Saturday, December 11, 2004

Playing Kids' Games on 'Roids

Editorial Note: Cross-posted from The Diamond

The grandstand plays on steroids, the great non-scandal, non-issue being blown up for a variety of reasons, continue. As noted here a few days earlier, Senator John McCain is threatening unprecedented legislation that would overturn specific portions of a negotiated collective bargaining agreement. Whether McCain is doing it just for the publicity, or because he believes that steroid use in baseball is a more important issue than the stunning deficits or the war in Iraq, or there's a secret agenda here to undermine the very basis of all collective bargaining and workers' rights, I can't say. What I can say is that the distraction of blowing up this issue serves many masters, very few of them the actual interests of the baseball fan.

The White House weighed in on the issue of steroids the other day. When I say "The White House" I mean the President's Press Secretary says something ostensibly on his behalf, which is the way our Presidents in modern times communicate on issues they don't want to be quoted on directly. Here's a small part of what Mr. McClellan says on the President's behalf:

Players use drugs -- players who use drugs undermine the efforts of parents and coaches to send the right message to our children.

Whatever happened to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"? If the grand jury testimony from Giambi and Bonds hadn't been leaked, children wouldn't be hearing about this in the press. Of course, it's ludicrous to blame the messenger -- the press, which has an interest in selling soap, is going to use the story to fill its printspace and airwaves. MLB will press back on this for fear of hurting its attendance, and also to weaken the players' union. The Yankees have an obvious interest in villifying Giambi so they can more easily void the gigantic contract they have with him, which was probably a mistake with or without steroids behind Giambi's MVP-level of production. As I've noted, the politicians are using this as a distractor, since it's an issue the average person is going to agree with -- rich spoiled athletes that lose games for me and cause my ticket prices to go up are the villains, and I'm going to ignore far worse political problems because this is something I can identify with.

In point of fact, this is a ludicrous argument logically. If the kids didn't know Bonds and Giambi et al took steroids, they wouldn't be encouraged themselves to take drugs. Now that they do know, they can see how the hatred and invective being directed towards them is hardly an admirable thing. So thinking that the important issue behind the steroids use in baseball is our kids is shameless. "It's for the kids!" How could you be against something that's for the kids? The steroid issue may be about competitive integrity, it is probably more about money, and it is full of gray areas, not cut and dried abuses. But mixed messages about drugs to our kids? No way. Those come from other sources, ranging from the pharmaceutical industry ("Take your Ritalin") to the gigantic sports industry that produces student-athletes who can't read to the sports moguls (our President among them) who profit from the end product of the scholastic corruption of sport in our country.

I honestly think that if we're going to send the message to our children that drugs are bad -- perfomance enhancing drugs are bad -- the best way would be to stop putting an emphasis on winning at any cost to the exclusion of all other considerations. Without widening this discussion out to Wall Street, Social Darwinian economics, staying-the-course no matter what, and never admitting mistakes to preserve the sense of infallibility that certain parties use as their philosophy of culpability and responsibility -- let's just point out the obvious, that we have a Winning is Everything culture in sports, which is closely allied with the Money is Everything culture.

It's that kind of attitude that tempts players at all levels to get an extra edge via the use of pharmaceuticals. Why it's OK to, say, buy a medicine to get an erection and it's not OK to buy a medicine to get bigger muscles elsewhere is a debate beyond the scope of this humble column. Why steroid precursors like Andro are (or at least were) OK and steroids are not, why hyperbaric chambers are fine but blood doping isn't, and similar odd differences in what seems to constitute cheating often seems oddly related to who is selling, regulating, or making money off each of these performance-enhancing techniques. You can imagine the conundrum of the poor athlete who is told his performance is tied to his compensation as a free agent or in arbitration, or in high school to his ability to get a college scholarship or not, or even in the basic approbation of his status as an athlete in his person, might also not be able to make these distinctions.

Steroids are dangerous, potent substances which nevertheless have common uses in medicine. Their abuses in sports that make them dangerous are often as closely related to their misuse by persons without medical training who do not understand side effects, contraindications, and inappropriate applications and does. I would not defend the use of steroids under the table as either "fair" to sports -- any more than it was fair for the Red Army hockey team to compete in the Olympics against collegiate teams from the US -- or a good idea from a health perspective.

To repeat myself a bit: the leaking of grand jury testimony is the serious crime here. The players testified willingly under the constitutional guarantee that they would not be criminally implicated, in the interests of getting the drug dealers at Balco. The social contract with Bonds and Giambi has been violated, in that they will be paying a high cost in image and reputation. This is probably deserved from an ethical standpoint, but not a legal one. If I wrote something saying certain Senators had been cocaine addicts, leaking medical records illegally obtained from their rehab clinics, I'd be sued to within an inch of my life

I do not have sympathy for cheaters. But similarly I have no respect for those who are trying to further villainize athletes for being part of a system for which they are only marginally culpable, merely to advance their own external agendas.

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