World famous Tour de France champion and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, now infamous for prolonged steroid use, during a December 2007 USO tour in Iraq. (Wikimedia Commons)
I have spent the last several days in a Breaking Bad fever dream, asking myself, “Who is the Walter White/Heisenberg of the sports world?” I am very aware that I couldn’t come up with a hackier First Take–style question unless I was asking what sports commissioner is most like Miley Cyrus. Yet when a piece of popular art speaks to our age of collective dread as perceptively as Breaking Bad, it is worth maxing out its usage as a lens before the next shiny pop culture bauble draws our attention.
Before I posit who I believe the Walter White of the sports world to be, I should be upfront about what I think to be his defining characteristics.
Walter White is someone:
1) Who has undeniable, outlier-level abilities.
2) Whose skills are exceeded only by his self-regard.
3) Who falls and falls down hard, in a manner best described as “squalid.”
4) Who justifies his actions under a cloak of nauseating self-righteousness.
5) Who has a legitimate beef with the twenty-first-century America that has shaped his range of choices.
Using these criteria, the mind immediately floats toward athletes the public loves to hate: the sorts of iconic figures who could credibly re-enact this scene from Scarface.
First, the obvious anabolic antiheroes spring to mind: Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez: people who hit the heights and then had a great fall. But how far did they really fall? Walter White’s story is ending as badly as anyone not named Prometheus. Bonds and Clemens have boundless fortunes and even in some circles, their reputations. Barry Bonds is still beloved in San Francisco and recognized, even by the most militant anti-steroid furies, as one of the best all-round players in history. Roger Clemens beat prison and was even an honored guest in Houston this past weekend for Andy Pettitte’s last game.
A-Rod, despite his wealth, does not look like he will emerge with any kind of fan base. But Walter White could be incredibly cunning. A-Rod has shown none of the cleverness, self-righteousness, or defiance of Breaking Bad’s protagonist, his face an expressionless mask. As a pulsing, malevolent presence, A-Rod has been more Hannah Montana than Tony Montana.
Lastly, PEDs and PEDs alone are in my humble view not enough to make you a Walter White. To take them is a decision athletes make with themselves, not something they are pushing upon others. The individual steroid user, in my mind, just doesn’t cut it.