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If Video Killed the Radio Star, Modernity Killed the Sports Champion


San Mateoeon Tom Brady was suspended for the first four games of the 2015-2016 NFL season for allegedly, probably, maybe knowing more than he didn’t know about the air levels in the footballs used during the 2014-2015 AFC Championship game. If you take step back however, Tom Brady is just the latest athlete to be penalized for being too good at what he does. The Patriots were also fined, and I contend again, it is not for their refusal to cooperate with a snowjob of an investigation, it is for being too good. You may feel that Rodger Goodell did the wrong thing; you may feel he did the right thing, but he didn’t do anything new.

Parity is the new keyword of the NFL and most of the other major professional sports leagues in the United States. Parity is just a nice way of saying “mediocre.” All of the US sports leagues have expanded, adding more teams in more cities, trying to capture that almighty dollar. More teams means less chances of talent being concentrated on one or a few teams. When you add the salary cap and individual greed to the equation, you wind up with (in the NFL’s case) 32 teams with a couple stars, a handful of great players, and a plethora of athletes who would not have been good enough to play professional sports 25 years ago. The NFL prides itself on parity because it means that any team can go from last to Super Bowl champion in any year or vice-versa, but that’s just the hyperbole the league uses to market an increasingly inferior product. A few key injuries, a bad call by a referee, an individual playing above or below his usual level, or an inspirational moment are all it takes for a team to win or lose at this point. The differences between playoff teams and lottery teams are few. The 49ers’ dynasty of the 1980’s, along with 70’s versions of that team from that city in Texas and the Pittsburgh Steelers, could not exist in today’s NFL because the salary cap would prevent them from keeping so many key players, while the increase in the number of teams would have decreased their ability to grab real talent in the draft. Even if the Team of the 80’s could have assembled itself in our current era, it is doubtful society would have let them enjoy their run of championships. The entire league has been reconstructed to prevent lasting greatness and reward happenstance.

From Barry Bonds, Mark Maguire, and Sammy Sosa to Lance Armstrong to the New England Patriots, anyone who has done what was thought to be impossible, has been hit with a myriad of controversies and asterisks. We can no longer watch greatness without doubting its veracity. The use of steroids, human growth hormones, videotaping, ball inflation, and a general attitude of disbelief have poisoned our minds and our champions. Did Barry Bonds use performance enhancing drugs (PED’s)? Yes, just look at his neck. Did Babe Ruth use performance enhancers? Probably, I wasn’t alive then, but I find it hard to believe Babe Ruth went out womanizing and drinking all night and woke up the next day and hit two homeruns without chemical assistance, especially when considering that amphetamines were used for decades before sports leagues tested for them.

While there is no performance enhancer in a bottle that allows anyone to make contact with a 95mph fastball or 80mph curveball; there is a medical procedure that could. Laser eye surgery allows players to improve their vision past the 20/20 threshold we call ‘normal’ to the eagle-like vision of 20/10 or better. Current 49ers left tackle Joe Staley brags on the radio about how Doctor Scott Hyver improved his vision to such a level. Surely his increased ability to spot a D-lineman’s knuckles whiten or the ground sink as weight shifts give Staley an unnatural advantage against his opponents. Wide receivers, tight ends, defensive backs, and quarterbacks all benefit from this increased eye sight, just as I imagine it would help a batter with the first half of the “see the ball, hit the ball” equation. There are no surgeries that allow a defensive end or pitcher a similar advantage, yet such medical procedures are not illegal. The use of hyperbaric healing chambers or casts would seem to have the similar effect (minus the health repercussions) as the PED’s which allow players to heal faster, except that hyperbaric healing is privy to only the richest teams in sports. Conversely, steroids and human growth hormones are available to anyone with a few thousand dollars to burn.

Now while Barry Bonds and Mark Maguire have supposed asterisks next to their records, please note that the Yankees do not have asterisks next to their early 2000’s championships, despite the fact that they violated their league’s rules on spending. Where and when does one differentiate between permissible unfair advantages and cheating? Most leagues claim to rely on player health as their gauge. Players are not allowed to use PED’s or play without appropriate protective gear because of the established and potential health risks. Yet there is no restriction as to how many innings a pitcher pitches or catcher spends squatting in their damaging stance. There is no restriction in football for how hard one hits another player, despite the obvious brain trauma. Athletes are commended for their personal sacrifice, even when it is their quality of life and life expectancy that they are affecting. How then is the potential for the cancers associated with steroid use different from the dangers of concussions? In both instances, the player takes known and unknown health risks to further their professional career. For someone like Jason Giambi, the use of various performance enhancers allowed him to compile amazing statistics, which turned into a lot of money along with a strange tumor in his stomach that ruined at least one of his seasons. Health risked is money gained. Giambi provides us with an excellent example of a player who admitted he “cheated” by using PED’s and was not penalized by then-commissioner Bud Selig for being honest about his deception. Clearly it is okay to cheat if you say you did before an investigation is deemed necessary. If player health was truly the gauge, most of the pro sports would be played very differently.

As with most things bad in modern sports, you can blame George Steinbrenner for starting this trend of breaking down champions. In the first half of the 1970’s, the Oakland Athletics pissed off (and all over) the baseball world with their facial hair and three straight championships. The then-new Yankees owner was so upset that the small-market, low-budget A’s had all the talent, that he forced the concept of free agency to be adopted. He then quickly offered Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Jay Johnstone, Paul Lindblad, and Ken Holtzman much more money than they would make anywhere else, with Hunter and Jackson the two highest paid players on the 1978 Yankee championship* team. Not to mention the three players Steinbrenner pilfered from the Cincinnati Reds, the other dominant team of the mid-70’s. Free agency spread to every league as players saw it as their opportunity to cash in on their talent and people lauded this as a positive, despite the fact that it pandered to greed and created unfair advantages between rich and poor teams. In fact, the only teams who benefit are those teams that are both popular and located in affluent areas. Just look at either end of the Bay Bridge to see this reality play out. It isn’t the creation of free agency that is to be derided at this moment; it’s the temporal reason it was implemented. The moment MLB gave into pressure to deconstruct a champion purely out of spite is the day we stopped honoring teams for being better than the rest and started questioning their validity.

Free agency wasn’t done in the name of player health, it was done in the name of fairness. Fairness then becomes our gauge by which to judge if a team or player is cheating. Fairness is an ideal, not a reality. No two people are truly equal in talent, skill, and application. I may be smarter than the average bear, but I’m lazier than Yogi, which prevents that intelligence from being put to good use. Similarly each team has its advantages and disadvantages. To balance this, the leagues create rules with which all teams must comply. Unless of course it’s the MLB or NBA salary cap, which teams knowingly and intentionally violate, pay penalties for, and win championships because of. Whereas only the richest teams can afford to violate their leagues’ salary caps, every team can deflate 2/3’s of their balls like the Patriots, or even 3/4‘s of them, as the Colt’s balls were during the AFC Championship.

If fairness and player health are not the criterion for establishing what constitutes cheating, we are forced to rely on the “integrity of the game.” This is where my mind goes to mush. I have no idea what integrity means in a day and age when a player who is filmed beating his fiancée unconscious initially gets a two game suspension and a player who maybe knew about ball deflation gets a 4 game suspension. I have no idea what the word integrity means when WCAL alum Tom Brady is suspended based on a questionable preponderance of the evidence (the US civil court standard) by Rodger Goodell who knew beyond a reasonable doubt (the US criminal court standard) that Ray Rice knocked another person out during a domestic dispute and did nothing until public opinion and the potential loss of revenue forced his hand. I also find it hard to believe there are no cameras monitoring the various areas of the stadium in which the Patriots equipment assistant John Jastremski and locker room attendant Jim McNally were letting air out of balls. Maybe the NFL knows about video recording but is choosing to ignore them (again) in favor of hearsay. Before you know it, strategic geniuses (or genii) like Bills Walsh and Belichick will be penalized or suspended or banned for being smarter and working harder than their peers because spotting opponents’ weaknesses creates an unfair advantage.

Don’t forget about the forward pass (first legal in 1906), taking a step while pitching (permitted in 1867), and being allowed to dribble (1901 allowed for one bounce and a player could not shoot after and 1909 when multiple dribbles and shooting off the dribble were allowed) were not permissible until “cheaters” showed how advantageous they were to the sport. Granted these were rule changes instituted by the various leagues, but it took players and coaches experimenting, pushing the limits, and succeeding by doing things not within the confines of the game. “Tuck Rule” anybody?