This week a Sports Illustrated columnist asked, “What would it take for you to give up football?” It’s a sport whose participants frequently suffer serious injuries. In rare instances these injuries can cause permanent paralysis. And now there’s growing concern about the cumulative effects of blows to the head that, taken individually, don’t appear to be that bad. Players are getting bigger, stronger and faster. Collisions are getting more violent. Our modern-day gladiators are literally taking years off their lives to entertain us every Sunday, and we couldn’t be happier. Every game is a sellout and TV ratings are through the roof. But labor troubles could be in the NFL’s immediate future. If there’s a lengthy players’ strike, will that be enough to burst the bubble?
How about auto racing? NASCAR’s television audience increased immediately following the death of Dale Earnhardt. Perhaps John Q. Public thought he had found a new blood sport. In the nearly 10 years since, safety has improved dramatically and TV ratings have dropped. Coincidence?
What would it take for you to give up baseball? In the last few years we have seen a steroids scandal that invalidated the Hall of Fame credentials of the sport’s biggest names and an All-Star Game that ended in a tie. Baseball denied its steroids problem for years before the Mitchell Report named 89 players with varying levels of involvement. But baseball didn’t invalidate the statistics accumulated by those players, nor did it rescind the wins of the teams that benefited. The Mitchell Report was baseball’s apology to a suspicious public, but baseball’s actions since the report’s release have failed to demonstrate a sincere commitment to a clean sport. Baseball won’t vacate records and championships. Such actions appear to be confined to collegiate sports, as in the recent case of Reggie Bush.
And what about cycling? Anyone can tune into football, baseball or NASCAR and be a “fan.” But following pro cycling requires real dedication. To be an American fan of a predominantly European sport is to read obscure magazines, to visit websites from countries whose languages you don’t understand, and only rarely to enjoy televised races. So, what would it take to make you stop? Not crashes, certainly … or even deaths. Like auto racing, cycling has its share of those. But fatalities and crippling injuries are very rare. How about drug scandals, then? They’re plentiful enough. Still, no.
For all its problems with doping, cycling does appear to be sincere in its pursuit of clean competition. In that respect it’s different from baseball, but like baseball it doesn’t vacate championships. Maybe it should. Maybe the official result of the 2006 Tour de France should be “no winner.” Maybe when cycling catches a cheater it should invalidate the results of not just that rider, but also the rest of his teammates in that event. It’s one thing to take performance enhancing drugs in pursuit of your own goals, but you would have to be a real bastard to jeopardize the livelihoods of your entire team. Imagine having to face your teammates after getting them all kicked out, perhaps costing them victories and monetary prizes. I like to think the offender would be forced to endure something like the blanket party from Full Metal Jacket. Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but when you’re in a hurry it also can be as simple as a soap bar wrapped in a towel.
The one thing that could make me turn away from pro cycling is the prospect that the whole system is so corrupt that not even the sport’s governing body can be trusted. If it’s true that the UCI accepted a bribe, more-or-less, to cover up Lance Armstrong’s doping control failures, then the only hope for the sport is to replace the UCI. But I think we’ll never really know, and in the space between what I suspect and what I would like to be true, I will remain a fan.