12,000-1

In today’ s LA Times, Bill Plaschke picks up the baton of baseball’s problem with alcohol first carried last week by the New York Times’ Murray Chass. What’s interesting is the comparison both veteran baseball writers make between drunk driving and steroids.

Plaschke writes:

“Major League Baseball tolerates drunk driving,” said Chuck Hurley, chief executive of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms who want their boys to become baseball players.

Start substituting six-packs for juice boxes.

“From what we’ve seen, Major League Baseball thinks drunk driving is no big deal,” Hurley said.

Major League Baseball is admittedly, at times, an institution only a mother could love.

Now, after the drunk-driving death of St. Louis Cardinals reliever Josh Hancock, the sport has lost even that constituency.

“Major League Baseball is well short of the American public in its behavior toward alcohol,” Hurley said last week in a phone interview from MADD’s Dallas office. “If it’s going to be America’s pastime, then it should get more in line with the American public.”

Yeah, MADD is mad, and I don’t blame it.

Baseball struts around the national stage fighting steroids, then slips into the shadowy wings to embrace alcohol.

Baseball will suspend a player for 50 games if he plays while juiced, yet zero games if he drives while drunk.

Baseball has rid the clubhouse of all performance-enhancing drugs, yet continues to serve its players beer.

“The last I looked, there were a lot more people killed by drunk drivers than by steroids,” Hurley said.

At last count, the annual ratio was about 12,000 to 1.

Chass is even harsher than Plaschke in his view of the disparate approach to the problems of steroids and alcohol:

Alcohol last week killed one more major league baseball player than steroids ever have. I repeat: Alcohol last week killed one more baseball player than steroids ever have.

Yet Major League Baseball and George J. Mitchell and Congress and the steroids zealots are in a tizzy over the use of performance-enhancing substances in baseball. At least Mitchell is being paid to care about them, but he is in such a frenzy to get to the core of steroid use that he wants to run roughshod over federal and state laws barring an employer’s release of an employee’s medical records.

And, further down:

Major League Baseball has made television commercials warning against the dangers of steroids, and dangerous though they may be for possible future ill effects, no baseball player is known to have died from using them. Ken Caminiti admitted using steroids, but he died at the age of 41 from a drug overdose that included cocaine but not steroids.

Baseball, however, doesn’t issue alcohol warnings. Baseball and beer have long been a revenue team, especially in St. Louis, where the Busch family’s influence is still large.

Putting steroids in perspective, since the Balco investigation began four years ago, 1.6 million people have died from smoking-related causes (400,000 a year, the United States surgeon general says) and about 150,000 (nearly half in traffic accidents) have died from alcohol-related causes.

How comforting it is to know that some people care more about baseball’s career home run record than the lives of hundreds of thousands of human beings.

There are a couple of points of interest here. One, it’s noteworthy that two veteran baseball writers, each of whom has had some penchant for a “kids today…” approach to baseball have managed to put in perspective the current frenzy over steroids. Two, one of the key arguments against steroid use is the adverse health effects. But, in fact, the long-term effects of steroid use (and HGH use) are unclear, far more ambiguous than the toll that alcohol and smoking take on Americans every year. It’s true that cigarettes and alcohol are legal, while steroid use is illegal without a doctor’s prescription.  But, the legal distinction between steroids on the hand and cigarettes and alcohol doesn’t easily account for the moral indignation that so colors the performance-enhancement debate. As I have written before, the arguments against steroids are, from a performance-enhancement perspective, also problematic, since there is a wide continuum of ways in which athletes alter their bodies for maximum athletic effect and I remain unpersuaded that there is a compelling argument for why some types of approaches to altering one’s body are acceptable, while others aren’t.

Neither on their health merits or their performance effects – there’s evidence that amphetamines, which have been a performance-enhancing drug of choice for major leaguers for a lot longer than steroids/HGH – are steroids an obvious choice for having received the level of scrutiny they have. In January, I wrote that:

 Like Baseball, the NFL only added amphetamines to its list of banned PEDs in 2006. Judging by what’s going on in high schools – assuming that the role-model argument is central to Congress’ and the leagues’ desire to eliminate PEDs – the relative lack of attention paid to amphetamines is completely backwards. Then again, we already know that the news cycle for doping in sports has never been driven primarily by what sport, or what drugs, pose the most serious problems.

Plaschke and Chass add more weight to the evidence that “newsworthy” and “significant” are not always the same thing.

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11 Responses to “12,000-1”

  1. While I appreciate the larger point you are making, I think you might be making too light of the health effects of steroids when you say that “But, in fact, the long-term effects of steroid use (and HGH use) are unclear, far more ambiguous than the toll that alcohol and smoking take on Americans every year.”

    I could provide you some links, but suffice it to say there are many government and health organizations that have detailed information on the health risks. I think it’s fair to say that in general, anabolic steroids are bad for your health and have some long-term risks. More or less than smoking or alcohol? I don’t know, but it’s a fair comparison to make.

    Like I said, I appreciate the larger point, but I don’t think minimizing the dangers of steroids is a necessary part of that.

  2. What’s interesting about the Hancock case is how little was reported prior to his death – he had a couple of previous “late-night driving” incidents, including one three days before his death. His manager (Tony LaRussa) has had a DUI incident of his own in the last three months. Say what you want about steroids, but DUI are far more dangerous – this isn’t about alcohol vs. steroids, in my opinion; this is about the illegal and dangerous action of drunk driving, which could easily lead to serious injury and death of innocent people. 12,000-1.

    So Pacman Jones is involved in a shooting that leaves a man paralyzed, and other athletes (Telfair, for a recent example) get the treatment for their actions, yet DUIs are treated like comic fodder (as LaRussa’s DUI was). Sorry, but if you are driving drunk the car is as dangerous as a loaded gun. I’m not saying Pacman Jones is a victim of the media, just pointing out the subtle double standard….

  3. Chass also makes one odd (and seemingly misleading) statement when he cites deaths by tobacco use and says, “How comforting it is to know that some people care more about baseball’s career home run record than the lives of hundreds of thousands of human beings.”

    There may be SOME people who care more about steroids and the home run record than deaths by tobacco use. However, it’s hard to claim that we as a nation are ignoring the damage tobacco does. More and more cities are banning smoking in businesses, there’s no smoking in any public building I’ve ever been in, and even some colleges are banning smoking anywhere on campus. There is a lot of legislation and many programs to deal with the damage of tobacco use (and I consider that a good thing).

    The contrast to deaths by tobacco use seems like a non-sequitur: quite clearly tobacco use is horribly damaging, but we as a society are hardly ignoring or minimizing that damage. I think the contrast of treatment of steroids to treatment of DUIs is more valid (as SML suggests, we see so many DUIs that many almost don’t take them seriously anymore). We pretty much accept alcohol use in our society (which is fine by me), but unfortunately, we’re also far too dismissive of dangerous behavior while using alcohol.

  4. jweiler Says:

    PV

    I agree with you that the smoking comment is a non-sequitur and is not germane to baseball policy. But, the drunk-driving issue, as you note, is relevant and while I don’t want to dismiss the health concerns about steroids, the fact is that the long-term health effects are speculative, and seem to be a more serious health concern when taken by adolescents than by grown men. I mention this because I don’t actually think that steroids health concerns are on a par with what we know about the ill effects of alcohol abuse. I should note that I am not an advocate of using steroids – but there are numerous behaviors – wrestlers sweating out weight before competition, what girls do to their bodies when they are competitive gymnasts – that have been more clearly associated with
    serious health problems than have steroids/HGH.

  5. PV-
    In spite of govt and health org. warnings, neither have performed one peer-reviewed study on the effects of steroids on healthy males, 25 and over. In fact, only one has been performed and that is by Norman Fost (see, A Contrarian View, June 21, 2005 HBO Real Sports). Fost show in his study that by the time males reach 30 they have their bodies generate only 30% of the testosterone they did just five years previous. Fost, in his study, advocates for every male over 33 to take prescribed steroid injections.

    The HBO segment was especially revealing in the Gary Wadler of the World Anti-Doping Agency had to admit that there were no studies showing the deleterious effects of steroids – if used under the care of a physician – on healthy males.

    Now, Fost makes it clear that his study dealt with healthy males 25 and over. He readily admits steroids are dangerous for younger men and boys, women, and girls.

  6. PV-
    I also have a private question for you… if you will, please email me at: mesoanarchy@gmail.com

    Thanks

  7. J, good work. I agree with everything you’ve written. The stats you’ve laid out are sad. It’s a shame that no pro sport gives a damn about what driving drunk is to its employees.

    To put it in the context of the steroid investigation really brings to light where our priorities truly lie.

    Is this truly the meaning of Death before Dishonor?

    Sadly, relative to baseball, yes.

  8. CJ Scudworth Says:

    Glad to see TSF chime in on this, and for that matter, someone in the MSM. I’m kind of surprised this has received so little coverage since the Cardinals’ superficial ban of alcohol in the clubhouse. The club should have been demanding that Hancock get treatment. Any other employer would do so — if they didn’t fire you outright — for missing work due to a hangover. Instead, three days later, Hancock is out boozing and driving again, and this time it’s fatal.

    He was 29 — that should be old enough to know better, though with his employer and maybe a few police officers constantly overlooking his discretions, I guess I can understand why Hancock thought there were no consequences to his dangerous actions. But that guy so obviously had a problem…

  9. I agree with your main point that the long term effects of steroids are largely unknown compared to those of drinking and smoking.

    But, what I would like to see from Plaschke and Chass is a little more in terms of distinguishing between the types of risks for the public these three behaviors entail.

    First, we can assume that steroids, drinking, and smoking all harm the individual engaged in them (even if the evidence on steroids is iffy so far). But, how does these behaviors affect the public?

    Steroids – largely victimless (except for maybe fans of the game)

    Smoking – Again, potentially victimless (except for second hand smoke). Also, serious public health costs that others must share.

    Drinking – Potentially victimless, but potentially lethal to others (in terms of drunk driving). In addition, similar public health costs similar to smoking.

    Looking at these three risky behaviors, only drinking has the potential to have lethal and immediate impacts (I guess there are maybe instances of “roid rage,” but I don’t think anyone is going to walk down the street and drop dead from inhaling second hand smoke. Those risks are long term.

    Also, a tangential point:

    Isn’t there a chance that this isn’t really a baseball problem?

    We have evidence of potentially lethal drinking and driving and we also have evidence of a correlating fact that baseball has a cozy relationship with alcohol venders. But, couldn’t there be a deeper root cause?

    The way I see it, you mix a high risk group (young males) with a high risk substance (alcohol) and add disposable income into the mix, and then you get problems. Put these three variables together in any setting, professional sports or not, and you’ll likely get the same results.

  10. Just two quick points:
    1.I’m guessing when MLB does Steroid PSAs, it is targeting minors.
    2. Considering many of the best performers in pro sports are under 25, there’s really no logical way for the leagues to regulate/allow steroid use for players for whom it would be safe.

  11. PV-
    Of course they are targeting minors. But steroids in MLB involves men…. also, baseball is the focus sport of this piece and in the others referenced in the piece. Most of the best performers are over 25. Additionally, regulating steroids in pro sports is easy: perform testosterone tests on the athletes and allow everyone to have the opportunity to have the testosterone levels proscribed by Fost’s study. A great example of this is the PGA golfer (I’ve forgotten his name) who was found to have “low testosterone levels. He is injected monthly with steroids to bring his levels back to the norm.

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