Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Steroid Confusion: BALCO, Bonds and the Babe

The drip, drip, drip has started. First, there were the rumors of widespread steroid use in baseball, causing many athletes who may have just worked hard and trained well to be looked at with suspicion. Then came the recent BALCO indictments, as baseball and the Feds inexplicable decided not to release the names of the athletes who had received the banned drugs. Now comes the inevitable information that Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield, among others, had been in the supply line.

Next up: the inevitable lies. Bonds’ position now seems to be that he received steroids, but didn’t take them, raising the memories of Shoeless Joe Jackson’s claim that he took the bribe to throw the 1919 World Series, but never actually did anything to lose. (Right, Joe.) Sheffield says he didn’t “knowingly” take steroids (just kept getting’ bigger after all those allergy injections, huh, Gary?) And Giambi, who has resolutely denied steroid-taking, arrived at spring training looking like Bob Denver, but claiming he had lost only four pounds.

What is baseball going to do about all this, now that major records have fallen or are about to fall in what may have been drug-aided excellence?

The ethical issue with steroid use in sports, just to be clear, is cheating. It is also clear that some people don’t think it’s cheating (or perhaps have talked themselves into thinking it isn’t, because it makes them feel better about what is, after all , cheating.). Their argument is that steroids are no different than vitamins or training equipment. Some people use them, some don’t; used properly, they can make an athlete bigger, stronger or faster; and if you don’t have talent, it doesn’t matter.

But steroids are different: they are dangerous, unlike vitamins, and they are illegal, unlike training equipment. Even if they didn’t work at all, a professional athlete using them would be cheating… breaking the law is cheating. They do work, however, in that they allow athletes, individuals who are genetically inclined to get maximum results from conventional training, to make enormous gains in muscle mass by adding chemicals to their metabolism rather than time in the weight room.

In a competitive professional environment like baseball, where superiority means money, really really big money, the pressure on players to keep up with their cheating colleagues is tremendous, and for many, irresistible. So once steroids have infected a sport, all sorts of bad things happen. Players are tempted to risk their health by using steroids, because other players are cheating and, because it allows those players to jump ahead of their non drug-using equivalents in both statistics and income. When a player breaks a famous performance record, nobody knows whether he did it by cheating, or if, since the record was set by a drug-user, whether anyone who is not a drug-user will ever be able to approach it. Thus the integrity of the sport begins to unravel. Finally, young athletes and teens get the idea that cheating with steroids is the way to success. Ultimately, the Golden Rationalization, “Everybody is doing it!” will rule one more realm.

Well, now it’s happening to baseball. Taking “Everybody is doing it!” to the next level (enthusiastically popularized by Bill Clinton defenders), “Everybody did it!,” former Bonds team mate and experienced cheat Jeff Kent (See Aaron Boone) has suggested that Babe Ruth was on steroids, rather than, as has always been assumed, hot dogs. Not content with trashing baseball’s current integrity, the Jeff Kents will attempt to trash its past honor retroactively.

Yuck, icccchh,ptui. English is inadequate to express Ethics Scoreboard’s disgust.

Baseball richly earned its current dilemma. The owners and the clubs stayed in denial for years, and the Players Union decided to play enabler. Now nothing short of a major, public, and painful over-haul will restore the sports’ integrity. One episode of cheating…a scuffed ball, a corked bat…has drawn a week’s suspension. What is the proper punishment for a whole season of cheating? Two seasons? Three? And this isn’t only cheating; it is criminal activity as well.

Will Major League Baseball have the guts, and the fortitude, and the commitment and the respect for its fans to take truly meaningful steps, even if they affect pennant races, the sports greatest slugger, and the New York Yankees? If it doesn’t, it will have rejected basic ethical values, making the “American Pastime” just another disheartening exhibit in America’s ethical rot.

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