Thursday, March 30, 2006

Steroid Frenzy Goes Into High Gear

So former senator George Mitchell will be heading an investigation into steroid use in professional baseball. Maybe I'm slow, but I still don't get it. That is, I don't get the huffing, puffing, and general bloviating in the sports pages and on the talk shows about the dangers steroids pose to "the integrity of the game," "baseball's sacred records," "the purity of sport," etc. etc. For all the talk about Barry Bonds "making a mockery of baseball" and all the hand-wringing about "what will we tell the six-year-olds?" I don't fathom what it is about steroids that makes them so profoundly offensive to so many fans.

I can see several possibilities:

1. Use of steroids without a valid prescription is illegal. This is true. But it's rare to see fans or commentators getting red-faced about other illegal actions on the part of athletes. If a guy hits his wife or cracks up a car or cheats on his taxes, he gets prosecuted by the government and is generally suspended or otherwise punished by his team. It's a P.R. black eye, and usually costs the athlete some endorsement income. But no one claims that this kind of behavior poses a threat to the future of sports.

As for using "illegal substances," no one advocates stripping from the record books all the stats of Keith Hernandez or any of the other 1970s users of cocaine, pot, and greenies. If we're going to go that route, Babe Ruth should be erased from history, too. He's famous for his abuse of a certain substance that was definitely illegal in his day--alcohol. Most people act as if this made him "colorful"--not Public Enemy Number 1, like Barry Bonds.

2. Steroids are bad for you. This is also true. I don't advocate pro athletes using stuff that will shorten their lives, and I certainly hate the idea of college and high school kids taking steroids in a competitive arms-race modeled on the behavior of the pros.

But since when do we get hysterical about athletes doing things that are bad for them? Keith Hernandez was a chain smoker, which any actuary can tell you is not good for your life expectancy. (I don't mean to pick on Keith Hernandez. Despite his bad habits he is actually my favorite all-time Met, which I guess shows how seriously I take this whole "role-model" business.) Plenty of other athletes drink, eat crap, drive recklessly, etc. etc. This behavior is deplorable but, again, never seems to provoke the indignation caused by steroids.

3. Steroids give some athletes an artificial competitive advantage. Now I think we are getting closer to the real source of the general outrage. Fans and pundits seem to think of steroids as "cheating," which is why Barry Bonds's pursuit of the home run record is such a focus in the current controversy. The idea seems to be that he doesn't "deserve" to surpass Hank Aaron, because after all Hank Aaron hit his 755 home runs without being juiced.

There's a certain logic to this. But also a huge inconsistency. Let's assume (what I think no one has ever proven), that taking steroids gives a ballplayer a physical advantage he wouldn't otherwise have. How exactly is this different from the many other "artificial" physical treatments used by athletes that are widely accepted, even lauded? Of course steroids aren't "natural." But are massive doses of vitamins natural? Is Tommy John tendon-replacement surgery natural?

In a column in today's New York Daily News, John Harper talks about some of the scientific advances that are enabling today's athletes to extend their careers into their late 30s and beyond:

Recently retired Yankee pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, for example, recalls his career coming to an abrupt end in 1974 at age 32 when he tore the rotator cuff in his shoulder.

"In those days they didn't do surgery for an injury like that," Stottlemyre recalls. "I remember I had a doctor tell me my shoulder was a surgeon's dream. He said he could repair the damage but that I'd have what he called a frozen shoulder, and I wouldn't be able to pitch.

"So all I could do was rest the shoulder, do some exercises for it, and hope for the best. It started to feel better after several months but then I hurt it again doing some exercises with weights, and that was it. I had to walk away.

"Now you see guys come back from that injury and continue to pitch for years, because the surgical techniques are so much more advanced."

Same goes for knees. Surely Mickey Mantle would have hit 600-plus home runs, maybe 700, had the arthroscope been around 50 years ago to repair his various knee injuries without having to cut his leg open every time.

Now, if Mantle were living today and were threatening the home run record on surgically-repaired knees, would anyone be talking about striking his achievement from the history books on the ground that Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth didn't have the edge provided by arthroscopy?

The truth is that I don't think any of the people who are frothing at the mouth about steroids have actually thought through the reasons for their attitude. They generally speak as if the offensiveness of steroids is self-evident and therefore needs no explanation.

In the end--since I really can't see any rational reasons why steroid use should be considered so much worse than any of the other behaviors I've compared it to--I strongly suspect that the anti-steroid frenzy is driven by a mixture of irrational factors. My hypothetical list would include (1) the unthinking anti-drug hysteria to which most Americans subscribe (even as they ingest ever-increasing levels of medications); (2) the toxic sense of resentment and alienation toward pro athletes generated by their high salaries and the negative propaganda produced by most sports commentators over the past three decades; and (3) an element of racial prejudice--which is one reason why Barry Bonds has taken a lot more grief over his assumed steroid use than Mark McGwire.

What do you think? Is there some logical reason for the steroid frenzy that I've overlooked? (Other than the purely esthetic argument that I wrote about almost a year ago.) If there is, I'd love to hear it.

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