Who was the athlete of the year in 2007? That’s a tough call. But it might be one of Michael Vick’s dogs. It doesn’t matter whether the dog survived or not. In terms of influencing the news (the standard by which Time made Vladimir Putin its “Person of the Year”), Vick’s wretched dogs have as much claim on the title as any human who put on pads or shorts and went out to play game for money or glory. Those dogs played for truly big stakes. If Peyton Manning had blown the Super Bowl, he would have been out a few commercials. The dogs got hanged. Or worse.
Not that Vick’s dogs didn’t have some tough competition for the title. Barry Bonds hit the home run that made him the all-time king of the long ball. He was also indicted (imagine Vick and Bonds as cellmates) and exposed for a liar and cheater. Exposed, that is, to anyone who still believed Bonds had not — as he blithely maintained — used steroids to give himself a second athletic life. Bonds, of course, holds fans — and humanity in general — in surly contempt so maybe he thought he was getting away with it. They kept coming out, after all, to see him hit those big ones and then stood there admiring what his wonderful self (made new by drugs) had done.
Of course, Bonds isn’t the heart of modern baseball. That organ would be the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry. Roger Clemens pitched for both teams. He was exposed, by one of those ubiquitous commissions (this one headed by a former senator) as a steroid user. Drugs had resurrected his career and enabled him to compile statistics (which are sacred in baseball) that made him, arguably, the best pitcher of his generation and one of the best of all time.
Clemens wasn’t the only one. There were more — many more — and the commission didn’t have the authority to expose every steroid user in baseball. Only enough of them to make a convincing case that the sport has been thoroughly corrupted in the years after the last players’ strike. That was a time when people who loved the game sincerely worried that fans might desert it in disgust. So what happened? Players who had been average to slightly-above in the home-run-hitting department began to send balls soaring over the fences in numbers never seen before. And the fans came back. Everyone, in fact, bought in. Including the owners and the media people who are now shocked, shocked to learn that it was drugs that saved the game and all those millions and millions in television and gate receipts.
Clemens has issued a statement in which he denies using the stuff and his lawyer has put some private detectives out in the field. Ah, yes. According to the manual of scandal-fighting tactics — developed during the Nineties — one issues an angry denial, retreats into the bunker, and sends out the operatives and flacks to wage guerillas warfare on the truth. One expects to see Lanny Davis on television any day now, smiling, splitting legal hairs, and smearing Senator George Mitchell and the people who gave him the information in his report. Mike Vick, similarly, insisted that he was innocent. He then allowed supporters to say he was being persecuted for racial reasons. Then he let his lawyer say some things about how Vick looked forward to clearing his good name.
That’s the drill.
Marion Jones, the track star, had also insisted, righteously, that she’d never used steroids and that all those Olympic medals were hers on the level. Not so. She cried when she apologized. The Olympics asked for the medals back.
In basketball, it wasn’t drugs. Not this year, anyway. The NBA’s scandal involved gambling which, in big-time sports, can be lethal. It doesn’t take many players to fix a basketball game, as several point-shaving scandals in the college game have demonstrated. And even a casual follower of the game can appreciate how much a referee who is in the pockets of gamblers could influence the score and make sure a team comes in over, or under, the line. Well, it turns out the NBA had a ref who gambled and got in over his head. Ten years ago, that might have been fatal to the game. But this year, it didn’t seem like such a big deal. Perhaps because a ref can only fix the results of the games he actually officiates. So the corruption wasn’t systemic. Or maybe — and this seems more likely — the fans have simply become accustomed to a certain amount of scandal in sports. News that the New England Patriots were doing a little illegal spying on opposing teams seemed predictable and amusing. Of course they were, and wasn’t it just like Coach Bill Belichick to go for any edge, even one that eventually got him fined half-a-million dollars and cost his team a draft choice.
And that, in fact, might be the big sports story of 2007: the end, not of illusions, but of disillusionment. After all, in order to be disillusioned, you need illusions. The kid who pleaded, “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” to Shoeless Joe Jackson after the White Sox had fixed a World Series for the benefit of gamblers was honestly dismayed. He believed, quaintly, in the integrity of the game.
The games are the back-story, now. The 2007 Super Bowl? Boring, but winning it did get Peyton some more endorsements. World Series? Red Sox and ho hum. NBA finals? Can’t even remember. But the Barry Bonds story? That baby had legs. And the Mike Vick saga? Hard to think of a case, since Icarus, where the fortunes of a single star have soared so high and then crashed so spectacularly. You could have said it was “tragic,” if it hadn’t been for the dogs. Those poor beasts made it merely tawdry; like just about everything else in sports in the unlamented year of two thousand and seven.
— Geoffrey Norman is editor of vermonttiger.com.