Barry Bonds has been indicted “on five felony charges — four for perjury and one for obstruction of justice — for testifying before a federal grand jury in 2003 that he never used anabolic steroids or human growth hormone.”
It is simultaneously big and anti-climactic. That baseball’s all-time home run leader will stand trial for beefing up his body to enhance his performance – something also known as cheating – is big news. That the person is Barry Bonds is something of a yawner.
One reason for the yawn is that Bonds has already stood trial in the court of public opinion. The verdict? Something of a hung jury. A few – a very few – think he is innocent and the target of a witch hunt. Some think he should be stripped of his home run record and forever banned from baseball. Others believe the records should stand but be marked with a giant *. Every opinion between the two can be found as well.
The other, more important, reason is that Americans have grown cynical about their athletes. “Everyone does it, only some get caught” is a common refrain from both fans and sports commentators.
Sports were once a place to escape precisely that kind of cynicism. There was actually a time when people said that “it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, it is how you play the game.” And people meant it. There was an inherent honor and dignity in doing ones best no matter the outcome. Cheating was considered a disgrace because it robbed sports of their beauty and their purpose and it robbed the athlete of their dignity. And when it was uncovered it was dealt with very, very harshly.
That time is long gone.
The poster child to prove this is not Barry Bonds, it is the New England Patriots.
This past fall when the Patriots were found guilty of cheating by videotaping the other teams’ coaches to determine the plays they would be running, they were severely punished by the NFL. They received the harshest penalty against a team in NFL history, losing a first-round draft pick and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. Poll after poll showed that people weren’t terribly offended and many commentators blew it off. Cheating, they said, was just a part of the NFL. Teams steals signs from other teams all the time. The Patriots were just a little worse and they were dumb enough to get caught. What mattered, they said, was winning.
When the Patriots next played a game at home, their coach, the one who orchestrated the cheating was greeted with a standing ovation.
Now people are saying that the cheating wasn’t that important. After all, they are winning all their games.
Are they right? No, it just makes them a lot like Barry Bonds.
Think about this for a moment. Before Bonds started taking steroids, he was still one of the best – if not the best – baseball players in the game:
Before steroids, Bonds was an outstanding player and a likely Hall of Famer, the numbers affirm. In more than 6,600 at-bats over 13 seasons, he batted .290 and hit 411 homers with 1,216 RBIs. He made the All-Star team eight times and was selected the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1990, 1992 and 1993. Had he retired after the
1998 season, he would rank 40th on the all-time home run list, above Duke Snider. His 1,357 walks would rank 28th.
We can’t do anything about Barry Bonds anymore. His career is already almost over. His legal punishment awaits. But we can do something about the New England Patriots. We can say that yes, they are having an amazing season, but they cheated and that means that their attainments are marred. There needs to be a certain mark of shame that comes with cheating. Our children need to know that. Other teams and athletes need to know that. And most importantly we need to know that.
We need to be reminded that winning at all costs isn’t winning at all – that how the game is played matters very, very much… both in sports and in life.