These two examples might seem comforting, since they 1) demonstrate that cheating is nothing new, and 2) suggest that quick, harsh punishments can clean things up. But the hard facts of the Year of the Cheater render both arguments moot. First off, thanks to the continued metastasis of what sportswriter Dave Zirin terms the “athletic industrial complex” — a sprawling, diffuse web that includes everything from ESPN to Nike to the New York Times Co., part-owner of your Boston Red Sox — implementing the kind of tough-love approach baseball embraced post–Black Sox is a lot harder than it used to be. Cycling, for instance, can be harsh on cheaters like Landis because, financially speaking, there’s relatively little to lose. On the other end of the spectrum, however, there’s the National Football League (NFL), which makes nearly $4 billion a year from television contracts alone — a revenue stream that wasn’t even conceivable in the Black Sox era. Maybe it’s mere coincidence that the NFL destroyed the evidence it obtained in the Patriots videotaping scandal rather than telling the public what it found. But given the financial stakes involved, it wouldn’t be surprising if the powers that be decided to sweep things under the rug rather than publicize information that might tarnish the league and its latest lucrative dynasty.
Furthermore, while cheating itself may not be new, the technical sophistication involved certainly is. For all we know, Coroebus (winner of the naked sprint that comprised the entire Olympiad of 776 BC) may have rigged his race — and if he didn’t, he could have. But no early-Olympic cheaters had the option of bulking up with HGH. Neither did the Black Sox. What’s more, the Brave New World of sports cheating is only going to get weirder in the coming years. And if the NFL and Major League Baseball can’t handle steroids, how can they possibly cope with gene doping? Or whatever comes next?
This prospect gives pause even to W. Miller Brown, a philosopher and philosophy-of-sport specialist at Hartford’s Trinity College, who’s long contended that the fuss over steroids is excessive. Among other things, Brown argues that there’s no strong ontological distinction between socially accepted performance enhancers — from caffeine to the complex surgeries used to mend athletes’ broken bodies — and those that are verboten. But he also allows that the prospect of genetic manipulation lends new urgency to the question of what is and isn’t acceptable.
“Lurking behind the understandable anxiety and fear about performance-enhancing drugs in sports is the sense that they’re beginning to show us, in a very public, powerful way, a possibility of self-transformation which we’re not yet quite ready to embark on,” says Brown. “Are we scared? Yes. Should we be scared? Yes. Are we afraid what might happen? Yes. Do we know how to direct and control it? No, we don’t.”
Put differently, today’s edgier cheaters aren’t just conspiring to fix games — they’re re-engineering their bodies and, in the process, making us question the legitimacy of every single athletic feat we witness. And they’re just getting started.