Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Fairness to Barry: Ethics Blindness and Bonds' Defenders
(11/28/2007)

Fairness is a basic ethical concept, but it is harder to define than many think. Indeed, there is ample evidence that most Americans are thoroughly confused regarding what is fair. Recently, the last pathetic gasps of the dwindling defenders of Barry Bonds have echoed that fairness confusion, as they attempt to make the dead-end argument that mega-millionaire Bonds, his bank account as swollen from his steroid use as his head and biceps, is a victim rather than a villain.

Bonds was finally indicted by Federal prosecutors, not for using illegal steroids per se but for lying about doing so before a grand jury in its Balco investigation. Major League Baseball is not bound by the court system in deciding how to deal with Bonds, whose use of performance-enhancing substances to fuel his late-career assault on every power record in the sport was obvious, if not beyond a reasonable doubt, beyond significant doubt. But the timid honchos of the sport were too cowed by the Players Union to take timely action on Bonds and allowed him to disgrace the sport by taking the career home run title even after mountains of testimony and documentation had come to light, making it clear that Bonds was as dirty as Shoeless Joe's feet. Joe Jackson's dishonesty just made gamblers rich, however; Bonds' dishonesty made him rich.

Still, some sportswriters, bloggers, San Francisco fans and fantasists are concocting new excuses for Bonds or refurbishing old ones based on "fairness." The Philadelphia Inquirer became one of the few major newspapers to officially endorse the most popular of these.

"Why single out Bonds?" it asked, suggesting that it was unfair for Bonds to be "the main target of so much attention."

"Baseball is a game, not life or death," the paper argued. "Don't the feds have anything more pressing to do, like track down terrorists, drug dealers or white-collar crooks?"

The Inquirer has to be kidding about that last statement. Baseball may be a game, but it is also a multi-billion dollar industry with close ties to other major industries, such as network and cable television, videogames, sports attire and equipment, and other entertainment and consumer goods. Illegal conduct, fraud and deception in such a setting ---and steroid use is all of these--- have momentous financial and cultural consequences that make them legitimate law enforcement priorities.

Targeting the most visible, famous, successful and egregious participant in forbidden conduct is a proven prosecutorial technique and an effective one. With an outrageous wrong-doer like Barry Bonds, it is the only logical course. Bonds singled out himself. His use of banned performance-enhancing substances has been public and high-profile, long-term, epically successful and lucrative, embarrassing to his industry, and unapologetic. He has been the best-known and most written about figure in the nation's most storied professional sport for the better part of a decade. Two best-selling books detailed his defiant use of steroids. These factors alone would warrant special attention, but in addition, Bonds guaranteed a Federal investigation by accepting an immunity agreement to testify before a federal grand jury investigating the steroid-peddling company Balco, and then lied under oath anyway. Going after Bonds was not only fair, it was critical. Not to pursue him would have allowed him to successfully stand for multiple propositions that are dangerous to the nation's moral, cultural and physical health: Cheating pays. Lying is acceptable. Winning is all that matters. Steroids make you strong and rich. Integrity is for chumps.

And last but not least: It's OK to lie to a grand jury.

All right, reply such commentators as the Washington Post's Michael Wilbon and XM radio's Rob Dibble. But then the law and Major League Baseball still have to give the same punishment to "everybody," or it's not fair to Bonds. The willful dunderheadedness of this argument makes one want to scream in frustration:

  1. "Everybody" isn't an offender on Bonds' level…in fact, nobody is. He has used banned substances to break the biggest home run records in the sport, and continued to play on, lying all the while, as more and more evidence surfaced documenting his cheating ways. He has done far more damage to the sport by his open defiance than any other player has or could.

  2. Bringing down the most famous and prominent in any group of offenders is based on the principle that such individuals have special obligations as role models because of their visibility and prestige, and thus do more damage by their conduct. Bill Clinton was not just any lying adulterer. Martha Stewart was not just any inside trader. Michael Vick was not just any good ol' boy dog-fighter. Their status as highly paid celebrities comes with a costs, and one of them is that when you do wrong, you will be used to teach others why it is conduct they shouldn't emulate. If a celebrity doesn't think that's "fair," then he she shouldn't accept the multi-million dollar paychecks.

  3. Bonds, based on the evidence that will go to a jury, broke rules, laws and oaths, and it is always fair that such a person be punished. The Scoreboard would have advocated suspending players like Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield once their steroid use came to light, but MLB has a problem here that involves the Players Union and its own imperfect drug-testing policies. A positive drug test is the agreed-upon trigger for discipline, and it is difficult to decide how to deal with a player like Giambi, who never tested positive but virtually admitted past steroid use. Giambi told the truth when questioned before the grand jury about his knowing use of steroids, has showed contrition, and has cooperated with efforts to clean up the sport. Should he be treated as harshly as Bonds? No. Is it fair that he should suffer no punishment at all? No. Is it unfair to Bonds that Giambi and others may avoid punishment they deserve, when their circumstances are significantly different than his? Of course not. And again: no other player has lied to a grand jury.

One of the most bizarre arguments to surface following Bonds' indictment is an extension of the old claim that Bonds' real crime, in the eyes of baseball and sportswriters, is that he is a jerk. The new variation goes like this: 1) Barry is a jerk, broke records, and used performance enhancing drugs but 2) other players, like Ty Cobb, were even bigger jerks, and 3) Cobb did even worse things, like being openly racist and beating up disabled fans, and nobody ever advocated taking their records away of keeping them out of the Hall of Fame, so 4) this is unfair to Bonds.

We can all agree that Bonds and Cobb were jerks. But Bonds' steroid use extended his career, inflated his records, and, not insignificantly, broke the law. Cobb's racist conduct, sad to say, was both legal and typical in his era, and had no effect on his baseball records at all. No matter how big a jerk Bonds is, had he achieved his career records without cheating, like Cobb, he would have been honored as Cobb was, for his on the field achievements. Fairly.

Another popular "Bonds is a scapegoat" argument holds that it is baseball's executives and owners who deserve the blame for Barry's conduct, because they were lax in enforcement and allowed steroid use to flourish for years, reaping the benefits until public opinion forced a crack-down. Again, buying this preposterous claim requires putting the "Out to Lunch" sign on the ethics department in one's brain. Baseball's leadership is culpable for their own negligence and apathy on the steroid issue, but that doesn't excuse any player for cheating. If a teacher leaves the room during an exam, that doesn't make the students who take the opportunity to open their text books and look up answers less dishonest. If police can't get to a disaster area, that may explain looting but it certainly doesn't excuse it. Apathy and negligence by baseball's leaders or not, not everybody cheated. Letting someone who did get away with it is unfair to those who played by the rules. The pro-Bonds argument, that it is unfair to condemn Bonds for cheating because the system made it easy, is to reject the whole concept of ethics. You do the right thing because it is right, not because you are afraid of getting caught doing wrong.

Finally, we turn to the fad argument of the week, most prominently articulated by U.S.A. Today's reliably bizarro op-ed columnist, DeWayne Wickham. Wickham, who also couldn't grasp why star NFL quarterback's torturing dogs was such a big deal, devised a logical labyrinth to argue that Bonds using illegal and banned substances to break records set by players who did not use such substances is no more unfair than (pay attention, now) players before 1946 setting records when baseball didn't allow black players.

Hmmmm. As is his custom, Wickham has injected a "Take that, Whitey!" where it doesn't belong, but even putting his habitual racial guilt-mongering aside, his strained analogy causes brain cramp. To begin with, there is the problem that prior to 1954, segregation was wrong but legal, while steroid use in sports has always been wrong and illegal. The players who set the records in Babe Ruth's time, moreover, may have been the beneficiaries of segregation but were certainly not responsible for it. It would truly be unfair to declare their career records suspect based on the pure speculation that the excluded black players would have altered or surpassed them, just as it is unfair now to question the records of all steroid-era players simply because they played while others were cheating. It is both fair and logical, in contrast, to assume that Bonds' cheating had direct impact on his career achievements.

Major League players before 1947 were not cheating by playing in a segregated league; their records were achieved fairly within the professional game that was available to them. Wickham's argument would make all baseball records "tainted" forever, the perfect state of affairs for a Bonds apologist, but it can't be taken seriously. The Olympics now allow athletes to compete who would have been banned as "professionals" through the 1970s. Wickham's argument would mandate that we view all prior Olympic medals as tainted, like those won (and recently forfeited) by steroid-loaded Marion Jones.

The fervor with which Bonds defenders are working to concoct increasingly dubious accusations of unfair treatment is inextricably linked to his race. Bonds has nurtured this, invoking racial bias and victim status whenever the bloodhounds got too close, and evoking the memories of other, better African-American figures who were, unlike him, unfairly persecuted in the past. It is profoundly sad that so many black journalists and members of the public fall into the pattern closing ranks behind a black celebrity who has failed in his responsibility as a leader, a role model, and a citizen, when they should be sending a clear message that black or white, his conduct is deplorable.

Barry Bonds isn't Jack Johnson, Martin Luther King, or Mohammed Ali; he is closer to Mike Tyson, O.J. Simpson, and Marion Barry. And what is happening to him is appropriate, necessary, and fair.

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