Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Mark McGwire: Unfit for the Hall of Fame

Watching sportswriters deal with ethical issues isn’t pretty, but at least it appears that this time around they will be making the right choice regarding slugger Mark McGwire’s worthiness for Baseball’s Hall of Fame. McGwire, for all you non-baseball fans out there, was a home run-hitting first baseman who surreptitiously used illegal anabolic steroids to inflate his biceps and statistics, then managed to retire before the proverbial excrement, in the form of former team mate Jose Canseco’s vengeful expose, hit the fan. McGwire shattered Roger Maris’s single season home run record, which he held until an even more egregious steroid user, Barry Bonds, surpassed it. Bonds will eventually be indicted, rather than inducted, for his conduct, as sure as crocuses bloom in May. McGwire’s punishment will be more symbolic.

McGwire not only cheated, but he cheated to break one of baseball’s most hallowed records. According to printed reports, it was McGwire’s steroid-fueled success that inspired Barry Bonds to become a user. He was a role model, and he corrupted the game with his status, earning millions of dollars for accomplishments that he could not have achieved playing by the rules.

The Hall of Fame is for players who were a credit to the game. Pete Rose isn’t there because he risked the game’s integrity by gambling on his own team’s games while he was managing. Shoeless Joe Jackson isn’t there, despite one of the best lifetime averages of all time, because he accepted a bribe to throw the World Series in 1919. And Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Raphael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds and any other players involved in distorting their bodies and the record books with illegal substances (always while denying it indignantly) should be kept out of the Hall permanently.

A disturbing (though hardly surprising) number of baseball writers and players don’t comprehend this. Luckily (for them, not us) they have an eloquent and outspoken mouthpiece in MSNBC sports commentator Mike Celizic, who uses so many ethics fallacies to defend McGwire in a recent article that his wife should check his collar for lipstick stains, his poker buddies should make him roll up his sleeves, and MSNBC should independently confirm every line of his resume. This guy never met an ethical rationalization he didn’t like.

But just for variety, he begins his argument for McGwire with a major factual error, and a common one:

“I’ve said this before, but since so few people seem to understand the logic of the situation, I’ll say it again: McGwire didn’t do anything that was against the rules of the game of baseball.”

Surprise, Mike: breaking the law and using substances banned by the U.S. government is forbidden by Major League Baseball. Do you really think every profession has to ratify the law for it to apply? Even though it was unnecessary, baseball did in fact institute a rule in 1979 absolutely prohibiting the use of any substance banned by Federal authorities. Look it up.

Now on to the rationalizations!

  • “McGwire almost certainly isn’t the first player who “probably” used steroids to be on the ballot, and when and if he gets in, I’d lay my house against a burger-flipper’s paycheck that at least one of the people in ahead of him also used sports’ magic potion”.

    Translation: if one person got away with it, everyone should get away with it. Great rule, Mike. I guess all wife-killers should get to play golf for the rest of their lives, because O. J. can. If the Hall of Fame gets tricked into honoring one cheater, honor them all. You know, teenagers read this unethical, illogical garbage and think that because it’s in print, it has validity as an argument. Some opinions are so ill-considered that they are actually toxic, and Celizic’s is one of them.
  • “The Hall is already the home of dozens of players who took amphetamines, a drug just as illegal as steroids, but one that the game started testing for only this past season. Mickey Mantle took them. Willie Mays took them. Darned near everybody took the pills known as “greenies” and kept in bowls like M&Ms in every trainer’s room in the game.”

    This is more of the same, but without any basis for a legitimate analogy. There is no evidence that amphetamines, which were frequently prescribed legally by team doctors, affected the performance, ability or statistics of players in any way. In 2006 baseball tightened its ban on their use. Players drank more coffee, and there was no change at all in what happened on the field. Bottom line: amphetamines, so matter how much they were used, did not damage the integrity of the game. Comparing them to steroids is absurd.
  • “Other players cheated their way into the Hall. Don Sutton was one of that ilk, as was Gaylord Perry. So was Whitey Ford and who knows how many other pitchers who cut, scuffed, lubricated and otherwise did things to baseballs that would make them curve in ways not intended by nature.”

    This is yet another version of Celizic’s core argument, which is that if any player ever profited from cheating without being penalized it precludes the punishment of any other wrongdoer. But the “spitballs equal steroids” line of argument keeps popping up, so here is the Scoreboard’s explanation of why it is 100%, unadulterated, ethically bone-headed balderdash, from the 3/15/06 essay “Learning From Bonds’ Defenders”:

    “…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…”

Celicik’s next “point” isn’t so much an ethical error as jaw-dropping idiocy:

  • “So the objection to McGwire can’t be about using illegal substances or cheating. Neither of those activities has ever kept anyone else out. Why should they keep Big Mac out? I know the answer: McGwire broke the most sacred record in baseball’s hallowed book; he hit more home runs than anyone had hit before.”

    Two time honored tactics of desperate advocacy are on display here. First, when you can’t support your central argument, state that you have. Second, cry conspiracy. Most baseball fans’ memories aren’t as short as Celizik seems to believe. No player has ever been more joyously welcomed into the record books than Mark McGwire was when he broke Roger Maris’s home run record. Fan resentment only surfaced much later, when it became obvious that McGwire’s good-guy façade hid a lying con man.

    This manifestly dishonest argument shows why this sports journalist is so quick to excuse McGwire’s lack of integrity: he has none himself.

Now here’s a classic:

  • The game wanted a lot of home runs, and he obliged it. Along the way, he pulled in fans in record numbers and helped restore the game to health after the 1994 strike.”

    Yes, it’s that oldie but baddie, “the end justifies the means.” We knew you couldn’t resist that one, Mike. And finally…

  • “OK, he embarrassed himself in front of Congress, but that was four years after he retired. It’s irrelevant.”

    Irrelevant? Testifying in 2004 before Congress on steroid use in baseball, McGwire repeatedly refused to answer direct questions about whether he used steroids and other banned performance-enhancing drugs. All that was required was a “no,” but McGwire was under oath, so instead he dodged the question. He was obviously ashamed, though Celizik claims he had nothing to be ashamed of. He lacked the courage to be truthful, even though his demeanor and words left no doubt that he was guilty of violating the rules of the game, the laws of the nation, and the principles of sportsmanship. And Mike Celizik writes that this is irrelevant to the question of whether Mark McGwire should be enshrined with the game’s heroes.

On the day McGwire enters the Hall of Fame, if that day ever comes, sportswriters like Celizik will have made the statement that the honest, fair, responsible and courageous athletes immortalized in Cooperstown are no better than a coward, cheat and fraud like Mark McGwire. If I were Cal Ripkin, Carl Yastrzemski, Stan Musial, Nolan Ryan, Bob Feller, Ryne Sandberg or any of the other exemplary individuals who won election there without chemical assistance I would resign my membership…and I think it’s likely that some of them will. Defenders of cheaters like McGwire, those who neither appreciate the importance of ethical values nor understand them, are always trying to denigrate fair play and deride playing by the rules as the obsession of suckers. Whether or not McGwire gets elected to the Hall of Fame will tell us a great deal about whether the Mike Celiziks of the world are going to shape the culture of America’s pastime, or if the sport still believes that integrity and honesty are as important as money, championships, and TV ratings.

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