Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Rewriting the Rules: Now That's Cheating

Barry Bonds is in the news. I'd post a link to an article discussing the recent SI story, the book, the ongoing allegations...but if you can't locate one yourself you're just not trying. Still, just to be polite, here's a link to the SI preview story.

I've written before on the more general topic of doping in sports, and there's so much noise on the subject these days that it's easy to imagine that all athletes have turned into cheaters, they're all guilty as hell, and sports as we know it is at a crisis. In what increasingly reminds me of a witchhunt, fans and writers (especially a certain cadre of writers that seems to relish the opportunity to take athletes down a peg or two) are asking two basic questions, over and over again: 1) How guilty are they? and 2) How many records/medals/titles are we going to strip from them?

But there is another question that is prior both temporaly and logically, that isn't being asked: 1) Were they even cheating?
All the sound and fury surrounding the steroid allegations directed at Bonds misses a key point: steroids weren't a banned substance in the world of professional baseball until last year. A year in which Bonds played only a handful of games. And you know, there are good reasons why we don't approve of ex post facto laws. Fact is, there's a very, very good chance that Bonds, whatever else he may be (liar, poor role model, over-the-hill ballplayer, etc.) is not a "cheater", at least not if we refrain from rewriting the rules to suit our cause.

Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: "[T]hose who choose ... to sail as close as possible to the wind inevitably run some risk." What Holmes meant, I believe, was that part of pushing the envelope, whether in the realm of law or sport, is knowing that the boundaries between legal and illegal aren't always clear, and even legal courses of action may not be entirely risk-free.

Bonds sailed close to the wind and for that he will be punished with a tarnished reputation, millions lost in endorsements, and, potentially, future physical effects from his steroid use. From where I sit it looks like Bonds has plenty to worry about as it is - there's no need to go back and rewrite the rules just because we don't like the guy. That's just cheating.


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