wild-and-crazy athletes scorned in that 1983 magazine article are by now mostly in their 40s, some past 50. Interview them today about the latest rash of criminal conduct, and many will just shake their graying heads with disgust about how all the big money and pampering has ruined the new-age athlete.

No doubt the crimes seem more serious today, but take away the once-in-a-millennium case of O.J. Simpson and the charges that Carruth hired thugs to shoot his pregnant girlfriend, and it's hard to make that generalization stick. Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was exonerated of murder charges last week in the late-night stabbing deaths of two men after the Super Bowl, so, at least for the moment, the NFL isn't assured of a Murder, She Wrote episode.

Without detracting from the achievements of today's criminal-athlete, the trip down memory lane may lend some valuable perspective.

In the 1983 Sports Illustrated piece, it was suggested that "in the last few months alone, candidates for big-time sport's Hall of Shame have seemed suddenly to break out all over like an ugly rash."

The writer wondered aloud:

"Now what -- if anything -- does this all mean? Have we entered an era in which bad apples are so prevalent in sports that you can't tell the players anymore without an arrest sheet? Are shame and fame becoming synonymous in big-time sport?"

Timeless prose, isn't it? But get this: The Sports Illustrated inquiry found that even back then it could be argued that the "ugly rash" was nothing new. Though the magazine quoted noted baseball exec Buzzie Bavasi as saying he had never seen anything like the awful conduct of 1983 in his years (dating back to 1940) in sports, it also found "totally contradictory" views:

"Lou Gorman, 53, director of operations for the New York Mets, is just as adamant when he says, 'I've been in baseball for 22 years and I don't really see any difference in players' behavior.' And then there is Russ Nixon, manager of the Cincinnati Reds, who says with optimum optimism: 'I think player conduct is a lot better today. You don't have nearly the drinking you used to.'"

Now then. If those fellows are to believed, athletes' routine bad behavior encompassed the generation of stars who are today in their 60s and 70s. But how many of those fellows seem comparable -- in terms of sex, drugs and rock & roll -- to today's out-of-control athlete?

Why, you can even go back further, as Sports Illustrated did in 1983:

"Babe Ruth's drinking and training habits were no secret to everyone who came near him, but they were largely glossed over by the newspapers. Other great tosspots whose social habits went under-reported in their heydays were Jim Thorpe, Hack Wilson and Grover Cleveland Alexander. George Gipp, the Notre Dame golden boy, was not only a gambler but often bet on games he played in."

The Gipper? Yikes.

The big difference between the world in 1983 and its "good old days?" Why, it's the same thing said about ours: more lurid media coverage.

Read on, from the archives:

"As the Angels' Tommy John, 18 years a pitcher, says with a certain air of sadness: 'When I came up, people who covered baseball were fans. They probably knew so-and-so was hung over when he pitched, but they didn't expose it to the whole world. They had the Ring Lardner "boys will be boys" attitude. Now reporters aren't holding back to protect the image of ballplayers.'"

And this:

"Says noted sports psychologist Dr. Bruce Ogilvie: 'Let's face it. In 1960 you could commit rape and murder, but if you were an elite athlete the chances of conviction or even of exposure were pretty low. That sort of protection has ended. It's reflective of the press, really, rather than an alteration in the moral fiber of sports.' The difference between the great old Golden Age 'heroes' who seem to gleam so brightly when compared to our badly cracked idols of today is, in large part, simply a matter of how little of the bad was actually reported in the old days."

A full generation of bad behavior later, you could run the same words in a pious piece leading to the conclusion that professional-sports commissioners, owners, athletes and fans had better put a stop to the madness lest the world of sport implode.

Well, here's a different view, condoning absolutely nothing. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly and young, cocky, famous, handsome, rich athletes gotta do what they've always done: act the part.

Outraged? That's understandable.

Shocked? That calls for a reading of history, followed by a bit of advice from the present-day world of sport:

Get real.

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