Saturday, August 18, 2012

Bonanza Column 246 - A Level Playing Field?

We’d like to think that sports stand as one of the last bastions of meritocracy in the modern world. Government has become the province of those who have the time and money to campaign, college admissions depend more on who you know and how much you can pay than on academic achievement, and advancement in business seems to have as much or more to do with connections and appearances than with real business acumen, but in sports it’s “faster, higher, stronger,” or so we hope.

The London Olympics mostly bore this out, but it’s the “mostly” that’s the rub. Some 100 athletes were barred from the games because of doping, resulting in very few doping problems in the Olympics themselves. While the actions of a few teams throwing matches to get more favorable opponents in groups play in badminton left a bad taste, by and large we can believe that the winners in each event were, in fact, the fastest and strongest, while not necessarily the highest.

But with Major League Baseball, not so much. Melky Cabrera, late of the Giants, looked like a true golden boy. A great hitter and fielder who seemed to get better and better. Fans dubbed him “the Melkman” and dressed in old-fashioned milkman uniforms to cheer him on. He seemed too good to be true and he was. Cabrera is now suspended for the rest of the season plus five more games after being found to have used performance-enhancing drugs, i.e. steroids.

Steroid use has become so common in professional sports that, except among Giant fans, this barely caused a ripple. Some would say “what difference does it make? These guys are overpaid, over-admired, and over-noticed, so what do you expect?” But I think it does make a difference, an important one. You’ll hear it said that we should just make performance-enhancing drugs legal – that somehow that would level the playing field (no pun intended). I don’t think so.

The whole ideal of athletic competition is, it’s true, a level playing field. Put everyone under the same conditions, the same constraints, and see who comes out best. Doping thwarts this – it tilts the playing field in favor of those who use the drugs, and gives cheaters an unfair advantage. If performance-enhancing drugs were made legal, the field would still not be level – everyone reacts to chemicals differently, and the advantage would not be to those who performed best, but to those whose genetic endowment most favored the use of the drugs. We might as well just have the drug companies put up competing formulas. And all that leaves out the indisputable long-term harm that these drugs do.

So Melky, we hardly knew ya – the great performer turns out to be a cheater, the great moments when he went deep are tainted by the knowledge that he was “artificially assisted.” When I was a kid we idolized baseball players – the great hitters – Williams, Di Maggio, Ruth – the great pitchers – Larsen, Ford, Slaughter – and the great fielders – Robinson, Mays, Mc Covey. Who will our grandchildren idolize? Certainly not the likes of the false Melkman.

On a totally different topic, Jim Clark did a good job last week of making the case for the importance of the meeting on August 28th to prioritize the issues raised by residents in the IV/CB 2020 listening sessions conducted in July. The past ten years or so have seen a number of visioning efforts, each of which has built on the others. The work of Jim, Gene Brockman, Dean Meiling, and others on engaging the Nevada Rural Development Council to conduct this latest survey is one of the most rigorous and most timely as the region moves toward greater community self-determination. I’m in Africa on business until after Labor Day, but I’ve read the report of the NRDC’s sessions and am looking forward to the community taking this conversation to the next level – I can think of nothing more important to do on August 28 than to attend this session and want to add my encouragement to Jim’s for you to attend.

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