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Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2010

Say It Ain't So, Derek and Bruce and…

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A future baseball Hall of Famer fakes an injury to get on base in a big game. An acclaimed basketball coach admits deception about violations of NCAA recruiting rules. A former college football hero gives back his Heisman Trophy amid an improper-payments scandal that brought sanctions to his old school.

It's enough to make one think that big-time sports aren't humanity's most honest endeavors. Enough to reinforce the most famous adage about sports' cold-blooded reality.

The quote is often attributed to Vince Lombardi, though the idolized Packers coach said he used somewhat different words. In any event, the quote long precedes Lombardi's Green Bay glory. There's visual proof of that in black and white.

In the 1953 film Trouble Along the Way, John Wayne is a football coach hired to rebuild a college's program. The Duke's method is—perish the thought—filling the team with ringers. His cute little daughter, played by Sherry Jackson, goes to a game with someone who's wise to the scheme. "Is winning so important?" the kid is asked. She beams as she quotes dear ol' Dad: "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."

Frank: So Derek Jeter squares to bunt against Tampa Bay, the pitch darts inside, he staggers back, apparently hit on the arm, and is waved to first. But replays show the ball really hit the knob of the bat. Jeter wound up scoring, but the Yankees lost. Was his acting job, to quote Woody Allen, "a travesty of a mockery of a sham"?

Artie: To me at first glance it's like, "Big deal." But I really won't know what to think until the hall monitor of American sports, Tony Dungy, weighs in—Tony Dungy whose pet student, so to speak, is Michael Vick, even though he's ready to kick Rex Ryan out of school for having a potty mouth. I think I'm being poisoned by this Tea Party stuff. Dungy is sliding into the "culture war" category for me, and not in a good way.

Frank: As a devoted Jeter fan, my first reaction was dismay, just for the phony wincing and having the trainer looking at his wrist, which the ball never got near. However, he was nowhere near as phony as those soccer guys who get a hand waved near them and collapse like they've been shot.

Artie: We still can deduct a few style points for poor histrionics.

Frank: But the more I thought about it, the more understandable Jeter's actions seemed. Our friend Rick Horowitz—another Yankee fan but a fair-minded guy—noted that it happens all the time. A catcher moves his glove a couple of inches to get a strike call; an outfielder traps a sinking liner but waves his glove to "sell" a catch; a first baseman comes off the bag early to finish a double play.

Artie: And why? They're trying to win. Lombardi was right, although he maintained that he really said the willtowin is everything. The point is the same; you do whatever you can, ain’a?

Frank: "It's part of the game," Jeter said.

Artie: And it ain't just baseball. Look at the NBA. How many guys flop around to draw a charge call when they've barely been touched? Kobe Bryant is a master.

Frank: The Bucks have a guy who's good at drawing charges, too. Dare I say that Andrew Bogut might take a dive now and then?

Artie: Well, he's not American, so that's explainable. All those foreign hoopsters and footsters players dive.

Frank: Doesn't the Jeter incident strengthen the case for greater use of replay to help the umpires?

Artie: Absolutely. The naysayers say the game is long enough already. But the current technology lets a TV audience see replays within seconds. Replay for umps would not add a lot of time.

Frank: Now for another issue. If winning is the only thing, why do we always tell kids to play fair? The Lombardi sentiment contradicts another famous quote—"It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game." There's a TV spot for something called Values.com in which a high-school basketball player has a referee change a call because "I touched it last." His teammates are angry, but his coach says, "Good call."

Artie: Oh stop! I haven't seen this, but it's making me ill.

Frank: But really, at what point do we tell kids that it ain't necessarily so when the stakes get higher than Little League? What do you tell a 7-year-old who idolizes Derek Jeter?

Artie: You say, "He was trying to win the game."

Frank: And maybe, "When money is involved, it changes every aspect of life."

Artie: The kid will find that out soon enough anyway.

Frank: The Jeter thing happened a few days after Tennessee's Bruce Pearl, Milwaukee's old hero from his days coaching UWM, admitted giving NCAA investigators "incorrect and misleading information" about recruiting violations.

Artie: According to one report, he had a high-school junior visit his home but denied it—except that there's a photo proving it.

Frank: So to use a correct word, Pearl was lying.

Artie: What makes this especially sad is the back story from Pearl's Big Ten days. As an Iowa assistant in 1988 he was trying to recruit Deon Thomas. Pearl accused Illinois assistant Jimmy Collins of promising Thomas money and bling, even taping a talk with Thomas about it and giving it to the NCAA.

Frank: Thomas denied the allegation and the NCAA didn't act on Pearl's claim, but it found other problems at Illinois and eventually Collins and the school were sanctioned.

Artie: So now the whistle-blower has gotten whistled and Collins is asking who's "holier than thou" now.

Frank: One of Pearl's infractions was too many phone calls to recruits. You'd think a coach would remember what happened to Kelvin Sampson—he did it at Oklahoma, then did it again at Indiana and got fired.

Artie: Pearl seemed genuinely remorseful—at least compared to, say, John Calipari, who always sounds like, "What? Is there a problem at that school I just left? Gee, that's too bad."

Frank: Tennessee docked Pearl $1.5 million over five years. But remember, last year his salary was bumped to $1.9 million a year. And ESPN says his contract includes pretty strong protections against being fired without some form of compensation.

Artie: Plus I'm sure he has a TV show and a shoe contract that bring in plenty. He won't miss any meals.

Frank: To complete the dishonesty trifecta we have Reggie Bush, who gave back his 2005 Heisman Trophy because of the furor over all the improper payments and gifts he and his family got in his USC days. He portrayed his action as a heartfelt sacrifice and in no way an admission of guilt.

Artie: The Richard Nixon defense—"I'm resigning, but I didn't do anything wrong. This is just so everyone can heal." Come on!

Frank: All these things together make you think that whenever we watch a big-time sporting event, we should be holding our noses.

Artie: Why bother? If it's a win, who cares how it smells?



And Speaking of Wins…

Frank: You must feel pretty content after NFL Week 2.

Artie: The Packers take care of business against Buffalo, Brett Favre fizzles against Miami and the overrated Cowboys can't even handle the Bears at home. How sweet it is!

Frank: Remember, the Bears are 2-0.

Artie: They'll get theirs when the Pack hits Soldier Field on Monday night.

Frank: The Vikings' 0-2 start makes me look good, since I predicted that they'd fall so far they'd miss the playoffs.

Artie: I predicted the same for the Cowboys, so I'm a genius too!

Frank: The Bears looked pretty good against Dallas.

Artie: Yeah, sure, all of a sudden Lovie Smith isn't a bad coach and Jay Cutler is a great quarterback? It'll be just delicious to shut those Bear fans up! Not that a butt-whipping will surprise them—most of ’em are probably Cub fans, too.