Coming Clean: It's Complicated

January 25, 2010

INT. ROOM WITH A FIREPLACE—EVENING

Two men sit in cushioned chairs facing each other under soft lighting. MCGWIRE is a former ballplayer with a graying goatee and a dress shirt open at the collar. He looks smaller than in his playing days, like a grape gone straight to raisin. COSTAS is an ageless TV journalist wearing a serious tie. He has notes in hand but rarely looks at them. He knows this drill.

COSTAS (somewhat incredulous)

What you're sitting here telling me is that you could have done essentially what you did without ever touching performance-enhancing drugs.

MCGWIRE (voice shaking, bites lip)

That's why it's the most regrettable thing I've ever done in my life.

It was good theater, wasn't it? For 48 minutes on Jan. 11, Mark McGwire deluded himself in front of Bob Costas on the MLB Network, the climax to a one-day steroid confessional that began with a statement to the Associated Press and interviews with select major media outlets. Touch 'em all. Call it the Redemption Rollout scene in another baseball chick flick filled with tears, produced to cleanse McGwire's image just in time for his reentry into baseball as the Cardinals' hitting coach.

The director of this p.r. strategy: a sports communications firm run by Ari Fleischer, the spokesman during the early years of W's White House—an administration not well-versed in apologies. But Fleischer didn't require an education in contrition to guide McGwire; he merely had to stage a public display that would go straight to YouTube. Whether a player's I'm sorry spills out evasively (Jason Giambi) or clumsily (Alex Rodriguez), with earnestness (Andy Pettitte) or cluelessness (Manny Ramirez), he need only emit emotion and never admit to cheating. He must calibrate his words like an artful banker: concede mistakes but never confess to perpetrating a fraud built on exotic numbers that brought riches at the expense of clean players and the bill-paying public. Plenty of regret, zero refunds.

And yet as angry as folks are with Wall Street, no one is looking to claw back the loot gained by deceptive athletes. "Sports fans are the most forgiving consumers of any industry," says David Carter, executive director at USC's Sports Business Institute. "If any other business treated its customers the way athletes treat their fans, in a lot of cases they would not have anyone lining up." Outrage barely lasts an inning. After McGwire endures the excoriation period—taking his beatdown from bloggers—he will no doubt become the beneficiary of America's short attention span as everyone Googles the next foolish act by a sports figure. (Gilbert Arenas brandishes pistols in locker room! Lane Kiffin runs out on Vols!)

And why wouldn't elite athletes, already awash in perks from red-carpet passes to punch cards for strippers, feel entitled to unconditional forgiveness once they express sorrow as the cameras roll? (Think it wouldn't have worked for Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds? Just imagine if they had been less defiant.) Wrap up the comeback with a title—think Kobe or A-Rod lifting a championship trophy—and a disgraced star is once again a darling.

But true atonement isn't intertwined with a victory parade. It's a private reckoning—with your conscience and with those you've harmed. What makes McGwire's coming out now most disturbing is how self-serving it is: His confession was a career move. The redheaded slugger had never told his son, Matt, whom he hoisted at the plate after he wrapped his biceps around homer number 62 in September 1998. Had he used Matt as a prop throughout the phony joyride? He had never told Roger Maris's children, who had to grieve the loss of their father's single-season home run record with grace and dignity from the front row that same season. How could McGwire have put them through that? He had never told St. Louis manager Tony La Russa, whose smarty-pants don't quite fit the same after he depicted McGwire to be as pure as spring water all these years. How willfully ignorant does the manager look now?

Of course, if every ball the Cards hit looks as if it's hitched to a comet next season, the collateral damage of McGwire's lies will be largely forgotten. He'll be Big Mac again in a happy Hollywood ending. "There is no sacredness to [sports] anymore," says Charles E. Yesalis, a retired Penn State professor who has written books on PEDs. "The games and the players are seen as another form of entertainment. Look, I like Spielberg movies, and I know there are special effects, but all I want is the movie. I don't want to see how the special effects are made during it. It would wreck it."

To see the reality is to ruin the escapism in sports. So offenders of all kinds are routinely welcomed back to the land of make believe. A St. Louis Dispatch headline last Friday read, MCGWIRE GETS BACK TO WORK; RELIEVED AND "READY TO MOVE ON." I get the need for closure, and certainly there's a place for forgiveness. But only if it is earned through personal accountability and not merely bestowed as a welcome-back present. Shouldn't atonement require more than a staged television event in which the actor takes a deep breath, dabs his eyes and says, "Bless me, Bob Costas, for I have sinned"?

Talk Back

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True atonement is a private reckoning—with your conscience and with those you've harmed. McGwire's confession was a career move.

PHOTOJOHN BURGESS

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