Watching pro sports today is nothing more than gazing from one high-priced moral train wreck to another. To wit, Ryan Braun, the disgraced Milwaukee Brewers outfielder, has finally been bounced from baseball for use of performance enhancing drugs. Braun and his duplicitous, two-wheeled compatriot, Lance Armstrong, have not only made fools of us but succeeded in making perpetual fools of themselves through excuses (“I didn’t do it!”) and accusations (“They’re picking on me!”) that would embarrass a fourth grader.
How easily we cleave morality from the athletic excellence. How often have you heard commentators decry the cheating, but then soften the blow by saying “but, he’s not a bad guy,” or, in the case of Armstrong, “he’s done so much for the cancer community?” The inescapable conclusion is that you can be a liar, a jerk, and a cheat (an ignominious trifecta true of both Braun and Armstrong, as well as their predecessor in sleaze, Barry Bonds), but the absolution of milquetoast praise from an airy talking head is only as far away as your latest convivial act, regardless of whether any actual contrition or repentance took place.
This is an all new kind of dualism (but, I think, just as repugnant and ludicrous as the original foisted upon us by Descartes). I prefer to think of people as integrated beings, whose behaviors and speech accurately reflect both who they are and what they are capable of. I know of no body of work describing Braun and Armstrong as anything other than not-so-bright, raging egomaniacs. Maybe that’s what you need to succeed at professional sports, with a little chemical assist, of course.
The way to handle this crisis of faith is to remove all controls. On my own blog, I once proposed a more market-based approach to dealing with sports cheats. I have thought better of that now, and I believe it’s time to actually undo all restraint. I say that all professional sports just unchain the chemists and let the athletes use whatever they want, whenever they want. We’ll find out quickly who passed high school chemistry and who didn’t. Even better, turbo charge the free-for-all by statutorily shielding product manufacturers and complicit medical professionals, so that 20 years from now we are spared the “they didn’t tell me it would cause congestive heart failure and brain cancer” lawsuits.
We — both the athletes and the spectators — are in this for the emotion (who doesn’t love rooting for or being a winner) and the money (we spend, they get rich). When I explained Braun’s suspension to my nine-year-old son, he wondered aloud “why just the rest of this season, why not forever?” He’s similarly offended that Lance Armstrong can only be stripped of past Tour wins and that there’s no future penalty awaiting him, potential civil liability notwithstanding. It troubles my son — and it should — that baseball needs Braun to return to the Brewers because there is a big expensive stadium that isn’t going to pay for itself.
And despite the rumor this morning that Alex Rodriguez may receive a lifetime ban from MLB for using and financing use of steroids, it’s clear that the cat cannot keep up with the mouse. It’s equally ridiculous to issue lifetime bans on athletes at the end of their careers.
Eventually, as competitors are befallen by illness and injuries precipitated by the same drugs that enhance their performance, spectators and sponsors will grow both bored and disgusted. Realizing the near impossibility of producing the perfect cyborg, sponsor estrangement will dry up the money, and that, finally, will make people long for the good ol’ days of competition without chemical conspiracy.
This is all just one more indicia that we are becoming Rome on the verge of the fall. The spectacle engages us so fully that we’ve forgotten how it reflects our baseness. Either that or we just don’t care anymore about the nexus between behavior and personhood and the inter-relatedness of choices made in both the professional and personal realms. The only way to end the sports freak-show is to let modern sports actually become one.
Vik Khanna is a St. Louis-based independent health consultant with extensive experience in managed care and wellness. An iconoclast to the core, he is the author of the Khanna On Health Blog. He is also the Wellness Editor-At-Large for THCB.