Telling some peoplethat you cover the NBA must be like revealing that you collect equine spermsamples for a living. They find it interesting but can't believe you do it.There are variations on a theme--I used to watch the NBA but not anymore; allthe players are gangsters; there is more teamwork in college--but the theme isconsistent: dissatisfaction with the players, the game or both. Anyoneassociated with the league gets accustomed to it and dons a kind of armor. Oneveteran official, Bennett Salvatore, says that when someone recognizes him andstarts babbling away, he says, "Oh, you got the wrong guy. That's my twinbrother who's a ref."
The anti-NBAfeeling is particularly irritating in the fall, when King Football sits on thethrone, surrounded by adoring handlers. During a round of golf last week withthree men I had just met, there were the customary murmurs of discontent whenthey learned about my NBA connection, followed by a question: "Hey, did youever interview T.O.? I know he's a little crazy, but he seems kind ofinteresting."
So there you are.The NBA sucks, and Terrell Owens (page 48), one of the most judgment-challengedpeople on the planet, has something to tell us.
The NFL is sobulletproof it should be brought to you by Kevlar. Rarely does a week go bywhen one of its players does not appear on a police blotter--they've run out ofink in the Queen City, where six members of the Sin-cinnati Bungles have beenarrested in 2006 alone. It's a tough call as to who is the biggest screwup, butlet's give the nod to a talented young wide receiver, Chris Henry, who sincelast December has been arrested four times for an impressive array of allegedoffenses: marijuana possession (he pleaded guilty), carrying a concealed weapon(ditto), providing alcohol to underage women (he pleaded not guilty), drunkendriving (ditto). Still, he played in the Bengals' first three games thisseason. Overall, at least 10 NFL players have been arrested on various chargesover the last 10 months. "It's up to [players] to be positive rolemodels," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters in Chicago onSunday. "But when you have 2,000 young men in your league, you're going tohave some people who are going to get themselves on the wrong side of thelaw."
Fair enough, butwhat about that one-game suspension for Lions defensive line coach Joe Cullen,who was arrested last month on an alleged DWI, which was not nearly asembarrassing as the DWP (Driving Without Pants) he had received a week earlierfor cruising naked through a Wendy's drive-through. Cullen missed Week 1 buthas been with the team, presumably fully dressed, ever since.
In August, TheCharlotte Observer reported that four players on the 2004 NFC champion Panthersused banned substances. (They were caught not by league drug-testing but bytestimony in another case.) What a surprise--after gazing at the size oflinemen, who could possibly suspect there was steroid use in the NFL? Yet thestory failed to generate much attention, certainly nothing like the steroidspeculation that Phillies slugger Ryan Howard faced during his late-season homerun spree even though he has been tested throughout his career and has neverfailed.
While baseballtakes the hit for steroids and the NBA remains the target of choice, thedefault verdict from fans on the NFL is no-fault: Individuals screw up, butthat has nothing to do with the league as a whole.
Why the popularitygap? The unassailable fact remains that the NBA is a predominantlyAfrican-American league (73%) with a more openly hip-hop culture. While blacksmake up about 65% of NFL rosters, football has never been seen as an"urban" sport. Moreover, because there are so many NFL players, andtheir sport is so team-focused and they're covered in padding, they maintainsome anonymity. It's easier to embrace felons--of all colors--hidden underhelmets than tatted-up black men in plain view.
Some NBA players,such as Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal, have been outspoken in their view that raceis the major reason for the league's negative image. But team and leagueexecutives rarely wade into public debate about it. Commissioner David Sterndeclined to speak to the popularity gap, other than to say, "When you havethe most-recognized athletes in the world and you take the good that comes withthat, you also have to take the bad."
In the end thepopularity gap isn't just Stern's problem. It's ours, too, because it might saymore about us than the NBA or the NFL. The less disturbing reason for the NFL'sinvulnerability is that America likes pro football better than probasketball--better than almost anything else, in fact. I've heard a hundreddiscussions about the NFL in NBA locker rooms and precious few about the NBA inNFL locker rooms. Still, we must acknowledge that the players of one sportshould not get a free pass while those of another are systematically skeweredfor similar misdeeds--or for none at all.
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If I don't get out of these financial quagmires, I mayhave to be a punching bag for somebody. --MIKE TYSON, FOR THE RECORD, PAGE20
ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN CUNEO