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TWO CASES OF INTEGRITY
It's hard to imagine anything in sport more disturbing than the possibility that participants might not always be doing their best to win. Last week NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien fined a club owner $10,000 for raising just such a specter. Meanwhile, Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn was characteristically mum about indications that big league teams might be similarly withholding their best efforts.
O'Brien levied the fine against the San Diego Clippers' Donald T. Sterling, whose team has one of the two worst records this season, the Dallas Mavericks having the other, in the Western Conference. Sterling intimated in a speech that he would like to see the Clippers finish last and win the coin toss with the Eastern Conference's worst team, so that San Diego would be awarded the first pick in the next college draft, in which Virginia's 7'4" Ralph Sampson is likely to be the plum. "We must end up last to draw first and get a franchise-maker," Sterling said. "I guarantee you that we will have the first, second or third pick in the next draft." Sterling also said he was reluctant to acquire Seattle Guard Paul Westphal, who has reached an impasse in contract negotiations with the SuperSonics. The owner explained that " Westphal would win us games" and thus make it less likely that the Clippers would finish in the cellar.
In a letter to Sterling informing him of the fine, O'Brien said, "Our fans rightfully expect that the management and players of every NBA team are striving at all times to compete at the highest level possible.... Your unfortunate comments strike at the integrity of this league and cannot be excused." After learning of O'Brien's action, Sterling, who indicated that he would appeal the fine, tried to explain away his remarks by saying, "We want to win and we want to improve our team. What I meant was that the fans shouldn't lose hope, although we are losing. I meant to tell them that from all this something good might come."
Meanwhile, questions about just how committed to victory baseball owners might be have been prompted by the unaccustomed caution they have exercised in dealing with the current crop of 41 free agents, only 13 of whom have been signed so far. Seven of the signees have returned to their original teams, and the money offered has generally been far less generous than in the past. There would be nothing wrong with this if each of the 26 big-league owners had independently determined that he could no longer afford megabuck free-agent contracts. But Marvin Miller, executive director of the Major League Players Association, alleged last week that the clubs were not acting independently but were guilty of collusion; Miller charged they had acted in concert to keep the lid on free-agent salaries in violation of a provision in the basic player-management agreement that such negotiations be conducted "solely by each player and each club for his and its own benefit." Miller was reportedly considering filing an arbitration grievance in the matter.
Inherent in any finding that the owners were guilty of collusion would be the implication that at least some of them had refrained from bidding for the best talent available, thereby improving their teams, even though they could afford to do so. Nevertheless, although he talks about protecting the game's integrity, Kuhn has evinced no interest in determining whether such collusion exists. Neither has he reacted to threats by Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf to thwart the free-agency process in another way if a team other than the Sox should sign Ed Farmer, the club's free agent pitcher. As compensation for such a signing, the White Sox would be entitled to select a player from a pool stocked for that purpose by all the teams participating in the free-agent draft. But Reinsdorf says he would be "inclined" to select a pool player only from the team signing Farmer, thus implementing a form of direct compensation, something the owners sought during last year's negotiations but failed to get even after enduring a disastrous players' strike over the issue. Reinsdorf s threat suggests that he would conceivably select a pool player of lesser quality than other available players. That would scarcely make the White Sox a better team. But then, baseball owners don't appear to be under the same compulsion as NBA owners to, in O'Brien's phrase, strive "at all times to compete at the highest level possible."
TORPID START, CALAMITOUS FINISH
We would be remiss in letting the 1981 football season become history without taking due note of two games, one professional and one high school, that were memorable for their start and finish, respectively:
THE WHAT-ARE-WE-DOING--HERE-ANY-WAY BOWL. In the season finale between the NFL's two worst teams before 17,073 spectators in Baltimore's 60,714-seat Memorial Stadium, the Colts outlasted the Patriots 23-21, leaving both teams with 2-14 records. The following are the game's first seven plays from scrimmage: Patriot Vagas Ferguson dropped for a one-yard loss; after five-yard New England false start penalty, Patriot Sam Cunningham stopped for no gain; upon being sacked, Quarterback Tom Owen fumbled but recovered for an eight-yard loss; Colt Ray Butler fumbled Rich Camarillo's punt and New England recovered, but play nullified because of Patriot penalty; Camarillo bobbled snap and got off eight-yard punt; Baltimore's Curtis Dickey dropped for two-yard loss.
THE GAME'S-NOT-OVER-TILL-IT'S-OVER CLASSIC. With five seconds to play and his team leading 24-21 in a state regional playoff game, Quarterback Butch Ross of Shawnee Mission ( Kans.) South High merely had to take the snap on his opponents' 40-yard line and fall on the ball to wrap up a victory over Shawnee Mission West. Instead, Ross took the snap, retreated toward his own goal line and waited for the five seconds to elapse. Then, to celebrate their team's apparent victory, South High fans descended onto the field, and a couple of West players congratulated Ross. Less gracious, however, was West Safety John Reichart, who raced up to the unsuspecting Ross, snatched the ball from him and ran into South's end zone. Reichart felt that because Ross had never downed the ball, it was still in play. The officials agreed, ruling it a touchdown for West, which thus won 27-24. "The rule states that play continues until [the ball] is blown dead and the official moves in," Nelson Hartman, executive secretary of the Kansas State High School Activities Association, said in upholding the ruling. "For the play to be dead, Ross's knee had to touch the ground." South partisans objected that if the ball indeed was still in play, the ref should have penalized one side or the other for having too many players, not to mention fans, on the field. But it was only South people, thinking the game was over and won, who had been guilty of this transgression. Hartman concluded, "There were at least one player and four officials who realized the game wasn't over."