Happy endings rare in sports

The end of a professional athlete’s career is so swift, unforgiving and uncompromising that it makes you wonder what measures you would take, what rules you would ignore, what ethics you would sacrifice to stave it off.

This week, I’ve been contemplating endings:

— Kobe Bryant is pondering his. He’s hinted he may only have two years left.

— Lance Armstrong’s arrived. Livestrong and Nike severed ties with the former cycling icon.

— Ray Lewis’ was accelerated. A torn triceps likely ended his last-best chance for a triumphant conclusion.

— Alex Rodriguez is being run out of New York. He’s fallen, and with the Yankees’ season on the line, Joe Girardi wouldn’t let A-Rod get up.

— And Peyton Manning is heroically rewriting his farewell. He is six games into authoring the MVP-caliber season Peter King predicted.

I hesitated writing this column. The points I want to make, the things I want to discuss can easily be distorted and misinterpreted. We don’t handle nuance very well in this soundbite, First Take, talk-radio sports world. We still see good guys and bad guys rather than guys who do a little more good or a little more bad than the average guy. We want everything to be as simple as expressing outrage toward Jerry Sandusky’s depraved, mentally-ill behavior. Most things just aren’t that simple.

Endings are complicated. And so are people, especially those dealing with their demise. This is why I’ve never expressed much vitriol toward Lance Armstrong. He was given a death sentence, a cancer diagnosis in 1996 at the height of his athletic prowess. Does that excuse the lies he’s told, the corners he cut to remain at the top of his profession? Absolutely not. But it does significantly soften my perspective.

I may not agree with the decisions he made, but I understand them. We’re such a hero-worshipping society that it’s easy for me to see how Armstrong concluded his cycling resurrection and support of cancer research were more important than any truth about the measures he took to reach the top.

We’ve set a nearly unavoidable trap for professional athletes. We’ve built multi-billion-dollar television networks dependent upon them for ratings, networks that spend hours each day convincing them and us that they’re far more important than they really are. Before they’ve reached middle-age and any real maturity, we’ve bathed them in self-awareness-killing money and fame. We’re so entertained and envious of their athletic gifts that we allow and/or bait them into focusing almost exclusively on their physical development. They’re largely unprepared for a life outside the athletic arena.

Given all this and their highly competitive nature, is it surprising they live in fear of their career ending by their late 20s? Is it all that surprising they cut corners?

I’ve intentionally buried the lead of this column. This is a column about performance-enhancing drugs and how we should view them when it comes to professional athletes. I buried the lead because I don’t want my words to be twisted and exploited. I don’t want to unfairly besmirch the names and reputations of the athletes mentioned in this column. Armstrong and A-Rod have been involved in PED controversies. Bryant, Manning and Lewis have not. I’m not accusing Bryant, Manning and Lewis of using PEDs.

I’m saying we’ve set up an athletic world that begs them to. And if that’s the case, maybe we should reconsider how we view PEDs.

A-Rod has more than $100 million left on his contract. He’s a pariah in NYC. He’s a national laughingstock. We’ve never seen the most physically gifted player and highest-paid player benched in the postseason. At age 37, he’s under the kind of performance-enhancing pressure a 15-year-old virgin might feel hopping into the sack with Nikki Benz. Do you think whichever team employs A-Rod in 2013 cares what he does to hit .320 and 40 home runs next year?

Do you think anyone cares what Kobe Bryant does to get his knees ready for an 82-game NBA season? You think David Stern and the league’s television partners care? The same could be said of Peyton Manning’s neck and Ray Lewis’ triceps.

I hope Kobe plays forever (as long as he’s never perceived as a better player than Magic Johnson). Kobe is entertaining, compelling and fun to analyze. So are Manning, Lewis and A-Rod. My position on PEDs has been pretty consistent for quite some time. Athletes are entertainers, the same as musicians. I don’t much care what drugs Led Zeppelin, Guns N Roses or Marvin Gaye used to make good music. I don’t care what athletes do to take the field.

Again, I am not accusing these great athletes of using PEDs. I’m asking you to evaluate the situations we’ve placed them in. The longer you stay in professional sports the more valuable you become to the leagues and their broadcast partners and the more pressure you face to avoid the end.

I don’t have a solution for how to handle PEDs. I believe the solution starts with undemonizing them and the athletes who fall into the trap we laid.