Monday, July 23, 2007

More bad news from the world of sports.

If you are a sports fan, you have a rich menu of bad news to choose from right now. The two stories will the most drama, since both will end up in court barring some strange reversal, are NBA ref Tim Donaghy (on left, listening to Kobe Bryant) and Atlanta Falcons QB Michael Vick. Donaghy has been charged with gambling on games he refereed, and with contact with organized crime figures. Vick allowed dog fights on his property, and in the charges against him, he is also accused of killing dogs that did not fight well enough in a variety of horrifying ways, including electrocution and drowning.

On, there is currently a poll asking which of these cases is more disturbing to fans. While as a mathematician, I know the results of such polls aren't reliable because of self-selection bias, the current results are 55% to 45% in favor of refs fixing games being the worse news. I voted in the majority on this one, but I also understand the position of those who feel Vick's case is worse.

My guess as to which of these outrages will be taking up more space in the media over the next few months would be the Vick story. I say this mostly because of star power, though race and morbid curiosity are also factors.

I voted the other way on the question of disturbing because I've thought for decades that referees were the weakest link in regards to the integrity of pro sports. If a game is going to be fixed so that gamblers can make money on it, it can't be cost effective to bribe a top pro athlete, a guy whose bad performance could reliably change the outcome of the game. I'm not even sure if you can blackmail one of these guys. Kobe Bryant was charged with rape, but not convicted, so it's ignored by the media now. All Pro linebacker Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens was charged and acquitted of murder; now, his endorsement deals are back. The most likely blackmail situation would be the threat of exposing a closeted gay athlete in a team sport.

As for college sports, all bets are off, or should be. The system is tailor made for corruption. The only people making so much you can't afford to bribe them are the coaches of top basketball and football programs.

The word right now is that the NFL and the Falcons both want Vick to take the year off and come back only if he is acquitted of the charges, and they might get the weak players' union to join in. While I agree with their position, this is effectively removing all protection from Vick, and the hounds of the press will now see an opportunity to attack. The NBA is already calling Donaghy "former ref Donaghy", even though his resignation came only this week once allegations were made public. While he will be at the center of a media feeding frenzy, I expect the pack of jackals to be smaller, and I know the NBA will trot out the "one bad apple" defense when shoring up the integrity of their league.

Personally, I don't believe there is just one bad apple, and I also don't think the problem is confined to pro basketball. Nearly every major sport is at the mercy of the officials to keep it clean, and these guys aren't being paid that much. If there are crooked cops and teachers willing to cheat, and there are, there are crooked officials in sports. Plural.

It's the miracle of the marketplace.

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