Each week in The Holy Huddle, Doug Hankins takes a look at the goings on of the sports world from a distinctly Christian perspective.
Roger Clemens. Lance Armstrong.
Texans. Hall of Famers. Transcendent athletes. Cheaters.
In the past week, the sports world has discovered more details in the grand narrative of these two sports luminaries. This past Monday Clemens was acquitted of six counts of perjury and obstruction of justice charges in federal court. Armstrong was recently barred from the French Ironman triathlon in the wake of rehashed charges from a new U.S. Anti-Doping agency. And while both Clemens and Armstrong maintain their innocence, their public personas, marketability, Q-scores and character have taken quite a hit.
But, why do we tend to think less of them in light of these legal battles? After all, the U.S. government failed to convict Clemens. And Armstrong has maintained his innocence by volunteering to and passing 500 doping tests throughout his career. He is the most drug-tested athlete in sports. Isn’t that enough for the sports community? Isn’t that enough for the court of public opinion? Isn’t that enough for Christian fans?
Sadly, it is not. The sports community, especially the Christian sports community, cannot seem to let it go. In what follows, I hope to articulate what many of us are feeling whilst reading through these headlines:
- We believe they did something wrong. While we are not certain as to what Clemens and Armstrong did, exactly, in terms of drug enhancements, we suspect that they did something. And “something” provided a competitive advantage. The playing field was not even during their competitive heydays. I sense that all of us, athletes and fans alike, intuitively sense this injustice and have responded with disgust.
- We are frustrated with the real difference between legality and ethics. These court cases determine legal repercussions. However, legality is a different animal than ethics and morality. Whatever Clemens and Armstrong did, it is viewed by some as immoral and unethical within the context of the sports world. The err in logic during this whole process of steroid hearings and anti-doping agencies is a shared presupposition that legal injustice would correspond with ethical injustice in a one-to-one manner. Thus, if Clemens was found legally guilty, perhaps that would shed light on his ethical guilt. However, as Clemens’s trial proved, congress does not help determine ethics. It only helps determine legal fairness. The ethical component is a different, less-definable ideal. And that leaves us frustrated.
- We are frustrated by the lack of definition in sports ethics. Given the unregulated ethical system that most sports athletes live and operate within, can we really blame guys for using drugs or other undefined supplements to gain a competitive advantage? The rules of engagement are undefined. Outside of the newly integrated drug screens in MLB, athletes appear to have free reign in the area of supplements and medical aids. The default cultural ethos is: “If it is not specified as bad, it is permitted.” That is what allowed Kobe Bryant to fly to Germany to have an “unknown” knee procedure as a part of his recovery plan. It is what permits other athletes to install hyperbaric chambers in their houses or to have Gatorade G-series sponsorships or to hire personal nutritionists. We admit that our own collective public outcry over “injustice in sports competitiveness” is, at best, shallow and pedantic.
- We are frustrated that all athletes are not sanctified believers. While Christian fans can be disappointed in the perceived unfair competitive advantage, we recognize the reality of the situation. After all, we cannot expect non-Christians to act in a biblically ethical manner. To my knowledge, neither Clemens nor Armstrong are believers. Thus, they do not have the Holy Spirit working as an agent of spiritual change in their lives (Philippians 2:12–13). That they acted unethically is not a violation of the sports worldview, per se. Thus, it reminds us of the real truth of Gospel ministry — we canot be shocked when non-believers act like non-believers.