July 26, 2007, 7:45AM
As dirt piles up, fans may yet wash hands of it all
By RICHARD JUSTICE
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Your place has been taken by thugs and crooks and cheats.
At least that's the way it has felt the last few weeks as our sports world seems to have spun out of control. One instance of bad behavior has been followed by another and then another.
Dog torture. Point shaving. Steroids. Guns. Brawls. Strippers. High-speed chases. Are these isolated examples of a few bad apples? Or is something else at play?
Thanks to the likes of Barry Bonds, Michael Vick and Tim Donaghy, even the fun and games are no longer fun and games. We're pelted by scandal, endlessly and relentlessly.
After years of coddling athletes, after allowing them to think they don't have to play by the rules others play by, are we getting what we deserve?
Once upon a time, you looked to the sports pages to escape the sewer of everyday life. No more.
If you saw the look on NBA commissioner David Stern's face Tuesday, you learned everything you need to know about sports in 2007.
Stern might be the most brilliant man in sports — brilliant and thin-skinned and condescending. That David Stern was nowhere to be found Tuesday. This one was frightened and humbled as he faced reporters to discuss charges that Donaghy, who recently resigned as an NBA referee, had bet on games, including perhaps some in which he officiated.
The FBI apparently believes Donaghy made calls to manipulate either the outcome or the point spread. These charges cut to the heart of everything sports is supposed to be. One of the reasons we go to games is because we believe anything can happen. David can slay Goliath.
Suspension of belief
If we find the outcomes of some games have been fixed, if some games were nothing more than staged events for a scared loser, fans will be a long time believing in the NBA again.
Stern is hoping and praying the FBI finds Donaghy to be a lone wolf who got himself into trouble with gambling debts and did what mobsters ordered him to. If it turns out Donaghy is part of a larger conspiracy, if he names the names of other refs and perhaps even some players, the NBA will have taken a crippling hit.
It's a really bad week when Donaghy isn't the most repulsive player on the stage. That honor belongs to Vick.
I have trouble working up any rage for the Atlanta Falcons quarterback because I simply can't wrap my mind around what he's accused of doing. I can't comprehend any human being is capable of such things.
A federal felony indictment places Vick in a key role in a Virginia dogfighting ring. If you can swallow that much of the story, brace yourself. It gets much worse.
Who's the animal?
Vick and his thugs also are charged with torturing dogs, with hosing them down and then electrocuting them, with throwing them to the ground again and again until they died.
Wait, there's more. Vick's case has opened a door into a sickening NFL subculture.
''I would bet you that every player in the NFL knows someone who has been to a dogfight," Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber told a reporter this week.
One fool is one fool too many. But Barber doesn't seem to be alone. Emmitt Smith, the NFL's all-time rushing leader, joined the chorus of supporters for Vick last weekend when he said the government was picking on Vick.
''Granted, he might have been to a dogfight a time or two, maybe five times, maybe 20 times, may have bet some money, but he's not the one you're after," Smith said. ''He's just the one who's going to take the fall — publicly."
Sure. Vick's only sin was going to a few dogfights and cheering as one dog mauled another. And maybe he tortured the losing dog a few times. No big deal — right, Emmitt?
What kind of world do these people live in? Are they so out of touch that they think anything they choose to do is fine because they're special?
Statements like Smith's will do nothing to counter the widespread belief that the NFL is populated by thugs. Nothing could be further from the truth, but still.
One day, it's another Cincinnati Bengal getting arrested for driving under the influence. The next, there's Tennessee Titans cornerback Pacman Jones, who has been banned from the NFL for an assortment of incidents.
Bonds a relative boy scout
If things keep going as they are, Bonds is going to look like a good citizen. All he allegedly did was take illegal performance-enhancing drugs on his way to becoming baseball's all-time home run king.
Bonds has 753 home runs, two behind Hank Aaron, and should pass him sometime in the near future. Bonds thus becomes the poster boy for an era in which a large number of players took steroids.
As the players union fought testing, as owners focused on economic issues, the most sacred page of baseball's record book is now a joke. Bonds won't be out of the headlines even after he breaks the record. The New York Daily News reported that Bonds probably will be indicted for perjury and/tax evasion this fall.
Funny thing is, for all the sermonizing about the damage done to sports, fans don't seem to care. Baseball is going to break its all-time attendance record for the fourth straight season, and almost no one believes the NFL will suffer in any substantive way from players getting into trouble. The NBA was already a marginalized sport, so evidence of point shaving likely won't hurt the league much more than it was already hurt.
But while Bonds, Vick and Donaghy have yet to be convicted of anything, there's a sense that things are coming apart, that sports in this country has reached some sort of tipping point. Maybe fans really will get tired of the dirt. Maybe they'll turn the channel and stop buying tickets. Only then, when the TV cash isn't there and the luxury suites are empty, might there be more urgency about cleaning it up.