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Gastelum: Cheating in sports is just part of the game (March 8)

Andrew Gastelum | Wednesday, March 7, 2012

If you were a professional athlete, what would you do to win a championship? Most would probably say they would do anything. It’s the reason we have seen the steroids era in the MLB, match-fixing in European soccer and recruiting scandals across college football and basketball.

And almost every week we see a new story about taking an illegal, extra-competitive advantage. Don’t think so? Check out the latest Syracuse cover-up where the program let players who tested positive for drugs continue playing even though they were ineligible.

And even in a time when football has been over for a month, the NFL still manages to grab all the attention in sports with its latest scandal.

But now we are past the reactionary period of the Saints bounty ordeal. It’s been a week, and, frankly, I’m tired of hearing shallow reactions. It’s easy to sit back from a couch and say how wrong it was for the Saints’ defense to institute this bounty program. Jeff Van Gundy may be one of the most annoying voices in sports, but he made a great point on Sunday. It’s easy to make analysis after the fact. Anyone can do it, and at this point it seems to all be recycled chatter.

But in typical ESPN fashion, NFL Live put on a “Bounty Roundtable” with former NFL players where the loudest person won. At one point Tedy Bruschi’s face was redder than a throwback Patriots jersey while Trey Wingo looked scared as if he would have been tackled if he tried to mediate.

The dust has fallen, so now let’s put it this in perspective.

Cheating is a part of sports. It happens when someone blurs the line separating the desire to win and acting within the integrity of the game. And if not stopped immediately, it evolves and can contaminate a sport for years to come.

When gambling was a problem in baseball, Major League Baseball banned “Shoeless” Joe Jackson to set a precedent, regardless of whether it was right or not. The same thing happened with Pete Rose. But the NBA didn’t tailor Michael Jordan or Charles Barkley’s gambling problem (because the problem didn’t involve basketball), and years later the NBA found itself engulfed in a betting scandal with one of its own referees.

Precedents are set to stop the inevitable evolution of a terrible occurrence. We may not agree with the precedents, but they have a purpose.

Could you imagine if Bud Selig had immediately suspended (or even banned) a Sammy Sosa or Barry Bonds? It surely would have stung at the time for baseball fans everywhere, but would baseball still be sloshing its way through the end of steroid era today? Probably not, because it would have shown that there is an immediate price to pay, even if the steroid issue had its roots in the minor league system.

The NFL should learn from its friends.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell ended the Spygate era before it starting rolling downhill with huge fines thrown at the Patriots. But now there is a new issue, one which has occurred in locker rooms and behind closed doors for years.

The only people who really could have stopped the bounty program in New Orleans were coach Sean Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis and the program’s instigator, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Don’t put all the blame on the players. Yes, they made the wrong choice in taking part in the program, but don’t try to say that a third-string cornerback was going to stand up to the guy who determines his playing time and paycheck. But the captains maybe could have. Instead, captain Jonathan Vilma offers 10-grand to anyone who knocks Brett Favre out of his Wrangler jeans.

Meanwhile, Payton and Loomis could have immediately stopped it with a quick, resolute response. Instead, they turned away from the situation and won a Super Bowl.

If Goodell wants to stop the growth of this situation across the league, he will come down hard on the Saints organization, Williams and Vilma. Williams’ role may even garner a year-long or lifetime ban, while Payton’s and Vilma’s should include a suspension and heavy fines, at least.

Sure, it’ll be a black eye, but it will go away with some ice and rest. To borrow a popular phrase used in the bounty program by Gregg Williams: “If you cut the snake’s head off, the body will die.”

Contact Andrew Gastelum at agastel1@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.