The world of sports would be so simple if it was just the game, and nothing more. What complication is there in a pick-up game of basketball on a playground? Did the team captains rig the game so one of them would have a loaded team? Did the winning team’s power forward get paid by his teammates? What is the harm in ten friends playing some five on five touch football? Did the best receiver get illegally recruited to play? Is there an official paying attention to the fact that one guy is consistently lining up a foot ahead of the line of scrimmage?
There is no scandal in pure sport. It’s a game. And when you play with friends, cheating is something you do just to see if they catch you, not to maliciously ruin their afternoon. But the moment sport becomes something official, someone tries to fix the game to further their own cause. Add fans, add dollars, add referees, add new stadiums, and owners, and contracts, and commercials, and awards, and television, and women, and drugs, and a sport becomes much more than a game. Illegal recruiting. Paid-off officials. Sketchy executives. Tanking. Conspiratory lotteries. Sex. Violence.
Honestly, if Monta Ellis is just a mechanic in Mississippi, sending pictures of himself to women wouldn’t even make the news. Not even the local news. If a business student at the University of Georgia received a gift of box seats to all Atlanta Falcons home games, no one would think twice. But when Terrell Pryor and some fellow football players get a few “free” tattoos, they get suspended from playing football and their coach loses his job.
Scandals of all types are more than common in sports. So which league, the NFL or the NBA, has to deal with more embarrassing headlines? Let’s see.
NBA, or Not Bad Artest
The NBA has gone through a major image change in the last ten years. The post-Jordan, pre-LeBron era had some troubling issues. The Portland ‘Jail’Blazers, Latrell Spreewell, and Kobe’s sexual assault case were all problematic for the league’s image. To make matters worse, the culture of the league’s players seemed one and the same with hip-hop culture, a world that still horrified most people. People feared hip-hop culture with understandable reason, too. Naming yourself N—-s with Attitude (NWA) or Public Enemy isn’t the best way to endear yourself to WASPs. This was before Kanye, the lovable jackass, or the insightful guys like Talib Kweli, Common, and Lupe Fiasco, or the pop-crossover guys like B.o.B. I don’t think people were ready to accept a music movement in which arguably its two most prominent members were shot dead in the space of less than a year. Today, hip-hop culture is still misunderstood and feared to some extent, but seriously, Andre 3000 is in a Gillette commercial. Rappers have come a long way in public opinion.
The NBA lacked lovable stars and had too many bad guys. And then one night in Auburn Hills, it all boiled over and the league was changed forever. As Ron Artest and several other players punched out fans, it became clear a change was in order. The problems the league and its players faced would have to be confronted. Luckily, the new batch of superstars drafted in 2003 and 2004 were very likable and good guys, and their entrance into the league came with a changing acceptance of hip-hop culture, helped along by some of the new names in the game. Change came, and today, any game aired on national television comes with an NBA Cares commercial. As I wrote in Grading the Games: The Gamers, today’s players are a good group. So when it comes to scandal, the league today has player behavior covered. The Monta Ellis suit is one of the occasional problems, but players keep out of major trouble for the most part.
The NBA also does fairly well in other categories too, but there are the occasional problems. Officiating has been free of scandal recently, but Tim Donaghy may still cast his shadow in the minds of some fans. Some people believe that the draft lottery is rigged so that the NBA can choose which team should get the first pick, with the last two drafts facing this scrutiny. Some teams purposely lose game at the end of the season in order to get better draft picks. But other than these minor problems, the NBA comes away with a fairly clean record. If you want, I suppose you can give some credit to Metta World Peace.
The NFL: Nasty Fighting Liars
I sufficiently covered in my last article in this series how problematic the behavior of NFL players is. And now there is a report about Elvis Dumervil being involved in a gun violence case. This problem seems to be getting worse and worse every year. Problems with player behavior also extends to very popular and successful ones, too. Never mind Tank Johnson, Pacman Jones, or Chris Henry (rest in peace), Ben Roethlisberger, a Pro Bowl, Super Bowl-winning quarterback, is supposed to be a sort of idol in professional sports. He’s from a town of 38,000 in Ohio best known for producing M1 Abrams tanks. Those kind of guys aren’t supposed to get in trouble, yet he was suspended 4 games in 2010 for his second alleged sexual assault. Let’s try to forget but always remember the Vikings’ Love Boat, too. The behavior of NFL players just looks bad, even when it comes to minor things like Gronkowski posing with an *ahem* “adult film” star.
Then when it comes to other scandals, the NFL continues to suffer. Spygate seems like a distant memory now, but Bountygate is screaming in our face. In fact, Bountygate could not be going any worse. If you believe the commissioner, coaches on the New Orleans Saints encouraged their players to injure, not just hurt, their opponents for additional pay. Jonathan Vilma stood up before the Saints/Vikings playoff game with 10k in his hand and offered it to whoever knocked Brett Favre out of the game. To take things further, the Saints have been nasty about being nasty. Their owner told them to cease and desist, but they went on with the system anyway. They vehemently deny the charges. They even go so far as to save Sean Payton’s spot on the bus, in essence saying “Screw you NFL, we do what we want.” If you believe the Saints players, then it means that the league officials have fabricated information to destroy the reputation of several coaches and players. But why would you believe the Saints players? Why would Gregg Williams destroy his career by admitting to a bounty system if there wasn’t one?
Perhaps worst of all, we are finally finding the devastating effects of a life in the NFL. As more and more retired players’ lives are cut short, some are claiming the league knew the risks but didn’t tell the players. That would be reprehensible, no doubt, but regardless, the fact remains that football is an inherently dangerous game. More than the ruined ACL or the broken shoulder. More than the freak accident that happened to Eric LeGrand or Kevin Everett. Head injuries could destroy the game of football.
Being the most publicized league has its problems and one is that scandal will not go unnoticed. The NFL once again struggles in this category.
Don’t worry, the NFL will fare much better in future categories. But so far, a D and a C+ to the NBA’s A- and B+ have the NFL off to a bad start. Like, comment, subscribe, post to Facebook and Twitter, email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for reading!