Drug cases show sportswriters don't cut it as morality police

The Baltimore Sun

St. Louis -- If sportswriters needed to be reminded why we struggle to command respect from sports fans, we dizzily provided more fodder for our critics in recent voting for prestigious awards in baseball and football.

In baseball, voters humiliated retired St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire in his debut on the Hall of Fame ballot. He received only 23.5 percent of the vote, far less than the minimum 75 percent needed for induction into Cooperstown.

In a vote of writers who cover the NFL, San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman was honored by being named first-team All-Pro.

Is anyone else confused?

McGwire was barred from Cooperstown because the writers suspect he used steroids in his playing career. But Merriman was decorated with All-Pro honors even though he failed a steroids test this season and got suspended by the NFL for four games.

During McGwire's career (1986 to 2001), Major League Baseball did not have a rule in place that prohibited the use of steroids. Fay Vincent, the commissioner at the time, issued a memo in the early 1990s banning the use of steroids. But as Vincent told me in an interview last week, his memo had no authority over players for the simple reason that, according to the labor agreement between owners and players, changes must be bargained.

"I sent it out because I believed it was important to take the position that steroids were dangerous, as were other illegal drugs," Vincent said. "As you know, the union would not bargain with us, would not discuss, would not agree to any form of a coherent drug plan. So my memo really applied to all the people who were not players."

Steroids are illegal unless prescribed by a doctor, but technically, McGwire didn't break baseball rules if he did use 'roids. But there is no gray area with Merriman: A clear and negotiated rule is on the books, and he violated the rule. Period.

The double standards are preposterous. For the most part, we're talking about two separate groups of voters, but we come from the same family (sportswriters). And it is remarkable to note the difference in the mind-set of writers who cover baseball compared with those who report on football. In baseball, we've reached the point where a player can be stained for life even if there's no conclusive evidence that he used steroids. But the football media apparently are willing to overlook real steroids violations and do not hesitate to glorify and exalt a proven steroids cheat.

One word: insanity.

The news that San Francisco Giants home run king Barry Bonds failed an amphetamines test last season only further calls into question the foolish concept of deputizing sportswriters to serve as morality police.

Amphetamines weren't outlawed by MLB until the start of the 2006 season. That means generations of ballplayers, and presumably some of the all-time greats, were free inside baseball's walls to gulp as many greenies, uppers and pep pills as they wanted to get a desired quick-fix performance boost.

Bonds got caught by new rules that didn't apply to previous stars. But should we downgrade those already enshrined in Cooperstown? It's safe to assume that some (if not many) used pep pills to push their tired engines through long seasons.

You may be thinking: Popping amphetamine pills was permissible under baseball rules until 2006, so why discredit past baseball heroes for using greenies? Ah, but we used alleged steroid use to discredit McGwire, and MLB didn't ban the use of steroids when he played.

This is tricky, but of this I am certain: Given the wildly disparate ways that we sportswriters treated McGwire and Merriman, don't turn to us for consistency in dispensing justice on sports-doping matters. We're making up standards, and arbitrarily changing them, as we whimsically go along.

Bernie Miklasz writes for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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