The death of honor in sports

By January 2, 2008Article, Atlantic Eye

VIENNA, Jan. 2 (UPI) — I had a recent conversation with the sons of an old friend. They are in their teens and had overheard me talking to their father about doping in biking. My friend and his sons are avid bike riders.

I explained to them why I felt biker Floyd Landis (he has been punished) and his colleague Michael Rasmussen (still under suspicion) should not be their role models. I explained that there was nothing honorable about their victories — they had doped. These young folks idolize Lance Armstrong — a man whose seven successive Tour de France wins hang under a doping cloud. And he can say what he wants, but where there is smoke there is fire.

I am still not convinced they really understood my point, which is sad. And, maybe young people should still have youthful naivete about sports stars. They certainly deserve and need heroes.

As a child I was fascinated by sport heroes. There was baseball’s Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron; track and field’s Wilma Rudolph; soccer’s Pele; swimming’s Mark Spitz and the incomparable all-round athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Other athletes also held the mantle high. But today, from U.S. baseball to international biking — and even tennis — greed, dishonor and arrogance are the new credo.

It is impossible to believe that these incidents are isolated. Even more improbable is that other athletes aren’t aware. In 2007, several audits were done in sports after notable scandals. Reading the reports on baseball and biking, it is inconceivable that coaches, owners and sponsors know nothing.

It seems likely that they turn a blind eye and feign ignorance. It reminds of Sergeant Schultz in the ’60s TV serial “Hogan’s Heroes” whose mantra was “I know nothing,” stated in heavily German-accented English. Of course he knew everything.

Because the culture of corruption and selfish-interest so dominate much of professional sports, it is hard to know where public officials should start fighting the epidemic. I generally oppose government getting involved in these matters. But professional sport associations evidently do not have the power — some even lack the will — to change the status quo.

Government and the courts must act vociferously and with absolute vigilance. But also the public must stop turning a blind eye to these incidents. When we attend sports events, buy sports memorabilia and give criminals a hero’s welcome, we are aiding and abetting illegal behavior. Mostly, we are introducing our sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, and young people in general to a behavioral pattern they should deplore, not idolize.

It is not enough to make examples of a few. Barry Bonds and Marion Jones — Jones actually repented in the end — are the very tip of the iceberg. And waiting in the wings for Jones’s medals are athletes who have failed doping tests themselves. Isn’t that just wonderful!

From all the new studies, there has been a steady rise in the abuse. It has been going on for more than two decades. Meanwhile, whistle-blowers are treated as pariahs, which is utterly absurd.

In the United States, it has been truly disgusting to watch baseball’s Bonds, who everyone knows is involved with steroid abuse — and has finally been indicted — steal baseball’s home run record from Hank Aaron under the watchful eye of the public, baseball’s management and the media. The media circus and hoopla surrounding his “home run record” some months ago would be like tuning in to watch criminals steal a rare and valuable painting, later claim they had painted it and then celebrating them for doing so.

In U.S. football, well-known star Michael Vick went beyond the pale. He engaged in dog-fight betting on his own farm. Never mind that the animals ripped themselves to shreds, that numerous dogs had to be put down because of their injuries, or that he personally killed several dogs in an utterly inhumane way. I can only imagine the warm-fuzzy feeling Vick must have felt to do this. Evidently it was like a stroll in the park for him.

But what is worse, and it has yet to be proven, but I am convinced someone in the Atlanta Falcons football organization must have known about it. To suggest they did not would be like living in a house where physical abuse is taking place and the relatives and neighbors claim they know nothing.

Yeah, right folks. I believe that. And, worse still, there has been absolutely no effect on the bottom line in Atlanta. Tickets continue to sell like hotcakes although the team has a 1 and 6 record.

But we adults are not naive. We should stop turning the other way and ignoring these things. We should do everything to make sure young people do not see these people as role models.

And thankfully there are still athletes like Tiger Woods who young people can look up to.

I just wish they were not the exception to the rule.

(UPI Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. A venture capitalist with seats in Berlin and Prague, he is a member of the National Advisory Board of the U.S. Democratic Party and a vice chair of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council.)