But maybe we shouldn’t lament the sundry scandals that have made 2007 the Year of the Cheater. Maybe, instead, we should see them as a desperately needed dose of reality — as incontrovertible proof that, in light of current financial and technological developments, our age-old idealization of sport has become untenable. Maybe we need a new, post-ethical conception of fandom, one that accepts cheating’s entrenched role in the fabric of 21st-century sport and prizes athletic and competitive prowess — regardless of whether it’s natural or lab-manufactured — over alleged good behavior. Look at the situation this way, and Ankiel, Belichick, & Co. didn’t let us down. Instead, they did us a favor.
Times have changed
I know what you’re thinking. Untwist your panties, Reilly, you dreary Midwestern killjoy. The Sox just won the AL East and have a shot at a second World Series title in four years; the Patriots are perfect and looking unbeatable; with the acquisition of Kevin Garnett, the Celtics have suddenly become the chic pick to win the NBA title; Boston College has replaced Notre Dame as the favorite football team of smug Catholics everywhere. Some of us are actually enjoying ourselves. Plus, none of this is new — ever heard of the Chicago Black Sox?
One point at a time, please. Yeah, I get it — it’s a nice time to be a Boston fan. Do enjoy yourself, please. But there’s a bigger sports universe out there, and it’s in the middle of an ethical realignment — thanks, in part, to the transgressions of the once-sainted Belichick. This here’s a chance to inoculate yourself against the disappointment you’ll feel the next time one of your sports heroes gets accused of some unsavory activity. And it will happen, so you might want to pay attention.
Now, about the Black Sox scandal of 1919, in which eight Chicago White Sox players were accused of intentionally throwing that year’s World Series. Yes, it’s a useful reminder that pro sports never quite had the sepia-tinged purity we like to imagine. And yes, baseball’s mess almost a century ago stacks up pretty well, in terms of sheer systematic ugliness, to its problems today. (“Everyone was betting,” says Purdue University sports historian Randy Roberts. “Fixed games were probably rampant at the time. The game was totally sullied.”) But baseball also took immediate steps to clean itself up — by implementing the Commissioner system, suspending eight players for life, and embracing a hard-core gambling stance that’s kept the game relatively clean (at least where gambling is concerned) and Pete Rose out of the Hall of Fame.
The 1951 point-shaving debacle in college basketball bears mention here, too. Like the Black Sox, this ugly affair — in which players from 1950 NCAA and NIT champion City College of New York (CCNY), the University of Kentucky, and five other teams were accused of colluding with bookmakers to tailor outcomes to point spreads — called the core credibility of the college game into question. And, as with the Black Sox, the punishment was harsh (32 players arrested, multiple indictments handed down, All American center Bill Spivey barred from the NBA for life). That didn’t fully prevent subsequent point-shaving imbroglios, including one involving the 1978–’79 Boston College men’s basketball team, but college basketball still managed to survive and thrive.