News Section: Opinion
Best of 2013: Sports Scandals Reflect Our Culture at Large
Americans seem to love feigning shock any time we are “betrayed” by those we worship, and the media is always willing to sensationalize a story that offers elements of corruption and deceit. But from Lance Armstrong to Major League Baseball, to the crooks on Wall Street who nearly took down the global economy, evidence abounds that we live in a culture of cheating where the rewards for skirting the rules vastly outweigh the punishments for getting caught. It’s time to stop blaming the people we enable and take a look at our collective role in creating such an unethical society.
In just the past few years, the sports world has been confronted with the use of performance enhancing drugs more directly than any time in the history of sport. Enough so, that there now seems to be a critical mass of concern in our society, something like a collective shrug asking, shouldn’t we do something here? Collectively, we don’t really seem to have much of an idea of what that should be. It’s sort of like gun control. It’s obvious something is going terribly wrong in our culture, but where to start?
Both issues face the same primary obstacle – money. Like selling guns, sports is big business and athletes are among the most handsomely-paid members of our society. Just look at Forbes' list of top-paid athletes. Many of them make more than a Fortune 500 CEO, just through their endorsement deals. Naturally, those who pay the insanely rich athletes are even higher up the food chain. It brings to mind the old Chris Rock joke: Shaquille O’Neal is rich; the guy who writes Shaq’s checks is wealthy. So the stakeholders draw a lot of water, and in a society like ours, where money directly influences influence, change doesn’t come easy.
But let’s remember why top athletes make more than the GDP of some small countries. We pay them. That’s right, stuff all of that nostalgic baloney about how back in the day Lou Gehrig made this or Ted Williams made that. None of them worked for free and none of them ever offered to so far as I know. They earned what the market bore. What did happen, was post-WWII prosperity, television, cable and a giant global economy in which international corporations became awash in unthinkable wealth with which to advertise their products.
The value of everything went up and when you look at where we dropped our collective dough, sports and entertainment are near the top of the list. So the market for those providing that product exploded and the people most instrumental in delivering it began demanding their fair share. We can gripe about how much it costs to go to an NFL game or get box seats to see the Yankees, but at the end of the day, it’s a market, and the demand sets the value of the supply.
If we stopped paying $200 for “official” replica jerseys, three figures for good seats, $9 for flat, watery beer and $150 for athlete-endorsed $10 shoes made in an Indonesian sweatshop, then the $100 million contracts would dry up quick. I don’t do any of that, you might say. Well, neither do I, but enough Americans do that a market exists. I don’t buy Rolls Royces either, but they still sell enough of them to keep the lights on in West Sussex. The same goes for the actor getting $20 million a movie off of the $11 ticket at the multiplex, or the band who's hauling in a fortune on overpriced concert tickets. If an athlete's product is bringing in outrageous sums of money, where should it go? In a capitalist society, why are they any less deserving than the guys who started Facebook?
With such a lofty market out there, it’s not only going to draw a lot of aspiring participants, but it’s also going to up the ante on what most of them are willing to do to get a ticket on that money train. As consumers, we either reward or punish those decisions, and while a group of sports writers may have kept a bunch of juiced up ball players out of the Hall of Fame, they’re still laughing all the way to the bank. And think about when the market for sports exploded the most – during the dawn of the modern PED era.
To be sure, PED’s have been around as long as sport itself. From ancient Greek Olympians using drugs like opium to the gladiators of Rome using stimulants like strychnine, to cocaine’s introduction by competitors in various sports in the late 19th century, athletes have always looked for an edge. Most of the time, anything short of rigging a competition by unknowingly sedating someone or paying them to throw the event, was considered fair game. Even during the supposed golden era of baseball, many star players later admitted to using cocaine and other stimulants regularly, which, before steroids, were the premier way to impact performance through drugs.
Nazi Germany experimented with testosterone enhancers as early as the 1930’s, but in 1958 things changed for good when Dr. John Bosley Zieglar invented the FDA-approved steroid Dianabol, which could effectively synthesize the effects of testosterone, while being easily and cheaply manufactured and administered on a mass scale. This was different than a couple of uppers. Steroids were an ability for athletes to defy DNA, and within 20 years they were commonplace in sports.
Zieglar later denounced his creation when he saw how it was being abused by athletes, but the genie was out of the bottle. Nonetheless, it’s useful to remember that the rise of anabolic steroids coincided with advances in sports nutrition, economic factors like abundant and inexpensive meat becoming a much bigger part of the American diet, and scientific applications of weight training. Americans, and athletes in particular, were getting bigger in the 1980’s than they had been in previous decades, so the willful suspension of disbelief needed to imagine some of these guys were clean was somewhat mitigated by fans who hadn't grown up in the same era as these young kids. Maybe it's all this weight training and vitamins they do nowadays?
But by the mid-1990’s, when all of those things had been a common part of our everyday culture for a generation, it became a bit more difficult to delude ourselves, especially as rapid advancement in PED’s (itself driven by the insane money in sports) had greatly changed the degree to which athletes could enhance themselves physically. The ingestion of Human Growth Hormone became more common and better understood scientifically. Existing drugs became more potent and new designer drugs emerged targeting almost every facet of physical performance, drugs that to some extent could circumvent the genetic lottery that had otherwise ruled over professional sports at the highest level.
American sports fans were right there cheering on these new mutant super-athletes. We pretended that it was suddenly possible for men in their late thirties and even 40’s to inexplicably add massive amounts of lean muscle mass they didn’t have in their teens and 20’s, decades after their natural testosterone levels would have peaked; that athletes’ hat and sneaker sizes could change in their 20’s, long after the human head and feet stop growing; that linebackers who were once considered oversized at 250 lbs. could suddenly weigh up to 300 and be faster than running backs of just a generation earlier.
Still, when they get caught doing what everyone knew they were doing in the first place, we say that it is us who is disappointed in them. I’m sorry, but that seems like blaming a director when you find out the special effects used to blow up the Grand Canyon were CGI. In fact, it also sounds a whole lot like the same self-serving naivete that preceded the run up to financial crises, with everyone from everyday joes to Wall Street CEO’s telling themselves (and anyone who’d listen) that the housing bubble could continue to grow infinitely despite basic economic principles, and we could become a nation where everyone was a rich landlord and no one was a humble tenant.
As a society, we are quite good at believing the things that confirm our own desires, while ignoring the ever more numerous ones that prove otherwise. Is it a surprise that a nation that found Tony Soprano, a homicidal, sociopathic gangster who stole anything within reach, to be its most endearing television character hasn’t prosecuted a single banking executive after a global financial crisis supported almost entirely by wholesale fraud? Is it a surprise that a nation reared on superheroes and video games idolizes today’s gladiators who the miracle of modern science have actually allowed to look like the hulking cartoons that once mesmerized us?
In a country where all of the top pop culture – hit music, reality TV, movies, etc. – revolves around tales of gluttonous wealth, wasteful and unsustainable consumption, and other forms of resource-driven debasement; a place where we advertise a legal drug for every possible ailment plus a few imagined ones, our concern is probably better described as curiosity. Like most things in our culture, we know something is amiss, but then again why wouldn’t it be?
What about the example it sets for our children, you might ask? The answer isn’t pretty, but in truth, it probably sets an effective example of how to best prosper in such a wicked society – cheat. If you want your children to learn better values, I’d suggest you take care to teach them yourself. Bring them up to find their heroes at home and in their community, and to know that success shouldn’t be measured by how many precious resources you can afford to waste air-conditioning a 15,000 square foot home, filling up a fleet of gas-guzzling cars and putting blood diamonds in your watch that some kid in Liberia lost their arm for. Looking for heroes in the world of professional sports is a fool’s errand and it always has been. We just used to market athletes differently before the days when the American Dream became keeping up with the Kardashians.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to visit his column archive. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook. Sign up for a free email subscription and get The Bradenton Times' Thursday Weekly Recap and Sunday Edition delivered to your email box each week at no cost.
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