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Jaded sports fansare the real crisis

WP: Deep down, we don't want to re-examine sports heroes
Fans say Barry Bonds was wrong to use steroids, but they'll still pay to watch him hit them, Washington Post columnist Mike Wise says.Eric Risberg / AP file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

At least two of the most prolific home run hitters have lied about their God-given athletic abilities and a five-time Olympic medalist is under siege.

This is the most important story in sports of the last decade. These are the Black Sox of our century. Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi and Marion Jones most likely have betrayed idolizing children, arrested-development adults and, worse, stolen money and acclaim from their clean competitors.

And you know what's sad about its scope and magnitude? We were more enraptured by an NBA player running into the stands after a guy who threw beer on him.

The steroid crisis is not about learning elite athletes may be frauds; we all suspected that to some degree. No, the crisis is we've become so jaded about drug cheats we almost don't care.

ESPN polled its viewing and Web audience, asking, "Do you care if Major League Baseball players use steroids?" Of course, 93.2 percent replied, "Yes, it's wrong and taints the game."

This was not an accurate indicator of public opinion; this was akin to Fox News asking, "Should our country do what it needs to keep our borders safe?" Or the 700 Club asking, "Do you renounce Satan?"

It does not delve into complexities and fails to point out that 93.2 percent would also pay to see Barry Bonds hit one out if he was playing in their city's ballpark this past fall.

An accurate gauge of public ambivalence: Almost 50 percent responded "Yes" when asked whether they would use steroids if it would help them become a professional athlete. Crazy, no? That means half the people morally wronged by Bonds and Giambi would cheat the public themselves.

The steroid issue is not something friends call breathlessly to talk about. For months it has been a media-driven story, fueled by dogged journalists committed to facts rather than opinions. They were not on a witch hunt; they felt the public needed to know. The terrible thing about their pursuit of the truth is that the public barely wants to know.

They don't care how Barry Bonds hits baseballs into McCovey Cove; they care that he does it. When that ball clears the wall, they want to grapple for "history," not reexamine it. For to do so would put them at odds with their core beliefs about their athletic heroes.

That's what the BALCO investigation and the grand jury testimony leaked in the San Francisco Chronicle this past week is ultimately about. That's what BALCO founder Victor Conte ratting out Marion Jones Friday night on "20/20" is about. That's what Kobe Bryant was ultimately about.

We thought we knew, but we didn't. And when our beliefs were challenged by irrefutable evidence — at least embarrassing, if not damning, in Bryant's case — we turned the channel. We reached for the box scores. We believed what we wanted to believe.

Why? Because in an unsafe, polarized world, we thought sports still represented consistent human accomplishment. Who, in these times, needs almost-incontrovertible evidence destroying the myth of the uberhuman? It plays into the naivete of our absolute worship. It does not prove how dirty our athletes are; it proves how gullible we were to fall for what we thought was natural athletic supremacy.

Moreover, as much as we love to out a fraud, we also relate to the accused on some deeper, more uncomfortable level.

We break the rules, in ways large and small. The suburban tax cheat, writing off massage therapy. The habitual illegal U-turner. The former Colorado coach, Bill McCartney, who knowingly used a "fifth" down to win a national championship.

But professional ethics often supersede real-life ethics for many of us, to an extreme where we're all trying to gain an edge. If we don't puncture our body with syringes, we go on daily caffeine, nicotine and sugar binges to cope. During the height of the dot-com boom at America Online, cocaine was part of the culture. According to the book, "Stealing Time: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Collapse of AOL Time Warner" by Post reporter Alec Klein, some company executives snorted lines off the hood of a car at the site of a Super Bowl. How many business mergers were fueled by drugs? We toy with our bodies, too.

We all deal with the Gollum question in our pursuit of the Precious, no? We all straddle two sides, like the "Lord of the Rings" character who morphed from a happy hobbit into a greedy monster in his quest for the ring of power. Who knows what Gollum was on?

Like Bonds, Giambi and perhaps Jones, we play the revisionist-historian game, believing what we want to believe about who we are and how we became successful. And if we are painfully honest, we know we all seek to gain competitive advantages in ways that would not make our children proud.

Nowhere is that dynamic more alive than in the soul of an elite athlete. Micheal Ray Richardson, a former NBA guard whose career was ruined by drug use, was once admonished by an opposing player for grabbing his jersey and pulling him to the floor as they went after a rebound.

"Hey, man," Richardson shot back, almost nonchalantly, "if you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin.' "

If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'. You think Bonds and Giambi did not employ that rationale?

Most disturbingly, the issue of steroids is suddenly a major news story because it involves the grand, old game. Former football jocks turned analysts Mark Schlereth and Sean Salisbury concurred on ESPN that the NFL has little or no steroid problem. Huh?

The NFL's testing program is much more stringent than baseball, but to suggest that less than 5 percent of NFL players don't use, as Salisbury did, is to suggest that 95 percent of some of the largest, freakish-looking humans got that way by simply adding another bumper on the barbell. This is asinine.

Steroids are not a baseball epidemic; they are a societal problem.

They make us ponder the harshest question of all: How naive were we to believe in our sports heroes in the first place? No one wants to answer that. We would rather turn the channel.