Thursday, August 8, 2013

Will Athletes Finally Reject Code of Silence?

Major League Baseball’s suspension of 12 players for using performance enhancing drugs reminds us again that a Code of Silence among athletes protect and abets illegal and unfair drug usage. Players in clubhouses generally knew who cheats; but everyone keeps silent.

 Fellow athletes know that using performance-enhancing drugs is illegal; they know users put the rest of them at a disadvantage in competition; they know using stops other younger players from playing; they know these enhanced players denigrate the game’s integrity. They know it is wrong, but they remain silent. Their silence undermines integrity as they collaborate in the cheating and scandals.
Until this Code of Silence dies, this cheating and unfair advantage will continue.

Let’s be honest. In the search for advantage in a brutal and competitive landscape, some players will cheat. This happens in any profession in a competitive world with real stakes. Every profession, sports included, has to self-regulate to limit the cheating and advantages that accrue to the cheaters.

The two ways to discourage cheating involve:

1)   Change the risk/reward calculation of the person tempted to cheat. The equation balances the probability of getting caught and the projected severity of the punishment against the gain in production, salary and longevity. 

2)   Change the culture of support or silence among teammates and fellow professional. If this culture is a “no snitch culture, athletes will not report and tolerate the use of performance enhancing technologies. When fellow professionals do not speak up, this makes hiding it easier and tilts the risk/reward calculus towards using.

Any sport seeking to discourage performance-enhancing technologies must have a rigorous, comprehensive and up to date testing system. To be accepted it requires due process to protect athlete rights, and serious and consistent penalties that players will accept as fair. This is a hard and requires evolving techniques to deal with the stealth and technologies of the cheaters. Strong programs need the support of professionals, in this case, athletes, to ensure wide compliance, a culture that supports it and avoids litigation.

This is where so many sports failed. The hostility between athletes and owners or regulating bodies generates a we versus them approach. Teammates band together against the “other.” This we/they intensifies the natural dynamic of any team to band together to support each other. The protective bonding grows from athletes’ desire to protect each other’s private life from the prying and reckless inquiries of the media.

This hostility is deepened in union policy and a history of owners who have colluded against players in baseball. The hostility of unions to strong drug testing programs reflected this distrust and the players’ legitimate fear that owners would misuse the testing to target them. Only in the last seven years have unions and management comes together to agree on stronger protocols, confidentiality protections and appeal processes. Both sides recognized that the credibility of the game itself had come under attack. But the Code remained intact and almost all the discovery of cheaters occurred with testing or investigations, none involved peers reporting users.

Leaving aside the travesty of modern cycling and the bankruptcy of sprints with its Ben Johnson’s and Marian Jones, no major sport has been so afflicted by performance-enhancing technologies as baseball. An entire era and all the accomplishments of that time are contaminated by wide use. This usage was common knowledge among other players, but everyone remained silent and collaborated in the era’s dishonesty; everyone but the reviled Jose Conseco. As Curt Schilling pointed out his accusations turned out to be accurate.

This Code of Silence can nullify strong testing programs. The testing programs need players to reject the Code. The Code of Silence among professionals reflects shared values and keeping each other’s back. It reflects everyone’s awareness that no one is pure and that the media will tear careers apart on the slightest excuse. It may even reflect an awareness that players feel they are benefitting from having the cheaters on their team at the moment or the fear that at some point in the future a player might want to use PEDs to augment their own declining career.

In many ways, however, modern professional sports do not have teams in the traditional sense. Teams turnover occurs every three to four years. Players are regularly cut, traded or sent to the minor leagues. During the course of a year, a baseball team can have a thirty percent turn over. The Code of Silence has its most power on teams, but has been embraced by the entire profession as players move so often now. This extension to the entire league makes even less moral sense because once you are on another team, the player you know who cheats will hurt you by his enhanced performance.

This Code possesses great moral weight as a “no snitch” rule among players. However, it strikes poses serious moral threats to the game itself and to players’ own integrity and career chances. Use of performance-enhancing technologies violates the integrity of the game, violates the integrity of the players who remain silent and collaborate in its use. The Code permits use and this hurts the silent players by shielding athletes who as opponents will have a decided advantage over honest players who do not use.

The Code’s power is impressive because players hurt their self-interest and violate their own commitment to the game’s integrity by remaining silence. The no snitch rule, us against them, and having each other’s back all push athletes to remain silent or “live and let live.” The problem here is that this is not live and let live.

Letting live means letting users prey on other players, including you. It harms all honest players. It also harms the future of the league because scouts cannot accurately assess talent if minor leaguers are using performance enhancers.

Silence and protecting performance enhancing users denies younger players a chance to get into games. It also keeps younger players who deserve a chance in the minors when enhanced athletes stay in the major leagues by virtue of enhanced performance. Silence indulges users. This behavior is wrong and hurts people. It is not live and let live.

Finally enhanced athletes as teammates and friends because they must lie all the time. PED users lie to fans and carve out performance records that are lies. But they also lie to themselves. We know from psychology that anyone who tells him or she a narrative long enough can come to believe it to be true. Self-deceivers lose their identity and live a lie given how much time they spend lying to themselves. Marion Jones, Ben Johnson, Alex Rodriquez, Mark MacGwire all could probably pass lie detector test because they had convinced themselves of the truth of their charade.

I hope that the cracks in the code are widening with the last round of exposures. The deceit of Ryan Braun is especially important. Braun is a widely liked and marketed star. He had publically apologized and swore to fans, teammates and owners that he was not enhancing his performance. He swore to athletes who regarded themselves as his friend and protector like Aaron Rodgers the quarterback of the Packers who claimed he would bet one year of his salary on Braun being clean.

Players, coaches and owners feel betrayed at a very personal level by Braun’s actions. The lies of 12 other players compounds and ripples across the major leagues. The deceit required poisons team cohesion and friendships. It also taints the achievement of every honest star that might fight the perception he or she is using.

If the Code is broken it can occur in three ways:

  1. Some players will whistle blow quietly but effectively. One of the issues that has hurt all investigations is the militant silence of the players towards other players on these issues. This needs to end.
  2. Players need to shun and shame the abusers and enhancers. This will take effort in the locker rooms and in union meetings and in discussions. Peer pressure can discourage would be users and at least ensure that past users can’t just pretend it never happened and return to normal. Peer pressure and force can be as powerful as occasional whistle blowing.
  3. The most powerful change in player attitude can play out with strong union support for permitting contracts to be broken and renegotiated with abusers. The union could also negotiate two strike rules against athletes who get caught a second time; this avoids the false positive issues. Both these approaches will take real constraints upon the owners who players fear will use drug issues to abort bad or foolish long-term contracts. But a change in player attitudes can play out with changed and harsher penalties in the contracts.      

Up to this point fellow athletes have sacrificed their own integrity and their own career prospects by abiding by a Code of Silence to protect cheaters and enhancers. This silence helps keep young players on the bench and in the minor. It disadvantages every player who must play against the performance enhancers. It makes the game a joke to those who love it and play it. It is time for players to reject the code and whistle blow, ostracize the users and push to change the penalties.

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