For people who aren't avid sports fans, the sports section may seem like an extraneous few pages of newsprint—what you hold over your head in the rain, what you leave behind at home.
But that's not the whole story. Not even close.
The truth is that what gets printed on the sports page can be every bit as substantive as what shows up on the front page—and that sports very often function as a microcosm of the real world.
Take performance-enhancing drugs. Though the immediate focus seems to be on maintaining a level playing field for individual and team performances, the more pressing concern is that high school and college athletes will follow the example set by the pros. The story, then, isn't just about professional athletes—it's about the younger players who look to them as role models.
This week, a bill was filed in the Texas state senate requiring public high school athletes to participate in random drug testing in order to compete. According to an article on MSNBC.com, 3.5 percent of high school seniors admitted to using steroids in 2004. That number reflected a 17 percent increase since 1999.
Implementing measures to protect young athletes from the long-term health risks of steroids will serve to protect the reputation of professional sports by reminding fans that it's still possible to make it on raw talent. It also makes a statement that, even as the American government's War on Drugs is being abandoned for the War on Terror, some institutions are still aware of the problem and are working to solve it.
Athletes aren't the only professionals who cheat to succeed. We only have to look as far as Wednesday's front page and the Scooter Libby conviction to see that the fast track to the top is paved with dishonesty (at least until you get caught, anyway).
While the Bush administration is fretting over how to handle the scandal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center over its treatment of Iraq war veterans, USA Today reported just two weeks ago that the United States Olympic Committee is hoping to have military veterans comprise 10 to 15 percent of its Paralympics teams—and has budgeted $8.1 million to the Paralympics over the next four years.
In another story that seems to have eluded national attention, former Canadian Football League player Trevis Smith was sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison on February 26th for knowingly exposing two women to HIV through unprotected sex . The official charge on which Smith was found guilty was aggravated sexual assault, and Judge Ken Bellerose said this about the sentence:
"As far as I'm concerned, Mr. Smith was very deceitful and very dishonest. I'm satisfied he displayed, throughout this whole time—from when he learned he had HIV in November of 2003 until the time of his arrest in October 2005—a very indifferent attitude with respect to the expectations that the law required on his part to basically come clean with respect to his sexual partners.''
Professional athletes often have heinous reputations when it comes to sexual promiscuity and infidelity, and there are countless examples of accusations of rape and sexual assault against pros in every sport. It is partially this taint that NBA Commissioner David Stern has tried to remove from his sport by dressing his players in suits and ties on the sidelines. As ridiculous as Stern's decisions may seem, he has good reason to want to clean up the image that professional athletes have created for themselves. And though Trevis Smith's profile is far lower than that of a star athlete playing for an American team, his punishment sets an important precedent for the treatment of celebrities in the criminal justice system.
There have been other cases of individuals being convicted of spreading HIV in South Africa, Libya, and Russia, but I could find no other example in North America. The verdict handed down in this case essentially says that wielding a virus like HIV is tantamount to wielding a weapon, and that the act of putting someone in harm's way with that weapon is punishable by law. Not only does the verdict confirm the importance of communication between sexual partners—it also sheds light on the havoc that the virus is wreaking in heterosexual African-American communities.
And still, a quick search of the New York Times archive turns up nothing more than an article about Trevis Smith being traded to Winnipeg in 2001. A general news search confirms that the story made headlines only in small papers in Canada and on sports news websites.
The court's ruling was a hugely important one: It requires individuals to disclose the details of their sexual health, and its ripple effects could well be felt in the U.S. criminal justice system. But if you didn't go out of your way to look for it, the only way you'd have known about the story was by stumbling upon it while reading the sports section—just like I did.
The comparisons between big issues in politics and big issues in sports don't end here. While political analysts try to gauge whether we're ready to elect a female or black president, sports fans celebrate the historic battle between Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith and explore ways to save the WNBA. While the general populace faces questions about the equal treatment of Muslim-Americans and debate the issue of gay marriage, sports fans ponder the decision in the UK to ban an 11-year-old from wearing a hijab on the soccer field and wonder if the locker room will ever be safe for gay athletes.
Of course, we sports fans know that the war in Iraq is more important than the battles taking place at our local arenas. But we also know that among the scores and the latest trades, the sports section can teach us an awful lot—and that it deserves another look from anyone who'd dare to write it off as so much trivial fluff.