Wednesday January 9th, 2008

Most of you never heard of Ralph Beard -- or if you did, had forgotten him -- by the time he died a few weeks ago just short of eighty.

But back in the 1940s, Beard was a terrific All-American basketball player who led Kentucky to two national championships and the United States to a gold medal in the 1948 Olympics.

He was already a first-team NBA All-Star when it was revealed that he had taken money from gamblers to shave points in games at Kentucky.

Beard, like so many other players of that era, was summarily banned for life from the game. He admitted his guilt, too, saying that he had simply grown up poor and just couldn't resist taking the money. He lost it all for only about $700, branded forever as a fixer.

We tend to be more critical of athletes who conspire to lose, like Ralph Beard, rather than those who cheat trying to win, like steroid users. That's often dismissed as just being canny, looking for an edge. Why, Gaylord Perry was celebrated outright for his ability to throw illegal pitches; he tricked his way into the Hall of Fame, everybody laughing right along with him.

But the fact is, it makes no difference in which direction an athlete cheats; either way he is distorting fairness, which is the very essence of sport. Ralph Beard's transgressions cost his own team victory. If Roger Clemens -- or any other player named in the Mitchell Report -- is guilty as charged, then he cost other teams their fair due. What, pray, is the difference?

Now, of course, Clemens has taken a refrain from so many other guilty athletes' lyrics by claiming that he didn't know that he was being given a banned substance. Barry Bonds swore he thought it was all just flaxseed oil -- remember? Hasn't Clemens read that Bonds is up for perjury, that Marion Jones may well be sentenced to prison this very Friday for the same sort of lies? But here Clemens is, disputing his trainer, Brian McNamee, who testified -- under threat of jail if he was caught lying -- that he injected Clemens with steroids and HGH.

The sad and bizarre phone call with McNamee that Clemens taped last Friday and then played in public seemed only, to me, to confirm the pitcher's guilt. McNamee was distraught for having testified against his old friend and meal ticket. Time and time again, he pleaded: what do you want me to do, Roger?

Wouldn't an innocent man, with the tape secretly running, say: just tell the truth, Brian. Clemens so often told McNamee that he wanted the truth out, but when McNamee specifically asked Clemens what he should do, Clemens did not flat out ask him to tell the truth. Because, one can only surmise, then McNamee would say that he had already done that. And never did McNamee volunteer that he had lied. He seemed only to regret that the truth had hurt so.

All right, I'm sorry. Perhaps I'm just too cynical and hard-hearted. Perhaps I have just heard it all too often -- even emotionally, to my face -- from athletes claiming, with just as much dramatic insistence as Clemens supplied, that they were innocent, only to be convicted later.

Even after he told the truth, Ralph Beard spent more than 50 years of his life in shame. If Roger Clemens is guilty, then he deserves no better. Let's put the right word on it. Any player who took steroids is a fixer. He fixed games.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.