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Year of living perfectly

Trying to be the best they can be, many of the world's top athletes pushed the envelope a little too far

December 30, 2007|Christine Daniels | Times Staff Writer

The perfect is the enemy of the good, Voltaire famously said, and that was hundreds of years before the invention of spy cameras, steroids and sports record books that future generations would find impossibly and irresistibly enticing.

In 2007, sports fans saw the enemy rear its ugly head so many time that by December's end, they were ready to hoist the 409-page Mitchell Report and swat back in self-defense.

Barry Bonds, obsessed with becoming the perfect baseball player, broke Hank Aaron's home run record while America suspected fraud, then was indicted on charges that he lied to a federal grand jury about using performance-enhancing drugs.

Marion Jones, obsessed with becoming the perfect sprinter, had to return the five Olympic medals she won in 2000 after admitting she used steroids -- drugs that helped transform her into a track and field superhero: Man-Made Marion.

Floyd Landis, obsessed with providing the perfect encore to Lance Armstrong's seven consecutive Tour de France titles, was stripped of his 2006 Tour championship after he tested positive for synthetic testosterone.

Bill Belichick, obsessed with the possibility of completing a perfect NFL regular season, was fined $500,000 and his New England Patriots docked a first-round draft choice after the league found the Patriots guilty of illegally videotaping an opponent's sideline signals.

And when perfection wasn't possible, even with unethical outside assistance, too many in sports opted for the low and easy road to fame and fortune.

There were 88 players listed after George Mitchell completed his investigation into steroid usage in the major leagues -- Bonds, Roger Clemens, Jason Giambi, Eric Gagne, Miguel Tejada, Andy Pettitte and Gary Sheffield among them.

Michael Vick, who seemingly had it all and deemed that insufficient, is serving a 23-month prison term for his role in a dogfighting syndicate.

Tim Donaghy, a 13-year NBA referee, is facing a 25-year prison term after admitting he bet on games he officiated and pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and transmit gambling information across state lines.

Men's professional tennis, which today should be celebrating Roger Federer's near sweep of the four Grand Slam tournaments, continues to scrub but can't remove the stain of a match-fixing scandal.

On the women's side, Justine Henin split the Grand Slams with the Williams sisters, but those headlines couldn't out-volley the news that Martina Hingis was retiring from the tour after testing positive for cocaine at Wimbledon.

Forty years ago, young and rebellious Americans bonded over the motto, "Don't Trust Anyone Over 30."

In 2007, that sentiment was amended to "Don't Trust Anyone Involved With Professional Sports."

Certainly, Southern California sports fans learned that lesson the hard way.

On Jan. 11, the Galaxy, of all people, announced the $250-million signing of English soccer superstar David Beckham, of all things. Within minutes, Galaxy and Major League Soccer officials were talking about Beckham's celebrity lifting MLS to previously unseen sights, of Beckham bringing about a new acceptance of soccer in America, of Beckham bombarding the mainstream consciousness with "SportsCenter" highlights of dazzling crosses and goals, of Beckham leading the Galaxy to the playoffs.

Everybody involved over-promised on everything.

Beckham arrived in the States as damaged goods in early July, having severely injured his ankle in helping Real Madrid win the Spanish championship. Beckham needed a couple of months to recover, but ESPN had been hyping a July 21 exhibition against Chelsea as the moment "Beckham Comes To America!" Common sense lost out again to commerce, Beckham made a second-half appearance in a meaningless game, was clattered by a legal Chelsea tackle, and walked off the field noticeably hobbling.

Beckham spent most of the rest of the season in the trainer's room, appearing in only five MLS games for the Galaxy and not managing so much as a single shot on goal in those games. The Galaxy needed to go on a late-season tear to finish 9-14-7 and fifth place in a Western Conference race won by Home Depot Center rival Chivas USA.

Then there was Kobe Bryant. How does one sum up Bryant's 2007 in 10,000 words or less? Bryant spent the first 10 months of the year taking trust-busting to an unprecedented level, leaving Lakers fans in a perpetual state of vertigo as he seemed to possess none of the usual filtering systems most people have when it comes to dealing with a stray and sudden thought.

Bryant spoke his mind, which seemed to change by the minute, and Los Angeles and the Lakers front office went reeling along for the ride. Bryant said he wanted out, said he wanted to stay, said he'd rather play for the Pluto Platinum Cardholders, said he wanted to remain a Laker for life.

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