No, ESPN, Steroids Still Aren’t Okay
June 1, 2009 by Brad Oremland • Print Story •
Performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) are the sports story you can't hide from. You can ignore most of the off-field stuff, the DUIs and the marijuana possession, and all the rest. But when a star player is suspended for using steroids or hormones, it's a big story, and it's not going away.
PEDs are the dark side of sports, and many fans are learning to live with the reality that they are part of the 21st-century sports landscape. Manny Ramirez was not the first all-star to get busted for PEDs, and he won't be the last. The more we read about people like Manny, the more I question whether everyone does it and we should just accept the accomplishments of steroid-users.
But now ESPN The Magazine has published a piece that goes further. Zev Chafets (which is Stefahc Vez spelled backwards) argues that steroids are as wholesome as apple pie. His article goes from accepting PEDs, to justifying them, to celebrating them, and finally arguing that any Hall of Fame voter who would oppose a steroid-user should be stripped of his voting rights.
Chafets starts by quoting Cooperstown's Rule 5, that election should be based on "record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played." He then notes that some Hall of Famers were bad people off the field, apparently arguing that we should ignore the clauses on "integrity, sportsmanship, [and] character" because they may not have been applied in the past. This is a two-wrongs-make-a-right argument: mistakes were made in the past, so let's make them again.
More importantly, the issue of whether Rogers Hornsby and Ty Cobb were nasty guys off the field (and most accounts agree that they were) is totally irrelevant to the argument. No one is saying Barry Bonds shouldn't be a Hall of Famer because he's a jackass, they say so because he used something to get an unfair advantage in the game: he cheated. The issue here is cheating: "integrity, sportsmanship, character" in the context of the game.
Chafets' argument takes a swerve into the surreal when he compares steroids and other PEDs to now-common medications:
Today, grade-school students take Ritalin, and lawyers go to court on antidepressants or beta-blockers. In the end, aren't they performance-enhancers? Why should ballplayers be different?
The somewhat bizarre comparison to school kids on Ritalin (and get with the times, Mr. Chafets, everyone takes Adderall now) and lawyers on antidepressants is a total non-starter. Those are psychiatric medications people take so they can function normally. Professional athletes use steroids and other PEDs to make their bodies function abnormally. That is a hugely important distinction. Properly prescribed psychiatric drugs don't give anyone an unfair advantage, in school or court or anywhere else. Illegal steroid use occurs for the express purpose of conferring an unfair advantage.
Most ballplayers who use steroids and/or hormones do so illegally. That's not particularly relevant to this argument, but the primary reason those substances are illegal is because they are dangerous. If we condone some players taking steroids, that puts pressure on other players to do the same if they want to be competitive. No one should have to risk his health in that way to play in MLB. Even more importantly, no one should have to risk her or his health to play sports in the minors, or college, or high school. Certainly, no one should read in a major sports publication that steroids are okay.
Chafets never even addresses the health problems that PEDs can lead to, but that is an essential element of this debate. If PEDs were safe, they would be legal, both in baseball and in the criminal justice system, and most athletes would use them. Because they are illegal, and because they are dangerous, many players choose not to. And on the field, those players may be at a disadvantage precisely because of their "integrity, sportsmanship, [and] character." That is why steroids are a problem: not only are they a form of cheating, they are a form of cheating that encourages athletes — of all ages — to endanger their long-term health.
To this point in the article, Chafets has only been trying to justify the use of PEDs in Major League Baseball. At the end of the column, he shifts to actually glorifying, celebrating, players who have used PEDs: "Manny and Bonds, A-Rod and [Roger] Clemens ... earned their spots the old-fashioned way — by doing what was necessary to stand above their peers."
"Doing what was necessary?" Now Chafets writes that use of PEDs is necessary to stand out in today's game! What a depressing thought. When did this go from reluctant acceptance — a position I can understand — to enthusiastic appreciation? Now he's essentially praising the use of PEDs. And how disingenuous to hold up steroid use as "the old-fashioned way," like everyone in the 1930s was on HGH, and this is an admirable tradition that's finally coming back.
In fact, Chafets continues, Hall of Fame voters who oppose steroid-users should lose their voting privileges: "And if the writers don't like this, well, they need to be reminded that they serve as Cooperstown's electoral college at the pleasure of the Hall 's controllers -- a nonprofit organization, not MLB — and they can be replaced." That is a radical argument. What sports fan doesn't have mixed feelings about PEDs? How many of us can't see the other side? Evidently, Chafets cannot. If you disagree with him, he says, you don't deserve a voice. I believe the selection process benefits from a variety of viewpoints. Right now, the majority of voters seem to believe that steroid use should preclude selection to the Hall. It will be interesting to see if that standpoint changes at all over the next 10 or 15 years, as we learn more and more about PEDs in baseball.
The debate over PEDs in sports is complex, and intelligent, fair-minded fans can disagree over how we should react to players like Ramirez and A-Rod. What no one should do, though, is to deliberately encourage use of steroids and other PEDs without serious consideration of the health problems and ethical issues that accompany them.