Blemishes make it hard to be a (real) hero

Feb 10, 2009 5:02 PM
Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein |

Super stars can’t get past stain of scandal

Which do you want first, the good news or the bad.

Let’s take the good.

Serena Williams, the world’s best woman tennis player, won her 10th Grand Slam singles championship in Australia, regaining her official ranking as Number 1 on the planet. And she and her sister Venus won their 8th Grand Slam doubles championship, confirming their status as the greatest sister team in sports.

In Lake Placid, New York, one of sport’s most dominating dynasties was dismantled by a 22-year old American beauty named Erin Hamlin. In the last 15 years, no one other than a German woman had won the world championship of luge, that careening dangerous downhill thrill ride on a slick and twisting icy course. Not only that, but in the last 12 years no one other than a German had finished in the top three in women’s luge, with 88 straight Teutonic victories without a loss on the sport’s World Tour.

Hamlin, from nearby Remsen, did it before a wildly cheering home crowd. The sport may not be widely followed, but it was the World Series for those knowledgeable fans who watched Erin’s record streaking descents.

Now for the stains on sport’s silk tie, starting with the revelation that the Pride of the Yankees, the $300 million dollar man, Alex Rodriguez, had tested positive for steroid use when toiling for the Texas Rangers six years ago.

Rodriguez, whose meteoric rise started as an 18-year-old rookie in Seattle, is a sports hero who found the harsh, unforgiving glare of the spotlight more than he could handle gracefully. The public eye is probing, and his reported dalliance with Madonna brought exposure in the checkout-counter magazines. He said the attention was "crushing his life," and the needle-nosed New York press gave him no respite, frequently with good cause.

Then, last Saturday, SI.com, the online service of Sports Illustrated, reported that the All-American boy – ESPN once quoted a writer who called him Mr. Milk and Cookies – had tested positive for the performance enhancing steroid nandrolone. That was his MVP year, and also the year when Major League Baseball gave players a pass for the "survey" which led to wrist slaps the next year. It was to have been confidential, but it wound up with the feds, and led to the problems of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. And now A-Rod, and another indictment of Major League Baseball itself.

Rodriguez was not alone in the bad news department.

Olympic hero Michael Phelps, the world’s best swimmer, was drowned in a wave of disapproval. It was not just more revulsion on the part of the public. It was big time cash. Michael will not be seen with Tony the Tiger on Kellogg’s cereal boxes, and other sponsors – some who are professing support now on grounds of immaturity – will follow when they find out the stains are not removable, youth or not, for the impropriety of using, or at least being photographed, with a pot pipe.

On the same pages with Phelps’ folly was the story of Dana Stubblefield, a former All-Pro tackle in the NFL, getting off with two years probation and a $5,000 fine for working with the feds in providing names of fellow NFLers who used the services of Bayco, the Bay Area laboratory in northern California that was the supply depot for NFL and Major League Baseball drug users.

Horse racing, of course, has borne the brunt of better things through chemistry, until headliners like Barry Bonds and Michael Phelps and now Alex Rodriguez have taken over the headlines.

All sport has been tarnished, and while some fans are shocked, others say nothing surprises them any more in sports.

That’s a harsh indictment, and one that only sports itself can eradicate.

It turns out, in this messy situation, that the chief operating officer for the Major League Players’ Union, Gene Orza, allegedly warned players they were going to be tested. Major League Baseball’s chief enforcer, Rob Manfred, correctly called this "a serious breach of our agreement."

Immaturity or crushing publicity or seeking an edge may be the root cause of sport’s grievous troubles, but until sports get serious about drastic penalties and ejection, they will continue to plague the games people play for money.