Thursday, May 8, 2008

Clemens versus Merriman

As a sports fan, you get used to the standards by which athletes live and how they don't make any sense. For instance, a teacher in Brownsville, Brooklyn, teaching math to 7-year-olds makes $25,000 a year while a guy like Jamal Mashburn, a basketball player, who didn't play for the last two years of his career—didn't contribute to any meaningful way to his employer—made $20 million in those two years. Or how about a guy like Jason Giambi, who broke Federal law, cheated his co-baseball players and fans to pad his stats and get more money, yet found himself secure in his job, because despite all his actions, the Yankees still couldn't nullify his contract.

Still, as a sports fan you get used to it. You get used to the absurdity that is modern professional sports. You make your peace with it. But one thing which confuses is when these standards, the ones by which you judge these athletes, aren't applied fairly. And by that I mean to say, with all the scrutiny on Giambi, Bonds and Clemens...what the heck about Shawn Merriman?

Let me back up for a second here. On May 2nd, The New York Times ran an article in which they showed how a steroid maker named David Jacobs not only sold drugs to players in the NFL, but also showed them how to avoid being detected. At least 10 NFL players, and possibly more, were recipients of Jacob's steroids.

Other separate and independent investigations have led to the charges that dealers have sold steroids to players for the Carolina Panthers (including prescriptions written two weeks before Carolina played in the Super Bowl), Pittsburgh Steelers (also, before they went to the Super Bowl) as well as the San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Falcons and Dallas Cowboys.

So, where's the controversy?

Where's the hub-bub, the outraged talking heads, the indignant flowery prose in newspaper editorials, the nonstop calls to sports radio? What's up?

Why is it that when baseball players get caught on steroids they make the nightly national news and when NFL players cheat, they barely make a blip on a wire piece on the web? Three weeks ago, Charger starting inside linebacker Stephen Cooper was busted for steroids. The result. No one cared. Pro Football Weekly only reported it as a wire piece, which focused more on the Chargers GM gently rebuking Cooper, then saying "Stephen Cooper will learn from this and move forward in a very positive way."

And it's not just regular football guys getting ignored. No, there are also All-Pro football players who have been busted and have been met by the press and by fans with a collective shrug and a disgruntled "Meh."

And, by the way, said All-Pro stud linebacker Shawn Merriman, a busted steroid cheater, was recently featured in a big-time Nike ad—an ad, by the way, which was created and premiered a year AFTER he was busted and suspended for steroids. So Nike decided this cheater, this law-breaker, was just perfect for their multi-million-dollar ad campaign. What's next, Marion Jones doing Disney commercials? Roger Clemens representing the Boy Scouts on posters?

Ridiculous? Maybe. But again, it's the odd standard we have in this country, and which seems to me to be bizarre. Again, why does baseball pay the price of congressional investigations and intense mainstream media scrutiny while football gets a pass?

A theory. While baseball is America's game, the game of nostalgia and peaceful reflection, football is a violent, Roman arena-type game filled with ogres and gladiators. The natures of the game and how we view them are different. In short, we as watchers almost expect football players to cheat. And almost want them to. We want the violence upped. We want the savage hits from gigantic guys doing harm. We want the bloodlust.

Baseball, on the other hand, doesn't have that sensibility. They are athletes, yes. But they are not violent. Baseball has a peaceable sportsmanship to it. There is rarely any body contact. It's almost gentlemanly.

Take the art of showing up. In baseball, if a guy stands and admires his homer, you hear guys talking about what a bad sport he is showing up the pitcher. In football, if a guy didn't do a ridiculous dance after a sack, people would question if he "really loved the game."

Also, take for instance an incident that occurred last year. During a pop fly to third base during a Blue Jay-Yankee game, Alex Rodriguez yelled "Ha!" which caused third baseman Howie Clark to get confused and let the ball drop. Toronto manager John Gibbons called the action "bush league" and as a former catcher, said he never heard opposing players call for pop ups. Blue Jay shortstop John McDonald was so outraged he had to be restrained from charging Rodriguez. But in football, that kind of stuff happens every play, with defensive linemen saying "Hutt!" trying to draw offensive linemen offsides. Several defensive linemen admit to doing this all the time. And if it happens, most of us as football fans, react with a shrug. "It happens. It's the nature of the game."

So because of their natures, we view the games differently. And take them to task differently, hold them to different standards. Baseball must be pristine. It's holy and should never be sullied by cheaters. And that's great. Totally agree. However, football is a dirty game, played in mud by Vikings and Raiders and as such, is forgiven when guys trying to get an edge are brought to light. Wee see it as a dirty game played by dirty men and we love it for it. Just as we love baseball for it's unspoiled nature and heritage.

Don't believe me? OK, let me ask you. The average NFL offensive linemens' weight has ballooned, over 30 pounds from 281 to 318 in the past twenty years. Has anyone seriously looked into why? No. Which is good news for Shawn Merriman.

And for Ray Edwards. And for Luis Castillo. And for Matt Lehr. And for Stephen Cooper. And for Todd Steussie. And for Dana Stubblefield. And for Bill Belichek...

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