By Jason Whitlock
Special to Page 2

I never realized my belief that big-time sports had sacrificed its final scraps of integrity in pursuit of television cash until I had the audacity to suggest it on the most recent episode of "The Sports Reporters."

Judging by Mike Lupica's and Mitch Albom's reactions, you'd have thought I'd just busted into a kindergarten classroom and shouted: "There is no Santa Claus."

My view that professional sports (or televised sports) is nothing more than entertainment -- tools to drive TV ratings with little more integrity and importance than Season 6 of "The Sopranos" -- seemed to shock my esteemed fellow panelists.

I've literally spent the past four days examining my own beliefs, trying to understand why some of the brightest sportswriting minds are adamant that athletes not be classified as pure entertainers -- no more important than Mel Gibson, Dave Chappelle or 50 Cent.

Another respected friend and colleague, William Rhoden, just published a powerful, provocative and compelling book, "Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Black Athlete," that laments the fact that African-American athletes are no longer players in the fight for social justice.

Sportswriters, particularly those who lived during the civil rights movement and/or covered Muhammad Ali's career, desperately want athletes to remain important and relevant in a larger context than as just entertainers.

Ali, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Curt Flood, Jim Brown, Joe Louis, Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, John Carlos and Tommie Smith elevated the stature of the American sportswriter. Their intended and unintended social stances made us chroniclers of something important.

The fact that Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Joe Namath, Rocky Marciano, John Wooden, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and even Joe Montana and Michael Jordan could be held up as cultural heroes and icons, standards of American excellence and global symbols of American might, added to our importance as recorders of a vital part of history.

That's why there is so much angst among sportswriters concerning the performance-enhancing drug era. Floyd Landis, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Justin Gatlin and countless other alleged performance-enhancing cheats are tearing down the hero, icon and role-model platform that sportswriters built for athletes and sportswriters to stand on.

If we accept that athletes have shed the responsibility (burden) of being role models and are totally zeroed in on making as much money as possible by any means necessary, then we must acknowledge we are no more important than Ebert and Roeper.

We're not ready to do that. That's why we're very protective of Lance Armstrong. He might have dominated a sport we care nothing about, but he beat cancer and there's no hard evidence to convict him of doping.

Obviously, I contend the notion of athlete as hero -- athlete as fighter for social justice, athlete as role model -- is an outdated one.

Athletes in televised sports are cold-blooded businessmen willing to inject themselves with whatever corporate farmers inject into the chickens, cows and pigs we eat.

And should we really blame them?

Do you honestly believe that Carlos and Smith would've raised black fists had there been seven-figure endorsement deals waiting on them after the Olympics, let alone the freedom to spend that money anywhere they chose?

Do you honestly believe that pro athletes in the 1950s and 1960s would've avoided using HGH if it meant they could play with less pain and earn $10 million a season in their 30s and 40s?

Come on, we're not being remotely fair when we judge the modern-day athlete. We've adopted extremist views for a problem that is extremely complex. We're beating up athletes for crimes many of us would commit if placed in the same position.

We don't even truly understand the consequences of their actions. It's fun to shout about Lyle Alzado, but what has happened to all the other NFL players of Alzado's era? He was far from the only player of that era exploiting steroids. I know some of those players. The ones I know are in relatively good health and leading productive lives.

I'm not advocating the use of performance-enhancing drugs. I don't think it's fair or OK. However, given the money that has been dumped into televised sports, I don't think it's going to be possible to rid professional sports of performance-enhancing drugs. It would be as difficult as removing promiscuous sex, alcohol abuse and recreational drug use from Hollywood.

Ain't gonna happen.

So athletes will not be making a return as role models. Sports are nothing more than reality TV. They're "American Idol" on steroids. In some ways, we sportswriters are not much different from Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson.

Are we diminished because of it?

Not in the pocketbook. Albom and Lupica have made millions writing novels, and we've all made money judging athletes on radio and TV. We volunteered to join the entertainment industry. We have no right to bash athletes for embracing the role of entertainer.

Jason Whitlock is a regular columnist for The Kansas City Star. He can be reached by e-mail at Sound off to Page 2 here.