Maybe They Cheated. So What?

We don't need Congress to tell us that sports has been tainted.

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clemens
AFP/Getty Images

Here's what I'm rooting for after the Congressional hearings into whether Roger Clemens or Brian McNamee lied to the Mitchell Committee. I hope Congress figures out a better way to spend its time and my tax dollars.

I don't need Sen. Arlen Specter convening a committee into why New England Patriots coach illegally taped opponent's offensive signals for seven years. I don't need some other publicity hound representative investigating NBA officiating, or any other brouhaha in the sports world. The economy is tumbling toward a recession; there are two wars with little resolution in progress, and numerous other national crises going on. Resolve all that and maybe just maybe, I'll tolerate them looking into baseball's antitrust exemption.

I'm not saying that we all know whether Clemens is lying; most people who care about these things have their opinions. And that's about as far as most of us can take the issue short of having been a fly on the wall many years ago, when the alleged transgressions took place.

The larger issue of performance enhancers—mostly steroids—and Human Growth Hormones has annoyed me for two reasons. When I think about sports, I prefer—as the Charles Schwab ad goes—hard facts to hard feelings. However, on this issue, until recently, all we had was innuendo. So instead of using sports to advance critical thought, the dialogue was forced back into the high school rumor mill. Was a player having a breakout season on that team you love to hate? Just write it off, "he must be on the juice," went hundreds of cheap rationalizations. The PED discussion had dumbed down the entire sports dialogue.

The other reason the hearings and attendant media circus annoyed me is that the issue doesn't matter anymore. This era of sports from the mid '90s on is tainted, and nothing can be done to restore its integrity. Nearly every record will be held as much suspicion as esteem. If I understand the impact of most performance enhancing drugs, then those who took them will suffer the consequences later in life with nothing to show for the abuse they did to their bodies. And I'm elated that the records have been devalued. I love statistics more than most people, but I think the sports media has gotten so in the habit of using them to create an air of historical importance around events that we've begun confusing the icing for the cake.

Yes, Lawrence Tynes' 47-yard field goal in the NFC Championship game was the longest successful kick at Lambeau Field in a playoff game, but more significantly, it was the kick that sent the New York Giants to the Super Bowl. That fact trumps any historical record keeping. We get deluged with this sort of most-strike-outs-by-a-reliever-during-a-League-Championship-game-type stuff. I usually assume the factoids are there to justify the production budget, and it's become prevalent since cable sports took over the world about fifteen years ago.

The problem is that the reason people watch sports is that it's an entertaining and often riveting diversion. History rarely comes into play. That's why all the steroid scandals won't diminish the joy of Boston Red Sox and Colorado Rockies fans over their seasons. Taping? The New England Patriots stopped taping then very nearly ran the table for an entire season; only Bills, Jets, Dolphin and Colts fans will really care about the scandal and only as material to needle Pats fans. With superstars changing teams in dizzying numbers, few basketball fans remember the stench that the Tim Donaghy scandal left on the game over the summer.

But wait a second. Aren't 61, 70 and 73 more than a trash stat dredged up by some intern on the broadcast team? Yes, but not by much as much as you might think. Home runs are significant, but they are nowhere near a full picture of a player's offensive contributions and our fixation on them often obscures better metrics like On Base Percentage and Slugging Percentage. This isn't a recent phenomenon; in 1961, when Roger Maris hit 61 home runs, his Yankee teammate Mickey Mantle had a better season. Yet, Mantle finished second to Maris in the MVP voting.

For those who do want to regard home run records as sacrosanct, take heart. Young sluggers like Albert Pujols (who is only 28 though it seems like he's been an all star forever), Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun stand about a 50/50 chance of erasing 73 from the record books. And Barry Bonds's career mark of 762 will soon be under assault from Alex Rodriguez, who barring injuries, will pass that number in six or seven years (even allowing for some age related decline).

For me the next major question involving those players involved in the PED scandal is the Hall of Fame. To me, Clemens and Bonds may be despised, but they are indisputably Hall of Famers. Both players had rock solid credentials long before the late career surges that aroused suspicions. The case for others like Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmiero and Sammy Sosa is less clear cut and it will illustrate the shelf life of umbrage and outrage over this issue. I would assume that it will die down, but then, I never thought I'd see a baseball player and a nutritional "expert" doing the Judge Judy thing in front of Congress.

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