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In the clutches of the shadow

December 26, 2009

(This post was originally written for my other website but I think it has a place here too).

At the end of 2009, various end-of-year and end-of-decade lists and awards have been coming out, and the best and worst of these have been synthesized as well. My “Tin Ear of 2009 Award” goes to the Associated Press, who have declared that “Steroids’ shadow is AP Sports Story of the Year”.

When they say steroids, they of course mean baseball players using steroids. From the article:

Though only one major leaguer tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug in this, the first full year under toughened rules, baseball still finds itself trapped in the clutches of the Steroid Era.

If the Steroid Era includes the best World Series ratings in five years then perhaps it’s not such a bad thing to be trapped in the clutches of. Of course, ratings were up because the Yankees were there – but the Yankees’ biggest star, A-Roid, is the guy who started the whole “steroids’ shadow” thing in the first place. More from the article:

“The impact that that story had made it the story of the year,” said Lance Hanlin, sports editor of the Beaufort (S.C.) Gazette and The (Hilton Head) Island Packet. “It was a big, ongoing, overall story.”

Well, the last sentence is certainly true, but the story Lance is talking about ended around early July. The rest of the story – the backlash against Selena Roberts’ A-Rod book, A-Rod’s redemption, David Ortiz brushing off a positive PED test, everyone from talk radio callers to Hank Aaron telling the New York Times to either fuck off or just release the damn list already, Mark McGwire’s Bud-approved return to the game – is equally interesting. Perhaps the two stories together are indeed the Story of the Year – but AP doesn’t seem interested in the second part.

Which is not to say that we’ve lost interest in steroids – my guess is it’s more of a correction. I do believe that the biggest – and most surprising – sports story of the past decade was steroid use in America – in the spring of 2001, when Marion Jones was the Queen of American sports and Barry Bonds was just gearing up for his record season and the steroid issue was completely comatose, it was hard to imagine that it would explode the way it did (and lead to the unthinkable: a Bud Selig Beatdown of Don Fehr and the MLBPA).

And I think it was largely a good thing that the sporting public has decided that we don’t want professional athletes using steroids (I think the issue could easily have remained comatose under slightly different circumstances). It’s not just that steroids are dangerous, but gain and risk are disproportionately spread. If you have money, you can buy good drugs from a lab and get stronger and faster and keep your testicles; and if you don’t have money, you buy stuff off the street or at the gym and take your chances.

(Plus, steroid users just look really gross. In the decades to come, athletes are going to be increasingly enhanced in various ways, and I think it’s inevitable that one day performance-enhancement will become acceptable. Perhaps the tipping point will come when someone like Barry Bonds can hit 70 homers in a season while still looking like Barry Bonds.)

But for too long, the “end justifies the means” ethic has dominated the PED debate. Whether it’s the unethical – such as the NY Times’ decision to release one name per month from their precious list from now until 2016 (a list whose very existence defies a court order) – or the downright illegal (leaking grand jury testimony) – too many ugly things have been committed and celebrated and justified because after all we’re doing it for the children and the only victims are million-dollar drug users.

But after years of feeding the tempest, it was finally A-Rod (of all people) who stood up and said, “Yup, I did it”. Even if you didn’t find A-Rod’s confession convincing, that misses the point – it was better than all the alternatives. With both A-Rod and Manny Ramirez having been scandalized and moved into redemption mode, the fans seem to be satisfied with the ends are and showing more suspicion towards the means.

So what was the Story of the Year? Here in Canada, one survey ranked the 2010 Olympics as the top sports story for 2009, but then we’re kinda weird that way. Tiger Woods’ personal life has been a monster story that has dwarfed all others – but that’s really more the Boinking Story of the Year as opposed to a sports story.

Speaking of tin ears… I really thought that Tom Watson’s run at the British Open was going to get more of these year-end awards. I’m not a golf guy, but just to step back a bit – Watson is not a guy who is past his prime. He’s 25 years past his prime. Jack Nicklaus was an old fogey when he won the Masters at age 46 – and Watson was 13 years older.

Yeah, it’s golf, and apparently the competition that weekend sucked for some reason (I’m not enough of a golf expert to say). But The Open is still a major championship, and again… it’s been 25 years since John McEnroe won his last Wimbledon singles title (17 years since his last doubles title) and McEnroe is ten years younger than Watson. Bert Blyleven last pitched in 1992, and has been on the Hall of Fame ballot for 13 years, stuck forever at 287 wins – and Bert is two years younger than Watson. Dude! That was some story.

(I now realize I could probably condense this entire article into one Google search. Back in June, reports surfaced that Sammy Sosa had tested positive for PEDs; he was subsequently  investigated by Congress for possible perjury, which you would think is a pretty big deal. How did that turn out? A Google search on “Sammy Sosa” reveals the following:

  • Wikipedia entry
  • Not to worry, Sammy Sosa is just rejuvenating his skin
  • Sammy Sosa Bleached Skin Pictures
  • Sosa blames skin-colour change on moisturizer
  • Video: Sammy Sosa Shocking Bleached Skin Photos
  • Sosa says he’s preparing to endorse skin product
  • Sammy Sosa Photos | Who is Sammy Sosa dating?
  • Charles Barkley Mocks Sammy Sosa

FINALLY, on page 5 of the search results, one lone story about steroid use. Followed by:

  • Sammy Sosa: I Don’t Have Michael Jackson’s Pigment Condition

“Steroids’ Shadow” is the sports story of the year? Hell, it isn’t even the Sammy Sosa story of the year.

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