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'Sports must earn their place'

Gary Smith talks about his SI cover story on steroids

Posted: Wednesday March 23, 2005 4:44PM; Updated: Saturday March 26, 2005 8:48PM
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Broken Dreams
Stephen Wilkes/SI

Sports Illustrated senior writer Gary Smith talks about his cover story on steroids and baseball, titled, "What Do We Do Now?"

Q: You started working on this story long before the congressional hearings were announced, right?

A: Yes. When I started working on the story, I didn't know there would be hearings, so I had to adjust on the fly a little bit. But in some ways, it made the story more of a compelling question, because baseball -- and everyone involved -- was having everything smeared in its face for a full day.

Q: What brought it all together?

A: It really started in talking with friends, as we talked about what baseball means now. In my mind, the season becomes a referendum on how we respond to this moral question. For some people it's not a moral question. It's surprising to me the number of people who see [baseball players] as entertainers ... they do whatever they need to do to be better, so be it. That's fascinating to explore, as well as the people who respond from a very moral vantage point.

Q: Without getting too political, you can't help but compare the issues we tackle as a society vs. those we perceive to be individual choices.

A: There is a continual push-and-tug in this country between the rights of the individual and what society, as a herd, needs to protect itself. Each question you can break down from those two sides. There are times for me -- and I'm not a herd person per se -- when the importance of the question plays out for the herd, and that takes precedent over the individual right to succeed or profit.

Q: In your story, you interview Willie Mays Aikens, a former major leaguer who is serving time for selling 64 grams of crack. Did you know his story? And how did you find him?

A: I was thinking that another interesting vantage point to this question would be that of a prisoner ... someone serving time in jail for drugs. So I Googled "baseball player, drugs and prison," and up popped Willie Mays Aikens. Stories had been written about him in the past, but not about his take on steroids. I contacted the prison and went through the process to talk with him. I faxed my request and he fortunately responded to it.

Q: Did you interview him in person or over the phone?

A: He called me at home. If I had time, I would have gone to see him. But I was talking with so many people for this story, I really couldn't leave my phone... I was waiting for calls.

Q: Why do you think this story is so important?

A: To me, it's important because sports has become the religion in this country. And if we're going to justify raising it that high and making it that important, it has to earn its place and it has to have values. We hand sports over to coaches and programs ... and if sports are our vessel for teaching our kids, they have to be operating on a sound, moral basis. Otherwise, there's no justification and we've just sold our souls. It's just a really important question: If we're going to have sports play that role, but we allow elements that are very dangerous as well as deceitful and fraudulent, then we really need to look ourselves in the mirror and question our obsession with sports.

Q: What do you think the response of the American people has been?

A: I think a lot of people were slow to respond. Yes, there were some people who early on had been cut to the core and saw the importance. But some people, you had to grab them by the lapels and shake them to see [the situation] ... and some still don't see it. This is something really serious. Hearing the parents [during the congressional hearings] talk about their kids who committed suicide as a result of trying to withdrawal from their steroid use ... I would have to think that shook up a lot of people. To me, we can't just treat this issue as a question of entertainment.

Q: When you interviewed so many different people for this story, do you think you changed any opinions, just because of the questions you asked?

A: It was interesting, as I could catch people in their own moral cross-hairs. You go so far with your opinion and then you stop, maybe because it becomes uncomfortable and you don't want to go there. But by asking the questions and pushing it further, I was forcing people to take the issue further than they were willing to go.

I was listening to one of the parents on [ESPN Radio's] The Dan Patrick Show. I was picturing my own kid ... and it's just so sad. I know it's tough if you're a fan. All of us, we let certain things go about some of these guys, because you give yourself over to the moment. But when it gets to this point of seriousness, well, for me, that's where I've got to draw the line.