State of Sports: More Cheaters, Dopers, Criminals -- and Fans -- Than Ever Before

When ex-NBA referee Tim Donaghy dropped his bombshell allegations during the 2008 NBA Finals that he and other unnamed league refs had fixed playoff games in years past, the response from basketball fans was unmistakable.

They made Game 6 the most watched NBA Finals game in eight years.

Say what?

Coming after former San Francisco Giants baseball star Barry Bonds' suspected doping and imprisoned NFL quarterback Michael Vick's dogfighting, Donaghy's allegations were but one of a litany of high-profile scandals that have rocked pro sports in recent months, all of which illuminated a more disturbing trend of the sporting landscape: The fans just don't seem to care.

"Most fans see sports as an escape from the rest of the world, and guys doing steroids is not nearly as serious to them as paying $4 a gallon per gas or the war in Iraq," said John Feinstein, columnist for the Washington Post and author of numerous books, including "A Season on the Brink" and "A Good Walk Spoiled: Days and Nights on the PGA Tour."

"Sports are a reflection of our society, and the world's a tough place these days," Feinstein said. "There's a lot of bad things going on."

The NBA is not the only league thriving in the face of what might seem like adversity.

Despite the shadow cast by the Mitchell Report of 2007, which detailed a long history of steroid use in baseball, Major League Baseball set spring training attendance records this April and is on pace for a fifth consecutive record year of overall attendance, according to

Fans' apparent apathy toward the dark side of sports, as reflected in their continued financial support, presents a conundrum for owners and officials: If the fans are still paying to see the games, why should we take any drastic measures to try to fix it?

"The corporate dollar has taken over sports," Feinstein said. "But the people running the sport have a responsibility to try to fix the problems, even if fans are turning out in record numbers. That's the effect of all of this — whether the fans care or not, the people running the league need to care."

There is certainly evidence for official concern.

Major League Baseball's evolving drug policy since the Mitchell Report has significantly increased the frequency of testing and the penalties for a positive test.

The NBA now requires players to attend college or be 19 years of age before they can enter the draft, as well as continuing to enforce its infamous "dress code" of 2005.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's new Player Conduct policy resulted in unprecedented suspensions for Vick, former Tennessee Titans' cornerback Adam Jones and the Cincinnati Bengals' Chris Henry even before any of them had been convicted in a court of law.

Even sports typically considered "clean," such as golf, have taken preventative measures to curb the perceived sportswide culture of misconduct; last week, the European Tour announced its plans for comprehensive drug testing of all its players, the first such policy for a pro golf organization.

Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy said that while professional sports organizations face obvious negative publicity issues with the rash of high-profile unlawful behavior, the counteractive measures taken need to represent more than just the league's concern for its own well-being.

"We've got a lot of young men who are growing up in this country without fathers and they're looking for role models, and right now sports is where they're finding them," Dungy said. "These young men are looking at [NFL] guys and saying, 'I want to be like so-and-so,' and if we go out there and perform on the field but we don't do the right things off the field, we're basically telling these kids this is OK. And that's not good — that's not what we should be about."

Dungy stressed that no matter how blindly resilient sports fans may be, their unconditional support cannot last forever.

"I think we're at a very critical point. You have to look at the consumers and wonder how long they are going to support people they don't believe in all the way around," he said. "We can't think that people are always going to come no matter what."

Modern Americans, though, haven't shown much of an affinity for the fringe sports that may come without as much of the negative off-field images associated with Dungy's league and the other major sports.

"Just too slow," said Feinstein about sports such as soccer, long-considered the "next" sport in America. "The players may be better citizens and better to deal with, but people in this country need scoring."

Indeed, Americans have always flocked to high-octane, high-scoring sports, even though athletes' bad behavior and the image problems facing pro sports are as old as the sports themselves.

Dick Davies, a professor of history at the University of Nevada who specializes in sport as culture and whose latest book is entitled "Sports in America: A History," pointed to a slew of historical contexts that mirror sports' problems of today.

"Doping has a heritage in baseball that goes back to 1882; they called it hippodroming. The guy who invented the point-spread made his basketball bets based on who the refs were. [Legendary Notre Dame football coach] Knute Rockne and the Gipper [one of his star players, George Gipp] were drunks. We had people in the 1890s who died because they took drugs to make them run faster," Davies rattled off. "So none of this is anything new — Americans are just more attuned to sports and its problems because of the 24-hour news cycle and all the television, radio, Internet, etc., that's out there."

Davies said that regardless of the amount of media coverage, the fabric of the American economic and political system makes for a fan base that will always support America's professional sports — no matter the moral cost.

"American people love competition and the capitalist system, and that's what pro sports are — the score, the standings, the hierarchical structure of organizations. [That's] all part of the deep-seeded connection sports have to American society. It's win at all costs, which is the American system," Davies said. "Men in their 50s take Viagra for sex; why not take steroids to hit the ball over the fence?"