The Russians did it.
They didn’t act alone, it wasn’t planned, and they had no idea the chain of events they were setting in motion when they did it, but I’m going to blame them, even so.
I blame them for the steady decline in the credibility of American athletics since that day in the summer of ’72 that referees – whether out of confusion or bias or something else – gave the Russians not two but three chances to defeat the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team in the Olympic finals at Munich, West Germany (for those of you too young to remember, there was still a West Germany then).
It all came to a head for me on nearly 45 years later, when the New England Patriots beat the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI(e). I added that lowercase Roman letter after the uppercase Roman numerals to illustrate a point: American sports have lost credibility with me, because a team built by a couple of cheaters won the biggest game on the biggest stage.
I’m not suggesting that the Patriots cheated to win this particular game; there’s no evidence they did. But they did cheat by videotaping signals used by the New York Jets defensive coaches back in 2007, and a report suggests they recorded 40 other games played by opponents starting as far back as 2000 in what’s now known as the Spygate scandal. The subsequent Deflategate controversy pales in comparison to that, at least in my mind, but it’s another example of the same team breaking the rules in order to get an edge.
The funny thing is, the Patriots didn’t need that edge most of the time. They could have probably won without it, as they did against the Falcons on Sunday. Or did they? That’s the thing: You never really know. The Patriots have already fooled us twice and gotten caught. Shame on us. How many other times have they fooled us without anyone even knowing?
In fact, that’s an argument I’ve heard used by more than one person defending the Patriots: “Everybody does it; they just happened to get caught.”
Maybe, maybe not. But if so, it only validates my current feeling of estrangement from American sports, because if everybody’s doing it, why bother? What do the results really mean, anyway? That one team is better at cheating than the other?
That seems like the logical conclusion to me.
Hackers and users
In the month before the Super Bowl, Major League Baseball fined the St. Louis Cardinals for hacking into the Houston Astros’ computer database, penalizing them a couple of draft picks and banning the hacker for life.
I wondered at the time why the NFL hadn’t banned Patriots coach Bill Belichick for life in response to Spygate, but the answer appears obvious: Does anyone know the name of the Cardinals hacker before the Astros incident, or was he just another Star Trek redshirt who could be vaporized without anyone really caring?
Belichick, the most successful coach of the most successful team in the NFL, was a different matter. Ban him, and it would reflect poorly on a league whose mantra is to “protect the shield” – supposedly referring to the NFL logo. Don’t let that fool you, though. It’s really about protecting the cash cow behind the shield.
At the same time baseball was doing the right thing in banning the St. Louis hacker, though, Hall of Fame voters were waffling on the idea of giving their blessing to various players linked to steroid use in the 1990s and 2000s.
Players such as Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds – a pair referred to by one writer as “the pharmaceutical daily double” – both received 54 percent of the votes in 2017 after getting just 35 percent three years earlier. You need 75 percent to make it into the Hall, and they’re trending in that direction. The consensus among journalists seems to be that they’ll both get in.
The excuse, again, is that “everybody was doing it,” so to deprive them of a place in Cooperstown would be to, essentially, condemn an entire generation of baseball as illegitimate.
Unfortunately, it was.
The suspicion that everyone was doing it doesn’t make it more legitimate, but less so – except, apparently, in the minds of the majority of Hall of Fame voters.
The turning point: 1972
Scandals are nothing new to American sports, but the way we deal with them is. This is where the Russian debacle of ’72 comes in. Americans were so incensed that they began a campaign to allow pro basketball players to compete in the Olympics. We’d show those no good, cheating sons of Boris and Natasha! We’d assemble a “dream team”of the NBA’s best, and they wouldn’t stand a chance.
That’s exactly what we did. And, I’ll admit, I was standing right there cheering the process along. Karma might be a bitch, but Michael and Magic and Larry were basketball gods looking down from Mount Olympus on those puny humans hiding behind their iron curtain. The Russians didn’t stand a chance.
Neither did we, though, because when we decided to beat those commies over the head with our capitalist might, we ushered in an era of the almighty dollar in sports. It probably would have happened anyway, but it’s fun to blame the Russians, don’t you think? Besides, the 1972 game serves as a convenient dividing line between the era of small-time athletics and big business sports.
We’ve been boiling like frogs as we’ve gone from zero tolerance to zero credibility. Consider:
In 1919, baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned Shoeless Joe Jackson for life based on the mere accusation that he helped throw the 1919 World Series. A jury acquitted him, but it didn’t matter to Landis, who decreed that Jackson never play again and never be eligible for the Hall of Fame. Modern Hall voters, by contrast, are likely to let Bonds and Clemens in. What the heck, right? Everybody was doing it.
In Green Bay, the last bastion of the small-town American football dream, the Packers play in a stadium built 60 years ago and are owned by the city itself. Meanwhile, the money-grubbing owner of the Chargers turns his back on the city of San Diego because it won’t give him hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to replace a stadium built a decade after the Packers built theirs.
The Rollerball prophecy
All in all, the NFL itself is looking more and more like Rollerball every day. For those of you who don’t remember that 1975 movie, let me refresh your memories: It centers on a then-futuristic sports league that puts corporate greed ahead of everything else and self-destructs in a vain attempt to keep its most popular player from undermining the “brand.”
The film is set in 2018. Its hero, portrayed by James Caan, plays for a team based in Houston that’s owned by the Energy Corporation. Flash forward to this year’s Super Bowl, which was played in Houston at something called NRG Stadium.
Rollerball destroyed itself by making its players expendable, allowing them to maim and kill one another in bloodfests and looked more like gladiatorial combat than sport. The NFL hasn’t gone quite that far. But many players have paid a heavy physical and cognitive price for the steroids they used and the head injuries they sustained during their careers. In one study, researchers found evidence of degenerative brain disease in 76 of the 79 players they examined.
College football, meanwhile, has become a cash cow for “educational” institutions that rake in money hand-over-fist from bloated TV contracts. The schools lucky enough to be in elite Power 5 conferences don’t want to share much of that money with the less fortunate, though. They’ve transformed schools that used to be called mid-majors into irrelevant minors, denying them a seat at the championship table – and the cash register.
It didn’t used to be that way.
Backlash and fatigue
Maybe our collective patience is starting to wear thin. San Diegans refused to finance the glitzy stadium that owner Dean Spanos demanded. The NFL’s television ratings fell 9 percent during the regular season and 6 percent for the playoffs. Fewer people watched the college football championship game, too. Fantasy football participation, which has driven much of the NFL’s growth the past few years, plateaued.
None of this means that the NFL, the Power 5 or big-money sports in general is on the verge of imminent collapse. Far from it. Still, more and more of us have grown tired of it all. We pay through the nose for cable access or box seats. And for what? To watch one group of cheaters play another group of might-be-cheaters? To pay for the fat cats to operate their assembly line of athletes, so many of whom wind up disabled or brain damaged for the sake of the almighty dollar?
I’m not on some holier-than-thou crusade here. I’ve loved watching sports all my life, and I don’t feel the least bit guilty for that. But I woke up the morning after the Super Bowl and realized I just don’t love it anymore. I’m not even sure I like it. I’m not trying to claim any moral high ground, I’m just not sure I care.
I’m not saying I’ll never watch sports again, but I seriously doubt I’ll ever enjoy it the way I used to. In an era where “everybody does it,” there’s no one left to root for. Except maybe the Green Bay Packers.
I always did like cheese.