For most athletes who achieve a career of any substance the “legacy question”
eventually becomes the defining ambition in their careers. Virtually all athletes ultimately seek to place themselves in the context of the history of their sport and to give an account of how they measure up. Think of Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods – can anyone doubt that for these great athletes and for so many more like them, the question that most preoccupies their mental exertions is that of legacy?
Why then does the legacy question frequently seem to have not been adequately considered by athletes before they become embroiled in ethical peccadillos? Whether the circumstances include domestic violence, banned drugs, corked bats, deflated footballs, stolen signs, or other questionable conduct, consideration of the impact of conduct on legacy seems too often to get short shrift.
The problem is, of course, that frequently athletes do not adequately contemplate the impact an ethical transgression will have upon their legacy before their competitiveness, their fear of losing, their desire for glory or their greed leads them to break the rules.
The legacy tradeoff: The cost of compromise
There are many examples of how a “win at all costs” mentality pushes athletes, coaches and teams to abandon what is right ethically, hoping they do not get caught, and thinking the injury to their conscience will be minimal. Invariably, however, they find that they have underestimated the true cost of such compromise.
Such was the dilemma faced by double world champion sprinter Kelli White as she crossed the finish line first in the 200 meters at the 2003 World Championships in Paris, France, a result subsequently annulled because it was achieved while she was using a designer steroid.
Television footage from those World Championships shows White crossing the finish line in first place. The crowd is roaring as she offers only a nonchalant shrug of her shoulders with no trace of emotion, not even a smile on her face. Asked later about her reserved response to what appeared to have been a defining moment of athletic triumph, White responded that she believed that many in the stands must have known that she used performance enhancing drugs. The most significant moment in her athletic career to that point held little meaning for her because she knew that she had cheated.
On October 10, 2012, the day he accepted a sanction for doping as a member of Lance Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service Cycling Team, cyclist Christian Vande Velde said “Today is the most humbling moment of my life.” Vande Velde continued, “There was relief it was finally going to come out. But nothing can ever prepare you to look at your mistakes in black and white.”
Stealing an iconic moment
Consider October 3, 1951, a day that lives in infamy for Dodgers fans. On that day at 3:58 p.m. EST, in the bottom of the ninth inning of the third and deciding game of a playoff for the National League pennant, New York Giants third baseman Bobby Thomson turned on a high inside fastball from Brooklyn Dodgers reliever Ralph Branca. Thomson’s swat sent the ball into the left field stands of the Giants’ home field, the Polo Grounds, plated 3 runs and made the Giants the improbable winners of both the game, 5-4, and the pennant.
Thomson’s walk off homer immediately became one of the most iconic moments in sports history. It wrapped one of the most stupendous late season comebacks in the national game. The Giants had trailed the Dodgers by 13 ½ games on August 11. Yet, Brooklyn collapsed and their bitter cross town rivals surged, setting the stage for a three game playoff, the first televised postseason games in history.
For Bobby Thomson personally, his homer would mean a lifetime viewed by many as a hero. His New York Times obituary eulogized him on August 18, 2010, as the man who had hit “the Shot Heard Round the World.”
Yet, things are not always as they seem, and in this case there is a fascinating, and for years secret, back story. The rest of the story, as told in the Echoing Green by Joshua Prager, is that on July 19, 1951, Leo “the Lip” Durocher, the Giants’ manager had installed at the Polo Grounds a buzzer system for transmitting to Giants batsmen signals stolen from opposing catchers using a hidden telescope. From the next day through the Thomson home run and beyond Giants batters playing on their home field were tipped off on the pitches they were to face. The telescope permitted them to zero in on the hand signals given by the opposing catcher to his pitcher, and the electronic buzzer system transmitted the anticipated pitch to players in the bullpen who were then able to alert their batsman as to whether a fastball or curve ball was to be expected.
After the buzzer system was installed the Giants won 37 of their last 44 games. Prager’s research includes photographic evidence of the screen on Durocher’s office window cut back to accommodate the telescope. It also contains compelling admissions by many of the principal players in the events in question, including Giants players who were aware of the scheme.
As for Thomson, the evidence that he knew to expect a Branca fastball is compelling. Not known as a high fastball hitter, Thomson turned on Branca’s offering with uncommon ease. Thomson, who had been hitting .230 when the sign stealing system was put in place, hit over .350 the last two months of the 1951 season.
Thomson’s successful swing resounded with opposite effect for #13, pitcher Ralph Branca. Branca, 25 years old as he watched the homerun ball settle in the left field seats, never quite seemed to recover and within five years was out of professional baseball for good. At age 21 Branca had won 21 games. In 1951 he had won 13 games and pitched 204 innings. However, he would not again win more than four games in a season or pitch more than 113 innings. By 1954 Branca was essentially out of the big leagues, returning for only a single game in 1956. Branca became, for some, one of baseball’s most recognized goats, never quite able to live down the stigma of his biggest failure.
Weight of a lie
Evidence is that the weight on Thomson of living with the untold back story of his home run was immense. Thomson’s dilemma was of epic proportions. His best known achievement and defining moment had an ethical taint. But it was not merely Bobby Thomson’s best known achievement, it was one of the best known sporting accomplishments of the 20th century, and Thomson’s defining moment had caused another to be branded as one of America’s most recognized goats.
Just before Branca left baseball he roomed for a short time with former Giants’ catcher Sal Yvars who had been a part of the 1951 team’s sign stealing scheme. Yvars’ role, while sitting in the Giants’ bullpen in right field, had been to signal the upcoming pitch to the Giants’ hitter. It was Yvars who first told Branca that Thomson knew what pitch was coming before Branca threw it because Yvars had given the signal that preceded Thomson’s shot.
For years Branca kept this knowledge to himself, unwilling to personally lift the curtain on the Giants’ cheating, and wisely understanding that if he pushed the story it would merely appear as sour grapes. Branca contented himself with knowing what had happened and patiently waited until the truth came out publicly of its own accord. This it did with a series of articles written in the 1990s and early 2000s and later Prager’s ground breaking book. Only when the truth was out in the open did Branca comment on the event that had caused him so much pain. Yet, Branca never descended into bitterness about the fate that had befallen him and the sign stealing that had likely sealed his fate.
Eventually, it would be Branca’s grace in handling defeat that would help Thomson deal with the mixed emotions that apparently accompanied Thomson’s memories regarding his famous homerun. Thomson once remarked that “Ralph didn’t run away and hide.” Branca responded, “I lost a game, but I made a friend.” In their later years Thomson and Branca became frequent companions at old timers’ games, charity auctions and speaking events, where they deepened an improbable friendship.
In tracing the impact of cheating on the lives of Thomson and Branca, Prager provides compelling reading and has done an important service. Prager’s book provides a case study in the long term effect of athletic glory obtained at the cost of breaking the rules.
Long term implications of cheating
Similar feelings of ambivalence and even shame in the face of what would otherwise be defining athletic achievements are frequently reported by athletes who have obtained victory at the expense of the rules such as by using banned drugs. Cheating exacts a heavy price even when few know that the athlete has cheated, still the athlete is unable to fully enjoy his or her victory.
Nor do athletes who succumb to temptation typically fully consider the tremendous cost that cheating imposes on one’s reputation once exposed. The stigma of having been accused of cheating is difficult to live down – just ask Marion Jones, Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, Lance Armstrong and a host of other athletes who have fallen from grace whether based on proved or admitted rule violations or even merely upon a perceived association with performance enhancing drugs, regardless of whether they ever tested positive. As for Bobby Thomson, his lengthy obituary in the New York Times also gave ample coverage to the research establishing that Thomson had likely been tipped off on the pitch he slugged for his famous home run. Thus, in the end Bobby Thomson was unable to escape a public accounting for his ethical transgressions and those of his Giants teammates who, we now know, for more than two months cheated their way to what was at the time described as a “miracle.”
Focusing on legacy
Recently, I heard former UFC fighter Brian Stann respond to a question about the best way to discourage mixed martial arts fighters from using banned drugs. His answer? Get the athletes to focus on their legacy. Stann said that athletes who challenge their physical limits as a daily aspect of their jobs may not be swayed by appeals to health concerns and that those trained to test the limits may not always instinctively stop even at bright lines drawn by the rules. Yet, Stann reasoned that a conversation confronting athletes with the question of how they wanted to be remembered once they left the sport was the best way to motivate compliance with the rules.
So, what can offset the powerful forces that conspire to convince some to give in to the temptation to cheat? A host of examples from sport suggest that it is a question of legacy. Consideration of the legacy one will leave behind and of how one wants to be remembered by peers, fans, children, family and friends can be a powerful influence toward sound ethical decision making in sport and in life. Do you want to overcome the ethical temptations that could undermine your reputation and compromise your career? Consider your legacy. What do you want it to be?
The Bock’s Score – Bill Bock is the General Counsel for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, click The Bock’s Score to read prior articles by Bill.