Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

January 20, 2013

Higher standard needed for athletes

By KATE COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— I am not a big sports aficionado, but it has been hard lately to avoid all of the sports in the news, most of it negative.

Last week, many of my friends were debating the New York Times decision to run a mostly blank sports front upon the announcement there would be no inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., this year due to doping. CNN has been flush with headlines this week about the Lance Armstrong doping scandal. It seems the impending Super Bowl is all but forgotten amid the debate over performance-enhancing drugs.

Baseball and bicycles were both a large part of my childhood and I would venture to say a large part of the idealized American childhood for most. I rode my bike on the cul-de-sac in front of our house, scraping knees and elbows until I got it right, and played little league baseball for six years. Both learning to ride a bike and little league games are a rite of passage for youngsters across the country. We associate both with the carefree days of childhood, yet recently they have both come under a dark shadow.

That is why, I think, we find these scandals so hard to swallow. Beyond parents, teachers and superheroes, the first role models for a lot of kids are athletes. Growing up, we are taught that “cheaters never prosper,” but then we see these athletes earning trophies, millions of dollars and sponsorships from major companies. When the cheating comes out in the end they often fall from their pedestal, but they are still teaching kids a lesson than cheaters can prosper at least until they get caught.

And yes, though some people might argue, I believe the use performance-enhancing drugs is cheating. It also sends a mixed-message to kids when we tell them to “Just Say No” to drugs and then make excuses for why these performance enhancers aren’t that bad. Besides all of the medical side effects they can produce, they send a message to kids that using drugs can get you a nice house, a wife who is a swimsuit model and fancy cars — until you get caught.

I know there is immense pressure on athletes to perform well. It is probably wrong of us to put so much time, effort and pressure into throwing a ball across a field when all of that focus could be so much better spent. Sure, these athletes give back to those in need, but is using ill-gotten funds and fame really canceled out by using them to support something worthy? I cannot say that finding a way to cheat cancer would be bad, but the fact of the matter is the money Armstrong won through his Tour de France was won through cheating. Since it was won through cheating, he basically stole it from the person who would have won had he not used drugs to his advantage.

I think, in a way, these drugs also take the magic out of the sport. I, like many others, was caught up in the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run rivalry back in 1998, but after finding out they were doping, the whole contest lost its magic. It diminished the mightiness of what they accomplished. These people are role models and inspirations to children across the country, and their actions have consequences not just for themselves but for the people who believe in them, admire them and want to be like them.

I find it strange we have such a high tolerance for cheaters in athletics yet every other discipline — perhaps with the exception of politics — have no tolerance for cheating at all. Teachers receive an immense amount of pressure to have their students score well on tests, but if they are caught cheating they lose their jobs for life. Law enforcement are under intense pressure to solve crimes, but in their case cheating can result in the perpetrator getting off scot-free. If a doctor cheats or takes a shortcut, someone’s life might be at stake. But cheat in athletics and to many people it’s no big deal.

It seems people forget the days of Babe Ruth, who still remains the Sultan of Swat. Willie Mays didn’t need drugs to hit the third most home runs in history. Jesse Owens bested Adolph Hitler without drugs. I believe in light of all the doping scandals, we should hold not only our athletes but ourselves to a higher standard.

Kate Coil is a reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at kcoil@bdtonline.com.