A modern Aesop’s fable unfolds in Texas this weekend: Lance Armstrong being banned permanently from his sport and Roger Clemens making a celebrated comeback in his.
They are the same, these two, in the most relevant respect: They cheated in their respective sports by using performance-enhancing drugs. Both accomplished unprecedented feats as a result. Neither has been convicted in a formal proceeding, but the evidence in the public domain is overwhelming in each case.
The difference is that Armstrong’s sport, cycling, falls under the jurisdiction of the tough U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Clemens’ sport, baseball, does not.
So Armstrong is disgraced and will soon be stripped of his record seven Tour de France titles. All of Clemens’ baseball records remain intact. The only threat to his legacy is the one baseball writers hold in their hands — withholding his otherwise automatic election to the Hall of Fame later this year.
Knowing this, and not wanting to be lumped in with fellow steroid cheats Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa, also on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this year, it’s my guess that Clemens’ comeback, which begins Saturday night for a minor league team in Sugar Land, Texas, is a wily tactical move.
If he appears in as much as a single game for his hometown Houston Astros — and the Astros, the worst team in major league baseball, say they are open to the possibility — he will push back his eligibility for the Hall another five years. By then, the already dissipating outrage at the drug cheats may have died out altogether. He may yet slip and slide his way into being a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
The contrast in outcomes between Armstrong and Clemens is unfortunate for at least two reasons:
1. Armstrong, for all his faults as an apparent bully and drug cheat, has inspired millions of cancer patients around the world after coming back from testicular cancer and mounting the most famous anti-cancer campaign in the world. His yellow Livestrong bracelets adorn the wrists of cancer patients everywhere. The countless hours he has spent with those patients, particularly pediatric patients, made him one of the most admired athletes in the world.
Clemens, by contrast, is just another self-absorbed athlete of the modern age, known for little more than a great fastball, dissembling before Congress and a terrific defense attorney.
2. Armstrong and Clemens are subject to very different standards. USADA is the toughest anti-doping agency in the country. It is single-minded and relentless, as it should be. Even when federal authorities dropped their pursuit of Armstrong, it never did.
Aside from professional wrestling, perhaps no sport ignored drug cheats longer than major league baseball. For most of Clemens’ career, it had no testing program at all. Armstrong famously claimed to have passed hundreds of drug tests. Clemens didn’t have to.
Federal prosecutors failed in their attempts to get both men. Clemens was found not guilty in federal court of lying to Congress about his use of performance-enhancing drugs after his defense lawyer destroyed his former trainer, the government’s star witness, and a former teammate grew suddenly uncertain about previously certain testimony. The feds didn’t even try to prosecute Armstrong.
USADA picked up where the feds left off and went after Armstrong. Baseball threw up its hands and said there was nothing to be done about past drug cheats.
There’s one other difference that affected the opinions of many fans:
In cycling around the turn of the century, virtually all of the top riders were at least blood doping, if not also using testosterone and other aids to strength and recovery. Every Tour de France winner from 1991 to 2006 was linked to doping, through positive drug tests, admissions or other evidence. There was only one goal — to come in first — and the perception was widely held among cyclists that one could not be competitive without doping.
In baseball, one could not hit 73 home runs in a season, as Bonds did, or win the ERA title at age 42, as Clemens did, without cheating. But one could do lots of other things — including being part of a championship team — without doping. And many players did.
So baseball had two classes of players — the cheaters and the non-cheaters. The latter group, naturally, resented the former group in a big way. And because the sport’s commissioner, Bud Selig, and the players’ association chief, Donald Fehr, did nothing about it for so long, a perception of unfairness, of a tilted playing field, grew among both players and fans. Even today, many members of the Baseball Hall of Fame say they will not attend the annual induction ceremony if any widely-acknowledged, never-sanctioned drug cheats are elected.
In cycling, the list of those caught and punished is a who’s who of the sport’s top stars — Armstrong, Miguel Indurain, Jan Ullrich, Marco Pantani, Alberto Contador, Floyd Landis and Frank Schleck among them. So a perception grew among fans that while cheating in their sport was just as morally reprehensible as it was anywhere else, it didn’t necessarily result in an unfair advantage for anyone since everyone was doing it.
Armstrong and Clemens are alike in one way. They both continue to deny cheating for public consumption despite evidence and testimony that has the court of public opinion finding both of them guilty. For admirers of both athletes, this incessant, relentless lying is perhaps the hardest part to accept. The cheating itself is often rationalized by fans as the natural result of their competitive drive combined with sports organizations that were late to enforce (or, in baseball’s case, even impose) their rules. Indeed, there is a libertarian strain of thought that says what they do to their own bodies is their business.
But the ongoing lies are a constant reminder that these are not, ultimately, men of honor, men worthy of admiration, even if some of their acts are.
The difference is Armstrong will now suffer his long-delayed punishment. He has given up the fight against USADA’s case, knowing he could not beat it. He will ultimately be stripped of his Tour titles, his name expunged from cycling’s record books.
Clemens will suffer no such punishment from his sport. In fact, he will be celebrated Saturday night as he begins his comeback bid at age 50 in Sugar Land, just outside his hometown of Houston. Sometime soon, it is very likely he will take the mound for the woebegone Astros, who could use the attendance bump, thereby delaying for five years the only sanction he might face — not from his sport, but from the writers who cover it.
In the end, dirty as it was, cycling can at least make the case that it has worked tirelessly to clean itself up and identify the cheaters. Baseball can make no such claim. It did finally impose rules and testing, although not until Congress embarrassed Selig and Fehr on national television. Even so, its system is not nearly as rigorous as USADA’s.
But baseball never made any attempt to identify the drug cheats. Many of its records, including all its major home run records, are held by known cheaters. Selig won’t countenance so much as an asterisk by these marks.
So this weekend Armstrong will absorb his public disgrace in Austin and Clemens will take the mound to cheers and acclaim 150 miles away. After all these years, cycling can say it finally set things right. Baseball never will.
The moral to our modern fable? If you’re going to cheat in athletics, pick a sport with spineless leadership.
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