Recent headlines for the country's three top professional sports leagues have been dismal.
Allegations of steroid use taint Barry Bonds' ongoing quest to break Hank Aaron's career home-run record; Atlanta Falcons' star quarterback Michael Vick was indicted last week for dogfighting; and usually cocky NBA Commissioner David Stern held a sobering press conference last week to answer questions about referee Tim Donaghy, who's the subject of a federal gambling probe.
Sounds like a rough time to be in the business of sports. But Paul Swangard, the 39-year-old director of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, says professional sports franchises—unlike corporate America, Washington lobbyists or even the Catholic Church, which have all endured brutal scandals in recent years—are oddly unaffected.
WW: Of the Barry Bonds steroid allegations, the Michael Vick dogfighting indictment and the NBA referee's alleged gambling, which do you think is the most serious?
Paul Swangard: Strangely, in all of these situations, there has been very little if any outward, negative reaction from fans. What it speaks to is that sports is becoming just another form of entertainment. The concern that these scandals might have eroded the integrity and tradition of sports, that doesn't seem to concern people much.
So, is Michael Vick just Lindsay Lohan in shoulder pads or is Barry Bonds like Paris Hilton in spikes?
Strange visuals. To a degree, I think that for many of these athletes it's still a unique blend of star power and being absolutely the best in what they do. I think an Anna Kournikova is a much better example of a Lindsay Lohan. Lohan's not an Academy Award-winning actress, and Anna has never won a professional tennis tournament, but they both benefit from a unique set of characteristics that makes them interesting to people.
Which of the three sports leagues is responding best to crisis?
I still would put the NBA in front of the NFL with Major League Baseball in the show position. I remain a steadfast fan of David Stern and the way the NBA is trying to broaden the transparency. Baseball, I think that's the toughest one; there's a no-win situation for [Commissioner Bud] Selig. He's beholden to the union that seems to have the most power of all the unions in professional sports.
Are modern sports more prone to bad behavior, or is there simply more scrutiny?
I think it's a little bit of both. But there are some new types of transgression that we may not have seen in the past. A lot of these athletes are simply not being given the life-skill training that they need to handle the culture that they enter when they become celebrities.
Have these scandals affected the way you view sports?
As a parent of a young couple of daughters, I don't know how to explain what's going on to them. Sports is such an important part of growing up that you sort of find yourself struggling with how professional sports maintains an appropriate place in children's lives when you can't use it as a teaching tool anymore.
Nike just dumped Michael Vick from a big contract. Will the current scandals make companies less interested in using athletes for endorsements?
I don't think so. But I do think there might be changes, such as ironclad clauses that specifically outline the types of activities that would warrant the termination of the contract and more incentives so that the company takes a lower upfront financial risk.
How will you incorporate these scandals into the classroom at the Warsaw Center?
I think when kids come back in the fall we'll be struck by a fair portion of them that will look at us blankly when we suggest that these things are bad, bad news. But there is a larger issue. If sports can't create any differentiation from the other things it competes against, what prevents American Idol from being a better place for sponsors to spend their dollars? Reality television delivers the eyes sponsors want. It's a sort of competition, of reality, of unscripted drama, which is sort of what sports was always supposed to be about.
The Warsaw Center, founded in 1994, offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in sports business.
The school is named after UO alum Jim Warsaw, whose father patented the ceramic bobblehead doll and whose company, Sports Specialties, is a pioneer in sports merchandising.