GRAND LEDGE, Mich. --
It’s been a tough week for fans of clean athletes.

You may remember Alex Rodriguez as the recipient of the two richest contracts in Major League Baseball history. You may know him as a member of the New York Yankees, or as Madonna’s current “love interest” as they say in the entertainment industry. He made headlines this week as the latest in a long line of athletes guilty of cheating with performance enhancing drugs.

During the same weekend, former NFL defensive lineman Dana Stubblefield made headlines for his testimony in the BALCO steroid scandal (see als Barry Bonds, Marion Jones). Stubblefield isn’t in and of himself, significant, other than his story’s suggestion that there may be many other NFL players utilizing some kind of illegal performance enhancer.

This should come as a surprise to absolutely no one. NFL players look like the kinds of comic book freaks we used to doodle on our notebooks in grade school. Huge, muscular, veiny, and filled with rage. These people are not natural. The NFL does a great job of showing these guys visiting sick kids in the hospital and being decent human beings, which distracts us from the fact that a decade and a half ago, 270 pounders didn’t cover the 40 yard dash in 4.5 seconds. Jerry Rice and Emmit Smith didn’t run the 40 in 4.5.

Coincidentally, I spent the weekend reading an illuminating book by David Walsh entitled “From Lance to Landis,” which offers widespread accounts of alleged doping in the Tour de France peloton. And by “widespread” I mean nearly everybody is accused, including Great American and Symbol of Hope for Everyone Everywhere, Lance Armstrong, who went from a middling tour rider pre-cancer, to a world beating, record-setting, yellow-jersey wearing animal after the disease. And for whom the book suggests it isn’t, apparently, About the Bike.

I spent the weekend chewing on the realization that it’s not unrealistic to think that the vast majority of athletes in three sports I care about – football, cycling, and baseball – are dirty. Dopers. Drug users. People who obtain and use substances illegally. People who sneak around and worry about how to dispose of needles. Needless to say, we don’t like to think of our heroes in this light. We don’t like to think of them as the kind of people who worry about things like lying under oath and where to throw away an empty EPO vial.

We like to think of our heroes as doing the aesthetically beautiful things they do – sacking quarterbacks, accelerating up the side of a mountain or hitting a fastball. And I suppose the knowledge that they did all of these things with the help of a chemist doesn’t make them any less beautiful. And anyway, what do we expect from a sinful, fallen world? A world in which athletes make ethical compromises to compete, and leagues look the other way because revenues and fan interest trumps all?

Perhaps A-Rod’s biggest mistake was that he never had charisma. Unlike Armstrong, he never gave us hope – even if the hope may very well have been false. He was never the symbol of anything, and he never launched an inspirational yellow wristband. This makes him a great fall guy.

But as a Christian athlete and fan, I want to believe that there is still beauty and hope in sports. Even pro sports. There’s aesthetic beauty in an empty arena. A perfect jump shot. A one-handed catch. And there’s hope inherent in the performance of a Christian athlete who pours out his body and soul, clean, in defeat. There’s honor in the athlete who is above reproach and who may sacrifice his career and his athletic future to be there. The Christian loser. Now there’s an inspirational story I can get behind.

Ted Kluck is the author of several books, and the recipient of the 2009 Christianity Today Book of the Year Award for his co-authored book, “Why We’re Not Emergent (by Two Guys Who Should Be).” Visit him online at www.tedkluck.com.
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Original publication date: February 24, 2009