Olney, the Baseball Tonight analyst and Vandy alum, had just answered a question that on its surface had nothing to do with steroids. An audience member had asked simply, “What players do you think should be in the Hall of Fame who aren’t currently?” But any question about the Hall of Fame, at this point, is intrinsically about steroids, and Olney didn’t wait for someone else to raise the topic. “Unless you can separate who did what, you can’t hold it against individual players,” he said, adding that he would vote for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens as Hall of Famers.
This talk came just four days after Major League Baseball announced its new drug policy, under which there will be more testing, public reporting, education, more testing, an “independent program administrator” and more testing. Added to the list of banned drugs are a host of new substances, including aromatase inhibitors, which prevent a specific side effect of taking a lot of testosterone. That’s right: Things have gotten so bad, Major League Baseball is banning a drug that prevents men from growing breasts. (So much for the Sports Bro.)
Commissioner Bud Selig, in the official MLB press release, said, “There is little to be gained at this point in debating dated misconduct and enduring numerous disciplinary proceedings.” Certainly, there is little to be gained for the commissioner who oversaw the sport during what Olney reminded us will forever be termed the Steroid Era. In his admission of guilt, Olney said that he “didn’t know how” to bring evidence of the steroid problem to light. Or maybe no one understood, really, that it was a problem. After all, both cheating and substance abuse have long histories in baseball, as in other areas of our culture. No one’s putting an asterisk after Jimi Hendrix’s sales figures, though.
But we have a sense of needing fair play in sports, as opposed to, say, Democratic primary politics. Dr. Andrew Gregory, a physician in the Vanderbilt sports medicine program, says that anabolic steroids should be banned from baseball. No surprise there. But why? His answer is twofold. First, there are dangerous and deleterious side effects of using steroids. “It shortens your life span,” he tells the Scene, adding that it also causes “damage to the liver, heart, electrolytes and hormones.” Second, steroids “clearly work for increasing strength.” So, he adds, we “have to then make the leap” that using steroids enhances performance to a degree that should be forbidden.
But if we feel we must limit athletes to their natural, unalloyed abilities (we don’t, actually), then shouldn’t we be a little more clear on what, categorically, constitutes unnatural enhancement? Cortisone is a steroid produced by the adrenal gland that helps speed healing, but it’s not banned. HGH is produced by the pituitary gland but is banned, even though it’s never been tested at the levels athletes are believed to have used it. It’s not that there isn’t a difference between cortisone and HGH—apples and oranges are both fruits—it’s that whatever difference there may be is not enumerated in the new drug policy, nor anywhere else that I know.
Furthermore, what about Lasik eye surgery? OK, there’s no such thing as “Lasik rage” and it won’t make your neck disappear, but it can give an athlete better than 20/20 vision. That’s certainly the definition of “performance enhancement,” especially in baseball, where elite visual acuity can mean the difference between recognizing a slider as it comes out of the pitcher’s hand and wrongly guessing a fastball and striking out.
You may have heard that baseball is “90 percent mental” (the other half is physical). So what about a drug like modafinil (Provigil), which has been demonstrated to improve pattern recognition, spatial memory, attention and executive function? Is it that a substance has to be both performance-enhancing and dangerous to be banned?
I don’t think steroids should be allowed in baseball. But I also don’t think that “performance-enhancing substances” are really what’s been banned. Baseball is just trying finally to push the elephant out of the room without thinking seriously about the extent to which modern science can impact the game of baseball. The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell writes, “I realize that the people running [Major League Baseball] and the NFL are not philosophers. But the intellectual sloppiness with which this current crusade has been conducted is appalling.” If not quite appalling, it’s at least weird.