Words numerous enough to fill a mountain have been spent on the subject of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, but if there’s a sport that’s even worse off, it’s cycling. More than half of the top 10 finishers of the Tour de France in the past decade have either admitted to, tested positive for, or otherwise been officially sanctioned for doping. If you expand that list to include the cyclists who have been accused by other riders, named in reports, or caught with performance enhancing substances outside of races, the number rises close to three-quarters. It’s a dirty, dirty sport—and baseball should be paying close attention.
What I find most interesting about the recent developments in the Lance Armstrong fiasco isn’t the admission of guilt or the incredibly sophisticated methods cyclists have used to skirt around the rules, but the public reaction. The public should have reacted similarly to how they did when Barry Bonds was caught up in his own steroid mess, no? So why does it seem so much more widespread and so much more negative?
Let me be clear—Barry Bonds clearly received a harsh public treatment after his steroid allegations entered the mainstream. Arguments revolving around game purity have been tossed around for years. And this year, in his first year of eligibility, the greatest hitter of his generation (and his father’s generation, for that matter) received 36.2 percent of the vote, presumably all due to his shadowed history with performance-enhancing substances. I’m not arguing that the public has ignored his steroid use, by any means. But when the Bonds’ allegations were at a peak, he didn’t garner 24-hour news coverage with headlines ending in “-gate” in bold red letters. Why?
I’m convinced a significant portion of the difference is due to the public’s opinion of these two athletes before anything happened. Lance Armstrong was an incredibly popular national icon who reached levels of popularity usually reserved for Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks and Oscar-winning actors, not for athletes in a sport with a relatively low fanbase like road cycling. He was the United States’ gleaming pride. He beat cancer, for Christ’s sake. And most importantly of all, he was as outspoken of an advocate for stricter drug-testing measures in sports as there ever was. In such a dirty sport, he was a clean, shining beacon of integrity. What wasn’t to love?
Obviously, Bonds never enjoyed such popularity. He was incredibly talented all the same, but to call him “likeable” would be a bit of an exaggeration. The public never warmed up to him in quite the same way they usually look up to sport stars, and when steroid allegations piled up, he denied everything in a way that didn’t change very many opinions.
On the other hand, Armstrong took pride in being clean. He repeatedly insisted he was the lone clean voice in a filthy room, even going as far as taking legal action against those who claimed otherwise. Wouldn’t you? If you had won seven grueling races in clean, legitimate fashion, and people started questioning your cleanliness, wouldn’t you want to scream it from the rooftops? And when the allegations got louder and more frequent, it’s easy to see that the hypothetically-clean Lance had a natural reaction. He held his ground and screamed louder. In a sort of now-perverse fashion, Lance’s defiance in the face of the steroid allegations made one of the most untouchably great athletes of all time relatable.
And that’s why the public reaction to Armstrong was sharper and more negative than most anything that Bonds faced. The public can deal with a villain doing bad things. The relative indifference Alex Rodriguez faced when admitting steroid use can attest to that. But a sterling role model who betrayed everybody by engaging in the very same behavior than those he repeatedly decried? It’s not the actions, but the betrayal of trust. It’s the height of the fall.
It’s this hero worship that baseball needs to watch out for. If a large portion of baseball players are indeed doping, as people like Jose Canseco have claimed, baseball obviously has significant issues to sort out. Cycling’s reputation in the public eye is irreparably damaged not only from the breadth of its steroid problem, but because the sport had all of its eggs in one enormous gleaming basket. Baseball is still recovering from a similar situation with Mark McGwire and Bonds, but all of the forward progress of the last decade can come to a screeching halt in a hurry with every failed test.
It’s nice to think that we’re far enough away from the steroid era that the public’s trust is all the way back, but re-opening that wound is something baseball simply can’t afford.