The summer is shaping up as a record breaker in the wide world of sports – one more likely to disappoint than please. Allegations of cheating and criminal behavior abound, from the baseball diamond to the basketball court. It's time to remember that sport is about character, not bad characters.
The parade of high-profile individuals suspected of unfair play and illegal activities seems to be zipping by with the speed of cyclists in the Tour de France. There, a string of top-ranked pedalers, including leader Michael Rasmussen, has been thrown out of this year's event for suspicions related to doping.
Back in the United States, NFL star quarterback Michael Vick has been indicted for alleged involvement in a cruel – and illegal – dog-fighting ring. The FBI, meanwhile, is investigating a professional basketball referee for betting on NBA games. And then there's the old story of home-run-hammer Barry Bonds, renewed this week as he approached baseball's most hallowed record – allegedly with the help of steroids along the way.
There's a reason that character counts in sport. Without honesty, without a pure pursuit of skill, there is no level playing field on which to compete. What's the point of playoffs, for instance, if the fix is already in? What's the point of the world's greatest bicycle race if it's a contest of performance-enhancers instead of performers?
Society looks to athletes as role models, but to a great extent, sport mirrors society. So it's perhaps no surprise that a hip-hop culture that equates pit-bull viciousness with manhood coincides with a football hero supposedly caught up in an inhumane business of pit-bull fights.
State lotteries promote gambling, so is it any wonder that a referee with a reported gambling problem may have been tempted to bet on games that he was involved in?
And in a materialistic culture ever striving for greater physical beauty, youth, muscularity, and sexual prowess, perhaps the temptation of athletes to artificially enhance their bodies is just as much a reflection on "us" as it is on "them."
Destructive cultural values and practices, however, can change. Witness the antismoking campaign, begun in the US and now catching on around the world. Or the trend against superskinny fashion models. Or the rapidly growing interest in green and sustainable living.
It's encouraging that the world of high-profile sport is making a much more serious effort to combat doping and behavior issues.
For all the disappointment of this summer's Tour de France, for instance, credit must be given to the vigilance of those trying to catch the cheaters – and many others now fed up with what looks to be a common practice of doping in cycling.
In Germany, major television stations have refused to broadcast the now deflated race. Similarly the top Swiss newspapers have stopped writing about it. Some cyclists protested doping by delaying their start this week, and it was the sponsor of Mr. Rasmussen's team, Rabobank, that took him out of the race and sent him pedaling home.
This amounts to a societal rejection of cheating – a potential tipping point that could return the Tour, at least, to a contest of man versus mountain. Let's hope this same kind of pushback from fans, sponsors, and fellow athletes gains ground in other sports.