Here in St. Louis, for the past week, all that has been talked about on the local sports radio is Mark McGwire's status in the Hall of Fame balloting, which is to be announced today. In the local newspaper, a poll of eligible BBWAA voters suggests that less than 20% will vote for Big Mac. And a local columnist wrote with incredible venom about McGwire, saying at the end of his piece, "In my mind, Mark McGwire is a drug cheat whose greatest baseball moments were fueled by the tip of a steroid-filled syringe."
Now, all of that may be true--because baseball did not have steroid testing during the McGwire era, it is hard to say whether he was a "drug cheat." The only supplement that we know he took, andro, was legal at the time (though it is no longer). And McGwire's lack of forthrightness at the Congressional hearings in March 2005 certainly didn't help his cause.
Still, the hypocrisy of all of this becomes incredibly obvious when compared to the case of San Diego Chargers' football star, linebacker Shawn Merriman. For example, Peter King of Sports Illustrated, whom I enjoy reading, voted for Merriman for his All-Pro team, writing, "Merriman? Len Pasquarelli echoed what I think about this the other day on ESPN radio. In football, when we deliberate for the Hall of Fame, we do not take off-field stuff into account. (Or at least we're told not to.) And Merriman was good enough in 12 games to be, in my mind, one of football's two best outside linebackers."
Now remember, Merriman only played 12 games this season, because he tested positive for a known steroid; he is a convicted "drug cheat." And yet, not only is there no outrage, but he was voted to the All-Pro team. And when Jason Taylor, defensive end for the Miami Dolphins, had the temerity to suggest that Merriman shouldn't be eligible for postseason honors (such as the Pro Bowl or Defensive Player of the Year) because he was suspended for 'roids, he was nominated on the Mike and Mike Show for their "just shut up" award.
I can't help but think this is hypocrisy on a large scale--honoring a convicted 'roid user while hammering someone with no evidence of cheating--but the question I am really interested in is, "How do we account for the differences in reaction to McGwire and Merriman?" Is it because of the mythic status of baseball? Is it because McGwire's chase of Maris caused cynical sportswriters to become starry-eyed romantics and so "fooled" them? Is it because everyone simply assumes that football is a dirty game and that it doesn't matter?
Even more, I wonder about what this says about American attitudes about "character" and "integrity." While McGwire has been ridiculed, even though nothing has been proven about his alleged drug use (notice, I'm not saying that he didn't use 'roids--he may have--but only that it has not been proven nor are there any strong links, as there are with Barry Bonds), Merriman is honored--and yet Merriman is the one whose character and integrity are (or should be) in question. Even more, Merriman has flaunted all this, sending Taylor a Merriman "fan pack," with tee-shirt and DVD! What does this say about the ways we look at integrity in public characters, whether sports heroes, politicians, or ministers?