Thursday, September 21, 2006

Some Memories Can't Have Asterisks

(published in The Davidsonian, 9/20/06)

Back when I was in high school, I participated in a program called Youth in Government. I acted as a lawyer in a mock court, and had to try several made up cases. As one might imagine, the scope of the cases were limited to only several pages of background and written testimony. As a result, my team learned of a very important strategy that many lawyers use to influence the jury: Say some objectionable things. The judge might strike it from the official record, but the human jury could never get it out of their minds.

It is through this example that I bring up a very important issue in the current national sports scene. What really counts for greatness now? That which we witness, or that which is ultimately kept in the record books?

The developing controversy surrounding Reggie Bush brings this issue to the forefront. Bush and his family are facing allegations that they wrongly accepted over $100,000 in gifts and cash from two marketing agents. While Bush has adamantly declared that he is innocent of the charges, there is some substantial evidence to the contrary.

If this whole thing goes down and Bush is fully implicated, his Heisman and the Southern California national championship could be taken away. However, I will never be able to believe and accept that USC was not the best team in the country for that season. You can take those trophies away from them, but that National Championship season exists in its own right in our memory.

The NCAA has a lot of power, but they can’t control our minds. Not yet anyway.

When pertaining to issues of unrelated grievances, such as illegally taking money, the issue seems relatively cut and dry. Guys like Pete Rose and Reggie Bush might not be upstanding citizens, but they are still incredible athletes. In their own right, their accomplishments affected the sports world in an irreversible way. We might try to have them tainted in the name of justice, but their memory will never be erased.

This argument starts getting a little more hairy when we run into athletes whose “cheating” actually had a direct influence on their athletic accomplishments: Barry Bonds, Floyd Landis and practically everyone in the NFL.

Barry Bonds has hit home runs unlike any in our generation, and yet I’m told that I have to ignore it. It’s kind of not really supposed to count. Or something. As a sports fan, the present conundrum with steroids has handicapped our ability to recognize accomplishment and garner strength in victories and records.

For my part, I still remember watching Bonds’ 73rd home run of the 2001 season. I won’t be able to forget Floyd Landis’ incredible one-day comeback putting him in first place in the 2006 Tour de France. This is like asking me to forget the Bills’ 32 point comeback in 1992 playoffs because Frank Reich and Don Beebe shot up before the game.

Our nation’s sports watchdog institutions need to better understand what they are getting themselves into. Surely it is a noble cause to try to maintain the amateur status of college sports.
However, just last week, the NCAA opened itself up to further problems by having a sense of sympathy. They allowed for the creation of a trust fund for Clemson CB Ray Ray McElrathbey, who had gained custody of his little brother over the summer. McElrathbey is trying to raise his brother in a positive environment and the NCAA ruled that it had no problems with a member institution sponsoring this personal endeavor.

But what if an athlete is married in college and is struggling to support his spouse? What if one has lost all of his familial and personal belongings in a natural disaster? Can an NCAA institution allow an athlete to receive charity then?

Lines are becoming blurred, and our tangible entities, like championships and records, are the only things that we can use as collateral and punishment.

Ultimately, however, all that these institutions can do is to put an asterisk in the record books. In trying to punish the offenders, the sports fans and their culture are also punished. All of a sudden, the historical map of champions and records has become blurred and ambiguous. For all of our passion and support, we, the sports fans, deserve better.

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