Cocktail hour at the country club.
The setting's all it's supposed to be for favored Americans -- the lake sparkling and clear, the golf course greens lush and well-tended, the hors d'oeuvres tasty and served with proper self-effacing manner, the members stylishly dressed and glowing with good health. They convey a sense of well-being and absence of trouble that come naturally from their fortunate manner of life.
The conversation's in keeping with this pleasing ambiance, too. There are no "heavy" subjects, no talk of politics nor of the sins of Washington, no expressions of concern about the farm problems that plague much of the Midwest nor of the tragedies unfolding in far-off South Africa. It is all polite and all familiar chitchat at any such American gathering. The men are also talking about a familiar American subject -- sports.
Two executives are conducting a postmortem on the Packers' opening-game debacle in nearby Green Bay (about as bad, to hear them tell it, as the pitiful Redskins' fall-down performance against Dallas). They're Notre Dame alumni, and they discuss getting tickets to see their team play against Army this year. Despite Notre Dame's poor record in recent seasons, it's as hard as ever to get those tickets if you didn't sign up long in advance.
The subject of Pete Rose comes up. They're aglow with praise for him and his record-breaking exploits last week: He's a great hero, a great American figure, a real gutsy hard-charging American guy, and so on in similar fashion.
A stranger, listening, notices an omission from their talk of sports. What do they think about the big-league-players-and-drugs story being reported prominently over network television and in papers across the country for the past two weeks? One of them shrugs. Are people talking about it? Do they hear expressions of outrage or shock or even disappointment? Again, a silent shrug and a negative shake of the head. You mean not even the surfacing of such a legendary name as Willie Mays (unfair though that may well be to him) in the unfolding sworn testimony doesn't set off sparks? No response. And why is that, they're asked. How do they account for the lack of public reaction?
"Look," one of them says, "it's just not surprising to anyone. It's a helluva note, but everyone knows it goes on. I guess we have come to expect the worse."
Then they launch into a denunciation of professional athletes and what they regard as their swollen, obscene salaries, their grandiose life styles, their out-for-number-one personal philosophies, their lack of commitment to the team that employs them or the city in which they perform.
Theirs was a bitter and strong blanket characterization, probably typical of reactions around the country. It suggests an underlying vein of resentment and disgust that is at odds with the apparent lack of public outcry over the latest drugs-in-sports scandal. And it raises other questions about the public and big-time athletics that go beyond this newest revelation of widespread use of drugs in the clubhouse, even to the purchasing and selling of drugs from professional suppliers who are permitted to frequent "off-limits" team areas.
"Hero/criminals" is the term a lawyer in the case applies to the stars who use illegal drugs. That's facile, but inadequate -- and much too narrow.
The villains in this piece are many, and they are by no means limited to the athletes who use the drugs and the dealers who supply them. Here are just a few of the others who ought to be, but have not been, included in the net of shame:
First, there are the owners, the managers, the trainers, the medical personnel, the security forces employed at every stadium and by every team. They can't be unaware of the link between drug use and sports, whether at so-called amateur or professional levels. At the least they haven't taken adequate steps to safeguard their teams and their players against it. Nor can they escape responsibility on other grounds: Wittingly or otherwise, the compulsion to win at any cost, to become No. 1, inevitably leads to use of substances that will enhance personal athletic performace, dull pain and help achieve the lusted-for victory.
But they don't operate in a vacuum, and they are not the only ones that bear responsibility for the sad condition of American sports.
In the end, the public must share equally in any allocation of guilt. This latest drug story comes after repeated, widely publicized incidents of illegal usage in college football, the Olympics, professional tennis tours and, now, Major League baseball. To each, the public response to the headlines has been the same: a collective yawn and a figurative wink. Let nothing get in the way of seeing your team, or player, win. If ingesting drugs or injecting steroids and whatnot helps accomplish that end, so be it.
Absent a true public sense of indignation and outrage that would compel changes, the commissioner of baseball has only one course. He must require players to take tests to ensure that they're drug-free.
In this, the example of the ancient sport of horse racing is applicable. Doping horses is banned. Tests are administered to see that expensive horseflesh is drug-free, that races are run without chemical assistance. The same should be so for the human horseflesh that provides the immense profits and affords the personal pleasure for the fans who ultimately pay the costs for the very big business that is American sports.