There was a nice little story in sports the other day. It didn’t get much attention because it didn’t involve controversy. No arrest or suspension. No foot-in-mouth reaction requiring a clarification. Nothing that might get it into heavy rotation on talk radio or social media.
Vin Scully, 86, quietly said he’d be back in 2015 for his 66th season broadcasting Dodgers games. Sixty-sixth, yes. Steadily since 1958, Scully’s voice has rolled across baseball like velvet. He likens his place in people’s lives to that of “an old pair of slippers,” and it might be true. There is comfort there.
The song asked, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” and Scully similarly embodies a longing for simpler times, a wistful glance over the shoulder to the way it used to be. There is so much stain on sports now. It’s a daily torrent. Scully’s voice feels like an antidote, like penicillin.
Nostalgia clouds our vision, though.
Athletes have changed fundamentally since Scully was a rookie at the mic. They are bigger, faster and stronger. Better, in that way. They are festooned with advances in equipment, training and technology.
The people who are the athletes have not changed much, though, over the generations. They have not become “worse,” they simply aren’t getting away with as much.
They are the same.
We’re just paying more attention.
Sports used to come at us in small, measured doses. It was all about games and scores. It was a quaint time when athletes’ personal lives were just that. Blemishes were largely hidden. We know after the fact that Mickey Mantle and others of that era popped greenies back when amphetamines were the performance-enhancing drug of choice before the phrase PEDs ever was coined. But those were days when a player could show up for a game late with a hangover and it never became known, because the sportswriter who might report it was probably out boozing with the player.
As recently as the 1980s, I would drink at hotel bars on the road with coaches I covered, but that was when a coach could be out in public and still enjoy the shade of privacy. Now, a coach drinking at a hotel bar is captured on an iPhone, the image disseminated and re-tweeted nationwide before the poor guy has even finished his Scotch.
Sports today come at us from all directions, 24/7. The blemishes are under a microscope. There is saturation overload, excessive coverage and over-analysis the relentless norm. (Too-much-information extends beyond coverage. The NFL this year is placing microchips in shoulder pads so we can track the movement of players and know how much ground they cover in a game. Why? Why not!)
Athletes make more money than ever, but the tradeoff is privacy. They no longer have any. Big Brother, once science fiction, became reality.
Now, an athlete brawling outside a strip club is apt to be recorded by a dozen amateur reporter/spies; i.e., people with smart-phone cameras and recorders. Instantly, what you did will metastasize across Twitter, be picked up by TMZ and Deadspin, and be irretrievably viral before it even gets to the mainstream media.
Just Friday, PGA Tour golfer Dustin Johnson revealed he was taking a leave of absence, and within minutes it was reported he had tested positive for cocaine. It leaked that University of Miami quarterback Kevin Olsen reportedly also would be suspended for a failed drug test. What chance did Arizona Cardinals defender John Abraham have of keeping quiet his DUI arrest after leaving an Atlanta-area strip club?
Players get in trouble now and we’re equally incredulous over the misdeed itself and the gall to think it might not splash into the news when everything now does. There are no longer “internal matters.”
The tempest involving Ravens star running back Ray Rice is a perfect example of how the coverage of athletes, more than the athletes themselves, has changed.
Domestic abuse is not new. Violence against women has always been reprehensible, but it has not always been public. It has not always been covered.
So Rice and his then-fiancée get into an altercation at an Atlantic City casino, and he is seen on a security video that goes viral, dragging the unconscious woman from an elevator.
It is a national story.
The NFL hands down a two-game suspension for Rice, a sentence that stirs debate and outrages many for its lenience.
It is a national story all over again.
ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith suggests that in some cases, women might be partly responsible, an opinion that outrages many and has Smith scrambling to apologize. The network yanks him off the air for a week.
It is a national story all over again, again.
The attention paid to the Rice controversy actually serves a greater good, because it leads to greater public awareness and discussion of domestic violence.
It also challenges fans on how to regard their athletes in an age when every misstep is known and dissected. The whole idea of hero worship is open to reconsideration. The subject has become complicated.
Ravens fans cheered the suspended Rice upon his arrival at training camp, and the team’s website splashed that reaction across its front page. Were the fans justified in standing behind their embattled player? Or were they tone-deaf and without perspective for appearing to convey that we will forgive domestic violence as long as you help us win?
Coach John Harbaugh, in saying he loved the way Rice has handled himself since the incident, was so worried about his words being misreported that he preemptively admonished reporters to not misconstrue that he was downplaying the seriousness of domestic abuse.
Everything was simpler back when Vin Scully started out, back when ignorance was bliss.
A lot of the same things were happening. Athletes were as flawed.
We just didn’t see it, or particularly care to.
Now we see it all, and sometimes wish we didn’t.