Rodriguez, Madoff and Jones v. the unknown

Baseball superstar Alex Rodriguez recently admitted to using performance enhancing steroids. Despite general hue and cry, the highest paid player in baseball has had some defenders. Bruce Levine writing on ESPN argued:

“Rodriguez was one of 104 positive tests in the first wave of testing back in spring training of 2003, but keep in mind that before 2004, mandatory testing in Major League Baseball did not exist. Steroids were against the rules, but were not tested for. The idea that Rodriguez is the poster child for all that was wrong with baseball from 1990-2004 is just wrong.”

I couldn’t disagree with Levine more – Rodriguez is the poster child for a system that doesn’t protect gifted individuals who don’t cheat, from those who do.

The people exposed on the front pages are not marginally gifted. Most are extraordinarily gifted, without the cheating. But whether we’re talking about Marion Jones, Mark Maguire, Barry Bonds, or Alex Rodriguez — they are people who have polluted the top of the mountain. Writing on his blog in November of 2007, Rodriguez wrote:

“Winning my third Most Valuable Player award today is something that holds special significance to me. There are so many gifted players in this game, and I don’t for a moment take this achievement for granted. I shouldn’t need to remind anyone of the MVP-caliber seasons that Magglio Ordonez, Vladimir Guerrero, Jorge Posada, David Ortiz and several other AL players put together.”

Alex Rodriguez has admitted doping from 2001 – 2003.

Perhaps the biggest problem with cheating isn’t the ill-gotten gains, but the denial of success to the truly worthy. The all-star ball-players who never get that mvp, the ace investors who never get the biggest accounts.

The prevalence of certain forms of white collar cheating highlights the dynamic balance between regulation and personal freedom. That balance will never be perfect. In the United States no prosecution can exist if the act wasn’t a crime – as in Rodriguez’s admitted doping. However, if the benefits of a crime extend to family-members and teams, why do our punishments stop with the individual?

Bernard Madoff recently admitted to a massive financial fraud that robbed thousands of individuals and organizations of their investments, left numerous charities reeling, and crushed investor confidence.

In the instances of both Rodriguez and Madoff, the cheaters have tried to insulate their family and friends from any impact. Clearly they were not insulated from the benefits. Should they pay?

If so, how far should the punishments reach? Madoff’s wife has been filing briefs to insulate her assets from her husband’s. Wikipedia shows that the wife of one of Madoff’s two sons filed for divorce the day before the scheme was publicly disclosed. Was this done to insulate his/her assets? How far from a star’s mistake should the light of justice shine?

Every time that I see another story of contrition and sadness, I am reminded that we know these people from seeing them in their success. Who are the people we should have known? The people we should have feted? The ones who would have had the highest returns, the most home runs? What should be done to protect them? Others are out there now fighting for stronger regulation, and I appreciate that fight. The integrity of our financial and social systems demand it, not just to prevent fraud, but to prevent the perversion of real success.

Author: Robert Bettmann

Founder of Day Eight, and the DC Arts Writing Fellowship.