Rich Hofmann | Bonds represents all the cheaters

IS IT OK BECAUSE SO MANY OTHERS DID IT?

Posted: July 20, 2007

BY THIS POINT in 1961, as he was chasing Babe Ruth's single-season home-run record, Roger Maris' hair was falling out. Barry Bonds shaves his head often enough that we wouldn't know about that. But he is about to be 43 years old, and his body is quite clearly breaking down, and even knowing that he hit Nos. 752 and 753 yesterday at Wrigley Field, he is approaching history at a limp.

Shed no tears for his burden. A career of public surliness cancels all benefits of all doubts, regarding steroids and everything else. There is no joy in this pursuit of history, of Henry Aaron, of 755.

But there needs to be an acknowledgement of what Bonds carries. He carries an entire era of baseball, the pretesting era, pretty much alone these days - and there needs to be a serious discussion of what that means.

Specifically, if you are violating a rule that is not being enforced - not by

neglect but by a conscious decision made by the people who devised the rule - what exactly have you done wrong?

And, if that unenforced rule is being violated by hundreds of your fellow citizens - and hundreds is a kind guess of how many baseball players were in violation of the rules against performance-enhancers, hundreds in a very small community - you have to ask the same question:

What exactly have you done wrong?

"Legally no crime," said Arthur Caplan, the ethicist from Penn. "But ethically still a problem."

Caplan and I traded e-mails the other day. A while back, we were on a panel together at the Franklin Institute about steroids in sports, arranged by Comcast SportsNet.

That the use of performance-enhancing drugs is wrong goes without saying. That preventing young people from getting

involved with these substances should be the No. 1 aim of this entire discussion also should be understood by everyone. There is a health risk to kids, and it should be

addressed with vigor and with money.

But the rest of it is all kind of make-believe. The money in professional sports breeds different behavior. Elite athletes making millions of dollars take painkilling injections to keep playing that no physician would ever prescribe for you or me - because we are not elite athletes making millions of dollars.

That is only one small example. Elite athletes have always cheated, or at least pushed the ethical envelope in search of an advantage. All of the testing protocols in the world will not catch a persistent, well-educated, well-funded cheater. That is just real life.

But what about when there was no testing? And what about when lots of people were doing it, lots and lots of people, and when the bosses clearly didn't care enough to try to prevent it? What exactly are we talking about then?

To compare this to jaywalking, or to driving 75 mph in a pack of cars going 75 mph on a highway, would be frivolous. Obviously, this is a more serious issue.

But when rules are widely ignored and completely unenforced, as baseball's were for so long, don't you have to view things through that prism? Doesn't Bonds deserve at least that?

"Ethically, you are supposed to follow the rules and not try to gain an advantage by using illicit and dangerous drugs," Caplan wrote. "Add to that the 'role model for kids' obligation which I think, like it or not, athletes have to accept and you get a case that says even if baseball

knowingly winked and turned away from steroids to produce more home runs individually, you should know that steroids are risky and not sanctioned and you should not be using them."

But when the pitcher is also bulked up, and the third baseman is also bulked up, and the first baseman is also bulked up, and the people in charge don't care, and, well . . .

"I am not moved by the idea that widespread cheating justified more cheating," Caplan said. "The right thing to do is to try to get the cheating stopped. Complain. Make a stink. Not to jump in and cheat yourself. It is tough to buck your peers - our culture hates snitches. But, that said, the right thing to do is to blow the whistle, not whistle the wrong tune!"

But no one did. The culture was what it was, and now Bonds lugs the whole thing around on his back, alone. But it was the culture, and it was widespread, and he didn't create it. He just participated in it with probably hundreds of others.

And if Barry Bonds will never sense our joy, and doesn't deserve to sense our joy, don't we at least owe him that discussion? As he limps toward history, don't we at least owe ourselves that discussion? *

Send e-mail to hofmanr@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/hofmann.

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