This Against the Grain commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.
I've tried hard to get outraged about the steroid scandals and I can't.
I thought I had come up with a strong reason for caring: athletes are role models and their rotten behavior could lead kids to lives of hormone abuse and cheating. But you know what? Ninety-nine percent of professional athletes shouldn't be role models and parents who let kid worship jocks uncritically are naïve. Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi and Marion Jones aren't responsible for my kids' choices and values. My wife and I are.
Parents should patrol and control what their kids do. And high schools and colleges should do the same, even if it entails drug tests, inspections and -- God forbid -- losing.
But if a bunch of muscle bound leftfielders, linebackers, power forwards and goaltenders who earn millions of dollars a year want to gobble up steroids and other concoctions and risk their physical and mental health, why should we care? I don't anymore.
Let's look at some of the arguments about why we should care.
There's the sanctity of sport argument: athletics are one arena where virtue truly triumphs; on a level playing field, fair and square, the best man and the best woman win. Quaint notion, but hardly relevant when George Steinbrenner can sign any player in the game and a half a dozen other franchises can afford one real pro and a bunch of Triple A farmhands; when colleges send $2 million a year coaches on Lear jets and bearing Patek Phillipes to woo 17 year-old, 250 pound running backs. Let them all munch on steroids; the field will be just as level.
There's the argument that sports teaches important life lessons: sports teaches us about valuing excellence over winning, about never giving up and dedication and grit. Well, sorry. Sports teaches us about money and about social values so distorted that a shortstop can make $20 million a year (slightly more than a bond trader) and a teacher $40,000 -- maybe. Professional sports now teach us that if a shooting guard has a tight calf, he won't play because it might mess up his Nike shoot the next morning. Pro sports teach us that trash talk is cool and sportsmanship is for suckers. Pro sports teach us that the misogynistic gangsta rap and violent tattoos many embrace are high style. Pro sports teach us to get money for your autograph and a lawyer to watch over your agent.
There's the argument that the fans deserve better: honest Americans shell out hard-earned greenbacks and should see real athletes -- not artificially flavored ones -- show what our species is capable of. Yes indeed, the American fan has a deep right to heckle, curse, spit and throw beer at point guards who haven't been sullied by 'roids. Fans have a right to watch brawls between hockey players whose biceps aren't bionic, when the hockey labor dispute ends that is. Fans have inalienable rights to see NASCAR crashes where the drivers aren't on drugs and they need to know that the puerile, egomaniacal end zone dances of wide receivers are 100 percent natural. Spare me.
There's the record books argument: the epic accomplishments of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth shouldn't eclipsed by cheaters like Barry Bonds. I do have some trouble with this one, because despite my new cynicism, I'm a fan and Willie Mays was my hero and I hate to see his records broken by a rat. (For the record, my dad told me he was an unworthy hero).
Personally, I'd say if a guy gets busted for body doping, he should be disqualified from the record books -- period. Realistically, records get broken and sometimes by rascals. Homo sapiens evolve; even without steroids, bodies get bigger, faster and stronger over time. There's genocide in Sudan: this is not a pressing issue.
Our athletes feel entitled to a lot. When a grand juror asked Barry Bonds why he didn't give his trainer a "mansion," Bonds said: "One, I'm black, and I'm keeping my money. And there's not too many rich black people in this world. There's more wealthy Asian people and Caucasian and white. And I ain't giving my money up." What a mensch.
After his famous brawl with beer-throwing fans, Ron Artest said: "People say I'm a thug or whatever. But my cousin got life for killing someone. I have other cousins who sold cocaine and drugs. So what type of person am I supposed to be? Don't I deserve some credit for overcoming that? I didn't see a lot of nice stuff growing up, so really, who am I supposed to be?" Poor baby.
I think these guys are perfectly entitled to wreck their health, sanity, dignity, pride and reputations with steroids. I couldn't care less. Sports will somehow still create real magic -- the 1985 Chicago Bears, Cal Ripken and the 2004 Boston Red Sox. Fans should appreciate those lucky moments and not expect that sports be anything more than a money-grubbing business often played by greedy, over-rewarded, rude flukes of nature and science that shouldn't be models for anything or anybody.
Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.
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By Dick Meyer
Copyright 2004 CBS. All rights reserved.