One four-letter word almost cost Dale Earnhardt Jr. more than three million dollars. The word was shit. As in, "It don't mean shit right now." n When an NBC reporter asked the famously uninhibited NASCAR driver on national television about the significance of his victory in the EA Sports 500 at the Talladega Superspeedway last October, he replied that his run of good fortune at the venue was immaterial. "Daddy won here 10 times, so I've got to do some more winning," he continued, clearly in good humor. n His intentions didn't matter. The NASCAR organization—prosecutor, jury and executioner in all matters pertaining to its sport—fined Earnhardt $10,000 for the profanity and deducted 25 points from his total in the Nextel Cup. Earnhardt's appeal to a three-person panel, culled from the 31 members of the National Stock Car
Racing Commission, was denied. The fine stung, but the point deduction could have made the lasting wound.
Earnhardt finished the season in fifth place, 31 points behind Mark Martin in fourth. But as tight as the NASCAR points chase was last season, had he edged within 25 points of eventual champion Kurt Busch—a distinct possibility entering the final race—the profanity could have meant the difference between the $5.2 million first-place payoff and the $1.5 million for fourth.
Oh shit, indeed, and you can bet that Earnhardt will never do it again. And that, NASCAR officials will tell you, is precisely the point. With sports brands and equities worth hundreds of millions of dollars, stakes are high when it comes to the behavior of professional athletes, in and out of competition. Each time an athlete uses profanity in public; each DWI or drug bust; each fight with a fan or perverse interaction with an opposing mascot—let alone when Kobe Bryant is charged with rape, or Jayson Williams or Rae Carruth with murder—undermines the marketability of a sport. "The combination of the value of the brands, the revenue generated from merchandise and sponsorship sales, and the attention paid to the players has raised the cost of their bad behavior on and off the field," says Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp, a leading sports consulting firm that has worked for numerous professional teams.
NASCAR, privately held by the France family, is the most peremptory and punitive of American sports leagues and organizations. Though racing teams and NASCAR events are owned by individuals, the organization itself—which has no antitrust exemption, no public shareholders, no strong labor unions to placate—answers to nobody. Following the National Stock Car Racing Commission panel, the appeals process ends with a judgment by racing commissioner Charles D. Strang, the former chief executive officer of the Outboard Marine Corp. and, it must be noted, an acquaintance of NASCAR's Bill France Jr. for decades. Since Strang was appointed in November 1999, he has upheld 38 of the 55 commission decisions. (He reduced 12 decisions, increased one and overturned four.)
At the other end of the spectrum are North America's other major sports leagues, particularly Major League Baseball, whose players belong to perhaps the most effective labor union of any North American industry. "The procedures are such that there likely would be an appeal even if there was something as egregious as, well, how about a player throwing a chair in the stands?" says Ganis, referencing an act committed by Texas Rangers pitcher Frankie Francisco during the 2004 season. "It actually happened, right there in front of everyone, and baseball still couldn't sit the guy down without an appeal."
Recent precedent has further empowered the unions. When the National Basketball Association attempted to fine and suspend players involved in the horrific melee last November during a Pacers-Pistons game in Detroit, the National Basketball Players Association appealed to an arbitrator, who sent the case into federal court. A Manhattan judge upheld the suspension of Indiana's Ron Artest, who was barred for the rest of the 2004—05 season, but allowed teammate Jermaine O'Neal—who had served 15 games of a 25-game ban—to return to active duty immediately.
In essence, that meant three defeats for the league, which had argued that only commissioner David Stern had jurisdiction over on-court matters: one, that an arbitrator was, in fact, eligible to hear the dispute as the union contended; two, that he reduced O'Neal's suspension to little more than half its original length; and, three, that the federal judge upheld the arbitrator's ruling.
In all sports, controlling player conduct has become more complicated now that salaries and other remuneration are so high. Players get fined for head butting and beanballs; for hurling rackets into the stands and invective at fans; for passing under a caution flag and signing footballs in the end zone; and for embarrassing their team, their sport and themselves off the field. But when a $5,000 fine doesn't even represent a day's pay for the most successful of today's athletes, let alone a day spent filming a Nike commercial, it's hard to use money to legislate behavior.
And as the fines get higher—$30,000 for New Orleans Saints wide receiver Joe Horn for pretending to make a call on a mobile phone in the end zone; $100,000 for boxer Fernando Vargas for testing positive for steroids—the gap between high-salaried standouts and ordinary athletes widens. "A guy who's making minimum, who gets fined $5,000 or $10,000, that's a week or week and a half's salary to him," says Jay Feely, a former kicker and player representative for the Atlanta Falcons who was acquired by the New York Giants on March 8. "But a guy who's making $5 or $6 million doesn't even feel it. It's a huge discrepancy."
Hence, the grumbling among some athletes that marquee names are all but immune from punishment. "What can I do to Tiger [Woods]?" admits Jon Brendle, one of several PGA Tour rules officials. "Almost nothing that could possibly affect him."
The PGA Tour is the only major sports organization that keeps disciplinary actions confidential. So when Jonathan Kaye failed to show up for several consecutive events in late 2001, following an incident in which he'd reportedly attached his Tour badge to a lowered pants zipper to flash at a security guard who'd been pestering him, the word from the Tour was that, as far as it knew, Kaye was perhaps taking some time off. "We don't share it with the world because we'd rather not draw attention to the very small percentage of problems that we have," says Henry Hughes, the senior vice president and chief of operations for the Tour.
In addition, the secrecy helps players with large endorsement contracts keep any procedural misdemeanors out of the limelight. "The feeling is, it's nobody else's business," says Brad Faxon, one of four players on the PGA's Tour Policy Board. "It's between the Tour and the player. Why should anybody else know about it?"
One reason they should is that it leaves the fans out in the cold. "Fans have a right to know why a player didn't show up to a tournament, or if they've been reprimanded," insists Bob Harig of the St. Petersburg Times, a veteran observer of the PGA Tour.
Perhaps even more important, the lack of disclosure removes the embarrassment factor from an embarrassing act, mitigating one of the strongest incentives not to misbehave. "The Tour doesn't publicize our fines like I think it should," says Jeff Sluman, who earned more than $1 million on the PGA Tour in 2004, and didn't have to pay a dollar of it back in fines—at least as far as anyone knows. "I believe if you have acts that are fine-able, and the public knows that a player was fined, it's less likely to happen again."
As Sluman walked his way through 18 holes at the Funai Classic in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, late last season, Brendle was patrolling the grounds on a golf cart, called from one hole to the next on a constantly growling walkie-talkie. His job is to enforce rules (which pertain to the golf) and regulations (which cover behavior of all types). Unlike baseball, football, basketball and hockey, which have tightly confined playing surfaces and limited player-to-fan contact, a golf tournament takes place over hundreds of acres. A snide remark to a player from a spectator in the gallery may elicit a snide remark back—and a visit from the Tour's version of the secret police.
Players can be tattled on by a wide range of informants, from the walking scorers who accompany foursomes around the course, to security guards, to fans. "We take information from anybody," says Brendle, maneuvering his cart past a knot of spectators to head to a trouble spot. "Marshals. Standard-bearers. Volunteers. Some of them are afraid of the players and don't want to do anything, but others take responsibility for the sport. They'll turn 'em in."
A glance through the PGA Tour Player Handbook reveals any number of offenses that will cost players money. Bring your caddie into the locker room? That's $100 for the first offense, $250 for the next and $500 after that. Exceed the allowable time to play a stroke? Do it three times in a calendar year at PGA Tour events and you'll cough up $10,000. Pay a fine with a check that bounces? "You'll be fined again," says Slugger White, another rules official. But even that $10,000 fine will barely make a dent in the bank account of Vijay Singh, who earned nearly $11 million in 2004 on the PGA Tour alone, plus plenty more from endorsements. And the rest of Singh's foursome the following week might never know it happened. "They don't even tell us," says Faxon. "That's how confidential it is."
Rumors abound, of course. Tiger Woods's main problem is said to be profanity; he hits a shot he isn't happy with and can't resist shouting out an expletive, even if it costs him a few hundred dollars. To casual fans and weekend duffers, knowing that about Woods might humanize him, and provide a measure of comfort that at least one aspect of his game is the same as everyone else's. But that's not how the PGA Tour sees it. "Our goal is to keep attention focused on the value of our sport," intones Hughes. "Tradition, honor, integrity."
In any other sport, do something wrong and your transgression is likely to make the newspaper. Fans can judge for themselves if the punishment—a mere $10,000 fine and a 16-game suspension (later reduced to 15) in the case of the chair-throwing Francisco—fits the crime, though the leagues refuse to make cumulative fine totals public. In addition, each sport weighs offenses differently. "Football is the tightest on things that mean the least, like not having your socks worn properly," says Ganis. "Yet when a player is a witness to a murder and won't cooperate with the police, like Ray Lewis, they can't do anything to him. It just shows you how much power the league has over things that happen on the field, and how little power once you get beyond that."
On a Sunday afternoon in Denver, a hulking man in a gold jacket is pacing the sideline during pregame warm-ups, jotting notes on a clipboard. Greg Boyd played nine years as a defensive lineman in the National Football League and now serves as one of the league's 32 uniform observers, one for each stadium. During the week, he works as a casino host in nearby Blackhawk and runs his own investment firm, but before every Broncos home game he's out eyeballing the levels of socks and pants, and making certain no player has defaced or altered his helmet or jersey.
Boyd turns in his list of infractions to both teams before the game begins. If a player doesn't correct the problem—towel too long, low socks, high pants—he'll be fined. Fines start at $10,000, Boyd says, "and they move up the scale. Anything having to do with actually defacing the uniform, cutting it or removing anything, and you're at $60,000 right there." Later, he'll also man the locker rooms, trying to spot a player doing a postgame interview with the wrong sponsor's cap on, or a political or profane T-shirt—anything that sends the wrong message. "Emblems, logos, corporate brands," Boyd says. "That gets into some serious dollars for the league. Companies want to make sure they get the exposure they pay for."
You'd think that players who hear about their uniform violations would rush back into the locker room to make an adjustment, believing they have better use for $10,000 than to contribute it to the league. And some do. Others just laugh. "You tell 'em their pants are too short, and when they come back out, they'll pull 'em up further just to mess with you," says Boyd. "They want to make that personal statement. Just young guys, young millionaires, all geeked up out there and doing whatever they want to do. The money doesn't matter to them." Even a player as seemingly levelheaded as Michael Vick, the Atlanta Falcons' star quarterback, was fined in 2002 for wearing red socks (though it was rescinded on appeal).
Players are officially notified of their transgressions each week by courier. Oakland's Ray Buchanan once described the scene: "Every Wednesday, around noon, we peek around the corner, looking for FedEx." He compared the NFL's surfeit of regulations to a boarding school.
A few players use their relative immunity from fines to create a competitive advantage. The Giant's Feely mentions Buffalo Bills strong safety Lawyer Milloy, who has made punishing illegal hits part of his reputation after joining the league in 1996. "He'll say, 'I know I'm going to get fined a few times a year, but it's worth it to have those receivers scared of me,'" Feely says. "A player making less money could never do that. That's why I believe that all fines should be proportional, a percentage of a player's salary. Otherwise, you're creating an unfair advantage."
In the NBA, many fines are proportional. That's because suspensions, which mandate the loss of 1/90th of a player's annual salary per game missed, are relatively common in the league. As many as 30 players a year are suspended for at least one game, according to Stu Jackson, the senior vice president for basketball operations. Artest will lose nearly $5 million of his $6.1 million salary for the 2004—05 season, which still leaves him with a pretty good haul.
"Last year, we had two players use profanity on television, but the circumstances were different," Jackson says. Houston's Steve Francis (now with Orlando) was fined $25,000. The Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal (now with Miami) was suspended for a game. Since O'Neal earned $26,500,000 for the 2003—04 season, the loss of a game's pay cost him $294,444, or nearly an entire year's pay for then teammate Luke Walton—and six times the price Phil Jackson, then O'Neal's coach, paid for criticizing a league official.
Team sports such as basketball have individual franchises as a first line of defense. If an NBA franchise fines or suspends a player for a misdeed, the league usually will consider the matter settled. But many infractions, from fighting on the court to a drunk-driving conviction, mandate league involvement by the terms of the collective bargaining agreement with the NBPA. If repeated infractions occur, a player can be called in to the league office for a conversation with Jackson or NBA commissioner David Stern. That has happened to both Denver's Kenyon Martin and Artest in recent years.
Tennis takes punishment a step further, augmenting a financial impact with point and game penalties. "I don't think there are many sports in which the scoreboard can change as a result of on-court conduct," says David Shoemaker, the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour's chief legal officer and the chairman of the tour's code of conduct committee. "We don't tend to have the sorts of incidents that are prevalent in other sports that necessitate fines and suspensions, such as bench-clearing brawls and someone hitting a mascot over its head, but we do have on-court issues ranging from racket abuse to audible profanity."
After a warning, chair umpires are authorized to issue point penalties all the way to match forfeitures. Point penalties come with automatic $1,000 fines, and game penalties with $5,000 fines, "but I don't think the monetary fine is the deterrent," says Shoemaker. "That first warning can serve as an enormous disincentive."
Well, perhaps. The ATP Tour's Marat Safin has been fined between $500 and $10,000 for not trying (2000 Australian Open), for skipping a post-match press conference (2001 French Open), for verbally abusing a sponsor (2002 Nasdaq-100 Open) and for mooning fans (2004 French Open), which came with an automatic point penalty. But none of it has seemed to deter Safin, who earned just over $2 million in 2004, and won that French Open match despite the penalty. "You're not allowed to do this, you're not allowed to do that, you're not allowed to speak when you want to speak," he said. "They do everything possible to take away the entertainment."
Some players learn to at least keep their mouths shut. After earning $298,667 at the 2003 Funai Classic and qualifying for the season-ending PGA Tour Championship, Scott Verplank, an ardent Oklahoma State football fan, happened to mention he was skipping the following tournament to attend the Cowboys' game against archrival Oklahoma. No big deal there: as long as players compete in the required number of tournaments and don't renege on commitments made on or before the previous Friday, off weeks are taken at their discretion.
But someone involved with the tournament that Verplank was missing, the Chrysler Championship in Palm Harbor, Florida, evidently heard about the comment and became incensed. He reported Verplank for undermining the value of his event. Why should fans or sponsors care about the tournament, he believed, if a player would skip it just to watch a football game? "I guess I shouldn't have been telling the truth," Verplank said at the 2004 Funai Classic. "But I did, and I got reprimanded for it."
Was he also fined? "I can't comment on that," he said, suddenly circumspect. "But I will say this. The same game is coming up next weekend, and so is the same tournament. And I'm not playing that tournament again this year."
He broke into a grin. "But this time, I won't tell you why."
Bruce Schoenfeld often writes about wine and sports for Cigar Aficionado and recently authored The Match: Althea Gibson & Angela Buxton (HarperCollins).