There were lots of empty seats at Conseco Fieldhouse the other night. It seems thousands of fans of professional basketball in Indiana are no longer “ready to rumble.” At this rate, Pacers leaping into the stands will have no one left to cold-cock. Local media has exacerbated the situation by an ad nauseam comparison of the world champion Indianapolis Colts to the Indiana Pacers. Unfortunately for the Pacers, the Super Bowl and the latest melee occurred within hours of each other. These pivotal and defining events invited comparison damning the Pacers and arguably hurting attendance.
I call time out.
The Colts are a credit to our city and have been for a number of seasons. This year, the pigskin took some crazy bounces our way. Even all-pro center Jeff Saturday scored his first touchdown since pee wee league. Not one of the fans I talked with who attended the soggy Super Bowl regretted that decision. As a team, the Colts are considered gentlemen athletes and are led by Coach Tony Dungy, an excellent role model, but they are not all perfect. On Feb. 20, Dominic Rhodes was arrested for allegedly driving while intoxicated. What is the penalty for backfield in motion?
Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh is a gentleman, too, and he doesn’t ram his religion down your throat. Over the years, he built teams that were competitive and classy. Many of those years found the Pacers deep in the playoffs with a reasonable chance at claiming a championship ring.
It’s not going to happen this year. The Pacers are in third place in the Central Division standings. That’s part of the problem. In the world of sports, if you’re going to misbehave, you better win.
There is nothing new here; young, male, professional athletes with lots of time and money have been carousing for decades. I recall the story, perhaps true, of Mickey Mantle, a New York Yankee with a wee-hour penchant for alcohol. He was accosted by a disgruntled fan, while soused in a hotel bar with an equally plastered teammate, brawling Billy Martin. The lady expressed her disgust: “Mr. Mantle, I am so disappointed that you, a professional athlete, are drunk the night before a big game.” Mantle’s retort: “I’m no athlete; I’m a baseball player.”
Max McGee, in his last year in professional football, danced with the ladies all night before Super Bowl I, expecting to enjoy his hangover on the bench the next day. To his surprise (he had not even brought his helmet onto the field), he was hastily inserted in the lineup when starter Boyd Dowler separated his shoulder. McGee caught the first touchdown pass in Super Bowl history.
While Mickey Mantle played for New York where his behavior, if not approved of, was at least condoned, perhaps we in the heartland have higher expectations of our gladiators. Hoosier fans want athletes on the sports page, not the front page. We want Pacers who can shoot the three, not the patron at the end of the bar. “Boom Baby” is not a term that belongs in a police report.
Professional sports are supposed to be family entertainment. A more palatable role model would be a Pacer who can not only go to the hoop but who can go to bed on time as well, particularly the night before a game, and a Colt who can manage to avoid the wrath of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
No one is going to change our culture that promotes profligacy on the part of athletic heroes, but Donnie Walsh will improve the Pacers’ situation, and the team will once again reflect the character of its CEO as the Colts reflect the character of their coach, Tony Dungy. Future player evaluations of both teams should include stronger character assessments.
To those who point to yesterday and conjure up the image of Reggie Miller, I say, tomorrow looks good, too. As you look forward to another Super Bowl season, give Donnie Walsh a chance to put a squad on the floor that can win and do it with class. I have no doubt he will be successful in this endeavor.
Wait until next year.
Maurer is a shareholder in IBJ Media Corp., which owns the Indianapolis Business Journal. To comment on this column, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.com.