To quote the recently deceased, yet eternally quotable, baseball legend Yogi Berra, it was “deja vu all over again.” Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred concluded his year-long review of Pete Rose’s permanent ban from organized baseball on December 14th with a short but firm denial. Rose, Manfred wrote, had not absolved himself from violating Rule 21 by betting on games while affiliated with MLB: “Mr. Rose has not presented credible evidence of a reconfigured life either by an honest acceptance by him of his wrongdoing…or by a rigorous, self-aware and sustained program of avoidance by him of all the circumstances that led to his permanent ineligibility in 1989.” The decision, however, has done nothing to quiet the unceasing call among sports fans for Rose’s pardon—a frequent demand for favored athletes. Nothing, it seems, will stop the continual re-litigation of his ban among fans and in the press.
Lest we forget, Rose’s sordid past far outstrips a few bets on baseball games in the late 1980s. The Dowd Report, the findings of the 1989 investigation which resulted in Rose’s ban, concluded that “Pete Rose bet on Major League baseball games in 1985, 1986 and 1987, including games played by the Cincinnati Reds while Pete Rose was both a player and manager” of the Reds. The Dowd Report also determined that Rose did so through disreputable bookies in illegal gambling rings, and that he repeatedly lied about these facts under oath. Rose disputed, and lied about, the Dowd Report’s findings for fifteen years, until 2004, when he finally confessed to betting on baseball while part of the game. That admission, however, was made only as part of the release of his new autobiography, which he heavily promoted based on the revelation. Decade after decade, Rose repeatedly exploited his ineligibility to make a buck. Shortly after his confession, Rose sold autographs with the inscription “I’m sorry I bet on baseball.”
It doesn’t end there. In 2010, the public learned that Rose corked his bat in games during at least the 1985 season to gain an unfair competitive advantage in violation of Rule 6.06(d). And this year, a few months after Rose applied for reinstatement, the world learned that Rose’s continued insistence that his gambling occurred only while serving as the Reds’ manager was also a lie. Old records from a former bookie clearly showed that Rose made frequent bets while a player for the Reds, including on Reds games themselves. In fact, Rose’s gambling led to strong connections with, and debts owed to, organized crime. This evidence also demonstrated, as documented in Manfred’s decision, that Rose varied his betting patterns on the Reds, suggesting that even if he did not bet against the team, he still created the incentive to win certain games at the expense of others. As former federal prosecutor John Dowd, author of the report that bears his name, summarized: “He’s just a street criminal, that’s all. He cheated customs, he cheated the IRS, he broke the rules of baseball, he hung out with drug dealers. He had [his bookie] running young women down in Florida for his satisfaction, so you know he’s just not worthy of consideration or to be a part of the game.”
Over the years, though, baseball fans have vigorously, and often loudly, disagreed. In 2004, ABC News found that 67% of the public and 74% of baseball fans supported Rose’s reinstatement. An ESPN poll in August 2014 revealed that 81% of its readers were in favor of Rose’s return to the game. In April 2015, the polling agency Rasmussen Reports found that 59% of baseball fans supported reinstatement, compared to 29% opposed. Later that year Public Policy Polling discovered that 64% of registered voters in Ohio wanted to see Rose in the Hall of Fame (although, as Manfred made clear in his denial, Rose’s status on the permanently ineligible list has no mandatory effect on entering the Hall of Fame—the Hall itself has simply refused to allow entry to a banned player).
The level of support for Rose remained largely unchanged even after the commissioner’s denial last month, when, in what would be incredible if it were not so predictable, Manfred revealed that Rose continues to bet on baseball to this day. Yes, even after campaigning for his return for the last twenty-six years, Rose failed to make the most minimal and necessary changes. Manfred could not possibly readmit Rose, even if he wanted to, with such a high risk of recidivism. Nevertheless, the public consensus, reflected in the comment sections of news articles and opinion pieces, thought Rose had suffered enough. Even many in the press continued to advocate forgiveness, despite Rose’s fundamental failure to change and his lack of remorse. For instance, Greg Cote preposterously argued in the Miami Herald:
People convicted of murder in the United States serve an average prison sentence of 20 years and eight months, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics. Rose is still doing time more than 26 years later for betting on baseball games, including his own team, while managing the Cincinnati Reds. It is essential to note the Dowd Report of more than a quarter century ago found Rose only bet on his team to win. So there was never the suggestion of a scandal involving game fixing. What he did still violated the sport’s rules against gambling. Hasn’t he served enough time though? “Lifetime” sentences are not always literally that. Murderers can be paroled but Pete Rose can’t?
Murderers are also not handed the tools necessary to kill again upon release. But setting aside the impressive number of inaccuracies packed into this passage (Rose’s “permanent,” not “lifetime,” ban was based on the certainty his gambling affected fans’ confidence in the integrity of the games in which he participated), the real question is why anyone cares so much about Pete Rose at all. Contrary to Mr. Cote’s tortured metaphor, Rose does not sit in a prison cell. Indeed, he does not face any meaningful life consequences at all. All that has befallen Pete Rose as a consequence of breaking MLB’s most important prohibition—through repeated, knowing assaults on the competitive honesty of hundreds of games—is his dissociation from the sport to prevent further transgressions. If ever a punishment fit the crime, this is the case. Nothing in the intervening years has made it any more likely that Rose would play it straight if given a second chance. Yet, decades later, the handwringing over Rose’s well-deserved censure continues unabated.
The same perplexing hero worship is building toward an unfortunate crescendo right now at National Basketball Association arenas across the country. Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant recently announced that this season would be his last. Now, as he approaches retirement, Bryant is bathing in the adulation of adoring fans wherever he goes. Fans of Los Angeles’s fiercest competitors and rivals throughout his tenure in the league—from Detroit to San Antonio to Sacramento—have given Bryant rousing ovations in his final games. Bryant was even showered with applause in his final game in Boston, where the archrival Celtics play. The entire focus of Bryant’s sendoff, from news articles to celebrity tweets, has been on his status as a singular talent and five-time champion. Completely ignored in this farewell tour is the truth that his career represented the worst impulses of society— callousness, greed, arrogance, and violence.
Any honest discussion of Bryant’s life outside the stat sheet starts with that night in a Colorado hotel room in 2003 and the resulting rape allegation against him. While the charges were dropped a year later, the state of Colorado was ready to prosecute until Bryant’s accuser, whose name leaked to the press, refused to testify. It seems very likely that the defense team’s victim shaming and the subsequent civil settlement played a larger role in Bryant’s continued freedom than his actual innocence. Yet today, mention of this incident, which was resolved on procedural grounds and was far from a full vindication, appears as a mere footnote to Bryant’s legacy. ESPN’s Skip Bayless went so far as to suggest in 2014 that the allegations gave Bryant’s branding “a little bit of sizzle” and helped him sell shoes. Reference to Bryant’s admission during the investigation to being a serial adulterer has completely disappeared.
But even if these details are too murky for you, even if you only care about an athlete’s performance on the court, Bryant’s basketball persona has been far from admirable. He is a notoriously terrible teammate, with a long history of berating fellow Lakers for their failures while elevating himself at the expense of the team. Many believe that Bryant, who was roundly criticized for hogging the ball in Game 6 of the team’s 2006 playoff series against the Phoenix Suns, purposely refused to shoot in the second half of the decisive game 7 in order to prove a point to the critics. The Lakers were blown off the court that night, ending their season. Former teammate Smush Parker, a man Bryant did not stop embarrassing years after the two parted ways, reflected on his tenure in LA in 2012:
I had a workout with the Lakers, beat all the guards out for the starting position, earned a spot on the team. Midway through the first season, I tried to at least have a conversation with Kobe Bryant — he is my teammate, he is a co-worker of mine, I see his face every day I go in to work — and I tried to talk with him about football. He tells me I can’t talk to him. He tells me I need more accolades under my belt before I come talk to him. He was dead serious.
In his 2001 book More than a Game, Bryant’s longtime coach Phil Jackson wrote: “Someone told me that in high school, Kobe used to sabotage his own games, so the game could be close, so he could dominate at the end. To sabotage the team process, to be so self-centered in your own process . . . it’s almost stupefying.” Three years later, his book The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul provided a devastating account of Bryant’s relationship with the Lakers and his co-star Shaquille O’Neal as the proceedings in Colorado lingered. Jackson described Bryant as selfish and petty, ever obsessed with perceived slights and unconcerned about his teammates’ feelings. Details of Bryant’s feud with O’Neal were littered throughout the press for years, many of which, according to Jackson, were leaked by the mercurial star. At the end of that “Last Season,” Kobe forced the Lakers to trade O’Neal—one of the most dominant centers in league history—because of his desire to be the lead star on the team. The team had just reached its fourth consecutive finals, winning three championships.
Three years later, however, with the team struggling through Bryant’s most brilliant statistical seasons but also the worst of his tenure to that point, Bryant had no qualms about demanding a trade. Moreover, Bryant used his no-trade clause to devastating effect in order to achieve everything—and no less—that he desired. First, he narrowed the teams he would agree to be traded to, vetoing a deal to the Detroit Pistons. Then, after the Lakers reached a tentative agreement to send Bryant to his preferred destination, the Chicago Bulls, Bryant essentially demanded that the Lakers weaken their return so that Bryant’s new squad in Chicago could be as strong as possible. Specifically, Bryant objected to Chicago’s inclusion of rising Bulls star Luol Deng in the proposed transaction. The deal eventually fell apart as Bryant’s unreasonable demands to control whether, to whom, and for what he was traded proved too much.
A few fortuitous Laker acquisitions and memorable performances later, Bryant added two more titles to his resume. These achievements alone caused a further revision in the public’s view of Bryant, as though greater athletic success could disprove moral failings. Now in his final season, after a few injury-marred years have left him a shell of the athlete he once was, Bryant is engaged in one of the most shocking displays of on-court egotism ever exhibited in the NBA. Despite shooting a ghastly 24.9% from three-point range and 34.7% overall, Bryant is averaging a robust 15.9 shots in only 29.1 minutes per game. This level of control of the offense is high for a superstar, let alone for a player whose performance actively hurts his team. And yet, standing ovations and glowing reviews follow Bryant wherever he goes.
Nothing, however, can compare to the kid-gloves treatment of a third high-profile athlete last month—the fans’ and media’s willful blindness to credible and serious allegations that Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning used prohibited performance-enhancing drugs. Around Christmas, Al Jazeera released their investigative report “The Dark Side,” revealing that Manning and other professional athletes received shipments of human growth hormone and other banned “smart drugs” (that would go undetected by sports leagues’ traditional steroid testing) from the “anti-aging” Guyer Clinic in Indianapolis. A Guyer employee, Charlie Sly, was secretly videotaped revealing that he sent shipments of HGH to Manning’s wife Ashley “all the time, everywhere.” Sly recanted his story only after the allegations became public. That gave the fans and media the opening to immediately savage the story and ignore significant additional reporting.
On ESPN’s pregame show “NFL Countdown,” the drumbeat of blind support for Manning was nothing short of astonishing. Only hours after a news report stating that the NFL’s most visible and successful face was linked to illicit performance-enhancing drugs, analyst Tom Jackson proclaimed the story “fabricated.” Fellow panelist Keyshawn Johnson, in a remarkable display of partiality, insisted: “If he said he didn’t do it, it didn’t happen.” Former Chicago Bears coach and current buffoon Mike Ditka dismissed Al Jazeera as “not a credible news organization. They’re out there spreading garbage.” CBS lead NFL announcer Jim Nantz went so far as to bury the story entirely from his broadcast of Manning’s very next game against the San Diego Chargers. Asked days before the game if he would directly address the controversy on air, he responded: “No, why would we? If we talk about it, we would only continue to breathe life into a story that on all levels is a non-story. Why add another layer to it?” Just as quickly as it emerged, the story disappeared.
To be sure, Manning has not been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt (not that such an exacting standard need be, or ever has been, applied in the court of public opinion). But this ostrich-like defense of the beloved and ubiquitous quarterback defies any shred of journalistic integrity. Al Jazeera later revealed it has a second source besides Sly linking Ashley Manning to multiple shipments of HGH. The New York Daily News, one of the few papers to explore the story, has revealed the Guyer Clinic’s incredibly shady history, including a link to a man indicted for shipping HGH to the U.S. from China (now serving fifty years in prison for fraud) and a penchant for selling HGH “like crazy.” Moreover, even in Manning’s angry denial, he never disputed receiving lengthy treatments at Guyer or shipments of HGH at his home addressed to his wife (while hinting that the drugs were somehow related to an unspecified medical condition). Meanwhile, Sly’s opportunistic disavowal of his prior statements was taken at face value even though he had significant incentive to withdraw them. His detailed and credible statements made prior to the publicity should not be so easily washed away.
Manning, as yet, may be unfairly accused. The rush to judgment in his favor, however, is unseemly and inconsistent with the treatment of the less gifted among us. So, too, are the second, third, and fourth chances granted by the public to men like Bryant and Rose. Just this week, the Cincinnati Reds announced that they would admit Rose into their team’s Hall of Fame after years of honoring the League’s decision to exclude him from all association from the game. The arguments in favor of admitting Rose to the league-wide Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York (which apply just as well to the Reds Hall in Cincinnati), is that the Hall is a museum of history—good, bad, and ugly—not an endorsement. Fair enough. The Reds, however, also announced their plans to honor Rose with a statue at the ballpark, and by retiring his number from use among current players. Today, Manning will play in the AFC Championship game, a win away from the Super Bowl, and the broadcast will no doubt laud his play and ignore his current ignominy.
Hardly a day goes by without a reminder that athletic talent has no correlation to moral fortitude. Yet every time we believe. We equate the beauty of a jump shot or a soaring spiral pass to a pristine soul. We fail to see that the dishonesty, violence, and greed that is all too central to humanity is enhanced by the fame and fortune of competitive sports, not diminished by the childish innocence at the heart of the games we love. Most of all, we are all too willing to subordinate character to the celebration of success. Pete Rose had the most base-hits in the history of the Major Leagues; Kobe Bryant is third all-time on the NBA scoring list; Peyton Manning is widely considered to be one of the greatest quarterbacks in history and a charming personality on short, carefully choreographed commercials. These accomplishments are undeniable, and yet why should any of that make us care about or defend the men who attained them? Our desperate scramble to forgive and erase the pasts of undeserving stars is particularly galling in light of our often compassionless attitude to the weak, feeble, and less fortunate. It is time we recognized that achievement and virtue are far from the same.