Bill Long 7/25/07
A Midsummer Day's Fallout
The end of July is traditionally the slowest time in professional sports. We are between Wimbledon and the US Open. Professional football training camp has just begun. The NBA and NHL are on summer vacation. The only professional sport that normally occupies people's attention at this time is baseball. Lazy afternoons and warm evenings at the park are fitting endings to long summer days of leisure. You would think that the only controversy to occupy people at this point is whether to get beer or soda with the hot dog at the park.
But in the last five days we have the emergence or continuation of a number of very serious issues in almost all the major sports.
1. Baseball--The ongoing problem in professional baseball, much like an untreated toothache, is the pained reaction that will attend Barry Bond's breaking of Hank Aaron's career HR record. This reaction arises from the public's conclusion that Bonds was not straightforward about his steroid use during the probe of the BALCO labs a few years ago.
2. Football--Then, in professional football, Atlanta Falcons superstar quarterback Michael Vick has just been indicted along with three alleged conspirators in federal court in Virginia amid allegations of gambling on and organizing dogfights between pit bulls. The allegations in the information filed against Vick (it makes for very dull reading), include charges that Vick, along with his three cronies, also killed the dogs that performed poorly in these competitions. It is not as if this Vick story is something that happened overnight. The papers filed against him allege that as early as 2001, when he had just been drafted into the NFL, Vick put down about $35,000 to buy property at 1915 Moonlight Road in Smithfield VA. This was followed by "improvements" to the property, purchase of pit bulls, crossing of interstate lines to engage in pit bull-fighting contests, payment of a purse to the winner (sometimes topping $10,000) and, finally, destruction of many of the "loser" dogs. The allegations, then, are that these activities part were a multi-year pattern of illegal dogfighting. Vick will no doubt sit out the season but his future career will depend on the depth of the legal system's, and public's, abhorrence at what he has allegedly done. Though it is hard to screw up much sympathy for pit bulls, I think he will face at least one year, if not two years, suspension. If he had set up fights between golden retrievers and west highland terriers, however, his career would have been toast.
The NBA Gets Hit
3. Basketball--Then, just as people were wringing their hands and shaking their heads (or was it shaking their hands and wringing their heads) at this news, the NBA announced that one of its veteran officials, Tim Donaghy (a 13-year referree) was being investigated for illegal gambling on basketball games, even some that he had officiated. If true, Donaghy's conduct makes him even a bit more reprehensible than Pete Rose's betting activity more than two decades ago, because Donaghy was in a direct position to affect the points scored in the game.
A word of clarification may be helpful to understand the conduct that Donaghy probably engaged in. He didn't "throw the games" by obviously favoring one side over another. He probably wasn't even interested on affecting the point spread between the teams. This would have been far too obvious. What he did, according to several columnists familiar with the case, is to affect the so-called "over/under" number.
It works like this. If you place a bet on an NBA game, you may bet on a number of particulars for the game. One thing you may bet on is the total points that will be scored in the game. A given number (say 185) is selected by the bookies, and you can bet either "over" or "under" that number. There is normally as much as a 5% margin of error in the bookmakers' numbers. What RJ Bell, of pregame.com has shown, is that in the games officiated by Donaghy in two years for which he wasn't under investigation, the "over" team won 44 percent of the time. This is just outside the expected margin but nothing to get too concerned about. However, in the 138 games he officiated in the 2005-2007 seasons, in 57% of the games the "over" won. This is a tremendous increase, an increase that is statistically almost impossible to conclude was a matter of "chance." And it is something that easily could be manipulated by an official. Just call more fouls on both sides througout the game, so that they would go to the line with the clocked stopped and thus score more points. Donaghy thus wouldn't have cared who won the game. Betting on the "over," then, could give him (and whatever "friends" he let in on the scheme--suppose there could have been a "kickback"?) lots more income to support his $240,000 salary with the NBA. But it is also the kind of violation that would be more difficult to trace. You just have to do a little more homework to figure it out.
Commissioner David Stern says that this has been the worst thing he has faced in his 40-year employment with professional basketball. He is right, especially if it comes out that the NBA knew or had reason to know of Donaghy's conduct or gambling tendencies before things started "becoming public" a few months ago. He is also right if it can be shown that Donaghy wasn't just an isolated "bad apple." Time will also tell on this one...
4. Cycling--Finally, we just learned today that the leader of the Tour de France, Michael Rasmussen of Denmark, has been removed from the race for "violating the team's internal rules." We don't yet know what that means, but we do know that Rasmussen missed two random drug tests in May and June. Why they decided to sack the leader at this point in the Tour is beyond me, but it only intensifies the suspicions people feel about steroids and cyclists.
So, professional sports is facing series of high-profile crises, crises easily understood by anyone who follows the sports. My, when would you have thought that professional hockey was the cleanest of the sports?