Wednesday, November 08, 2006

When Cheaters Prosper

By John Sharkey

It’s not cheating if you don’t get caught. But what happens if you do get snared? Even then, a surprisingly high amount of the time, the consequences for getting caught with your hand in the cookie jar are mild. Shawne Merriman, the star linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, recently failed a steroid test and received a four-game suspension. This seems like it should be a pretty big deal: one of the best defensive players in the NFL gets busted for cheating.

The backlash, however, was mysteriously mild. The first time I learned about the story, it was on SportsCenter where the analysts were discussing what Merriman’s absence would do to the Chargers’ linebacking depth, as if Merriman had sprained a knee or something. Merriman quickly appealed the suspension and was available to play in the following game. Watching that contest, I saw Merriman make a typically great play, followed by the announcers joking that the Chiefs were probably wishing that Merriman hadn’t appealed: the whole thing was literally a laughing matter.

Remember Rafael Palmeiro? Once upon a time, he was one of the faces of baseball. Then he failed a steroids test and took a fifty-game suspension. That’s slightly longer, proportionally to the length of their seasons, than what Merriman got. But no one was laughing then. Palmeiro was ripped to shreds and black-balled out of baseball. So why the disconnect between his case and Merriman’s?

This pair of suspensions is far from the only example of the double standard that exists between baseball and football when it comes to cheating. The indictment of a doctor under suspicion of distributing steroids revealed that multiple members of the Carolina Panthers more than likely received a shipment of steroids shortly before they played the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. Of course, none of the players in question ever failed a drug test, and the story never really gained much traction.

Barry Bonds never failed a drug test either. However, we have a lot of pretty good evidence to suggest that he has indeed taken steroids, and he is (probably rightfully) vilified as a cheater. After all, he’s chasing the numbers of ghosts, not playing in the biggest sporting event in the country.

The World Series drama fizzled out early this year, as a sloppily-played set ended in a five-game St. Louis victory. However, for about two days (which, if my memory serves, were right around the time the Merriman story broke), the biggest storyline of baseball’s championship was some gunk smeared on Kenny Rogers’s hand. A foreign substance on the pitcher’s person is grounds for an automatic ejection and suspension, and the same mysterious substance was seen on Rogers’s hand in his first two playoff starts. This gunk caused some confusing reactions. It is pretty clear that Rogers was cheating, but Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa didn’t press the issue and Rogers continued to pitch. Then later, LaRussa said that he didn’t believe that the stuff on Rogers’s hand was simply a clump of dirt, as the pitcher claimed. He obviously thought that Rogers was cheating, and didn’t do anything about it.

What’s more, much of the public reaction was mild as well, with a lot of the discussion focusing on the old spit-ballers and how wily they were. The gunk is a far more visible example of cheating than are sordid tales of back-room needles, with the cheating taking place in plain sight during the biggest game of the year. Yet another double-standard, this time specific to baseball.

There are many forms of cheating, but we react to them in different ways. Anyone that has ever jaywalked or double parked knows why. We all have a tendency to simply ignore the rules that are inconvenient or inconsequential to us. But this is a tendency we must fight. It’s possible that “right” and “wrong” might exist on a sliding scale, but there is no such thing as “just a little bit illegal” or “mild cheating.” And act is either illegal or it isn’t, and if we act otherwise we might as well throw out the rule books. We can change bad rules and laws, but we cannot ignore them. In the end, syringe or sludge, it’s all dirty.