No, ESPN, Steroids Still Aren’t Okay

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.

Comments and Conversation

June 18, 2009

Kyle Jahner:

Hey, now, steroids are perfectly safe. Just ask Eddie Guerrero. Or Chris Benoit. Or any of the other dozens of wrestlers that have died before 50 due to either heart failure or suicides stemming from emotional imbalances. Lyle Alzedo, anyone?

But yeah, we should just accept them. “Kids, wanna play pro baseball? Just remember, your heart is gonna stop at 45, so while we root for you, you should be rooting for those medical advances!” Chafets is dead wrong about steroids. Plus it’s a slap in the face to any players that actually play it clean and have tried to maintain integrity.

But, I am against a universal ban of ‘Roid users in the Hall. The reasons:

1) Baseball turned a blind eye for 10-15 years; it WAS effectively legal, like jaywalking, pot, and embellishing on tax returns. The union and management were the ones that didn’t protect their players, and even made it so that most almost HAD to cheat to compete. Heck, even Bob Gibson and Mike Schmidt have said they’d have probably taken them given the circumstances; should we kick them out for thinking that way? Great athlete’s desire to win is THAT serious.

2) Juicers are going to get in whether we like it or not. We can’t catch them all. Avoiding the witch-hunt and having more clandestine drug sources shouldn’t be a prerequisite. (I know, your two-wrongs point, but still.)

3) The Hall is baseball history. players that were truly iconic for their era should be there. Clemens and Bonds have to go, and I hate both of them. Because of reason 2), you have to treat the era for what it was. But baseball as a sport doesn’t deserve the ability to pretend 1990-2006 didn’t happen.

That said, I don’t think there’s a problem with holding steroid implications AGAINST people. Palmiero, lied and kept doing it through testing. Just rancid. Plus he was no shoe-in to begin with. Sosa and McGwire may face a similar fate. I see ‘Roid connections as PART of the equation. But a simple “implicated=BANNED from HOF” rule is too simplistic. So everyone on Mitchell’s report is done? Everyone in Canseco’s book? And do we punish ARod for being forced to tell the truth or McGwire for refusing to lie to Congress, all while some guy who lied his ass off skates to the Hall? All I’m saying is it’s complicated.

I think the game is cleaner now than just three years ago (go do a crosscheck on number of 36 HR seasons per year. 96-06: ranges from 13-21 per year. Last two years? 13 combined, with two double dipping.) So put the era in the Hall, with full denotation of what went on, and deal with the same imperfect Hall that an imperfect sport in an imperfect society deserves.

June 18, 2009

Kyle Jahner:

All that said, if anyone implicated of steroids does reach the Hall, Pete Rose is gonna be pissed.

(He should also be there)

Sorry for the article posing on a comment…

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