Though many middle aged Americans like to reminisce about their sports heroes of yesterday and cast them as role models, few actually were. They benefited from the limitations of media of their day and the cozy relationship many of them had with sports journalists. So among the hundreds of stars who competed in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s, there is an almost mythic quality fans have ascribed to their careers. So, many of us recall the so-called “golden era” of sports and the images we conjure up are of a running Willie Mays, losing his cap as he shags a fly ball, Gale Sayers gliding across a frozen football field, Cheryl Miller dominating on the basketball court, Edwin Moses coasting over hurdles or Arthur Ashe’s graceful presence on the tennis court. Our sports heroes mean something, as imperfect as they may be, so when they really fall short of the mark it does have an impact.
This week New York Yankee superstar Alex Rodriguez, undeniably one of the most naturally gifted athletes to walk on a baseball diamond, admitted that he used a banned substance – allegedly steroids – while playing for the Texas Rangers. It was another black eye for a sport that has been literally blinded by the number of players who have either admitted to using, been caught or alleged to have used performance enhancing drugs. The scandal has tainted performances that were once marveled and called into question the legitimacy of records and qualifications for entrance into the sport’s Hall of Fame.
Baseball is not alone. Track and field has seen a number of its star athletes fall after being implicated in doping scandals. Who can forget the tearful admission by Marion Jones, once the darling of the sport that she lied to investigators about using steroids before her five medal performance at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney Australia? Her downfall epitomized the tragedy of drug use that has befallen sports. The mere fact that someone with so much natural ability could succumb to using a banned substance to compete revealed the degree to which drug use has become commonplace in sports. If superstars like Rodriguez and Jones are “juicing,” what about all the other competitors one tier down that are vying for superstar status?
We know sports figures should not be idolized as role models. We knew that even before Charles Barkley gave us that sage advice. Still, they should at least obey the law. When we start making concessions because someone can run fast, hit a ball far or sink a putt, we start down a slippery slope. We also signal to young athletes that drug use is permissible so long as there is a record or championship on the other end. Truthfully, this isn’t about some 30 year-old baseball player who should know better, despite his blaming his “youth,” This is about the kid in the locker room or at home in the basement, participating in scholastic sports, who endangers his life because he sees nothing wrong in using steroids to someday reach the performance level of a chemically enhanced sports idol.
It is true that we don’t know if the athletes of yesteryear were using some early version of today’s drugs. However, just looking at their physical stature and the large gap in the performance between them and today’s stars suggests that most played using only their God given talents. That is precisely why many of today’s stars should never be compared to yesterday’s athletes because they have had an unfair advantage. As talented as Barry Bonds is, his Major League homerun record will forever be tainted by allegations over the use of a banned substance and should never be considered the equal of Hank Aaron’s feat.
Professional sports needs to clean up its act. Fans also have some responsibility here. Every rear stadiums and arenas are packed with fans who demand athletes run faster, hit harder, and jump higher; beyond the limits of natural human ability. Those that don’t are considered failures despite competing honestly and earnestly. Meanwhile fans egg their stars on in a “can you top that?” where what would have been considered great performances in the past are now considered bad years because it did not result in a championship or record. There is no better example of that than Alex Rodriguez, who has been scorned and vilified despite MVP performances on the field because the Yankees have not won a championship since his arrival. It is an unfair burden that contributes to athletes making choices that discredits their ability and shames their sport.