04/28/05 — OPINION: Ethics questions

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OPINION: Ethics questions

By Neil Fuller
Published in Sports on April 28, 2005 1:55 PM

Admittedly, if I write "sports" and "ethics" in the same sentence, you will probably assume I'm trying to be funny.

At the very least, you might call it an oxymoron and turn the page.

But everywhere you look, somebody in sports is bumping up against questions of right and wrong and reacting as if he'd been asked to cure cancer.

We know, for example, that professional sports are designed to follow the money and this pursuit is value-free.

Yet it's not just the pros. Allegedly amateur sports -- Olympic sports, college sports -- are trying to separate right from wrong and finding it a little like learning a foreign language.

* Item: Revered Temple basketball coach John Chaney sends a player out with orders to goon it up against St. Joseph's, resulting in a season-ending injury to a St. Joe's player.

* Item: Padres general manager Kevin Towers admits he suspected Ken Caminiti was on steroids in the 1990s but did nothing about it because the Padres were winning, and fans were flocking to their games.

* Item: Olympic athletes are living in simulated altitude chambers to get the training benefits of living at altitude without actually living at altitude.

In each of these cases, the competitive thing to do might not be the right thing to do. In sports, does this matter? Should it?

Let's start with Chaney. The man is a legend in college basketball.

He also has temper issues second in the game only to Bobby Knight.

Both are among the handful of active coaches with more than 700 wins, which suggests a connection between unbridled aggression and success, although gentler souls such as Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim are on the list, too.

Chaney suspended himself for one game before tests revealed the St. Joe's player, John Bryant, injured by Temple's goonery had a broken arm and wouldn't play again during the season.

Temple then extended Chaney's suspension to three games. With criticism mounting, some of it calling for his head, Chaney announced he would not coach in the Atlantic-10 tournament, either.

Was this punishment enough, or did Chaney cross into Woody Hayes territory, from which there is no return?

In San Diego, Towers became the first baseball official to try a little honesty on the subject of steroids, admitting to ESPN he looked the other way. Towers was moved to this admission by Caminiti's death.

Steroids were not banned by baseball at the time, but they were illegal. Officially, baseball takes the position that it will not investigate past steroids abuse, nor any of the records set during that period.

Did a baseball-wide conspiracy of silence permit the widespread abuse of illegal, potentially dangerous substances because baseball was raking in a lot of money at the time? Does the success of the players' cartel blocking a testing program make it all right?

Is Towers the only one in baseball who regrets this? What about people like Tony La Russa, who defended Jose Canseco from steroids allegations years ago but now says he suspected Canseco of using?

Is it OK in sports to lie if it helps your team's competitive position?

Finally, we have Bill Briggs' report in The Denver Post about aspiring Olympic athletes sleeping in simulated altitude chambers so they can "live" at altitude and train near sea level in the conditions they will encounter in Turin, Italy, at next winter's Olympics.

The athletic advantage of living at altitude is your body makes more red blood cells to supply adequate oxygen to the muscles. When an increased concentration of red blood cells is accomplished other ways -- through transfusions or synthetic compounds -- this is known as blood doping, for which athletes in various endurance sports are tested and sometimes banned.

An altitude chamber simulates conditions you could replicate naturally, but only by traveling from altitude to sea level every day to train. Even officials at the World Anti-Doping Agency aren't sure where to draw this line. According to the story, they will seek advice from a panel of ethicists, which is a phrase you won't find every day in the sports section.

People in sports find these questions particularly problematic because the sporting culture rewards competitiveness and winning to the exclusion of most other values.

Knight, for example, is still employed as a coach because he is successful, despite pushing the envelope of acceptable behavior throughout his career.

Alas, this is only the beginning.

Sports' ethical swamp is getting deeper all the time. Gene therapy and other advances in medical technology promise undetectable means by which to cheat or enhance performance, depending on your point of view.

If you have no hope of enforcing a ban, is there any point in having one? If not, are sports doomed to become competitions between laboratories rather than athletes?

It's a new world, and not that brave, either. Tell you what: Being a jock is a lot more complicated than it used to be.

(News-Argus sports editor Neil Fuller can be reached at nfuller@newsargus.com.)