Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Learning From Bonds’ Defenders

Nothing reveals the popularity of flawed ethical reasoning more vividly than when credible accusations of unethical conduct are leveled against a prominent public figure. President Clinton’s Monica problem launched months of fevered defenses on cable news shows, radio talk shows and C-Span, almost all of them governed by rationalizations rather than logic. As the walls close in around Barry Bonds and the conclusion that his late-career blossoming into one of the greatest sluggers in baseball history was fueled by illegal performance-enhancing drugs becomes more unavoidable, many fans, reporters, columnists, bloggers and players are following in the Clinton defenders’ footsteps, with additional variations specific to Bonds’ situation. Recognizing and avoiding rationalizations is essential to behaving ethically, so it is instructive to consider those currently on prominent display. Any of us will be tempted to use their like some day, for our own purposes, or to bolster our fallen heroes.

“The Presumption of Innocence” Myth. The Scoreboard discussed this in its last Bonds comment (“Being Fair to Barry Bonds”), but omitted the clearest example of why the presumption of innocence has nothing to do with rightly concluding that someone is guilty of misconduct when the evidence is overwhelming. Let us presume your companion, standing right next to you, suddenly ran up to someone on the street and strangled him right before your eyes, in broad daylight, then came back to you and said, “I’m sorry you had to see that, but I just had to kill the guy.” Would you later maintain that there was a question whether he had actually committed the murder? In the eyes of the law, your deadly companion would still be technically “innocent,” because a jury hadn’t pronounced him guilty. But this wouldn’t mean that there was the slightest doubt that he committed the act, and it would be unreasonable, indeed absurd, for you to claim otherwise. The huge amount of documentation and testimony gathered in the book “Game of Shadows” places Bonds perilously close to the status of your fictional companion. At a certain point, the presumption of innocence concerns only process, not truth.

“He didn’t test positive.” Bonds defenders often talk as if a positive drug test is the only evidence that can justify a reasoned conclusion that a player used steroids. This is a convenient fiction for a clever steroid-user, like Bonds, but it is neither logical nor true. Raphael Palmeiro’s positive drug test actually tells us less about the extent and effects of his steroid use than Mark McGwire’s physical transformation, record-setting home runs, connective tissue breakdown, post-retirement physical reduction and tearful refusal to answer questions in the Congressional hearings on steroids told us about McGwire’s reliance on the drugs. Palmeiro’s seasonal performance never spiked improbably like those of Bonds, Sosa and McGwire; he didn’t display the typical physique changes and weight gain characteristic of steroid-using jocks. But can anyone come up with one single plausible explanation for Mark McGwire’s refusal to deny steroid use when asked point-blank under oath, other than the fact that he had used them? He likes being humiliated, perhaps? He didn’t want to show up his pal, Sammy Sosa, who also ducked the same question? He’s shy? He never wanted to be voted into that musty old Hall of Fame anyway? In Bonds case, the lack of a positive drug test is more than compensated for by the abundance of other evidence…eyewitness reports, documents, tapes, Bonds’ career path, his appearance, his associates and his conduct. When the police stop a weaving car and the bleary-eyed driver steps out, reeking of gin, staggering and singing “Show Me the Way to Go Home,” the police don’t need the breathalyzer to know he’s drunk.

“It’s Bonds’ word against theirs.” This creaky retort is typified by the quoted comments of Larry Walker, the star Expos, Rockies and Cardinals outfielder who recently retired. “It’s reached the point of, “What do you believe and who do you believe?’ ” Walker said. “Are we supposed to believe the guys who wrote this book or are we supposed to believe Barry? It’s a coin toss. I don’t know who’s to believe and who’s not.” “It’s coin toss?” On one side, we have two well-credentialed investigative reporters who spent two years gathering documents and testimony, including evidence uncovered in an ongoing Federal investigation. On the other we have Bonds, who falsely told reporters he “never used” steroids after he had told a grand jury he never “knowingly” used them, whose personal trainer is a convicted steroid dealer, who was the star customer of a supplement firm busted for steroid distribution, and who stands to lose prestige, reputation, money and his place in baseball history once his use of steroids is irrefutably substantiated. Gee, Larry: which side has more credibility? Confusing whom you want to believe with whom you ought to believe is an error that has allowed many scams, swindles and cheats to go forward with the help of willing dupes who should have known better.

“It’s not Bonds’ fault.” Those who heard Congresswoman Maxine Waters make the argument that poor, helpless President Clinton was victimized by a sexually aggressive and ambitious young intern recognizes this approach, an attempt to relieve a misbehaving public figure from the inconvenient duties of accountability and responsibility. In the Bonds version, Barry was victimized by the intentional laissez faire attitude baseball management took toward steroids in the 1990s. Author Dave Zirin takes this ethically muddled approach in his essay published the always alarming foaming-at-the-mouth Far Left website, BuzzFlash:

Bonds is currently getting the Gen. Janis Karpinski treatment from the baseball war room. They want to stop the chain of command and make him the symbol of the baseball’s “juiced era” in the 1990s. Then, after Bonds is offered up as sacrifice, the game can move on…Baseball doesn’t want the scrutiny of why they did nothing as players began to resemble Lou Ferrigno. They don’t want people to look at why steroids were pointedly not even a banned substance until 2003. They don’t want people looking at the Nike “chicks dig the long ball” ad campaigns, or how they used the Mark McGwire/ Sammy Sosa home run race to bring back fans after the 1994 lockout cancelled the World Series. They don’t want anyone to recall the X-men style cartoons they produced of freakishly muscled players to hype the game. They want this to stop with Barry Bonds.

If Zirin made this argument to point out that major league baseball executives need to take responsibility for their cynical negligence, he’d get no argument here. But no, he argues that this should exonerate Bonds! Following his General Karpinski analogy, Zirin apparently also feels that Lyndie England shouldn’t be disciplined for holding Abu Ghraib prisoners at the end of a leash:

Barry Bonds is not the villain in this particular drama. It’s Major League Baseball that needs to be held to account. If the media won’t do it, then fans are going to have to. If Barry Bonds comes to your city, stand and cheer for the greatest player in the game. Then gaze skyward and boo the owners. As guardians of the game, they have failed miserably. Don’t let Barry Bonds be their patsy.  

Clarification for Dave Zirin: a person who takes advantage of lax authority to cheat, out-perform his competitors and make millions of dollars is not called “a patsy.” He is called “an unprincipled opportunist.” Bonds is fully accountable for his own misconduct whatever penalties baseball leadership suffers or doesn’t suffer for its mismanagement. Many, many baseball players didn’t cheat while Bonds did, and we know Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, the players whose records Bonds is now approaching, didn’t take steroids to add ten yards to their outfield drives. Major League Baseball’s failure to police its product is indeed management’s fault, but any player who took advantage of it has only himself to blame.

“Steroids weren’t banned in baseball when Bonds allegedly started taking them.” So what? They were still illegal. Sports shouldn’t have to ban illegal substances…they’re banned already, by the U.S. government. There are also legal substances that are illegal to prescribe for the wrong purposes, and there are legal substances that some sports prohibit anyway. But most of the substances Bonds used, according to “Game of Shadows,” were legally prohibited substances. The argument “but they weren’t banned in baseball” is ridiculous. Not surprisingly, Zirin uses this one too.

“You can’t trust the book because it was written to make money.” A mighty odd argument in defense of a man whose juiced athletic accomplishments have made him as rich as Dan Brown or Stephen King, don’t you think? Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, the reporters who wrote “Game of Shadows,” make their living on their credibility, and presumably paid attention to the latest travails of phony memoir writer James Frye. Publishing a libelous book full of false allegations will not help either their finances or their careers. This defense had more legitimacy when applied to former American League MVP Jose Canseco’s revenge-driven steroid expose; after all, Canseco’s status as a venal liar and all-around low-life is well-documented. Canseco’s claims, however, have proven to be mostly accurate, and there is no reason to expect less from “Game of Shadows.”

“It’s racism.” Attempts to play the race card to trump the mass of evidence against Bonds are both despicable and futile, but some people are trying. Hall of Famer Willie McCovey voiced this sentiment:

Knowing what I have gone through in sports, there are always those little, you know, racial overtones…I don’t think it would be this big a deal if McGwire was still playing and was in the same shoes chasing that record…I don’t think they would be spending all this time to dig all this dirt up on him.

Willie, you were a great hitter, but a more unjustified and illogical opinion has seldom been uttered, even by those with severe head trauma. First of all, Bonds is now chasing Hank Aaron’s record, and Aaron is black. Aaron, Frank Robinson and other African American baseball greats who have expressed dismay at Bonds’ likely steroid-fueled route to the record book obviously object to Bonds’ body-chemistry, not the color of his skin, and only a racist would presume that white critics are differently motivated. The all-white McGwire, as already discussed, has been absolutely eviscerated by much of the sports press for his apparent steroid use. But most of all, a star using illegal performance enhancing drugs to shatter major records will always be a “big deal” regardless of the star’s race. Barry Bonds is the most successful, most prominent, and quite possibly the most blatant and unapologetic steroid-user in sports history. They dug up “dirt” on Barry Bonds because he handed them a map and a shovel with the suspicious circumstances of his on-field performance since 1999.

“Lots of baseball players have cheated; why pick on Barry?” It is hard to overstate the Scoreboard’s contempt for this line of reasoning. Why? Because the fact that others get away with unethical conduct never justifies their actions or mitigates any else’s. Why? Because it’s impossible to punish those who aren’t caught, but those who are deserve the punishment they get. Why? Because some forms of cheating are worse than others, and using steroids is right at the top of the list. It puts pressure on other players to do the same to compete; it pollutes the game’s integrity; it substitutes drugs for dedication and practice; it encourages young players to endanger their lives; and it’s illegal, unlike spitballs and corked bats and stealing signs. Yes, lots of players have cheated, but the vast majority of players have not, and a cheating player who rises to the pinnacle of the sport like Bonds threatens to make cheating the norm rather than the exception.

That’s why.

And there’s one more reason. Every time a prominent, popular, powerful or successful figure inspires large portions of the public to twist their values and principles into pretzels in order to defend him or her, it distorts those individuals’ ethical judgement and leaves them vulnerable to bad choices and bad conduct of their own. Clinton, DeLay, Martha Stewart, Bonds, Michael Jackson, Brad Pitt, Marion Barry, Dan Rather…these are all leaders of one kind or another, and like all leaders, their conduct has a disproportionate effect on our culture. They force their supporters to choose between perceived disloyalty and ethics-busting rationalizations, and as the unfolding drama of Barry Bonds shows, too many choose the latter.

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