Gary Sheffield
(July 2007)

This is an atypical selection. Unlike most of the lies highlighted in this department, Sheffield's award-winning lie isn't trivial. And because a lie must consist of a statement that the speaker or writer knows or believes is untrue when he makes it, Sheffield's lie might not even be a lie. Nonetheless, Sheffield's selection as this month's featured liar raises several important ethical issues, including accountability and the role of self-delusion in misconduct.

For those of you who pay no attention to sports, baseball, steroid scandals or race controversies, Gary Sheffield is a slugging designated hitter for the Detroit Tigers, and a player whose leaked grand jury testimony in the Balco steroid case included his admission that he used the so-called "clear" and "cream," euphemisms for prohibited steroid products popular with cheaters in professional sports. He is, therefore, a steroid-user, just like Barry Bonds, now on his way to setting a new home run record that will be an embarrassment to baseball until someone surpasses it. But Sheffield insists that he didn't use steroids, though he does not deny the truth of his grand jury testimony. This requires epic logical and ethical contortions, as we shall see.

Before we get to Sheffield, let's review the various strategies recently used by baseball players who have been credibly and, in many cases, definitively linked to the use of banned, illegal, or otherwise prohibited performance enhancing substances:

  • Jose Canseco, a great hitter who was never going to acquire post-career honors because of his unsavory personal conduct and his injury-shortened playing time, finally admitted his extensive use of steroids in a tell-all expose, fingering other players in the process as part of his "revenge" on Major League Baseball.

  • Barry Bonds, Exhibit A for the performance benefits of steroid use and also for the damage it does to the integrity of sports, has claimed that he took steroids (as with Sheffield, " the cream" and "the clear") unknowingly, because his close friend, trainer, and steroid-user Greg Anderson told him they were vitamins and flax seed oil. When a best-selling book by two journalists documented his willing steroid use over many years, Bonds took no legal action against them, as he surely would have if their account was unfounded.

  • Mark McGwire, a slugging MVP and Rookie of the year who broke Roger Maris' long-standing single-season homerun record, was long-rumored to have been a steroid user. He wept, sniveled, tap-danced, and otherwise refused to confirm or deny his use of them when called before Congress, leaving no doubt in any rational person's mind that he was a cheat. Since that disgraceful performance, McGwire has been silent, even when he was passed over by voters in his first shot at the Hall of Fame, an honor he would have achieved easily without the steroid controversy.

  • Jason Giambi, a former MVP now with the New York Yankees, was also exposed by the grand jury leaks. He "apologized" to New York fans but never said for what. He resumed his playing career with little objection from fans or the media, until he told USA Today this year that he "never should have done that stuff." Using the threat of suspension as a club, Major League Baseball is forcing Giambi to cooperate with its steroid investigation.

  • Sammy Sosa, now with the Texas Rangers and the fifth most prolific homerun hitter of all time, like Bonds was once a lithe and quick outfielder who suddenly increased in size and power. Sosa went before Congress with a novel strategy: he pretended that he couldn't speak English, a surprise to all those Chicago Cubs fans who had heard him be quite articulate in interviews. Through an interpreter, he essentially said that he had never used any substance that was illegal in the country he had used it in, which, for example, would cover heroin use in Amsterdam. Sosa spend his winters in South America, from which he emerged every spring looking significantly bigger than when he had left. Any questions?

  • Rafael Palmeiro, a Hall of Fame caliber first baseman, was accused of steroid use in Canseco's book, emphatically denied the allegation under oath before Congress, and then tested positive for a common steroid. His career stopped abruptly, and he has barely been heard from since.

To summarize the range of tactics employed by the likely steroid users: one (Canseco) confessed outright in order to make a buck; one (McGwire) refused to deny in a way that made him look guilty and cowardly; one (Palmeiro) lied and got caught; one (Bonds) defiantly holds to a patently incredible excuse while producing no credible defense; one (Sosa) relied on legal hair-splitting; and one (Giambi) tried Clintonian finesse and couldn't pull it off. One would think that these would exhaust the full range of possible approaches (Sosa's was especially creative), but that would be underestimating the twists and turns of Garry Sheffield's mind.

Interviewed on July's installment of HBO's series "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel," Sheffield unveiled his own unique version of a defense. Yes, he said, as the leaked grand jury testimony indicated, he had indeed used "the clear' (which is applied under the tongue) and "the cream," which is applied to the skin. He says Barry Bonds persuaded him to use both, and that he was misled into believing they were both for "muscle recovery." Now, this would seem to be a variation on the Bonds excuse, which is also known as the "Though I knew about steroids and that other players used them and knew that the guy giving me a substance that looked like a drug was a likely steroid-user and though I normally take fanatic control of everything related to my career and training I just used this stuff without bothering to find out what it was or whether it was legal Defense," or, to be more concise, the "How would you like to buy the Brooklyn Bridge Defense" or to be even more concise, hogwash. But Sheffield goes one creatively dishonest step further: he still adamantly swears that he never used steroids. How can this be?

Because, says Sheffield with a straight face, "steroids are something you shoot in your butt." That's right, sports fans, Gary Sheffield hasn't used steroids, because he has devised a personal definition of steroids that defines them by the way they are taken. If the steroid is in pill, cream, or liquid form to be taken orally, then it's just not a steroid according to the Noah Sheffield Dictionary. Sheffield also has something approaching an argument behind this bizarre claim. "If I took what Barry Bonds took," he asks, "how come I don't look like Barry Bonds?" There is an answer to this, of course, that involves genetics, training regimens, body type, diet, nutrition and metabolism, but never mind. Sheffield is unshakable in his claim that he never used steroids because nobody ever injected him with them in the derriere.

There are some intriguing questions raised by his theory. Does Sheffield believe that anything injected into the human butt, such as Vitamin B, is therefore a steroid? Does a steroid only become a steroid in Sheffield's view after it has been injected into someone's butt? What is it before that? Or is Sheffield just an idiot, who actually believes this nonsense?

Sheffield is, we have seen through the years, angry, contemptuous of authority, suspicious of whites, combative, undiplomatic and not particularly well-educated, but he has never seemed to be stupid. There are three possible explanations for his "Real Sports" comments:

  1. He has convinced himself that he didn't use steroids because such use conflicts with his self-image.
  2. He (or his lawyers) devised the "they weren't really steroids" claim to insulate himself from perjury charges and MLB discipline.
  3. At the time he used "the clear" and "the cream," he really did believe that steroids could only be administered by injection.
  4. Bill Clinton is advising him.

OK, #4 is unlikely. But recall that Clinton successfully used the argument that oral sex wasn't sex in order to sidestep accusations that he had lied about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The problem is that performance-enhancing steroids, unlike sex, are not subject to shifting cultural definitions; there's no disagreement about what they are. Clinton's tactic doesn't work for Sheffield. As for #3, even if Sheffield was naïve enough to believe such a thing years ago, he can't possibly still believe it now. #2 is obviously a dishonest strategy. That leaves #1 as the least damning possibility, and that requires a leap of faith that the Scoreboard, at least, is not willing to make. Some psychologists argue that O.J. Simpson has convinced himself that he never killed anyone. Right.

One thing is certain: Sheffield has failed the accountability test. Next to not using steroids at all, his most ethical course would be to accept responsibility for the substances he put into his own body, and not to blame Barry Bonds and certainly not to deny doing what he actually admits doing. Instead, he is trying out a steroid defense even weirder than those of his cheating colleagues, one that is jaw-droppingly silly because it stubbornly ignores undeniable fact. "The cream" and "the clear" are steroids. Sheffield used them, however knowingly, and was thus a "steroid-user." Maintaining otherwise because they weren't shot into his butt just makes him a liar.

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