Thursday, June 19, 2008

Sports: It Ain't What It Used To Be

There have been a lot of cool happenings in the world of sports lately. The Celtics & Lakers rekindled an old rivalry and had a great playoff series. Tiger Woods won the U.S. Open with a torn ACL & double stress fracture -- all in his left knee. And, of course, I embarked on an epic Pilgrimage for two weeks in which I will always be able to brag about, as Bob told me, when gas prices were at their highest.

But nothing has happened in the last several weeks that is as big for my "sports worldview" as are the latest allegations from former NBA referee Tim Donaghy. The juiciest allegation is that NBA referees, who Donaghy calls "company men," made calls in such a way as to favor one team over another in order to extend a playoff series from the sixth game to seven games. The team that received the favorable calls won game 6, and even went on to win the series & eventually the NBA Championship.

This team was the Los Angeles Lakers -- perhaps the biggest draw in the NBA. The NBA makes more money if that series goes seven games, and they also make more money the further the Lakers advance into the playoffs. To add to that, Dallas Mavericks Owner Mark Cuban made a comment on "The Dan Patrick Show" radio program last month that in the past there were certain referees who, quote, "knew where their bread was buttered."

This is a huge paradigm shift for me. Just looking at this year's NBA finals -- were the Celtics & Lakers really the league's two best teams? Or did the league help steer those two teams to the finals? Just looking at the Celtics, they had to get through several tough series to make it to the finals...

And what about other NBA achievements? I certainly look at the final plays of the 1998 NBA Finals a little bit differently: Jordan's hack at Karl Malone to steal the ball, and his push-off of Bryon Russell (from another angle) on the final shot. Bryon Russell was recently interviewed (interview at SI.com), and he reminisced that other referees came up to him & told him that they would have called a foul on Jordan on that play.

There's also the shameful-looking case of the 1996 NBA Finals. Of the Bulls championship teams, this one was the best. Michael Jordan's father had died, and Jordan had spent a couple of years languishing away in the mediocrity of minor league baseball. The '96 season was Jordan's first full season back in the league, and the Bulls won 72 of their 82 regular season games -- an NBA record. But that's not the suspicious part. In the playoffs, the Bulls rolled through their competition, losing only one game in their first three series. When they got to the finals against the Seattle SuperSonics, they won the first three games with relative ease. But then, all of a sudden, they dropped two games in a row to the Sonics. Game six was to be on Sunday -- Father's Day. Of course, the Bulls won, and everyone got to see Michael Jordan show all of his emotion after winning his first championship without his father.

It makes me wonder: what am I watching when I tune in to watch sports? I used to think that it was reality TV. But now its beginning to look as scripted as theater.

I always wondered why Shaquille O'Neal wanted out of Orlando so bad & wanted to play for the Lakers. Is it because he knew he would be on the favorable end of calls if he played for L.A. rather than another franchise?

Or what about Major League Baseball in 2008. The Cubs have now not won a World Series in exactly 100 years -- since 1908. And guess who has the best record in MLB in 2008 to date? The Chicago Cubs. It would be a compelling story if the Cubs made it to the World Series. Perhaps umpires will be more inclined give the Cubs more favorable calls in tight spots because "they know where their bread is buttered." Who knows? It may go further than that. Maybe a "company man" from MLB was messing with the potassium in-take of Cubs division rival Cardinals superstar Albert Pujols so that he would strain a muscle in his left calf & be unavailable to play.

How far can you take it? How far does it actually go?

It used to be that the difference between professional sports & sports-entertainment (e.g. Pro Wrestling) was that only one of them was scripted. But how can I know anymore that what I'm watching when I turn on a ballgame is any better than World Wrestling Entertainment?

1 comment:

Lloyd said...

Sounds like it's time for an exposé... where's 20/20 when we need them?