Alex Rodriguez’s career—and Hall of Fame hopes—died for somebody’s sins, but not his.
No, the Yankee slugger is simply the latest fall guy for our society’s infantile belief in sports as an imaginary zone somehow separate and apart from the real world, a sort of grown-ups’ version of Chuck E. Cheese’s (you know, the place “where a kid can be a kid”). Or, more precisely, where an adult can think like a kid.
To be sure, on a legal level, the intensely unlikeable Yankee slugger fully deserves whatever punishment is leveled against him by the industry that is paying him millions of dollars to wear long underwear for a living. He is facing a possible lifetime ban from baseball because he allegedly repeatedly and flagrantly violated MLB policy regarding performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). If he doesn’t get bounced via a full dismissal issued directly by the nosferatu league commissioner Bud Selig, he will almost certainly receive a long suspension that will effectively end the aging (he’s over-the-hill at 38 years old!) superstar’s career.
While I’ve got no problem with whatever boom gets lowered on A-Rod and crew (some six to 20 other players, including the Milwaukee Brewers’ Ryan Braun, will join him in shame and suspension), the moralistic outrage leveled against guys who are desperately trying to improve their performance strikes me as fundamentally misplaced. Whether it’s Rodriguez or other equally unlikable characters from the last great cycle of pomp and circumstance such as Roger Clemens, we’re not talking about Black Sox players who threw games. Even sad-sack human tragedy Pete Rose—who is banned from baseball for conspiring with all sorts of shady characters, betting on games, and having the worst haircut since Moe Howard—was never accused of not trying hard enough. What was it Charlie Hustle once said about the game he loved? “I’d walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball.” You exile such horsehide warriors at the expense of the game, not to preserve its integrity.
Sports—and in particular baseball, the so-called national pastime that enforced a color line and indentured servitude via the “reserve clause” long after slavery had disappeared from American life—provide a comforting mental and symbolic space for us to believe in mythic things like “level playing fields,” “raw talent,” and “fair play.”
Despite knowing better, we desperately want to view big-time sports (including, of course, “amateur” industries such as college football and basketball) as a refuge from the moral, psychic, and even economic complexities of everyday life. Sports have clear rules and clear winners, right? Look, there’s even referees and umpires and judges on the field (sure, they occasionally cheat too, but let’s ignore that)! Let the better man win, watch effort triumph over adversity, behold a walk-off home run or a Hail Mary pass or a last-second buzzer beater winning the big game. It’s all there in the awful, final, bowdlerized scene of the Robert Redford movie of The Natural. (Spoiler alert: In the great Bernad Malamud novel on which the movie is based, Roy Hobbs whiffs while belatedly trying to do the right thing. The whole point of the story is that you can’t redeem yourself with a single act.)
We hate it when we’re reminded that sports are not separate from “real life”—they are laboratories that magnify all the contradictions and iniquities of real life. That’s why it made perfect, perverse sense that baseball would be segregated—as the national pastime, it wasn’t exempt from the social, cultural, and political forces at work in America. It was the unadorned expression of them, in all their ugliness, right there in the harsh glare of the fading afternoon sun out at the ballpark. Big-time sports fully incarnate the crony capitalism eating away at the American Dream (virtually all stadiums are directly built or financed through taxpayer dollars), and the preferential legal treatment of celebrity athletes is legendary. High school and college athletes get a pass not because they’re good students but because they’re good at something physical. And on and on.
We hate to be reminded that even—maybe especially—in sports, there is no level playing field. People are born with different levels of talent, and depending on when and where they were born, they might not get the chance to flourish. In the case of Negro League players, that might have been because of large historical forces over which individual talent and drive could hardly hope to triumph. On a less tragic level, it might be because you were a long-ball hitter in an era that catered to power pitchers via built-up pitchers mounds, broad strike zones, and cavernous parks. We can respect the less-talented pluggers who raise their game through hard work and dedication, but our utmost devotion is reserved for the demigods who spring fully formed out of the womb.
When it comes to PEDs—at least in sports—our nation’s insane and hysterically bifurcated attitude toward drugs rears up like Juan Marichal delivering a pitch. Every year, we arrest hundreds of thousands of people for possessing marijuana, selling dope, and cooking meth. We make full-blown adults piss into cups before we let them work for a living, even when the job has nothing to do with public safety. We waste precious minutes in school days with idiotic Just Say No lessons. Drugs are bad, mmkay? Except when they’re not. Use a statin to reduce your cholesterol, an SSRI to level your moods, Viagra in the boudoir, Adderall to goose your SAT…that’s just being a responsible citizen. But use steroids and HGH and pep pills to make yourself run faster, jump higher, or grow stronger in pursuit of Olympian perfection—well, that’s just wrong. Even if they are widely available and widely used in every sport. Even if they are not the difference between being a shlub off the street and an elite athlete.
Which isn’t to say MLB or the NFL or Tour de France doesn’t have the right to set and enforce its rules, however ineffective and arbitrary they might be. But spare us the outrage. Leagues and sports organizations that have little regard for the actual bodies or lives of the athletes they oversee suddenly become paternalistic in the extreme, worrying over the possible side effects of certain substances while ignoring the punishment dished out daily from simply playing the sport itself.
And so when our athletes fail us by breaking rules that are constantly changing and randomly enforced, we must dispense with them as cheaters and frauds and beneath contempt so we can go back to watching sports in a bubble separated from the real world. Like the natives in Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, who kill the man they mistook for a divine being, we must tear apart our cardboard gods when they disappoint us by being all too human.