Commentary

This Sporting Life: Immodest proposal

Originally Published: May 18, 2009
By Jeff MacGregor | Page 2

That we are all ridiculous is the comedy of humanity. That we don't seem to know it is our ongoing tragedy.

[+] EnlargeManny Ramirez
AP Photo/Lori SheplerManny Ramirez is just the latest superstar to let us down.

And that baseball's Manny Ramirez and NASCAR's Jeremy Mayfield and a new handful of Beijing Olympians and the queen's own racehorse, Moonlit Path, all got popped for doping in the space of a few days this month would seem to prove the point.

Our latest bout of sporting drug hysteria kept me busy last week reading back across the history of ethics, morality and cheating. Here's the bad news: From Aristippus to Zoroaster, from Moses and Socrates to Anselm and Aquinas, from Nietzsche and Sartre to Baudrillard, Lyotard and Derrida -- from Platonism to hedonism to relativism to existentialism to post-structuralism -- there is no easy single answer to the problem of human inconstancy.

Thus, there is no good news.

Turns out that whatever it was that kept Plato up nights worrying about why people are the way they are, and why they do the things they do, is as big a mystery this morning as it was 2,500 years ago. So don't expect Bud Selig to puzzle out that which baffled Aristotle.

There has never been a good answer to the problem of ethical weakness but the answer we make for ourselves. Virtue, the responsibility of the individual, remains its own reward. Which, compared to a haystack of cash and a VIP pass to the local Champagne Room, kind of sucks and makes it a hard sell to most professional athletes.

And technology -- in this case PEDs -- has always run far in front of our ethical argument concerning its use. Whether with stem cell research or internal combustion or the hydrogen bomb or steroids, our capacity to process moral consequence is decades behind our incredible ingenuity.

Further, having incentivized cheating by paying cheaters millions of dollars, how do we then turn around and punish them? Why beat the mule for following the carrot when we're the ones holding the stick?

Now that every pundit and knucklehead has weighed in with opinions ranging from let-'em-play cynicism to the threat of government intervention on behalf of fairness and Big Brother, we need to set aside feigned indignation in favor of clear-eyed honesty. How do we save sports from themselves?

Have we not created gigantic for-profit institutions based on the semifiction that sports are about the building of "character"? Do we not justify the profound and fundamental corruption of big-college athletics by telling ourselves that we're educating citizens rather than manufacturing point guards and quarterbacks?

Do we not defend the high cost of sports -- financial, physical and metaphorical -- by saying they summon the best in the human spirit?

Is all this just delusion? Or a lie we all willingly tell?

And what can be done about it?

Questions, questions, questions.

Therefore, this week, two modest proposals.

The first option is very complex and very expensive, therefore very attractive.

Create a league drug office in every sport. Make team owners fund it with 10 percent of their gross revenue. Staff it with chemists, geneticists, kinesthesiologists, research scientists, biologists, pharmacists and doctors. Set them to work finding every drug, gene, chemical, mineral or chromosome that might possibly be of benefit to an athlete. Then allow every player in every sport to openly take whichever of those compounds they choose. Two birds, one stone.

Allow our athletes to become the guinea pigs in our endless human search for bigger, faster, stronger. Under the close care of the league drug office staff, let them lead the way to the Fountain of Youth as medical test subjects. Steroids, human growth hormone, genetic engineering, bionics, gamma radiation. Let them assume the risk of great explorers on behalf of us all. For that I'd pay, and gladly, Manny or A-Rod $25 million a season.

The most immediate and obvious benefit to baseball fans would be that they'd see lots more home runs, which is apparently the point of the game. So what if a 750-foot home run is the result of science rather than a natural gift? You don't see people criticizing summer movies because the special effects aren't real.

The second option is simpler. Less expensive. Harder.

Organize.

If you need the games clean, you need to walk out.

If you need the games clean, relying on your surrogates in Congress or the sporting press won't cut it. No one listens to us, as you know.

If you need the games clean, waiting for the players or the commissioners or the owners to do something is to wait forever.

Instead, organize.

Stage a walkout.

The threat of empty seats in baseball back in 1994 is what launched the "don't ask, don't tell" steroids era in earnest. The threat of empty seats in the ballpark may now be the only thing that can save it.

So on Saturday, June 13, stay home. Boycott all 15 major league games. Let a half million of you stay home that day. Leave your tickets on the dresser. Turn off the television. Read a book, play T-ball with the kids, paint the garage, mow the lawn. Or, for the theatrically inclined, drive to the stadium and burn your tickets in front of the ballpark. Boycott baseball. Demand better.

[+] EnlargeYankee Stadium
AP Photo/Julie JacobsonYankee Stadium already has plenty of empty seats. But what if they all were empty for a day?

Demand a leaguewide drug policy that punishes owners as well as players; that enforces more stringent testing and threatens not just players' wallets but the game's revenue stream. That pays a bonus to players who stay clean. Incentivize goodness. If owners were on the hook for penalties attendant to the use of PEDs by their players, the game would be clean within a season.

Choke some of the money out of the game, and see how fast the game changes.

If you think this is the remedy, remember: Saturday, June 13. Boycott baseball. Take back the game. E-mail everyone you know. Make a stand.

Who knows, it might even work.

As contradictory and squalid a thing as human nature may be, at some point a decision needs to be made. And you, Sports Fan, are the one who needs to make it.

Do you accept as inevitable the cheating inherent in sports? Or do you rise up and demand better? Not just from the athletes and the owners and the unions and the leagues and the media, but also from yourself?

Because the fault, as always, lies not in our stars but in ourselves. What price -- practical, financial, ethical, moral, existential, spiritual -- are you willing to go on paying for your amusement?

How long do you go on enabling sports' not-so-secret drug addiction? Intervene. Do something. Choose a ridiculous solution. Either way, you're all in or all out.

Because our trouble may not be that we take sports too seriously.

Our trouble may be that we don't take sports seriously enough.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com.