SBJ/August 12 - 18, 2002/Opinion

Soccer ambassadors have a ball

There's so much wrong with the business of sports that it's easy for a trade magazine to report weekly on the sleazy things that happen. We all know that the industry is corrupted by cash and lust for fame. Agents lie and cheat. The Olympics survived a scandal involving payoffs to leaders, claiming the competition was still pure, only to sustain another scandal involving payoffs to judges. Fixing games strikes at the heart of competition. Yet sponsors, who once said they wanted to be associated with the snow-white purity of the games, don't seem to mind a little yellow snow. They willingly fork over $55 million to $60 million to be associated with tainted games. Owners can't control their own excesses and ask players to bail them out. Players can't control their excesses and ask lawyers to bail them out. It's a wonderland for newshounds.

And believe me, newshounds wallow in it. We can't seem to hide the superior smile when taxpayers get the shaft, paying for stadiums they voted down four times. When George Steinbrenner figures out a way to suck cable money from people who don't even watch the Yankees. And no, we don't believe Dave Wannstedt, Leigh Steinberg, Carmen Policy and Eddie DeBartolo paid convicted ticket-scammer Fred Edelstein a collective $155,000 out of the goodness of their hearts. We're so cynical we've even developed in the newsroom an NFL Hall of Shame team. (Starting at wide receiver, Rae Carruth ... at linebacker, Ray Lewis. It's all too easy, isn't it? Yeah, O.J. is a running back and team MVP.)

With all this fun, it's hard to find something genuinely good to write about. We want to be anything but boring. But what compels me to sit behind this keyboard is that I witnessed something a week or so ago so refreshing that I wanted to tell you about it. I'll warn you: It's a good-news story, so I hope you don't find it too boring.

There was a reception on the eve of Major League Soccer's All-Star Game. In sports, it's typical fare. The host league throws a gala and players are coerced to show up. Few do. And those come grudgingly, make their appearance and disappear early. So when MLS Commissioner Don Garber told me all the soccer players would be there, I scoffed. No chance, I thought. But when I arrived, I had to eat my scoff. They were all there. But that's not the good part. They all seemed happy to be there. Many brought wives and children. All brought smiles.

There was something distinctly different about this event. There were fewer than 200 people in the room, about 40 of them athletes, many of whom had recently achieved a measure of World Cup fame. Yet here they were, eager to sign autographs, pose for pictures and talk about their love, soccer. They were self-appointed ambassadors of the sport. Perhaps you think I'm a pushover for a well-contrived act, but this was no setup. Garber may have encouraged these players to put on the charm, but no one could fake their obvious enthusiasm for their sport.

They were celebrating soccer and selling well their game. They attended every function throughout the weekend and seemed to thrive on energy from fans, who had gathered in the hotel lobby. Yeah, they drank and partied hard after the game, not as rebels, as we see in other sports, but as athletes who truly enjoy their profession and the company of people who truly enjoy soccer.

OK, no big deal. But in this time when the World Series could be canceled by a strike, when steroids make the man, when Disney and Fox are losing hundreds of millions in sports and when athletes charge for autographs, I'm impressed. And I think it's the way it may have been when baseball and basketball, hockey and football were fighting for public attention and players made less money.

John Genzale is editor-in-chief of SportsBusiness Journal.

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