Public sends mixed message on athletes and drug use

San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds sports a

San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds sports a big grin as he is intentionally walked in the first inning of a game against the San Diego Padres. (Credit: AP, 2002)

John Jeansonne

Newsday columnist John Jeansonne. John Jeansonne

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since

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Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Lance Armstrong aside, is everyone else playing fair?

Is it justice for the baseball writers to deny two of the most dominant players of their time a place in the Hall of Fame based on their links to performance-enhancing drugs, given the overwhelming evidence that steroid use was rampant during their careers?

Or, the other side of the coin: Would it be fair to allow Armstrong, after years of bullying and lying about his drug use while he ruled cycling, some modicum of forgiveness and reinstatement if reports are true that he at last will 'fess up?

With the Hall of Fame voting, especially, a tsunami of righteous opinions washed over talk radio and the Internet this past week, some thoroughly reasonable and others based purely on emotion. Throughout, the Rubik's cube of defining a level playing field -- theoretically the core of sports -- defied solution.

And it probably wouldn't help to sic the best legal eagles on the cases.

For instance: Could Bonds and Clemens take their argument for Hall of Fame inclusion to court?

"The answer is 'no,' " said Northeastern University law professor Roger Abrams, whose extensive writing on sports and law includes the 2010 book "Sports Justice."

The Hall of Fame -- where Abrams spent six months as its first scholar-in-residence in 2006 -- "is a private organization," he said, "without public money. It's not a government" and, unless there was proof of discrimination based on the Civil Rights Act, "then, sorry, there is no cause for action" by excluded players.

Abrams happens to believe that Cooperstown is "more than the Metropolitan Museum of Art," something closer to a cathedral than a mere collection of historic artifacts. "If we make believe that baseball is the national pastime -- and it certainly was for so long -- then we have elevated just a handful to the pantheon of the greatest," he said.

He contended that the Hall is "not there to show us how to be good people but to show us how to play the national game," and he considers it "unjust to hold players accountable for something that was perfectly permissible" before Major League Baseball began testing for drugs -- and only for survey purposes at the time -- in 2003.

Then again, "legally, socially, ethically, there are no legal restrictions." Baseball writers "don't have to explain how you vote," he said.

The writers' poll results on Wednesday -- they failed to anoint a single Hall of Famer for the first time since 1996 in what was widely considered a statement on the so-called "steroids era" -- cannot be contested, Abrams said. "It's the same as on the field," he said. "When the umpire says 'Strike,' it's a strike. You can argue all you want. It's final and binding."

So, then, what about Armstrong? He possibly would be allowed to compete in triathlons again if he cooperates with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency by reversing almost 20 years of vehement denial of drug use. Is it justice to allow him back into competition of any kind, though his seven Tour de France victories have been wiped from the record books forever?

"We have," Abrams said, "lots of examples from the real world, when a Mafia kingpin turns state's evidence and is given the right to live his life because of the value of the information he provides. You can argue that the greater good is served" in striking such a deal -- "because of the value of the information" Armstrong could provide USADA about specifics of beating drug tests.

For Armstrong as well as Bonds and Clemens, illegal substances surely provided something of an uneven playing field, "but it was never an even playing field, because even without doping, they were extraordinary athletes," Abrams said.

"Is that fair? No. I wish I could do those things. The problem, of course, is that when you're an extraordinary athlete, you want to be even better. But if he's contrite, we, as a society, forgive.

"We see redeeming value in what athletes do in society, even if we agree what they do is not that redeeming. We live in a world of quasi-mythology."

Armstrong, of course, is facing a number of lawsuits, and Abrams noted there "is significant financial exposure in his coming clean. If he thinks it's going to be a case of forgiving him for his trespasses, that might be a significant misjudgment. But sometimes you might do things that are good for your soul. The legal issues are not as important as the personal issues."

The verdict, then, is something like this: Halls of Fame and competitive eligibility aside, everyone gets a vote in the court of public opinion.