- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 17, 2005

At meetings this week in Hawaii, the NFL’s Competition Committee is — typically — looking at ways to make the game safer. Remember Warren Sapp’s blind-side obliteration of unsuspecting Packer Chad Clifton on an interception return a couple of years back, a hit that practically tore Clifton’s pelvis from its moorings? If the owners go along with the committee’s recommendation, such a cheap shot will henceforth be considered unnecessary roughness.

Back on the mainland, meanwhile, Major League Baseball is trying to duck subpoenas so it won’t have to talk to a congressional committee about steroid use — which, like dirty football, is a health issue. It took a major scandal to make MLB institute drug testing, 15 years after the NFL did, and it still doesn’t want to face up to the magnitude of its problem.

And so you have two professional sports, one of which looks out for its participants and the other of which does so only when it’s politically expedient. Is it any wonder that, with every poll, the popularity gap between pro football and baseball seems to widen? Maybe it’s the antitrust exemption it was granted in 1922 that has turned MLB into such a League Apart. Whatever the reason, its ridiculous overreaction to the subpoenas issued by the House Committee on Government Reform — following its ridiculous underreaction to the spread of steroids in the game — does its image no good. Has baseball no shame?

Contrast this behavior with that of the NFL, which is always looking out for the well-being of its players, which has made this blood sport almost humane over the years. The head slap, the clothesline, the crackback block, the chop block, helmet-to-helmet hits, gratuitous swipes at the quarterback — all have been outlawed or seriously curtailed in the last few decades. (Heck, for a time, hurdling by the ball carrier was prohibited because it was considered dangerous.)

And now the Competition Committee wants to stamp out stompings like Sapp’s — innocent bystander-type hits that serve no real purpose. And that’s not the only safety measure the committee might endorse at next week’s league meetings. It’s also worried about these “horse collar” tackles that have become the specialty of Cowboys safety Roy Williams; Williams reportedly injured four players last season by grabbing their shoulder pads from behind and jerking them down. One of them, you may recall, was Terrell Owens, who needed to have screws put in his broken ankle to help it heal.

Then there’s baseball, which whines about having to testify in public about steroids — like some grade-schooler fussing about having to give an oral report in front of the class. Earth to the owners: Look beyond your narrow self-interest for a moment, your concern for damage control, and consider the big picture. You’ve already had one prominent major leaguer, the 1996 National League MVP, die prematurely, his admitted steroid use likely a contributing factor. Every week, it seems, another horror story comes to light about a young athlete taking steroids to get bigger, faster, stronger, just like the pros — with disastrous consequences.

It’s a problem that’s much bigger than baseball, and you’d think MLB would want to do everything in its power to eradicate it, considering the role it has played in the steroid boom. Alas, the owners and players stopped thinking of themselves as One of Us a long time ago (if, indeed, some of them ever did). It takes a congressional subpoena, for goodness sakes — the full force of the federal government — to get them to take part in a public dialogue about a serious health issue.

I’ve never been able to pinpoint exactly when baseball stopped being our national pastime. I used to think it was around 1972, when a Gallup Poll showed for the first time that football had surpassed it in appeal. The other day, though, I was doing some research and came across this passage:

“Bless pro football. It almost makes up for all the intentional bases on balls, the endless fouls and hopeless pickoff attempts. If any doubt remained about what the U.S. national pastime really is, it was dispelled even before the pro football season began last week. The National Football League’s Baltimore Colts drew 31,000 paying customers to watch, of all things, a scrimmage, while baseball’s Baltimore Orioles, the No. 1 team in the American League, could draw only 23,000 fans for an honest-to-goodness game against the second-place Detroit Tigers.”

That’s from an issue of Time magazine … dated Sept. 16, 1966. Thirty-nine years later, football’s lead over baseball is even greater, at least a couple of touchdowns — in part, I’m convinced, because one sport looks out for its own while the other is sightless, its head stuck in the sand.

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