This summer has hardly been fun and games in the world of professional athletics. The two biggest sports stories revolve around performance enhancing drugs peddled from an "anti-aging" clinic in Coral Gables, Fla., and an execution-style shooting death in Attleboro, Mass.
This past week Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig threatened to slap New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez with a lifetime ban. A decision is expected Monday. A-Rod is the biggest star to fall in the Biogenesis steroid scandal.
Days earlier, as the New England Patriots football team opened training camp in Foxborough, Mass., a dive team in Connecticut scoured the bottom of Bristol's Pine Lake for the .45 caliber pistol allegedly used by ex-Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez in the murder of Odin Lloyd on June 17. The Patriots cut Hernandez within hours of his arrest earlier this summer. He's being held without bond and faces life in prison if convicted.
Sadly, stories about athletes using banned substances or getting arrested are old news. Baseball, for instance, has been synonymous with steroid abuse for nearly two decades. After sluggers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa both broke Roger Maris' single-season home run record in 1998, they were linked to steroid abuse and called before Congress. Barry Bonds was implicated for using steroids after breaking Hank Aaron's all-time home run record. And seven-time Cy Young award winner Roger Clemens was among 89 players linked to steroid use in an independent investigation conducted by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell in 2007.
Steroids boil down to cheating. Major League Baseball is essentially battling a perception that its on-the-field product isn't altogether real. A record book checkered with asterisks is a black eye on the game. Worse, the game's biggest stars are the ones who keep getting caught. Last month, Ryan Braun, the 2011 National League Most Valuable Player, was suspended for 65 games for using performance enhancing drugs.
The National Football League has a different problem on its hands. Since the Super Bowl in January, roughly 30 NFL players have been arrested. Some of these cases involved grave acts of violence. The same week that Aaron Hernandez was arraigned on murder charges, Cleveland Browns rookie Ausar Walcott was charged with attempted murder in New Jersey. After being cut by the Browns, he pleaded not guilty. His case is pending.
The NFL points to FBI statistics that indicate the arrest rate for males in the general population ages 20 to 34 is 10 percent. The NFL insists that only 1 percent of its 3,000 players has been arrested since the Super Bowl.
That's some pretty fuzzy math. First, the FBI's arrest rates are not based on six-month snapshots from the Super Bowl to mid-summer. If we were to look at how many of the league's 3,000 players have an arrest record, the number would go up significantly.
More important, comparing NFL players to the general public is misleading. NFL players attended the best universities in the country on a scholarship. They earn seven-figure salaries and reside in the most upscale zip codes in the country. Millions of fans, especially children, idolize them. That's not exactly the profile of men in the FBI database.
It may very well be true that NFL players don't have a higher arrest rate. They probably don't. So what? The issue here is that the actions of pro athletes — good and bad — garner a lot more attention. From cheating to gain a competitive advantage to unlawfully using a weapon, when athletes get caught the consequences are far-reaching.
To a certain extent we shouldn't be surprised. Whether we are talking about cycling or track and field, the super competitive nature of elite athletes will inevitably tempt some to put banned substances in their bodies in hopes of gaining an edge.
Off-the-field violence may be an even harder problem to eliminate than doping. For starters, many player arrests occur in the off-season. There are limits to how much the NFL can do to control what grown men do in their discretionary time. No doubt the number of off-the-field incidents would dramatically decline if players stopped carrying handguns and stayed away from strip clubs. But it's tricky for the league to prohibit otherwise legal behavior.
I remain a sports fan. But as a parent, I teach my kids that athletes are not heroes. They are entertainers. What's done in arenas and stadiums is thrilling and sometimes even inspiring. But true acts of heroism happen on battlefields and in burning buildings.