LLOYD GRAY: ‘Tipping point’ for cheaters?

Lloyd Gray MugIn the 2000 best-seller “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell defines it as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point” when change slowly in the making takes off in a rapid and irreversible course.

Have we finally hit the tipping point in sports cheating, at least in baseball? And is it because the players who don’t cheat have finally gotten fed up with those who do?

The Ryan Braun episode could be it. Braun is an outfielder for the Milwaukee Brewers, one of the game’s best players and winner of the National League’s Most Valuable Player award in 2011. Braun last week was suspended by Major League

Baseball for the rest of the season – 65 games, costing him $3 million of an $8.5 million salary – for use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs.

It’s a pittance for him over the long haul. But the most important thing about this is the reaction of other players. They’re incensed. They’re outraged. They’ve had enough.

It’s about time.

The Braun case, and the likely similar cases with other big stars to follow involving the Biogenesis clinic in Miami, are stoking this new indignation for several reasons.

Baseball is trying mightily to put the Steroids Era behind it. Disgraced retired superstars like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Roger Clemens have brought the spotlight down on the cheaters and MLB’s unwillingness for the longest time to crack down on them. Now that MLB’s hierarchy is determined to clean up the game, any player who still cheats is reckless, arrogant and convinced of his own invincibility to an astonishing degree.

But what is particularly galling about Braun was his righteous indignation as he loudly proclaimed his innocence after he tested positive for the first time last year. He got off on a technicality – his urine sample wasn’t handled correctly – and he continued to lie to fans and his fellow players. When he finally had no defense, he admitted to “mistakes” as if it were akin to misjudging a pitch and striking out.
Braun will return next season and continue to pick up his millions. Fans and players aren’t likely to give him a warm welcome.

The circle-the-wagons mentality among the players is finally breaking down. That will be good for a game that can’t afford more scandals taking down some of its highest profile players.

Braun is a Hall of Fame caliber player. He won’t make it now. Neither will the others mentioned earlier, nor Alex Rodriguez nor any of the players caught in the Biogenesis net.

All of us share the human propensity for self-justification, but star athletes seem particularly susceptible. Few PED users have fessed up in a way that admits that what they did was morally and ethically wrong.

“Mistakes” is our modern euphemism for bad deeds. It is morally neutral. Politicians use it all the time to describe their moral and ethical failings. It is non-judgmental, and few want to be judgmental of themselves – or others – these days.

But now it appears that Major League Baseball players are taking the judgmental batting gloves off. They’re willing to say something’s wrong and acknowledge the betrayal of trust they and the fans feel. That’s a good thing, not just for baseball but for the wider culture.

In a world that had its rational and ethical wits about it, cheaters – no matter how talented they were – would be baseball outcasts. And politicians – whether serial “sexters,” congenital liars or simply bought off by special interests – would have an appropriate sense of shame and remorse.

If Braun is baseball’s tipping point, he’ll have unintentionally contributed to a resurgence of reason and ethics on one public stage in this ethically muddled age.

Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.