Mark McGwire finally confessed. On Monday, the former Major League home run champion went on a day long media tour giving interviews on his steroid use during the 1990s that culminated with an on-air interview with Bob Costas on the MLB Network.
Confession has become a central ritual in the moral framework of American professional sports culture. Whether it’s Kobe Bryant, Alex Rodriguez, Michael Vick, or, more recently, Tiger Woods, the confession is the key to repairing moral failure in the world of sports. However, there are better and worse ways to confess. Rodriguez, a Major League player also accused of steroid use, confessed at the beginning of the season with plenty of baseball left for him to redeem himself. The NFL’s Vick didn’t confess to dog fighting until he was caught and it cost him. His recent success on the field is only the beginning of his long road back into the moral good graces of American sports fans. Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods have both confessed to infidelity and time will tell if Tiger is able to win his way past his moral snafu as Bryant did—winning the NBA title last season.
But McGwire’s confession was different. Unlike Woods, Vick, and Bryant, McGwire’s immorality was on the field of play. It didn’t happen during the “profane” everyday of his life. McGwire sinned on the sacred ground of the baseball diamond. He took advantage of his office as part of America’s past time. And that’s where McGwire’s confession gains its religious character. Baseball has held a sacred aura that other sports haven’t had. Football and basketball just don’t seem as pure, as beautiful, or as—well—sacred as baseball.
Furthermore, McGwire’s sin defiled the most sacred artifact of American baseball—the record book. While Rodriguez cheated he didn’t cheat his way into the record book. McGwire, on the other hand, broke Roger Maris’ single season home run record in 1999.
Such a sin required McGwire to confess to the right person. Enter Costas. Bob Costas represents the “old school” baseball fan. He’s the epitome of the “baseball traditionalist” and in the interview he represented traditional baseball writers—the priesthood that determines which players merit eternal life (or at least a spot in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.) So, as the aging power hitter sat across from the slim journalist it was clear that the smaller Costas held the power in the conversation.
In his confession, McGwire deployed two other sacred aspects of American culture to defend himself. First, he turned to medicine:
“I did it [for] health purposes… If you look at my career, injured ’93, ’94, ’95, ’96, I was a walking M*A*S*H unit…At that time I was using steroids thinking it was going to help me. It was brought to my attention that it was going to help me heal faster, make my body feel back to normal.”
Nothing has become more sacred to Americans than a healthy body. And so, McGwire’s confession tried to turn away from cheating and towards healing. Steroids weren’t about defiling the sacred sport. They were about healing the sacred body.
The second, and more obviously sacred invocation in the confession was McGwire’s reference to a higher power. He claimed, “I was given this gift by the man upstairs….I was given the gift to hit home runs.” Maybe the man upstairs was a pharmacist. McGwire’s appeal to God shifts the confession away from the sin of his lies and drug use to a story of divine empowerment. He had a gift. He would have hit those home runs anyways. The Man Upstairs wanted it that way.
In the end, McGwire’s confession reveals what all of these pro athlete confessions are about—bodies. Pro athletes are paid for what their bodies can do. And they can do some amazing things. We worship them because of their bodies. We buy their iconography in packs of trading cards. We buy their shoes, their jerseys, and we pay to go to the local temple and see them amaze us. But when these bodies sin we feel sinned against. Tiger Woods sex scandals, Kobe Bryant’s adultery, baseball steroid use, and Michael Vick body slamming dogs—these are all athletic bodies transgressing the proper use of the body. We don’t get so mad when they cheat on their taxes, when college players cheat on tests or take money from agents. But to misuse your body—that is the sin every athlete must confess.