Why sports scandals are so mesmerizing

Hope Solo answers questions during the United States Women's World Cup Media Day at Marriott Marquis Hotel on May 27, 2015 in New York.
Hope Solo answers questions during the United States Women's World Cup Media Day at Marriott Marquis Hotel on May 27, 2015 in New York. Getty Images

High and low, amateur and pro, this has been a lush spring for athletic scandal.

Lucky us. Most everyone savors a sports scandal – as long as it doesn’t involve their favorite team or player. Seeing the mighty or well-connected, the conceited or privileged, the rich or successful taken down a peg has an almost-irresistible charm. So does having our suspicions confirmed that what goes on behind the scenes is as corrupt as we imagined.

Scandals can confound our closest-held allegiances or ratify our deepest prejudices. Oddly enough, scandals also have an affirming quality. Every era rings with the cries of those who bemoan society’s decline in moral values. Yet the very fact a behavior is considered scandalous assures us fixed rules and boundaries endure, if only in the play world where we invest our time and passion.

“It’s my impression that we really as a culture pay a lot more attention to the cheating-related scandals,” says Laura L. Finley, co-author of the book Sports Scandals and an associate professor of sociology and criminology at Barry University in Florida. “I think it’s at the root of our belief system that it should be a fair playing field. Maybe that’s why the cheating stuff really bothers us, whereas the other stuff we can blame on some flawed individual.”

Hardly unique

Just now media condemnation centers on one such flawed sports star, Hope Solo, as well as those allowing her continued participation on the U.S. soccer team in the 2015 Women’s World Cup. The goalie is playing despite considerable evidence she’s a domestic abuser.

Solo’s saga is hardly unique. Just in the last year she’s been joined in scandal by Jameis Winston, Ray Rice, Greg Hardy and Adrian Peterson. Take a different route, and scandal yields a long parade of deceit and drug abuse featuring Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds and Marion Jones.

Most recently, violations of standards by Solo and others vied with institutional offenders in titillating the American public.

We haven’t seen the last of “deflategate,” the New England Patriots’ supposedly intentional under-inflation of game balls in January’s AFC championship game. Only last month the NFL issued the 243-page Wells Report that concluded “it is more probable than not” that quarterback Tom Brady knew about the doctored balls.

The team’s attorneys answered with what one New York Times writer called a “scathing rebuttal” that reduced the entire matter to “farcical” dimensions. For violating what the league labeled “the integrity of the game,” the Patriots were fined and forfeited draft choices. Brady appealed a four-game suspension imposed by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, whose own reputation was tattered by maladroit handling of cases of domestic abuse by league players.

The quarterback already is tainted in many eyes simply by playing for gruff Bill Belichick, whose assistant was caught illicitly videotaping an opponent in 2007. Brady, 37, hasn’t conceded knowledge of playing with deflated footballs. He also is handsome, a three-time Super Bowl MVP, and worth $131 million, according to the website Making him a juicier target, he is married to Gisele Bundchen, the world’s premier model since 2004, with her own net worth of $300 million. They have two cute preteen children.

What’s not to dislike?

UNC under scrutiny

“We’re just a very individualistic culture in the United States, and so we love to idolize individuals,” Finley says. “We have heroes in popular culture and sports and the political realm and every realm. We love to build the individual up. But we also love to watch the individual go down.”

A few weeks after the hammer dropped on New England – blemishing Brady’s legitimate claim as pro football’s greatest contemporary quarterback – we uncharacteristically turned our attention to FIFA, the governing body of international soccer.

The realm of round footballs infrequently captures American attention. But who can resist the allegations of high-level corruption contained in a 47-count indictment naming 14 wrongdoers, or the spectacle of fat cats being marched in police custody from a plush Swiss hotel at the behest of the U.S. Attorney General? Already Sepp Blatter, the imperious longtime president of FIFA, has resigned, and only days after winning reelection to a fifth term in office.

Simultaneously, like background music that occasionally peeks through to command attention, the academic shenanigans devised to facilitate athlete eligibility at Chapel Hill continued to make news. Tales of those misdeeds are so familiar, their naked inappropriateness seems a fixture in the collegiate sports landscape.

Goaded by last October’s UNC-funded Wainstein Report in October that looked into “Irregular Classes in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies”, the NCAA responded with a 59-page notice of allegations that the school released on June 4. Five severe violations were alleged, most notably the dreaded lack of institutional control.

Some Tar Heel supporters fumed the Wainstein review only prolonged the university’s agony and provided ammunition to NCAA investigators. Both charges may be true. Far more important, however, the internal investigation bolstered claims that the reforms made in athletic and academic governance were wholeheartedly supported by new university leadership. Coming clean is courageous, and far less painful when you can blame a mess on your predecessors.

Stains remain

Months of uncertainty remain at Chapel Hill, but it’s clear the end-game is underway, with a second NCAA probation in a five-year span likely to be leveled in 2016. That’s not counting the demeaning one-year probation delivered last week by an academic accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Forget the blows to athletic recruiting while UNC lingers in limbo, awaiting penalties of unknown severity. The school needs to cauterize its wounds and close this sorry chapter in an otherwise impressive and honorable athletic history. Without the resolution provided by an NCAA punishment for what clearly were cheap grades and easy eligibility exploited by athletes, academic advisers and coaches, neither the school nor the national organization can regain lost credibility, let alone move on.

Not that the stain left by two decades of cheating, however isolated in its provenance, will ever be entirely removed. Just ask the Patriots.

Malcolm Moran, long a prominent national sportswriter, had a front-row seat to scandal and its ramifications while teaching at Penn State. He was there when Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant to sainted football coach Joe Paterno, was revealed to be a serial molester of young boys, often on campus grounds. How much Paterno and others in positions of authority looked the other way remains a source of debate, and the subject of several upcoming legal cases.

Badly off-course as UNC wandered, it never went that far.

The scandals in Happy Valley and The Southern Part of Heaven do have elements in common, including the pain caused to supporters and the disdain engendered among rivals.

“If school X has some extremely embarrassing situation and you are a fan or alum of school Y, you just became more honest and intelligent in the eyes of the general public, and in your eyes,” observes Moran, director of the National Sports Journalist Center in Indianapolis. “It validates everything you think about the school in question.”

If you didn’t notice that phenomenon occurring around North Carolina and the ACC these past few years, you haven’t been paying attention.