May 9, 2007

Race and Cheating

I know that most of my Loyal Readers are not particularly sports fans, and I've not made many remarks about sports for a while. But it's likely that this year, Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants will surpass Hank Aaron for having the most career home runs in the history of Major League Baseball. This prospect is generating decidedly mixed reactions on the part of baseball fans.

The problem, according to some, is race. Apparently, no one wants to give Bonds the benefit of the doubt because he's a big black man, so they "presume" he's used steroids and therefore doesn't "deserve" the record. Never mind the evidence against him on that point, we're talking about the emotions generated by racial differences here. So you can disregard, if you like, the photograph to the right of Bonds when he started playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1986. But I look at that photograph and I see a good-looking 22-year old in that photo, exactly what I'd expect to see in a young athlete. Bonds looks like he's in pretty good shape, and has the slender, fast build and the serious, earnest attitude of a young baseball player.

Now, to the left is a photograph of Bonds today. Still in good shape -- hell, he's in phenomenal shape. He looks more like a prize fighter than a baseball player. Twenty years later, what happened to that man's neck? Good nutrition?

Yes, top-tier professional athletes have become better, faster, and stronger than their counterparts from yesteryear, and there are a lot of reasons for that. But there is no way you can tell me that this change in the body of a man in his forties is solely the result of good nutrition and exercise. There's been some other kinds of science helping him out, too.

So there are two questions -- first, does race have anything to do with the baseball-loving public's distaste for the prospect of Bonds getting one of the most prestigious and prominent records in the rich history of the sport? I think not. I'm not saying that America is colorblind. I'm saying that sports fans -- even ones who may have some obnoxious racial attitudes in other parts of their lives -- are more than willing to accept and admire black athletes. Non-sports fans don't care about Bonds one way or the other, but sports fans as a group tend to care about performance and achievement.

No, I think people don't like the idea of Bonds having that record not because Bonds is black, but because Bonds is a jerk. You don't have to be white to be an asshole. Besides, the current record-holder, Hank Aaron, is also black. And Bonds' godfather; the two men are personally very close, which most sports fans think is pretty cool even if they aren't particularly big Bonds fans themselves.

Second, do we care if Bonds is using human growth hormone, steroids, or various kinds of supplements that are not part of a "normal" diet and exercise regimen? These are not "normal" people who are just playing baseball for fun. The market rewards athletes who push themselves as hard as possible, and do whatever is within their power to excel. We sports fans love it when we see records being broken and demonstrations of feats of remarkable strength, agility, speed, and physical abilities. So why shouldn't Bonds use (legal) drugs and other products to make himself better? Didn't athletes of the bygone years of "fair play" engage in unusual training and dietary regimens, too? Granted, their ideas of what to eat and how to conduct their lives to be better at their craft were different than ours today (lots of red meat, sitz baths, and things like that) but we don't put asterisks next to their names anymore.

Ultimately, it doesn't make much difference in the world if Bonds is a steroid user, HGH user, or if he's simply an honest baseball player with an image problem. He'll very likely break the home run record this year, and good for him. He is what the sports market has demanded that he be, and he should reap the rewards that go with it. If the achievement seems corrupted (and it does) that is not just Bonds' fault. It is also the fault of the governing authorities of the sport who mollycoddle and turn a blind eye to what they call "cheating" and it is also the fault of the fans and consumers of the sport who demonstrate, time and again, that "cheating" isn't nearly as important as winning. That is a problem that goes well beyond Barry Bonds.

And the fact that Bonds is black is really a minute issue compared with the fact that society rewards cheaters.


zzi said...

The problem, according to some, is race.

putting the , according to some, doesn't take you off the hook for not mentioning that the record is held by
Henry Aaron (comma) who is black !!!

zzi said...

Sorry I should have added that you needed to put this in the first paragraph.

"Besides, the current record-holder, Hank Aaron, is also black."

Transplanted Lawyer said...

I don't think it's so important to the point of my post that the current record-holder is black. Baseball fans could be unhappy about that, too, if they are really hard-core racists. So I think noting that Aaron is black is appropriate for a down-paragraph mention, at least for what I was trying to say -- race isn't very important here.