When I ran marathons and regularly put in 70 miles a week, I used no drugs, hit no one, and suffered only occasional injuries - dogs off leash didn't like me. When I played high school and college baseball, there were occasional melees with opposing teams, but nothing more than a black eye, a broken toe from spike wounds, and coaches were irreproachable although drill-sergeant strict.
Today, every sport is troubled by violence on and off the field, sexual predators, illegal drug usage, and corrupt practices. In the United States alone, one need only mention names - Bonds, Sandusky, Armstrong, Rice - but the list is endless. By no means is this an American phenomenon. Cycling doping has a century old history including most nationalities, accelerating as detection has become better and drugs more devious. Soccer fans have rioted throughout the world, cricket franchises have become corrupt, and communist states constructed their athletes by artificial enhancement and sometimes gender falsification.
None of this is recent. Some baseball historians may remember the 1919 "Black Sox" scandal. Have you been to an NHL game recently when there were no punches thrown, no sticks in the face?
National Football League players abuse women, harass each other and become victims of their mutual violence with brain injuries. We know lots and lots of home runs can be hit by men pumped by steroids. Ersatz women with huge biceps suddenly increase their swimming speed. Cyclists power up mountains that a few years ago left them way behind. We intuitively grasp that human beings cannot perform in an inhuman way.
So why do we watch and why do we pay?
While in the Army I participated, for testosterone-induced reasons, in boxing matches. I blame my inability to find my car keys on punches that found their mark on my chin or forehead. OK, I landed a few, too. But, do you think that boxers are un-drugged? Cyclists? Home run hitters? Babe Ruth hit a lot of home runs, relying on bourbon. Now they have someone inject.
Now let's imagine Olympic swimmers, or tennis pros. Are such "pure" individual sports immune? Far from it. Indeed, the both swimmers and tennis stars have failed drug tests or withdrawn from competitions citing "injuries" in recent years after either failing or failing to submit blood and urine samples.
We the consumers of professional sporting events, by which I include collegiate de facto professionalism supported by private or corporate donors and alumni, underwrite a Potemkin village of competition.
Please do not construe these comments as critical of youth soccer leagues, little league baseball, sandlot volleyball, bowling teams, or anything designed to ensure that our children enjoy childhood. I and my kids have benefitted from all of those activities, and it should not be otherwise.
Yet, America and now most of the world has generated a sport enterprise wherein violence at home or on the field is largely ignored, performance is rewarded even if manufactured by steroids or human growth hormones, and the paycheck to the investor trumps law and decency.
Can we change this? Yes, international authorities could enhance the frequency, accuracy and rigor of testing athletes. Yes, organizations such as the National Football League in the USA should make a "no violence tolerance" policy both enforced and understood - after all, if one is earning $500K per game, is that too much to ask? Don't knock out your wife in an elevator and don't try, even with a bonus attached, to end the career of the opposing QB.
To end the scourge of drugs and violence in sports will require more than policing, however. It will also require recruiting players who are sportspersons first and foremost not the badass, kill-the-opponent types. Not the dudes with arms of tats and track marks. If the latter is what you want, go watch a bar room brawl.
Daniel Nelson leads a consulting firm in Virginia.