Mark McGwire’s Steroid Confession, Part 2: Neyer and the Rationalizations

The worst thing about Mark McGwire’s belated confession is that I once again have to listen to and read the absurd, hackneyed, illogical and ethically obtuse arguments for ignoring his conduct. Like…

  • “Everybody makes mistakes.” When a “mistake” is intentionally repeated over many years, makes millions of dollars, achieves fame and success, and is only admitted under duress, it was no mistake. It was a conscious, calculated choice.
  • “Why can’t we forgive like the Bible says?” We can forgive him. The Bible doesn’t say we have to honor him, excuse him, respect his conduct, or put him in the Hall of Fame.
  • “Everybody was doing it!” No, “everybody” wasn’t, not that it would make McGwire’s conduct right if everyone were. But thanks to players like McGwire, many players who were clean will be suspected for the rest of their lives.
  • “Baseball let him cheat!” When law enforcement breaks down, the people who steal things are called looters, and when they are caught, they go to jail. If you only cheat when you’re not being watched, it doesn’t make you any less corrupt; it just means you are cautious. Honest people don’t cheat at all.
  • “He wasn’t the only one.” No, and the criminals in prison probably aren’t the only ones who broke laws, either. But they did, and like McGwire, the fact that others may be luckier shouldn’t change their punishment one bit.

Oh, there are so many more, but I’m getting nauseous.

Still… I really expected better of Rob Neyer.

Neyer, a baseball blogger for ESPN and one of the smarter analysts around, offered this in defense of Mark McGwire:

“Here’s my question to any Hall of Fame voters reading this … If you suffered, over the course of a few years, a series of maladies that limited your ability to write, or write well — to thrive in your profession — what would you do?  Would you find someone who could give you a pill that would clear your mind of that encroaching intellectual haze? Would you accept a friendly offer of an ointment that might relieve the sharp pain in your fingers every time you tried to type more than a few dozen words? I would. I’ve never used an illegal drug in my life — no, not even a beer before I turned 18 — but I’ll tell you right now that if I had a choice between giving up my profession or doing something illegal … Well, I suspect it would be awfully hard to resist. Particularly if many of my colleagues were doing it and there was no chance that I might wind up in jail.”

Yes, it might be hard to resist. If you didn’t resist it and got caught, immediately or later, would you have any right to expect that you should not suffer the consequences of your conduct? People always have reasons to cheat or break the law. Law students think that their grades on one exam might make the difference between making Law Journal and eventually getting a six-figure offer at a big law firm, or struggling for decades to pay off student loans while working at an under-staffed government agency. Does that mean it’s no longer wrong for them to cheat? Less wrong, because they have a reason? Does it mean that if they are caught cheating, the law school dean should just smile and say, “I understand”?

The fact that many readers of Neyer’s blog might well not have the character to resist the temptation to cheat doesn’t mean they are incapable of determining that an athlete whose ethical standards are no worse than their own does not qualify as an honorable sportsman and has no business being honored in a Hall of Fame.

Neyer’s hypothetical-form rationalization is just a disguised version of the false assumption that only the perfect are allowed to identify and condemn bad behavior. That would be a bonanza for the worst of us, but also a disaster for society. We all need to identify and reject unacceptable conduct so we are motivated to avoid similar conduct ourselves.

Neyer’s hypothetical is also inapplicable to McGwire in essential ways. Would Neyer’s magic, illegal pills that let him write again also have the effect of making him the best baseball writer around, taking jobs and fees from his competitors because of his sudden superiority? Would that give Neyer pause? (it didn’t stop McGwire.) Would his illegally enhanced skills allow ESPN to gain more ad revenue, and cause their competitors financial hardship? Would that make the temptation easier to resist? (McGwire obviously didn’t care if his steroid use changed the outcome of games and  seasons.) Would Neyer’s new standard of writing excellence create pressure on other writers, including young ones who admire him, to break the law? (Mark McGwire’s success with steroids persuaded Barry Bonds, among others, to take them.) Did Neyer’s writing collapse occur after he already had millions of dollars in the bank, making his situation far from desperate? Would his pills let him not only make a living, but let him live like a king? (McGwire was hardly in dire financial straits in 1999, his great, steroid-fueled season.) When he was being praised for writing “the right way,” would Neyer, like McGwire, just accept the accolades?

Then there is the little problem that McGwire’s claim that he didn’t take steroids to improve his hitting prowess is unbelievable. He says he really didn’t think that piling on muscle would help him hit the ball farther...and still doesn’t.  Does Rob Neyer accept that? Is he assuming that McGwire is an idiot? Do idiots have a special dispensation to cheat?

Cheating is cheating, and cheating is the antithesis of sportsmanship. The Major League Baseball Hall of Fame’s qualifications for membership include sportsmanship, and it is delusional for Neyer and other McGwire defenders and apologists to think that coming up with sympathetic reasons why a player might cheat could ever erase the fact that Mark McGwire did cheat. No matter what the temptations may have been, he had a choice, and chose to break the rules, the laws, the trust of the fans, and the competitive fairness of the game.

2 thoughts on “Mark McGwire’s Steroid Confession, Part 2: Neyer and the Rationalizations

  1. Very disappointed in Meyer. Didn’t know about his article, thanks for posting about it. There is no justification for steroid use by Big Mac. And most of all, and overlooked in all this, is the fact that McGwire probably acquired illegal substances. Hello! He’s a criminal.

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