And the hits just keep on coming–
Barry Bonds, responsibility and a continuing conversation
By Frank J. Colagiovanni, special contributing writer
Since mid-June when Bread &Circus posted my essay “Forgive Me Father, for I have sinned: Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, and Number 756,” we’ve gotten some interesting feedback from readers and quite a few hits from people just stopping by. And, while it would be great if everyone left a comment to continue the discussion—which is what the site is all about—the few we’ve got seem to be running in a very interesting vein.
And all the while, as we’ve been taking this topic around the dance floor—discussing the ills of the culture, the role of the media and the general condition of sport in the modern era—Barry Bonds, the subject of the article, has continued to hit home runs. Not quite at the clip he was hitting two years or even a year ago, but he’s still plugging away; now only four to go before he ties the most revered record in baseball.
What surprised me about the responses posted on B&C and in a few conversations I’ve had with sports fans and non-fans alike, is that there seems to be to a higher level of distrust, frustration and disgust with “the media” than there is with someone who is about to break a cherished record under…well, let’s call them dubious circumstances. It’s as if cheating really isn’t all that bad; that there are degrees of cheating, and that some cheating, by some people and in some circumstances, is almost acceptable. One of the facets of this story that seems lost in the shuffle is that the current record holder, the beloved Hank Aaron, isn’t by any stretch of the imagination on board with this situation. He’s stated publicly that he won’t be there at home plate when Bonds comes around after breaking his record.
Even during the All-Star game—televised from AT&T Park, the home of the San Francisco Giants and their big-headed slugger Barry Bonds—when the talk naturally turned to Bonds, the allegations of performance enhancers and the grand jury testimony, the crew in the booth charged with providing commentary didn’t provide much at all. In fact, as the conversation became more pointed with comments about the impact of steroids on baseball, the Commissioner’s apparent decision not to be in attendance as Bonds draws near, and the possibility that Bonds had broken the rules of the Game, they quickly backed off, shifting to a non-confrontational, “institutional message”. They talked about of “the culture” of the Game, the fact that there was no way of knowing who did what and when and then fell back to the old standby: Bonds was a Hall of Fame player even before he did whatever he did.
It seems to me that blaming the “culture,” the “media,” the pernicious “influence” of ESPN or the specter of corporate America—perhaps epitomized by Halliburton, Blackwater or even The Wiffle Ball, Inc.—is a pretty convenient copout. Especially when we’ve had players like Jason Giambi making cryptic almost-apologies, gaining massive amounts of “bulk” only to loose it, along with his power hitting production, and then blame the loss on curbing his fast food habit. And then bam! — he’s hitting again, packing on the bulk and making even more cryptic remarks that have landed him in front of congressional sub-committees. Clearly it was the burgers and fries that packed it onto his neck, hips and backside. And if it wasn’t the burgers it must have been the prevailing culture in baseball.
This “blame-something-that-is-nameless-and-faceless” attitude affords people the opportunity for righteous indignation without having to take a meaningful position.
Bonds had the ability, perhaps the greatest natural ability in 50 years, but it was the “system” that made him cheat, and so that’s ok, it’s overlookable. We disassociate him with his actions. But these arguments ignore the facts, responsibility, fairness, and the rules of a game.
To blame a “system,” especially in the context of baseball, is a fairly thin argument in my mind. We’re not thinking about a life or death situation, we’re talking about playing a game. The fact that so much money is at stake muddies the water, but not so much as so you can’t see the bottom. I simply don’t see this as an ambiguous issue. This isn’t a “stealing a loaf of bread to feed your starving family” argument about morality, despite the fact that it’s devolved into the murk of moral relativism. This is a fairly cut and dried example of cheating.
Cheating alters the complexion of the Game, compromising its integrity. What makes sport different from “real life” is the controlled environment and near complete meritocracy. Everyone plays by the same rules, yet some are simply more talented than others. Because Jordan could fly and Bird could shoot didn’t mean that they should have been made to wear leg and arm weights. They had to go out and play with the same rules as everyone else. They were just better. And they were expected to live by certain rules off the court. In many respects, because they were superstars, they were held to an even higher standard.
In baseball you can’t use a corked bat or a glove with stitching colored to hide the ball. Betting on the game or taking a gamblers’ money in a bribe has been a cardinal sin in the Game since the Black Sox scandal. And right now, the use of performance-enhancing drugs is simply against the rules, giving some players an unfair advantage over others. Advantage based on ability, talent and the development of skill is what competitive sports are all about. Advantage gained from a disregard for or breaking of the rules is cheating.
As I stated in my original essay and in my subsequent posts, just because we’ll never know who did what and when, doesn’t mean that when someone is caught, they shouldn’t be punished—or at least called on it.
Perhaps it’s easier to pin responsibility on the “culture” rather than the individual. Saying the “system” is what made him do it, letting all the other excuses fall into a twisted conga line behind, might be more palatable, easier to swallow, less confrontational.
But it also means that “we,” the fans and consumers, are abdicating “our” responsibilities as fans and consumers—and that’s a big, steroid-swollen “but.”
Frank J. Colagiovanni (www.colagiovanni.com) is an award-winning freelance copywriter and special contributing writer for Bread and Circus.