Amid all steroid questions, fans can demand an answer

Commentary

December 05, 2004|By DAVID STEELE

THE QUESTIONS ARE fairly simple. Chances are, the answers aren't as simple as they'd seem. Or, they might be painfully simple.

Elite athletes are asked similar questions every few years: Would they take a substance, legal or not, that would guarantee them a gold medal but would significantly shorten their life spans? An overwhelming majority answer "yes."

So, are fans as willing to go to the same lengths to see their favorite players, teams and performers win? From the outrage being expressed in the past few days about Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Victor Conte and Marion Jones, the answer is an emphatic "no."

The numbers tell a different story. So do the fans themselves. Which brings us to the aforementioned questions to a fan base that's infuriated by steroid use in the national pastime and in the Olympic Games.

If you knew that your team could win the World Series or Super Bowl led by a player known by all to use performance-enhancing drugs, would you keep supporting your team? Would you denounce the player and the team and refuse to acknowledge the victory?

How about this: what if you knew your team would win with that steroid-using player - and also knew that player would be dead in five years because of his usage?

There is a way to give unmistakable answers to those questions, answers that would send a definitive message to the athletes themselves, to the leagues and governing bodies and all those responsible for pushing too far beyond reasonable limits for the dollars that reward it.

Don't go to the games. Stop watching them on TV. Throw away your apparel, the caps, shirts, jackets, authentic jerseys, foam fingers, combination recliner/beer cooler with your team logo on it. Tell those who turn a blind eye toward cheating and excessive risk-taking that you're mad as hell and you're not gonna take it anymore. Then, don't take it anymore.

Can that be done?

It hasn't been done yet.

So many surveys in recent days have come out saying that no one was surprised by the revelations about Bonds and Giambi. Meanwhile, Yankees fans are demanding that the Yankees get rid of Giambi and his contract. Not a word is being uttered in San Francisco about booting Bonds off the Giants.

It may have something to do with Giambi hitting .208, missing half the season and being left off the playoff roster. And something to do with Bonds winning a fourth straight MVP award. Not to mention the Giants selling out nearly every game in their new ballpark since it opened in 2000, right around the time Bonds' numbers began going off the charts.

Major League Baseball set an attendance record in the regular season, and the television ratings for the World Series were the highest since 1999.

OK, one might say, but that's baseball. Who cares about track and field anymore?

Easy to say now, three months after the Athens Olympics and 3 1/2 years before Beijing. But not long ago, everybody cared, and NBC can show you the numbers to prove it - from ratings that were up 9 percent from the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, to vastly increased coverage thanks to six cable partners showing action around the clock, to the fact that increased TV ad revenue let them turn a profit on a rights fee of nearly $800 million.

So yeah, the Olympics are a big deal. And these Olympics remained a big deal, even though the BALCO cloud hovered over every 10th of a second of it. Americans watched even as they said to themselves, "I don't know if I can trust any of this." They found out for certain in 1988, the year of Ben Johnson, that they couldn't trust it. It didn't stop many, if any, from coming back.

Now baseball is in its "I don't know if I can trust it" phase. But it's been there for a long time. People might show up or tune in specifically to rain abuse and chants of "cheater!" upon Bonds - but they're showing up and tuning in.

The minute fans stop doing any of that will be when baseball, from Bud Selig to Donald Fehr and everyone else, suddenly gets that sense of urgency to clean up the sport. That's when players will push their union leader to put a testing plan in place. That's when the owners stop paying lip service to integrity while counting their receipts and trying to hide a smile.

The same will happen every four years when the usual concern over unsold Olympic tickets emerges, and organizers suddenly realize that it's not because of price-gouging or security fears, but because fans are sick of standing for the national anthem of the sprinter with the best pharmacologist.

Until then, ask yourselves those questions. How far are you ready to go for your team to win? And how far are you willing to let your favorite players go, and still be able to look yourselves in the mirror?

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