Major League Baseball sent a message when it handed down a 211-game suspension upon Alex Rodriguez: Performance-enhancing drugs are an affront to the game of baseball, and their presence won’t be tolerated. Commissioner Bud Selig has repeatedly expounded how the advantages provided by PEDs cheat both the players that don’t use them and the fans who want to enjoy games without wondering which players are clean.
Unfortunately, this message is both hollow and misguided. Selig can throw the book at A-Rod – or much more than the book allows him to, in this case – in hopes of making him the scapegoat for the steroid era, but no one is taking the bait. Selig turned a blind eye for years when McGwire’s, Sosa’s and Bonds’ home run chases brought fans back to the ballparks after the 1994 strike; he and the MLB allowed PEDs to run rampant, and the disgrace of an unpopular superstar won’t hide that fact from plain sight. But the flaws in Selig’s stance on PEDs go beyond simple disingenuousness, and they are far from unique. There is a nostalgic idolization of the purity of the past that is rampant in sports culture, and this nostalgia shifts the focus to the less crucial, less objective problems that PEDs bring into sports.
For one, the idea that baseball players before the steroid era were of higher moral caliber and above cheating is dubious at best. PEDs may have provided the current generation of ballplayers with more direct avenues through which to gain an advantage, but our heroes of old mastered every trick in the book when it came to gaining an unfair advantage – from scuffed balls to spitballs to corked bats. And that’s not even to mention amphetamines, which players knocked down like tic-tacs for increased energy and focus and whose side effects can be extremely dangerous.
Another false notion is that the current era of baseball can be statistically compared to past eras. Football fans know that comparing stats from players decades ago with their counterparts in the current pass-heavy variant of the NFL is futile, and basketball fans have long accepted that the brand of basketball that enabled Wilt Chamberlain to average 50 points a game in a season is long gone. But baseball, perhaps because its highly segmented nature gives the illusion that there are fewer variables at play, still clings to the idea that you could compare the talents of Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds purely on their stats.
This is pure fantasy; Babe Ruth had tremendous natural gifts, but he did not have access to the nutritional tips or the advances made in analyzing optimal hitting mechanics that Bonds did. On the other hand, Ruth also didn’t have to contend with 80 years of advancement in pitching. Even since Bonds hit 73 home runs in a season roughly a decade ago, the landscape of pitching has changed dramatically. Back then pitchers were not throwing off-speed pitches for strikes nearly as much; players would sit on anything that spun and wait for a fastball. In today’s MLB, there is no longer a fastball count, and players are faced with a larger array of pitches and scenarios that they have to be prepared for. This has resulted in the lowest batting averages and the highest strikeout totals that the game of baseball has seen in decades. Simply put, rallying against steroids because they cheat the game is ultimately fruitless. Hitters and pitchers have both had access to PEDs, balancing each other out – and as the current hitting trend shows, pitchers have retaken the balance of power that was lost earlier in the steroid era – so the issue at heart is cheating the “pure” records of old; since different eras of the MLB are no more comparable than those of the NFL and the NBA, the cheating argument is somewhat trivial.
Make no mistake, though – I am not endorsing PEDs. If PEDs simply made you stronger, then I would see them as nothing more than an excellent supplement that every athlete should take – after all, athletes get a boost in nutrition and muscle gain from eating a lot of protein before and after workouts, and nobody views that as cheating. The real issue with PEDs is that they are dangerous; instead of rallying against the “tainted” advantages that PEDs bestow upon athletes in an effort to teach kids about ethics, we should be focusing on the negative side effects that make PEDs bad, such as liver damage, aggressive behavior, depression and – most importantly – stunted growth when used by kids. After all, the example sports set for children is at the heart of this matter. But as long as Seligcontinues to play the blame game and wax poetic about the purity of baseball, the true dangers ofPEDs will remain sidelined, allowing other sports entities such as the NFL – in which PEDs are far more rampant – to continue to play dumb about the issue.
Darius Majd is a junior in the College. THE SPORTING LIFE appears every Tuesday.