Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 26, 2012

Clemens, Armstrong, And The Complexity Of Reality

Because we like to think that everything important is happening right now, we convince ourselves that the era of performance enhancing drugs impacting sports is entirely recent, is right now. That conceit is laughable of course. When I was a very young fan sitting in the stands at D.C. Stadium too many of the heroes I was cheering were busily munching on greenies, or amphetamines, to make it through the grueling schedule of the longest season. In this regard there is nothing about the Great Game that is unique; no one should think that because they didn’t read about it there were not players in any sport that they follow passionately who were busy trying to find a chemical edge years ago. But in an age when information was less omnipresent and testing wasn’t even considered the issue simply wasn’t discussed. So despite the reality of history, for all we modern folk with modern attention spans the issue of PEDS is all very much here and now, and for quite some time the drumbeat has been consistent. Yesterday we had a hero, today he or she is fallen and vanquished.

So it has gone over the past decade or so, again and again; but now a new time is upon us. In a courtroom Roger Clemens is acquitted of all charges by a jury of not really his peers in the most recent steroids-related prosecution. That is a far cry from Marion Jones being lectured in a federal courtroom by Judge Kenneth Karas as he sentences her to six months in prison little more than four years earlier. Wasting no time in an attempt to refurbish his legacy, Clemens pitched for a minor league team on Saturday. Having acquitted himself (ha ha) admirably, there is every expectation that he will pitch for the Sugar Land Skeeters again. Beyond that, smart money says that he will almost certainly take the mound for the Houston Astros sometime in September. Whether he wins another big league game or not, simply being activated by the Astros brings Clemens out of retirement and extends by another five years the day when the sportswriters who comprise the Hall of Fame electorate first get to pass judgment on his worthiness for Cooperstown.

Broad generalizations are inherently unfair, but it seems to me that sportswriters as a group tend to take a harsher view of PEDs miscreants, either admitted or alleged, than do fans. Fans being fans, an admitted user on an opposing team is condemned even as one finds a way to rationalize away the errors of the tarnished hero in the home jersey. Still the Rocket’s hope that time will soften the views of the Hall’s voters may be so much wishful thinking. Yet the members of the federal jury that listened to Brian McNamee were unanimous in their disbelief of his testimony against Clemens; so two questions arise.

Are the Hall voters really going to exclude an entire generation of stars and record-setters? It would seem inevitable that someday someone with Hall-worthy numbers but at least the hint at some point in their career of possible PEDS use will scrape over the 75% hurdle and earn his plaque. Since that will almost certainly occur, the second question is just what is the degree of guilt, and must it be proven or merely alleged, that marks the boundary of disqualification? Setting aside the fact that the federal jury found McNamee’s testimony not credible, let’s suppose for a moment they were wrong. While it is absolutely clear that certain drugs enhance an athlete’s performance the exact meaning of the word “enhance” has always been vague. If the career of Roger Clemens included winning just the four Cy Young Awards he won before he ever met Brian McNamee instead of the seven he ultimately was awarded, or if his final tally of wins was 304 instead of 354, would he not be considered a first ballot certainty for the Hall of Fame?

Then there is the complex case of Lance Armstrong, who this week ended his fight against charges brought by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. While the seven-time winner of the Tour de France has never had a positive drug test, the USADA said that it had built “an overwhelming case” of systematic use of performance enhancers by Armstrong’s teams in the premier race in professional cycling. Certainly it is impossible to ignore the more than ten witnesses, many former friends or teammates of Armstrong, that USADA officials have said they were ready to produce had the case against Armstrong proceeded. So now magically the seven championships are voided, and fans are expected to just forget that they saw the Texan wearing the yellow jersey on the podium, time and time and time again. Once again sportswriters have for the most part been harsh. Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News was typical, engaging in what seemed to be an exercise in seeing how many times he could fit the words lie and liar into one newspaper column.

Yet certainly to casual fans there is no sport more sadly synonymous with the use of performance enhancers that professional cycling. Such ubiquity doesn’t legitimize their use of course; it doesn’t make it right by any means. But I sense there are plenty of fans who are inclined to the view that at the worst Armstrong was doing what he had to do to compete on a playing field that was anything but level. If that were not enough, there is the inescapable fact that he survived testicular cancer and came back to race. The USADA and racing organizations can take away championships. Fans shrug their shoulders and say that’s right, Lance Armstrong couldn’t have won seven times; after all, Lance Armstrong was supposed to be dead.

This in turn leads to consideration of the unquestioned good work that Armstrong and his foundation have done in the fight against cancer. How many young people must now decide whether to continue to wear their yellow “Livestrong” bracelets to schools that are starting up again; weighing the good that the bit of plastic symbolizes against the possible taunts of classmates? Well done, USADA. Meanwhile one by one the many corporate sponsors of Armstrong and his foundation have issued statements reaffirming their support for the cyclist. Nike, Anheuser-Busch InBev, American Century Investments, the sunglass maker Oakley and others wasted no time letting it be known that they were standing with Armstrong. The American Century spokesman was typical, saying that the USADA “can sanction Armstrong but no one can take away what he’s done for 28 million people. He’s led a movement that transcends any individual.”

This is not meant to legitimize the use of PEDS or to suggest that it’s alright to cheat. Far from it. I will happily take my hero’s pedestal with Derek Jeter on it rather than Roger Clemens, thank you very much. But just as we are capable of deluding ourselves into thinking that everything important is happening right now, so too do we all love to see the world in black and white. Heroes or villains, us or them, winning or losing; it’s all so clear when it’s all so simple. Except of course life is almost never a simple case of black and white. There is always texture, there is always context, there is always a complication. For a long time the likes of the FDA’s Jeff Novitzky and the USADA’s Travis Tygart and all of the other PEDs police were able to feed our hunger for keeping it simple. But this week we were reminded, as we will doubtless be so again in the coming years, that in the end sports reflect the complex reality of life, full of texture and context, and a lot more than just fifty shades of grey.

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