Allegations of doping continue to haunt Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France champion, whose courage and determination in the face of life-threatening cancer make us want to believe in his innocence. He has yet to fail a drug test, either.
And baseball's pennant races have gotten far less notice this season than the case of Baltimore Oriole Rafael Palmiero, who apparently lied in denying the use of steroids. Palmiero, 40, had just joined the handful of major leaguers with more than 3,000 hits and 500 home runs during their careers when he was suspended for failing a drug test.
Palmiero said his use of a banned supplement was "unintentional." He had been embraced as a welcome voice of rectitude in March when, amid a cadre of squirming baseball cohorts, he stated during a Congressional hearing: "I have never used steroids. Period ... I don't know how to say it any more clearly than that. Never."
"Never" apparently belongs to Palmiero's past, leading commentators--their words tinged with a sense of personal betrayal--to question his previous statements as well as his Hall of Fame credentials. This is mere prelude to the discussion sure to accompany any return to the game by San Francisco slugger Barry Bonds, out this year with knee problems that postponed his quest for baseball's all-time home run record.
These are but the latest and most blatant forms of cheating endemic to sports, a realm whose very appeal is tied to the equity achieved by unambiguous rules and results. Lamentations are rightly raised over this cheapening of results, this bad example set for our youth.
Yet the use of drugs is so pervasive in our society that lines become blurred, especially in the absence of honor as a corrective lens. As in politics and business, we glorify winning to such an extent the result appears more important than how you got there.
A cruise among channels during the evening news on the traditional broadcast networks speaks volumes about our collective embrace of drugs. The preponderance of commercials during the half-hour are for drugs, over-the-counter and prescription. Sometimes an advertisement for a particular pharmaceutical appears simultaneously on several channels.
Ours is one of the few countries that permits pervasive advertising of drugs. This helps explain both the high cost of pharmaceuticals and our cultural belief in drugs as a tool of first resort.
If there's an ailment or a concern, there's a legal drug to address it and plenty of encouragement to seek medication. On two recent evenings, flipping between ABC and CBS, there were spots for drugs to combat dry eyes, difficulties with bladder control, menopause, acid reflux, indigestion, elevated cholesterol, plaque buildup in blood vessels, sleeplessness, osteoporosis, allergies, and even a condition--doubtless serious to sufferers--called "restless legs syndrome."
Pitches for the potions were interspersed with reassuring ads about the pharmaceutical companies that make them. Their researchers, viewers are told, are caring folks just like us. As if it were the researchers we worry about, rather than well-paid executives who would cut corners to make a few bucks.
Frankly, if you're sick or hurting and the drug works, it's hard to argue. But many drugs are less about health than about avoiding consequences. Chemical compounds can ameliorate the effects of aging, bad choices and lack of discipline, can increase pleasure or medicate pain without forcing us to change behaviors and attitudes. As often as not, behaviors and attitudes change to accommodate the availability of favorite drugs, from alcohol to sedatives to indigestion remedies.
We do draw invisible lines about drug use. For instance, kids are not supposed to drink coffee. The beverage is not sold in schools. But caffeine-laden soda is. Or was, until the greed of local school districts for revenue from soft-drink dispensers was overtaken by concerns about protecting juvenile health.
Do artificial stimulants provide an edge in exams or in the classroom? Do we care? Talk of cheating involving drugs in a scholastic setting, and employment of drug testing, mostly centers on sports.
Even in athletics, while drugs get considerable attention, most forms of cheating are tolerated, if only in the long run. Baseball pitchers who doctor the ball may be ejected from games when caught by an umpire, but those who win consistently still populate the sport's hall of fame. Tilting infield foul lines, letting grass grow high to slow grounders or base paths grow soft to retard runners, are considered parts of baseball's inside game. Basketball coaches have been known to improperly alter the height of baskets to gain an edge, or to slip an adept foul shooter into the game while a less-accurate teammate exaggerates an injury.
Chances are, cheating will not prove an impediment to fame and fortune. (Outside sports, just look at Chuck Colson and G. Gordon Liddy, convicted Watergate felons now celebrated without regard to their past.) Recently, a new poll was inaugurated as part of college football's Bowl Championship Series. Among the voters was retired coach Lou Holtz, who regularly leaves programs on NCAA probation, most recently South Carolina. Holtz, a coach with a long career that included a four-year stop at N.C. State during the 1970s, is honored because he won wherever he went. (ESPN, his new employer, forced Holtz to withdraw from the poll due to a perceived professional conflict of interest.)
How prominence is achieved apparently fades in importance over time. Achievement is what we celebrate.
Everett Case was a terrific coach, the instigator of the passion for ACC basketball we know today. He also got N.C. State on probation several times, a blemish overlooked by halls of fame, namers of buildings and awards, and fans. A veritable who's who of college basketball coaches incurred NCAA penalties for infractions that were clearly acts of commission, from Frank McGuire (he got St. John's, North Carolina and South Carolina on probation) to Kentucky's legendary Adolph Rupp. Yet these men are heroes, legends, honored without being entirely honorable.
Pete Rose was caught betting on contests while managing the Cincinnati Reds, a fundamental compromise of baseball's integrity. He was banned from the game, protesting his innocence despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary. Finally Rose conceded he had lied. Many still argue Rose should be included in the Hall of Fame because he had more base hits than any player in history.
No wonder athletes are willing to risk their bodies and their reputations taking performance-enhancing drugs and cutting competitive corners.