Monsters of Our Own Making

Undercutting Human Potential

Last month Major League Baseball was rocked by the release of the Mitchell report, which exposed the rampant use of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs among players. More than 90 players, including one of my heroes, Roger Clemens, were named in the report.

All those home runs fans celebrated, all those heroes kids emulated: History is now tainted. "I don't think there's any question," said baseball historian Bruce Markusen, "that some of the milestones we've come to respect have been cheapened." I wonder if fewer fans will show up when spring training starts in a couple months.

But do fans really have the right to indulge in righteous indignation over steroid-use in baseball—and in other sports, for that matter?

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While "baseball purists" raged over Barry Bonds's pursuit of the home-run record last summer, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson called Bonds "simply a man of his age." Not justifying steroid use, Robinson challenged the purists to look in the mirror.

"We, the paying customers," he writes, "want to see supermen and superwomen performing super feats, and we're willing to pay these gladiators a fortune. Why should they disappoint us?" I would add, how could they afford to?

Indeed, as Leon Kass and Eric Cohen wrote in the Washington Post a few years ago, "we are actually complicit in the growing dependencies of our gigantic heroes. We . . . enjoy the spectacle of greater power and speed." Thus, athletes "become better by no longer fully being [themselves] . . . The performed deed may be superior," Kass and Cohen continue, "but it is less a deed of the particular doer, more the work of his chemist."

Sadly, this trickles down to youth sports as well. The Positive Coaching Alliance released its Bottom 10 List of 2007's worst moments in sports. The number-two incident after the Mitchell report? An Orlando father was "found guilty of supplying steroids and human growth hormone to his 14-year-old son [in order] to improve his speed-skating skills." This is tragic.

As our capacity to reengineer the human body grows, what kind of society will we become? "We might lose sight of the difference between real and false excellence, and eventually not care," Kass and Cohen wrote. "Worst of all, we would be in danger of turning our would-be heroes into slaves, who exist only to entertain us and whose freedom to pursue human excellence has been shackled by the need to perform—and conform—for our amusement and applause."

There is room in the world for true sports heroes. And there are plenty of steroid-free athletes whose skill and commitment to excellence are worthy of our admiration.

I can't help but think of the great Olympian Eric Liddell, portrayed in one of my all-time favorite movies, Chariots of Fire. Refusing to compete in the Olympic 100-meter event because it was scheduled on a Sunday, he trained for the 400-meter race, which required completely different skills. And he not only won, he set a new world record. I never can forget his words in that movie:

"I believe God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure."

And that's a pleasure we can all feel when we use the abilities God has given us—when we reflect His image, not the image of our own making or a chemist's.


From BreakPoint®, January 9, 2008, Copyright 2008, Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with the permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. "BreakPoint®" and "Prison Fellowship Ministries®" are registered trademarks of Prison Fellowship

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