Ryan Braun and Everything Wrong With PED’s
It’s time for spring-training again, yet in a sports world where the NFL is king, baseball has managed to stay in the headlines throughout its lengthy offseason. The MLB is really good at this. It’s almost as if the sport brews up controversy because it’s worried that it will fade out of relevance once people realize they can live without baseball for a couple months. In years past it’s been congressional hearings on steroids, perjury trials for Bonds and Clemens, or gossip about reinstating Pete Rose that has kept MLB’s fire smoldering long into the winter. This year we’ve been treated to high profile free agents and a did-he/didn’t-he PED drama courtesy of NL MVP Ryan Braun. For me, the Braun situation is the final straw in the ridiculous way the world of sports has buried its head in the sand when it comes to PED’s.
But before generalizing, let’s take a quick overview of the Braun case as it stands today. In December it was revealed that Braun tested positive for PED’s. This was after it was announced that he had won the voting for the NL MVP award—well before, however, the presentation of the award itself. Braun appealed the suspension, not the test results themselves, and won on the grounds that protocol had not been followed in delivering his urine sample.
Now, if you are capable of rational thought, you probably have several questions left unanswered by these proceedings. But to be fair we have to give Braun a pass on this one, because in the eyes of the laws of baseball the 20:1 ratio of (synthetic) testosterone in his urine never happened, just like O.J. never murdered anybody. To play Devil’s advocate, we should acknowledge the possibility of tampering, sure. But all this is missing the point. Braun lost cred, whether he’s innocent or guilty. Also, fans became more jaded as a result of all this. Simply put, what happened with Ryan Braun shows that until attitudes and policies on PED’s acknowledge reality, everyone stands to lose.
Let’s be cynical for a moment. This isn’t just baseball’s problem. As anyone who grew up during the “steroids era” may understand, PED use is often in the immediate interest of a player fighting to make a team in a professional league at the most elite levels of competition. And PED use is always in the interest of the league itself, which can profit from showcasing stronger, faster athletes. In fact, use of PED’s only runs contrary to the basic concept of sports when it makes the playing field unfair (i.e. when only certain players use PED’s). It does, however, run contrary to the obligation of professional leagues and athletes to be socially conscious, as well as to any professional athlete’s long-term health and well-being due to the many serious health risks associated with use of PED’s. But don’t forget that elite pro-athletes get paid millions of dollars, and consider for a moment how much it would cost for you to take those kinds of health risks and simply pay lip service to being a role model. So, when it comes down to it, although it shouldn’t be condoned, realistically PED use should be expected because it makes sense from the standpoint of the professional athlete. Of course, this doesn’t mean it makes sense for society at large to start glorifying PED use. But if society has a say, exactly what should we consider to be “performance-enhancing”, and how can we decide which performance-enhancers are OK and which aren’t?
In today’s world there are innumerable supplements, both pre-and post-workout, as well as specifically tailored nutritional regimens and training programs available for athletes at the pinnacle of their game. Eventually even medical interventions themselves become an avenue for enhancement. For instance, take Tommy-John surgery, where pitchers often experience such an improvement post-surgery that in effect, it’s a performance-enhancing surgery—better than the natural elbow should be after years of pitching. And what about artificial prostheses? Should Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee sprinter, be allowed to compete in the Olympics with his space-age prosthetics? Corking your bat in baseball is obviously cheating, but with convoluted drug policies, the various available supplements and their myriad effects aren’t as black-and-white. How can we determine what’s within the bounds of “fair”?
Of course, one seemingly clear-cut boundary would be the “drugs” part of PED’s. But take caffeine for instance. Baseball players regularly chug huge amounts of coffee prior to taking the field because of the improvement caffeine lends to reaction time, and caffeine—a drug—in this case is perfectly within bounds. The NCAA, however, actually monitors its athletes for caffeine. Honestly when we think of PED’s we think of HGH and steroids, but that’s just because people are visual creatures, and we can see what a roided-out freak looks like. We see steroid-induced cancers, or roid-rage stories and we, as a society, label meatheads at the gym as the bad-guys. In theory, if there were no detrimental side-effects to steroids, we would still be witnessing 70+ HR’s a year and nobody would be complaining, because professional sports are supposed to display the absolute highest level of possible performance—the fans expect and demand it. And if that were the case, a world with completely legal steroids would still be arguably “fair” because everyone would have access to them. This is the libertarian argument, Ron Paul’s world (incidentally, Ron Paul actually actually has an M.D.).
But, at some point society has to step in and address a potentially dangerous and harmful issue. When you have an individual that society holds up on a pedestal, like a professional athlete making millions of dollars, who goes around using drugs known to pose serious health risks, kids who look up to them think that’s OK and then we have the same epidemic surfacing in high-school and college locker-rooms. I shouldn’t even have to bring up the fact that high-schoolers have brains and bodies that aren’t wholly developed and the attitude that PED’s are OK, passed down from on high, poses incredible health risks.
Of course, all social good-will aside, that’s not enough on its own to stop athletes from continuing to put their health at risk by using PED’s. Let’s go back to Tommy-John surgery; the surgery offers no real medical advantage outside of sports, but still poses the risks that go with major joint surgery including loss of strength, nerve damage, infection and the like, and it’s regularly expected of athletes to go under the knife—they’re often contractually obligated to get surgery if deemed necessary. But it’s no secret that professional athletes put their body on the line to have the privilege of playing at the pro-level. In fact, that’s exactly what Brian Urlacher was trying to explain when he made a less-than PC comment on HBO’s Real Sports about NFL players—himself included—being injected with pain-killers during games:“We want to be on the field as much as we can be. If we can be out there, it may be stupid, it may be dumb, call me dumb and stupid then, because I want to be on the football field.” -Brian Urlacher
Say what you will about Urlacher’s comments and actions, but he’s being paid $56million over five years. For that type of money, Urlacher’s line of thinking is realistic. It’s one thing that Brian Urlacher risks becoming addicted to painkillers in order to continue being a pro-athlete —Hell, if someone wanted to pay me 56 million dollars and all
I had to do was take some steroids, I would jump at the chance—but, it’s a serious social and medical issue when we start to see kids who have a lot more to risk and a lot less to gain (they’re not already in the NFL and odds are they won’t ever be) start abusing their bodies. The problem rears its head when society decides to look down on this sort of thing. Once we pretend that athletes and leagues won’t do PED’s—something that makes rational sense from their standpoint—simply because society looks down on it, we’re losing our hold on the reality of the issue. But there has to be a solution, right? What can we do about it?
THE LEGACY OF PED’S
Before we can fix the issue of PED’s in sports, we need to overhaul the way society views the issue overall.
Nowhere is this more messed up than the looming trainwreck at Cooperstown. A line in the sand has already been drawn at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in which many members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (the group that votes players into the HOF) have come out saying they will never vote for someone who used PED’s. But what’s the criteria for “using steroids”? Would a suspected but never proven user be denied a place in the Hall? Or take for example MLB’s 2003 anonymous survey tests in which player’s names were never supposed to be released (tests were conducted to determine whether a steroids policy was necessary). But, names were released. This is where A-Rod gets his bad rap (OK, he gets his bad rap from a lot of places). So, since those names were never supposed to be leaked, should A-Rod be voted into the HOF?
Guess what else? The panel who voted for the 2011 NL MVP was made up of members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. So, what do they do in Braun’s case? Should they have gone ahead and given him the MVP award? (They did.) Down the road, should they consider Braun eligible for the HOF, or do they put him into the “did steroids” bin? You see, those writers aren’t bound by the MLB’s inane sampling policy—they’re an independent entity from the MLB. Now, I’m a reasonable guy and in my opinion Braun looks like he could have HOF chops and since he won his appeal, he would get in, no asterisk. That’s the only way you can play it.
But if you take a careful look at this arbitrary line in the sand at Cooperstown, voting against McGwire, Bonds, Sosa, Rodriguez, Ramirez and others for entry into the HOF seems downright idiotic. These are the figures that shaped baseball for a generation. And guess who is responsible for deifying them in the minds of the kids of the 90’s? The sports writers who make up the membership of The Baseball Writers Association of America, that’s who. You can’t go back and undo history, no matter how tempted an egotistical group of journalists may be to do so. The onus is on these writers to admit they are just as responsible as those players caught cheating for glorifying a tainted game. How are you going to tell us we spent our childhoods idolizing the “wrong” players? The answer is you can’t. The only rational approach is to admit that steroids and PED’s have been a fact of the times, and not the fault of a handful of players.
Let’s imagine that one day soon, league commissioners, fans, and sportswriters across America grow up and admit that the steroids era happened and is still happening. Once we get past that and we realize that PED use is rampant, we still have to put in place a system that discourages their use in order to maintain a fair playing field and protect the health of future athletes at all levels. This is actually the easy part, which is why it is so frustrating that we are still stuck with this PED charade over a decade later.
As we discussed earlier, it’s clear that as long as it makes sense for athletes to use PED’s, we can expect that they will continue to do so. So the only way to have a significant impact on PED use in sports is to make it so that it does not make sense for athletes to use PED’s. Now, with millions of dollars on the line it’s clear that athletes have continued using PED’s even to the detriment of their own health. So, you have to go nuclear. If you’re Selig, you Pete-Rose anyone caught using PED’s. Zero-tolerance. Huge fines. Lifetime ban. You make it clear that anyone caught using PED’s is out for life and can never make another cent off the game. It’s for their own protection and for the protection of the game itself.
Now are these proposals realistic? Maybe not. I doubt any of the players unions would let that fly so easily. And maybe any league that had a zero-tolerance policy would open up
the door for a competing league that was more ambivalent on steroids—exactly the type of ambivalence that caused congress to get involved in the first place. But regardless, this needs to be the type of reaction to PED’s because it simply doesn’t make sense for us to believe that inane testing policies and procedures will ever actually have an impact—cheaters will always be one step ahead. This scorched-earth policy can’t come out of the blue, though. It has to be implemented hand-in-hand with amnesty to all prior offenders. We need to admit and forgive the fact that PED’s have scarred the highest levels of athletic competition and move forward with an attitude that this will not be tolerated in the future. We need to have an understanding that cheaters will be punished accordingly. It needs to be clear before the next generation of PED’s surfaces what is and what isn’t considered cheating. And it needs to make more sense to play by the rules than to deviate to the situation we have gotten ourselves into with PED’s in pro-sports today.