Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Difference Between Track and Field and Other Professional Sports

The buzz last night in the world of sports was not the NBA Playoffs, or even the Draft lottery to determine which order NBA teams will be selecting players in next months college draft. The buzz in the sports world was the release of Michael Vick from prison and just where he will fit in upon his return to the NFL! Sports announcers, analysts and others have been taking a look at his skills and how long he has been away, in an effort to estimate just which team he may fit best with, and what position may best suit him.

You see, the NFL, and the sporting world in general, is looking forward to the return of Michael Vick. He's talented, exciting on the field, charismatic, and people will pay to see him play - including the majority of those out there that are also track and field fans!

Oh, I did say he is being released from prison, right? But you see, that doesn't matter to the NFL, the announcers, or the fans - including those cross over fans of track and field. That's because other sports A) understand how important their athletes are to the success of their sports, B) believe that athletes can be rehabilitated, and C) believe that time served for whatever infraction is enough punishment!

Now, granted Michael Vick is an EXTREME case and situation. But that's why I bring him up, because nothing is more difficult to return from in our society than being an ex felon. Yet the attitude I have heard from those in the sport as well as those reporting on the sport is that he has been punished; he served his time; he lost everything; so he paid dearly for what he did. The question asked by many is: what else do we want from him.

A more normal situation would be the revelation over the past week or so that baseball's Manny Ramirez had a positive drug test and as a result will be suspended. Manny said fine and took his suspension. No appealing, no dragging the thing out in court. Why? Well, listening to those smarter than I about such matters the general consensus is that by simply taking the suspension without dragging it out, he will be back in time to take part in his teams playoff push, but if he fought the suspension it could last long enough that should he lose it could affect his ability to perform during the playoffs! Because you see, once Manny has served his time he will be brought back into the fold and his life and career will continue.

Compare this to track and field, where the goal is to get you out of the sport for life! Suspensions are measured in years, not meets (the equivalent of games for other sports). And even after you have served a suspension you have difficulty getting into meets or competing in Championship events. Just ask Dwain Chambers who has been fighting for his right to compete for a couple of years now. Or scan the Internet for the chatter about Justin Gatlin's impending return next year from his suspension. Already there is talk about how he shouldn't be allowed back - from the same people that are fans of the NBA, NFL, and/or MLB who cheer roundly for athletes in other sports that have either been convicted of the same offenses or are strongly suspected of the same!

But track and field has a very hypocritical stance in these matters. Now, I am not a "druggie" sympathizer. Far from it. Use drugs and face suspension, simple as that as far as I'm concerned. Where I have a problem with the sport is how athletes are treated once they have "done their time". As I referenced in my post on the false start rules, this sport takes a very punitive nature with respect to its athletes. There is this ideal of "purity" in this sport that is not human and unrealistic. Not that we shouldn't have standards. But there is a difference between having standards and pretending that we are the epitome of perfection.

There is also a difference between having rules and adhering to them. And therein lies the real difference between the other sports and track and field. We have rules regarding drugs, but we keep looking for ways to circumvent them. Don't have your Anti Doping Agency in place? Well, if we like you we will make allowances. Suspended for drug use? Depends on who you got your drugs from as to how we treat your return. Old time Stanozolol and you can quietly come back and do your thing. Modern designer drug handed out in the United States and we never want to see you again. Citizen of a small country and get convicted and the assumption is you needed the help and we'll see you when your time is up. Citizen of a large country and the attitude is "how could you" return at your own risk!

The most important commodity of any sport are the athletes. That's why other professional sports have salary caps that are based on a revenue sharing split between the owners and the athletes. That's why other sports have players unions that fight and advocate for the rights of the athletes. And that's why other sports have programs set up so that when their athletes have problems with performance enhancers, recreational drugs, alcohol, or other issues that the goal is to A) get them help, B) rehabilitate them to the best of their ability, C) and get them back into the fold. You see in other sports the athlete is a valued commodity.

Track and field treats its athletes as if they are a disposable commodity. Make a mistake and we don't want you any more. We'll find someone to replace you - as quickly as possible. So instead of working with our athletes to create a stable of stars, we toss out the ones we feel we can't use any longer and take one or two we like and run them down the middle of the street in side show events in an attempt to attract attention.

Now the last time I checked, ratings were up and doing well for baseball, in spite of Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez and the Mitchell Report. Nor have football's ratings dropped because of Michael Vick, or Pacman Jones. You see the fans just want to see great competition, and they leave it to the sports to take care of their personnel issues. Most professional sports do this by attempting to do what they can to save the lives of its players. Track and field on the other hand seems intent upon destroying them. And therein lies the difference between the successful professional sports and one that continues to struggle.

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