Wednesday, July 04, 2007


Bonds, Cheating, and the National Pastime

“The love of money is the root of all evil.” --Timothy 6:10

Sports reflects society, and baseball cheating is neither new nor unusual. Whether John Wyatt with a tube of Vaseline, Gaylord Perry and the splitter, or numerous players with corked bats, cheating has always been part of baseball.

A more insidious form emerged in the late 1980s and 1990s, the probable widespread use of performance enhancing drugs, particularly anabolic steroids. In pharmacologic doses, steroids provide key benefits to elite athletes. As Barry Bonds prepares to eclipse Hank Aaron’s record, he has received almost universal vilification as a cheater and a fraud.

Is Bonds so different than what we witness throughout society? Individuals cheat in school, for better grades and better opportunities. In Freakonomics, Levitt shows how teachers cheated in order to have a better chance at merit pay linked to students’ academic performance.

Half of marriages fail, and extramarital relationships constitute the cause in many of the cases.

Innumerable Americans ‘cheat’ on their income taxes. I heard a radio program once where callers reported claiming pets as dependents. A Money magazine issue showed how a single tax return could produce fifty different tax liabilities when viewed through the eyes of fifty different accountants. Cheating or something in-between?

When it comes to public safety, the link between drinking and driving and accidents cheats society and individuals. One of thirteen drivers is drunk after ten P.M. and one of seven is drunk after one A.M. Do you trust your life under those circumstances? Speeding contributes to many accidents. Is speeding cheating, bad judgment, or something else.

Commerce overflows with examples of unethical behavior. The term ‘watered stock’ came from farmers feeding cattle salt and water to elevate their weight. Adulterated products, such as in Boston’s Big Dig, enhance profits and produced unsafe construction. Las Vegas spends millions to reduce fraud and cheating, but suffered its biggest losses from a rampaging tiger.

Investing became legendary for its cheats, frauds, and scandals. We had Enron and its “Smartest Guys in the Room”, and Frank Portnoy’s compendium of scandals with “Infectious Greed”. Numerous examples of insider trading dot the trading landscape,

And some countries continue to use off-balance sheet accounting to conceal debt and deficits. A national trading contest was recently investigated for cheating. Accounting fraud plagued Cendant and many more companies. Fannie Mae’s accounting ‘mess’ has yet to be completely unraveled, and the current Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO scandal) may still have widespread implications in financial derivatives markets.

Politics and Government remain rife with scandal from both sides of the aisle. Politicians do more than reneg on campaign promises, with a variety of subversions of democratic and ethical principles in the name of victory. Honesty and honor fall by the wayside compared with power and greed. Even the CIA declassified “Family Jewels”, exposing the dark underbelly of a major government agency.

Michael Moore’s latest ‘epic’ Sicko challenges the medical establishment’s credibility, and lawyers are taught to do what is necessary to serve their client. Bending the law and bending the truth become part of the mainstream fabric of their craft.

Sports and recreation have produced some famous cheats. Rosie Ruiz bypassed much of the route of the Boston Marathon before being exposed as a fraud. Boston College had a point shaving scandal, and tonight Katie Couric highlighted cheating at tournament fishing!

Jose Canseco reported broad use of performance enhancing substances in baseball, yet nobody seemed to believe him. Numerous hitters went from ordinary to extraordinary, with outlandish performances like those of Brady Anderson (fifty homers) and Rafael Palmeiro (averaging fifteen homers his first five full seasons) becoming a forty-plus homer slugger.

Should we simply shrug our shoulders when Barry Bonds passes Hank Aaron, or should we acknowledge his achievement as another sign of the times? Does an asterisk belong next to Bonds’ name in history? And does a used car salesman Commissioner of Baseball carry the moral weight of God?

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