This Sporting Life: A Trillion-Dollar Question

Originally Published: May 18, 2009
By Jeff MacGregor | Page 2

A long sports weekend, an abbreviated work week, so short today and right to the point.

There's a question only you can help me answer.

What are sports for?

[+] EnlargeManny Ramirez
Harry How/Getty ImagesIs the punishment of Manny Ramirez really teaching us a lesson?

Last week in this space I made a couple of satirical proposals regarding athletics, cheating and performance enhancement. In the first I suggested that we not only authorize the use of PEDs, but that we create league drug offices to research, supervise and administer them. In the second I suggested a fan boycott of major league baseball to take place June 13.

I did so because to me these are the logical end points for the two opposing arguments in the cheating/doping/steroids/PEDs debate: Either embrace enhancement as a routine part of sports and make it legal or put your money where your morality is and stop showing up until something meaningful is done to police it.

The e-mail I received about that piece and the comments you posted ran about 50/50 for and against. Half of you want sports scrubbed clean of PED cheats and seem willing to do something about it, however uncertainly, even if it means changing your relationship with the players and the game. The other half want to be left the hell alone to enjoy sports as entertainment without the endless navel-gazing, sports-page moralizing and talk-radio hysteria of the past few years. So as unscientific as this little survey might have been, I think it illustrates the broader ethical muddle in which we all find ourselves.

I'll say here that I've been surprised at the volume of e-mail I've received this year in which young readers say they no longer concern themselves with things like cheating or steroids in sports. "Everyone does it," goes the thinking, so for good or ill, whether their heroes are juiced or not, wised-up kids are past caring.

At the other end of things are the earnest "You shall not pass!" graybeards responsible for institutions like the Hall of Fame, who care perhaps too much, and have my sympathy for adhering to a standard that never really existed. History is not a level playing field. Tasked with sorting through the numbers and the rumors and the syringes and the records, they're trying to wrestle questions that would baffle a Nobel panel of medical ethicists.

All of which got me thinking about the ideas of sportsmanship and character, and the antique notion that sports have to teach a moral or ethical lesson to be of real value. That's what our coaches always told us. And our folks, too. And that's certainly the way sports have been presented to the culture at large for the past hundred years: a sound builder of body, mind and character. Read popular sports books from the late 19th century like "Frank Merriwell at Yale," when sports were just becoming accessible to the lower classes, and (apart from the witless 1890s bigotry) you'll find a tutorial on how sports should make you a better man. And a better American.

Lately, however, we seem to perceive sports (especially professional sports) as a floor show in which any lesson is not only unnecessary, but undesirable. I see this expressed again and again in response to stories about PEDs.

And while I understand and empathize with the moral exhaustion that besets us all, somebody somewhere in Major League Baseball thought Manny Ramirez had to be suspended for 50 games for breaking a rule it considered important. Is that rule wrong? Or is Manny Ramirez?

Do the ends justify the means?

That's the argument in a nutshell. Always has been.

From peewee to the pros, every ill and evil and human weakness -- greed, prejudice, ignorance, vanity, selfishness -- gets played out in sports. As does every human good. Every act of courage. Every act of generosity and grace. Looked at that way, through a suitably rosy lens, sports are simply life in miniature, an extraordinary teaching opportunity on all subjects moral, ethical and practical.

Or are sports just a performance, a vacation from the real? Is a game merely three hours of happy distraction from the killing grind of the everyday?

Are they both? Are they neither?

In the years since Frank Merriwell and his age of Victorian amateurism and (largely fictional) innocence, we've monetized and commodified sports beyond all imagining. A recent estimate by PricewaterhouseCoopers put our annual above-the-line global expenditure on sports at well over $125 billion. And while it's hard to pinpoint such things, add to that concessions, infrastructure, taxes, TV contracts, video games, advertising, publishing, transportation, equipment, employment in secondary service businesses (like mine), legal and illegal betting and you're pushing close to a trillion dollars a year worldwide pumped by, through and around sports. That's a lot of lessons. Or a lot of distraction.

So if we remove the moral imperatives of fairness and sportsmanship at the core of sports, do we hurt ourselves or help ourselves? Do we lose a chance to make the planet a better place one athlete at a time? Or do we advance the species by at last being honest enough to acknowledge our own win-at-any-price hypocrisies?

Which brings us back to the trillion-dollar question, the one we have to answer before any of the others:

What are sports for?

A simple, impossible question. But maybe if we all put our heads together we can puzzle it out. Ask your friends, neighbors, parents, children, coaches, players, teachers. Then post your answers in the comments area below, or e-mail me at Over the rest of the summer we'll try to discover why we're all here. Thanks for your help.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at