Barry Bonds and His Real Impact on the Steroid Debate

Stew Winkel@stew_winkelSenior Analyst IAugust 3, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO - SEPTEMBER 26:  Barry Bonds #25 of the San Francisco Giants looks on during his game against the San Diego Padres during a Major League Baseball game on September 26, 2007 at AT&T Park in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

It is 2009, and performance enhancing drugs remain front and center in the world of baseball.  Why then do we remain unable of having an honest discussion about PED use, their impact, and why their use was so widespread.

The answer leads back to Barry Bonds, and not for the reasons you may think.

We all know Barry Bonds—he was a cheat, he was a villain.  There is no need to pay any attention to his accomplishments because they do not really count.

But in the rush to label Bonds a cheat, diminish his career and keep him out of the Hall of Fame, the media- and by extension, many fans- essentially handcuffed itself to its positions.Once they so thoroughly and repeatedly demonized Bonds, all who follow must suffer the same fate.

When Bonds set the single-season home run record, and then the career mark, it didn’t matter.These marks were tainted.

With Bonds as their poster-boy, the line in the sand was drawn:  use performance enhancing drugs in baseball and you are a cheat, a failure, a myth.  Sure some other players may have taken something, but Bonds was the worst of the worst.

Now, as the years go by, and more and more players are connected to performance enhancing drugs, the media is faced with two choices:  continue with their moral high ground stance; or perhaps reassess the situation and be forced to admit they may have overreacted in their rush to burn Bonds and all his accomplishments at the stake.  It isn’t difficult to realize which choice the media made. 

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The problem isn't simply a matter of being stubbon, but far more importantly, the result of that stubbornness is it has inhibited all of us from really discussing perform enhancing drugs and baseball.

Think I am wrong? 

Did the media react to Bonds the way it did out of a love of baseball and a commitment to uphold the game’s integrity? Was it that the media just couldn't stand to see anyone disgrace the game the way Bonds did?  He flaunted his PED use in all of our faces.  Look at how his numbers skyrocketed and how his size changed.  He used drugs to go after the game’s most hallowed records.  See, it wasn’t an anti-Bonds bias.  They were just doing their job when they tore him down.

If it was really just about the drugs, then how does anyone explain the universal love the media showed for Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa only a few years before.  Certainly, their bodies changed over the years and their numbers skyrocketed while they gave chase to one of the game’s most sacred records. 

In the summer of 1998, when a story began to develop about McGwire’s possible use of Androstenedione, it wasn’t McGwire’s denials or refusal to talk about it that caused the story to go away.  It was the media that policed itself to successfully push that story to the back of the paper and quickly out of the news cycle all together. 

The media never thought to question McGwire or Sosa in the Summer of '98.  Then came Bonds, who you would have thought was the first player to use PED.  The media went from not being bothered with McGwire and Sosa, to throwing Bonds under the boss.  No middle ground, no analysis.  And once they took that step with Bonds, there has been no turning back. The media took a strong stand against Bonds, and they know to back-track at all is to expose themselves to accusations of hypocrisy.

We have watched those who vote for the Hall of Fame refuse to vote in players connected to performance enhancing drugs.  Do they really mean it?  Or again, does it trace back to Bonds – we have our reason to keep Bonds out, and to budge on anyone else would mean to have to budge on Bonds.  Nothing would make the media happier than keeping Barry Bonds out of the Hall; and conversely, none of them want to see Bonds make that speech in Cooperstown.

If using PED is such a sin of sports, wouldn’t it then apply equally to all sports?

Why doesn't the same media that writes that baseball players are cheats and records and achievements are tainted, write the same thing about football players who get caught?  

When Rodney Harrison retired from the NFL during this past offseason there were many articles discussing whether he is Hall of Fame worthy.  Some said yes, some said no, most agreed it would be close.  None, however, wrote that Harrison should not be allowed in because he was suspended for PED use. 

And while some may believe the two Super Bowls the Patriots won with Harrison were tainted for another reason, no one has ever written that those titles are tainted due to Harrison’s PED suspension.

Every columnist in Boston was out in full force to write about David Ortiz.Even Peter King who writes about football weighed in, thinking the two World Series the Red Sox won might be tainted.I can’t remember seeing anything like that for Harrison.

Following retirement, Harrison is now an analyst for NBC.  Think if Harrison were a baseball player Fox or ESPN would be having him on their broadcasts?

So, again, I ask, for all those that have climbed so high up that horse to disparage Bonds, and then maintained that position for those who have followed, what is the difference?

I am not saying what Bonds and the other baseball players did was something to be ignored.  Or that you are wrong if you believe those who took PED are unworthy of praise or recognition.  I am saying though that the hysteria stirred up over Bonds has stopped anyone in the media from having an honest discussion about performance enhancing drugs in baseball.

What do I mean by honest? 

For starters, just because a player has not been connected with PED, does not mean anything.Yet, the media acts like it does.They will praise these players with no hint of doubt.

We can’t just demonize those unlucky enough to get caught.If Congress does not haul McGwire in to testify, don’t you believe he would have sailed into the Hall of Fame?Where is the media’s investigation into PED use to truly get to the bottom of who used what and when?  

This year, we learned that David Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez and Sammy Sosa each tested positive back in 2003.We also learned that MLB suspended Manny Ramirez for PED use this season. The media treated these stories as the same – baseball player caught cheating. 

That is not having an honest debate.  There is a drastic difference- PED use was not against the rules in 2003.  It is now, a major difference.

Further, there is never any real discussion about what it is the player tested positive for. To say someone used PED, is like saying someone takes illegal drugs. 

What does illegal drugs refer to?  If I walked into a room and saw people smoking marijuana, it would mean one thing to me; and it would mean something entirely different if I walked in and saw people tying up their arms and injecting heroin. 

The same is true for PED. We need to discuss and find out the differences between something a player buys from a guy outside a gym and injects into himself, and something bought over the counter at a nutrition store that is drank after mixing it with milk.  PED run the entire gambit between those two scenarios.  There is a difference and we need to know about it.

Players should not have taken PED.  That is the easy thing to say.  But, who among us, if given the chance to take something that would improve our careers, improve our status in life, wouldn’t take the chance if their were little to no chance of repercussions?

For an example from outside the sports arena, right now, in colleges, law schools and medical schools across the country, students stay up all night writing papers, studying for tests, bar exams, and medical boards. 

Here is a little secret—many students prepare for all of those things by taking Adderall or a similar stimulant.  They do this in order to improve their grades and test scores that they hope will then lead to top jobs and more money.  Yes, these drugs are illegal, but it isn’t like schools administer drug tests before exams. 

If an honest debate is what we are after, we need to take some time to really discuss all the factors, beyond just the players, that allowed PED use to become so rampant in baseball.  Writing about a player who gets caught is fine; but we should also acknowledge that this player is one of hundreds, and that there are many who are responsible for the steroid era who never threw a pitch or took a swing. 

In the legal world, it is common to hear judges talk about the slippery slope.  If they rule one way for a particular case, what does it mean down the road for the next case and the case after that. 

Well, when it comes to performance enhancing drugs, the media rendered its decision on Bonds and fell hard and fast down that slope.  They backed themselves into a corner and are now incapable and unwilling to do anything to get out of that predicament. 

Their stance, while it may achieve one goal– diminishing Barry Bonds’ accomplishments and keeping him out of the Hall of Fame- is stopping us from truly understanding the complete causes and ramifications of the steroid era in baseball.   If we truly care about baseball, and sports in general, which one should be more important?

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