As most of you know by now, Yankees’ third-baseman and Major League Baseball superstar Alex Rodriguez tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003. Over the weekend, sources told Sports Illustrated that Rodriguez was one of the 104 players who tested positive during 2003’s survey tests. Yesterday, Rodriguez admitted to ESPN’s Peter Gammons that he knowingly used PEDs for a period of time that roughly spanned the 2001, 2002, and 2003 seasons.
The sports media has been in a frenzy since Sports Illustrated broke the news. Reactions and analyses have varied from the idiotic to the measured, with very occasional forays into the wise. I have long-since accepted that a certain hysteria exists when it comes to baseball players using steroids, but that does not mean that I understand it. Most of the sports-following world is falling all over itself in its effort to condemn, vilify, and shame the transgressors. For my part, I choose to sit here in awe of the relentless incompetence, negligence, and hypocrisy that have characterized this scandal. It’s a lot to digest, and I’m not sure I’ve finished doing so. I am sure, however, that this whole fiasco says much more about us – our values, perceptions, and prejudices – than it does about the players themselves.
The nuts and bolts of the situation are as good a place to start as any. Steroids and similar PEDs were banned from Major League Baseball in 1991. Then, beginning with Mark McGwire’s publicized use of Androstenedione in 1998 and accelerated by Barry Bonds’ involvement with BALCO in 2003, baseball management turned its attention to the issue. Despite the banning of certain substances, there was no testing and therefore no real punishment for their use. The rule was unenforceable. Once the controversy reached a certain level, management (MLB) and labor (MLBPA) agreed to a testing survey in 2003. All players would be tested for banned substances, and if enough tests returned positive, mandatory testing would be instituted shortly thereafter. A number of players tested positive – a number that we now know to be 104 – and MLB and the MLBPA collectively bargained for mandatory testing beginning in 2004. The rule grew teeth, with violations punishable by increasingly long suspensions. Essentially, steroids and other banned substances officially became cheating in 2004. Today, baseball legends such as Rodriguez, McGwire, Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and Roger Clemens have all had their achievements tarnished – fairly or unfairly – by involvement with PEDs.
There is plenty of blame to go around. In my opinion, it begins with baseball management and ownership. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, acting since 1992 and official since 1998, has more explaining to do than most people seem to think. The 1994 MLB strike served as both his first major trial and the foundation of his failure. This dispute led to the cancellation of hundreds of regular season games in addition to the entire postseason. Needless to say, public reaction was not very kind. Perceived as greedy and unconcerned with the fans, professional baseball suffered from decreased attendance and general disillusionment with the game.
Then, home runs happened. It wasn’t overnight, but home runs and offense in general began to spike. Albert Belle hit 50 homers in 1995. In 1996, Brady Anderson had his infamous 50 HR season. McGwire hit 52 that same year, despite playing only 130 games. The 1997 season saw a duel between McGwire and Ken Griffey, Jr., who hit 58 and 56, respectively. Then baseball saw the great home run chase of 1998. McGwire and Sammy Sosa simultaneously vied after Roger Maris’ record of 61 homers during the regular season. McGwire finished with 70; Sosa with 66. In 1999, they hit 65 and 63, respectively. Finally, Barry Bonds hit 73 in 2001, raising the eyebrows of fans and management alike. Both parties began to question the post-strike era’s incredible increase in offense and power-hitting.
Selig formally began his inquiry into the use of PEDs in baseball. There is no documentation to conclusively support this theory, but I firmly believe that Selig used this offensive outburst to his personal and professional advantage. Baseball was in dire straits after the 1994 strike, needing something noteworthy enough to bring fans back to the game. When home runs boomed, people returned to the ballparks. Baseball slowly returned to national prominence on the shoulders of offense bolstered by steroids. Most contemporaneous accounts indicate that steroid use was fairly common and fairly open at the time. If players knew, then coaches knew. If coaches knew, then the front office knew. If the front office knew, then the owners at least suspected. And if the owners at least suspected, then Selig must have suspected too. There are two scenarios, and Selig cannot avoid blame in either. If he caught wind of steroids’ increasing usage, then he ignored it, thereby violating his duty as caretaker of the game. If – as he claims – he truly passed through this era with nary a suspicion, then he is no longer duplicitous but incompetent. In short, Selig profited off the mass usage of PEDs, and then persecuted the users once the game had returned to national prominence. How Selig faces no questions in this line of thinking is beyond me.
The clearest-cut portion of the blame goes to Donald Fehr, Gene Orza, and the rest of the MLBPA. The aforementioned 2003 survey tests were supposed to be kept anonymous, with samples and encoded identities kept in different locations. Federal agents seized both components in a raid and connected the dots, compiling the information that sources ultimately leaked to Sports Illustrated. The MLBPA fell short in two respects. They inexplicably allowed the recording of players’ identities. Instead, the MLBPA should have just negotiated for the testing to be samples-only. After all, the testing was merely a survey to see whether or not mandatory testing was needed. Identities were not important – percentages were. Secondly, the test results were supposed to have been destroyed after sufficient documentation. They were not, however, because the MLBPA did not file the necessary paperwork. You read that right. Then, the government seized the results as a part of the BALCO investigation. As a result, 104 players who expected their anonymity to be preserved via basic union competence will shortly find their names released to the public (well, 103 will, because of Rodriguez’ curious solitude). Quite simply, the MLBPA failed its constituents, and failed them miserably.
I suppose the third part of the blame should be levied onto the players, although I have a very hard time arguing that with any sort of passion. Yes, many players took steroids. Technically, that is cheating, because it’s a dishonest means of outperforming the competition. Let’s remember, however, that MLB had no enforceable performance-enhancing drugs policy until 2004. There was no punishment for a positive test, because there was no testing. As a result, players responded quite naturally to the incentives placed before them. In a way, considering their competitive natures, the money at stake, and the lack of testing, they would have been crazy not to have experimented. For all they knew (and for all we know now), these drugs could be the difference between a minor league career and a major league career, bench player versus starter, and starter versus star. The players had every reason to partake and very few reasons not to. I have a hard time blaming them for acting as many of us would if we were in the same situation. I simply don’t buy this self-righteous, holier-than-thou hysteria that has become the common reaction.
Ultimately, the distribution of the blame is what interests me the least about this situation. What I find alternately fascinating and maddening are the twisted values and double-standards that lie at the scandal’s core.
I think it’s fair to say that the main cause of public outrage is a sense of betrayal. Fans, sportswriters, and analysts have collectively taken umbrage with these developments because of the trust conferred in these players. We trust them to hold themselves to the same high standards to which we theoretically hold ourselves. We trust them to pursue the records and achievements of the all-time greats with integrity. We fancy ourselves to be fair, honest, and hard-working people, and we expect the same of them. This trust is the basis of our perceived bond with these players. It is a noble effort to put ourselves on the same level as men who possess physical gifts of which we can only dream.
Despite the perception of commonality, we look up to these players. We hold them to the same standards to which we hold ourselves, but revel in their fame and prowess. It’s why we buy jerseys and hats, obnoxiously-sized foam fingers and bobbleheads. Sure, we try to see ourselves in them, but deep down we really know they’re cut from a different cloth. It’s why it’s noteworthy when a player such as Sean Casey or Jason Giambi acts like “just a regular guy.” The reality is that professional athletes become the heroes of seven-year olds and septuagenarians alike. As is the case with fictional superheroes, we can tolerate and even embrace flaws, but we find no place for a code of conduct guided by dishonesty.
It’s time we stop considering these players our heroes. Not because they violated some sacred trust, but because they never were heroes to begin with. If a baseball player behaving dishonestly is enough to elicit hysterical feelings of betrayal and anger (seriously, you need to read that article), then a re-evaluation of priorities is in order. Professional athletes deserve to be admired and appreciated for their skills, and unless a personal relationship exists, it should end there. Just because someone can hit a ball 400 feet or throw a ball 95 miles an hour does not mean they deserve hero status. Unless a player gives you a good reason to personally admire them, root for the laundry and the feats of those wearing it. It should have always been that way anyway.
This scandal has also said a great deal about our prejudices. Based on popular reaction, one would think that taking steroids is the single worst thing a baseball player can do. The degree to which players are being condemned and vilified for doing so is sickening considering the history of misbehavior in baseball. At various points, players have sharpened spikes to deter opponents, scuffed and doctored baseballs, taken amphetamines, thrown spitballs, stolen signs, threatened umpires, and displayed racism. Don’t even get me started on Brett Myers publicly assaulting his wife, being scolded for a day, and then never hearing another word about it. These things are all as bad as or worse than using performance-enhancing drugs. Nevertheless, users are vilified while players such as Ty Cobb, Don Sutton and Gaylord Perry – all in the Hall of Fame – are commended for their intensity and gamesmanship. One possible explanation for this double-standard is the sports media’s demographics. Most reporters, analysts, and executives are baby boomers who grew up watching these players (well, not Cobb). Perhaps there is a subconscious allegiance to the purity of their childhood memories. No matter what the explanation is, the hypocrisy is blatant. We need to stop acting like current players are the only ones ever to have bent the rules.
Finally, the scandal has revealed an inattention or cowardice in the sports media similar to that of Selig’s condoning of PED use. As Joe Sheehan also notes, every year baseball fans are treated to a similar argument from baseball reporters when awards are given out. Statistically-inclined folks are told that we can’t really determine a player’s worth because we don’t see him firsthand. We don’t see him in the clubhouse and the things he brings to the team other than walks, doubles, and home runs. Every year, we are told that to truly determine a player’s value, one must be exposed to that player personally and regularly. Presumably, this is what the BBWAA brings to the table – measurement beyond the statistical gleaned from eyewitness accounts. This gives the reporters two possible alibis with respect to the steroid scandal. In the first scenario, despite all their firsthand experience and clubhouse presence, they completely missed the growth of steroid culture. This makes them unobservant. In the second scenario, they did indeed witness steroid discussion, usage, and propagation, but were too afraid to report it. In either case, attacking individual players is unacceptable. If these reporters are invaluable to the fans for offering insight that outsiders can’t get, then they must admit some amount of inattention or cowardice in letting the culture go unreported.
The entire steroid scandal has been unfairly reduced to a story of heroes and villains. The members of each group vary, depending on who you ask. We have the innocent trust of the sports fan, which has been irreparably broken by the dishonesty of certain baseball players. We also have the silent heroism of the clean players, which inspires ownership and management to strive for a more honorable game. This seems to be how the narrative is playing out. As I hope you see now, it is not nearly that simple. There are no heroes or villains – only people responding to incentives. Faced with an unenforceable rule and insatiable competitiveness, players took steroids to make more money. Selig condoned this because it benefitted both his legacy and his bank account, then cracked down when the problem became too big to ignore. The MLBPA, well… they just completely screwed up. The sports media glorified sluggers when we needed inspiration, and tore them down when we needed blame. The result, much like life, is a giant gray muddle that demands clarity when none is available.