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IMHO: Astros’ scandal product of society that too often rewards scoundrels

  • Greg Fennell. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Sports Editor
Published: 1/18/2020 9:04:10 PM
Modified: 1/18/2020 9:03:12 PM

What has happened to the world of Major League Baseball in the past week didn’t surprise me one iota. It’s reflective of an American culture that praises the shortcut over hard, honorable effort.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s judgment of the Houston Astros’ multi-year program of electronic sign-stealing hit like a thunderbolt early last week; the repercussions echoed for days following and will continue to do so in the coming weeks and months. Apparently, baseball — a sport that has treated spitballs, on-the-field sign-stealing and performance enhancement with a quaint shrug for 150 years — finally found a line it wouldn’t let cheaters cross.

As a result, four people implicated in Manfred’s report on the Astros — A.J. Hinch, Alex Cora, Carlos Beltran and Jeff Luhnow — lost their jobs last week. Hinch and Luhnow won’t work in baseball again for at least a year. Cora, the respected former Boston Red Sox manager considered to be the mastermind of the plan, may end up sitting for longer.

(Hinch, Cora and Beltran all expressed remorse for their roles in the scheme. Ex-Houston general manager Luhnow took no responsibility and threw Cora under the bus.)

But this is just one instance of how our sports culture, if not our society in general, encourages those who cut corners. Let’s review some of the wreckage, shall we?

■The New England Patriots are found guilty of illegally taping the New York Jets’ defensive signals during a September 2007 game. Coach Bill Belichick is fined $500,000, while the team is docked $250,000 and a first-round draft pick. This from a team that ultimately came within a Super Bowl win of a perfect season.

■A review of NASCAR runs into almost weekly instances of bending the rules. Violations include tainting fuel, using illegal parts, employing oversized engines and doctoring aerodynamics, all in the guise of winning. This from a sport that plays up its “if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying” ethos.

■Cyclist Lance Armstrong is stripped in 2012 of seven Tour de France titles after he’s found to have orchestrated an extensive doping program during his professional career. This from an individual who portrayed himself as some sort of superhuman cancer crusader the whole time.

■In 2017, the FBI arrests 10 people — four of them college basketball assistant coaches, one of them an Adidas executive — for their alleged involvement in a scheme to bribe incoming players and funnel them to specific agents and programs. Several convictions in the pay-to-play scandal resulted. This from a game that enjoys its greatest riches from the unpaid work of its athletes.

You get the point. Cheaters never prosper? Right. So long as you don’t get caught.

Our sports are littered with “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” moments. (UCLA football coach Red Sanders in the 1950s, not Vince Lombardi, by the way.) Sadly, less praised — at least at the national level — is the notion of success born of effort, planning, execution and honor.

Each time some lout is revealed to have skirted the rules for personal or team benefit, another piece of our soul as a sports nation dies. Our faith in the fairness of the contest fades. We become less capable of judging good character over poor.

It produces people unqualified to lead a dog-dirt cleanup campaign, let alone a nation.

I read an interesting ESPNFC.com story the other day on RB Leipzig, the rare club from the former East Germany that has found success in German Bundesliga and European soccer. The article split its focus between how Leipzig has soared to the top of Germany’s top league while simultaneously becoming the club everyone loves to hate.

Germany requires ownership of its soccer clubs to be split among individuals; conglomerates such as Red Bull GmbH — the Austrian megacompany that makes the omnipresent energy drink — aren’t permitted to own teams. In response, Red Bull has worked toward a more direct decision-making process with its German club, and that’s led to all levels of angst in the country with Leipzig’s rise in just 10 short years of life.

The club’s first-year manager said it can act on decisions quicker than traditional German clubs because of its streamlined organizational structure. I was struck by his final comment: “We’re not complaining that we don’t have as much money as Bayern Munich. We have a little more of the American mentality — let’s work harder, let’s get it done, let’s do it even better.”

This is how other parts of the world view us. This is the image we stand to lose each time one of our games has to clean up a mess of its own making.

As a sportswriter and a youth sports referee, I’m encouraged by some of the things I witness at our level of the world. I officiated two girls ice hockey games last weekend after which nearly every player thanked me with a first bump or handshake. I’m seeing high school football players on opposing teams help each other up after knocking each other down. Programs are actively seeking sportsmanship awards and treating them as a badge of pride. State organizations are making efforts at rewarding honorable behavior.

The Astros of today are going to be some other scoundrel tomorrow; it’s inevitable. We’ll never eradicate the cheater from our landscape.

I’d rather contribute to a world that recognizes unimpeachable effort as much as result. Winning shouldn’t be the only thing.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.




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