Is Baseball Really Confronting Steroid Use?

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Is Baseball Really Confronting Steroid Use?
What makes steroids in sports so bad?  Why is the issue of steroids in baseball the object of debate in Congress while seemingly more pressing issues are ignored?  Why are Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens in the news every single day?

If you watch an hour of television, particularly a sporting event, you will undoubtedly see a commercial or two talking about how steroids destroy a young athlete’s body.  Though it is easy to cite the negative effects of steroid use, such as its implication in various health problems and aggressive behaviors in its users, it is also possible to speak of its positive effects.

This clouds the issue of steroid use.

So why is it so important to “clean up” baseball of this “problem”?

Fans of baseball argue that it needs to maintain the “integrity of the game.”  Steroid use in baseball is such a pressing issue because it is one part of the much larger problem of drug use in America.  In a sense, we are lucky because professional baseball players are very public and have a major influence in society, particularly over adolescents and even more so over adolescents who play sports.  If this issue is dealt with properly, it can be a springboard to deal with the issue of general drug use with American youth in a similar way to the anti-smoking ads that are ran during sporting events.

It is easy to pass steroid use as just another form of therapy to assist with medical conditions.  Steven Shapin, is his article entitled, “Cleanup Hitters” writes:

So there has always been the thinnest of lines between medical augmentation and medical restoration.  Is the task of the physician to maintain and restore normal function? If so, what is to count as normal?  Or is it to enhance and release the full range of human potential?

The issue of what is normal and abnormal is certainly debatable as Shapin suggests.  Though it is indeed a physician’s job to restore normal functioning in his patient and/or establish medication or surgery that allows for the best possible life for his or her patient, is it really applicable to the issue of steroid use?

Jose Canseco did indeed utilize steroids to assist in the recovery process, Shapin says:

"So, it's worth noting that anabolic steroids not only helped Canseco turn into a home-run-hitting monster but also, he says, allowed him to recuperate from a series of back surgeries which could otherwise have ended his career."

Here we see a positive outcome of steroids.  Shapin describes how Canseco was able to utilize steroids in his recuperation from multiple surgeries much as a doctor would prescribe medication to curb an obese person’s appetite, assist someone’s sex life, or subdue the tendencies of a hyperactive child.  However, he also suggests the steroids turned Canseco into a muscle-bound home run slugger.

So is this the issue?  Is it the fact that steroid use makes for superhuman athletes, like Canseco, who make the playing field unequal and damage the “integrity” of the game?   I don’t believe that is the issue either.  If equity is the issue at bar, then any substance that provides a gainful advantage for an athlete will be brought into play. Shapin describes, “In one way or another we have always been juiced.  When coffee and tea were new in the western world, they were seen as powerful (and often dangerous) mind-and body-altering substances”.  While this seems silly at first glance, if our argument against steroids is that it makes for unfair advantages, one can argue that the pitcher would be less awake if he wasn’t allowed his morning coffee or tea or the catcher would not be able to play today’s game if he wasn’t allowed to take his cortisone shot or his pill-form painkillers to alleviate the pain in his knees.  It will be a never ending series of: “if you ban steroids, then you must ban x” arguments.

So why is this issue so pressing?  Why is congress “wasting their time” trying to figure out how to “clean up” baseball?  Shouldn’t they be worrying about the middle- east or maybe even the national debt? While those are issues that should be a concern to the federal government, the issue of steroids is a very important issue with which the congress should deal because of the profound impact Major League Baseball has on the United States.  In 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were chasing home run history, baseballs were flying out of stadiums at an alarming rate.  Nobody questioned it.  Millions of fans flocked to parks and McGwire and Sosa became role models for the masses.  Millions of young ballplayers emulated McGwire’s elbowing his teammates and Sosa’s two fingered kiss to the heavens when they hit their home runs.

As it comes out that these men allegedly utilized steroids to accomplish their feats, millions of young players are faced with a choice: the clean path or the dirty one.  With the pressures of college scholarships, professional contracts, to be won with elevated stats and impressive physiques the allure of steroids is at an all-time high.  During the 2006 season, despite the attempt to cleanse baseball of its steroid use, there have been at least 6 suspensions of low level minor league players and average major leaguers for steroid use.  These are people who are attempting to find something that will enable them to “make it” in their sport.  There is also a belief that although steroid use has been hindered in baseball, it is still rampant, particularly with other forms of body enhancement such as human growth hormone. This method of body enhancement is still undetectable by the manners of testing available to major league baseball.  Furthermore, there is very little testing done in high schools. The idea that steroids produce star ballplayers cause many young athletes to begin experimenting with these substances in high school, a time where steroids can do their most damage.  A Bradenton Herald article entitled, “Steroids sabotage high school sports” by Daniel Landesberg describes steroid use in various forms at the high school level.  He mentions that at-least “6 percent [of high school] students have tried” steroid in an attempt to “bulk up”.  This is the crux of the problem

In order to cut off the use of steroids and other dangerous substances at a young age, steroid use must be stopped at the top.  If young athletes see that their role models are clean and playing the game unaltered by steroids, perhaps the pressures will be for them to follow in the footsteps of their heroes for positive reasons and not negative ones.  When a young athlete is faced with an opportunity to utilize steroids so that he can “improve” his body, perhaps he can think to himself, “The Major Leaguers don’t use it, I shouldn’t either”.  To save this athlete’s life, makes all of the deliberation of congress and implementation of testing valuable and time-worthy.  Provided baseball is able to rid itself of steroids, it is its argument that the process is necessary for the “integrity of the game” has limitations.  Besides the fact that steroid use has been linked to faster recuperation of its athletes, the sport falls short with its policies, or more accurately lack of policies, for the use of other illegal substances.  Shouldn’t we be concerned our nation’s youth will also emulate its role-model athletes in their use of other illegal substances?

Presently, the use of steroids for recreation and/or bodybuilding is illegal in the United States at a federal level.  However, amphetamines, Cocaine, and Marijuana are also illegal.  We cannot trust Major League Baseball, an entity that has in the past demonstrated apathy to steroid use and its lack of concern for these illicit drugs, to police itself with regards to steroid use.  In an article entitled, “Sadly, Steroids Saved Baseball”, Ben Walker describes the 1998 season of McGwire and Sosa home runs.  He writes, “But when it came to making baseball popular again and turning it into a booming business, nothing did the job like home runs. Particularly 500-foot home runs”.  These very long home runs drew millions of fans to the ballparks, made baseball popular again, and of course brought in millions of dollars.  How did baseball react to these home runs?  They didn’t.  Walker describes:

"In those days, few delved deeply into why balls were flying over the fences. Rather, there were stock answers: smaller parks, watered-down pitching, juiced balls and bigger players. Looking back, certainly there should have been a closer examination from all sides. But there was such a boom, hardly anyone wanted to question it."

As the ‘balls were flying’, and attendance spiking, baseball turned a blind and unquestioning eye.  People did not investigate the use of steroids; there was “no issue” in the eyes of the sport.  However, after the speculation with regards to Barry Bonds’ alleged steroid-use due to his involvement with a laboratory called BALCO that he allegedly admitted to a grand jury in December of 2004, baseball now has some explaining to do.  The court of public opinion cast doubt on any player belting home runs and thought back on that season of 1998.  Now, it is “baseball’s goal” to clean up the sport.

In an Associated Press article dated 11/15/05, baseball’s commissioner Bud Selig, reacted to an agreement the owner’s reached with the players that would lead to a 50 game suspension for first offense, an 100 game suspension for a second offense, and a third offense resulting in a lifetime ban for steroid use.  He said, "This is an important step to reaching our goal of ridding our sport of performance-enhancing substances and should restore the integrity of and public confidence in our great game. I appreciate the effort put forward by the players' association and our players in reaching this new agreement." Selig is trying to display a desire to clean his sport up of the steroids of which he was most likely aware in 1998.  If he was aware of the steroid use in 1998, he ignored it.  If he was not aware of it, then he is incompetent.  Either way, how could we trust Selig to clean this mess?  His latest strategy was the deployment of Senator George Mitchell to create a report of illicit steroid-use in baseball.  However, Selig’s inability to force his players to talk to the senator; which also points to a lack of control over his sport, led to the creation of a 409 page document consisting mostly of hearsay and finger pointing.  The players can simply deny allegations, and chalk up any finger-pointing to circumstantial evidence and/or lying.

Until the investigation into Barry Bonds, and the fan/congressional reaction to steroid use, cleaning up baseball was the furthest thing from Selig’s mind.  Furthermore, cocaine use, marijuana use, and other recreational drug use, have been reported on all levels of sports.  We read about drugs recovered from athletes’ cars all of the time in the newspaper, but no one is calling for lifetime bans for this kind of activity.  No one is waxing poetic talking about the “integrity of the game”, or harkening back to the old days when “no one used steroids”.  Very often there are minor suspensions, and the athlete is given dozens of chances depending on his talent for his sport.  Major league relief pitcher Steve Howe pitched for 17 seasons.  Though he had a career winning record, it was his seven drug related suspensions that was his most impressive statistic.  He was given eight chances to “recover” because he could still get major league batters out.

In fact, this kind of drug use has been a major problem in baseball for decades.  In an interview in the fall of 2005, Atlanta Braves’ All-Star Third-baseman Larry “Chipper” Jones was asked about the prevalence of performance-enhancing drug use in baseball.  He stated that while he “never saw anyone use steroids”, he often saw “greenies” or amphetamines – another illegal substance, being utilized by teammates on a regular basis.  He called that a “bigger problem than steroids”.   Steve Phillips, the former General Manager of the New York Mets and current ESPN analyst spoke about former players describing clubhouses with two different pots of coffee: “one leaded and one unleaded”, referring to the spiking of this coffee with amphetamines.  Former Major Leaguer Jim Bouton, in his famed book Ball Four, writes extensively about rampant amphetamine problems as far back as 1970.  In that book he referred to Amphetamines as the “greenies” to which Jones and Phillips referred in their interviews.  So, we can see that Major League Baseball has been inundated with problems with drugs for a very long time now.  Amphetamines were not banned until 2006, 40 years too late.  Even with all of these banned substances, baseball admits it cannot test for anything other than steroid-use and Human Growth Hormone has becomes the drug of choice due to this fact.

So how can we trust baseball to police itself given his track record?  The baseball hierarchy is sending a message right now that steroid use is wrong when it is discovered that a major star was a user, but not when it leads to home run races that pack ballparks when baseball’s popularity is lagging!  It hasn’t said a word about a campaign to limit drug use in Major League Baseball.  We need to ban athletes for steroid use because it compromises statistics, but give them second chances if it is marijuana or cocaine (provided they can hit or throw a ball of course).  These are dangerous messages to send to fans, especially its young and adolescent fans.  This is where baseball’s hiding behind the “integrity of the game argument” is lacking.  While baseball and other sports need to concentrate more fully on its policies on all drugs, congress should step in to assist baseball in policing an issue that has been the subject of such waffling within the last eight years.  Perhaps, congress which has the nation to think about in its deliberations would be able to enact a policy that would be effective against all drug use in baseball as well as the other major sports.  Baseball has a conflict of interest when dealing with steroids and can only deal with it as a reaction to big stars getting caught.  It has to clean itself up with regards to steroid use, but also must appease its players so that money can be made. Congress can come at this issue from an outsider’s prospective and deal with issue as part of a much larger problem.  So indeed while there are certainly more pressing issues for congress, the issue of steroid use is not simply a “baseball issue”.  It is one part of the national issue of any and all drug use in America and specifically its youth.

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