Sports And Morals

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July 17, 2012 by David Gillaspie

The sports fan follows rules different from the rest of humanity.

Laws that govern general behavior apply to all, but fans have other priorities.

When someone breaks the law they suffer the consequences. They learn from the experience and pay better attention in similar circumstances.

Sports fan lives under the same law of the land, and then some. They share the law with athletes. When athletes break the law they live with the consequences, but the residual fallout lasts a lifetime for their fans. The stars move on with the rest of their lives, while their deeds hang over the rest of us like a sweaty cloud.

In most arenas of competition the winners usually prevail due to great effort; they do what the loser can’t do, or won’t do. We cheer the victors for their enhanced performance under pressure. We like enhanced performances as long as they don’t come from performance enhancing drugs.

For example, watching Roger Clemens work his way through a baseball game was once a cause for celebration. The Rocket rolled through great hitters year after year, mowing them down from the express lane to Cooperstown.

When he faced Mike Piazza in the 2000 World Series, sawed off his bat and fielded the broken piece to throw at the handsome man, it was weird but still cool. The incident had an old school flavor Ty Cobb would have appreciated.

The feeling changed the same way the excitement of the home run derby between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa a few years earlier changed. When they caught fire with the bombs they launched out of ballparks across the country, fans that baseball shed after the strike season came back.

The thrill of the accomplishments during the steroid era drained away with each testimony before Congress. Hearing about needles, buttocks, and trainers holding medical waste for years does that. We want more from our heroes.

Baseball survived its steroid era and bicycling will survive its Lance-era. The seven-time Tour de France winner may be retired from that competition but the teams, teammates, and administrators haven’t retired from him.

Most of us learned to ride a bike early. Once the training wheels came off we ruled the universe, or at least the sidewalk in front of the house. The more you ride, the better you get. After Lance started racking up his wins more people saw the value of riding. Older bikers eventually take a long ride to better understand the feeling of pushing pedals for hours on end. And they like it.

What happens now? The rising chatter over Lance’s samples A through P changes the discussion. Livestrong, the Lance association with 24 Hour Fitness, and the cancer awareness may continue if he’s found guilty of doping, but stripping his titles leaves a stain that won’t wash out.

Dirty athletes are one thing, but dirty coaches take it to another level. From New Orleans to Happy Valley, Saints and Nittany Lion coaches are under severe scrutiny. Their wins and losses don’t matter if their public persona doesn’t match their secret lives. An individual athlete might cheat and get punished, but a cheating coach punishes an entire program, if not an entire sport.

You can measure the time Barry Bonds was on The Clear and The Clean by his head size; it got bigger with each year of accidental steroid use. The same doesn’t apply to Joe Paterno. We’ll never know how long he knew his assistant was running amuck in the football showers.

How long did the Saints have a bonus program to knock opponents out of games? Did other teams have the same rewards? If internal investigations find the truth, it will be buried deeper than the second rifle from the JFK assassination.

Just when you think it’s safe to cheer all that is fair and good, London braces for the Olympic Games. For all the scrubbing and washing, not every Olympian will show up clean. They’ll say they’re clean. Their coaches will say they’re clean. Even their back alley pharmacist will promise them a clean sample for drug testing. And sports fans listen.

A yellow-eyed Ben Johnson won’t set a world mark in the 100 meter dash like he did in 1988 before he was disqualified. A sweetheart like Marion Jones won’t collect five Olympic medals like she did in the 2000 Olympics before heading to jail and giving them all back.

The best hope is for athletes to put us, their fans, before their personal success. Give us memories we can hold onto instead of doubt. Give us faster, higher, stronger instead of lies, tears, and shame. We can handle the last part on our own.

Most of all, don’t make us dupes for believing you are who you say you are. Help us believe your achievements belong to you, not some lab with the latest go-go juice and improved masking agents.

Sports fans ask small favors. One is feeling that the monumental athletic gifts displayed by the world’s best comes from the same place as our own meager skills. The other is honesty.

That’s not asking too much.

(posted on


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