Wipe the slate clean

Sports crime 2008
By MATT TAIBBI  |  January 2, 2008

080104_blotter_main
AUCTION BLOCK: The annual NFL scouting combine is rife with discomfiting racial imagery. Here, Grambling quarterback Bruce Eugene works out for scouts.

So the next year in sports crime is here. Receding in the rear-view mirror are the stars of last year — the Pacman Joneses, the Tony LaRussas, the Michael Vicks, the coke-dealing, gun-toting Montana State University wideouts. It’s time to wipe the slate clean and compile a fresh list of sports miscreants for the New Year, which is, incidentally, according to the Chinese calendar, the Year of the Rat.

But before we do, I just wanted to address a recurring complaint registered by more than a few readers of the column, the gist of which is a feeling that the Sports Blotter is essentially a racist exercise, one whose entire purpose is to provide affluent white readers with amusing tales of young black jocks getting into boneheaded jams. And you know what? That complaint is not without merit.

I started writing this column years ago mainly because I’m a die-hard sports fan who reads mountains of sports writing every day, and who somewhere along the line started to notice common threads in the sports-crime news stories, which were entertaining — mind you, in a sick and disturbing sort of way. So I started compiling them, pointing out the commonalities — the same terse agent-drafted apologies, the consistently similar “we’re going to let the justice system run its course” statements issued by nervous, half-guilty college athletic directors, the timeless “routine traffic stops” of black athletes that magically turn into news-grabbing felony busts.

Now, you’d have to be an idiot to do this kind of work and not notice that this is a very racially charged subject. Race and class are the twin electric subtexts to the entire multibillion-dollar business of pro and major-college sports. Watch any NFL game on television and you’ll see every block on Madison Avenue represented in the ads, as luxury cars and ED drugs and beer are sold to well-to-do and predominantly white demographics in between captivating scenes of predominantly black gladiatorial combat. Strip pro sports of its show-biz fanfare and its fawning, pseudo-literary George Will–style mythology, and basically what you have is Big Business selling mostly poor and mostly black desperation to the disposable-income class of couch-bound white America.

Anyway you look at it, it’s a cruelly exploitative business. Sometimes, the exploitation in the sports world stinks of something particularly loathsome — as in the case of the NFL draft, where every year a fresh boatload of young black men arrives in Indianapolis for a “scouting combine” that hardly even bothers to conceal its eerie resemblance to the slave auctions of the early 19th-century plantation states.

Where does sports crime fit into all of this? Well, that’s not hard to figure out. As they always have in this country, the best athletes come from the poorest neighborhoods — they were Polish or Irish immigrants once upon a time (still their descendants sometimes), they’re mostly black now. You start with sports that value rage and aggressiveness as athletic virtues and you find kids to compete in them among the sea of broken homes and dysfunctional schools in our ever-widening cultural margins. We don’t give a shit about those places and we won’t spend real time or money or effort to fix them; what we offer instead is a sham warrior fantasy in which the Best and the Strongest get to leave the hood or the farm behind and hit the jackpot in the big-city pros. It’s a one-in-a-million escape rate, but, for the most part, we only see the winners.

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