Whether former baseball star Barry Bonds received an appropriate sentence last week for giving misleading testimony to a grand jury is a subject for debate. What is unfortunately becoming evident, however, is that the era of cheating through substances has not ended with the string of high-profile convictions and court cases in recent years.
That became evident earlier this month when Ryan Braun, baseball's National League Most Valuable Player in 2011, tested positive for a banned substance. Braun, whose image is that of a clean-cut, hard-working competitor, said he is innocent. Through a spokesman, he said there are special circumstances surrounding his case that would explain the results, but he didn't provide specifics.
Perhaps there are such circumstances, but it is worth noting that nearly all athletes who test positive for banned substances say about the same thing. ESPN, which broke the story on Braun, said he tested positive for elevated testosterone levels, and that a later test by the World Anti-Doping Agency in Montreal determined that testosterone was synthetic.
These cases matter because of the tremendous influence high-profile athletes have on aspiring athletes in high school, or even younger. They matter because all sports depend, for their existence, on an underlying presumption of virtue. Society values champions because they presumably succeeded through hard work and competition within well-defined rules. Performance-enhancing drugs insult these notions and render sporting competitions meaningless.
A few years ago, President George W. Bush devoted part of his annual State of the Union address to performance-enhancing drugs. Some athletes, he said, are sending the message "that there are shortcuts to accomplishment, and that performance is more important than character." His concerns have been underscored by reports of abuses among even high school athletes, including in Utah.
On Friday, a judge sentenced Bonds to 30 days of house arrest, two years probation and 250 hours community service. But the sentence was immediately delayed pending an appeal, which observers say could take a year or more. The same judge sentenced 2000 Olympics medal-winner Marion Jones to six months in prison a few years ago. The judge also has given varying sentences from home confinement to a few months in prison to other athletes and to Bonds' trainer and the chemist who created an undetectable steroid known as "The Clear."
The maddening thing about substance abuse by athletes is there are legitimate medical purposes for most of these substances. Instead, they are being misused by people in pursuit of home runs, touchdowns or gold medals — things upon which many would place a high value in modern American culture.
No judge could relieve the physical sentence that likely will come to these athletes, ranging from heart disease to liver damage, cancers, strokes, blood clots and high blood pressure. But it is the damage to character and fair play that matter even more, and that can be contagious.
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