Now that baseball megastar Barry Bonds has been indicted on several counts of perjury and obstruction of justice, questions are being raised about the timing and "fairness" of the charges in light of baseball's blind eye toward performance-enhancing drugs until recently. Is Bonds in fact being unfairly singled out, or are the charges and the potential punishment they carry long overdue?
The sports pundits on ESPN and elsewhere are of course having a field day with this story. Not since Pete Rose was banned from baseball for life for betting on the game has such attention been riveted on one individual. Unlike Rose, however, Bonds' misdeeds directly enhanced his performance on the playing field, ultimately enabling him to snatch the most prized record in sports-the all-time home run record-from Henry Aaron.
To understand baseball's complicit role in the performance-enhancing drugs mess, we need to turn back to 1998, when sluggers Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa were thrilling millions of fans with their home run exploits. Baseball was just recovering from the nasty strike of 1994-95 in which a third of a season and a World Series were cancelled. McGuire's and Sosa's exploits were a much-needed pick-me-up for a game that was reeling from the strike fallout as well as increased competition for popularity and dollars from other sports. Therefore, so the story goes, even as the whispering began about what McGuire and Sosa may have been using to obtain their prodigious results, baseball chose to blithely ignore the obvious and ride the wave of its regained popularity.
According to reports, Bonds allegedly was told that McGuire and Sosa were "juicing" and that's why their already powerful bats were producing unprecedented results. Bonds, already a great player in his own right, was determined according to these accounts not to be left behind by fellow athletes using steroids and other performance enhancers such as human growth hormone to increase their power and endurance. And, in his mid to late thirties, as many players are winding down their careers, Bonds produced the greatest years of his, including 2001 with the single-season record of 73 home runs at the age of 36.
How did it come to this? How is it that already successful professional athletes, making millions of dollars, would want to attain still higher heights? Part of the answer may lie in our society at large, where cheating has become alarmingly normal. According to a recent article in Reader's Digest, advances in technology-chiefly the Internet and portable digital devices-have made cheating easier. A bigger factor, however, is the way bad behaviors in society-ballplayers popping steroids, business executives cooking corporate books, journalists fabricating quotes, and so on-signals that nothing is out of bounds when success is at stake. Studies have shown that over 70 percent of students in the 21st century have cheated at one time or another. Clearly, our secular, materialistic culture loudly proclaims that attaining material wealth is a more worthy goal and measure of success than leading a moral, ethical life.
In using a strikingly Clintonian defense, Bonds' denials of lying about steroid use have been both brazen and reflective of his arrogant streak. Yet his defenders will claim that he's being picked on because of his abrasive personality, or even because of his race. As with Bill Clinton, whose supporters chanted the mantra that his lying was "only about sex," Bonds' fans give the "everyone's doing it anyway" excuse and wonder where the investigators were in 1998 when McGuire and Sosa were apparently "juicing" their way to the record books. And as with Clinton, these specious arguments miss the point.
Yes, baseball was late in recognizing that rampant steroid use was occurring and causing harm to the game. However, better late than never. The federal investigation of Bonds included other athletes as well-it's just that Bonds was far and away the most well-known because of his accomplishments and his chasing of history. The investigation provided the impetus for baseball to get its house in order and put some teeth into its steroids ban. And the investigation has proceeded apace for over four years before finally producing enough evidence to indict Bonds. The deliberateness of the investigation may be fortuitous for the solidity of the government's case, but its length also enabled Bonds to break the home run record in the meantime. That presents baseball with a ticklish problem, which it brought on itself, of how to deal with Bonds' records in the record books (asterisks, anyone?) and in that shrine known as the Hall of Fame.
Despite the prevalence of lying and cheating in our culture, the reaction to Bonds' record-breaking (tepid at best outside of his San Francisco home) and now his indictment show that most Americans are still disgusted with such behavior. Even if Bonds never serves a day behind bars, the Hall of Shame in which he's locked himself may be sufficient.