Suddenly, running a league no fun at all

The Baltimore Sun

We probably should have known that, at some point, a commissioner sheds his business suit and actually sleeps. After all, we always knew he was a dreamer - from that lectern permanently appended to his chest, the commish has shared with us fanciful visions of collective bargaining agreements, television contracts and league expansion. But we learned last week that he has nightmares, too.

And, oh, the horror, the horror.

Whimpering dogs and beefy Mafioso brutes. Drugs and cheating and gambling. And the torturous execution of legends we thought would live forever.

Three of the most powerful men in American sports - Bud Selig, David Stern and Roger Goodell - awoke to damaging headlines and daunting decisions. You could have locked Hollywood executives in a room with National Enquirer editors, Harry Potter enthusiasts and the ghost of Walter Winchell and they couldn't have come up with the story lines that rocked the foundations of our three most celebrated sports leagues like a synchronized time bomb.

The NFL, whose top priority this offseason has been to clean up the tarnished images of its athletes, saw one of its biggest stars slapped with a federal indictment accusing him of raising dogs, fighting them, even ordering the grotesque execution of them. If you're Goodell, how could you not toss and turn at night?

The NBA, whose biggest recent controversies involved new clothes and a new ball, saw one of its referees targeted by a criminal investigation. The ref could soon be charged with gambling on games he officiated and blowing his whistle to affect point spreads and outcomes. If you're Stern, wouldn't you wake up at night in a cold sweat?

And Major League Baseball, which would prefer we all hold hands and collectively move past this steroid business, saw its biggest villain inch his way to within a couple of swings of the most hallowed record in sports. The commissioner was faced with a decision he would prefer to ignore: Do I show up at the ballpark and legitimize the most illegitimate accomplishment in the game's history? If you're Selig, how do you not squeeze your pillow and cry out, "Sorry, Hank!"

Of the three, Stern has the most sleepless nights ahead of him. Selig's albatross, whether he watches Barry Bonds' move past Hank Aaron from a pricey box seat or a living room loveseat, is that the controversy is not going away. In fact, it's growing, which in a twisted way could be seen as a relief to Selig.

Selig wants his legacy to be that of a commissioner who rid the game of steroids, not one who oversaw an era that tainted the game and its record books. The New York Daily News reported this weekend that Bonds could face an indictment as early as September. So even if Bonds passes Aaron, evidence and verdicts could be on the horizon that undoubtedly cast permanent doubt on his achievements. Even as it is now, no one's confusing Bonds with Aaron - not as a ballplayer and not as a man.

And Goodell, whose rookie year as commish has been an unrelenting trial by fire, didn't really have a big decision to make. Michael Vick lacked a criminal history that would have given Goodell the excuse to issue a suspension based simply on accusations. It's a dangerous precedent and one Goodell wasn't in a position to broach so soon after already pushing the envelope with the suspensions of players with lengthy rap sheets but not convictions.

Goodell must have faith that Vick won't see a second of playing time this year - by either Vick's volition or the Falcons' actions.

For the indefinite future, Stern is the one who must wake up each morning and confront his nightmare. At first, he'll be forced to relive it every day, at every game. NBA officials will be announced and an audience that pays exorbitant prices to witness honest competition will collectively point and whisper. Later - even years later - whenever there's a bad call, the NBA will be subject to skepticism and doubt.

For Stern, this is basketball's version of a severed finger planted in a bowl of Wendy's chili (though concocted, that scandal struck at a brand, an image and the company's bottom line). Last week's revelation breeds distrust and encourages suspicion. And the only real cure is aggressive marketing and a lot of time. Stern must tell anyone and everyone that the NBA is a better product because it exorcised its demons. And then when he's done, he has to tell us all again. And then again.

Controversy and scandal are a part of our sporting culture, and they certainly help us pass the time between games. But the nightmares that now haunt the three custodians of our popular pastimes overshadow those games, and even cast doubt on their authenticity.

If we could view this tornado swirl of disgrace in slow motion, we'd see that it all revolves around the idea of integrity - from the litigious and heinous acts perpetrated by those lacking in it to the tireless and difficult mission now facing three men charged with restoring it.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Points after -- Rick Maese

Louder than words: Who really cares that Erik Bedard is about as chatty as a goldfish? That left arm is saying all that needs to be said right now. The mounting strikeouts and lack of scoring sounds like a bad date log, but it could be just the thing that makes the Orioles interesting to folllow through September.

Come again: Did Sen. Robert Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia, really say that Michael Vick deserved to die? He stood on the Senate floor last week and said he wouldn't mind seeing the execution of someone "if it involves this cruel, sadistic, cannibalistic business of training innocent, vulnerable creatures to kill." When it comes to justice, he makes Roger Goodell look like Barney Fife with a water pistol.

Our priorities: Another professional wrestler died last week. George Caiazo, who wrestled under the name John Kronus, was found dead at his girlfriend's home. Anyone else find it odd that the world stops and stares at people protesting the senseless death of dogs, but no one blinks an eye as pro wrestlers -- actual human beings -- die at an alarming rate?

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