Tidbits – August 3, 2007

A few random items to get to: Sheffield’s comments about Commissioner Selig; an interesting article in Newsweek on recent sports scandals; and, should PEDs be legal? The science journal, Nature, weighs in.

1) Last Friday, GarySheffield called out Commissioner Bud Selig, saying that he was “sick of the way (Selig) and MLB have been grandstanding” and asked: “Why doesn’t Bud Selig tell the truth? Why does he keep lying, saying he doesn’t know nothing (about steroids use in baseball though the ’90s)? He knew everything we knew.” That comment prompted yet another nomination for a just shut-up award on Tuesday’s Mike and Mike program and speculation from unnamed sources that Sheffield would be suspended for his comments (no word yet on whether that’s going to happen. It seems unlikely now).

Calling someone a “liar” is a strong statement, implying not only that someone has spoken falsely about a matter, but knowingly falsely. This second step is one reason why we’ve spent years chasing our collective tails about whether the current President has repeatedly lied about all manner of important issues including WMD, the connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda, the impact of tax cuts on ordinary Americans, the need to privatize social security, etc. We know that he repeatedly utters what turn out to be false statements, but has he lied in doing so? People get stuck on that.

Has Selig lied about what he knew and didn’t know in the 1990s? It’s certain that Selig heard, at the least, many rumors during the 1990s. Canseco says he was showing a significant chunk of the Rangers’ roster in the early 1990s how to use steroids. An FBI probe culminating in 1992 into illegally obtained steroids , revolving around a trainer, Curtis Wenzlaff, referred to Mark McGwire and Canseco’s possible connections to Wenzlaff. In fact, Canseco was asked about possible use as far back as the 1988 World Series. In 1995, as Buster Olney has referred to repeatedly in the past few weeks, baseball writer Bob Nightengale wrote an article about possible steroid use in baseball, and interviewed numerous baseball insiders for the story, including Commissioner Selig. Among those Nightengale cited was then San Diego Padres GM Randy Smith:

“We all know there’s steroid use, and it’s definitely become more prevalent,” said Randy Smith, general manager of the San Diego Padres. “The ballplayers all know the dangers of it. We preach it every year.

“But because there’s so much money to be made these days, guys are willing to pay the price now and will pay the piper later.

“I can understand it’s a difficult choice for some players. They know it can take five years off their lives, but then they say, ‘OK, so I die when I’m 75 instead of 80.’ “

Nightengale quoted an anonymous American league GM who estimated that up to 30% of players were using at that time. That GM also observed:

“Come on, you just don’t put on 50 pounds of muscle overnight and hit balls out of stadiums. I’m seeing guys now who were washed up five years ago, and now they’ve got bat speed they’ve never had before. It’s insane.

And Tony Gwynn referred to it as the “big secret we’re not supposed to talk about.”

And, what did the ever-vigilant and ever-righteous commissioner have to say at the time:

Bud Selig, acting commissioner, said the topic was last addressed by owners in a private meeting a year or 18 months ago. The conclusion was that no one had any evidence that steroid use should be a concern.

“If baseball has a problem, I must say candidly that we were not aware of it,” Selig said. “It certainly hasn’t been talked about much. But should we concern ourselves as an industry? I don’t know. Maybe it’s time to bring it up again.”

There are two common defenses of why Selig was asleep at the switch in the 1990s: 1) he didn’t know, or didn’t know enough. And 2) he couldn’t do anything about it because the player’s union refused to consider testing.

The first response strains credibility. Even if Selig did not have bullet-proof, court-of-law type evidence of steroid use, there is no possibility that he hadn’t heard all of the mounting rumors and concerns from other people in the sport. And, as the leader of the sport, it would have been appropriate for Selig, if usage is such a black mark upon the game, as Selig now says it is, to have been pro-active in trying to put the issue on the table in a more sustained way.

And, that fact – that the commissioner simply ignored the issue until well after the great home run chase of 1998, also undermines the second standard defense – that poor Bud was helpess before the player’s union. I have criticized this line of defense before, so I will quote myself here:

But, while the union’s foot-dragging on the issue is part of the story, the fact is that Selig had no hesitation in waging a ceaseless campaign of disinformation about baseball’s finances and the union’s intransigence on salary cap and other issues in the years prior to the 2002 collective bargaining agreement. So, if steroids undermine the very credibility of the game, and Selig is such a great fan of the game and its hallowed traditions, why didn’t Selig harp constantly on the scourge that was afflicting baseball during the same period – the several years leading up to and including 2002? There is no plausible way to argue that the reason he did not talk constantly about steroids was his fear of the union’s reaction. One can conclude, instead, that Selig cared far less about lifting a finger to deal with steroids than he did to make sure that his already incredibly wealthy owners (including his daughter), should become even wealthier.

Selig has lost some battles with the union over the years and won some others. But, he has never hesitated to wage public warfare against the union over issues near and dear to his heart, as he made clear during the 1994 strike and in the eighteen months leading up to the 2002 collective bargaining agreement (a period during which he repeatedly argued that the sport was on the verge of financial ruin and obsolescence – not because of steroids, but because of the supposedly unworkable financial system then in place).

If the two standard defenses for Selig’s failure to address the burgeoning problem until relatively recently – he didn’t know and he was powerless to do anything – are hogwash, and I think they are, doesn’t a third possibility present itself? That Sheff is, in fact, right?

2) David Gates, long-time Newsweek contributor, has an interesting take on all the recent sports scandals in the latest issue of that magazine. The subheading for the article reads “booing masks self-loathing for our own evasions of fair play.” Gates ticks off the various controversies this summer – Michael Vick, Tim Donaghy, the Tour de France and, of course, Barry Bonds. About Bonds, Gates writes:

Might all this have something to do with Bonds’s race? Just a wild guess, but sure. Aaron got enough death threats the year he broke Babe Ruth’s record to be given a bodyguard—and he was more the relatively bland Floyd Patterson than the in-your-face Jack Johnson. But does race explain it all? When the white Roger Maris beat Ruth’s single-season record, even some Yankees fans hated him for surpassing not only his predecessor but teammate Mickey Mantle. Which is a bigger threat to our sense of certainty: a bulked-up black man, or the overthrow of baseball’s gold standard? What do we really hate when we boo Bonds? Wealth and privilege and cheating (they’re becoming indistinguishable), defiance, getting above one’s station—and also unapologetic excellence. That is, we hate ourselves: for our own furtive greed and evasions of fair play and for our very furtiveness, to which Bonds’s arrogance is a rebuke.

This passage reminded me of the interesting work of Dave Callahan, who penned a book a couple of years ago called “The Cheating Culture.” Callahan argues that cheating in all walks of American life has become more and more commonplace in recent years, as the pressures of a philosophy of every man (and woman) for themselves becomes more and more prevalent in America’s political culture. With exploding inequality, and the media’s tendency to lionize the super-rich, no matter how they amassed their fortunes, the message sent is clear. Add to that a political class that seems incapable of giving a non-spun answer to any question, and you’ve got the makings of rampant rule-breaking. None of which need be read as an excuse for Bonds, if he’s guilty, or any other rule-breaker. But, the perspective is a useful reminder that Americans love to personify systemic realities – to reduce the complexities of the world to heroes and villains. In real life, though, cheating by individuals – and the responses to that cheating – rarely happens in a vacuum.

3) But speaking of rules, King Kaufman’s column at Salon.com yesterday references an editorial in the journal Nature, that considers whether PEDs should be legal. As long-time readers know, that is my position, so I won’t elaborate on that here and I cannot access the editorial itself. But, nature does note that perhaps the key obstacle to legalization is political (as opposed to scientific):

“The first sport to change its rules to allow players to use performance-enhancing drugs will be attacked as a freak show or worse. The same may be true of the second. This may well have the effect — may already be having the effect — of delaying the inevitable.”

Nature says special protections will have to be in place for minors (this doesn’t strike me as any more problematic than having a drinking age) and argues that, as long as PEDs are illegal, it’s wrong to use them, because it creates unfair competition.

Kaufman himself states well and succinctly what I consider to be the most legitimate argument against legalization:

It’s been seven years since the stripping of Romanian gymnast Andreea Raducan’s gold medal because she had used cold medicine inspired me to write that the sports War on Drugs is so ridiculous it should be abandoned.

In that time I’ve gone back and forth on the issue, sometimes believing all the drugs should be legalized, other times thinking the Hobson’s choice that would give kids — juice up or don’t bother competing — is a higher cost than that war’s hypocrisy and illogic.

In any event, here’s the link to Kaufman.

5 Responses to “Tidbits – August 3, 2007”

  1. Great breakdown of Bud Selig’s role in the steroid mess, J. Sheffield himself can call Bud Selig a liar, because in his book he states (whether accurate or not) that he told the commissioner’s office to investigate steroids long before the press ran with the story.

    As for your third point, yes, the discussion of whether PEDs should be legal is very much like the discussion about the “war on drugs”. Most open-minded people realize there is some incentive to legalizing drugs, but those who oppose it refuse to even discuss it; so, too is the case with PEDs in sports. Those who discuss it are on the fringes (like us), while everyone else just writes it off as “bad” and refuses to have an honest discussion about the policy of criminalization of users versus legalization and regulation….

  2. I couldn’t agree more with Sheffield. The Pontius Pilate routine Selig is pulling in regards to steroids strikes me as the heighth of hypocrisy. In fact, Fay Vincent (who has oddly contradictory positions in regards to Selig) included steroids in a list of banned supplments in 1991! Did Bud not get the memo? His plea of ignorance is enough b.s. to fertilize the Sinai. His feeble grasping for the moral high ground during Bond’s pursuit of the HR record is laughably desperate. And isn’t it odd that he assumed the office of commissoner after the owners gave Vincent a unanimous vote of no confidence? Selig is dirty to the core, driven by greed, and empowered by his eager manipulation of the feckless baseball scribes.

  3. America’s favorite economist over at Freakonomics was talking about this recently:

    http://www.freakonomics.com/blog/2007/07/27/why-legalizing-sports-doping-wont-work/
    and
    http://www.freakonomics.com/blog/2007/07/26/should-we-just-let-the-tour-de-france-dopers-dope-away/

    I like your perspective on Selig, but he has waged a tremendous campaign that has scapegoated Bonds on this one and left his hands clean. I am actually INCREDIBLY impressed that Selig pulled it off without looking like the crook he is….he may look stupid, but he is a smart man. But I think the debate on PED’s is not going, and will never go away (a Browns player was caught today). But the way I think about it is: league’s have an incredible incentive NOT to regulate this stuff. If every league tested their guys like the TDF’s does, everyone would fall, the credibiliy of our American sports would be gone and it would be crazy (or people would do what they really should do: stop caring). The fact of the matter is the best place for league’s right now is the happy medium: have something in place, catch some small fish to make it look like efforts are being made, all the while simultaneously protecting higher up guys and not clamoring for harsher testing because it will embarrass the league. The league now looks like its doing something and the game overall looks clean, even though its not. If people in this country really cared about cheating they would demand USADA and Olympic style testing…but THEY DON’T. They care about hating Bonds, not steroids.

  4. Ap

    Thanks for the links. The comments on the anti-doping post were pretty interesting. The international legal/enforcement/regulatory issues are complicated, though I don’t really see how the status quo – prohibition – makes that any less of a problem.

    On the leagues’ incentives – I think that, given the current outrage over PEDs, the leagues have a strong incentive to do some sort of testing but, as the NFL has proven, not to make the testing regimen strong enough to catch more than a handful of people. The NFL is constantly held up as a model of probity on this issue, because they do test, though it’s a joke to think that they have made even a dent in the problem. So, I’d say what the NFL is doing is optimal, from a business standpoint. Obviously, they’re hypocrites, but I know that’s not the point you’re speaking to.

  5. My question is how do they draw the line as to what is sufficiently performance enhancing? I mean Gatorade’s claim to fame is that it provides a performancce enhancing boost. And what about the various supplements players are taking? What about pain killing injections? Can anything be considered more unnatural or harmful than a shot that reduces the brain’s ability to tell when the body is hurting?

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