Sports as usual:sex, scandal and March Madness

My governor resigned over spring break after The New York Times revealed that he had slept with a prostitute. Within days, his replacement admitted to affairs and cocaine use. Although the scandal shocked the political world and dominated the news for a week, I remembered that political scandals are rarely as scandalous as those in the sports world.

We’re amazed when we find out that politicians can take off their suits and break some laws after hours. It helps when, like Gov. Spitzer, they are known for cracking down on moral and legal misfits, or when they are the president of the United States. But the crimes they commit, and the images the media share, are no match for those in which athletes involve themselves. Was it really nine years ago that the Gold Club story broke?

In 1999, the Atlanta strip club was busted for nearly every crime related to money or sex. The owner, managers and dancers of the Gold Club were charged with prostitution, money laundering, credit-card fraud, police corruption and ties to organized crime. The story made such a splash because the client list included a host of professional athletes in the NBA and MLB.

Of course, pro athletes aren’t the only ones who have gotten in trouble. In 2003, the University of Colorado football program came under fire for another sex scandal when at least eight women accused players of a series of rapes over more than four years, and the team was accused of bringing recruits to sex-filled parties and strip clubs during recruiting visits.

And it was two years ago this month that three lacrosse players at Duke were charged with raping a stripper. Although the charges were dropped and the local district attorney was disbarred for his prosecution of the case, the scandal once more brought athletes, sex and crime into the national spotlight together.

Each time a story like this breaks, it comes with dozens of other reports into the darker side of sports. The country hears about the partying and gambling that athletes participate in, often with their teams or while on the road for their games. But, scary and sad as some of the stories are, the issue is far larger than athletes.

Every March millions of Americans break gambling laws by organizing office or family NCAA tournament pools. The problem isn’t the predicting but the cash that changes hands in many pools. Most Americans don’t consider the simple and harmless NCAA tournament pools to be gambling and, lucky for them, the Department of Justice lets it slide. But millions more gamble on sports in a more substantial way, regularly placing bets on any and all sports at convenient venues in Vegas and online.

Whereas a culture that allows or encourages crimes like rape or assault must undeniably change, what should be done about one that encourages gambling and perhaps fosters prostitution?

Don’t look to the government to make the change. As much as American society scorns gambling and prostitution, American law explicitly prohibits neither. Gambling is an $85 billion industry even though it is confined to Indian reservations, riverboat casinos and a few regional enclaves, like Atlantic City and Nevada. And prostitution, outlawed in almost every state, flourishes in the Nevada counties north of Las Vegas, many of which have no laws against selling, buying or arranging commercial sex. The City of Sin’s temptations have been so worrying to professional sports leagues that Las Vegas remains the largest metropolitan area in the country without a professional sports team. Multiple leagues have looked to relocate franchises to Las Vegas, but the city has been repeatedly rejected for fears of what scandals a team in the city may produce.

The sports world is in a tough position regarding morality and vice. Leagues cannot ban fans from activities that the U.S. government keeps legal and can only reasonably prohibit players from those related to their sports. So, although leagues ban players from gambling on their sports, they do not try to prohibit players from all other forms of gambling, nor from other activities such as prostitution. As for partying, here, too, leagues can only ask that their players stay on the right side of the law.

Scandals still erupt thanks to the cultures surrounding professional sports, and even some college sports. There is no evidence that athletes engage in scandalous behavior more often than other citizens, but it is clear that for many athletes who look for it, vice of any kind is not hard to find. The real trouble comes when athletes cross the line from vice to crime, and the line is easy to ignore, especially when blurred as much by fame and money as by alcohol or drugs.

This winter’s biggest public scandal came from the political world, but when the next sports scandal hit, look for it to be juicier and more damaging than the recent news out of Albany. And look for leagues to launch investigations and hand out suspensions. But that’s all they’ll do. That’s all they can do.

Pete Martin is a sophomore in Morse College. His column appears every Thursday.

Comments