Thrill of Victory

In another era, Radulov and Kostitsyn might have avoided suspensions

On Tuesday, the Predators suspended Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn for Wednesday’s Game 3 of the NHL Western Conference semifinal against Phoenix. The offense? They evidently broke curfew on their road trip to Arizona for the first two games of the series.

That got me to thinking: once upon a time, nobody batted an eye at these sorts of things. Baseball’s Babe Ruth was notorious for staying out late, visiting brothels, and showing up for games hung over, and he certainly wasn’t alone.

Forty years later, the culture hadn’t changed. In Ball Four, published in 1970, Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton wrote about how many baseball players, including the legendary Mickey Mantle, often played under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Back then, it was called, “boys being boys.” Now, lesser offenses get players like Radulov and Kostitsyn suspended from playoff games. So what’s behind the change?

As I pondered that on Tuesday night, words I read years ago from my favorite sports author, Bill James, came to mind.In his 2001 book, The New Bill James Historical Abstract, James, writing about Steve Carlton, commented on the notion of professionalism in sports in a way that’s stuck with me since, saying that professionalism “… ranks with socialism, psychology and twice-baked potatoes as the worst idea of the twentieth century.”

James had a lot to say on the topic, but here’s the part that’s relevant to where we’re going:

Anyway, by the early 1970 sportswriters were no longer just guys who were crazy about sports; they were sports journalists and had the college degrees to prove it. And baseball players were no longer just guys who were good at sports; they were professional athletes and they had the Mercedes to prove it. Professional journalists prize different things than professional athletes, and there was a natural tension between the two groups.

Later, James continued his indictment of professionalism by asserting:

.. the internet has undermined professionalism in journalism, which is a good thing. Athletes don’t come into the game any more expecting to like sportswriters, and sportswriters don’t expect to like athletes.

How does this connect to Radulov and Kostitsyn? Let’s unpack the implications of what James says, because I think the notion of “professionalism,” as James described it, has changed not only the way that journalists cover sports, but also the way teams react to player misbehavior.

First, the corporate end of “professionalism” has come about because pro sports owners are making insane money. As recently as three decades ago, franchises were worth tens of millions; the Los Angeles Dodgers sold this winter for $2.15 billion.

The difference is reflected in player salaries now vs. then: as recently as the late-‘70s, many players still worked off-season jobs. Thus, there is now an expectation of “professionalism” that didn’t really exist decades ago. Players are assets who belong to owners, and owners don’t want their precious commodities doing who-knows-what in a strange town at 4 in the morning.

The implications of “professionalism” on journalism have been equally profound. Until the ‘70s or so, sportswriters and athletes were often friends rather than adversaries. Writers covered for players as much or more than they covered them. Quite often, players and writers were actually drinking buddies.

Years later, players and writers still drink, but just not together. So, when writers write what they feel they need to write, there are no relationships to be broken. The consequence of this, though, is that “professionalism” is now a cloak that writers hide behind to excuse their lack of common decency.

One of the better recent examples is baseball star Josh Hamilton, an admitted and apologetic alcoholic, who briefly and very publicly fell off the wagon in 2009 and again earlier this year. The lack of compassion and sensitivity from some in the media for Hamilton, one of sports’ true good guys, was particularly appalling.

Since James penned those words 11 years ago, more has changed with the advent of social media. We’re all journalists in a sense. It was bar patrons with camera phones who took the incriminating photos of Hamilton and fed them to the media, otherwise the story never would have broken.

Coming back to Radulov and Kostitsyn, one wonders if it were citizens on the street with camera phones that got them busted as well.

In the cases like the Hamilton story, I couldn’t agree more with James’ stance on “professionalism.” However – and I don’t want to put words in James’ mouth here, so let’s proceed with caution – what happens if you go back to the way things used to be? The flip side of “professionalism” is that it engenders an accountability that in some ways didn’t used to exist.

Then again, maybe things haven’t changed all that much. Back closer to home, the end of Steve McNair’s life has always haunted me. What if the Nashville media had given McNair’s moral failures differently? Might he still be alive today?

Perhaps Ruth and Mantle, who died at 53 and 63, respectively, could have used a little “professionalism” from the world of journalism during their careers as well.

Please understand I am not lumping Radulov and Kostitsyn in with the others except as tangent points along the slope of a much more important discussion that their plights brought to mind – a very slippery slope that, like most of you, I’m struggling to navigate.

And really, the only thing I’m certain of as I write is that there are two Predators who, for one day, might wish they’d been born 50 years earlier.