Leave it to the great comedian and sports enthusiast Jerry Seinfeld to encapsulate the current state of professional sports in the United States of America. Several years ago it was Seinfeld who proclaimed that due to the fact that many of our athletes in team sports change teams so frequently, due to trades and free agency, that rooting for one’s favorite player has become a bit of an exercise in futility. Instead what you’re really cheering for as a fan of your favorite sports franchise is not so much the players, but the uniforms you see in front of you or, in other words, the “laundry.”
While I agree with most of the great Jerry Seinfeld’s summation, I would suggest an addendum to his treatise. Not only do we root for the laundry of our favorite teams rather than the individual players, but anybody who is ensconced in said laundry can literally do anything they want, including, but not limited to:
- Committing any number of heinous acts off the field including but not limited to robbery, larceny, burglary, rape, murder, domestic abuse and tax evasion.
- Performance enhancing drugs
In fact, our adulation for those talented professionals who wear the uniforms of the teams we love is not unlike our approach to our elected officials in recent years. It used to be that politicians who were guilty of criminal behavior, or any type of salacious acts, would find themselves politically dead, and would be forced to resign from office or prohibited from even running for an elected position ever again. Now, if it is reported that somebody you voted for or support did something awful or embarrassing, the news is regarded as fake. In addition, as a supporter of this supposedly disgraced public servant, it becomes your obligation to literally bivouac around this individual, like drones protecting a beehive from an invasive species.
Perhaps it is human nature to protect our own. However, it has also historically been human nature to shame one’s own and set expectations for behavior. It would seem that we have the right to ask those who represent us to make us proud, much as we ask and demand of our children. When did we become so forgiving of our public figures?
Maybe we should blame “Sir Charles.” It was Charles Barkley who famously said that he wasn’t being paid to be a role model. Rather, Barkley claimed he was paid to wreak havoc on a basketball court. It would be convenient if we could pin the despicable behavior of our heroes at Barkley’s feet, thus allowing us to look back at the so-called good old days of the 1940s and ’50s when athletes performed with honor, and were indeed role models for our youth.
That would be convenient if it were in fact true. However a brief examination of the past 100 years of professional sports would indicate that there really wasn’t ever a so-called “good old days.” Our athletes, sadly, have amassed quite a track record of less than desirable behavior. Let us consider the following examples regarding dishonesty in sports:
- Chicago White Sox (1919) – The famed “Black Sox” scandal involved eight players from what was widely regarded as the best baseball team ever assembled up to that time. History has tried to rehabilitate the participants by fostering the myth that team-owner Charles Comiskey was a skin-flint (spoiler: he wasn’t). In truth, several of the team’s best players were seduced by payments of thousands of dollars that have long been credited to famed gambler and organized crime figure Arnold Rothstein. This belief is another potential myth as recent research has shown that it is unlikely that Rothstein ever fronted a single dime. What is certain is that all they had to do for the money was throw the Series against the significantly inferior Cincinnati Reds. The players agreed to the fix, but few were paid what they were promised. The eight ended up being banned from baseball forever by newly appointed commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and it remains baseball’s biggest black eye to this day. It should be noted that they were found not guilty by a jury of their peers of conspiring to perform a “confidence game.” Chances are, their peers were made up of 12 seemingly very passionate Chicago White Sox fans.
- Ben Johnson and the 1988 Olympics – Johnson proved to be the greatest 100 meter sprinter in world history… until he wasn’t. Johnson, who looked like an NFL linebacker but ran like a wide receiver, blew past even the great Carl Lewis, who knew right away that the only way Johnson could defeat him that decisively was by “doping,” which, of course, he was. One of the trainers for the American team could actually tell that Johnson was on steroids by looking at his yellow eyes, a by-product of his liver working overtime to process the steroids.
- Rosie Ruiz and the 1980 Boston Marathon – Ruiz seemed to have come from nowhere as she breezed to an historic upset in winning in the women’s category of the 1980 Boston Marathon. It was a wonderful sight, one of those seminal moments in sports that has to be seen to be believed… except she cheated. She jumped on to the course about a half-a-mile from the finish line. She had barely broken a sweat, which is not that surprising since she had barely run.
- Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire – An absurd amount of home runs hit in the late ’90s and early 2000s. – These bashers, along with other suspects such as Luis Gonzalez of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Ken Caminiti of the Houston Astros, went on to hit prodigious amounts of home runs while building up their musculature to the point that they looked more like NFL defensive ends rather than baseball players. Somewhere Mickey Lolich was weeping.
- 2001-2020 New England Patriots – Spying and deflating footballs – Time and time again the Patriots have attempted to squeeze every possible advantage out of every conceivable scenario in hoping to gain a leg up on their opponents, despite the fact that the league has fined and punished them on several different occasions.
- 2018 Winter Olympics Russian Curling – A special shout-out to the Russian curling team in the 2018 Winter Olympics games in South Korea who were caught using steroids as well. I guess shoving that stone is harder than it looks, unless it’s the broom work that forced them to “dope.”
Now, we have the still unfolding scandal involving the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox, and their use of technology to steal signs. Apparently, because of the ingenuity of Alex Cora, both the Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox, for whom he coached and managed, achieved World Series championships thanks to their ability to steal the signs being put down by opposing team’s catchers in their home park. They then relayed those signs to their hitters so they knew exactly what pitch they were going to get. If you look at the stats of the players on both of these teams during the time they were stealing signs, they are quite impressive… and likely dishonest.
Despite the generally awful behavior exhibited by all of the above, an interesting dichotomy has taken place. While Johnson and Ruiz were both summarily dismissed from the world of sports, viewed as pariahs with literally nobody in their corner to advocate for them, the rest of the above mentioned teams and team sport athletes who were caught cheating, including situations where championships were on the line, have seen their support amongst their home fans increase. Is this yet another troubling example of where our society is heading?
President Trump takes a lot of heat for the current political discourse, as well as the overall lack of honesty and humility that seems to have permeated our society, and rightly so. However, the more one studies the galling lack of sportsmanship and honesty that has existed in professional sports for over 100 years, it would appear that the behavior of Donald Trump, and his incredible practice of doubling down on all of his worst statements and actions, is not so much a cause of what ills our society but may instead be an effect. Congressional and Senatorial Republicans who blatantly turn a blind eye to Trump’s crimes as we go through a painful impeachment process are the equivalent Astros and Red Sox fans who refuse to condemn the sins committed by their favorite teams.
The worst elements of our political tribalism have run head first into our collective sports fanaticism. Patriot fans are fine with Tom Brady dishonestly deflating footballs, with the Patriot coaches spying on the opposition at the behest of their coach, even the salacious behavior of their owner, Bob “Happy Ending” Kraft. It doesn’t matter, as long as they win. San Francisco Giants fans embraced Barry Bonds throughout his historic 2001 season, and the louder the whispers became that he was doping, the more they cheered him on, seemingly in defiance of the fact that he was cheating.
If you’re waiting for the Astros or Red Sox faithful to suggest that they vacate their recent World Series titles, than you might as well be waiting for Arnold Rothstein to pay off the rest of the players on the 1919 “Black Sox.” For many, if a player is wearing the laundry they have chosen to support, then perhaps only the murderous behavior of an Aaron Hernandez might actually dissuade them. Consider the words of the president himself, who famously said that he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue in New York City, and his supporters would not abandon him. He may very well be correct, but why? Perhaps because in politics we have invested so much of ourselves, and our reputation, into our candidate that their success becomes our success.
It is the same in the world of sports. We self-identify with our team, and thus their victories become our victories. As a result, just as we are so often blind to our own flaws, we turn a blind eye to the various faux pas of our teams and the politicians we support. As long as the other guy or other team doesn’t win, then we can look past sign stealing or doping and casually assume that, “they all do it,” so it’s okay. I would say it’s working just about as well in sports as it has been in our political system.
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