USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan made what I assume will be a controversial argument that baseball players who have tested positive for steroids at any point in their careers should be permanently banned from being honored with inclusion on baseball’s All-Star teams. This is controversial, because a lot of misguided souls, including sportswriters, think that proven steroid cheats ought to be allowed into baseball’s Hall of Fame, a much greater and more significant career honor. The issue arises because Oakland pitcher Bartolo Colon, who last year tested positive for banned PED’s (Performance Enhancing Drugs)and was suspended for 5o days, has been selected for the American League All-Star squad. Brennan writes,
“Colon, and every other performance-enhancing drug user in baseball, should never be allowed to become an All-Star, or win any MLB award. No Cy Young, no MVP, no batting title, no nothing. It doesn’t matter that he was caught and suspended last year, not this year…The bottom line is, you don’t suddenly become a non-cheater once your suspension is over. Colon is 40 years old, yet he’s having his best season in eight years. Where have we heard that before? Even though last year’s illegal testosterone isn’t still in his system, it helped build the body that he is using today…Because Colon and his tainted body are in the All-Star Game, someone like (Tampa Bay pitcher Matt) Moore is not. He has the same record as Colon, 12-3, but with a higher ERA, 3.42 to Colon’s 2.69. We’re presuming, of course, that Moore is not on PEDs, which means his season is more impressive than Colon’s because it isn’t built on a chemical foundation as Colon’s is…It’s a privilege to receive these honors, not a right. They are extras, add-ons, awards to be cheered. They do not belong to the Brauns, A-Rods and Colons of this world. Those players should be given absolutely nothing to celebrate.”
I admit that I had never focused on this issue before, but now that I have, I agree with Brennan. It certainly is an excellent way to further discourage drug cheating in baseball. So few players get admitted to the Hall of Fame that the likelihood of being blackballed from Cooperstown won’t have any impact on the majority of potential cheaters: the most likely steroid users are borderline players just trying to keep their jobs, not players who are already established stars. But the All-Star Game isn’t outside the reach of most players, and being permanently banned from the honor would be a pretty effective scarlet “C”.
The ethics point being made is, of course, trust. It means that while a player hasn’t been banned from the sport entirely, his accomplishments will always be suspect. He may be forgiven, but we will never forget. Brennan makes an argument I have made repeatedly here in other contexts: given a choice between trusting someone who has proven themselves untrustworthy once and someone who has not, the ethical and rational choice is always to go with the individual who is not (yet) subject to suspicion.
Yes, yes, redemption. In Washington, D.C., former mayor Marion Barry, now a city councilman for the city’s ethically-inert Ward 8, was just censored and fined for accepting illegal gifts from city contractors. Barry, of course, was elected mayor after his first occupancy of the office ended with his being caught on video smoking crack, and he has been re-elected to represent Ward 8 despite more arrests, ethics violation, and even income tax evasion. His loyal supporters speak of redemption, how we are all flawed children of God, and how anyone can make a mistake. Barry, for his part, smiles inwardly and thinks, “BOY, are these people stupid,” for he has not changed, and will not, just as Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, Mel Gibson, Alec Baldwin, Keith Olbermann and Lindsay Lohan didn’t or haven’t changed, despite one or more “second chances.” We trust such people at our peril, and why should we court peril if we don’t have to?
I think sports teams that want to send the right and the effective message about cheating ought to refuse to hire players like Bartolo Colon. Don’t ban him; just make it obvious that the teams who hire him are, to some extent, excusing and encouraging dishonest conduct. Similarly, I think states and cities that want to send the right and effective message about corrupt and untrustworthy politicians must have voters who soundly reject redemption-seeking candidates like South Carolina’s disgraced, loverboy ex-governor Mark Sanford (recently elected to Congress), Anthony “That’s not MY penis on Twitter…wait, yes it is, you got me!” Weiner (now doing well in the polls to be New York City’s next mayor), and Client #9 himself, former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, who was elected in part by his prosecutorial zeal in chasing prostitution rings, and then continued to be a consumer of one while he was in office. Spitzer is, incredibly, running to be state comptroller, and he might be elected. Can John Edwards be far behind?
If we want to encourage ethical conduct, we shouldn’t continue to reward, honor and trust those who have been demonstrably and seriously unethical. The principle should apply in baseball, government, and life.