Saturday, February 05, 2011

Not quite hypocrisy

In a column Thursday about why he prefers the NFL Hall of Fame voting to MLB, Bernie Miklasz writes:

Football voters aren't engaging in Cooperstown-style hypocrisy by imposing tough moral standards on some players — alleged steroids users — after we'd relaxed these supposedly rigid ethics principles to admit amphetamine poppers, racists, potheads and baseball-doctoring cheaters.

First, let me say that I am with Miklasz on the NFL Hall of Fame being better, and the overall experience of being an NFL fan being superior as well, in part because (the current labor troubles and concussion controversies being notable exceptions) it seems like it's possible to just enjoy the games.  I can talk about great coaches and grit and heart without being attacked by statheads.

I'm also of the opinion that Mark McGwire and other players currently being kept out of the Hall of Fame due to being tainted by steroids should ultimately get in

But I also think that the BBWA's failure to elect them can be explained by more than hypocrisy.

I'll concentrate on McGwire, since he is probably the most direct case, and I'm most familiar with his career, but the same could apply to others.  I'm not meaning to single him out.

The problem I would have with electing McGwire is that there is a direct link between his success and what steroids can do for you and his success.  What McGwire brings to the table is that he hit a lot of home runs, and they were huge.  Celebrating that, when we suspected and now we know that they were aided by steroids, seems like we are celebrating the use of steroids, and it's understandable that some people may not want to do that.  This is different from honoring Ty Cobb, even though he was a racist.  Nobody thinks Ty Cobb was a great baseball player because he was a racist (though his fiery personality likely fueled both pursuits).   Honoring Ty Cobb is not honoring racism.

Amphetamines are a closer call, but still not the same.  I may not like it if, say, Mickey Mantle popped greenies, but does anybody think that they were a significant factor in the Mick's success?  I'm not sure Mark McGwire would have broken home run records without steroids, but I'm pretty sure Mickey Mantle would have been a great baseball player without amphetamines.

As for "baseball-doctoring cheaters," I would say there are different types of cheating.  Micheal Jordan often got away with extra steps.  On his final championship-winning shot, he pushed off Byron Russell, and it wasn't called.  Is he therefore a "cheater?"  If we punish someone who, say, poisons his opponents the night before a game, must we also punish Jordan in order to escape the charge of hypocrisy?  

There are different kind of rules -- rules that govern the competition and rules that are there for player safety.  I don't think the NFL would honor an offensive lineman who cheated by gouging his opponents eyes, but they might honor one who knew how to get away with holding.  I submit that Gaylord Perry's use of the spitball is closer to the former than the latter.  And McGwire's use of steroids is closer to the latter than the former.  

In making that judgement, I open myself to the accusation of playing "moral police," but I think it's important that we do think through judgements like that rather than commit ourselves to a foolish consistency.

What the BBWA have effectively done is kick the can down the street.  They know that once these players are enshrined, they can't really take them out, but if they pass on them, they can always enshrine them later.  This may not be the most courageous stance, but it is understandable.  They want to figure out exactly what accomplishments like McGwire's mean in the context in which they were compiled.
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