The Reactionary Sports Drug War

Steroids will continue to debase sports as long as the war against them solely targets players.

Alex Rodriguez’s New York Yankees missed Major League Baseball’s postseason for the second time in the past eighteen seasons, but that doesn’t mean his October has been uneventful. Rodriguez is the last man standing after baseball’s most recent salvo in their war on performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), and he and his legal team have spent the past month preparing for what figures to be a long and drawn out appeal of an unprecedented 211-game suspension for his involvement with a Miami clinic.

Over a dozen other players were suspended along with Rodriguez. Unlike Rodriguez, they all accepted their suspensions — in most cases fifty games, MLB’s typical suspension for first-time steroid offenders. Perhaps the evidence was strong. Perhaps they didn’t want to be blackballed by the owners. Rodriguez was the only one of the group without a future contract to think about — he will be forty-two years old when his current ten-year, $275 million contract expires in 2017. The next oldest player suspended was thirty-three-year-old Nelson Cruz — a free agent following the season.

Baseball’s key witness in the case is Anthony Bosch, the owner of the clinic from which the players allegedly obtained performance enhancing drugs. Bosch refused to cooperate with MLB’s investigation for months until MLB filed suit against him for “tortious interference.” Thus compelled, he cooperated. ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson wrote, “We know only that MLB promised to protect him from any legal actions that might result from his cooperation and that MLB assured Bosch it would provide personal security.” Munson also suggested MLB may have offered to help Bosch with his problems with the IRS and other lawsuits, although this has not been confirmed.

Throughout its steroids investigation, Major League Baseball has operated with tunnel vision. Players have been the sole target — not the suppliers of performance enhancing drugs, not the coaches who oversee these players, not the owners who profit from their performances. This has proven over the past decade or so to be an ineffective strategy for halting steroid use. So why do the powers that be in baseball insist on punishing the players, and no other party?

It’s a question that can be asked of the anti-drug movement at any point in its history. The World Anti-Doping Association, established in 1999 by the International Olympic Committee to “coordinate the fight against banned performance-enhancing drugs in sport,” has almost entirely deployed their resources against players, not drug manufacturers or distributors. From a UK report following the agency’s establishment:

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) will establish a single list of banned substances, coordinate unannounced out-of-competition drug testing, develop common standards for sample collection and testing procedures, push for harmonized rules and sanctions, and promote research into new tests.

Additionally, baseball (and sport in general) punishes no other infraction — particularly those involving violence on the field of play — with anywhere near the same zeal. The fifty-game first offense steroid suspension is by a wide margin the strictest suspension Major League Baseball hands down. Padres outfielder Carlos Quentin was suspended eight games for charging the mound after taking a pitch off his (heavily padded) elbow and breaking Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke’s shoulder in the process. Giants relief pitcher George Kontos was suspended three games for intentionally throwing at an opponent. Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson has been suspended multiple times for what MLB deemed the intentional actions of his pitchers in throwing at opposing hitters — both one-game suspensions.

Why are these infractions, incidents that would often otherwise be considered assault  — as when National Hockey League player Todd Bertuzzi was charged and plead guilty to assault in Vancouver over a hit in 2004 — given relative slaps on the wrist? Why does an organization ostensibly designed to eliminate doping in sports only approach the problem from one direction — the players, the workers of sport?

Twenty-five years ago, conservative commentator George Will answered this question for us in his syndicated column:

[Commissioner Bart] Giamatti noted that most disciplinary cases involve impulsive violence, which is less morally grave than cheating. Such acts of violence, although intolerable, spring from the nature of physical contests between aggressive competitors. Such violence is a reprehensible extension of the physical exertion that is integral to the contest. Rules try to contain, not expunge, violent effort.

But cheating derives not from excessive, impulsive zeal in the heat of competition. Rather it is a cold, covert attempt to alter conditions of competition. As Giamatti puts it, cheating has no organic origin in the act of playing and cheating devalues any contest designed to declare a winner among participants playing under identical rules and conditions. Toward cheating the proper policy is zero tolerance.

The idea of zero tolerance has driven steroid policy ever since. The league realized the initial ten game suspension wasn’t enough to deter players and bumped it up to fifty games in a hope the disincentive would be strong enough to deter most potential offenders. The Biogenesis scandal has indicated to many in the game that a fifty-game suspension — something that would result in a loss of nearly one-third of a player’s wages aside from the missed time — is too weak. Some, including players, called for a full-season ban on the first offense, while some went as far to say even first-time offenders should be banned for life.

“To me, personally, I think you should be out of the game if you get caught,” Mike Trout, Angels center fielder, All-Star, and arguably the best player in the game said in the wake of Rodriguez’s suspension. “It takes away from the guys that are working hard every day and doing it all natural.”

“Natural” — this word cuts to the heart of the issue for many incensed by steroid use. In Will’s view, a player crosses the line “when he seeks advantage from radical intrusions into his body.” He explicates: “In short, sport is valued not only because it builds character but because it puts on display, and crowns with glory. . . attributes we associated with good character. Good character, not good chemistry.”

Will doesn’t lay out the next step, but it falls logically. If sport is a contest of character — specifically the universally-recognized character Will believes in — then the result of the game is an indicator of character. Win and you possess it. Lose and you don’t. This is the real crime of the steroid cheat: they make themselves into winners when in actuality, they were losers.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, another avid sports fan, is more explicit about the purpose of sport. As Corey Robin notes in The Reactionary Mind, “Games hold a special valence for Scalia: they are the space where inequality rules.” In 2001, golfer Casey Martin challenged a PGA rule that didn’t allow him to use a golf cart despite a birth defect (Klippel Trenaunay Weber syndrome) that made walking the necessary distances to play 18 holes difficult. Martin challenged the rule under the Americans with Disabilities Act and won an injunction, which the court upheld.

This didn’t play well with Scalia’s idea of sports — inequality rules in golf and sports as a whole, and if Martin’s specific inequality meant he couldn’t walk the course, it was merely proof he lacked the character required to succeed at golf. Specifically, from his dissent: “No wild-eyed dreamer has ever suggested that the managing bodies of the competitive sports that test precisely these qualities should try to take account of the uneven distribution of God-given gifts when writing and enforcing the rules of competition.” And, cutting deeper:

The very nature of competitive sport is the measurement, by uniform rules, of unevenly distributed excellence. This unequal distribution is precisely what determines the winners and losers and artificially to “even out” that distribution, by giving one or another player exemption from a rule that emphasizes his particular weakness, is to destroy the game.

Scalia’s argument is framed around a disability issue, but he still returns to the idea of the natural, or as he prefers, “God-given.” Not only is the purpose of sport to declare who is naturally superior, but if this purpose is removed — or even blurred — sport is not just damaged, but “destroyed.” Applying this philosophy to steroids hardly requires a jump. Steroids make it impossible to tell what is natural ability and what is artificial, and therefore sport’s determination of winners and losers becomes invalid.

Thus the problem is not the proliferation of steroids into the world of sports, but the athlete’s willing decision to augment his ability, to deceive the moral arbiter that is sport.

As for the baseball owners, baseball executives, and politicians who advocate for these punishments, the crime is framed as one of deception. “The sport is about to become a fraud,” Sen. John McCain told commissioner Bud Selig and MLB Players Association director Donald Fehr in 2004.

But a look at the players who are actually suspended reveals this as a fraud. Four of the fourteen players suspended in the Biogenesis fallout were minor leaguers. Of the 105 players suspended under MLB’s joint drug agreement since it was enacted in 2005, sixty-two have been minor league players. A majority have been from outside the United States — primarily Latin American countries, where failing to succeed in baseball often means a return to a life of poverty.

Even for an American born player, the difference between languishing in the minors and playing in the majors can be the difference between making $20,000 a year (or less, in lower levels of the minor leagues) and making millions. When the options are a sub-living wage versus complete financial security, who wouldn’t reach for the needle?

Steroids are a real problem. Cyclists, like Johannes Draaijer, have died as a direct result of the thickening effects resulting from blood doping. Anabolic steroids ravaged athletes on mandatory regimens in the Soviet Union. In American professional sports, these drugs often come from shady doctors — or, in the case of Anthony Bosch, people who have no medical expertise whatsoever — in uncontrolled environments.

The task of finding a solution to the real problems — the health risks athletes face, particularly the less gifted ones, in their quest to reach the infinitely narrow space where they earn financial security, all while filling the owners’ coffers — doesn’t beg for punishment. It begs for a process and a solution in which an athlete’s humanity lies at the forefront. It requires study of performance enhancing drugs, efforts to make them safer, and efforts to eliminate those that are dangerous from circulation — not deeper and deeper punishments that fail to attack the core problem.

Will concludes: “A society’s recreation is charged with moral significance. Sport would be debased, and with it a society that takes sport seriously, if sport did not strictly forbid things that blur the distinction between the triumph of character and the triumph of pharmacology.”

In the worlds of Will, Scalia, and the rest of sport’s conservative base, the realities of class dynamics are a distant afterthought. For them, athletes are simply avatars competing for the judgment of moral authorities. When this purpose of sport is disrupted, it is the athletes who must be punished, never the coaches, executives and owners who actually hold power within the game.

Will is right, though — our recreation does have moral significance, and the steroid cloud can and does debase sport. It will continue to debase sport as long as governing bodies like the MLB are fighting a war not against performance enhancing drugs, but against athletes who subvert their attempts at moral judgment.