(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.


Not much to tell.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Friday, March 18, 2005

Major League Baseball Goes To Washington

To meet the legislature.

I didn't find enough interesting about the Expos' move to the nation's capitol to blog about it. The move had been rumored forever, the Expos had become a woeful franchise and they were moving to try to get a new start. In a way, it was an old American story, not akin to Oklahomans moving to California during the dust bowl years, but, then again, not analagous to the Browns moving to Baltimore to reap the cash that many in the State of Maryland threw at them.

No, this is a story about Congress itself, about Major League Baseball, and about performance-enhancing drugs. Many dramatis personae appeared yesterday before a House Committee, and for those not totally zoning in on March Madness the testimony was interesting, compelling, sad, defensive and nothing new at the same time. Bud Selig said he'd have a tougher steroids policy if he had it this way, Mark McGwire would neither confirm nor deny that he took performance-enhancing drugs, Curt Schilling, once a hawk on the topic, retreated from earlier claims that he thought steroid use was rampant, and many others spoke as well.

I spoke over the weekend with a friend who had played in the National Football League about steroids. His perspective was that steroid use needs to be cut out completely because of the "keep up with the Joneses" mentality that goes on starting at the high school levels. Kids only see the glamor involved with being a star athlete, and they want to get ahead, they want to get bigger, faster, better. So they take steroids to improve their performance, both the stars and the marginal kids who look to get ahead. Ditto for college kids, or at least this was his perspective. To my friend (and many others), therein lies the problem, and the behavior is troubling and dangerous.

Why do the kids do this? Because of what they see at the pro level, or at least in certain sports, from what they hear and what they sense. And they only see the rewards, the glamorous players, and not the awful stories that seemingly only show up on an ESPN special. The risks have gotten rewarded in the past, and the dangers have gone undocumented. Yes, the NFL outlawed steroids (and effectively, from the looks of it), but other sports have not. Kids, being kids, are insecure, and in the teenage years they're struggling with their identities. Who doesn't want to be a star in something, having other kids look up to you, say "good job" and have, if you're an adolescent male, the cheerleaders sidling up to you?

I recall an exchange between the characters played by Gene Hackman and Barbara Hershey in "Hoosiers" about the emphasis the town of Hickory, Indiana placed on its high school basketball team. Hershey, the school's English teacher, thought it was madness. Hackman, the basketball coach said something to the effect of what harm would it do for those kids to be treated like Gods, even if that treatment were short-lived, and who wouldn't give anything to get that treatment. It was a great repartee, and Hackman's delivery of his lines was especially compelling. Now, that movie and that exchange are far removed from the issues of steroids in sports, but they're very closely linked to the emphasis that our society places on sports and its heroes.

That emphasis, of course, helps feed into the problem. Be the football hero, the basketball star, the HS pitcher who people remember throwing the ball fast enough that it could go through a car wash and not get wet, the all-state wrestler, you name it. Make them remember your name, get the scholarship, play well at the next level, make it to the pros. That's the ultimate, isn't it?

The sports page of my local paper does a weekly "where are they now?" column about what happened to the stars of yesteryear. Needless to say, they write about the legends, some of whom went on to play college sports at big-time colleges and a subset of whom went on to play at the professional level. Most did not play professionally, but I'm sure in the ages when cable TV wasn't prevalent the names were bigger than they would be today because the entertainment options were fewer (as were the choices for viewing sporting events). These were the people, boys mostly, who got all of the attention.

No one writes about the Eagle Scouts, the valedictorians, the concertmasters in the high school orchestras, the leads in the school plays or yearbook editors, at least not in this context. They could be inspiring young people, curing cancer, writing or painting great works, solving global warming or a whole host of things, but that stuff doesn't sell papers.

The kids who played on the undefeated team that lost in the finals of the state tournament, the kid who hit the shot with two seconds left to upset a perennial power, those kids are the ones who grab the headlines in high school for the most part. Those are the kids who society at large seems to want to remember.

There is little doubt that getting into that part of society's spotlight that I just tried to define is a most powerful rush, perhaps more intoxicating or addictive than any drug out there on the market, legal or illegal, so powerful that kids will do almost anything to get it. So that they can be the centers of attention, so that their parents are the ones with the extra bounce in their step when they're shopping for groceries or having dinner at their Friday night Italian restaurant, so that the kids themselves can walk around with their letter jackets and have total strangers say nice game or keep up the good work.

And there's probably money at stake too. College costs money, and while there's more financial aid available than ever before, it's also rather expensive to live in this country. What better a way to pay for college than to do so because you can handle a soccer ball better than the next fifty kids in your HS, your an indefatigable wrestler, or you can put the shot better than anyone in your state? There probably are equally compelling ways (such as being an excellent student), but the allure of the athletic scholarship is why kids are playing travel soccer as early as at the age of seven and a half and why girls' softball teams play as many as 80 games during the summer.

To get the scholarship, the full ride, to enable the parents to save for retirement or to spend more money on other things, such as the educations of siblings who might not have the same athletic gifts. The parents might not say that the kid in question has to get a scholarship, but sometimes kids can sense implications, and sometimes kids put that extra pressure on themselves. Again, they're in their formative years, which is why they're called kids, and there's a lot of pressure to excel.

Apparently, too much pressure. And, with the reported prevalence of steroids in high schools, too much temptation. Kids see what the elite people do at any level and the adulation they get, and they want to be those people. To do so, they'll try to emulate them.

What happened prior to now in Major League Baseball is past history. We don't need a star chamber where names are named and witch hunts are conducted. Sure, many fans have a prurient interest in finding out who used steroids so that they can compare the records of those who did against those of the guys who didn't. That's human nature, but what we really want is for the blanket denials to stop taking place too (as Jose Canseco joked yesterday, apparently he was the only guy who took steroids). We're somewhat pleased that there's been an acknowledgment of the problem, but we do wish that baseball would take the problem even more seriously.

Not for the integrity of the records, not even for the integrity of the game.

For the sake of all of the kids out there.


Anonymous Luke Gofannon said...

... and Bernie Sanders acted liked an utter ass.

6:30 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home