Pity the messengers who overshadow their message. No one wants to hear George W. Bush lecture us on "our" oil addiction. We tend to shut out bromides--however true--about "family values" when they come out of the mouths of, say, Rudolph Giuliani or John McCain.
But there is a world of difference between a hypocrite and a whistleblower. Somewhere in between these two poles--in a paradoxical shade of gray our high-contrast culture abhors--stands New York Yankees slugger Jason Giambi.
Eyes are rolling at Giambi--who last week, after years of awkward apologies and denials--finally did publicly acknowledge  he was juiced.
(I did a radio show where Giambi was likened to Dom DeLuise expressing concern about trans-fats. Tim Dahlberg of the Associated Press wrote that "Giambi's apology seems as ill-timed as his swing.")
Snarky sports yappers may sharpen their stiletto wits on the former American League MVP, but his statement last week constitutes the most honest and interesting talk in two years--ever since the anabolic institution of Major League Baseball was born again as straight-edge. In sealed testimony to a federal grand jury in 2003, Giambi admitted prodigious steroid use. His leaked testimony led in February 2005 to the most awkward public apology since the Nixon Checkers speech. As one ESPN story described it  at the time, "Jason Giambi twiddled his thumbs, crossed his legs and fidgeted in his chair. He said he was sorry five times. He apologized three times. To the New York Yankees. To his teammates. To the fans. But he never said why. And he never talked about using steroids, never mentioned the word."
But now Giambi is someone with something to say. If people could separate messenger from message they might be pleasantly surprised. Giambi said , "What we should have done a long time ago was stand up--players, ownership, everybody--and said, 'We made a mistake.' We should have apologized back then and made sure we had a rule in place and gone forward. Steroids and all of that was a part of history. But it was a topic that everybody wanted to avoid. Nobody wanted to talk about it."
Giambi's belated straight talk certainly backs much of the general research on what went on during the 1990s when steroids and other performance enhancers were passed around clubhouses like envelopes at an Abramoff/DeLay golf outing. (See Howard Bryant's brilliant Juicing the Game.) This was an institutional problem: a problem of owners, trainers, the media and players, all popping pills for power because, as we were told by Nike's puckishly sexist slogan, "chicks dig the long ball."
But understanding and addressing steroid use in MLB has been bungled--an exercise in little more than singling out and excoriating individual players. This was seen most clearly in the Congressional hearings of 2005, which California Democratic Representative Tom Lantos correctly described as "a theater of the absurd."
Current and former star players like Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa were brought out under the hot lights to confess their anabolic sins. But not one trainer, not one owner, not one general manager had to join them to discuss how steroids became so endemic. After the proceedings, one player told me, "It's crazy that punishment is an individual issue but distribution has always been a team issue."
Giambi was the first player to shed light on this aspect of the story. But the reflexive response by Major League Baseball has been to treat him the way whistleblowers are often treated by elephantine institutions: to bury him. His Yankees general manager, Brian Cashman--blessed with a name Charles Dickens would love--noted, "There's an implication that there was a lot of people that were involved that would know...what was going on, and I can tell you that's false. We've spoken to that in the past, so I do have a problem with that, without a doubt, because I can tell you--I can speak from being right there, too--that whatever goes on individually with these guys, is really on them."
Granted, the Yankees would love a reason to void Giambi's mammoth $120 million contract, but to say that the steroid issue is "on them" is frankly beneath contempt.
And that was just the beginning. Major League Baseball intends  to "investigate reported remarks by Jason Giambi that the sport should apologize for use of performance-enhancing drugs." This is the same Major League Baseball that didn't even ask for steroids to be a part of the collective bargaining agreement until 2003.
Tim Keown, in a moment of sanity, wrote  on ESPN.com, "If Major League Baseball attempts to get punitive with Jason Giambi for his tacit but not explicit admission that he used steroids, it will constitute a new level of hypocrisy. And if baseball's investigation gives the Yankees the shield they need to attempt to void Giambi's contract, it will constitute a new new level of hypocrisy... Baseball, the entity that closed its eyes and counted its money for years and years while extolling the virtues of the artificial long ball, is now threatening to come down hard on the one guy who might provide a sliver of salvation to the whole episode."
On Wednesday, the New York Daily News leaked  that Giambi had failed an amphetamine test in the past year, subjecting him to additional drug testing.
And in yet another chapter in what one writer called "As the Giambi Turns," ESPN's Peter Gammons--arguably the most well-connected, well-respected baseball reporter in the country--notes that many are questioning the veracity of the Daily News on their report. Gammons points out that Giambi has not been asked to take any kind of follow-up tests, which would be the next step if he had actually failed an amphetamines test.
It's surely just a coincidence that this revelation came only a few days after Giambi's remarks. It was a cheap ploy to keep Giambi the subject of talk-radio punch lines, instead of serious conversation: to keep the focus on the messenger instead of the message.
Often I am asked why athletes don't speak out more on issues of the day. Here is another example of how the athletic industrial complex hammers those who step out of the shadow of clichés, who actually have something to say.