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Geoff Baker covers the Mariners for The Seattle Times. He provides daily coverage of the team throughout spring training, and during the season.

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February 9, 2009 8:15 PM

Worst sports scandals of all-time

Posted by Geoff Baker

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Seems that my comment earlier today about A-Rod's positive drug test pehaps turning into the biggest sports scandal of all-time has drawn lots of interest in the blogosphere. The New York Times, of all places, linked to the comment earlier this afternoon. Well, it's one thing to make a hyperbolic statement. Quite another to back it up. I've compiled a list of what I think are the greatest sports scandals of all-time in terms of their impact on the sports themselves from a global perspective, how people view those sports afterward and the longevity of the black mark they carry with them.

For this reason, you won't find any mention of Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan debacle from the 1994 lead up to the Winter Olympics' figure skating competition. While that was a nice little "Made-in-the-USA" soap opera, it reflected more on the personalities involved than the sport of figure skating itself. I'd argue that all of the Olympic ice dancing fiascos that occured with judges in the years since were a lot more hurtful to their sport overall. And besides, neither Kerrigan nor Harding even won a gold medal. In fact, it can be argued that Harding-Kerrigan actually helped figure skating in terms of boosted TV ratings. No, we'll look at the real ugly scandals here and leave Harding-Kerrigan for reality TV.

For the worst of the truly awful scandals, those with long-term impact, I nominate:

1. Steroids Era as defined by A-Rod's positive test

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This gets the nod because of what it will mean to the overall context of the so-called Steroids Era of the past 15 years. As Jayson Stark of ESPN mentioned earlier today, we're getting to the point where baseball records have been forever tarnished. And records are the foundation that helped elevate MLB to a position of being a part of Amercia's very fabric. The stuff that great novels were written about. That inspired movies. You rarely hear people talk about NFL records the same way they did Hank Aaron's career home run total, Babe Ruth's mark before that, or Lou Gehrig's consecutives games streak (since eclipsed by Cal Ripken Jr.). Take away baseball's records and their sanctity and the sport loses its soul. I believe that this is the fundamental reason why fans seem to care more about steroids in baseball than they do in football. Baseball's drug culture has caused the game's very foundation -- it's individual records as measured over the past century -- to crumble. It made a mockery of the career achievements of baseball legends whose on-field feats have transcended time.

A-Rod was supposed to help restore some sanctity to those records. He was the "clean" player who was going to eclipse the Barry Bonds career home run mark, which was recently snatched away from Aaron under a shroud of steroids accusations. Now, that plan lies in ruins. A-Rod is just as tainted as all the rest of the biggest names the game has seen this decade and in the 1990s. A generation of baseball fans has grown up watching a lie. This is not a scandal limited to any one particular year. It's one now going on two decades, ensnaring the biggest names the sport has known during that time. And some of the biggest names to play in any era of the sport's history. It has rattled the trust placed in the sport by fans. Part of what made baseball great, made it endure for as long as it has, was the ability to reference records of the past and measure them against the present. Now, that's gone forever.

If A-Rod can no longer carry that torch, who can? How many more decades will it take? And how many fans of the game itself will the sport lose? Perhaps, baseball is now destined to become like any other team sport, with fans whose loyalties remain to individual teams and their efforts at winning championships. Not to the beauty of the game itself and all of the elements that go with that. cheering a team to a championship can still be fun stuff. But it's rarely what gets great novels written.

So, that's my reason I nominate this A-Rod debacle as having crystalized the Steroids Era as the worst sports scandal of all-time.

Here are the rest of my nominees:

2. The Ben Johnson Olympic Steroids Scandal of 1988

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Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson taking on American icon Carl Lewis in the 100-meter final at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, was one of the most globally-watched sporting events of all-time. Johnson shattered the world record by clocking in at 9.79 seconds, but the aftermath of his positive test for the anabolic steroid stanozolol nearly ruined track and field.

The Johnson scandal cast a cloud over those Olympics and became symbolic of Olympic drug problems in general. Results of previous medal winners were thrown into disrepute. Organizers of track and field events throughout the world reported a downturn in fan interest and loss of revenue for years to come. In Canada, the government held an official inquiry into drugs in sport that took years to play out and which became a model for other countries to follow. But the trust that fans had placed in the sport of track and field was lost. Each new world record became the subject of cynicism. Sure, the Soviets and East Germans were doping long before Johnson stepped into his starting blocks. But if you want to find the flashpoint for an Olympic doping crisis that has lasted decades, look no further than Johnson's mad dash against Lewis in 1988. The fact that nearly the entire finalist field from that event was later caught taking one banned substance or another tells you all you need to know about how rampant track and field's drug problems were in 1988. And while progress has been made, we've seen from Marion Jones and others that the sport still, in many ways, has yet to recover.


3. 1919 Black Sox Scandal

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It's because of the Chicago White Sox throwing their World Series in 1919 that baseball now has a commissioner and Pete Rose is not allowed into the Hall of Fame. Indeed, for pure longevity, this scandal has all other beat. It has inspired movies like Eight Men Out and novels like Shoeless Joe. There are still organizations dedicated to clearing the names of players like Buck Weaver, said to have been innocents in the whole affair. If not for the home run hitting feats of Babe Ruth in the 1920s, the baseball betting scandal may have toppled the sport for good. Let's not forget, just like A-Rod and Barry Bonds are the flashpoints for their sport's scandal, and Ben Johnson was for his, the 1919 "Black Sox'' were only one major element to a betting problem that went beyond their one team. Fan confidence in the sport was becoming eroded daily as new accounts of the thrown World Series continued to emerge. I'd argue that, in today's internet age, basbeall might not have survived 1919. But back then, with news coming out a lot more slowly, it bought the game time to right itself. The strict, anti-gambling rules that emerged help ruin the legacy of Pete Rose decades later when he was found to have bet on baseball. But Rose was just the continuation of what the Black Sox started. Had he ever been found to have bet against his own team, the way the 1919 Black Sox did, his own scandal might have been just as damning. For now, it remains a pretty big element of one of the worst sports scandals of all-time.


4. Olympique Marseille 1993 soccer match-fixing scandal

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Imagine actually winning a World Series and then having to give it back the next year while your team gets banished to Class AAA. That's exactly what happened to Olympique de Marseille (Photo Credit: Getty Images), which defeated AC Milan in 1993 to become the first French team to ever win a European Champions League title. That's huge stuff over in Europe, where arguably the world's best soccer leagues are located. But Marseille had to forfeit its French title the following year (it got to keep the European crown, but was banned from defending it in 1994) and its owner, Bernard Tapie, headed off to prison when it was found one of the team's opponents had been paid to lose. At the heart of the case was that three players from the second-division Valenciennes team in France were bribed by Marseille players and officials to throw a regular season game and not injure any Marseille players. In soccer, the regular season and "Champions League'' playoffs from the previous year always overlap. Like playing last year's World Series in the middle of next May, surrounded by a bunch of regular season games for 2009. It sounds weird, but this is how soccer is. Marseille wanted Valenciennes to go easy on its squad so it could be better prepared for the upcoming Champions League final against AC Milan a week later.

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Marseille won that European final, then went on to claim a fifth straight French League championship. The whole plot nearly worked, until some folks started chirping. As a result, Marseille was stripped of its French title from 1993. I mean, when's the last time you saw that happen to any squad winning a championship? Not only that, but Marseille was relegated to second-division soccer for two years. Ouch! That'll kill some reputations and leave wounds that are tough to heal. Marseille has never again reached the same on-field heights it once did. The Italian soccer club, Juventus, had a similar scandal a few years back. But unlike Olympique Marseille, the Juventus team was not the defending European champ, so I'll give Marseille top billing on my scandal rank meter.


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February 9, 2009 12:14 PM

A-Rod did it: Now, about that Mitchell Report...

Posted by Geoff Baker

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So, Jose Canseco got me thinking the other day...no, I never thought I'd admit to that in print, either, but things can change. The day the Mitchell Report on performance enhancing drug use in baseball came out just over a year ago, Canseco was incredulous that Alex Rodriguez's name wasn't on it. Fast forward to this past weekend, when we find out that A-Rod was one of 104 players who failed a secret steroids test in 2003.

A-Rod, by the way, just admitted that he did indeed get nabbed in that 2003 testing. Said he used steroids between 2001 and 2003, so that gets the Mariners off-the-hook -- for now, anyway.

I know that Mariners spring training begins this week, but let's face it, this story is not going away. This might be the worst scandal in the history of sports. Jayson Stark of ESPN feels that A-Rod has destroyed the game's history forever. So, I'm not going to make like an MLB PR thingy today and shove all this in a dark corner so we can focus on the merits of Ken Griffey Jr. vs. Garrett Anderson as a Mariners "washed up vet" signee. That will have to wait.

This stuff is more important. And for me, the whole Mitchell Report angle has sort of gone untouched in the initial fallout.

When Sen. George Mitchell's report came out, naming more than 80 past and current players linked to PEDs in some way, there was vast criticism about the lack of evidence put forth. I was then and today remain in favor of the report, but this whole A-Rod thing now brings up some disturbing questions I'd like to see answered.

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First off, how much did MLB Commissioner Bud Selig (seen in the photo alongside Mitchell) know about the 104 names in the so-called secret test of 2003? Did he know which individual players had failed the test? It's now clear that baseball union officials knew the names. So, I'd have to imagine Selig would have some inkling as to who they were.

Some of you may now see where this is going.

If Selig knew that A-Rod and 103 others failed a steroids test in 2003, then how does he go about appointing Mitchell to conduct a thourough "independant" inquiry into steroids two years later? I mean, does Selig, or someone else in MLB, give a little "nudge-nudge'' and "wink-wink" to Mitchell about some of the people named in that secret 2003 steroids testing? Do they encourage him to go out and find his own, corroborating evidence, to nail some of those folks on the list?

Or, worse yet, do MLB officials deliberately steer Mitchell away from any of those 104 names who failed the secret 2003 test? Do they steer him away from A-Rod, but maybe whisper 10 other, lesser names, to Mitchell in the hopes he can round out his report? Or, do they simply steer Mitchell away from any of the names on the list? Answering any of those questions will prove difficult if MLB officials knew the names of the 104 players who failed that 2003 drug test. I mean, how do you allow a supposedly legit investigation to be carried out by Mitchell when you know that his final list is missing names of players caught red-handed while taking steroids? After all, A-Rod's name wasn't on Mitchell's list. Canseco was outraged. You all should be very skeptical.

Or, maybe, as I've suggested, MLB did throw a few names Mitchell's way, other than A-Rod's. We know Mitchell could never legally have used the 2003 test results as "evidence" in his report, but who's to say someone didn't tell Mitchell: "Joe Blow failed a steroids test in 2003, so ask Kirk Radomski or Brian McNamee if they ever had any dealings at all with them.''

Motivations for this? Well, this Mitchell Report was a glorified PR exercise by MLB in order to convince the world it was "cleaning up" drugs in baseball. In order to pull this off, the report was going to need plenty of names. It got a real big one in Roger Clemens, but he was on his last legs as a regular major leaguer and there had already been some quiet, though mounting whispers he'd used performance enhancing drugs. Yeah, his name was still a huge sacrifice for MLB to make. But it had to make at least one. A-Rod, on the other hand, is a different story altogether. He was Phase II of MLB's efforts at image rehabilitation. The guy who was going to pass Barry Bonds on the all-time home run list and show baseball to be a "clean" sport where honest players can thrive.

So, while Clemens was a hard hit for the sport to endure, he did give the Mitchell Report needed credibility. A-Rod, on the other hand, is a PR disaster for the sport.

Again, my question is: did Selig know A-Rod had failed a drug test in 2003 when he appointed Mitchell to head up his inquiry? And if he did, what steps to he take to ensure Mitchell had the full-scope of what was going on? Or, did Selig send Mitchell blindly on his way, hoping he'd never discover the truth that one of the game's biggest stars, present and future, had already been caught in a testing net?

For me, even if Selig, or whoever in MLB knew the 104 names (and we have to assume somebody did, since the union was all over it), kept quiet and watched Mitchell go about his work, this raises a disturbing moral dilemma.

How exactly can Selig and MLB allow Mitchell to tarnish forever the names of 80-plus ballplayers in his report, some with evidence as vague as having written a check to a clubhouse attendant, while knowing all along that A-Rod and 103 others actually failed a steroids test and are getting off scott free? Sure, there was probably duplication between Mitchell's list and those who failed the 2003 test. So, in the end, some players did pay for their PED usage. But not all.

I mean, at the very least, you'd think that -- knowing a double-standard was in-place -- Selig and MLB would instruct Mitchell to limit the scope of his investigation to the year 2004 and beyond. How could anyone, in good faith, allow the names of some players to be trashed on often-flimsy evidence from 2003 and before that, while knowing that 104 players were nabbed with the goods in 2003 but are not going to face reprecussions?

It's a terrible ethical quandry to be sure.

But I can see how such an issue could be easily cast aside by MLB. After all, this wasn't about fairness. It was about getting names on to Mitchell's list. Had he limited his probe to 2004 and beyond, he might have come up with a half-dozen names. For MLB to appear serious about this probe, the scope had to date back to before 2003. And that meant standing up there with a straight face a year ago, hearing Mitchell read off the names on his report and knowing that A-Rod -- as guilty as any other on that list -- was going to get away with something others were not.

The whole thing fails the smell test. And you can bet that MLB's problems are going to get a whole lot worse before they get better.

Photo Credits: AP

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