COPING, FITFULLY, WITH THE SPORTS WORLD'S GROWING CASE LOAD
The current wave of off-the-field wrong-doing by athletes has sports officials in a quandary. They reject the approach of many American corporations, which generally leave the imposition of punishment for away-from-the-office employee misbehavior to law-enforcement authorities. What makes their own situation different, sports officials say, is that they operate in a fishbowl in which misconduct by athletes can lead to public relations problems or scandals involving things like fixed games. Besides, the fans want action. "We're in the public eye," NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle said last week. "All of the money our sport derives comes from people who buy tickets or watch on TV."
The sports establishment has every right to try to keep its own house in order. League and team officials are plainly free to police activities that directly affect the integrity of sports, such as cheating, excessive violence and gambling by athletes on games. But dealing with other misdeeds is a trickier matter. Sports officials aren't as likely to try to dictate length of players' hair or to silence athletes' political views as they once were, and they've made some effort to approach compulsive drug and alcohol use not only in terms of whether those conditions may imply criminal conduct but also as the illnesses they're recognized to be. At the same time, league officials are still governed by a punishment mentality, even in cases in which the offenses don't have anything to do with sports.
With Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn's blessing, the Dodgers three weeks ago levied a $53,867 fine, the biggest ever for a ballplayer, against Pitcher Steve Howe for resuming cocaine use after having been treated for a drug dependency. That was in line with Kuhn's policy that players with such a condition may undergo treatment once with impunity but face punishment if they later slip up. Rozelle meanwhile was contemplating fines or suspensions for NFL players who've had scrapes with the law. These include Cardinal Linebacker E.J. Junior and Saints Cornerback Greg Stemrick, who pleaded guilty and no contest, respectively, to cocaine charges. Five Dallas Cowboys, including Tony Dorsett and Harvey Martin, have been mentioned in connection with federal drug investigations. Four other NFL players have been implicated in drug cases in other ways.
Oddly enough, it isn't clear just what Kuhn and Rozelle expect to accomplish with their disciplinary actions. One avowed objective is to deter wrongdoing by other players, but if existing deterrents, such as the risk of arrest or the danger of impairing performance and cutting short careers, don't keep players off drugs, it's unlikely that fines or suspensions will, either. This is especially true in view of the leagues' confused disciplinary policies, by which they presume to make their own determinations, based on nonmedical considerations, of whether a player is ill. For instance, they generally promise amnesty to drug users who voluntarily come forward for help but threaten to punish those who "get caught." This ignores, of course, that the users could be ill in either case. Furthermore, the gratuitous imposition of punishment only in those cases already dealt with by the police and courts really isn't much of a deterrent.
Then there's Kuhn's edict that drug-dependent ballplayers can be punished if they suffer a relapse. Not only is this likely to discourage some drug users from seeking help, it also amounts to having baseball people arbitrarily determining when an illness ceases to be an illness. Thus, when Howe showed up late for a game last week, pleading "very personal problems," he was first suspended by the club without pay and then reinstated after urinalysis showed him to be "clean." Howe's continued erratic behavior has unquestionably hurt his team, and the Dodgers would have been within their rights to fire him for that reason when he showed up late. Or, if he was suffering emotional problems (whether related to his cocaine dependency or not), they could have put him on the disabled list. Instead, by basing their decision to punish him on urinalysis results, they were persisting in baseball's curious an-illness-sometimes-really-isn't-an-illness approach to such problems.
Another rationale for punishment is that it protects a sport's image. This is where the fishbowl argument comes in. Some off-the-field offenses are so abhorrent to the public that fines and suspensions may well be justified. A case in point is Cowboy Wide Receiver Lance Rentzel's conviction in 1971 for indecent exposure involving a child; Rozelle suspended Rentzel, who'd pleaded guilty to a similar charge in 1966, for nearly a year, an action that withstood a strenuous court challenge. Yet the image of big-time sports may not be quite as fragile as Rozelle and Kuhn seem to suggest. After all, baseball and NFL attendance has remained robust despite the proliferation of drug use by athletes. This doesn't mean that fans approve this illegal activity. It merely reflects the sorry fact that drug use has become so pervasive in American society—particularly in the entertainment world, of which sports is increasingly part—that its prevalence in sports has come to be viewed as inevitable.
In punishing athletes for offensive behavior, sports officials are, in many cases, merely catering to the desire of fans that they "do something"—never mind that the actions are likely to be ineffectual. Or worse than ineffectual: Subjecting athletes to penalties ordinary citizens don't face contributes to the myth that those athletes are special characters, a notion, it's generally agreed, that has helped "spoil" the modern athlete and make misbehavior on his part more likely.
Instead of engaging in empty gestures, the sports establishment should try to get the message across that athletes are human beings who must be subject to the same laws as other citizens: They shouldn't receive special favors or special punishment. Unless the integrity of the game is directly affected, illnesses ought to be left to the doctors and crimes to the police. Sports officials should deal in punishment only when it actually accomplishes something. In the meantime, clubs have every right to get rid of miscreants. Teams will find life quite a bit simpler, however, if they base such actions, as other businesses usually do, on how a player's wrongdoing affects performance.
And what of the fans? In their authoritative book, The Law of Sports, Duke law professor John C. Weistart and Indianapolis attorney Cym H. Lowell make the argument that fans can no more expect to be wholly "insulated from unpleasantness" in sports than in other areas of their lives. This applies, incidentally, to young fans, the ones for whom, it's often flatly asserted, athletes serve as role models. But the present epidemic of wrongdoing reminds us only too vividly of the truth of the matter: While some athletes are indeed role models, others most certainly are not.