I’ve just finished reading Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams’ book Game of Shadows. The book chronicles the BALCO illegal drug trade and subsequent federal investigations in sport—preeminently Olympic track and field and professional baseball. It pays particular attention to Barry Bonds, detailing compelling evidence that Bonds has used illegal drugs for years. The authors are not alone in describing this behavior as cheating.
Steroids, doping, juicing—these elements are not particularly new to the world of sports. It has been going on for years, decades—the entire lifetime of some endeavors like body-building. “The Chemical Era” of baseball consumes the 90s. Bob Costas wrote just last month:
Only segregation represents a greater blot on the game’s history and integrity. The Black Sox scandal of 1919 involved one team, one year. Pete Rose—one guy. The steroid era, still ongoing, likely involved every team, and more players than we can count. Baseball can’t have it both ways: It can’t celebrate its history and revere its records, and then turn a blind eye when its history and its record book are poisoned.
Former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent has stated “everything in the 1990s is tainted now.” He goes on to dishearteningly agree that the most hallowed records in baseball—755 and 61—are a little less hallowed now.
What is cheating? For that matter, what is sport? – Barry Bonds suggests that sport, at least professional baseball, is mere entertainment. During spring training in 2005, Bonds pronounced, “All this stuff about supplements, protein shakes, whatever…. Man, it’s not like this is the Olympics. We don’t train four years for, like a ten-second [event]. We go 162 games. You’ve got to come back day after day. We’re entertainers. If I can’t go out there and somebody pays $60 for a ticket and I’m not in the lineup, who’s getting cheated? Not me.”
Bonds has brilliantly, obliviously missed the point. I am sure he is not alone. – Perhaps that unreflected tendency had something to do with his unapologetic betrayal of sport. Perhaps that is why he cheated with such terrible vulgarity.
The rules of sport are arbitrary and even capricious. Baseball is no exception. I find that element a principle aspect of its appeal. You do not want to be the manager who goes out onto the field to argue balls and strikes with the umpire. Sport is a human undertaking. Human beings make mistakes. Mistakes are a fundamental element of sport. Equally fundamental to sport is the implicit agreement of fair-play—sportsmanship. Play by the rules. Forswear unfair methods to win. Violating the letter of the rules is cheating. Yet it is far more important to the traditional integrity of sport to understand that violating the spirit of sport is also cheating—violating the spirit of sport is considerably more damning. Violating sportsmanship calls into question the entire endeavor of competition. It is on these grounds that doping can be decried as cheating—rightfully, justifiably, undeniably. Even when not explicitly against the rules, doping gives an unnatural and unfair advantage.
Other arguments against doping include heath and safety. These arguments have some teeth, but I believe them to be beside the point. Minor. Secondary considerations. Most sports include a measure of danger—risk of injury. Minimizing risk and the power of fear may certainly be in play, but they fail to answer the fundamental question about why doping is wrong. Doping is wrong because it is cheating. Doping is cheating because it is a fundamental violation of the spirit of competition.
Putting aside the sentimental aspects of baseball as America’s pastime, the sheer weight and volume of baseball’s history underlines why cheating in baseball in the guise of doping is so troubling. Barry Bonds—or any ballplayer for that matter—is not simply competing against his opposing players on the field, but he is comparing himself to and against the entire history of the sport.
I concede the records are made to be broken. But I contend that records are made to be broken in the spirit of sportsmanship—in the spirit of fair-play. The Chemical Era of baseball clouds all of that. The Chemical Era tarnishes the very meaning of my favorite sport—the game I hold as the greatest game every made.
And that is what saddens me most.