Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Ethical, unethical, against the rules, illegal

This is not a sports blog. But for at least the third time lately, I've found that what happens in sports mirrors what happens in society, politics and social perception, including in its ugly realities.

Today, Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn, two class guys who no one would argue deserve it, were elected to baseball's Hall of Fame. The two ironically spent their entire careers with one team-- a rarity nowadays, though in opposite leagues and therefore will probably spend more time together during their induction ceremony than they ever did on the field, since they generally only opposed each other for a few innings every year during the All-Star Game.

The bigger story though was about Mark McGwire. Also about Jose Canseco, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds.

During his home run battle with Sosa in 1998 to catch Roger Maris, McGwire admitted to using androstenedione, a body-building steroid. At the time, it was not illegal, nor was it considered unethical despite such well publicized cases as that of former NFL great Lyle Alzado, a small high school player, whose experimentation with early steroids likely brought to the peak of being one of the greatest defensive linemen in the NFL but then led to an early death from brain cancer. When McGwire retired five years ago, his 'andro' use was still considered a footnote, and few doubted that McGwire would get voted into the hall with Ripken and Gwynn.

But then came some devastating revelations. Jose Canseco, McGwire's 'bash brother' on the Oakland A's team that went to the world series for three years straight from 1988-1990 (and won one of those series) wrote a book in which he not only admitted using steroids, both legal and illegal ones, but he named names in the book. Among those names was Mark McGwire. Canseco said that McGwire and he used to inject each other with steroids. Conseco also made allegations against George W. Bush, in claiming that when he was the owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, Bush knew of steroid use by a number of players including Canseco (who briefly played there) and chose to look the other way. Canseco, incidentally, despite having career numbers that otherwise might have ranked him at least as a serious contender for Hall of Fame status, was named on just six ballots-- a number so small that he won't appear on the ballot anymore at all.

Then came that day before Congress. McGwire was supposed to answer questions about steroids, including whether he had ever used banned or illegal ones. His tepid and all-too-revealing answer was, "I'm not here to talk about the past." (what exactly then was he supposed to talk about in a committee hearing to discuss steroid use? His plans for the future)? In fact, his future took probably a fatal blow that day. He'd have been better off to have come clean like Canseco did (though he could still have done so with some dignity while Canseco is considered by now to be baseball's answer to Mike Tyson.) If he and Canseco took turns injecting each other with steroids in the buttocks (as Canseco says they did), well it would be better to say so than to leave a Congressional hearing with a 'no comment.' Jason Giambi, a former member of the A's whose steroid use became public when he moved to the New York Yankees, has admitted it, says he has quit and moved on. He still has a shred of dignity, therefore.

Sammy Sosa, who battled McGwire for the home run title in 1998 is another player who has been accused of steroid use. Unlike McGwire, there is no solid evidence that anyone has ever seen Sosa use any sort of performance enhancing substance, but Sosa's integrity did take a hit a couple of years ago when his bat split open during a game and revealed that it had been doctored. Sosa was suspended for several games after that episode.

Today, McGwire didn't get into the Hall. That wasn't surprising, as a lot of the Baseball Writers of America, who are tasked with electing players to the Hall had said up front that they weren't planning to vote for him. And a first ballot miss doesn't mean he might not get into the Hall later-- a first ballot election is considered a special privilege that is reserved only for an elite class of players, players like Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn. What was surprising was the margin. There are 545 voters this year. It is notoriously difficult to get into the Hall of Fame, with 75% (409 voters this year) having to name a player to guarantee election (incidentally Ripken and Gwynn got 537 and 532 votes respectively). McGwire was only named by 128 voters, not even a quarter of those eligible. This low total seems to suggest that he will never get in. It also suggests that Sosa may have a tough time ever making it to the Hall.

Which brings us squarely to the present poster boy of steroids, Barry Bonds. Bonds is in some ways the anti-McGwire. McGwire was always friendly and personable with the press-- which now seems surprising as it is those same sports writers who have to be considered as having given Mark McGwire an enormous personal rebuke today. Bonds is notoriously surly and uncommunicative with the press. Part of that is because he likely saw the grief his father, Bobby Bonds, took from the New York press after fan favorite Bobby Murcer was traded away for him in 1974. Seeing the steady stream of abuse in the press certainly made an impression on a school age boy, as Barry Bonds was then, and has led to his surliness with and distrust of the media. As such, it has been all too easy for the media to jump on Bonds today. Not that Bonds doesn't deserve it-- more on that later-- but there is no question that the kid gloves (make that fawn gloves) that the media handled McGwire with in 1998 were just never there for Bonds.

Bonds, who is approaching one of baseball's most cherished records-- Hank Aaron's 755 career home runs, has always denied allegations of steroid abuse. But everyone from his teammates to his ex-girlfriend have said that he used them. So the assumption is that he has. Somehow no one cared that McGwire, who had never hit over 50 home runs in a season before, exploded to 70 in 1998, but when Bonds bested that with 73 just three years later, people assumed the worst.

However, Bonds' most dangerous enemy now is not the media or those fans who don't want him to break Aaron's record-- the media and the fans frankly don't bother Barry a whole lot. It is the Federal grand jury investigating perjury at the BALCO trial. The BALCO trial involved a laboratory in the San Francisco Bay area that gave steroids to players on both the Giants and A's (Giambi has admitted that his source was BALCO) over a number of years. Bonds in particular was asked to testify under oath at the BALCO trial whether he had used steroids. He answered that he had never knowingly used them. The grand jury is investigating whether this is true. If it turns out that Bonds lied under oath then it is possible that he could go to prison for several years. I suspect that the pace of the investigation will go as it does without regard to Bonds' home run pace, so he might end up in a race against the jailer to break Aaron's record.

What this causes me to think about is that sometimes we as a society have a fine line between what is ethical, unethical, against the rules (whether the rules of baseball, Congress or other internal kinds of rules), and illegal. Mark McGwire has seen the effects of going from ethical to unethical (with allegations of against the rules.) Barry Bonds for the same thing (not ever proven) has always been considered unethical and now it has gotten to the point where he may have committed a felony and be on the wrong side of the law for it.

And lacking a set and spelled out standard, these grey areas can in the end be ruin. Just ask Mark McGwire.

And that is why it is such a good thing that Congress passed ethics reform this week, stating that no 'gift' from a lobbyist can be worth more than $50 (though I would prefer that you can't accept any gift from a lobbyist myself, but this is still a huge improvement), and banning free flights on corporate aircraft. Is it unethical to 'carpool' in the air, if you know someone who is going where you are? What if they will be guaranteed several hours of exclusive access to you, and you are in a position to make decisions that will affect them? I would consider that it is. But with the new lobbying bill, it is also now spelled out, that it is banned.

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