Sports' dog days have arrived - with vengeance

Rachel Blount, Star Tribune - July 29, 2007

Our dog-loving nation recently learned what happens to man's best friend when he fails to rip out a canine brother's throat in the dogfighting arena. He gets electrocuted, shot, drowned, hanged or beaten -- allegedly by an NFL star and his associates.

While animal-rights advocates picketed Michael Vick's arraignment, Alexandre Vinokourov was kicked out of the Tour de France after testing positive for a banned blood transfusion, only days before leader Michael Rasmussen was booted by his own team for missing drug tests. NBA Commissioner David Stern was sweating about allegations that referee Tim Donaghy gambled on games he called. Barry Bonds continued his artificially bloated march toward Hank Aaron's sainted record.

Even the fans became a little crazy in the heat. A column that opposed the hockey fight camp for kids run by the Wild's Derek Boogaard drew about 130 e-mail responses, with 60 percent defending the concept.

The comments included, "You and your paper need to quit trying to turn men into women"; "Thanks for your contribution in making society move in the wrong direction"; "Thank God Derek Boogaard is teaching our kids not to be [wimps]"; "If people attending hockey don't like fighting, they aren't fans and should stay away"; and, "Sportsmanship points. What the heck kind of crap is that? No wonder our country is going down the tubes."

Tough times, indeed, for sports and the people who love them. Real life has always intruded on our pastimes, but rarely to the disturbing degree of the past few weeks. True fans, however, are nothing if not resilient -- and at a time when we need sports' escapism and its best lessons more than ever, giving up is not an option.

"I think we are definitely moving toward a tipping point," said Jim Thompson, who has been working to reform sports for nine years as executive director of Positive Coaching Alliance in Palo Alto, Calif. "I've talked to some people who used to be fans, and they've dropped out of it.

"But when sports operate the way they have the potential to operate, they are one of the most beautiful, life-enhancing experiences we have. That makes them worth fighting for."

He keeps track of athletes' bad behavior to compile a yearly Bottom 10 List of the worst moments in sports. Though he already has enough material to create several, he believes that even the bad can produce good. Thompson urges parents to talk to their kids about sports' problems and controversies to help them develop their own values.

His programs for youth sports coaches stress the importance of teaching life lessons as well as sports skills. Adults can benefit from recalling that connection, too. The events of the past few weeks cut to the heart of what we want and expect from our games and their stars.

Should we care what Michael Vick does when we're not watching him with a beer in our hands and paint on our faces? Should we shrug our shoulders at steroid use because we can't possibly catch every user? Should we agree with an e-mail that said of Kim Johnsson, the Wild defenseman injured when he was punched in a playoff game, "He is the perfect example of someone who could benefit from fight camp. What an embarrassment."

Those who view sports as mere entertainment might not find those issues worth discussing. Those who recognize sports' power in our culture, who understand their unique ability to underscore our ideals and values, must discuss them.

So how do we effect change? Already, some corporations are using their economic muscle. Last week, two German television networks ended their Tour de France coverage in the wake of the latest doping scandals. Nike delayed the launch of Vick's new shoe line, and Adidas stopped selling his jerseys.

Those of us with more limited influence can get back in touch with the soul of sports by taking a kid to the batting cages or the tennis courts. Offer to help with a youth coaching program. Watch "Pride of the Yankees" or "Hoosiers" or "Rudy." Read about Billie Jean King, Jackie Robinson or Roberto Clemente.

Those activities emphasize one of sports' most important messages: Never give up. Especially not now, when our games are depending on us.