Sports, particularly on the professional level, are more than just games. That is not a new thing. It is significant, for instance, that the enduring image of the 1918 Chicago White Sox betting scandal is of a young boy pleading with his hero, Joe Jackson, "Say it ain't so, Joe."
The quote may have been made up by an ambitious sportswriter, but it came to symbolize a nation's sense of betrayal, and its loss of innocence. The essence of sports is fair play, a field independent of political considerations and manipulation in which hard work and natural ability lead to success. Games have been used as giant metaphors for life, and their heroes have changed cultures. And while the behavior of athletes has from time to time disappointed fans in all ages, the way the institutions of sport react to such behavior may be legitimately seen as a bellwether for society.
If the institutions tolerate cheating, integrity suffers beyond the playing field. That is especially true in baseball, whose Hall of Fame instructs the baseball writers who vote on inductees to consider matters of morality, such as integrity, sportsmanship and character, as well as athletic performance.
Those writers chose this week not to induct anyone living into the Hall's class of 2013. That was not for a lack of candidates. The newly eligible names rarely have been so impressive in terms of on-field performance. Barry Bonds is the sport's all-time home run leader, and he holds the single season record in that statistic — both once held by Babe Ruth. Roger Clemens was without question the most dominating pitcher of his day. Other players with strong resumes were not new to the ballot but also were snubbed. This is a good thing.
The voters made it clear that cheating will not be rewarded, and the use of performance-enhancing substances — regardless of how many others may have done so — is wrong. It is rare that an athlete will admit to such a thing. In what has now become known as baseball's steroid era, a few have made candid admissions, and many have not. But the circumstantial evidence and accounts from those close to them cast serious doubt on many of the game's heroes from that era. Athletes cannot expect to have their most productive years after they turn 40, nor is it natural for their muscles to balloon like the Michelin Man as they near the end of their careers.
Baseball is not the only sport infected by performance-enhancing drugs. Cyclist Lance Armstrong has made news by reportedly preparing to make admissions in an upcoming interview with Oprah Winfrey, despite years of denial. Football has a problem that stretches from the NFL to local high school teams.
A nation that places such a cultural importance on sports cannot lose faith in the integrity of those games without also affecting other fields of endeavor from business to academics to politics. The institutions in charge must hold fast to clear markers of right and wrong.
Professional athletes hold an enormous influence over young, aspiring athletes. Performance-enhancing substances can lead to a host of health problems later in life. But the biggest danger has to do with their tender and developing moral compasses.
Baseball's writers might have chosen to induct some of the game's other eligible players who have not been associated with performance enhancers. But by offering up an empty slate, they have sent a clear and, we hope, powerful message.