NOT GETTING on our high horse here, because there's cheating and then there's cheating, and who are we to judge? If you cheat death, for example, you get a Lifetime movie deal. Cheating on your wife, not so much. O.K., just kidding. Either way, Lifetime deal. Somewhere in between, though, there's a continuum of chicanery that ranges from acceptable (charming even) to pathological (felonious even). That wide-eyed spitballer (Who, me?) shares the same lineup with engorged-noggin sluggers (So what!), after all. Sometimes it's not so easy to sort the fun from the fraud.
But, boy, was this ever the year we tried. Baseball—which has long tolerated all manner of con artist ("If you know how to cheat," Earl Weaver once advised, "start now")—got fed up by year's end and began naming steroid users. The NFL took the fun out of industrial espionage when it fined the New England Patriots for sideline sleuthing. In Formula One they had to crack down on crews who were going all Mission: Impossible with their manuals. Marion Jones, juiced to the gills, had to give up her Olympic gold medals. Even in college football, where pretty much everything goes, Florida State found itself stripped of a chunk of its roster for old-school school cheating. Two dozen of its players were suspended for the Music City Bowl against Kentucky on New Year's Eve.
Was 2007 the counterfeit year of all time? Well, given the calculus of cheating (the risk of getting caught versus the reward for getting away with it), it's very likely that it was. And 2008, which will offer even more inflated rewards at only slightly increased risk, will probably top this. To that extent we have only ourselves to blame. If we are affronted by the smirking lump of biomass atop Barry Bonds's shoulders, we might revisit our willingness to clap acclaim and contracts on such single-minded superstars. We can't expect them to be considerate of fair play if, in our equally single-minded determination to see rocket shots into the San Francisco Bay, we aren't either.
We can't be too hard on ourselves, though. It's not like cheating hasn't always been a part of sports anyway, even part of its entertainment value. Baseball, with its rogues' gallery of bat-corkers and ball-sanders, took for its slogan, "If you ain't cheating, you ain't trying" about the time Abner Doubleday was laying out base paths. Thou shall not steal signs? Really. Show us which commandment that is. And a paramilitary recreation like pro football? Isn't that just a place for CIA wannabes to sharpen their spycraft? A bugged locker room isn't so much a crime as a commitment to excellence.
Cheating has always been a colorful residue of persistence, an aftereffect of ambition. Not condoned, mind you, but accepted all the same as effort tweaked only just past the breaking point. Rosie Ruiz was not a threat to society, just a gal gone wrong in her perfectly reasonable attempt to shave a few miles off the Boston Marathon. You didn't need a Mitchell report to explain that.
But something different was afoot in 2007, the year of such grim comeuppances. Whereas cheating has always been recognized as part of the athlete's repertoire—to be broken out in the case of last resort (or moral collapse)—it no longer seems so human, not with all this pharmacological exaggeration. Roger Clemens stands accused of doping in his baseball dotage, but it does not feel like some offhand folly, does it? As he, and other players accused of taking performance-enhancing drugs, have become less real, less authentic, we now have a distance we can't bridge. We might be a little like Ruiz, but given our own pedestrian blood chemistry, we are no longer anything like Clemens. Bonds does not invite scorn, or asterisks, only for his supposed willingness to cheat but also because he's passed beyond our realm of humanity. He's not one of us, or, worse yet, his historical cohorts. Hank Aaron did not stick needles in his butt.
This has been slow to dawn on us, so grateful are we for outlandish accomplishments. But the people who are invested in this—team owners, league bosses—have suddenly jumped ahead of this curve of disappointment and, with varying degrees of rigor, have been clamping down. For Bud Selig, Roger Goodell and David Stern, being commissioner now essentially means being a cop. This is not because the prospect of Barry Bonds (or Sammy Sosa or Mark McGwire before him) cranking fuel-additive home runs is unfair. What do the commissioners care? They recognize the same calculus the players do. They do it because—much more damaging—it will become uninteresting. An athletic freak like Babe Ruth will always amaze and inspire. He is not that far removed from us. Nor was Aaron or Mickey Mantle, except by talent and effort, which was all the more amazing because it was observable. But chemically wound-up goofs like Jose Canseco aren't even relevant to us. We might marvel at their feats, but we do not take the work of replicants to heart, not for long we don't. It's the difference between Jesse Owens and Ben Johnson. You can tell the difference, right?
It's a shame, really, this had to happen, that authority had to step in and more or less legislate and enforce our disillusionment, maybe even before we actually felt it (and stopped going to games). Probably 2008 will bring more of the same, which is promising if it restores our faith in play. But a shame, all the same, to give cheating such a bad name.
ONLY AT SI.COM
Your one stop for offbeat humor and the wackiest sports stories and links, including Hot Clicks and the Daily List, is SI.com/extramustard.