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Fables for our Reconstruction: Sports Scandals for the Soul

Whatever their wrongdoing, sports figures should by now realize just how predisposed to public judgement they really are. Here, a decade of wrongdoings, lest they forget.

What goes on in a fox's mind? Aesop claimed to know, but his fables haven't lasted because they're records of extra-species telepathy. It may very well be that the fox is a bitter creature, but the moral of the story in which he dismisses the unreachable grapes as sour is: "It's easy to despise what you cannot have." The fox, and the grapes for that matter, is beside the point.

All didactic literature works this way. The characters are mere signposts, designed to lead the reader to a predetermined revelation. But this kind of storytelling is not unique to literature alone. Sport, too, offers a great venue for the morality play. Instead of stock characters, though, we're given real human beings who are transformed by the media into two-dimensional cautionary tales. The warp and woof of nearly every sports scandal involves complimentary fascination and outrage, designed to shine a moralizing light on every sordid misdeed so that the rest of us can learn from these public transgressions (while enjoying vicarious thrills) and reinforce our shared sense of what passes for "the right thing".

So do we learn? Or is that even the right question? Sports continue to produce morality tales with all the efficiency and imagination of a movie franchiser. The cycle of incident-denial-press release-apology seems generic, the outrage predictable. It's clear that the bigger lesson is still not hitting home for many athletes. Whatever their wrongdoing, sports figures should by now realize just how predisposed to public judgement they really are.

As the decade rolls over, it seems an apt time to look back at a few of the biggest sports scandals of the new century. The list below is in no way comprehensive. It is, however, representative. By looking back on what balled our fists and flooded our airwaves, we are assuredly seeing some inkling of what will spark our indignation for the decades to come.

Moral #1: Lying is Bad

In 2001, George O'Leary was set to leave his successful tenure as the Georgia Tech head football coach and assume what's held by many to be the holy grail of coaching positions: Notre Dame. Routine checking, however, turned up several "inaccuracies" on O'Leary's resume, of both an academic and athletic nature. He was found to have falsified a Master's degree and his own playing experience; deeper digging uncovered even more discrepancies. Forced to withdraw his application in shame, O'Leary's lies were particularly damaging to the image of college football as a bastion for amateur, and therefore unspoiled, athletics. Worse for Notre Dame fans, the team went a mediocre 56-43 under their next two coaches.

Moral #2: Drugs are Bad

Performance-enhancing drugs have been the dark, dogged shadow of a variety of athletes and a variety of sports, but baseball and cycling share the honors for perhaps the worst scandals of decade. Baseball's late '90s popularity boom -- spawned by the superhuman home run feats of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and others -- went bust with a series of allegations, arrests, botched testimonials, and, ultimately, the 2007 Mitchell Report. The result of congressional inquiry, the report included 89 names of former and current players found to be using. The findings reified the sport's "steroid era", though players (David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez) have continued to be found guilty.

For its part, few (American) mentions of professional cycling are sounded without reference to drug use. National hero Lance Armstrong is continually hounded by to-date unproven allegations. Not so for Floyd Landis, the American who initially won the 2006 Tour de France only to have his title stripped after testing positive for synthetic testosterone. European riders seemed only too happy to reciprocate, as four tested positive for banned substances the very next year. Five failed tests in 2008. Though there were fewer the following year, which featured Armstrong's celebrated and intensely-followed return, a downward trend can hardly be expected to hold.

Moral #3: Fighting is Bad

One cup of soda can cause a lot of damage. Just ask John Green, the Detroit Pistons fan who, in November of 2004, sailed one through the air at then-Indiana Pacer forward Ron Artest. Things quickly escalated from a minor on-court scuffle, as Artest charged into the stands to exact retribution. Other players followed, and what ensued was something akin to the saloon brawl scenes you might find in old westerns. Suspensions were handed down, fines were levied, but the image of (black) players charging (white) fans is something the NBA has worked tirelessly to erase ever since.

Moral #4: Fighting Dogs is Worse

No single player in the past decade attracted the kind of antipathy that Michael Vick did. Revelations of his involvement as the sponsor and facilitator of a dog-fighting ring spawned protests nationwide. The NFL suspended him and his sponsors disowned him, costing the star quarterback millions of dollars. In addition, he was sentenced to 23 months in prison. All told, Vick's fall from grace was as swift and savage as the fights he helped to orchestrate, making his choice of kennel names eerily prophetic: Bad Newz.

Moral #5: (Racialized, Nonconsensual) Sex is Bad

What do Kobe Bryant, Janet Jackson, and the Duke lacrosse team have in common? All were involved in sex scandals in the past decade. Though Jackson's 2004 Super Bowl halftime "nipplegate" can hardly compare to allegations of rape, the image of her right breast being forcibly exposed by Justin Timberlake was pointed provocation. One could make the case that the event re-energized the so-called "moral majority", leading to a puritanical crackdown on "vulgarity" spearheaded by more aggressive regulation from the FCC.

As superfluous as some found the slip, though, Kobe's case was no laughing matter. Accused of raping a 19-year-old hotel attendant in 2003, Bryant admitted a sexual encounter but denied that it was rape. Prosecutors dropped their case in 2004, but his affable star had dimmed considerably. Publically admitting adultery is one thing (more on that to come), but that his accuser was white quickly mobilized stereotypes of aggressive black physicality -- slurs that have dogged a number of successful black athletes, from Jack Johnson to Terrell Owens.

A seeming reverse scenario occurred two years later, with an African American stripper filing what turned out to be false charges of rape against white members of the Duke lacrosse team. In the course of the controversy, the racial divide between privileged private school students and their black, working-class counterparts was laid bare. Allegations of a hate crime added fuel to the fire. In the end, the players were vindicated. Like the other controversies, though, this case revealed just how fraught the intersection of race, sex, and sports remains for the rest of us.

Moral #6: Cheating is Bad

Referees often take the blame for a team's fortunes. Generally, they provide a ready-made excuse for disgruntled fans and players. In the case of Tim Donaghy, the NBA ref who went to jail in 2008 for gambling on the very games he officiated, this gripe becomes more understandable. League commissioner David Stern has since made every effort to categorize Donaghy as a lone wolf whose swift punishment has solved the problem. He's also tried to discredit Donghy's recently-released book, which claims, to the contrary, that other refs had their own financial and personal stakes in officiating games.

Two years earlier, Italy's Serie A football (soccer) league was hit with a similar scandal. League champions Juventus were found to be involved in match-fixing, rigging games by selecting favorable referees. The Italian Football Federation's investigation resulted in harsh punishments as Juventus, along with fellow big name club AC Milan, were relegated out of the Serie A top tier of competition, with many of their star players jumping ship to more competitive teams.

Moral #7: Cheating on Your Wife is Much, Much Worse

Tiger Woods was named "The Athlete of the Decade" by the Associated Press. It's only fitting, then, that he ends that span of time with a scandal sized appropriately to his status. After a bizarre incident in which he was reported "seriously" injured in a low speed car crash in front of his home, details began to emerge about Woods's wife Elin smashing in his car window with a club. Though Woods requested privacy and stonewalled police investigators, an inexorable march of sordid history had begun, revealing his infidelity with upwards of a dozen confessed mistresses.

As an apolitical, multiracial, and entirely dominant figure on the PGA tour, Woods seemed incapable of offending anyone. He was a sponsor's dream, the perfect spokesman, which is why his public infidelity seems to have occasioned such profound outrage. In many ways, Woods was a blank slate upon which fans and companies alike could project their own images. To learn that his vapid persona actually masked a human being capable of treachery seems for many too much to bear.

And yet, these or other of the decade's scandals are any indication, Woods will return once again to prominence and bask in public forgiveness. The final act in the sports scandal genre is the humbling of the once-esteemed transgressor and the lauding of that person having "learned their lesson" as they are welcomed back into the fold. Of course, just what's been learned is hard to say. We can't see into a Tiger's mind any more than a fox's. Still, as the media inevitably rushes to convert the next sports figure into a morality tale, that transgressor can take small solace in this story's history. Soon enough, there'll be another athlete to decry, and another moral that needs telling.

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