The Sport Digest frequently runs pieces dealing with ethical issues in sports. Recent stories have focused on the numerous NCAA members who have football or basketball programs under investigation. We have looked at the never ending “pay for play” debate that rages around whether or not college student-athletes are being exploited by athletic departments who take in millions of dollars in revenues based on their services. We have looked at bad behavior on youth playing fields and on whether or not there is an over-emphasis by parents on the sports performances of their children.
Last night I watched a piece on the ESPN series “30 in 30”. The piece was entitled “Catching Hell” and dealt with the story of Chicago Cubs fan, Steve Bartman. Readers will probably recall that Bartman was the then 26 year old computer software engineer and Cub fan who was sitting in the first row down the left field line in Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series against the Florida Marlins. With one out in the eighth inning a Marlins batter hit a soft pop fly that went right down that line. It curved foul and started to come down at the edge of the stands.
Cubs left fielder, Moises Alou, came over with his glove outstretched. Several fans instinctively reached up hoping to catch a souvenir. As Alou jumped up Bartman’s hands were above his glove. The ball glanced off one of his hands just when it seemed that Alou would catch the ball for out 2. Alou stormed around and made gestures. As he returned to his position he turned and yelled at Mr. Bartman.
It was if fate had intervened again to deny the Cubs, who have not won a World Series since 1908 and haven’t even made it that far since 1945. The Marlins went on the score 8 runs in the inning after shortstop, Alex Gonzalez booted a near certain double play grounder. The Cubs lost Game 6 and the next night lost the series to the Marlins.
Fans spent the rest of Game 6 booing Bartman and throwing things at him. Stadium security personnel came to the area and wound up escorting him underneath the stands as fans screamed and threw things. The police were called in outside the stadium and security wound up disguising Mr. Bartman to get him safely out of the stadium. The media reported his name and address the next day and his house was besieged with media and onlookers. Talk radio was full of callers calling him all sorts of names and making threats against him.
A fan next to Bartman in the stands that night picked up the ball and wound up selling it to the owner of Harry Carey’s Restaurant in Chicago for $100,000. The ball was eventually blown up in the restaurant on live TV. The fumes were then used as an ingredient in a special spaghetti sauce that was served to patrons. Bartman himself has never tried to make any money off of the situation.
The ESPN piece focused on how the event has forever changed Mr. Bartman’s life. The producers also highlighted Bill Buckner’s famous muffed ground ball in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series when he played for the Red Sox, who went on to lose Game 7 to the New York Mets after Buckner’s miscue allowed the winning run to score in Game 6. I was struck by how one small moment in time can be blown up into a life changing event.
How does all of this relate to a sports blog? The ESPN piece also focused on what the frenzied reaction to Mr. Bartman’s moment of infamy says about sport fans in general. We can all relate to this. Everyone has stories about overzealous fans acting out or about fights among players that may spill into the stands. Just last winter a self-described Alabama football fan allegedly tried to poison iconic oak trees located near the Auburn University campus in retaliation for what he perceived as insults directed at his beloved Crimson Tide.
Anyone who listens to sports talk radio for very long comes away wondering about the mental health of sports fans who rant and rave on air. We have become a society that is full of people who want a brief moment of fame and who want to find someone else to blame as scapegoats for things that in their eyes go wrong.
The term “scapegoat” can be traced back to the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament of the Bible. Every year on the Day of Atonement in Jerusalem the High Priest of the Temple found a young goat and brought the goat to the Temple. The goat was washed and then the priest laid hands on the goat and said ceremonial prayers that asked God to wash away the sins of the people with the ceremonial cleansing of the goat. The goat was then led out of the city and left outside the walls. The goat was never allowed back into the fold. The goat’s banishment was symbolic of the sins of the people being banished and forgiven by God. That little goat took on the sins of everyone.
I wonder if we have completely lost our sense of balance when we look at the role of sport in our lives. Our words and actions suggest that we have blown sporting events completely out of proportion. Proponents of sport talk about the positive values that sports can teach and instill in us. That is true in the world of light. In the world of darkness, however, sports seem to bring out the worst aspects of our character. Even those of us who are not active participants in the seedier side of sport often find reasons to condone bad behavior or we simply look the other way.
There are reports that Steve Bartman does not use credit cards in public because he doesn’t want his name recognized. There are reports that he has changed his appearance. His address is a closely guarded secret. As I watched the ESPN show come to an end last night I wondered if this sad story is somehow a metaphor for what sport has too often become in our society. I hope I’m wrong; but I’m just not sure.