Friday, August 14, 2009


Remember Hillary’s 2008 campaign ad that asked whom you wanted to answer when the White House phone rang at 3 a.m.? The joke was that she’d be best at it, because she’d be waiting up for Bill to come home.

Middle-of-the-night calls are a trial for coaches as well as politicians, especially coaches of the football variety. Few of those fellas crawl between the sheets without fearing that their slumber will be interrupted with the information that one of their players had drunkenly wrapped his Escalade around a tree or been arrested for being involved in a bar fight, beating up his girlfriend, or worse. Wise coaches keep an all-purpose statement at hand, expressing concern for both victims and perps and promising that the team would make a thorough inquiry into the matter before commenting further.

Football players being what they are (overmuscled and overamped), that’s ever been so. I recall in my 1950s reportorial salad days learning that the newspapers in my beloved college home of Champaign, Illinois, had a gentleman’s agreement with the local authorities to keep quiet the less-than-felonious antics of University of Illinois athletes. A main beneficiary of this policy was Ray Nitschke, the linebacker who enjoyed taking on all comers in townie bars before moving on to a more menschlike existence as a pro in Green Bay.

These days tabloid values rule and mum isn’t the word where jock misdeeds are concerned. True or not, it also seems as though there are more of them. Outrage of all sorts is up, too, and the leaders of our sports leagues feel moved to respond to it by doing, well, something. Thus it is that they have become self-appointed extensions of the law’s long arm, kind of like the pincers grocers use to get cans off their top shelves.

This is a windy way to get around to the cases of the footballers Michael Vick, Donte Stallworth and Plaxico Burress, which currently are vexing many. Vick and Stallworth committed criminal offenses and have served prison or jail time for them—Vick 18 months for staging dog fights and Stallworth 24 days for killing a pedestrian while driving drunk. (Make what you will of THAT difference.) Roger Goodell, the corporate lawyer who is commissioner of all the NFLs, piled on by banning the released Vick for the first five games of the league’s current season and docking Stallworth a full year’s play.

He’ll be doing much the same for Burress once the regular law gets done dealing with the wide receiver for carrying an unregistered handgun into a New York nightclub and wounding himself with it there. You’d think that prison and the title of World’s Biggest Doofus would be punishment enough for the guy, but I guess it won’t be.

Where Goodell, et al, get off wielding extra-judicial power for the laws that govern us all is beyond me. Their charge—subject to players’ union acquiescence—is to enforce their league’s rules, which puts penalties for offenses such as on-field fights, gambling and the use of performance-enhancing drugs within their proper scope. That, plus negotiating multi-billion-dollar TV contracts and arranging team-owners’ meetings in fetching places, ought to be enough to kept them busy.

The fact is that while quarterback Vick’s dog-fighting business was illegal, and disgusting to many, it had nothing to do with football’s integrity or his ability to play the game. It’s not like he’s in the animal-shelter business. Similarly, receiver Stallworth never should be permitted to drive a school bus or even a cab, but—by me— he can catch as many passes as he’s able to if someone will hire him to do it.

Professional sports are entertainment, pure and simple, and to hold its practitioners to standards higher (or lower) than the rest of us makes the enterprises more important than they are. It’s also worth noting that our outrage tends to be short, and selective. What’ll happen with Vick will be what’s happening now with the baseballer Manny Ramirez, whose offense was against his sport: if Vick plays well he’ll be cheered by the fans of whatever team he plays for, no matter how others may react. Our desire for retribution runs a distant second to our lust for W’s.