A bunch of dopes?

PAUL BERTON and PAUL FRIESEN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 2:05 PM ET

The damning Mitchell report into steroids in baseball last month -- along with cheating scandals in football and unsportsmanlike play in many sports -- has fans questioning their allegiances. Have sports lost their lusture? Paul Berton, Sun Media's national comment editor and sports columnist Paul Friesen duke it out:

Berton: What has happened to sports? Winning is everything. It seems as if it's no longer about athletics, sportsmanship or how you play the game.

Friesen: What are you talking about? Athletes are quicker, faster, stronger, more talented than ever. We currently have the privilege of watching some of the all-time greats: Tiger Woods, Sidney Crosby, Tom Brady, LeBron James, Annika Sorrenstam, all in the same era. And is there a bad sportsman/woman in the bunch? Sure, it's all about winning. But it always has been. That's what drives the greats. And it's fun to watch.

Berton: Is Barry Bonds "faster, stronger, more talented" than Hank Aaron? Are athletes really more talented than ever? The fine reputations of all-time greats are marred by cheaters, drug abusers and poor role models: Barry Bonds, Todd Bertuzzi, Martina Hingis, Pacman Jones, Mike Tyson, Mark McGuire, Tonya Harding ...

Friesen: Hey, Bonds was pretty talented. That just wasn't good enough for him. His ego got out of control, and he turned to 'roids. The only reputation he's marred is his own. Same goes for the rest of your list of bad apples. The rotten ones have always been around -- they just get more "pub" these days. Don't let that spoil the whole bunch.

Berton: Wayne Gretzky was a winner, but for him it wasn't "all about winning" as you contend. It was about the game, about teamwork, about role models, about good behaviour ... Don't tell me these bad apples are not marring more than their own reputations -- they're bringing disrepute to the game, and to sports in general.

Friesen: And what do you think it's about for Steve Nash? Or Roger Federer? Or Brett Favre? For every thug in the game, there are 50 guys you wouldn't mind having over for dinner. If sport was in such disrepute, why is it more popular than ever? If stadiums were empty and nobody was watching on the tube, you'd have an argument. As it stands, you're starting to sound like Bonds: More vacant than a Motel 6 in downtown Baghdad.

Berton: Okay, one list deserves another: Michael Vick, Isiah Thomas (a coach of all people!), Floyd Landis, Marion Jones ... Are sports more popular than ever? Perhaps, but is that because of athletics or bad behaviour? Many hometown fans still love Bonds and Bertuzzi. Fans everywhere cheer -- or even partake -- when brawls break out. Is this sport and athletics or is it something else?

Friesen: So a few people like blood. It's been that way since the Christians and the lions, for crying out loud. I'd prefer if the NHL was cleaner, and baseball had no drug cheats, and the NFL was nothing but good role models, but that's not society. We're here, warts and all.

Berton: A few people? Violence and bad behaviour in sport is rampant. These are supposed to be role models for the next generation. We don't pay them these obscene sums to be thugs. It manifests itself in appalling spectacles like the one recently in Guelph, Ont., where two teams of eight-year-olds -- EIGHT YEARS OLD! -- had at it in an on-ice brawl in which, wait for it, coaches and parents participated!

Friesen: Pro sports has issues, I'm not denying that. Hockey certainly has its share of neanderthals, and yes, they're a bad example for the kids. But bench-clearing brawls are virtually non-existent. And head-hunting hits are now drawing suspensions. The game is moving in the right direction. If you can't see that, maybe YOU'VE taken a few too many off the noggin.

Berton: Who's taken a few too many off the noggin? NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently waited for five on-ice incidents before finally putting the Philadelphia Flyers on notice that their thuggish behaviour was unacceptable. That's just one recent example.

Friesen: It took a while, but you finally got something right. Bettman has DEFINITELY taken a few too many off his lid.

Berton: So let's move away from just bad behaviour to downright cheating. Remember the outrage anti-doping crusader Dick Pound attracted when he said one-third of all hockey players were on illegal drugs. Denials came hot and heavy from everywhere, including the media, and for years officials denied tests were even necessary. Now there's proven steroid use in all the major-league sports: Hockey, baseball, football, basketball, cycling. Even golf is going to implement testing.

Friesen: Yeah, there's proven steroid use. But you're going to let the actions of a few colour the entire game? I'll give you this: Some sports have had their heads in the sand, pretending drugs aren't an issue. Good on Pound for rattling their cages. But let's not just assume his one-third claim about the NHL is accurate. That was a calculated sound bite delivered by a guy who wanted to make some noise. The vast majority of players are clean.

Berton: That's the problem: We don't actually know. Let's assume it's worse than you think but better than what critics say. Sports organizations of all types have been reluctant or slow to tackle these issues, fans have been willing accomplices, and already obscene salaries (and profits) seem to encourage it.

Friesen: Actually, you're bang on with two of your last three points. But to say fans have been willing accomplices, what does that mean? Are you suggesting they should be boycotting entire teams, entire leagues, because of knuckleheads like Barry Bonds?

Berton: Too many fans of "sport" are fans of something else, I'm not sure what. Otherwise we'd have harsher penalties for bad behaviour and less cheering for truly bad guys. Shouldn't we have come further than "the lions and the Christians," as you put it?

Friesen: You'll notice fans only cheer for the "bad guys" when they're on the home team. To the average fan, if Mr. Jerk helps his team win, they'll look the other way. But Bonds, for example, is reviled everywhere else he goes, outside of San Francisco. The "asterisk" signs. The tossed syringes. The man is more villain than hero in most places. Society, apparently, has a moral compass, after all.

Berton: Athletes are doing it, sports officials are tacitly approving it, aggressive hockey moms and dads are encouraging it -- it's obvious sport today is more about money and winning than a celebration of the human spirit and being the best we can be. It's a sad (and accurate) reflection of society. But if society looks to athletes for leadership, shouldn't they ALL be better leaders?

Friesen: That would be nice. But it's not going to happen any sooner than all preachers, or all doctors, or all teachers become good role models. I say continue taking your kids to the game, where, if they look long and hard enough, they just might find, amidst all that imperfection, one of those perfect moments that makes sport worth watching.


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