Jewish World Review Feb. 17, 2004 / 25 Shevat, 5764

Zev Chafets

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Integrity is everything | President Bush may have gotten bad intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, but his information on another kind of WMD - weapons of major-league doping - was right on.

Eyebrows were raised when Bush included the issue in his State of the Union address. But he obviously knew that the Justice Department was closing in on some of the biggest names in American sports. The most famous figure so far is Barry Bonds, whose trainer, Greg Anderson, in under indictment for selling illegal performance enhancers. If Anderson and his three co-defendants start naming clients, whole teams may be implicated

This is more than a drug scandal. In fact, few people would care if steroids were legalized. But using outlawed substances is cheating.

My 8-year-old son has a special affinity for Kobe Bryant. But the other day when I asked if he knew his namesake was in trouble, he just shrugged. The only sports scandal that has really affected him was the Sammy Sosa bat-corking affair. Sosa cheated.

There's a lot of adult sanctimony going around about the bad behavior of modern athletes. True, these guys live in a permissive world, and sports reporting is more explicit than it used to be. When I was a kid, you didn't read about college basketball lap-dancing orgies or multimillionaire power forwards shooting limo drivers.

Even so, we knew not all jocks were model citizens. I was a young football fan in Detroit when the Lions' great quarterback Bobby Layne got picked up for drunken driving. The story peddled by the papers was that the cop mistook his Texas drawl for slurred speech. But every kid in town knew Layne was a falling-down drunk.

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Around the same time, the Lions' all-star defensive tackle, Alex Karras, got suspended for a season for consorting with gamblers. He spent the year tending bar at a seedy downtown drinking spot and getting into brawls. A few years later, the Tigers' 31-game winner, Denny McLain, get sent to prison for racketeering.

Were we shocked? Come on! We were from Detroit, whose archetypal sports hero, Ty Cobb, was a world-class jerk known for his violent, racist behavior. Even Hank Greenberg, famous for skipping a game to honor the Jewish New Year, was a close buddy of Abe Bernstein, the reputed leader of the murderous Purple Gang. We weren't supposed to know that, but we figured it out.

Still, we didn't hold any of this against the players. It was grownup stuff, not a part of our world. What mattered to us - what matters to my son now - is the integrity of the games. If what happens on the field is not fair and transparent, you might as well watch pro wrestling.

Big-time sports can survive without performance-enhancing drugs. It can even survive without its best performers (think of the decades when black athletes were excluded). But sports can't survive without the trust of kids. And kids will forgive anything but cheating.

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JWR contributor Zev Chafets is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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