Friday, August 20, 2010

Blame To Go Around?

The indictment of Roger Clemens for lying to Congress has been the major sports' headline of the week. I wrote the following piece a couple of years ago, in response to the issuance of the Mitchell Report detailing steroid use in Major League Baseball.

I wasn't surprised. Disappointed, yes. Angry, a little. Surprised, unfortunately not.

I'm speaking of the Mitchell Report on steroids in Major League Baseball released yesterday. The long list of names did not surprise me . . . even Roger Clemens.

I've been a Clemens fan since he came up with the Red Sox in 1985. The '86 Red Sox club remains one of my all-time favorites . . . even Bill Buckner! Like Barry Bonds, Clemens was a potential Hall of Famer before he began taking steroids. According to the Mitchell Report (and its voracity seems ironclad to me), Clemens began to "juice" during the 1998 season, while he was pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays. Bonds, according to the allegations made against him, started his steroids regimen following the 1998 season, that "magical" year when Mark McGwire and Sammy Soso were pursuing and ultimately passed Roger Maris for the single-season home run record. Before 1998, both Clemens and Bonds had already posted numbers that guaranteed their induction into Cooperstown. Clemens had already been awarded 4 Cy Young Awards, as many as any pitcher in history (to that point), and Bonds was already a 4-time M.V.P. Before 1998, both Clemens and Bonds had been in the Major Leagues for over 12 seasons. But, when most players should be satisfied with their careers and looking forward to retirement, Clemens and Bonds were searching for an edge, for something that would keep them competitive for years to come.

Was it for the money? It is a fact that Clemens and Bonds have earned millions more in the years since 1998 than they earned in the 12+ years before. Their motivation to juice could simply be a case of greed . . . wanting an ever increasing series of contracts.

Was it the need for acclaim? It is true that those we place on pedestals often get addicted to the praise and adulation we give them. We've all heard stories of the washed up athlete everyone has forgotten. Does anyone remember Danny White? At one time, he was the highest-rated passer in the NFL. He led the Cowboys to three straight NFC Championship Games. Yet, today, when people think of the Dallas Cowboys and the great quarterbacks that the franchise has had, the list usually includes Meridith, Staubach, Aikman, and, now, Romo. White is conspicuously absent. My point? Simply that our athletes, once they leave the playing stage, are often forgotten. Perhaps Clemens and Bonds could not bear the fact of being pushed off the stage, so they sought to prolong their careers as long as possible.

Was it jealousy? In the book written a few years ago outlining Bonds' purported steroid use, the authors claim that Bonds began his usage following the 1998 season because he was angry and jealous over the acclaim given to McGwire and Sosa, both of whom he was convinced had used performance enhancing drugs. The book claims that Bond was angry that his hard work was being overshadowed by those who, in his mind, cheated. The authors claim that Bonds decided to sell himself out and show that he could outdo anyone. He had done so clean (before 1998), and now he would do so on a level playing field with McGwire and the others.

By speculating as I have, I am not trying to rationalize the behavior of Clemens and Bonds and others like them. They cheated. Major League Baseball should respond accordingly. If I were a Hall of Fame voter, I would refuse to induct anyone who is shown to have purposefully and systematically used performance-enhancing drugs. That hurts to say, because I was as much a fan of Mark McGwire as I have been Roger Clemens. I was never a fan of Barry Bonds, but I acknowledge him as the greatest ballplayer of my generation (and that was before 1998). But, cheating should carry with it consequences.

My larger point, however, is that society at large has helped produced the circumstances that fueled these men in their excesses. Perhaps the publication of the Mitchell Report should cause all of us to pause and reflect on how we put too much emphasis on athletes and athletics. Instead of making the sports stars stand at the pinnacle of our pedestals, why don't we place much of the acclaim we give them to our school teachers, public servants, those who keep the peace and security of the community, and the blue collar workers who have built this country and keep it running?

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