Another Strike Out for Baseball

Cheating is just what New York Yankee superstar Alex Rodriguez did when he took anabolic steroids during his time as a Texas Ranger from 2001 to 2003, but curiously the term is missing from many broadcast news reports about the latest baseball scandal.

Could it be that reporters took their cues from A-Rod himself?

In the wake of a Feb.7 “Sports Illustrated” story, which revealed that the athlete tested positive for steroids in 2003, Rodriguez admitted to using the drugs in an interview with ESPN's Peter Gammons on Feb. 9. But the third-baseman never used “cheat” to describe what he had done. He instead called it a “mistake.”

Gammons failed to press A-Rod on the “mistake” assertion, After all, it was an awfully lucky mistake that he happened to take Primobolan, a “banned substance” that would, as the “Sports Illustrated” story pointed out, “improve strength and maintain lean muscle with minimal bulk development … and has relatively few side effects?”

At that point, it's not a mistake. It's cheating.

Even when Gammons asked him “Do you think it will be hard in the first couple of years to deal with people who bring up 'cheating?'” Rodriguez dodged the question, saying only, “Well, the truth is the truth. Again, I think it's important to get it out there. You know, it might take five years. It might take 10 years. It may never go away. But, you know, being honest is absolutely the only thing for me to do right now.”

CBS' Armen Keteyian reported during the Feb. 9 “Evening News” that “A-Rod dropped an a-bomb, admitting at least some of his jaw-dropping numbers were colored, tainted by performance-enhancing drugs and that he made a mistake.” That same day, ABC's Charles Gibson noted during “World News with Charles Gibson” that Rodriguez' “entire career will be called into question.”

CBS and ABC's reporting was factual, but why not just call the actions what they are?

Only NBC's Mike Taibbi used “cheat” to describe Rodriguez' actions. Taibbi used the word twice in his report during the Feb. 9 “Nightly News” broadcast, first summing up the Gammons interview as “the 33-year-old star told ESPN's Peter Gammons, yes, he too cheated” and later calling A-Rod “just the latest steroid cheat.”

None of the broadcast networks were overly sympathetic towards A-Rod, which makes the omission of the word “cheat” all the more peculiar. All noted how in the past, he had denied using performance-enhancing drugs and re-aired clips of a December 2007 “60 Minutes” interview in which he unflinchingly told Katie Couric he never used them.

All the networks briefly touched on how A-Rod's confession could affect the fans that look up to him. A young fan told CBS' Ben Tracy on Saturday that Rodriguez “lies about what he says. That's not a true athlete. A true athlete is somebody that actually works hard.” Another young fan told NBC's Taibbi last night that he “doesn't know” if he will still root for the star. ABC's Kate Snow mused on Sunday's “Good Morning America” that this is “Another disappointment for children, too, for, that looked up to him.”

Of course, Rodriguez was never exactly an ideal role model. His divorce, which according to court documents was precipitated by his philandering (possibly including an affair with pop star Madonna) has been final for less than two weeks. Despite the millions of dollars he makes in the United States, he very publicly agonized over whether to play for the U.S. or the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic in 2006. He eventually opted for the U.S. team, but will play for the Dominican Republic in the 2009 event. Similarly, he's enraged Yankee fans by saying he originally would have liked to play for the Red Sox.

So A-Rod has never gone out of his way to earn the love of the fans. Still, it's worth considering what message fans will take from the steroid story, especially if it is cloaked in euphemisms for cheating and there are no consequences  

Currently Rodriguez has a $275 million, 10-year contract with the Yankees and is reportedly not in any danger of losing it. “Sports Illustrated” reported the deal could ultimately be worth as much as $305 million if he surpasses Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds in career home runs. The same article noted “there is no language about steroids in the contract that would put Rodriguez at risk of losing more money.”

Rodriguez will also not face any punishment from Major League Baseball as his tests were from 2003, a year before the league implemented penalties for positive test results.

Nor will Rodriguez face any punishment from the league, as his positive tests were from 2003. Major League Baseball didn't institute penalties for positive drug tests until 2004.

Rodriguez told Gammons that part of his message going forward, especially to kids, will be “that what you have is enough. Hard work is the most important thing, having a clear mind, and realizing that – you know, having certainty is the most important thing, believing in yourself.” But the fact that he will face no ramifications for his previous actions tells a different story.

And what about A-Rod's accomplishments from the years he was using? In 2003, the last year he admits to using drugs, Rodriguez won his third straight American League home run title and his first MVP award. Should there be asterisks next to those records?

No, according to “New York Times” sports columnist William Rhoden. He told NBC's Jenna Wolfe on Feb. 8 that he doesn't “believe in asterisks … because there are, there are pitchers who were throwing him the ball. There were people who were catching the ball. Everybody was involved in this.”  

So because nobody else cheated, it's okay that Rodriguez did?

Gammons asked Rodriguez, “Do you think a player who has tested positive or admitted to taking illegal substances is disqualified from Cooperstown?” Rodriguez responded:

I hope not. I hope not. I mean, I think every case is different. I think you have to look at the data. If you take a career of, you know, 25 years, and you take away three, or you take away 2½, or you take away one, I think overall you have to make a decision.

 Rodriguez' response indicates that he still doesn't understand what he did. If he does make it to Cooperstown, the fact remains that he cheated, even if it was “only” three years out of 25.

People once learned that cheaters never prosper. Now they're learning a person must cheat in order to come out on top and it's okay as long as it's called something else.

Colleen Raezler is a research assistant at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.