Thursday, August 23, 2007

Keeping Pandora’s Box Closed

Published: August 22, 2007

Your guides through the secret worlds of the N.B.A. and N.F.L. will be Tim Donaghy and Michael Vick, who, to score points before sentencing, could soon reveal the monsters beneath the beds of David Stern and Roger Goodell.

Would a commissioner rather know what lurks or hides beneath his 400-thread-count sheets?

N.B.A. executives keep reciting the words “rogue, isolated criminal” in reference to Donaghy in a very no-place-like-home way, as if saying it makes Kansas happen.

This naïve escape plan is collapsing as Donaghy lets his whistle sing. He has already implied that refs play favorites on the court. And as Donaghy offers his cooperation, he could out every colleague — as many as 20, ESPN radio reported — who has ever entered an office pool or played the slots at Harrah’s or bet on Rasheed Wallace’s head to explode.

Any gambling — outside of off-season horse racing — is a fireable offense, according to league rules. One scoundrel is containable. A dozen are ruinous.

The troubling numbers have drawn no comment from the league — yet. But the N.B.A., in a public relations effort to soul-search, announced the hiring of the legal star Lawrence B. Pedowitz yesterday to lead a review of its referee morality play.

Why do internal investigations always seem so superficial? (Note to baseball’s steroid detective, George Mitchell: any time you’re ready.)

The N.F.L. sleuths have spent many billable hours skulking around Vick’s underworld, but John Goodwin, a dogfighting investigator with the Humane Society, said no one had asked what he meant when talking publicly about the subculture of dogfighting among athletes.

“Actually, the N.F.L. sent an angry letter telling me to stop saying it,” Goodwin said. “But I stand by my statement.”

The league admits requesting Goodwin to zip it unless he has specific, credible details on a player to disclose.

“As to whether we’ve heard names of players, it’s not an appropriate question,” said Greg Aiello, an N.F.L. spokesman. “We reiterate that there is no credible information to suggest players are involved.”

You don’t dust for fingerprints on a subculture, though. Evidence is in the lyrics and ads players devour. It’s in the commercial Nike once ran called “The Battle,” in which the scene of a fighting Rottweiler and pit bull was spliced into film of a streetball game. (No wonder Nike adored Vick before it dumped him.)

You don’t find paper trails to the shadows, either. Evidence is between the lines. In the months since the sordid Vick saga began, some player comments have revealed a hip-hop fascination with dogfighting and an indifference toward animal cruelty. In a column for The News-Press of southwest Florida, Deion Sanders recently wrote: “I believe Vick had a passion for dogfighting. I know many athletes who share his passion.”

Why would athletes be drawn to a macabre blood sport? Why would they seek a thrill in cruelty? Do football players — left beaten, broken and bewildered in their weekly survival games on Sunday — identify with dogs that are unleashed to fight to the death? Or is this just a twisted act by voyeurs with a craving for brutality against helpless dogs?

Vick may have some answers. We’re about to find out if he can talk a good game. He is scheduled to enter a guilty plea on dogfighting charges Monday and is expected to receive at least a year in prison when United States District Judge Henry E. Hudson sentences him in November.

“He’s got a good long while to do something to impress that judge,” said Goodwin, who was in the courtroom last week when Vick’s co-defendants, Purnell Peace and Quanis Phillips, entered their guilty pleas. “He told them outright that while the prosecutor may make a recommendation, and he would give it weight, he made it clear if there were factors that warranted more prison time, he would do it.

“So I would certainly think it would be in the best interest of Michael Vick to be very forthright and honest.”

Honesty can be unnerving. Just like the N.B.A., the N.F.L. leaders are clicking their heels, reciting to themselves, “rogue, isolated criminal; rogue, isolated criminal,” hoping to make it so.

The N.F.L. will no doubt ask authorities for permission to interview Vick. But how much do they want to know?

There is no shortage of insiders in sports. Jason Giambi sat before the Mitchell investigation, but did so with assurances that he would not have to provide a clubhouse confidential on steroid use by other players.

Fine, Mitchell agreed. Besides, why complicate an investigation with names? Look at what Donaghy could do to basketball if he discloses the details of a gambling habit among referees. Look at what Vick could do to football if he gives up others who bet on the dogs.

Leagues are experts at hiring fancy investigators who uncover just enough to satisfy the public’s curiosity. But deeper knowledge is a burden on a monster scale.



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