The Sporting Scene: America’s Morality Tales

The eternal battle between Good and Evil rages on. We watch (and learn) in awe, each of us better somehow for having witnessed Virtue collide with Sin. But America’s most instructive forum of late hasn’t been the Church pulpit; it’s the sporting scene. 

The characters in these Morality Tales are so clearly identifiable, so devoid of nuance, that the professional wrestling industry would be proud to have them. The Good Guys are vigilantly upholding our sense of fairness and equality. The Bad Guys are very bad. So bad, in fact, that inconvenient notions like due process and civil liberties have been shunted aside like so many expired canines.

Although the news headlines seem torn from the same scandalous tabloid, let us examine each case individually.

Michael Vick, the quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons, has been charged with aiding and abetting dog fights on a property he owns in Virginia, the home of Bad Newz Kennels. (Or is it Kennelz?) His major endorser, Nike, has halted sales of his replica uniform; his employer has told him not to show up for work; and his corporate overseer, the NFL, is reportedly considering banishment. PETA is demonstrating; sportswriters are haranguing; fans are abandoning. Yes, he’s rich and famous, which normally excuses naughty behavior, but killing innocent dogs does not qualify for the exemption. Vick’s badness is patently obvious, and he will be made to pay. Except for one thing: For the record, Vick has pleaded Not Guilty to the felony charges and has made the standard assertions about looking forward to clearing his name.

If anyone doubts my animal lover credentials, I would like to recommend a sweet little book about a guy and his dog, entitled, “Ella in Europe.” Yet even I, ridiculously besotted with his mutt and sickened at the thought of dogs being made to kill each other for sport, can find nothing in our constitution (or elsewhere) that suggests the tenets of due process ought to be suspended in cases of alleged animal cruelty. I’m also puzzled why the NFL allowed another star, Ray Lewis, to continue playing while being investigated and charged as an accessory to murder — of a human being — and cannot behave with a similar sense of fairness toward the alleged dog killer. Apparently, the NFL believes violent spectacles involving muscular gladiators ought to occur exclusively on their playing fields.

Similarly puzzling is the case of Barry Bonds, the intensely unlikable baseball slugger who will soon tie and then break Henry Aaron’s all-time mark for home runs. He has long been suspected of doping, of using steroids to help build the powerful muscles that propel baseballs out of parks. He has not, however, been convicted of anything, unless you count the kangaroo court of the media. Entire forests have been expended on impassioned screeds arguing for and against Major League Baseball, known as “Baseball,” officially acknowledging his “tainted” accomplishment. Like other Morality tale villains, Bonds has besmirched our collective honor, and he must be made to pay!

The real villains in this case are the fumbling bumbling stumbling fools at Major League Baseball. If the guy is a cheat, charge him and prove it. If he’s not, then the official shunning is bad manners at best and an outrageous character assassination at worst. Sports fans, lead by the hack writers they read, say that what Barry Bonds has done to himself — and, in turn, the game they profess to love — is obvious. But not so obvious, apparently, that testing and enforcement would have shown Bonds to be the bad man everyone says he is.

Finally, we have Tim Donaghy, a recently retired referee in the NBA, who, authorities claim, bet on basketball games, including ones he was officiating. The irreducible Evil of his sin is clear, right? Surely he didn’t simply call ’em as he saw ’em. He must have allowed his greed to influence his judgment. Lost in our revulsion, though, are two little facts: 1) Everything that has been reported, including NBA Commissioner David Stern’s excoriating indictment of the rogue ref, has been hearsay; Donaghy has yet to be convicted of anything, and 2) Even if he did indeed referee games on which he bet, there’s a not a shred of evidence to suggest he affected the ultimate disposition of the game.

Indeed, if Donaghy’s bets were on the “Total points” scored in the game, or the pointspread (the margin by which the favored team must beat the disfavored team), the actual winner or loser of these contests wouldn’t be affected, only the final margin of victory. In other words, the team that was supposed to win if the game was called without prejudice would still win, only by more or less points than if someone with a financial interest in the outcome were officiating.

Since the NBA disavows any knowledge or interest in the pointspreads, the only people adversely affected by pointspread manipulation would be gamblers, not the clean-living fans who, the NBA imagines, watch games simply for the glorious athletic display. Wicked gamblers, not pure-of-heart sports fans, would be the ones punished. Now that’s a morality tale that everyone can appreciate.

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