Has the Sports World Really Changed?
by Glenn Dickey
Apr 13, 2006

THE SPORTS WORLD seems to be getting nastier. The Duke lacrosse team is currently in the headlines because of a rape accusation by a stripper at a team party. Barry Bonds seems always to be in the headlines, whether because of the steroids issue or because of his normal churlishness. It’s a common occurrence for an athlete to be picked up on a DUI, or accused by a woman who is not his wife of fathering her child. A female kicker on the Colorado football team accused male teammates of rape.

What’s going on here? Sports fans used to say that they read the sports pages of a newspaper because they celebrated achievement, while the front page was reporting the problems of the world/nation/area. Now, the sports pages are full of problems, too.

Has the sports world changed that much? Probably not, but I see three reasons for what’s being reported these days:

--Society has become much less forgiving. When I came to The Chronicle in 1963, the three-martini lunch was common. Businessmen knew that, even if they drove away, they weren’t likely to be arrested on a DUI charge.

Athletes got the same pass. If they were driving erratically, an officer was more likely to drive them home than to arrest them.

That’s all changed. The percentage of blood alcohol that is classified as DUI has been lowered, and the police and highway patrol enforce it. The three-martini lunch has virtually disappeared. Smart athletes hire limousines when they party; with their salaries, they can afford it. The dumber ones don’t, and when they drink too much, they get picked up – and the story is in the papers, on the Internet and on television screens.

At the same time, women have become less forgiving when they’ve been assaulted. Historically, women have been reluctant to make rape accusations because the questioning, either in police interviews or in a trial, can be brutal. But more and more, they’re coming forward. I don’t know how the Duke case will turn out – DNA testing did not show any matches with the white players – but the fact that it was even brought is significant. Forty years ago, that kind of accusation would never have happened.

Casual sex has always been common between athletes and women, but even that has changed. A former NBA player told me once that, in his day, it was simple: Players just went with stewardesses who were willing. Now, athletes have many more women coming after them, sometimes for their physical attractions, sometimes for their money. It can take awhile to sort out blame when an athlete is accused of rape, but the accusation itself is a story, and many people forget the legal principle that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty when they hear of an athlete being charged.

--“Ball Four” pulled aside the curtain from baseball and, by extension, other pro sports.

Baseball players hated Jim Bouton for his book because it revealed their secrets, everything from their drinking habits to sex – or “peeping” in the case of Mickey Mantle, who was spying on women undressing in hotel rooms.

Until that point, athletes kept their secrets, with the cooperation of sportswriters, who didn’t write about any of it. Babe Ruth was a notorious womanizer, but that never reached print – and there was no TV or Internet and virtually no radio. For “No Cheering In the Press Box,” a New York writer (memory tells me it was Richard Vidmar, but I don’t have the book now) told of playing poker with a group in Ruth’s hotel suite when a woman knocked on the door. Ruth got up, took her into the bedroom for a few minutes, then sent her off and came back to the poker game. None of the other poker players even commented on it, and of course, none wrote about it at the time.

Joe DiMaggio used to go to dinner with New York sportswriters, but they knew they weren’t to write of that or any personal details of DiMaggio’s life, which was a little messy because Joe loved, literally, the showgirls. He also apparently had connections with the mob, but that didn’t come out until Richard Ben Cramer wrote, “Joe DiMaggio.”

Again, there’s been a sea change since then. For the last 40 years, writers have probed relentlessly into personal details of athletes’ lives. Imagine if the writers of their times would have done the same to Ruth, DiMaggio and Mantle.

--Watergate. I had never thought of this until it was suggested by a friend as I was eating lunch with a group of media people in the Giants dining room before Sunday's game, but my friend had a point: Watergate changed everything.

Since Watergate, everybody has had to be more accountable, even in the newspaper business. Teams used to give out sizeable Christmas gifts to writers. I didn’t get two of the biggest – color TV sets given out by Warriors owner Franklin Mieuli, Bulova Accutron watches given out by A’s owner Charlie Finley – but I did get record players and black-and-white TVs from the Raiders and a gift certificate from the 49ers that I turned into two suits.

Did that affect reporting? Probably. It’s hard to be critical of people who are giving you substantial gifts. After Watergate, newspapers put in strict rules about how much writers could accept. At about the same time, clubs cut back on their gift-giving, and local teams now don’t send writers anything more than Christmas cards.

ALL OF THESE changes have brought the sports world more into alignment with what we call the “real world.” The fantasy world that once was sports no longer exists.

For some, both fans and media, that’s disturbing. Everybody likes to cling to their childhood dreams, of a supposed purity that never really existed. But we all had to give up on our childhood dreams of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, too. Realizing that athletes have the same wishes and desires as the rest of us – though with more money to satisfy them – is a healthy thing.

BASEBALL ART: For those of you who live in the area, I urge you to visit the baseball exhibit at the George Krevsky Gallery, 77 Geary Street in San Francisco, in the same building which houses the Fox Sports Bay Area studios. The exhibit runs through April 29. It’s a labor of love for George, a lifelong baseball fan, and it’s a remarkable collection.

LETTERS: I try to update this on a regular basis, though I probably won’t have time today because I’m going to the Giants game – if it doesn’t rain! I edit your e-mails for brevity (because I have to re-type them to post them) and for content. I like to present as many different ideas as possible, which sometimes means that I’ll leave in one idea from an e-mail and cut out another which has already been presented. I’m sorry if that offends some message senders, but I think that makes it more entertaining for other readers.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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