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ISR Issue 50, November–December 2006

The juice and the noose

How the steroid hysteria warps our understanding of baseball, politics, and our very health


LISTENING TO the Congress, the media, and the endless yipping of sports radio, it seems that an anabolic specter is haunting America. USA TODAY likened steroids to “the bubonic plague of baseball, a pestilence.” Congress has held heavily hyped hearings and called steroids in baseball an “emergency public health crisis”: this while forty-five million people live without health care. And last year, in a time of war and global conflict, George W. Bush-the Decider in Chief-took time out of the State of the Union address to speak on the evil of steroids. The message was clear. Our children are at risk. Our “national pastime” is at risk. Our sacred baseball records are at risk: preyed upon by evil, freakishly muscled athletes. As World Anti-doping Agency chair, the unfortunately named Dick Pound, said, “How would you like to take your son to a baseball game and you've got your hot dog and you've got your Coke and you say, 'Son someday if you fill your body with enough shit, then you can play in your country's national game.'”

Clearly having gotten all the mileage they could out of Janet Jackson's breast, steroids have become the new Weapon of Mass Distraction. But in their efforts to hold up steroids as Public Enemy Number One, all the congressional echo chamber accomplishes is the utter distortion of our attitudes toward sports, competition, and medicine. This is not to say that steroids are Flintstone vitamins and should be put in the drinking water. They can be dangerous biochemistry. But the pitchforks and torches that seem to surround the discussion prevent an honest look at what they are, what they aren't, and what role they should play-or not play-in sports.

What's a steroid?

Let's start with what it's not: it's not the source of all evil in the world. It's not-as baseball Commissioner Bud Selig once said-a “horrible substance that must be eradicated.” There are more varieties and sub-varieties of anabolic steroids than a freezer full of Ben and Jerry's, and it seems like you need a Ph.D. in pharmacology to read the sports page, but at root an anabolic steroid is synthetically produced testosterone-the principal male sex hormone (though it is also found in smaller amounts in women). Among other things, testosterone promotes the growth of muscle mass and strength, as well as bone density. Scientists have attempted to use testosterone to build muscle going back more than 1,000 years, but the modern era of steroids started in 1889 during the birth of the Industrial Revolution. Prominent French scientist Charles-Edouard Brown-Sequard was trying to figure out how to increase the strength and mass of workers. In his old age, Sequard began to inject himself with a liquid extract derived from the testosterone of dogs and guinea pigs. He claimed that the injections “have increased my physical strength and intellectual energy, relieved my constipation and even lengthened the arc of my urine.”

Sequard may have sounded a little like the villain in the next Spiderman sequel. But his experiments were very much in line with the dominant ideologies of Western Europe and the U.S. when industrialists were trying to figure out exactly how hard a worker could be pushed. Working-class people were literally lab rats, as children, women, men, young and old were torn from their homes and put to work for 15-20 hours a day, creating a very unstable capitalist system that looked like it wouldn't survive the week. Capitalism of course survived and gave birth to a number of institutions to pass on its “morals” and “values”: like the family, religion, and regimented, professional sports. This is where Sequard's insights found their most stable home.

Athletic trainers and their charges immediately saw the possibilities of using his research as the sporting industry exploded in the 1920s. Even the Big Bambino himself, Babe Ruth, injected himself with extract from sheep's testicles with the hope of increasing his power at the plate (and in the bedroom). He only attempted this once and it made him incredibly ill. The Yankees covered up the story by telling the press that the Babe had one of his famous bellyaches. To my knowledge they have never had “Sheep Testicles Day” at Yankee Stadium.

The first synthetic testosterone was developed in 1935, and by the late 1950s, marketable derivatives were finally produced-and this is what is now known as steroids. The first athletes to use steroids were not baseball or even football players, but Olympians. State sponsored steroid regimens were very much a part of the Cold War, in both East and West, as both sides rushed to see whose athletes could pump up faster. The scope of East Germany's state-managed doping system wasn't revealed until after the Berlin Wall fell years later, when it was discovered that more than 10,000 athletes were given steroids, many without their knowledge, some as young as twelve years of age, leading both to Olympic medals and long-term health problems.

In the 1960s, steroids found their way into NFL locker rooms, with trainers putting them right next to player's plates at mealtime, or leaving them in lockers. According to a recent book, the 1970s Pittsburgh Steeler dynasty teams, which won four Super Bowls in six years, passed steroids out among the linemen like candy. Howard Bryant in Juicing the Game quotes a player saying, “We knew that if we didn't take the pills we didn't play.”

Many NFL players from that era have lived with terrible health problems and some have died well before their time. Most famously, Lyle Alzado passed away in 1991 of brain cancer that he insisted was linked to his prodigious steroid use. Alzado and sympathetic scientists insisted that the next decade would see “graveyards filled with athletes” that had juiced. But this didn't happen. As damaging as they were, steroids haven't proven to be nearly as dangerous as alcohol, tobacco, or the ever-present “legal” pain-killers trainers shoot up players with to get them on the field.

This gets to the central issue about steroids. Like any drug or pill, if abused outside a doctor's care, all kinds of health problems can result. They can damage the heart, lungs, and liver. They can also affect the serotonin levels in the brain leading to depression and mood swings referred to as “roid rage,” which has been linked tangentially to several cases of suicide. Three hundred thousand high school athletes took steroids last year, a dangerous trend, because of the damage steroids can do to bodies that are still developing. Young athletes take steroids because they want to compete effectively-the same reason they take diuretics and painkillers. “I don't believe kids are taking steroids because they think it helped Barry Bonds,” said Dr. Michael Miletic, a leading sports psychologist, to columnist Robert Lipsyte. “They're taking it because team-mates, opponents, a strength coach, a gym owner is telling them it will make them better. And often it will. I'm more worried about other drugs. Diuretics can kill you quickly. And pain killers not only mask athletic injuries that should be attended to, they offer an addictive high.”

But taken under a physician's care, steroids can allow people to heal faster, build muscle mass, and train longer than they would be able to otherwise. It can also be a lifesaver, particularly for people with HIV/AIDS and multiple sclerosis. A September 19, 2005, HBO Real Sports report, bucking the steroids hysteria rampant at the time, noted that there is not a single scientific study linking steroid use in adult men to death or to significant health risks.

It also is a drug that became especially attractive to Major League Baseball (MLB) players in the 1990s. Baseball is a grueling marathon of a sport that comes with all kinds of nagging injuries, with its nearly nine-month season, winter ball, and 162-game schedule.

The great lie, however, is that major league owners, trainers, and Commissioner Bud Selig were just “shocked” to learn that steroids had found a home in major league clubhouses. The real shock is that the media and Congress have let them get away with this crude fiction. There is a reason steroid testing wasn't in the collective bargaining agreement until 2003. The fact is that the infusion of steroids in baseball-the “juicing of the game,” as one writer put it-has been as orchestrated by owners as hat day and $8 beers. As one player said to me: “It's crazy that punishment is an individual issue but distribution has always been a team issue.”

The juicing of the game began in earnest in 1994 when a player's strike mutated into an owner's lockout that led to the cancellation of the World Series. In a century that saw two world wars, a great depression, and Reaganomics, this was the first time the World Series had ever been cancelled. The game's popularity sank to historic lows.

DSHEA and the “Den of Idiots”

The major league owners-called by late Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams, “A Den of Idiots”-consciously said we need dingers. Home runs are how people will return to the ballpark.

While the Den of Idiots were wringing their hands about how to get more home runs, an amazing piece of legislation passed the U.S. Congress unanimously at the bipartisan behest of President Bill Clinton and Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, called the Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act (DSHEA).

Despite focus-tested buzzwords like “health” and “education,” DSHEA was little more than a criminal giveback to the pharmaceutical industry. DSHEA's purpose was to shift the burden of proof for the entire health supplement industry. Previously, a manufacturer had to prove their product's safety. After DSHEA was passed, the overloaded, underfunded Food and Drug Administration had to prove a product to be unsafe. As Dr. Stephen Barrett wrote in a scathing critique,

Most people think that dietary supplements and herbs are closely regulated to ensure that they are safe, effective, and truthfully advertised. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although some aspects of marketing are regulated, the United States Congress has concluded that “informed” consumers need little government protection. This conclusion was embodied in the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 which severely limits the FDA's ability to regulate these products.

DSHEA's passage spawned the almost overnight creation of the $27 billion dollar supplement industry, turning the average team's locker room into a GNC store. Because of DSHEA, teams began to import completely legal weightlifting and dietary “aids.” Many of these are now banned substances. Androstenedione-or andro-a highly potent steroid derivative, was legal, available over the counter, and listed as a food supplement. After the 1998 home run race where Mark McGwire kept it in his locker, andro sales rose 500 percent to $55 million dollars per year. Substances like andro were available in every clubhouse. It started with a few teams, but the pressure to keep up pushed other teams as well. As former Mets general manager Steve Phillips said, “I'm hired to win ballgames and if other teams are doing it, I want my players doing it too.” This mentality had deadly consequences. Ephedra, which was completely legal, was linked to the deaths of both Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler and Minnesota Viking offensive lineman Korey Stringer. Now that it has been proven unsafe-with players as the guinea pigs-it is illegal.

But few were counting the dead because home runs and the media and fan frenzy that accompanied them were making baseball Madison Avenue hot for the first time since people were doing the Charleston and saying “23 skidoo.” Owners milked the new Powerball to the hilt and used cartoons of freakishly muscled players as part of ad campaigns. They also embraced the puckishly sexist slogan coined by Nike: “Chicks Dig the Long Ball.”

Increased offense and media buzz meant increased profits. In 1995, when the game was on life support, MLB sold their broadcast rights for 565 million bucks, which represented a major loss. In 2001, they sold the playoff rights alone for $2 billion.

Balls were flying over the fence at a record, ungodly pace. It was far more pervasive than the wildly promoted Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home run chase in 1998, where both players broke Roger Maris's record of 61 home runs. Consider that from 1876 to 1994, fifty home runs had been hit eighteen times. From 1995 to 2002 it was done another eighteen times. Slap hitters were hitting twenty homers; guys normally hitting twenty home runs were up to thirty. As Joe Morgan said, “I would be broadcasting a game and there would be players hitting balls in a way that they had no business hitting them.” Morgan was told not to raise any concerns about this by his bosses at ESPN.

Morgan's concerns about the “cheapening of the home run” were rooted in reality. But it would be wildly ignorant to accept the conventional wisdom put forward by everyone from the sports media to the U.S. Congress to the baseball moralists that steroids are the reason or even most of the reason for the 1990s power boom. It doesn't even come close to telling the whole story. It's an argument borne of hysteria.

The owners actually had a multi-prong attack to try to make baseball more like beer league softball-and it was as subtle as a blowtorch. As legendary baseball writer Bob Klapisch said, “Somewhere someone decided that baseball needed more runs. It was made at a very fundamental level. And little by little step-by-step this became the new reality. There has been too much to write it off as coincidence.” People call this a conspiracy theory: but baseball has a proud history of conspiracies. For six decades, without ever putting the idea to paper, owners kept out African-American players. In the 1980s they colluded to keep down salaries and deny players the right of free agency, costing players-according to an arbitrator's ruling, millions of dollars. This is what these guys do. They sit in a room and make unaccountable decisions.

Sources of the boom

The reasons for the home run boom can be seen in every city, and felt in every urban budget, every underfunded school, every shuttered recreation center, and every library that closes early. Since 1989, nineteen publicly funded baseball parks have been built. These parks are roughly the size of Rush Limbaugh's bathtub. They are supposed to be fan-friendly: that is unless your kid happens to go to a school whose shrinking budgets were paying for these monuments to corporate greed. Tiny foul ball territories mean better offensive numbers. Shorter fences equal more home runs.

Then there are the balls and bats themselves. Countless baseball insiders believe that the ball is now wound tighter than it was twenty years ago. As for the bats, as recently as fifteen years ago, players used untreated ash bats. Now the bats are maple and lacquered. That means the ball goes farther.

Then there is the issue of technology: players now go into the clubhouse after every at bat to look at videotapes and can study and correct their swing immediately in a way previous generations could not have dreamed. They even have video iPods where they can analyze their latest swing as soon as they step down into the dugout.

Then there is the strike zone. The area where a pitched ball can be called a strike has shrunk, in the words of pitcher Greg Maddux, to “the size of a postage stamp.” The owners consciously engineered this trend toward the microscopic strike zone. When umpires refused to assent to a uniform strike zone, MLB crushed their union and instituted a machine to monitor their abilities. Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer said, “The loss of the high strike has changed the game more than any pill.”

Then there is the issue of basic evolution. Smaller stadiums, harder bats, tighter balls, are all part of baseball today. But players are just better than they were eighty, fifty, twenty, even ten years ago. More players from Asia and Latin America like Hideki Matsui or Manny Ramirez mean a broader talent pool, and just the simple fact that in every sport from running to swimming, athletes get better over time. The male winner of the 1932 Summer Olympics swimming gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle wouldn't even make the junior Olympics team today. If Babe Ruth were alive, he would be a fat guy who watched baseball. If Ty Cobb were alive, he would be laughed off the field because he held his bat with his hands about six inches apart. It is just a different game.

But an equally big reason that power numbers are up is that the game finally shed its nineteenth century view of strength conditioning. Baseball is a sport that makes a fetish of nostalgia. The enduring wisdom until the 1990s was that if “Iron Joe” McGinnity didn't do it, in aught 3, it shouldn't be done. For example, it has been the conventional wisdom for most of baseball's history that weight lifting would destroy your swing, causing the muscles to bunch up. The great power hitter Jim Rice, for example, would brag that he never touched a weight during his whole career. Many teams even had a practice where they would fine or suspend players if they were caught pumping iron. Now weight lifting is a part of every team's regimen as they have realized-to the shock of the old timers-that being stronger means you can hit the ball farther.

All of these factors are independent of illegal steroids. I made this case last winter on a radio show and a writer for Sports Illustrated asked me if I also believed in the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. First, let me be clear that the data on Mr. Claus and Ms. Fairy are inconclusive at best. But the best proof is that in 2006, in the off season there was intensive testing, and far fewer positive tests. Home run numbers this year have been up. Albert Pujols, before he was injured, was on pace for eighty-four home runs.

Well then, why use 'em?

If the increase in home runs is a result of weight lifting, smaller parks, shrinking strike zones, and basic evolution, a very logical question is why do so many players take steroids? One reason is simply a rule of competition: if the other guy's doing it, even if it only might give him an edge, you can't afford not to do it too. Certainly, steroid use is relevant here, but it has to be seen as only one part of a much longer list of reasons of what has made shortstops home run hitters.

But there is another reason. Here we come to a part of the story never covered in the press: the question of class. Often conflicts between owners and players are portrayed in the press as squabbles between billionaires and millionaires. This leaves out the fact that the billionaires have more often than not carried that bank account for generations while the “millionaires” didn't exactly come over on the Mayflower. Sports are the lottery ticket out of poverty. The gap between success and failure is razor thin, but the financial difference is astronomical. A minor league player makes on average about $1,200 a month while even a marginal major league player can make $500,000 a year.

Poverty marks the background of most pro-athletes, but in baseball it's particularly extreme. Thirty-six percent of players today come from Latin America. Currently, 30 percent of minor leaguers come from the Dominican Republic alone, a tiny Latin American nation with a population roughly the size of New York City, and where 60 percent of the country lives under the poverty line. Teams fund multimillion-dollar “baseball academies” to develop talent on the cheap. But unmentioned is that for every star like Pedro Martinez or Miguel Tejada, there are thousands of Dominican players cast aside. As American sports agent Joe Kehoskie said, “Kids just quit school at 10, 11, 12, and play baseball full-time. For 98 kids out of 100, it results in a kid that is 18, 19, with no education.”

Sammy Sosa, before he was even a teenager, stitched soles in a shoe factory for, as he said “pennies, just enough to survive.” His choices were the cane fields, the army, or baseball.

Choosing baseball meant succeeding by any means necessary. Most young athletes in the Dominican Republic play without shoes, using cut-out milk cartons for gloves, rolled-up cloth for balls, and sticks and branches for bats. The academies are places where many Dominican kids first encounter three meals a day or an indoor toilet.

But the Dominican Republic is attractive to major league execs for more reasons than its sunny beaches and never ending supply of prospects. Steroids in the Dominican Republic are legal. Top prospects can find ways to supplement their skill with a no-risk supply. But those not in the top tier often take cheaper animal steroids. Minor leaguer Lino Ortiz took this route, went into shock, and died.

This amounts to billionaires telling people from desperately poor backgrounds to do what they say or have fun in the cane fields. Sure they're free not to juice. They are also free to go back to the ghetto or back to the island.

Steroids and the war on drugs

Many good people see the exploitation and desperation that factors into steroid use and demand tougher laws. This is, however, a dead end and no answer. Criminalizing steroids, just like criminalizing other drugs, is a failed policy that at the end of the day condemns more people to addiction and prisons. In 2001, the Pew Research Center released a report stating that three out of four Americans believe the “war on drugs” is an absolute failure. In 1980, the U.S. government spent $1.5 million fighting the “war on drugs.” In 2003, they were spending $50 billion. This doesn't include the costs of having the largest per capita prison population in the world. The majority of new prisoners are in for nonviolent drug offenses.

This might lead one to wonder who benefits from the drug trade. Well, according to George W. Bush, that answer is obvious. “It's so important for Americans to know that the traffic in drugs finances the work of terror, sustaining terrorists, that terrorists use drug profits to fund their cells to commit acts of murder.” Yes in Bush's world, drugs help the suiciders.

But the real people who benefit are those running the criminal justice industry, the prison industrial complex, tough-on-crime politicians, and of course drug lords, both inside and outside the CIA, who become filthy rich on high-priced contraband.

As disgusting as the war on drugs is, it is even worse when it comes to steroids. Criminalization means there is a multi-billion dollar black market steroid industry. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently looked into this issue, writing, “tougher laws and heightened enforcement...have fueled thriving counterfeit operations that pose even more severe health risks.” Across America, doctors are continuously reporting treating far more athletes for the side effects of fake steroids than they ever did with the pharmacy standard variety.

Barry Bonds: the new Al Capone?

There should be a rational discussion from the media that's rooted in the medical and scientific community about the pros and cons of decriminalization, regulation, and education in regard to steroids. Instead, we have been treated to hysteria and backlash, some of it as subtly racist as a burning cross.

By not looking at the underlying reason players juiced in the past, by not honestly examining the difference between use and abuse, we end up with an argument that's overwhelmingly reactionary. This is obvious when we consider the case of Barry Lamar Bonds, aka the root of all anabolic evil.

The attacks on Bonds are off the page. First and foremost I believe Bonds to be the greatest player of his generation and maybe ever. Throughout the 1990s he averaged an amazing thirty-four home runs and thirty-six stolen bases. He has eight gold gloves, and seven Most Valuable Players, He is the only player in history with 500 home runs and 500 stolen bases.

But it's from 2001 to 2004, that he literally mastered the game. In this time frame, he set three single-season records for walks, earned the top two records for on base percentage, and the top slugging percentage in history. And in 2001, he hit seventy-three home runs. Remember steroids don't help with hand/eye coordination and no one ever put a bat on the ball like Barry Bonds. There is a great story of Bonds at the All-star game calling out every pitch right when it left the pitcher's hand from the dugout while all the other stars just gaped in wonder. Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, who is no slouch himself, said, “When I am home and Bonds comes up it's the house rule that no one is allowed to talk.”

Bonds has been subjected to relentless speculation about drugs ever since his training facility BALCO was indicted for the distribution of steroids and human growth hormones. But despite the fact that Bonds has never failed a drug test, he has also been subjected to seething hatred in the press that is utterly unprecedented. Nothing is off limits. I've seen it all: comparing him to O.J. Simpson? Sure. Comparing him to a child molester? Sure. Calls for a lynching? These are the words of John Seibel on ESPN radio: “If he did it, hang him. Now I'm not saying hang him. I'm not saying hang him from a tree. I'm not saying strap him to a gurney and inject poison in his veins….”

Listen to the comments of Rich Melloni, who is a leading anti-steroid scientist. Listen to the class contempt and subtle racism in this comment from someone who is supposed to be an anodyne medical expert: “If Barry Bonds and these other athletes don't want the responsibility of being someone others want to emulate, then he should work at Wal-Mart. Otherwise he should stay away from children. He should stay away from MY children.” Or in Houston, a city where racism and hysteria over the Katrina crime wave is rampant, when Bonds was beaned and the crowd cheered, sportswriter Scott Wetzel wrote: “It would be pathetic if it wasn't so perfect.”

There is no question Bonds is not the cuddliest of star players and is never shy about showing off the massive chip on his shoulder. His battles with the sports media, who he largely thinks of as idiots, are legendary. His conflicts with players are also epic. As one teammate once said, “When Barry says 'fuck you' he actually means it.”

He's not a cuddly cutesy poo. He is also someone who has never shied away from saying things political like, “Is steroids cheating?” “You want to define cheating in America? When they make a shirt in Korea for a $1.50 and sell it here for 500 bucks. And you ask me what cheating means?” He has also said that he is less interested in passing Henry Aaron's all-time home run record (755) than Ruth's number two total because he wants to wipe from the books anyone who played in the segregated era. This is why he wins “Just Shut Up” awards from the press. This is why they hate him, but also why he has developed a fiercely loyal following. Anyone can “play one game at a time,” but to call out global capitalism because you are pissed off at a sportswriter? That's special.

My favorite moment during the baseball congressional sham hearings was when they were asked why they didn't subpoena Barry Bonds and they said, “Barry tends to get off subject.”

Does all of this mean Barry Bonds is the object of a racist witch-hunt? I have had to publicly argue this issue against some of the finest minds of my generation (alright, John Rocker and Jose Canseco). The dominant argument I hear repeatedly, whether from Mr. Rocker or Mr. Liberal Blogger, is that I am an idiot if I think that the Bonds steroid-mania is purely all about bigotry run amok. Unfortunately, that is not my argument. To be clear: I don't think that everyone who is against Bonds is a racist. I don't think every sportswriter who wants Bonds punished is a racist. And I certainly don't believe anyone who believes in harsh penalties for steroid use is a racist. One can hate Barry Bonds and also spend Sundays singing “We Shall Overcome” with the Harlem Boys Choir. But to argue that race has nothing to do with the saga of Barry Bonds is to practice ignorance frightening in its Rockerian grandiosity.

Of course you can always simply agree with San Francisco Giants owner Peter Magowan, CEO of Safeway Supermarkets and anti-union zealot, who believes that it is a remarkable sign of racial progress that Barry Bonds is flayed before the public. Magowan said, “I don't believe this is a case of racism. In fact, I think this shows how far we've come. If the media brought this up 20 years ago, they would have been considered racists.”

Now that's progress. The media can be as racist as they want without being called on it. The fact is that racism smears this entire story like rancid cream cheese on a stale bialy. First and foremost, there are the death threats. USA TODAY has reported that Bonds is being deluged with letters that threaten both his life, and the life of his family. I was a guest on a predominantly African-American radio program out of Cincinnati called The Nathan Ive Show, and we were deluged with calls by older African-Americans who recalled with chilling clarity the trials of Henry Aaron. When Aaron approached Babe Ruth's home run record, the death threats came rolling in. As Bonds was approaching Ruth, the slurs returned thirty-two years later like a white power Halley's Comet. Dr. Harry Edwards, the famed sports sociologist, recently said, “The same animosity and resentment that Hank Aaron suffered through when he broke Babe Ruth's record has been exacerbated because of the cloud of steroid suspicion. This is a visceral response to a black man (passing) Babe Ruth.”

Then, there is the way the media is covering this. There is no question that Bonds has spent his career treating the press the way a baby treats a diaper. But Bonds is not the first athlete to sneer at a reporter or two. In fact Mark McGwire was a notoriously surly personality who was presented to us like a grinning Paul Bunyan. It's not who you are, but who the media tells us you are. When it comes to Bonds, the press has called for everything but a big scarlet “S” on his chest, all of which has the appearance of a hellacious double standard. When a prominent ESPN talk show host says, “If [Bonds] did it, hang him,” the perception is that this is little more than a railroad job of a prominent and outspoken African-American superstar on the precipice of being the home run champion. Not all the racial bias is that overt. I was on the CNBC talk show The Big Idea with Donnie Deutsch where I debated the issue of Bonds and race with troglodytic sports radio host Scott Wetzel, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and Deutsch. After the guests left, Deutsch got the last word. Here is sports media analyst Jonathan Weiler on what transpired,

Perhaps the most revealing moment of the evening came toward the end of the show. Deutsch counted down five sports personalities who have gone wrong. Number two on Deutsch's list was [white Yankees pitcher] Randy Johnson who Deutsch described as a “jerk.” Deutsch said that Randy has always been surly with the media (a “white version of Bonds”) and that while his sullen personality may have been OK when his ERA was [below] 2.00, now that his ERA is over 5.00 his “Barry Bonds personality is catching up to him.” Earlier, Deutsch had said that “most of America now roots for excellence” and then, in an apparent non-sequitur asked rhetorically “If Barry Bonds had been a likeable guy all these years…wouldn't we have rooted for him, too.” In case you missed it, Deutsch has just asserted, without realizing it, that two surly guys have been subject to two different standards of evaluation. On the one hand, the “white Barry Bonds” and his unpleasant attitude were tolerated as long as he was great. On the other hand, the real Bonds' lack of likeability meant that he was never going to get favorable treatment from the fans even when he was the epitome of baseball excellence and before there was any whiff of impropriety about his performances.
The media has laid the groundwork for Major League Baseball to take the extraordinary step of forming a commission to “investigate and root out steroids in the game” led by former Senator George Mitchell. But the probe is already being derided as a sham. How seriously would we take an investigation into Iraq's missing “weapons of mass destruction” if it was headed by Dick Cheney? Would we accept an examination of racial profiling if it was led by John Ashcroft? Of course not. It would be a farce. And so it is with Senator Mitchell in charge. Mitchell sits on the board of the Boston Red Sox. He is also chairman of The Walt Disney Co., the parent company of ESPN, the main national broadcast partner of baseball. In other words, he has an actual material interest in keeping the spotlight off the owners, including what they knew and when they knew it, and keeping it on the players. Particularly Barry Bonds.

According to one writer with a serious pipeline into the commissioner's office, Richard Justice, the investigation is “Totally [aimed at Barry Bonds.] He is the number one player going for the most hallowed record.... There may be other names that come out but this is all about Barry Bonds.... Bud wants the prescription, well more than perception, that he is doing this the right way...I promise you he will not get the chance to break Hank Aaron's record. I will be willing to bet you. I think Henry Aaron and Bud Selig will be grilling brats in Bud's backyard.”

In other words, this is all smoke in our eyes, blurring the fact that this is really about getting Bonds out of the game before he passes Aaron. Is this racially motivated? The question is too simplistic. The fact is that Bud Selig is deflecting criticism off the owners by putting the heat on the most prominent player in the game who happens to be Black. Whether this is conjured up in some back room or not is beside the point. MLB owners seem willing to sacrifice Bonds if it keeps Congress and the public off their backs. This is why some prominent baseball people are loudly speaking a word rarely said in the world of sports: race. It is important to listen to what baseball players are saying about this.

All-star Minnesota Twin Torii Hunter, another of baseball's dwindling African-American superstars, called the investigation “stupid.” “They can say what they want, but there's no way they would launch an investigation if Barry Bonds was not about to break Babe Ruth's record,” Hunter said. “It's so obvious what's going on. He has never failed a drug test and said he never took steroids, but everybody keeps trying to disgrace him. How come nobody even talks about Mark McGwire anymore? Or [Rafael] Palmeiro [who tested positive for steroids in 2005]? Whenever I go home I hear people say all of the time, 'Baseball just doesn't like Black people.' Here's the greatest hitter in the game, and they're scrutinizing him like crazy.' It's killing me because you know it's about race.”

Dave Stewart, a former twenty-game winner and front office exec who is now an agent, said to one reporter, “People keep talking about how he's not supposed to keep hitting homers and doing phenomenal things because he's forty-plus. Well, Roger Clemens is forty-plus, too, and nobody ever brings his name up. Why not? Is it because he's white?”

Matt Lawton, who unlike Bonds has tested positive for steroids, said, “If (Bonds) were white, he'd be a poster boy in baseball, not an outcast.”

Radio personality Scott Wetzel says that Black players who feel there is a racial double standard are “ignorant.” This is part of the problem: an overwhelmingly white sports media establishment calling Black players ignorant if they dare speak about their reality.

None of this means that any critique of Bonds is inherently racist or that there doesn't need to be some way to deal with performance enhancers. It means that the overheated rhetoric needs to cease. It means that if baseball decides it doesn't want steroids in its game, and wants to “clean up its own house,” it should realize that it is cheap, gutter politics to focus on one person as if that person is the root of all anabolic evil. They should realize that in the current climate, it emboldens a racist fringe. If they don't realize it, we sure as hell should.

A couple years ago, Bonds said, “This is something we, as African-American athletes, live with every day. I don't need a headline that says, 'Bonds says there's racism in the game of baseball.' We all know it. It's just that some people don't want to admit it. They're going to play dumb like they don't know what the hell is going on.”

That is absolutely right. It's not defenders of Bonds who are putting race on the table, but whether you are a Bonds supporter or not, all anti-racists need to take it off.

But because it is still on the table, two Americas now exist on this issue. I have done mainstream sports radio and Black radio and the reactions couldn't be more different. Mainstream: its “We're not racists. We just hate his guts because he's a cheater!” Black radio: it's literally “Do you think Bonds will be shot?” This is now being further exacerbated by the federal government. The FBI has approached players about wearing a wire and getting Bonds on tape to admit steroid use. They want to imprison Bonds for perjury, tax evasion, anything short of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby. One writer cited an agent saying, “He's our Capone.”

Baseball, which is supposed to be the national pastime, instead becomes another stick to divide us.

So what do we do?

The entire steroid mess needs to be reframed so we understand that it is really an indictment of how big-time sports operates in these modern times.

Sports is an enormous industry run to make money-all of it from little league to professional sports is subject to this. Bosses exploit worker-athletes and squeeze them to produce just like any other industry, to work longer, harder, faster. This is why baseball and the bosses loved Cal Ripken. The guy played 2,632 straight games. This is a neoliberal's wet dream. The worker who never gets sick. This pressure to perform has accelerated dramatically in the last few decades with scientific advances. It has led to a mass industry of performance enhancing techniques, supplements, and drugs.

To produce, athletes have always taken performance enhancing drugs. As the late Buck O'Neill, Negro League great said, “We didn't use steroids because we didn't have them.” This has always been an accepted part of sports and in fact encouraged by bosses. Moreover, in order to survive the new productivity squeeze in sports, athletes turn to drugs at an increasing rate, from painkillers to vitamin regimens to special diets and supplements.

If the Operational Safety and Health Administration investigated sports they would find a litany of offenses, because sports injures its workers at an amazing rate. It has one of the highest on the job injury rates of any. Think of the experience of watching games-another player taken off the field injured, many for the rest of their lives. To survive, athletes have to medicate themselves. Watching retired athletes is just painful. Go to a National Football League Players Association veterans' dinner and you see people in their forties and fifties with the walk of broken old men. To be a pro athlete is to be robbed of middle age. It's a deal with the devil that the poor make to produce for the rich. The minute they can't produce, they're as expendable as a day-old newspaper.

Drugs are therefore a result of class in the sports industry, and of bosses squeezing their workers (the players) to produce.

That's why it's stupid to blame professional athletes for leading young athletes to taking performance enhancing drugs. This is as stupid as saying that violence in our society is the result of kids watching violent TV shows. Both violent TV shows and social violence are symptoms of the underlying competitive pressures of a system that forces people to fight with each other over everything from jobs to sneakers. All the moralizing about athlete role models is a diversion from what will continue in sports, however many scapegoats they find.

Understanding it this way shapes what we should demand. We should oppose criminalization and massive testing programs, since all this will produce is ways for athletes to evade programs-like taking masking agents which can be unsafe-and not touch the underlying motives that drive athletes to turn to drugs. It also leaves out all the performance enhancing drug consumption that is legal and approved-like painkillers.

Instead, we should call for the easing of labor conditions and pressure that produce the drive toward drug consumption. You would have to change the material conditions of athletics-namely shorter seasons. A sane game controlled by the players would say, “Gee, we are putting all this pressure on our bodies, and the travel is killing us. What do you say we play 140 games instead? Sounds good.”

Frankly, I don't think fans would mind a shorter year either. All pro seasons are too long. In 1999 when the NBA, due to a strike, played a fifty-game season, a poll of fans said that they actually preferred the shorter season.

But the profiteers would never allow that. So instead of making working conditions more manageable, owners put a tremendous stress on players to hit home runs, to maintain a sharp edge as a pitcher, or find another line of work. Players feel a deep pressure to not lose their spot because of a nagging injury. A manager favors a player who shows he will “go that extra mile.” Juice or fall behind. We should also stand for less of a gap between minor and major league wages and benefits as part of standardized contracts not dependent solely on reaching incentives.

These are demands that should be and should have been championed by the player's union. But the players' union got it wrong. Donald Fehr who calls himself “an unrepentant '60s radical,” and runs one of the most disciplined unions in the U.S., the Major League Baseball Players Association, correctly called out the hypocrisy of the steroid hysteria. He correctly said he would defend players that wouldn't testify to Congress. He correctly called out the power boom as being a lot more complicated than steroids. He correctly understood that a main reason the owners flip-flopped from buying steroidal substances wholesale, to becoming teetotalers was because it allowed them to bash the union. But Fehr INCORRECTLY never spoke to the reason why players feel such insane pressure to perform and what the union could do to ease these pressures. This meant that for the first time in forty years the union was divided as players who weren't juicing but felt the pressure to do so, went public and said, “This guy doesn't care about us!” Fehr was left at the mercy of the owners, and the players' union was weakened as a result.

We need a sane scientific discussion about the pros and cons of steroids and human growth hormones. Unfortunately, Congress, the media, and the sports establishment are just not where we are going to find it.

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