The Rational Middle: The Performance Enhanced Culture

I love my Dodgers. Vin Scully still calls the games, the uniforms are timeless, the stadium is privately financed (not to mention functional, beautiful, and stocked with great food!), and the team is playing as well as it has in my lifetime.

And Manny Ramirez is coming back….

When the team acquired Ramirez last year (for MY birthday, of course), I was optimistic. Manny would be playing for a contract and his reputation, and the Dodgers were only on the hook for a small “cost of living adjustment” (no, seriously). I figured that he would rock, and he didn’t disappoint. He legged out infield hits, stole a base or two, cut off balls in the gap, inspired his talented young teammates, and flat out raked at the dish.

And then he went away……

The rational middle is populated by ardent sports fans who are quite capable of losing their perspective. Whether we are getting into a fistfight at the park, screaming over beers, or ruining our children’s playtime by showing up and being stupid at their little league games, we have the capacity to cross the line.

The stakes should not be this high for sports, but they are, and people like Manny and thousands (yes thousands) of other professional athletes like him are ready to “take the competitive edge” and go chemical. Honestly though, I could not care less about Manny and his fellow cheats; he got his punishment, and he has to bear the burden of lost respect and a diminished reputation.

The rational middle is concerned about those kids we were embarrassing at the local park two paragraphs ago. The problem of steroids and other chemical enhancements runs deep; go to a freshman football game this fall, and you will likely see at least one child who is a user, and that child will have received his steroids from a close male authority figure. The justifications for use are legion; personal choice, parental rights, “they are not really as bad as advertised”, you name it. The problem is that concerned folks are not fighting the right people, and are using the wrong tactics.

Manny, Sammy, Mark, and the Commish are not the real villains in this play, and neither are the providers and purveyors. That sorry cast of characters are just the rats that collect on a mountain of trash; you wouldn’t scramble around the pile trying to kill rats would you? You would remove the pile of debris. The real problem here is our collective perception of what is important in sport, and how that affects our actions. The real problem is us. Unless we go back to our earlier, better values of fair play, respect, and clean competition, the problems that plague our sports will remain. I am not advocating against winning; I believe that has relevance all the way down to the lowest levels of youth sports (after all, kids on losing teams quickly lose interest as well). I just believe that we should adhere to the old Mills Lane instruction, “let’s have a good clean fight and come out swinging!”.

My second point relates to the tactics we use to fight the battle. I believe that we lie to our children. We tell them nursery rhymes when they are young, then sell them on the notion that sex is bad, drugs are dangerous, and steroids are for the lazy. When our kids get a little older, they realize that there is no troll under the bridge, that sex is fun, that many of their peers have used drugs and loved them, and that getting any results from steroid use requires lots of hard work.

The good parents out there, and there are a lot of you, know that the trick is getting your kids to think about consequences. Pregnancy, venereal disease, hangover, car crashes, and really bad web casts are the critical pieces of information that teens need to know. In our battle with performance enhancers, we need to show teenagers the consequences of this type of drug use. None of the kids today can remember Lyle Alzado. The health consequences have to be restated in today’s terms and the illegality of these drugs in this context must be restated to parents and coaches in unequivocal terms.

If I had a small child at home, I am not sure how I would explain Manny. I am less sure of how I will feel when he hits his first home run. At least he has been punished; others were able to live the lie long enough to get the privilege of “misremembering” things in front of Congress. What I do know is that I will never coach another young athlete without talking with them about PED’s.

Maybe in a few years we will be able to watch the games without wondering….