Why steroids, spying, and all those other sports scandals are actually good for fans
A month ago, St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Rick Ankiel was the feel-good sports story of 2007, a welcome corrective to Barry Bonds’s successful — and joyless — pursuit of Hank Aaron’s career home-run record. Ankiel originally broke into the majors as a pitching phenom in 2000, but imploded in a playoff game that same year, throwing five wild pitches and walking four batters in one inning. His career subsequently derailed, but Ankiel didn’t quit. Instead, he eventually reinvented himself as an outfielder (a dubious proposition, given pitchers’ tendency to be shitty hitters) and started making his way back to the majors.
On August 10, the Cardinals called Ankiel up from Triple A, where he’d hit 32 home runs this season. He responded by hitting nine home runs in his first 81 big-league at-bats and becoming an instant national celebrity. Some likened him to Babe Ruth, another pitcher-turned-slugger. Others pegged him as a real-life version of Roy Hobbs, a/k/a The Natural. On August 20, Sports Illustrated (SI) contritely announced that it was retiring its snarky “Ankielometer,” which was originally launched to skeptically track the player’s comeback efforts. Ankiel isn’t just a study in “courage and heroism,” SI said at the time; he’s a case study in “how resilient and surprising the human spirit really is.”
The magic didn’t last. On September 10, the New York Daily News reported that Ankiel received a year’s supply of Human Growth Hormone (HGH) from a mail-order pharmacy back in 2004. Since Major League Baseball didn’t ban HGH until 2005, Ankiel may not have violated league rules; nor is it clear that he broke any law. Still, his achievements — just like Bonds’s — are now permanently tainted in the eyes of many fans. In light of this new info, Ankiel seems to be just another disheartening example of professional baseball players’ willingness to take ethically dubious measures to get ahead.
Baseball didn’t have a monopoly on sinners in 2007, however. This year also saw ethical breaches in other sports, including football (the Patriots videotaping scandal, starring head coach Bill Belichick, and Patriot safety Rodney Harrison’s own suspension for HGH use); basketball (the revelation that NBA referee Tim Donaghy bet on, and possibly tampered with, games he had officiated); cycling (the ongoing implosion of the Tour de France, including the revocation of 2006 winner Floyd Landis’s title and the ejection of 2007 leader Michael Rasmussen amid blood-doping concerns); and auto racing (Formula One’s McLaren racing team was fined $100 million [!] for spying).
In some quarters, including the esoteric sub-discipline known as “philosophy of sport,” this flurry of malfeasance is cause for great concern. “Any social institution that wants to endure can’t survive solely through the enforcement of its rules,” says St. John’s University philosopher Paul Gaffney. “There has to be an accompanying social ethic. So when there isn’t that kind of noble code in sport, you’ve really got something that is breaking down.”
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