Monday, May 11, 2009

Athletes Need To Talk More Dirty

The Streets--"Stay Positive" (mp3)
The Hold Steady--"Stay Positive" (mp3)

The recent suspension of Manny Ramirez for 50 games serves as a great demonstration of how dangerous euphemisms can be. In this case, that is not only true for this particular athlete, but it is also true for all athletes and all those associated with sports, including agents, managers, lawyers, even reporters.

For the record, here's the story in a nutshell: Ramirez has tested positive for the use of a banned substance, which means he has violated the rules of Major League Baseball. Hence, the suspension. Hundreds of newspapers, television newscasters, and blogger have all retold the story using the same language:

Tested positive.

Hmmmmmm......he did indeed "test positive," but what he really did was to use a "performance-enhancing drug." No, what he really did was cheat. That's right. Manny Ramirez cheated. He took the rules of a sport he has played professionally for nearly two decades and he broke those rules. No one with even the slightest understanding of professional sports is likely to believe that he didn't know what he was doing.

Now, yes, I could go after "peformance-enhancing drugs" or "banned substances" or any of the other crummy euphemisms for illegal drugs, but I want to stay focused on the action here. What did Ramirez do? He "tested positive."

When that phrase becomes the sports-wide euphemism for using illegal drugs, it compromises the value systems of everyone involved. Notice what it says. It says that the athlete took a routine test and the results confirmed drug use. Notice what it doesn't say. It doesn't say that Ramirez acted in any way. He's just a pin cushion. We have no idea who tested him, when the test was done, where the test was done, or even, though we can guess, why the test was done. It doesn't even say that he used the drugs; he merely, though tragically, tested positive for them. He's passive in all of this, maybe a victim? Maybe just unlucky?

Most high school kids today know that if you eat a bunch of poppy seeds, you will test positive for heroin (urban legend? I don't know). But when we only say that an athlete "tested positive," how do we know that Ramirez, in effect, didn't just ingest the testosterone-increasing equivalent of a poppy seed bagel? So is he guilty of anything? Does he think he did anything wrong? It's hard to say.

Though he is "sorry" and says that the "mistake" is his "responsibility," his final words on the subject (would like to say more, but has been advised not to) are that he wants everyone to know that he has "taken and passed about 15 drug tests over the past five seasons."

Really, Manny? Congratulations!

I guess that means that the drunk driver who made it home shitfaced the last 15 times without getting caught was never a drunk driver. Until the 16th time when he hit somebody or got caught. If you really wanted to defend your character, why didn't you just say, "I DON'T USE ILLEGAL DRUGS???????" Why hide behind passing drugs tests? Unless you do use "banned substances" and have just gotten lucky for the past 5 years.

It gets more insidious. A relatively-distant voice on the topic, Mr. Frank Burke, who owns the Chattanooga Lookouts, our local minor league team, commented, "I never like to see anybody test positive, because it's bad for the game." Hell, yeah, it's bad for the game, but Mr. Burke's remark reinforces the confused value system. One might be tempted to think that what Mr. Burke thinks is "bad" is not the using of illegal drugs, but the getting caught, because he doesn't say a word about drug use. He only talks about getting caught. He never likes to see anyone test positive.

One of the few things that could perhaps help a guy like Ramirez, even at this late stage, is if he started talking dirty. And by dirty, I mean truthfully, because when you strip it all away a lot of the time, the truth of a matter is pretty dirty. Manny Ramirez and all of the others in every sport who "test positive" need to say out loud and very clearly so that all can hear: "I knowingly used illegal drugs and this means I cheated and am deserving of whatever punishment the league, or whatever, thinks is appropriate." No euphemisms, no equivocations, no poppy seed bagels.

Certainly, it would help the younger athletes coming up to hear that using illegal drugs constitutes cheating and will be punished. Unless, of course, that's how the game is supposed to be played.

The Hold Steady and The Streets are available at Itunes. Both entire cds highly recommended.


troutking said...

Well put. Yet another reason I'm off sports. Except for "I had a friend, was a big baseball player, back in high school..."

Billy said...

A very dark and cynical part of me wonders if we'd all be better off treating all professional athletes like we do pro wrestlers.

Let them juice themselves into overripe grapefruits. Let them be voluntary circus freaks who can look out on us in our season ticket personal seat-licenses and say, "Are you not entertained??"

But we're too morally upstanding to continue paying for what we already know is true unless we gloss it over and can effortlessly ignore the reality.

Jason said...

Speaking from personal experience, I can say that not all athletes are like this. It is just unfortunate, in my opinion, that baseball was not smart enough to come clean with everything at once from the 'Steroids Era'. Trust me, a lot of these guys who are getting flushed out of the woods now, were well known for a long time for these transgressions. Personally I slam the owner's puppy of a commissioner for a big part of this problem. Looking at you Selig.

I would also be really interested to see what the author's perspective on recreational drugs and admitting responsibility about them would be to children. I have never ever tried them (honestly Mr. Clinton I actually never have inhaled) but I wonder if sometimes we hold athletes to a higher standard because of the role model argument.

Bob said...

Jason, this author's perspective on recreational drugs has been as follows: I tell my children (and students) (pretty much) everything.

Personally, I don't hold Ramirez to any standard at all, but the sport, well, as you suggest, I think the blame lies in the administration of the sport and part of that is their obfuscating language.

Jason said...

Thanks Bob, your answer is exactly what I figured it would be:)

As for my take on athlete's and the admission(s) about drugs-well the only thing that I can say, and I don't agree with it, is money. That is what truly stops an athlete from culpability-in my humble opinion. Sports are huge, huge business nowadays, in every way.