TCS Daily

What Do Steve Williams and Dan Rather Have in Common?

By Douglas Kern - September 23, 2004 12:00 AM

Steve Williams is the lucky stiff who now possesses the ball that Barry Bonds knocked out of the park on September 18th -- his 700th home run. Believe it or not, a few pajama-clad internet weirdoes question the authenticity of Bonds' achievement, just as they question the veracity of Dan's memos. It's hard to believe, I know. Rumors surrounding Barry Bonds and steroids seem pretty unlikely, given Bonds' slender physique, honest associates, and well-adjusted personality. But cynical minds wonder: are Bonds' homeruns what they purport to be?

If Bonds is on the juice, Williams' ball is of dubious value. It's accurate to say that the ball is a prize memento from a huge milestone in baseball history. No one can deny that Bonds has hit 700 home runs in his major league baseball career -- the third highest total ever. But the ball would be a token of a fake achievement. If Bonds' home runs spring even partly from steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs, then his accomplishment is less a testament to his own greatness than a testament to the miracle of modern pharmacology. And mementoes from high points in modern pharmacology don't tend to score big money on eBay.

Home runs have no magic unto themselves. If the sight of balls getting smashed out of domes held any unique thrill, we could build robots to pound balls into orbit. Or we could change the rules of baseball to have the balls made out of rubber. Or we could shrink the size of baseball fields by thirty feet in every dimension. Smaller fields, springier balls, robot batters -- it's Arena Baseball!

But who would care? The thrill of the home run comes from the extraordinary difficulty inherent in hitting one. As the difficulty goes down, the meaning and value of the achievement goes down as well. A single home run hit honestly is more impressive than a hundred home runs hit dishonestly. And a player surreptitiously taking advantage of Better Living through Chemistry is not hitting anything honestly -- much less heroically.

I addressed many of these problems in my article for The New Atlantis entitled "Our Asterisked Heroes," available here. In response to that article, the estimable Brothers Judd have taken me to task here on the question of artificial assistance to heroism:

"Baseball, in particular, should aggressively defend the integrity of its timeless records by testing for performance enhancers. But Mr. Kern's idea that artificial advantage lessens heroism is probably not true. In a fair fight between David and Goliath we well know that David would get whipped. But he had a sling, which was effectively like bringing a gun to the fight. It hasn't seemed to diminish his aura of heroism much. Similarly, Arthur had Excalibur, Robin Hood his long bow and so on and so forth. We've never been overly disturbed by our heroes exploiting superior technology to their advantage."

With all due respect to the fabulous Juddsters, their analysis is flawed in three ways.

First, superior tools aren't the same as superior performance. We admire the heroism of David's courage, but not his fighting prowess -- no one makes the Monster-Slayer Hall of Fame for using a slick weapon to break the eggshell skull of a freak with a pituitary gland problem.

Second, sports have rules for the precise purpose of ensuring a "fair fight." By the Judds' logic, a heavyweight boxer would achieve something heroic by pounding on scores of featherweights. Mike Tyson, call your office.

Third, David, Arthur, and Robin Hood all achieved heroism in the fight against evil. When smiting the bad guys, there is no such thing as an unfair advantage. But heroism in sports is not a battle of good against evil (unless the Steelers and the Raiders are playing). Heroism in sports is defined by the struggle of man against himself -- against the inherent difficulty of physically demanding tasks. This heroism inheres in winning the battle against your own weakness and frailty, time and time again. When man changes himself through the use of performance-enhancing drugs, he has changed the terms of the struggle. He has, in effect, slipped his opponent a Mickey.

Nothing is heroic unless it pushes the limits of what men can do. When artificial modifications change those limits, they necessarily dilute the quality of heroism. And if sports only offer diluted heroism, we may as well play MVP Baseball 2005 in our living rooms. If we must watch artificial men, we may as well give our thumbs a workout.

It's true that superior technology, science, and psychology have given contemporary athletes huge advantages over their forebears -- advantages comparable to the advantages that performance-enhancing drugs yield. Imagine what Babe Ruth might have accomplished with modern sneakers, Nautilus machines, and Sabermetric analysis! But these innovations don't change an athlete intrinsically; they only make it easier for an athlete to realize his full potential. By contrast, performance-enhancing drugs change the very boundaries of that potential.

We don't go to baseball games to watch technology and chemistry in action. If we wanted to see science conquer the world, we'd stay at work. Sports should offer us a place where pure human achievement is on display, shorn of all alibis and excuses. We celebrate sports in order to celebrate our own virtues, as reflected in heroic acts. But sports achievements tainted by artificial enhancements will lead us towards celebrations of our tools, not our authentic selves. That's great -- for a BattleBots episode. But can't we ask something more from sports?

It does no good to complain that home runs are hard to hit, even with the use of steroids. Similarly, it does no good to protest that "The documents might be fake, but the real story is..." When your argument begins with "He cheated, but...", it doesn't matter what comes after "but." As Dan Rather is learning, and as Barry Bonds may learn, the cheating is always the story. Truth and authenticity are inseparable. Those who try to divide the two will never achieve anything of lasting value, either in sports or in journalism.

The day may come -- and it won't be long -- when Bonds' ball and Rather's memos go up for auction. They might not sell for much money. The market for tokens of dishonesty and corruption is pretty crowded these days.

The author is a TCS contributor. You can read his article in The New Atlantis here.


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