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WASHINGTON — Here's a new definition of "the good old days" when sports didn't make news until games actually occurred.
Nowadays scores seem to be the least of it. It takes a whole newspaper, not just an ex-jock, to cover sports action.
• Economics reporter (figures present-day value of deferred contracts).
• Washington correspondent (attends steroid hearings).
• Police reporter for the pros (hockey assaults, bullpen attacks, general indictments).
• Police reporter for amateurs (Tracking college recruiting abuses is a full-time job.)
What's wrong? One thing, say some: money. As television and sponsorships pour cash into sports, the pressure to perform increases exponentially. That pressure moves down the sports system, all the way to youth league fields.
"It's hard to tell whether the problem [with sports] is with the pros or with the kids and parents who want to reach the pros," says Doug Abrams, a law professor at the University of Missouri and a 35-year youth hockey coach. "[To get a pro contract or scholarship] is almost like an arms race, and I suspect the steroid problem in high school sports is worse than people make it out to be."
OK, so maybe it isn't a news flash that big bucks are warping sports. And what's happening in baseball, say, isn't all that far from some of the problems in US corporate culture at large.
Insiders at ImClone were trying to pocket cash by dumping their stock before bad news about the company became public. A baseball player using steroids - and 5 to 7 percent tested positive for steroids last year - is similarly trying to gain an edge by traveling beyond the bounds of legal behavior.
Baseball is one of two sports - hockey being the other - that fared particularly poorly this week. Wednesday's Senate Commerce Committee hearing on drug-testing seemed designed to pressure the baseball players' union into accepting tougher policies. Without such policies, the sport is in danger of becoming a "fraud," said Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona.
Yet players' union chief Donald Fehr demurred, saying that at the very least that was a matter he would not negotiate in the glare of klieg lights. He deflected the senators' assaults despite a poll of players taken last year that showed that upwards of 80 percent would accept tougher steroid standards.
Is baseball at a crossroads? Maybe. Lawmakers have always felt freer to lecture baseball to change its ways, due to its historic prominence in American life, and the fact that it is exempt from federal antitrust laws. In the past, Congress has weighed in on everything from baseball's periodic strikes to the lack of a team in Washington.
Plus, the criminal investigation into the activities of the BALCO trainers cooperative in San Francisco continues to grind away, and may produce damaging evidence even if a fickle Congress loses interest.
"Every other sport has a [steroid] policy in place that seems effective," says Peter Roby, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society. "Baseball is really at a crossroads because it goes to the heart of the integrity of the game if people don't feel that what they are seeing on the field is natural and fair."
But the baseball players' union is far and away the most powerful such organization in sports. And the vast majority of the public outrage may be coming from people who think "slugging percentage" refers to on-field fights.
According to Gallup Poll data, the American public is overwhelmingly in favor of more steroid testing in baseball. But the data also show that no matter what happens, the current fan base will remain loyal. And today that fan base is snapping up tickets at a record pace. Red Sox-Yankees games are sold out - for the exhibition season.
"My impression of what we've found when asking about baseball fans is that people who are turned off are already gone," says Jeff Jones, Gallup Poll managing editor. "The fans will remain baseball fans no matter what."
Hockey's problems are different, in that they stem from the traditional culture of the sport, not from the penetration of the sport by a modern societal ill.
On Thursday, Vancouver Canucks forward Todd Bertuzzi was suspended for the rest of the season and the playoffs for flattening Colorado's Steve Moore from behind with a vicious hit. Moore, whose neck was broken in the incident, remains hospitalized in Vancouver.
But this problem is rooted in the sport's beginnings: It was first a backwoods recreation, born on the legs of woodsmen and farmers from Canada and Minnesota. Despite periodic attempts to clean up the sport for a general audience, it retains a frontier spirit. Arena scoreboards feature clips of tough hits, routinely. Earlier this year an owner, Ted Leonsis of the Washington Capitals, was censured for getting into a fistfight with a heckling fan.
When paunchy former software kings like Mr. Leonsis are dropping the gloves, you know hockey has a problem.
"Hockey is unique in the world of sports," notes Mr. Roby.
But Bertuzzi's hit was an anomaly, something spawned by the culture, perhaps, but so vicious it was outside that culture's unwritten code. Bertuzzi may lose his career. He surely faces a police probe.
Recreational player Kris Merkler is a square-jawed center who used to play for Yale. Interviewed at an ice arena in Raleigh, N.C., he expresses what thousands of weekend hockey players feel - that the incident went too far, and that it's just the kind of thing that has always kept hockey from achieving breakthrough popularity in the US.
"As players, we know that this is far from an everyday occurrance," says Mr. Merkler. "But for people who don't follow the sport, now they probably think this happens all the time."
Meanwhile, the recruitment scandal at the University of Colorado, in which sex and parties were allegedly used to lure top high school athletes, has itself drawn congressional attention. "The headlines of the last three weeks suggest that the well-being of students and enrolled and prospective student-athletes is at risk on many campuses," S. David Berst, chairman of the NCAA, told a congressional subcommittee at a Thursday hearing.
The NCAA is considering strict new recruiting standards, including a ban on university-funded visits, said Mr. Berst. Under the changes being considered, high school athletes themselves might have to pay for campus visits. Visits might be limited to 24 hours, with off-campus entertainment prohibited. There would be limits on the permissible cost of food and lodging. "Let me be perfectly clear: The use of alcohol, drugs and sex as recruiting inducements cannot and will not be tolerated," said Berst.
Still, college recruiting today is more regulated than it was 25 years ago, former University of Nebraska coach Rep. Tom Osborne (R) of Nebraska, told the panel.
• Patrik Jonsson in North Carolina and Faye Bowers in Washington contributed to this report.