If you could take a pill that would make you better at your job and, as a result, get you paid significantly more, would you?
[paraphrased from Chris Rock, on Ken Burns’ Baseball: The Tenth Inning]
I’m not talking about magically gaining powers you don’t have, I’m talking about being better at something you’re already good at it, and that you love and already work hard to excel at. And even if the answer is ‘no’ for personal safety reasons, would you really blame or demonize someone in your profession who would say ‘yes’?
Of course, contemplating this question begs another question, which is: why is it, exactly, that we all go along with the idea that athletes should be held to a more rigorous standard than people with other kinds of jobs? Even more so than other public figures, like actors and musicians. It’s not just steroids: it’s guns and cussing and adultery and recreational drugs too. Things that we often seem to be able to forgive our neighbors and friends and coworkers and selves for. I mean, who doesn’t know someone who’s stolen something, or gotten a DUI, or cheated on a test, or hit someone during a fight, or owns something illegally? The only other group of people I can think of who are held to such a rigorous moral standard are politicians and judges. But there’s a legitimate, logical reason for us to hold the people enforcing our country’s standards on us back to them. Plus by the time most of them get to a point where there is that kind of pressure on them, they are well into their 30s, 40s, or 50s, not impressionable 16-21 year olds. But, despite all that, contemplate this: why does it seem like so many athletes and politicians, the people with the most pressure to ‘do right,’ do so much wrong? There’s not firm statistics on the subject but it’s pretty obvious to the average observer that a lot of basketball players are dabbling with guns and drugs and that a lot of politicians are dabbling with adultery and money laundering. So, you know, maybe the pressure we put on these people is partially responsible for creating the sad state of affairs?
Look: I am very familiar with the arguments against PEDs and I agree with those arguments. No kid should ever have to sacrifice their health with drugs in order to be as powerful as the guys that are. And records shouldn’t be broken because there’s new drugs being invented. That’s sad. Watching footage of Mark McGwire in the 1990s makes me feel empty, not at all full of joy the way Aaron and Clemente do. And I would be really sad if it came out that one of the ‘clean’ players I love now — Pujols, for example — ever used a banned substance. But… Do I think it’s right to ‘hate’ Barry Bonds for doing everything he could to be the best? No. Do I think it makes logical sense that stories about spitballs and stealing signs make people smile while this stuff makes us sick? Not really. Do I think the anger about the steroids era should be way more directed at managers and commisioners than it is at players who were, at the time, doing something they were allowed and probably even encouraged to do? Yep. I’ll concede that the lying about it all really does irk me, actually a lot more than the initial drug use does, but I guess I figure a lot of these guys just did what their lawyers and agents and friends told them to. That lack of autonomy in and of itself is a problem that seems to be pretty widespread among pro athletes (see: LeBrongate), but why that is could be a whole ‘nother post.
Brian thinks I pity professional athletes too much, considering how much money that make, and he is probably right. But I think most of them are legitimately crazy by the time they reach the majors/bigs/pros and I think that might kind of be ‘our’ fault sometimes for basically saying: be the best, all the time, but don’t break our children’s hearts while you do it, but don’t ever lose either, you big jerk/hero. We want our athletes to be so many things at once: strong, loyal, competitive, fast, funny, charismatic, reliable, tough, friendly. We want them to get along with their teammates and hate their rivals. We want them to have beautiful wives who they are faithful to. We want them to WIN: games, batting titles, the respect of their teammates. We want them to sign autographs for kids no matter where they are or what kind of day they’re having. We want them to never get drunk or get bad tattoos or own illegal weapons. We want them to spend all day every day getting better and stronger, but not by using anything that’s against the rules or destined to be in the future (whether they know it or not). We want them to play in every game and never get hurt. We want them to smile. We want them to smile even when they get booed for reasons they know are bullshit. We want them to smile even when people are yelling racial slurs or labeling them as losers over a rumor or a mistake. We want them to demand respect on the field, but not demand more money off of it. We want them to be humble but we also want them to fight to be the best there ever was. We want Nick Swisher and Cal Ripken Jr. and Barry Bonds all rolled into one, without any personal or legal problems and without any drugs. Good luck. We got one with all that, maybe, in Ken Griffey Jr., but the injuries he suffered throughout his career made even him less of a hero to many people in the towns he actually played in. We could talk about a few other possible candidates for this ‘perfect player’ model (like: Chase Utley (but he’s not famous enough), Derek Jeter (but he’s overrated), or Pujols (but he spoke at that Bill O’Reilly event last month and I still haven’t gotten over it)) but my real point is that, even if there is a rare exception, it is incredibly unfair to expect every kid that becomes the great hope for some team or fan to fulfill all of those standards.
In contrast, look at the way most people look upon the eating disorders and drug problems of supermodels. Sure, there’s a lot of press devoted to this problem and the terrible standard that it creates for our children. But the story isn’t ‘these are horrible people,’ the story is that ‘society’ pressures these women too much, and drives them to do the horrible things that they do to their body, and isn’t it so sad and tragic. Hardly anyone that I know is out there piling blame on these girls themselves — they are considered the cogs and victims in a horrible machine that was created by suffocating beauty standards and misogyny.. Especially when you begin to factor in the fact that many of these models started out when they were just kids or teens (as all pro athletes did), it seems inhuman to point fingers at them and say “how could you do this?”
here’s a feminist lining to the issue as well as an obvious problem for young men — maybe, just maybe, there’s something effed up for both sexes about the fact that adult women in the public eye are thought of as victims when they snort coke and vomit up their food and adult men are considered monsters for injecting themselves with HGH. Let’s face it: the real blame, for both athletes and for models, probably lays somewhere in the middle. And, more importantly, somewhere with us, too.