This week’s acquittal of the former baseball pitcher Roger Clemens on charges that he lied to Congress about his alleged use of steroids poses a huge dilemma for me. Not because I’m struggling with finding meaning in the investigation and trial of Clemens, or even whether he indeed violated ethical rules and laws by using prohibited drugs. But because I know my 11-year-old son (a huge baseball fan) is going to ask me if Clemens was a good guy or a bad guy.
What do I tell him?
On one hand, many commentators argue that taking steroids shouldn’t be such a big deal. Justifications cited for excusing steroid use include:
• Athletes use performance enhancers every day in the form of nutritional supplements, better equipment and training and advanced surgeries to repair injuries — no different from steroids, which only suffer from a negative public perception.
• Even if steroids cause health problems, it’s up to the individual athlete to weigh the side effects against the competitive advantage gained.
• Do steroids really make that much of a difference? Roger Clemens still has to throw strikes, and Barry Bonds still has to make contact with the ball.
• Athletes in every sport — from bicycling to swimming — use steroids; you can’t catch them all. In fact, if steroids had been around in the time of Lou Gehrig, he probably would’ve used them. (Say it ain’t so, Lou!)
• Big-time athletes never wanted to be role models, anyway. They’re paid to win games in a business that’s all about money, so where do you get off being so preachy?
I’m not buying any of these arguments, and my reasoning comes down to one name — Shirley Babashoff.
Let me explain.
I’m fond of telling stories to my children and have been creating stories with them since they were little. In fact, I often use stories to explain problems or events that trouble my kids. So when my baseball loving son asks me about Roger Clemens, I’m going to tell him the story of Shirley Babashoff.
Babashoff was a 19-year old American swimmer at the 1976 Olympic summer games in Montreal. She’d just come off a six-medal performance the year before at the World Championships, including two individual gold medals, and was considered a favorite at the Olympic Games. Many predicted she’d be the female Mark Spitz of the ’76 Olympics. (Spitz, as you recall, won seven individual and medley gold medals in the summer games four years before.)
Instead, Babashoff came in second in four races to swimmers from East Germany. Though she did win one gold medal as part of the freestyle relay team, her performance at the games was considered a disappointment by many.
To make matters worse, she didn’t hide her suspicions about the East German women. In a 2004 interview with Christine Brennan of USA Today, Babashoff recalled, “[They] had gotten so big, and when we heard their voices, we thought we were in a coed locker room.”
For her honesty, the press crucified her. In 1976, no one had pointed the finger yet against steroid use, and there was no drug testing at the time to substantiate her claims. The press labeled Babashoff a sore loser, even dubbing her “Surly Shirley.”
Babashoff was only vindicated after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when documents released from East Germany showed that its swimmers had used performance-enhancing drugs provided through a state-sponsored program. It’s questionable whether the East German women (many of whom, sadly, suffer ill health today from their steroid use), would have performed as well without these drugs. It’s very likely Babashoff would have won six medals, including five gold. Americans would then have seen her face on TV commercials as often as they see Michael Phelps’s today.
It’s a sad end to a great athlete’s career, but a story that gives me a strong example for my son. I’ll tell him that whenever people make excuses for famous athletes who take steroids, think of those athletes who don’t cheat and possibly miss out on the fame, money and recognition enjoyed by those with less integrity.
For every star batter who hits a home run in a World Series game but cheated using steroids, think of that minor leaguer who toils all his life in Triple A ball but refuses to take pills or receive injections.
For every substance abuser who wins the Tour de France, think of the bicyclist who stays clean yet forever pedals in anonymity in the back of the peloton.
And think of Shirley Babashoff. She’s the reason we should banish substance abusers from sports. Otherwise it’s unfair to the athletes who play by the rules and don’t cheat.
As my son and I watch the Summer Olympics in London later this summer, I’ll remember Shirley Babashoff. I’ll tell my son that regrettably, the International Olympic Committee never awarded Babashoff the gold medals she so richly deserved. But she earned much more than gold medals that aren’t even made of pure gold. She earned the respect of athletes and fans everywhere for keeping her integrity and displaying the kind of courage we should all admire.
John McCormick and his sons William and Connor are the authors of “Dad, Tell Me A Story,” How to Revive the Tradition of Storytelling with Your Children (Nicasio Press 2010). For more information about family storytelling, visit the authors’ website and blog at http://DadTellMeAStory.com, or read their regular posts on The Parent Network at http://ptvn.org.