We are a nation that loves its heroes.
We’re fascinated by the mystique of individuals like John Rockefeller, Jack Dempsey and Thomas Edison; three men who came from humble, hardscrabble beginnings, faced incredible obstacles and ultimately attained iconic American success. It’s only natural that we have an affinity for sports heroes, doubtless because they encapsulate the American dream in shorter strokes. They come from nowhere, achieve great things, and for some, face a crisis and redeem themselves.
We love that story. America is that story. Alex Rodriguez is that story.
A-Rod, we call him! (We love a good nickname.) We cheer him on because he lives the dream most of us secretly nurture every time we watch “our” team versus “their” team. He began with talent, then quickly moved up by proving himself capable and ultimately great.
“Americans love a winner,” General George Patton, another American hero said, “and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time!”
But self-interest can be an overwhelming aphrodisiac with the power to change a dream into a rationalization. After a decade of lies, Lance Armstrong’s admission and apology of doping to Oprah Winfrey came too little and too late.
Last Saturday, it was announced that Yankee third-baseman Alex Rodriguez would be banned from playing 162 games – the length of a season as well as postseason play – because of a drug scandal. Now, along with the largest contract in baseball – $275 million for 10 years – Rodriguez holds the record for the longest doping suspension in the game’s history.
Rodriguez has been down this road before. In February, 2009, he admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs from 2001 to 2003 after lying about it for six years. Since that time, however, he says he’s been clean. That was before baseball and the public learned a new word: Biogenesis – the Florida anti-aging clinic whose records implicated a number of professional players, including Rodriguez.
Despite the fact that Rodriguez has consistently passed all drug tests, the most damning evidence came when Biogenesis founder Anthony Bosch testified that he had personally injected Rodriguez with PEDs. With overwhelming evidence, baseball Commissioner Bud Selig suspended Rodriguez along with 13 other players. However, Rodriguez faced the largest penalty with a 211-game ban not only because he used drugs, but had interfered with the investigation.
On Saturday (Jan. 11), that suspension was reduced to 162 games by baseball’s chief arbitrator, Judge Fredric Horowitz.
While adamantly defending his position, Rodriguez has filed a suit of his own claiming that the MLB and Commissioner Selig paid $125,000 for documents from the Florida lab as well as strong-arming Bosch into testifying against Rodriguez – something the Yankee player and his lawyers believe to be ethically questionable, (and I have questions about that, too).
Nevertheless, baseball has caught Rodriguez with the goods, and it’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, for the Yankee player to succeed in overturning this latest decision in court.
However, Rodriguez is only the latest symptom of two typical American traits: the talent and persistence to succeed, and the willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve that success.
Traveling East by plane a few years ago, I struck-up a conversation with a comedian sitting next to me. Despite the fact that he made jokes for a living, he not only came across well informed, but serious. I talked about an exercise I was planning to give an ethics class whose premise dealt with steroid use. Having already made up my mind on the subject, I asked him: if he were playing baseball, would he use steroids?
He smiled and turned the question around: if there was a drug you could take that would improve your intelligence by 25 or 30 percent, but it was illegal, would you take it?
Immediately, I felt caught in my own trap. Considering the effects of caffeine on my brain, it would be hard for me not to want to try such a drug. All of us want to succeed, but sometimes, there is a temptation to cut corners. I quickly discovered that it had little to do with age when I posed a similar question to a class of high-school students who, moments earlier, had all felt that using steroids was wrong.
“Suppose,” I asked them, “there was a drug you could take that would increase your test-taking ability by 20 to 30 percent, but it was illegal. Would you take it?”
One kid raised his hand and asked, “How illegal?”
Once again, self-interest can be the ultimate drug. It can seduce us into thinking that the end justifies the means; that something is not an ethical issue; that because everyone does it, it’s okay for us; or, if it’s necessary, it’s ethical.
Most of us want to do the right thing. We believe that honesty and trust are essential in our relationships and we want people to trust us. However, too many times we have seen that even the well-intended of us overestimate the cost of doing the right thing and underestimate the cost of failing to do so.
This is the ethical dark side of the American dream. Sometimes, we want it so bad that we’re willing to rationalize, justify and lie to ourselves and others in order to achieve that dream: from JP Morgan Chase to Lance Armstrong; from Virginia Governor Mark Sanford to Alex Rodriguez. And those are just the recent examples.
Are we A-Rod?
Yes! But we’re also Harry Markopolos – the former financial securities executive who, over 9 years, alerted the SEC about Bernie Madoff’s $1 billion Ponzi scheme. We’re tobacco insider Jeff Wigand, who testified about the lies told by the tobacco industry. We are Cynthia Cooper, Coleen Rowley and Sherron Watkins – TIME magazine’s 2003, Persons of the Year, all known for their moral courage in blowing the whistle on wrong-doing.
Americans can, as Lincoln said, “be touched… by the better angels of our nature.” But we’ve fallen a lot lately.
Speaking with my 95-year-old uncle, a man who experienced both good and bad in his life; I asked him, “What will it take to turn things around; for people to begin to demonstrate more integrity for themselves and their communities?”
“It’ll take a miracle,” he said.
A few days later, I happened on a quote by American novelist, Thomas Wolfe. “America is a fabulous country,” Wolfe wrote. “It is the only place where miracles not only happen but where they happen all the time.”
We all love a comeback story. America is full of them. Maybe Rodriguez will redeem himself in spectacular fashion on or off the field; I don’t know. I hope so.
What I do know is this: every time we fall, we have a chance to get up, and with the help of those angels and a little humility, we can get up again, hopefully a little better and a lot wiser.