Whistle-blowers draw scorn, but they are needed to keep balance
Listen. Do you hear the whistles blowing? It's getting to be a cacophony, a virtual choir of stool pigeons singing their songs, telling their tales of sports scandals to the media, to the authorities, to anyone who will listen.
At every turn, someone is snitching, whether it's O.J. Mayo's former friend (Louis Johnson) or Bill Belichick's former employee (Matt Walsh) or Roger Clemens' former personal trainer (Brian McNamee.)
Johnson has a cocaine possession conviction on his record, McNamee is an admitted steroid dealer, and Walsh claims to have helped the Patriots cheat by taping opposing teams' signals. Together they make up quite a rogue's gallery of recent tattletales, along with Jose Canseco, who hustled a quick buck by leveling steroid allegations in a pair of books. None of these gentlemen appear to be shining examples of moral rectitude, but the accounts of cheating they are telling appear to have at least some truth to them.
That's why, even though the whistle-blowers usually aren't the type you would want to use as role models for your kids, they are important, maybe even essential, to maintaining whatever integrity is left in and around the games we watch. They help hold back the anything-goes tide of dishonesty that threatens to wash over all of sports. Not that most of them have nearly that high-minded a motivation, of course.
Take Johnson, the former sportswriter who alleges that Mayo, the one-and-done wonder who led USC to the NCAA tournament, accepted cash and gifts from an agent's representative named Rodney Guillory in violation of NCAA rules. If we're piecing together the details of this sordid story properly, it appears that Johnson came forward not because he was suddenly offended by the alleged rule-breaking, which he claims to have known about for years, but because Guillory had bumped him out of Mayo's inner circle. In short, he was out for revenge.
Other snitches come clean out of the need for self-preservation, as was the case with McNamee, who told what he knew about Clemens, Andy Pettitte and performance-enhancing drugs to the feds because they threatened him with jail time if he didn't. And then there's always good, old-fashioned greed, which seems to have been the driving force behind Canseco's two tell-alls, which aimed steroid allegations against several well-known ballplayers. The first book was successful enough financially that Canseco was inspired to subject the public to a second one, in which his stories -- including his defense of Clemens -- didn't seem to have the same ring of truth.
It's hard to tell exactly why Walsh, who met with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Tuesday, came forward. Perhaps after serving as a lowly Pats assistant, he couldn't resist the chance to gain some attention and exert some power over Belichick, the former boss who professes to barely remember him. He wouldn't be the first whistle-blower to be driven by ego, the chance to feel important. To be fair, not all whistle-blowers expose wrongdoing to protect themselves or for personal gain. Plenty of people, whether professors uncovering academic fraud or others looking out for the common man, do the public service by exposing those who cheat.
Whistle blowing in sports is far from a new phenomenon. The current tattlers are just the latest in a long line of people who have opened the door to reveal the skeletons in their colleagues' closets. Carla Berry, an assistant coach for the LSU women's basketball team, alerted the school's administration to alleged improper relationships that coach Pokey Chatman had with some of her players, leading to Chatman's resignation in 2007. In 1999, University of Minnesota basketball office manager Jan Gangelhoff went public with evidence that she had done coursework for Gophers basketball players, leading to coach Clem Haskins' resignation and sanctions against the program for academic fraud. As far back as 1988, Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, an Iowa assistant at the time, taped conversations with Illinois recruit Deon Thomas in which Thomas admitted receiving cash and a car from the Illinois program. Pearl turned the tapes over to the NCAA, which later uncovered other violations and banned Illinois from postseason play for a year.
It has been going on for decades, but is snitching satisfying? Hard to say, but it's worth noting that not many of the whistle-blowers have really prospered after the act, with Pearl being a notable exception (though it took Pearl many years to recover from the scorn of his fellow coaches). Whatever Canseco gained for his bank account, for instance, he lost in the respect of his peers.
Even nobler whistle-blowers have suffered for what they did. Former Baylor assistant basketball coach Abar Rouse, whose taped conversations with head coach Dave Bliss in 2003 helped reveal Bliss' attempt to cover up illegal payments he had made to one of his players, hasn't coached a game since. He is currently out of coaching, making airplane parts in a factory in Wichita Falls, Texas. Apparently other coaches are afraid to have someone on their staff whom they could not trust to keep their secrets, no matter how unsavory, at all costs.
But blacklisting Rouse won't keep the wrongdoers safe from exposure. Blowing the whistle is as old and as natural a human instinct as the urge to cheat, and it often arises from many of the same places -- personal ambition, ego, pride. As long as there are players and coaches who break rules, they will have to fear the colleagues who will turn on them and tell on them. It may not feel right to honor them for breaking a trust, but we have to acknowledge their necessity. All of sport will be in trouble if the whistles ever fall silent.