Topic: Sports & Entertainment

The Palmeiro Mess, continued

Most sportswriters are ill-equipped to do much more than give readers a relatively accurate description of a sporting contest, so when a story pulls them into the wilds of ethical analysis, as the Rafael Palmeiro steroid bust has, the results are not likely to be pretty.

Case in point: ESPN’s Buster Olney has repeatedly been asked if he would still vote for the Orioles first-baseman for membership in the Hall of Fame, now that baseball’s random testing system has exposed Palmeiro as a steroid user. Buster said, well, yes. After all, he doesn’t know for sure whether Palmeiro used those illegal and prohibited drugs to amass his Hall of Fame-worthy achievements, Olney explained. How can he vote against him when he’s going to have to vote for four or five players he knows used steroids to set their records because their steroid use was never proven? That wouldn’t be fair!

And thus we know that at least one sportswriter couldn’t spot fairness if it was labeled with a neon sign. Uh, Buster, if you really are 100% sure a player used steroids, what difference does it make whether he was caught doing it or not? You still don’t want such a player in the Hall of Fame, because you know he got there by cheating. Would you set your sister up on a date with O.J. Simpson just because he wasn’t convicted of killing his wife? (1)

We, like Buster Olney, know the Yankees’ Jason Giambi admitted his steroid use to a grand jury. Mark McGwire’s evasive responses to inquiries during the Congressional hearings made it clear beyond any reasonable doubt that he had cheated on his way to 500 career homeruns. The accumulated weight of Barry Bond’s career track, his close relationships with convicted steroid pushers, his leaked grand jury testimony and laughable explanations that he was tricked into using steroids mark him as another one of Olney’s “four or five.” Ditto the formerly English-speaking Sammy Sosa’s sudden inability to speak anything but Spanish the instant he was asked about steroid use. But even if these players whose use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs rightly should exclude them from the Hall somehow sneak in, why would that preclude Buster Olney from holding Palmeiro accountable for what the evidence shows he did? Is Olney seriously arguing that it’s “not fair” to hold someone legitimately accountable for misconduct as long as someone similarly prominent got away with the same thing.

Yes, he is. Like many people, sportswriters are suckers for a popular corollary to the “Everybody does it” rationalization: the “Other people have done it and gotten away with it, so it’s unfair for anyone to be penalized for the same conduct now” variation. The O. P. H. D.I A. G. A W. I. makes no sense at all upon even casual examination, but like many currently popular rationalizations for unethical conduct, it gained a large following after being generously employed by Bill Clinton’s defenders during his Monica Lewinsky crisis. “Lots of other Presidents cheated on their wives,” the argument went, “so why should Clinton be the only one punished for it?”

Why? Quite apart from the fact that Clinton’s legal problem was not that he cheated on his wife but that he lied about it under oath, and setting aside the fact that the Clinton surrogates who advanced this line of defense often impugned the fidelity of past presidents whose supposed guilt was based on only on rumor and hearsay, the answer is stunningly simple. He got caught. If serial philanderer JFK had been caught with such mistresses as the mob boss’s girlfriend or the Israeli double-agent, he would have been impeached. If President Harding had been caught in one of his many extra-marital sexual adventures in 1920, he would have been ridden out of the White House on a rail. Kennedy and Harding weren’t caught, but how does that good fortune (for them) dictate leniency for a president who wasn’t so lucky? Should a pro-football great who is arrested with a bloody knife in his hands after killing his wife be able to argue that it’s unfair to punish him when O.J. is still haunting the golf links?

Two wrongs don’t make a right, folks. Do you think Buster Olney might have encountered that one before?

But perhaps it is truly unfair for us to highlight the ethical cluelessness of a mere reporter of the Palmeiro affair when so many other parties directly involved have shown such extreme unfamiliarity with basic ethical concepts. The Scoreboard’s scorecard on the growing list of ethically-tainted participants:

  • The Baltimore Orioles, Palmeiro’s team, which actually intended to stick to its plans to hold a Rafael Palmeiro Night in August, celebrating the player’s recent admission to the 3000 Hit Club even as that achievement was being called into question by his steroid use. Great way to send that anti-drug message to kids, O’s! Luckily, Palmeiro himself stopped this certifiably insane plan. Then the Orioles fired their manager, Lee Mazzilli, for the team’s eight game losing streak that Palmeiro’s shocking drug violation certainly didn’t help. The Orioles’ statement through these juxtaposed actions: illegal drug use won’t lower you in the team’s esteem, but losing baseball games will. And it is exactly that attitude which encourages player like Palmeiro to use steroids.

  • Major League Baseball, which we now know encouraged all the praise heaped on Palmeiro in the wake of his 3000th hit knowing that he had flunked his random steroid test in May. Then MLB carefully withheld the announcement of Palmeiro’s disgrace (once Palmeiro had exhausted all appeals) until the day after the annual Hall of Fame ceremony. The public had a right to know that all the sincere words during the ceremony about “respecting the game” and “doing the right thing” were in direct opposition to the proven conduct of one of baseball’s biggest stars. Major League Baseball preferred to withhold that information to maintain an illusion for an extra 24 hours. That’s called “dishonesty.” It’s also called “dumb.”

  • The MLB Leaker. Someone “close to baseball’s testing procedures” told a New York Times reporter which steroid was that was found in “Raffy’s” urine sample, a hard-core drug that Palmeiro couldn’t possibly have taken “unintentionally” as he had stated. Cheater or not, Palmeiro had a right to have the details of his test results remain confidential until he approved their release: this is one of the provisions of MLB’s deal with the Players’ Union. The Leaker is violating that agreement, and is violating baseball’s duty of confidentiality. Palmeiro and the Union have every right to be furious. [Back to the topic of ethical tone-deafness among sportswriters for a second: esteemed baseball writer and ESPN commentator Tim Kurkjian said that he could “understand” why Palmeiro’s lawyer would be upset about the leak, but that it was a “good thing” because we need to know “as much as possible” about the situation. That logic would pretty much obliterate most confidentiality requirements in most professions, including journalism. Presumably the public would benefit from knowing “as much as possible” about the guilt of criminals, so Kurtjian would approve of defense lawyers ratting out their clients.]

  • Jose Canseco, who has leaped on this opportunity to announce yet another book “naming names” of steroid users in baseball. He has the gall to anoint himself a “whistleblower,” when it was Canseco that introduced many of the players he is now exposing to steroid use in the first place. Canseco is no whistleblower. He is the ethical twin of mob informants who testify against their fellow mobsters in order to get a lighter sentence. Jose Canseco is ruining other players’ reputations only to make money for himself, not to clean up the game, not to save young athletes from steroids.

  • Rafael Palmeiro. His last chance at redemption was coming clean. Instead, he used the patently dishonest dodge (also used earlier this year by Giambi) of saying that he wanted to explain the details of his drug testing results but couldn’t because of “confidentiality requirements.” The confidentiality requirements are for Palmeiro’s protection and his alone; he has always been free to disclose anything about his steroid use that he wants to disclose. Rafael started lying to us in March, and he hasn’t stopped yet.

1. And let’s have a moratorium on the legally accurate but logically absurd argument that Palmeiro’s positive drug test from May doesn’t “prove” that he had ever used steroids before May. Does anyone actually believe that two months after truthfully testifying to Congress that he never used steroids and never would, Palmeiro suddenly became a steroid devotee for the first time? The logical principle of “Occam’s Razor” applies: the simplest explanation is almost always the correct one. Palmeiro is a steroid user who decided that a brazen lie to Congress was the way to go. The straight-shooter Palmeiro pretended to be in front of Congress would never use steroid, period. The lying fraud we now know he is would have been using them all along.

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