Everyone Plays in the Blame Game

Before a House committee, Roger Clemens says his former personal trainer, Brian McNamee, is lying about the pitcher's use of performance-enhancing drugs.
By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 14, 2008

As Roger Clemens, one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, sits before a House committee trying to defend himself against allegations that he used steroids and human growth hormone, people slip into the crowded hearing room to take a peek. Small groups of fans rotate in for 20 minutes, then are escorted out. A woman in a black Yankees baseball cap squeezes by, pressing into the packed room. A teenager in a blue blazer sits on the edge of his seat trying to determine whether Clemens is lying or telling the truth. A government worker who took personal leave watches to see whether his hero has fallen, trying to decide where blame lies in this whole sordid baseball scandal.

For almost five hours, blame gets tossed around the room like curveballs. A baseball hero on a mound of blame politely and desperately staring down members of Congress who throw fast ones of their own. Who did what when, why, how? Fielding questions in a room where blame is determined: Blame the league, the players, the trainers. Blame ignorance. Blame the edge, that thing that puts you on top.

As you stand in the crowded room, you look for another culprit -- abstract, yet real. You wonder what blame can be laid at the feet of our culture's Great Expectations -- the need to build up ordinary people and make them extraordinary. Hold them to incredibly high standards, then watch them fall.

Others, you discover, have wondered about this, too.

Waiting his turn to squeeze in to see the Clemens spectacle, Jonathan Wagner, 16, an 11th-grader from Reading, Pa., says, "I think fans expect them to perform at the highest level. They feel pressure to use performance-enhancing drugs. Society puts pressure on them to be almost perfect. Sometimes it's hard to do that on their own. I'm a high school athlete, and it's a lot of pressure for me. I can't imagine the pressure on the professional stage. There is competition to be better than everybody else."

Says Eduardo Contreras, 36, of Bethesda: "We idealize our heroes. We expect them to live up to impeccable standards they obviously may not meet. The amount of spotlight they get makes it hard to look at them as ordinary people."

What is the culture's role in driving some athletes and ordinary people to try to improve upon what is only human? To artificially build a better body, make it bigger, stronger, faster; to beat records with amazing power; to entertain us on the pitching mound (or on the track, or in the football stadium); to hit hundreds of home runs with balls thrown at superhuman speeds -- what role would Great Expectations have in this ugly baseball story?

Expectations, we know, do not literally bend the player over and stick a syringe in his butt. Expectations do not cook up chemicals to avoid detection. The fan, holding expectations, comes to the game, cheers and goes home.

But some people argue the fan plays a silent role in this horrible story of cheating. Fans have come to expect the damn-near impossible from players. Not satisfied that they bring home one gold medal. Make it five. Not satisfied that they hit 400 home runs; make it 568, even if they may be tainted. To hell with that, did you see that hit? How much is the home run ball worth?

Some players have turned to chemicals to enhance their performance -- though they may deny it -- to earn more money and give fans what they expect: impossible feats.

"Bigger, faster, stronger is a mantra so often heard in all of American culture," says Dave Czesniuk, director of operations at the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. "Fans get a rush, a drive out of this in watching athletes pull off new feats and expecting athletes to pull off new feats. It is when they develop attitudes, moods, emotions based on pretty unrealistic expectations that it becomes dangerous.

"Fans might create a superhuman image in their minds about these athletes. All of a sudden, when athletes make mistakes, they become supervillains. We have to remember athletes are still human beings. Just like they should not be held to some superhuman standard, we can't condemn them as supervillains when they make these mistakes, either."

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