America continues its inexorable drift toward jockocracy. Our willingness to grovel for professional athletes -- and their agents -- has sunk to depths disturbingly below the pathetic.
Only recently did Baltimore Ravens linebacker Peter Boulware accept a six-year, $18.5 million contract after rejecting it only days before. Mind you, Boulware is a rookie. He has not played one down of professional football. There is no assurance he will make it in the National Football League. His salary would be laughable, if it weren't such an egregious obscenity.
But let's not forget who really gained in the Boulware affair -- his agents, who stand to get a cut from that windfall. Ravens owner Art Modell will shell out the cash and pass along the cost to the fans, the only ones not making any money from pro sports these days.
Less than a week after Boulware settled with the Ravens, we saw another example of adulation of pro athletes gone awry. Washington Redskins wide receiver Michael Westbrook pummeled his teammate Stephen Davis into a bloody mess during a practice. If you work in something that's considered a normal job, such action would get you fired. You might even be charged with felony battery.
But we're not dealing with anything like normality here. We're dealing with pro sports. Specifically, pro football, which in some states is regarded as nearly a religion. Westbrook's punishment was that he would miss an exhibition game. He might -- might, mind you -- be fined a whopping $10,000 for his act. That would be the equivalent of about 10 bucks for you folks who work real jobs.
Westbrook, you see, was the Redskins' first-round draft pick in 1995. For those of you who still live in the sane world and have no idea what a first-round draft pick is, it simply means that Westbrook gets treated differently than if he were some mere scrub whose contribution to the team was minimal. And it definitely means he gets treated differently from ordinary folks.
Pro athletes, their agents and sports team owners have an exaggerated sense of their importance to society. They're even worse than newspaper columnists, and you all know that takes some doing. But who's responsible for it? We are, the fans. We brought this mess about. We're the ones who pay to see these guys. We're the ones who watch the games on television and help perpetuate the network contracts for professional football, baseball, basketball and hockey.
And there's no question that the athletes should get a huge share of the money we pay. After all, we're paying to see them. But there should be some sense of proportion. Should a Peter Boulware get $6 million just for signing with the Baltimore Ravens? Or should there be a minimum salary for all rookies with salary adjustments in subsequent years based on performance?
Should a Michael Westbrook commit battery and get a wrist slap for it? His action warrants at least a year's suspension, if not being canned altogether. His status as a first-round draft pick should have nothing to do with it. In 1963, Green Bay Packers running back Paul Hornung was slapped with a one-season suspension for betting on games. The Packers had to play that season without him, finishing second to the Chicago Bears in the NFL's Western Division.
And let's not forget that Hornung was a star football player at the time, having just set a record for 176 points scored in a season that has yet to be broken. He was certainly a hell of a lot better than Westbrook. But in 1963 we still had some sense of proportion. The insanity hadn't set in. We valued some things more than professional sports -- things like integrity and honor, for example.
On Aug. 7 I received a call from an irate reader who chastised The Sun for running a story about Ravens running back Bam Morris being suspended for violating the NFL drug and alcohol policy.
RTC "You ran that on page one, above the fold," she said, meaning it was placed prominently where potential buyers could see it in the newspaper boxes on the streets. "Below the fold you ran the story on astronaut Robert Curbeam, proving once again that we value athletes over those who achieve intellectually."
She's right, I'm afraid. Curbeam is the Turners Station native and Naval Academy graduate who has become an astronaut. He has certainly done Baltimore prouder than Bam Morris.
But The Sun's editors knew what readers would buy. Had they switched the stories -- putting Curbeam's above the fold and Morris' below it -- I shudder to think of how the sales would have gone for that day.
Former National Basketball Association superstar Wilt Chamberlain believes pro sports are so out of control and our mania for them so intense he has written a book about it in which he raises the question "Who's running the asylum?"
Pro athletes and their agents, evidently.
Pub Date: 8/23/97