Legalize It! (December 2017)

Why Do Sports Leagues Bother Fighting Steroid Use?

Few things in life grant me equanimity quite as reliably as the aggrieved wails of old-school sports types denouncing alleged — but also, to be fair, pretty clearly actual — steroid users. I was reminded of this recently when, apropos of not all that much, Joe Morgan, the legendary second baseman turned decidedly less-than-legendary broadcaster, published an open letter to baseball Hall of Fame voters imploring them to hold the line and continue to deny entry to anyone and everyone known to have availed themselves of performance-enhancing drugs. Morgan’s singular zeal for his cause has long been beyond question, and he deftly drove home his point by larding his missive with phraseology that might as well have been lifted straight from the 2017 Woke Dude Handbook. Here’s a snippet: “The more we Hall of Famers talk about this — and we talk about it a lot — we realize that we can no longer sit silent. Many of us have come to think that silence will be considered complicity.” Stripped of context, you might have supposed that Morgan was railing against the ongoing systematic discrimination by law enforcement towards people of color or maybe even our society’s persistent normalization of the sexual assault and denigration of half its members. Not even close. Instead, Morgan is fixated on a bunch of rich dudes who, decades ago, (probably) used some widely available pharmaceuticals to marginally improve their performance at a child’s game. We all have our crosses to bear, I guess.

Now feels like as good a time as any to admit that, even as an inveterate and largely unashamed sports fan, it’s difficult for me to imagine a more artificial and meaningless construct than the Hall of Fame. Retired jocks are just as entitled as anyone else to hang their self-worth on the arbitrary assessments of strangers, but it seems to me that the diehards up in the nosebleeds have mostly concluded that ex-post declarations do little to alter the truth of what happened between the lines. Still, one of our greatest philosophers insists that it ain’t ’till it’s over, and so if Joe Morgan wants to spend his golden years crusading against Sammy Sosa and Mike Piazza, then more power to him.

While Morgan’s Hall of Fame campaign may be relatively harmless, his rush to equate PED usage with moral failure isn’t. To me, Morgan’s particular variety of reductive thinking is largely invalidated by a litany of objections that I’m constantly reciting to a rotating cast of friendly folks who are guilty of nothing worse than trying to unwind at their local sports bar. If you haven’t had the pleasure, here’s the short version: even putting aside the reality that PED use has always been remarkably widespread and resilient to regulation, steroids — much like, say, vitamin supplements and hypobaric tents — are the inevitable result of scientific attempts to improve human performance and outlawing them only serves to misdirect resources, encourage arbitrary punishments and privilege those with the wealth or wherewithal to avoid detection.

I’ve got that speech pretty much down — it’s long-winded and a little pedantic, but still decent — though I’m not quite self-deluded enough to believe that it’s ever changed anyone’s mind. Sports fans, even the amiable ones who will indulge my rants, tend toward an absolutist belief in the chastity of their heroes’ athletic achievements. Curiously, this intransigence doesn’t seem to extend beyond the playing field; police blotters are lousy with athletes who’ve committed heinous acts richly deserving of opprobrium but are instead welcomed back to the pitch with open arms. I either can’t or more probably am just too frightened to unpack what that says about us. Another time, maybe. For now, we’re left to grapple with de facto rules of the game that uniquely frame steroid use as a capital crime.

As far as I can tell, this preoccupation with punishing PED users can best be understood as an effort to avoid cognitive dissonance. As a matter of course, we invest an unfathomable quantity of time, money and psychic bandwidth into following sports. There are lots of perfectly defensible reasons for this: tradition, tribalism, crippling gambling addictions, among many more. But the expenditure is, by any measure, staggering. The trouble is that we’re well past the point where an honest reckoning with how we’ve chosen to direct our collective energies would trigger anything other than widespread self-loathing. We’d be risking being left with something resembling a nation full of Mets fans, surely a catastrophe too horrifying to contemplate. We’re pot committed.

There are probably more circumspect methods for managing this conundrum, but none are as easy and superficially painless as digging in our heels and telling ourselves that, in fact, our sports obsession is justified by not only the majesty of the games but especially the nobility of the players. We’ve even developed an entire lexicon to aid and abet our self-deception: the football field is the gridiron, teams wage battle, players are warriors. The language of war has been completely co-opted and repurposed. Discussing our pastimes in such grandiose terms lends an air of legitimacy to the habit of sinking countless hours into watching, say, the Browns’ weekly ritual of pissing away yet another game, or whatever the equivalent is in your neck of the woods. Likewise, as our internal assessment of the importance of sport is buoyed, the language surrounding the games feels more and more justified. Wash, rinse, repeat.

This rhetorical house of cards is built on the idea that players’ performance is “on the level” or “above board” or “not fueled by the ruthless exploitation of the most sophisticated drugs that modern science has to offer”. It’d be much harder, I’d imagine, to conceive of athletes as warriors, much less heroes, if you also believed that their accomplishments are merely the morally suspect fabrication of some pencil-necked geek in a lab. And if athletes and the games they play aren’t worthy of pedestal we’ve collectively placed them on, then what exactly is all this time and money and heartache for, anyway? When it comes down to a choice between undoing a significant pillar of our worldview and scapegoating the few steroid users foolish or unlucky enough to get have gotten caught, there’s really no choice at all.

The inevitable consequence of all this is the deification of famous athletes who, thanks to our elaborate semantic gymnastics, we’re inclined to view as flawless avatars of physical and moral excellence. This impression is ardently reinforced by the Joe Morgans of the world, whose public image is inseparable from the popular view of pro athletes, and by the plethora of faceless corporate entities — leagues, team owners and sponsors — who bank billions each year on the backs of other people’s athletic exploits. Meanwhile, the rest of society is left lionizing and striving to emulate a group of twentysomethings selected exclusively on the basis of a narrow and non-transferrable skill set and who, in their defense, never actually asked to be role models in the first place.

I don’t think there are any easy answers, but there is a simple one: legalize it. I’m indifferent about the legal standing of PEDs — this is absolutely not an issue that Congress should be devoting any time to whatsoever — but sports leagues would do well to abandon their unyielding tack of rooting out and persecuting every single steroid-related infraction. Back at the sports bar, you can often catch me theatrically pounding my fist on the table while obnoxiously insisting that decriminalizing steroids will save leagues from the quixotic task of policing ever more sophisticated drug use and actually make it easier to give great athletic talent its due — all of which I believe to be factually accurate. But, between me and you, I could give a shit about that. Half the fun of following sports is in arguing about players and teams from across varying contexts, and the balance sheets of billionaire team owners are so not my problem. Instead, the more meaningful outcome of a laissez-faire drug policy would be to throw a wrench in the cycle that urges us to uncritically laud, and eventually canonize, modern sports stars. An open drug policy would, in short order, cast a shadow of drug-fueled doubt over every exceptional on-the-field performance. Many players would, of course, ostentatiously proclaim their innocence, and, some of them will even be telling the truth. Others won’t be. I have no idea how those ratios would shake out, and I’m not at all sure that it matters. The point is that, after the last decade’s outing of dozens of formerly beloved stars as guilty of perpetrating what Morgan believes to be a “steroidal farce”, the sports-watching public is unlikely to be so credulous again. Instead, everyone will be presumed steroidal until proven innocent. I get that that’s not exactly the American way, but, conveniently for us, we’re not in a court of law. We’re out here in these streets, trying to nudge our kids away from the habit of hailing pro athletes as the personification of integrity, morality and rightness. With any little luck, maybe we can even get them to stop thinking of these guys as role models.

Joe Morgan is all about the kids, too. He believes that “[f]amilies come to [the baseball Hall of Fame] because they know it’s special. To parents, it’s a place they can take their kids for an uplifting, feel-good visit. It’s a place where kids can see what true greatness is all about. It’s a place where youngsters can dream that one day they too might get in.” Maybe, one day, they’ll start dreaming bigger.

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