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In Defense of the Steroid Era

Brett Favre won an NFL MVP Award by cheating; why hold Baseball to a higher standard?

by James Leroy Wilson
February 12, 2009

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In Defense of the Steroid Era

Over the weekend, it was revealed (by illegal leaks) that Alex Rodriguez (A-Rod) had tested positive for steroids in 2003. On Monday, he made a public apology.

On Tuesday, Brett Favre retired.

How are these two news items related?

A-Rod will be branded a cheater for life; Brett Favre committed a very similar "sin," and it is long forgotten. Indeed, when he admitted it, he got nothing but praise and sympathy.
In May, 1996, Favre checked himself into the NFL's substance abuse rehabilitation program for an addiction to the painkiller Vicodin. You don't get addicted to Vicodin from prescribed amounts. Undoubtedly, Favre broke the law.

And he broke the law to play football. Some of the best football of his life; in 1995 the Packers won the NFC Central Championship and made it to the NFC title game.

He did it to play through the pain of several nagging injuries.

During Major League Baseballs "Steroid Era" (roughly early 90's to mid-00's) baseball players were tempted by steroids to recover from injury faster.

In Favre's case, he was given credit for his competitive spirit and trying to help his team win, not because he wanted to throw more touchdown passes, win the MVP Award, and get a huge contract.

But baseball players who used steroids are never given credit for the fact that missing fewer games and hitting more home runs would actually help the team win ball games. They have no "competitive spirit," they're just greedy. Barry Bonds' 2002 MVP season, where he single-handedly carried the Giants to the play-offs and almost won the World Series, is "tainted" by his alleged steroid use.

Steroids, because they enhance the body physically, are condemned today. But many players in the 1970's and 1980's used marijuana or even cocaine to feel better mentally and relax themselves physically, improving their performance, whereas "clean" athletes might have collapsed under the stress of their jobs or sunk into the legal drug called alcohol. Aren't there at least a few of these drug users in the Baseball and Pro Football Halls of Fame? We know there must be; before drug testing, one would have had to be arrested or been an addict for his legacy to be tarnished. But nobody insists that everybody from that era be banned from the Hall of Fame for smoking weed, even though we expect that many and probably most of them did it.

Drugs may have been illegal in the eyes of the law, but unless and until a sports league institutes a policy on a substance and enforces it, it can not be viewed as cheating to have used it. The athletes played by the rules.

"Stop!" you may object, "What they did was a crime!"

Well, no. What they did was merely illegal. Intentionally breaking an opponent's leg would be a crime. Taking something that the law prohibits, but which is easily accessible and which your employer does not prohibit, is not necessarily "cheating" or unethical.

Let's consider:

  • Steroid use is a victimless activity. This is not to say that it's not dangerous, or will not have consequences that may hurt one's family financially and emotionally over the long-term, but it is victimless in that it doesn't harm anybody else's rights.
  • As far as damage to health goes, it's far saner to play baseball on steroids, than to absorb the short-term risks and long-term toll of boxing or football. The government doesn't ban inherently risky and dangerous sports, so it seems odd they're obsessed with the substances athletes take.
  • Over time, the science behind steroids seems more advanced, with fewer severe health and behavioral problems than users in the 1970's-80's had.
  • There is scant evidence that any victimless "crime" ever has good intentions behind them. The purpose of the FDA-DEA-Health Care racket is to preserve a monopoly of both therapeutic and non-therapeutic drugs from inexpensive homemade competitors, in order to gouge the public.
  • Therefore, to disobey drug laws is no more immoral than disobeying the speed limit. The purpose of speed limits, generally, is to raise revenue for the government through tickets. Protecting the "public" is only the nice-sounding excuse. Likewise, the drug laws are not for the benefit of the people, but for the powerful.
  • If steroids were legal, there would actually be more information, and a safer, more controlled environment in their distribution.

In the early stages of the steroid era, baseball players were faced with two options:

  1. help their team win and gain financially by using steroids; or
  2. respect the conscience of fellow baseball players who would not take steroids for health reasons or out of respect for "the law."

But consider that none of the non-steroid using players ever stood up to object to steroid use. They never told their union or their owners that this era would be "tainted." They never went public with their complaints; as far as we know, they had none.

Consider also that it was well-known that Major League Baseball had no steroid policy. The media knew it; the media said so. The fans weren't cheated. The players were playing by baseball's rules. If a player once broke the speed limit to arrive to the game on time, he's just as guilty ethically as steroid users who also wanted to show up to earn their paycheck and win games . But no one would hold it against the player with a speeding ticket, just as they don't condemn Favre. Steroids is in a special class for condemnation, but it stems from a hypocritical double standard.

Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim offered some wisdom when interviewed this week by Mike Tirico on ESPN Radio. He said that in the absence of rules and enforcement, it is human nature for athletes to do whatever it takes to get an advantage. Especially, I might add, with the knowledge that others are doing the same thing. Boeheim implied that we would do well to let bygones be bygones and move forward with tougher rules and more stringent testing.

And I agree. Baseball does now have a steroid policy with testing, and it's good that they do. Maybe it's not tough enough, but at least going forward, violators will deserve the tarnished image of being a "cheater."

But that charge shouldn't apply to the great players of the Steroid Era, who deserve the same credit and honors as the great players of other eras. Yes, some statistics may have been inflated, but those ebb and flow anyway; we've had a "Dead Ball Era" and changes in the pitching mound. We've had black players excluded, then permitted. We've had relatively few teams, and then lots of teams suggesting talent dilution. Steroid use is just one aberration in a sport with a history of nothing but aberrations, just like the history of every other sport. And like every other sport, the greatest players, such as Willie Mays and Joe DiMaggio were never considered great just because of their stats, but because of how they played.

And in a way, we learned a lot about steroids because of the Steroid Era. In the Steroid Era, we saw the amazing stats that some merely good players could achieve, and we saw how one already-great player, Barry Bonds, became literally too good for the game, smashing records for walks and intentional walks while in his late 30's.

It was especially his achievement, and the chance of more players of his caliber going on the juice, that persuades me that steroids have no place in baseball. It is a game for the pre-steroid Bonds, but with steroids Bonds became a Superman, and baseball is not designed for Supermen. At the same time, we are better off not wondering. We know how good  Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa could get while (allegedly) juiced. And we saw how, also (allegedly) on the juice, Bonds outclassed them, just as he outclassed them before any of them were (allegedly) on the juice.

Bonds was a multi-MVP in the early 90's, right before the Steroid Era. He was again at the height of the Steroid Era ten years later.

That should prove to voters for the Hall of Fame what statistics mean. Judge players by how well they play, not by the numbers.

President Obama, pardon Barry Bonds!

Comments (2)

Post a Comment

Wondering from USA writes:
February 13, 2009
I may be missing something, but to me steroid use raises questions about how good someone is. Do they deserve to be in the Hall of Fame? If they're users, how can we know?

Wondering from USA writes:
February 13, 2009
I may be missing something, but to me steroid use raises questions about how good someone is. Do they deserve to be in the Hall of Fame? If they're users, how can we know?

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