January 11, 2010
I was at home sick today, when the news broke that Mark McGwire had admitted to using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), specifically, steroids and human growth hormone (HGH). While the public admission is technically “news” in the sense of a new development, that Big Mac had used PEDs during his baseball career had been more or less established in my mind, at least since his bizarre Congressional testimony in 2005, if not as early as the discovery of his use of androstenedione (“andro”) during his 1998 record-setting home run duel with Sammy Sosa, or the later revelations from McGwire’s unapologetic former teammate and mega-juicer, Jose Canseco. So, concerning McGwire’s admission today, I say, so what?
That’s right, I said it. I don’t give a flying pig if McGwire finally has publicly admitted to using PEDs, since I’ve presumed for a long time he had used PEDs. But more to the point, I also don’t give a flying pig that Big Mac was on the juice. This may come as a surprise to those who know me. After all, I’m a lawyer by trade, a basketball referee for nearly two decades, and a rules nit at nearly every card game I play. Shouldn’t I care more that McGwire was cheating?
Well, you’re probably right. On some level, I really ought to care about the cheating aspect of PED use. After all, as a kid in the late 70s and 80s, I grew up learning that the only reason we good Americans could ever lose in the Olympics to those evil East Germans, Soviets, or other assorted “Commies” was because the bad guys were all doping. Of course, in the late 80s and early 90s, we found out that American Olympians were also doping. We also found out that PED usage was rampant in the NFL, college football, the Tour de France, swimming, boxing, heck just about every sport. At some point, any serious sports fan learned to assume PED usage is pervasive in sports, and that testing for PEDs is, at best, a crude method for keeping PED usage in check and behind the scenes, but no more effective at preventing a motivated athlete from juicing up than a purity ring is at stopping a motivated teen from “rounding the bases”.
So please forgive me for not jumping on the moral outrage bandwagon we’re sure to hear in the sports media the next few weeks, and again when the Baseball Hall of Fame ceremonies roll around. Because here’s the dirty little not-so-secret: PED use was and is widespread in major league baseball, just like most other sports. The same sports media people who pontificate on the evils of PED usage are the same media members who ignored reporting the issue for years because they didn’t want to jeopardize their access to sports stars. And we fans are likewise in no position to wax righteously indignant—we saw players getting bigger and faster, we saw records topple like dominos, yet we didn’t want to look too closely at how the sports sausage was being made, so long as it was served to us in a tasty stew of exciting highlight reel plays and home team success. So when discussing Big Mac—or A-Rod, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, or any of the other big names of the era—let’s simply acknowledge the obvious: they were juiced men playing against other juiced men. In evaluating their achievements, compare them to each other, not against players from some prior era. If their achievements relative to the players of their own era merit their inclusion in the Hall of Fame, so be it. Let them in, and move along.
As for what message might be sent by rewarding athletes who flouted the PED rules, well once again I don’t give a flying pig if athletes decide to juice up. PEDs certainly pose health risks, but grown men can decide for themselves whether the risk is worth the reward, much as we allow people to decide whether to pursue any risky occupation or activity. Setting a good example for kids sounds like a valid concern, but the concern is misplaced. High school and college players shouldn’t be permitted to use PEDs because most PEDs are versions of hormones whose effect on adolescents is unknown and may well be dangerous to their health. But we don’t ban adults from using tobacco or alcohol simply because they may be dangerous to children. Protecting kids from the risks of PEDs properly falls on parents and coaches, not on professional sports leagues or Olympic athletes.
The one group of people who have a valid objection to the use of PEDs on the professional level is that group of players who wish to play but do not want to risk the use of PEDs. To maintain a competitive equality with PED-using players, non-users may feel pressured to take PEDs they would otherwise avoid. The answer to this issue lies solely with the players themselves—if players don't want PEDs, the unions should express the desire of their memberships by consenting to mandatory drug testing with strong sanctions for violation of PED rules, and encouraging its members to self-police its own ranks through anonymous reporting of fellow players violating the PED rules. If PEDs are truly a problem in sports, then it is up to the athletes themselves to show the will to crack down on PEDs in a meaningful way, for the benefit of all the players.
As for me, so long as the players don’t care about PEDs, neither will I.