Thursday, October 25, 2007

Beast of the Month - September 2007

Beast of the Month - September 2007
Michael Vick, NFL Quarterback

"I yam an anti-Christ... "
John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) of The Sex Pistols, "Anarchy in the UK"

"Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
What's that you say, Mrs. Robinson?
Joltin' Joe has left and gone away."
"Mrs. Robinson,” Simon & Garfunkel (from the film The Graduate)

All you sports fans out there who have a problem with Barry Bonds, you might as well get over it. It's time to accept the fact that the most cherished sports record in the USA, career Major League home runs, is now owned by a blatant cheater. Live with it, and just be glad that someone as dishonest as Bonds isn't, say, President of the United States.

Besides, as the era of 756* begins, its clear that more is amuck with professional athletics than Bonds roiding up. Consider the following:

* In the MLB, Bonds isn't the only dude that's on the juice all by his lone gunmen self. Jason Giambi (2000 AL MVP) and Rafael Palmeiro (he of the 500 HR and 3000 hit club) are two of the more noted players whose careers have been tainted by evidence of steroid use. (Former slugger Jose Canseco has claimed, perhaps with some hyperbole, that 85 percent of all major leaguers are on the stuff.) As for Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, while there is no "proof" that they cheated as well, their unconvincing testimony before Congress in 2005 on the issue has led to Mac being shut out of the Hall of Fame after becoming eligible this year - something which will likely happen to both Sosa and Bonds as well.

* In cycling, the Tour de France has had evidence and allegations of doping that far exceed those of baseball. In 2006, the four runner-ups in 2005 to retiring seven-time champ Lance Armstrong (Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich, Francisco Mancebo and Alexandre Vinokourov) all did not compete in the race due to evidence of doping. (Though Vinokourov himself was not charged in 2006, five of his teammates were, forcing him to withdraw. In 2007, he was personally busted during the race.) The eventual "winner" of the race, American Floyd Landis, was caught with banned substances in his urine samples and will likely lose his title after appeals. The 2007 contest was rife with arguably even more doping controversy, culminating with race leader Michael Rasmussen being removed for lying about his reasons he missed three drug tests. The eventual winner, Alberto Contador, was a prime suspect in the 2006 doping scandal. Meanwhile, though there is no firm evidence linking Armstrong to doping, widespread allegations cloud his storied career.

* In the NBA, a league already with an increasingly bad public image due to thuggish behavior of the post-Jordan playing crop, a gambling scandal involving referee Tim Donaghy threatens the basic integrity of the game. Though the scandal only involves Donaghy at this point (as petty tyrant David Stern repeatedly insists in his "bad apple" defense) the idea that other NBA refs may have been compromised by mobsters is not implausible, especially considering the league's lackadaisical response to evidence that something was fishy. Anyone who saw Game Six of the 2002 Lakers-Kings playoff series (where the Lakers "won" following officiating that looked like a Florida election involving a member of the Bush family) should have little trouble believing a conspiracy of refs involved in the rigging of important games.

* The good news for the NHL is that they're even deemed worthy of mention, after commissioner Gary Bettman's self-destructive reign has removed ice hockey from the quartet of American major league sports. (Memo to Mr. Bettman: real sports leagues have cable TV contracts with ESPN, not the Outdoor Life Network.) Still, if missing an entire season due to an owner lockout wasn't enough to discredit the NHL, an illegal gambling ring which may have included the Great One Wayne Gretzky himself should do the trick.

True, the history-making runs of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer in golf and tennis are inspiring tales, but all in all, the pickings for sport heroics are pretty slim right now. Indeed, the only sports of late to have any good news are lacrosse (where the Duke team members were proven to merely be drunken racist preppies, instead of drunken racist preppies who rape strippers) and soccer (although The Konformist doubts a preening overrated metrosexual with a self-absorbed diva wife will popularize a boring sport in America if Pele couldn't.)

Still, with all due respect to all the other scandals, the sports league with the biggest PR disaster of late would have to be, hands down, the National Football League. Some would say it's a long time coming. After all, for all the outrage that has followed the revelations and allegations of steroid abuse in baseball, few would argue that steroid use in the MLB is even comparable to that in the NFL. Likewise, while the hip-hop gangsta style of new NBA stars has given rise to a korporate unfriendly "thug life" image, pro football, with it's inherently more violent style of play, clearly attracts more dangerous and borderline personalities.

Why has the NFL gotten such a free ride for so long? Primarily, it's about money. Since the NFL-AFL merger and the rise of the Super Bowl in the 70s, football, not baseball, has really been America's pastime. The korporate media has avoided tarnishing the reputation of the largest multi-billion dollar sports-entertainment empire known to man (not to mention the most successful "Reality TV" series ever, culminating in the four major TV network conglomerates having current contracts with the league.) The obfuscation of NFL scandal was aided by Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue, two sharp businessmen and charming salesmen during their historic reigns as commissioner.

There's a new sheriff in town now, however, and at the very least, Roger Goodell believes the writing is on the wall. If the NFL didn't clean itself up, even worse scandal would soon follow. Before this summer, Goodell had already delivered the following suspensions for bad behavior:

* Chris Henry of the Cincinnati Bengals was suspended for eight games after numerous incidents involving law enforcement, with allegations of crimes ranging from drunk driving, assault with a deadly weapon, and assault of a minor.

* Tank Johnson of the Chicago Bears was also suspended for eight games for his misdeeds, with alleged crimes ranging from drunk driving, assault and various weapon charges. His best friend and bodyguard, William Posey, was shot to death following a bar fight last December.

* In perhaps the most notorious case, Pacman Jones of the Tennessee Titans was suspended for the entire 2007 season for his troubles with the law, which has led to five arrests and questioning by police eleven times. Due to his penchant for troublemaking at nightclubs and strip clubs, he has been charged with assault, battery, felony vandalism and obstruction of justice. In his most infamous altercation, a strip club argument (during which he allegedly grabbed a stripper by her hair and slammed her head) in Las Vegas during All-Star weekend ended when one man in Pacman's entourage allegedly returned to the club and fired shots into the crowd. One bullet paralyzed former pro wrestler Tommy Urbanski, and two hit a security guard whose life Pacman had coincidentally threatened earlier that evening.

All of this bad behavior makes one long for the start of the 2006 season, when the biggest bogeyman in the NFL was Terrell Owens, whose disgraceful acts were wanting more money and dissing his quarterbacks.

This summer, however, even Pacman's troubles were eclipsed by Michael Vick, The Konformist Beast of the Month. Vick's problems received more airplay than the others, in part, because Vick, unlike the others, was no mere role player. As quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, he was a three-time Pro Bowler in football's most high profile position, who was given the prestigious honor of being the cover athlete for Madden Football 2004. Vick came up only one game short in 2005 from playing the Super Bowl. And though 2006 had been a disappointing year for him in passing (he completed only 52.6 percent of his throws during the season) he became the first QB to rush for over 1000 yards in a year.

Of course, the other reason Vick's legal issues received more airplay was the grotesque nature of his activities. While drunk driving, assault and shootings that lead others to be crippled are hardly minor crimes, being involved in the cruel "sport" of dogfighting shows not a momentary lapse of reason, but a premeditated plan to participate in the torture and death of man's best friend. And as bad as forcing canines to participate in a battle to the death may be, perhaps even worse is personally killing Fido in a gruesome fashion, such as by drowning, hanging, electrocution, strangulation and gunshots. These were the charges that Vick faced, charges he plead guilty to after his co-conspirators did the same and began to provide more evidence against him. As it stands, he likely faces one year to eighteen month in federal prison over his crimes.

In retrospect, there were warning signs that Vick was a trouble case. In 2005, he was sued by a woman who claimed was given genital herpes by him. (According to her, he received treatments for the disease under the alias Ron Mexico, which led to the Vick-based character "Mike Mexico" in the videogame Blitz: The League.) Last November, he gave the finger to fans booing him in the Georgia Dome after a home loss. In January, he was caught in Miami with a water bottle with a hidden compartment that contained a "small amount of dark particulate" and an odor consistent with marijuana, according to a police report. (Dubiously, lab tests found no evidence of pot, which many suspect was not due to science but rather NFL pressure to silence the controversy.) Granted, none of these activities is in the same ballpark as training pit bulls to fight to the death, and far be it that The Konformist staff condemn a man for having STDs, giving people the finger or carrying pot. Still, it should have raised NFL eyebrows that Vick was no mere Organization Man.

As is sometimes the case when pro athletes get into legal trouble, the question of race is part of the mix, as Vick is an African-American. It's hard to completely dismiss the possibility that if, say, Peyton Manning or Brett Favre (not to unfairly link either man to such criminal conduct) had been involved in illegal dogfighting, the whole thing would've been covered up. (Then again, many suspect that Vick had already used his "Get Out of Jail" card at Miami International.) On the other hand, some of the defenses for Vick seem like embarrassing apologetics. The worst example came from the lips of actor Jamie Foxx (who admittedly was great as a black QB in the Oliver Stone football flick Any Given Sunday.) As Foxx put it, "It's a cultural thing, I think. Most brothers didn't know that, you know. I used to see dogs fighting in the neighborhood all the time. I didn't know that was Fed time. So, Mike probably just didn't read his handbook on what not to do as a black star." Of course, the idea that Africa-Americans can't be expected to understand that training dogs to kill each other (and then viciously executing underperformers) is barbaric behavior, well, that's a sentiment we'd more expect to be uttered by Bill O'Reilly than an Oscar-winning actor. (A tip to Jamie: stick to your Ray Charles impersonations.)

Of course, not all African-Americans leaders reflexively jumped to Vick's defense. Hip hop mogul Russell Simmons, an animal rights supporter, quickly urged Nike to pull its sponsorship of Vick after the allegations surfaced. Joining him in condemning dogfighting was Revered Al Sharpton, hardly a guy who critics would allege is above playing the race card. And though the Atlanta chapter NAACP leader R.L. White sounded a bit like Foxx over the controversy, NAACP president Dennis Courtland Hayes bluntly declared that Vick "is not a victim... He absolutely must account for what he has done."

Indeed, looking at the evidence in the Vick case, it could be compellingly argued that rather than act improperly or show a rush to judgment, the feds went by the book and fairly targeted the man who deserved it, the guy who financed the whole dogfighting operation. Bad Newz Kennels started in 2001, not-so-coincidentally when Vick had just signed a multi-million dollar contract with the Falcons and entered the NFL. All of the participants in the dogfighting scheme, including Vick, concede he almost exclusively bank-rolled the entire operation.

The NFL, at this point, knows all this. They also know that part of Vick's confession (and the other participants' guilty pleas) was that Vick provided most of the money for gambling on the dogfights. As any sports fan will tell you, illegal gambling is the cardinal sin of pro sports, as it opens the door for mobsters to control compromised participants and fix games. It is perhaps just as much for the gambling aspects as the repulsive cruelty to animals that Goodell has suspended Vick from the NFL indefinitely.

In the end, Vick is a symbol of the coarsening of American culture during the zeroes. You don't have to be Bill O'Reilly to concede hip hop is no longer exposing injustice with the gangsta style but rather glorifying violent nihilism because it sells millions. (Indeed, Russell Simmons aside, hip hop has been central in glorifying dogfighting, with rapper DMX using dogfight lingo and imagery in his album covers, videos and songs. Coincidentally, DMX's Arizona home was raided on August 24 in another investigation involving dogfighting.) And you don't have to romanticize the "good old days" to think there's something wrong when sports most popular athletes include guys like Michael Vick, Barry Bonds and Kobe Bryant. And you don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to think that there may be a link between such a grim culture and what is happening at Abu Ghraib and Camp X-Ray. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, indeed.

In any case, we salute Michael Vick as Beast of the Month. Congratulations, and keep up the great work, Mikey!!!

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