With lives on the line, records not a priority

The Baltimore Sun

A famous and popular wrestler murdered his wife and son, then killed himself. He is only the latest in a long line of performers in that sport to die at a young age of very unnatural causes - and with steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs involved, either intimately or peripherally.

And we spend all our time complaining about a home run record?

Sorry. After hearing each new gruesome development in the Chris Benoit story, I get less and less outraged about Barry Bonds. If people are dying because of steroid abuse and taking innocent lives with them, then wasting all this ink and electricity and oxygen venting about the sanctity of baseball's record book is stupid.

It's not as if this angle of the steroid tale is cropping up for the first time. That epic congressional hearing two years ago is remembered for Mark McGwire swallowing his reputation, Sammy Sosa losing his language skills and Rafael Palmeiro jabbing his finger - but the more poignant witnesses were the parents of young men whose deaths were connected to their abuses.

Donald Hooton and Denise Garibaldi addressed a significant public health and societal issue with terribly wide-reaching implications. They didn't go unnoticed. But in the grand scheme of things, they were tragically overlooked.

And for the most part, I was right with everybody else. A couple of columns featuring Hooton denouncing Palmeiro after his positive steroid test in 2005, and Garibaldi applauding baseball when it finally added some teeth to its testing program. Then, like most of the sports world, I got back to woofing about Bonds and McGwire and Jason Grimsley and the NFL and Floyd Landis and Lance Armstrong.

Bonds is in the news this week, because he's starting in next week's All-Star Game, and he's five homers away from Hank Aaron, and he gets jeered everywhere he goes, and people spend good money traveling to games and painting banners and concocting costumes and props to taunt him.

Landis and Armstrong are back in the news, because the Tour de France starts this weekend. Fresh speculation has surfaced in Sports Illustrated implicating Armstrong, and Landis is, despite the circus of the past year as he tries to disprove the positive test from last summer, still the defending champ.

Did they cheat, any of them, all of them? Are their records legit? Are their reputations legit? Is there a double standard about which person is believed and which isn't?

Who cares?

A man killed his wife and young son and then himself, and steroids might be involved. As if we should care whether these substances are tainting someone's legacy. They might - might - have cost an entire family their lives.

We've been missing the boat, even though it's been sitting in our living rooms all along.

I'm with the observers - including pro wrestling supporters such as The Sun's wrestling blogger, Kevin Eck - who say that our business went overboard with screaming headlines about " 'roid-rage," and took the lazy route of ridiculing Vince McMahon. At the same time, the WWE was no less irresponsible in declaring steroids had nothing to do with this, period.

The truth that lies in between is that the more we learn about steroids, the more we find out how much we still don't know. If we discover that side effects include depression, brain damage and mental illness of any sort, then another layer is peeled back, and the more the better. Information is more than power; information saves lives.

We should give up the luxury of saying we "know" what steroids do and don't do. Once upon a time, we all "knew" that cocaine was as safe as marijuana, and we all "knew" how you could and couldn't get HIV.

Problem is, for years there has been anecdotal evidence of the damage performance-enhancers can cause. The Wild West atmosphere of the steroid world makes it very hard to accurately track such damage, but where there's smoke, there's fire.

All of this makes the current level of debate over performance-enhancing drugs juvenile. Sadly, it probably will stay at that level for now, because it was "just" a wrestler, in a pretend sport run by a self-promoter. There is real angst among WWE fans, but far more fury will be inspired in the public by each ensuing Bonds home run, because we can't get our heads out of the whole business about the legitimacy of the records. Our emotions about the sport and players and legends we care about get in the way of our reason - and, thus, our larger sense of decency.

It might take, as it's been written before, the death of a star of one of the major sports, in his prime, for us to finally be clued in to the barely controlled use of these substances. Or the death of a star's wife and kids, by that star's hand.

Until then, though, we're going to keep popping veins in our necks over Bonds and the record and whether Bud Selig should be at the game in which Bonds passes Aaron.

Let's reset our priorities. Let's argue about whether Selig should be at Chris Benoit's son's funeral.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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