Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Waiting for the Heroes

There are villains galore in baseball’s revived steroids scandal, and let’s make no mistake about it: those who run the game top the list. Let’s quote an Ethics Scoreboard column in this very same space back on March 2, 2004:

Baseball richly earned its current dilemma. The owners and the clubs stayed in denial for years, and the Players Union decided to play enabler. Now nothing short of a major, public, and painful over-haul will restore the sports’ integrity. One episode of cheating…a scuffed ball, a corked bat…has drawn a week’s suspension. What is the proper punishment for a whole season of cheating? Two seasons? Three? And this isn’t only cheating; it is criminal activity as well.

Will Major League Baseball have the guts, and the fortitude, and the commitment and the respect for its fans to take truly meaningful steps, even if they affect pennant races, the sports greatest slugger, and the New York Yankees? If it doesn’t, it will have rejected basic ethical values, making the “American Pastime” just another disheartening exhibit in America’s ethical rot.

So what did the owners and the players union do? Essentially, they pretended everything would go away if they just closed their eyes. And the morons actually had themselves convinced that this “strategy” worked! In 2004, baseball shattered attendance records. Washington D.C. finally got a team. The Boston Red Sox gave America one of its most joyous sports stories.

Oh yeah…and Barry Bonds, whom everybody knew had used steroids, won his fourth straight Most Valuable Player Award.

Yes, you read it right: everybody knew it back on March 2. They just chose to ignore it, that’s all. It is amazing that the recent leaks from Bonds’ grand jury testimony have set off such a firestorm, because they did nothing but confirm what anyone who had even one eye open had to know already. Scott Peterson was just convicted of murder (beyond a reasonable doubt!) based on less compelling circumstantial evidence than the indications that Barry Bonds has been pharmaceutically cheating. Let’s see:

  • After his 30th birthday, Bonds gradually morphed from a 185 pound doubles hitter into a 225 pound muscleman.
  • His homerun totals began increasing dramatically during the period (beginning in 1990) when credible accounts of widespread steroid use in baseball became commonplace, and pumped up mesomorphs, once the exception in the game, become the norm.
  • Violating well established and nearly universal patterns in the aging of baseball players, Bonds dramatically improved his power and general batting performance after the age of 35, despite the fact that for the past century statistics show virtually all players declining after the age of 28.
  • His boyhood friend and personal trainer, Greg Anderson, is an admitted steroid user who has also distributed steroids to other athletes.
  • Two close Bonds associates (one of which is Anderson) are currently under indictment for trafficking in illegal steroids.
  • Federal prosecutors have documents showing that Bonds received a wide range of performance-enhancing drugs (Naturally, Bonds denies that he did.).
  • Two other recent Most Valuable Player recipients, Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco, with Mr. Incredible body-types similar to the post-1990 Barry Bonds model have admitted that their abilities were steroid-enhanced.

Add to this what we know about Bonds’ personality, and have known almost from the beginning of his career: that he cares about nothing but his own performance; that serving as a role model or “good citizen” is of no interest to him; that he is openly contemptuous of authority, convention, or societal norms; that his arrogance and hubris knows no bounds. Yet knowing all of this, baseball’s management stood stock still. The players’ union, despite pointed threats from a Senate committee, also continued to act as if the problem was due process in drug testing rather than the integrity of the game.

Now the leaked grand jury testimony of Bonds and yet another MVP, injured Yankee first-baseman Jason Giambi has created a crisis for baseball’s leaders. Not a crisis of suddenly discovering that some of the game’s star sluggers were chemically enhanced, because they knew about that long ago, but the crisis of realizing that even if they wish really hard and the baseball games were really good, they would have to address the problem. And because they waited, that problem is bigger than ever, because Barry Bonds is bigger than ever, in more ways than one.

Bonds, of course, is the next villain. He holds baseball’s single season record for homers, and is closing in on both Babe Ruth and Henry Aaron’s career totals. A baseball-playing rutabaga with a mere glimmer of a conscience would recognize how important it is that these records be beyond suspicion. Not Bonds! He has watched how baseball’s all-time hits leader, Pete Rose, traumatized the sport by linking his iconic record to gambling, but did Bonds see any reason not to risk tainting equally revered records by making the public wonder if they were achieved fairly? No, not as long as he could stoke his massive ego and pull down millions of dollars in the process.

The leaked grand jury testimony shows that Bonds had to know the jig was up, yet he persisted in his lying denials during the 2004 season that he “ever” took steroids. His grand jury claim that he was deceived into taking the drugs by Anderson is a real knee-slapper. Here’s Anderson, a bulked up steroid user whom Bonds has known well since they were kids. Bonds almost certainly knows that Anderson gives steroids to other athletes. Anderson gives Barry a mysterious crème and a clear substance, saying one is for arthritis pain and the other is “flax seed oil,” and Bonds, a famed control freak who is meticulous about his nutrition and work-out schedule, says, “Sure!” And never suspects the substances are steroids.

If the old witch from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” showed up on Barry’s doorstep and offered him an apple, would he guess that it might be poisoned? Guess not! If Tony Soprano handed him bank bag full of freshly-minted hundred dollar bills, would he wonder if the money was stolen? Not good ol’ trusting Barry! If Robert Downey Junior told him to put some white powder up his nose, would Barry Bonds assume it was a decongestant? Well, sure!

Utter nonsense. Barry Bonds is lying, lying, lying. It is surprising that his pants aren’t on fire.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Barry Bonds’ ethics make Pete Rose look like Sir Thomas More. Here’s what he has done:

  • He has violated the law, by using banned substances.
  • He has cheated, using chemical aids for what is supposed to be achieved by talent, hard work, practice, courage, and sacrifice alone.
  • He has put players and young athletes at risk, by making steroid use appear acceptable, profitable and safe, when in fact it is dangerous. Ken Caminiti dies last year in his early fifties. Jason Giambi, the Yankee first-baseman who admitted to knowing steroid use before the same grand jury that examined Bonds, is seeing his body break down before his eyes. His brother Jeremy, also a user, has been hurt for two seasons.
  • As baseball’s most visible super-star, he has put the integrity of the sport in more jeopardy than any time since the 1919 gambling scandals.
  • He has tarnished games, statistics, records and baseball history in the worst possible way, casting doubt on them that can never be resolved. Who knows to what extent Bonds’ drug use affected these, if at all? We will never know. The stain is permanent.
  • He has cast suspicion on all of his fellow players, cheaters and non-cheaters alike.

Then we have the equivalent of the Devil in this Faustian tale, Victor Conte, the head of Balco, a company that has become a steroid epidemic all by itself. Conte’s ethics are summed up in this quote: “It’s not cheating if everyone is doing it.” If you are visiting the Ethics Scoreboard, I presume you don’t require assistance in concluding that this is outrageous, but let’s just summarize:

  • That’s a formula for the deterioration of all standards, rules, and fairness generally.
  • Everybody isn’t doing it, and…
  • Cheating is still cheating, whether everybody’s doing it or not.

To give Conte a tiny bit of credit, he is right that widespread cheating can narrow the options down to cheating or not competing at all. This is the situation in professional body-building, where steroid use first raised its misshapen head, and NFL boasting about its steroid policy notwithstanding, it is perilously close to the situation in professional football. But the solution to that problem is to take aggressive measures to purge steroids from sport, as the Olympic sports are attempting to do, not open the doors to universal cheating.

And so, with the unethical, the venal, the self-centered, the cowardly and the corrupt everywhere in evidence in this tale, where are the heroes? They haven’t emerged yet, but here are some suggestions:

  • Senator John McCain can be a hero, if he follows through on his threat to slap regulations on baseball and its players should they fail to move quickly and assertively.
  • Bud Selig, the timid Commissioner of Baseball, can salvage hero status by suspending Bonds and Giambi, and bracing for the inevitable lawsuits to follow.
  • Players can assert themselves by refusing to walk onto the field to compete against steroid users, and take the resulting fines.
  • Sports merchants can refuse to sell merchandise that relates to steroid using players or their teams.
  • Fans can organize, and walk out of games the second a steroid user comes to bat. Don’t watch the broadcasts of games featuring steroid users. Don’t buy the products that advertise them.
  • And, of course, Barry Bonds could have the decency to retire, admit his drug use, and make an unequivocal statement that he was wrong. (Don’t hold your breath on this one.)

The villains whose warped ethics brought us steroids in sports can be easily vanquished. All it will take is some timely heroism.

We’re waiting.

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