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:
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:
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.