The Smear that Was

Here's a novel New Year's resolution for all the athletes and their coaches out there, amateur and professional, young and old:

Stop cheating in 2008.

Stop your carousing, your gun-toting, your criminal life off the field.

Stop trying to fool referees, stop taking "recreational" drugs and stop bulking up on steroids and growth hormones.

In short, learn from 2007 -- the most scandalized, say-it-ain't-so year in sporting history.

There was National Basketball Association referee Tim Donaghy, who made at least $30,000 by illegally passing on inside information to bookies, and even gambled on games himself while making calls that may have influenced the point spreads in games.

There was tearful track star Marion Jones admitting she took banned substances, and being stripped of her ill-gotten Olympic medals.

There was Michael Vick. There was Barry Bonds and baseball's damning Mitchell report. There was 2006 Tour de France winner Floyd Landis being stripped of his title for alleged doping. There was Adam "Pacman" Jones and other professional football players being suspended for run-ins with police. Even the Super Bowl hopeful New England Patriots were caught videotaping the other team's signals in the first game of the season.

The list goes on and on and on. Remember all the corporate scandals a couple years ago? Well, 2007 was the sporting world's Year of Enron. A lot of great and upstanding young athletes were smeared by their cheating colleagues.

This is what happens when a society places too much emphasis on winning, and not enough on integrity -- when high-paid young men and women see all that cash in their hands and none of the responsibility.

Former NBA star Charles Barkley once famously argued that sports heroes aren't role models. He couldn't possibly be more wrong if he sat up all night and obsessed about it. Little boys and girls follow these people's work closely and look up to them. And they model the athletes' behaviors, for good or ill.

Indeed, adult athletes' trash-talking -- first made cute and cuddly by Muhammad Ali -- pervades even grade school and sandlot sports today. And the do-anything-to-win mentality filters down to even high school: Few in the Augusta area will ever forget Lakeside High School football coach Jody Grooms' blatantly underhanded attempt to illegally insert a player from the sidelines down field during a play this season. Greenbrier High, too, was found to have been using ineligible players.

Cheating has always been with us. It's just that with all the money floating around in sports, and all the pressure to win, players increasingly have looked to any advantage they can get -- and in many cases, teams and owners have looked the other way, even as technology has improved the cheating.

May 2008 be the year that character trumps both greed and technology, and counts the most in sports.

That just might be the comeback of the year.

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