Gift or Bribe? Barry Bonds’ Generosity to the NABJ

Barry Bonds, the retired baseball slugger who used banned or illegal performance enhancing drugs to fuel a late-carer transformation that allowed him to grow from merely great into Superman, breaking every home run record in sight as a result, has adamantly maintained his innocence despite a mountain of circumstantial evidence, positive drug tests, and the verdict of common sense. He has also played the race card when it seemed convenient to his cause. Bonds’ cheating ways have made him rich beyond belief, and his only real problems now are 1) the likelihood of a Federal perjury trial next year in connection with his Grand Jury testimony that he never knowingly took steroids, and 2) the fact that few of the sportswriters who vote for the Hall of Fame seem inclined to enshrine steroid cheats, based on their rejection, so far, of Mark McGwire, whose steroid-assisted single season home run record Bonds broke while he was especially pumped-up.

Both of these problems could conceivably be helped by some positive press opinion, something that Bonds has never cultivated, being inclined to treat all journalists as if they were something he had to wipe off the bottom of his shoe. Thus it raised eyebrows when  it was announced that the charitable foundation created and controlled by Barry Bonds has donated $20,000 to The National Association of Black Journalists. NABJ president Kathy Times told the Associated Press that the money will be used to fund an annual award promoting entrepreneurial spirit.

Is Bonds trying to soften up the press? Does the gift create an appearance of impropriety? Is it, in short, a bribe, from which Bonds expects some kind words when he needs them?

I think the group was right to accept the gift. How many professionals are so attached to their trade association that they would let a gift to it influence their independent judgment and objectivity in doing their jobs? Not many; I would hope the number is minuscule. If the gift was an effort to influence press coverage, it was a mighty wan tactic.

Foundations like Bonds’ are designed for PR, and often exist to burnish the reputation of famous people whose legacies are in doubt. The Carnegie, Ford and Rockefeller Foundations are classic examples: the men whose fortune funded them did some nasty deeds on their ways to success. Yes, the charitable foundation route could be looked upon as the Ruddigore Fallacy, assuming that good deeds can erase the consequences of bad ones. It also could be looked upon as giving back something to the community that has made you rich and successful, and there is nothing unethical about that. Charity and generosity are ethical virtues and good things, even when they are engaged in by not-so-good people.

As my introduction to this post shows, I don’t admire, respect or trust Barry Bonds. Still, fairness dictates that he deserves the benefit of the doubt in this episode, and also that we trust the members of the association. After all, $20,000 to Barry Bonds is like two-bits to me: I doubt the black journalists will get all squishy and misty-eyed because Barry gave them some of his pocket change.

The ethics verdict: this is no bribe. Sometimes a gift, even from a scoundrel, is just a gift.

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