The old ball game
Sex scandals ruin politicians and barely touch athletes
Posted: Tuesday March 11, 2008 2:40PM; Updated: Wednesday March 12, 2008 12:23PM
You may have heard that the Governor of New York was caught with his tailored trousers down in a little prostitution probe. As the torch-bearing mob congregated, Eliot Spitzer tendered his resignation and could have been forgiven for wishing he were a star athlete rather than a star politician.
I don't mean the simple desire to be elsewhere, though Lawd knows Spitzer is perfect for one of those Southwest Airlines ads ("Want to get away?"). A garden variety sex scandal -- hookers, strip club slap-and-tickle, a squeeze on the side -- rarely ruins a star athlete's career on the pro level. Consider Paul Lo Duca, Kobe Bryant, Gold Clubbers Andruw Jones and Patrick Ewing, and Wade Boggs to name but a celebrated few. They may have squirmed after the flashlight beamed in the fogged-up back window of their Ford Explorer, but they weren't booted by their teams or run out of town for failing to keep Mr. Pee Dee in check although the tabloids had a merry old time until the next Lothario got pinched.
Now, something truly vile, like rape, is another matter, but even an $11.5 million sexual harassment settlement has not gotten Isiah Thomas evicted from The Garden. (Given his survival in the ongoing farce at MSG, it's obviously going to take a war crimes tribunal to get him out.) The crucial factor is that athletes are generally valued by their teams and beloved by the public, like the celebrities who enhance their appeal and careers with steamy sexcapades. (If you recall, even Tonya Harding managed to acquire a little, uh, luster with a video in the wake of that 1994 club incident involving rival skater Nancy Kerrigan.)
While the role models factor plays a part in amping a sex scandal, hanky-panky seems to substantiate an athlete's virility -- the ol' boys will be boys haw-haw thing. Politicians, on the other grimy hand, are reviled for being gold-plated phonies who raise your taxes. Elections are a Hobson's choice between the crook or the schnook, and these clowns are a devalued dime a dozen, unlike athletes with talent that puts fannies, um, in the seats. So teams are loathe to exact Draconian punishment for a little illicit nookie. Political rivals are not. In times like these, they will gleefully embrace the Codes of Islamic Law.
Spitzer, who cultivated a reputation as ruthless pursuer of corruption as New York's Attorney General, took office as a self-proclaimed "bleepin' steamroller" -- it's clear now he was referencing James Taylor's old song ("I'm a steamroller, baby. A churnin' urn of burnin' funk...") -- and has thus inspired a goodly amount of the schadenfreude that also flows to fat cat corporate titans and self-righteous religious figures who get caught in similar compromised positions. In some sporting cases -- Barry Bonds and his Arizona tootsie come to mind -- similar feelings are inspired, but we usually get our damp Knickerbockers in a bigger twist about Stephon Marbury's desultory play rather than his boinking a comely intern in an SUV. The possibility of Bill Belichick cheating at football is seen as a more egregious offense than cheating in the hallowed arena of Holy Acrimony.
Of course, having a pro contract is not an ironclad defense in these affairs. You'd better be on top of your game if you're going to be on top of...ahem. Take Denny Neagle, fer instance. The Rockies hurler had been sidelined by injury for more than a year when he was caught showing a lady of the night where the horse bit him. End of story in Colorado, where the team cited Neagle for failing, refusing or neglecting "to conform his personal conduct to the standards of good citizenship and good sportsmanship."
For the most part, sports stars survive to play another day. Falcons safety Eugene Robinson had his little brush with Miami vice prior to Super Bowl XXXIII and put in another two seasons before retiring at age 35. Daunte Culpepper, Fred Smoot and Bryant McKinnie of Vikings Love Boat fame are still around. Alabama football coach Mike DuBose lasted the '99 season after admitting he'd been snooping in his secretary's drawers, an act that hung a $350,000 sexual harassment tab on his employer. DuBose's unpardonable sin was going 3-8 in 2000.
While this space believes that what one does with vegetable oil and legally consenting leather-clad dollies behind closed doors is your own damned business, violating the aptly-named Mann Act (transporting a courtesan across state lines for the purpose of paying her for moo-moo) is a federal offense and not what we want from our duly elected leaders. But forgiveness and redemption are always possible (see: broadcaster Marv Albert). Gov. Spitzer may get it one day -- and is probably really getting it from his wife right about now -- but that very likely would not have happened while he remained in office.
Now, if Spitzer were a Cy Young-winner, he'd be taking the hill on Opening Day and all would be forgotten soon enough.