Major League Baseball last week made the first of what is expected to be many player suspensions for using performance-enhancing drugs when it told Milwaukee Brewer slugger Ryan Braun to go home for the rest of the season.
A few dozen other MLB players are waiting for the guillotine to drop on their season after being caught in a scandal involving a Florida drug clinic called Biogenesis in which a disgruntled former employee stole documents implicating numerous professional athletes (and a few Florida politicians and cops) in illegal steroid use and then sold them to the MLB.
Baseball says it’s dropping the hammer in an effort to protect its image, its players and the purity and integrity of the game.
Baseball purity is American mythology and nostalgia for the good ol’ days. There have never been any good ol’ days.
Baseball, like all professional sports, is caught in a hypocritical web trying to achieve something that never existed – the honest athlete.
All athletes since the invention of sports as public spectacle have sought an edge. Roman gladiators used to drink poppy juice to deaden the pain of combat. Greek Olympians used to take strychnine to pep up their performance (it’s a stimulant in low doses, lethal in large). Incan tlachtli players used to chew coca leaves for endurance and concentration.
Athletes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries used to use legal heroin and cocaine to improve their endurance.
Current athletes legally shoot cortisone into injured ankles, knees and elbows to reduce swelling and deaden pain and thereby improve performance.
Baseball has never had integrity. The game and its players have changed over the years and no era is comparable, whether it’s the dead ball era, the spitball era, the low mound era, the small parks era, the segregated era, the expansion era, the free agent era, the reserve clause era, the amphetamine era, the cocaine era or the steroid era.
The best players can receive hundreds of millions of dollars over their careers both in salary and endorsements and even the lowliest of cup-of-coffee players are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars. When that much money is at stake, some players will do anything to improve their performance to achieve it.
That’s why, despite more than a decade of handwringing over and drug testing for PEDs, little has been done to curb their use.
Protecting the health of athletes is an even greater hypocrisy. Baseball is unconcerned with the decrepit, arthritic hulks baseball players become in their old age thanks to decades of extreme abuse of their bodies. They’re not telling players to slow down and stop tearing hamstrings, to stop crashing into so many outfield walls, to stop lifting tons of weights, to stop destroying their elbows trying to throw a ball 100 mph, to stop shredding their knees sliding hard into second, to stop diving into stands to catch foul balls. Why, those injuries are just part of the game.
And so are so-called performance enhancers.
Baseball, and all professional sports, would show more concern for the health of their athletes by taking performance drug use out of the shadows and putting the players under the care of real doctors and pharmacists, not some quack personal trainer concocting a witch’s brew of steroids, human growth hormone and masking agents in a back office “lab” in his strip mall clinic.
If the short or long-term side effects are risky, that’s a decision an adult can make on their own, aided by proper professional medical advice.
Baseball is trying to protect something that never existed. Prohibition always does more harm than good. It would be wise to stop the witch-hunt and instead treat its players like adults rather than children.