In 1998 in the midst of the McGwire-Sosa record-breaking home run chase, MLB turned a blind eye to the role of performance enhancing drugs in the sluggers' inflated power production. Ever since then commissioner Bud Selig has been harshly criticized for ignoring the problem, which in hindsight was readily apparent, and for his belated approach to instituting penalties for steroid offenders. The see-no- evil stance was probably motivated, to a large extent, by the surge in attendance as fans were mesmerized by the home run circus and the assault on Roger Maris's longstanding record. With the turnstiles licking who wanted to rain on a parade?
Subsequently, as stars like McGwire, Bonds, Clemens, Palmeiro, Rodriguez and others were identified as alleged steroid users, the image of the national pastime became tainted and was defined by "the steroids era." With the recent downtrend in home runs, it has seemed that the professional baseball leagues have become less corrupted. In a sense the game has become packaged and marketed more as a venue of entertainment than one of competitive rivalries.
But now MLB is cracking down on players, including marquee names like Ryan Braun and A-Rod -- who are believed to be linked to P.E.D's supplied by the Biogenesis clinic. In recent years MLB increasingly has lost ground in popularity to the other professional sports leagues, so the suspension of superstar Ryan Braun can be seen as a public relations attempt to restore a cleaner image of the game.
MLB is to be commended for shutting down Braun in view of his ties to the Biogenesis operation, and sanctions against other stars such as A-Rod and Nelson Cruz appear to be on the horizon. The revelations about Braun are especially deplorable because in his press conference following his vindication in his appeal of the 2011 doping allegations against him (based on a flaw in the urine sample procedure), he vociferously railed against our culture ("we're in a system where you're 100 percent guilty until proven innocent") which resonated for many people; and he went so far as to proclaim, "I would bet my life that the substance never entered my body at any point." Incidentally, the MLB appeal board never declared him to be innocent, they only acknowledged the technicality of an error in the testing procedure. Braun came across as sincere and we wanted to believe him; but now we know that he lied to us and deceived us by shamefully tugging on our compassionate heartstrings. What kind of message does this send to kids?
Psychologically, MLB is banking on the public applauding the penalties and expecting that they will reward the game with an increase in attendance. But, at this point do the fans really care? It is my contention that a large segment of fans who continue to come out to the ball park are enjoying seeing their heroes hitting home runs, without worrying about whether they are fueled by P.E.D.'s. The moral outrage of 14 years ago, when Mark McGwire was outed for using androstenedione, has long been replaced by a widespread indifference to corruption in sports, which mirrors our society's indifference to the corrupt activities of many of our revered political leaders and Wall Street figures. In our culture, as Andre Agassi once said, "image is everything," and when the façade cracks and the character flaws emerge we are left with hollow giants to admire.
The saga of the Ryan Braun episode is that so many of us were taken in by his earlier act of "Mr. Innocent" that it reinforces the part of us that feels betrayed and angry at Braun, but also at ourselves for once again being duped by a hero who we so desperately wanted to believe in. To invest our adoration in our sports heroes is a form of caring that opens us up to more disappointment. Repeated disillusionment leads to a pervasive attitude of cynicism or skepticism about superior on the field performance. Will the feats of Matt Harvey, Miguel Cabrera, and Max Scherzer be viewed with suspicion, or will we risk allowing ourselves the pleasure of once again anointing our sports heroes?
Stanley H. Teitelbaum, Ph.D.
Author of: "Athletes Who Indulge Their Dark Side" and "Sports Heroes, Fallen Idols"