“When it got to the editorial stage everyone knew the cards were down. What followed was as carefully produced as a ballet. The police got ready, the gambling houses got ready, and the papers set up congratulatory editorials in advance. Then came the raid, deliberate and sure. Twenty or more Chinese, imported from Pajaro, a few bums, six or eight drummers, who, being strangers, were not warned, fell into the police net, were booked, jailed, and in the morning fined and released. The town relaxed it its new spotlessness and the houses lost only one night of business plus the fines. It is one of the triumphs of the human that he can know a thing and still not believe it.”
– John Steinbeck, East of Eden
In breaking the revelation that Alex Rodriguez, perhaps the biggest name in Major League Baseball, failed a random, league-mandated PED test in 2003, Selena Roberts and Sports Illustrated have unleashed a maelstrom of hatred and condemnation throughout the sporting world, most of it toward the hitter himself. Thanks to the report, we have now what appears to be a clear timeline, and can use it to track the death of modern baseball from catalyst to ashes. Alex Rodriguez, a young superstar in his prime, took illicit substances to help himself get an additional edge over the competition. He was tested for it in 2003, and test results came back positive. He said nothing, admitted nothing while the fervor grew over Performance Enhancing Drug use in Major League Baseball, and went so far as to lie on national television about ever having used them. It was leaked in 2009 that he’d used, and after a couple days, he admitted to a television audience that he had in fact used them, but that was in the past, and he was sorry.
Fans have been struck by this news as a child is struck when he is told that not only is Santa Clause fake, but that the man they thought was Santa Clause was actually a whitewashed Afghani who implanted a large bomb in their ear that is going to detonate on their 18th birthday. For sportswriters and pop culture critics, this is the filet mignonof stories, the easiest of moral pulpits to climb upon and proselytize. Emotions range from shock to anger to disappointment. Seething viewers yearn to tear the accused apart, limb-from-limb, until they have rid the sport’s gene pool of the kind of nefarious selfishness that surely courses through the testosterone-inflated bodies of the Dark Era’s exaggerated sluggers. This is a sad, misguided, and altogether unintelligent quest for culpability. No grand individual failures by any specific players have occurred here. What we have is a failure of a professional sporting organization, of union leadership, and of a national body of fans in general. It is a lesson in mass incompetence, and the furor of a nation is providing an unwitting yet altogether perfect crescendo.
This is not about absolving PED users of any and all wrongdoing, about turning a blind eye to the indiscretions of an era. Not is it about being jaded, about simply believing that everyone in sports is an evil cheater and we’re wasting our time and energy even caring about them because the sport is lost forever. It is about the human process of learning from past mistakes, and about getting to the core of those mistakes. Growth is most purely achieved when it arises from struggle, but this cannot be the case if we, as a society, simply grab the low-hanging fruit and grind it into the concrete with the weight of our collective knee-jerking. The A-Rod story is essentially the final straw; the last shred of deniability has been removed, and we must now seriously accept that PEDs penetrated all levels of the game at least during those years, and that we will never truly know what effects they had. We have been forced into action, and what has the reaction been? We have quickly coalesced into an unthinking mob of witch-hunters. There is strikingly little desire to move beyond the incendiary and to begin to address the problem in any meaningful way. Where is the national outrage over the incomprehensible failures of Bud Selig, Donald Fehr, Gene Orza, and of management and the press? Are we so oblivious that we content ourselves with the widescale reality that all we really want to do is eviscerate our fated celebrities?
This simply isn’t about A-Rod. It isn’t even about Selena Roberts, who just happens to be writing a book on A-Rod, to be released this May by HarperCollins and whose sales figures will undoubtedly be receiving a massive boost by Roberts’ story in Sport Illustrated. It’ll be the second major book this year to implicitly profit from trashing the third baseman: “The Yankee Years” by Joe Torre (and Tom Verducci, another SI writer), made headlines when anecdotes were leaked about Rodriguez being referred to as “A-Fraud” in the Yankee clubhouse. The role that “journalists” play is important here, but not necessarily on an individual level. There’s obviously nothing wrong with what Roberts did in this case. She did what any other journalist would do – when handed an irresistible story, she saw it through and delivered it to the world. Though she is writing a book on the player, her work on it began prior to this most recent controversy, and to her credit she has not taken to ESPN and NBC to cast Rodriguez as an unscrupulous monster. She simply got the angle and broke the story, and no one could’ve rightfully asked her not to do so.
The issue of player PED use is much larger than can or should be confined to Rodriguez, but as a player who is as “big” as anyone else in the game, he is an appropriate lens, and it is now fitting that we examine the problem through him. People are angry that he used steroids, and angry that he lied about it when asked. Beyond that, the fans don’t much care – who cares about why he did it, and who cares about mistakes others might have made? Alex Rodriguez took steroids and, though it took a while, got caught. Case closed. So what if this information never should have come to light? Better that it did, because there should be no sanctuary for the damned in this world or any other. But is it enough to simply behead our former idols and let them stand as grim examples to future players who might dally on the dark side? Or do we care about avoiding future blemishes as best we can, and in the process, can we ask tough questions of ourselves and our contemporaries within and outside of the game? Forget about the baseball players, most of whom are morons anyways. How did your favorite writer down at the Post contribute to this situation? How did the smart white guys in suits – the GMs, the MLBPA, the MLB front offices – play into this disgrace? How did you make a mess of this, and do you come seeking redemption or revenge?
Alex Rodriguez took steroids, lied about it, and then claimed he didn’t even really know what he took, but that yeah, it was something he shouldn’t have. Why is he not the festering core of the issue?
Let’s discuss the claim that he didn’t know exactly what Performance Enhancers he used back in Texas. Is this likely? There exists the widespread belief that if you are paid for your physical fitness, as an athlete basically is, it is incomprehensible that you would not hawkishly account for everything you ever did that might impact that fitness in some way. To think this way is to hold the human being behind the player to a different set of standards and expectations that you hold other humans to. Any person will take the time to do a certain thing when and only when it is beneficial for him to do that thing above all other things. There are two economic principles at play here – opportunity cost and rational ignorance.
The pursuit of information has a cost, that cost being the loss of whatever else you could’ve been doing in the time it took you to obtain that information. For any athlete, the opportunity cost of rigorously screening their nutritional supplements is equal to the value of the alternative. The alternative value for any athlete is always very high – you could be doing other things, like practicing and playing and performing at the highest level possible (the value of this is millions of dollars), or getting away from the pressure of the game and relaxing to keep your sanity (or womanizing, gambling, whatever – to each his own). What is the cost of not knowing what gets put into your body? Back in the midst of “The Steroid Era,” it was almost zero. There were very few possible repercussions for those guys, and if you did not have much of a psychic cost(i.e. it didn’t make you feel guilty), the benefits of ignorance far outweighed the cost. Those costs could even be frayed by the subconscious allure of plausible deniability. The details were out of sight and out of mind for these guys. Their ignorance on the subject was rational, as it is irrational to pursue ends that do not justify the means. It’s frequently cited, for example, as one of the chief reasons that people don’t educate themselves about political issues: the cost of doing so generally outweighs the benefits. Does your life really change at all if you bother to spend your free time getting off the couch and becoming a proponent of some referendum on putting slot machines at gas stations?
It’s not just athletes that do this, even where diet and nutrition are concerned. The consumer Dietary Supplement Industry is a behemoth, and growing every day. Sales in the U.S. alone reached about $22.5 billion last year. While the overwhelmed FDA continues to slowly implement new regulations on producers, the fact remains that said supplements don’t even need FDA approval to be sold in stores. You could literally create one yourself, made of sugar and powderized lawn clippings, and sell it tomorrow. Millions of Americans take these supplements every day to encourage weight loss, muscle gain, improved focus and vitality — the list of reported benefits goes on. How many of these (legal) users could tell you exactly what they were taking? 1%? 0.1%? Beyond the brand name and advertised effects on the box, can, or bottle, most people are clueless as to what’s going into their body or what the stuff’s actually doing once it gets in there. So why should star athletes – who are insulated from responsibility for their entire adult lives – be any different? Not only would they not know exactly what was going into their body, but they don’t even have a brand name to reference. What they do have is an experienced, highly-regarded professional trainer, used by other stars in the game, telling them “this is the stuff you need.” You’re a ballplayer. Maybe you haven’t taken a science course since high school geology – what the hell do you need to know about chemistry? You’ve got the industry best watching out for you, and besides, you have enough pressure on you just worrying about performing for the fans. A consumer assumes that if a product is sold to them at GNC, it’s safe and legal. The assumptions made by both parties are just the same.
If you lead a extremely high-pressure life and your boss hired a professional to wipe your ass for you every morning, how long before you stop paying attention to what brand of toilet paper the guy was using?
A-Rod’s image problem in this case is compounded by the fact that last winter, in an interview with Katie Couric, he explicitly claimed to have never used steroids. Fans now know that this was not only a lie, but a gratingly arrogant one: he’d never used PEDs, he claimed, because he was too good to need them. At the heart of the matter is the lie, not the arrogance, and again, the lie was a rational act. The most important consideration to make here is that the testing was supposedly anonymous, and that the players would have assumed that to be true. It wasn’t just the Union that promised the information to the players, it was Major League Baseball itself via the 2003 Collective Bargaining Agreement. Here’s the relevant portion of the 2003 CBA that dealt with sample collection procedures:
All Collectors must adhere to the following collection procedures:
1. The Collector, who will be male, will be provided with a master list of all Players to be tested, along with an identifying number. The Player will provide photo identification to the Collector. If the Player does not have photo ID, Collector will indicate this on the Group Collection Log and have a Club representative (e.g., a trainer, or coach) positively identify Player.
2. After identification, if the collection is for Survey Testing, the Collector will invite the Player to affix the assigned identifying number to the specimen vial. Prior to observing the Player provide the urine specimen, the Collector will explain to the Player why the number is being affixed, as follows:
(i) The test is being taken as part of a survey only, and is without any disciplinary consequences;
(ii) The survey requires two tests of the same Player, in order to rule out positives attributable to legal nutritional substances only, and this is the first of those two tests; the second will be administered in 5 to 7 days;
(iii) The collector must tell the donor the following: “You must refrain from taking any nutritional supplements until after the second test is conducted”;
(iv) At the conclusion of any Survey Test, and after the results of all tests have been calculated, all test results, including any identifying characteristics, will be destroyed in a process jointly supervised by the Office of the Commissioner and the Association.
That last section is obviously the critical one: after the results have been calculated, all identifying characteristics will be destroyed. When were those results calculated? Way back in 2003, when the league announced that PED use in baseball was high enough for mandatory testing to kick in during the 2004 season (5-7% of samples tested positive). If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that the supposedly “anonymous” testing was not at all anonymous by design: each player was given an ID number, and the ID number was recorded along with the sample, creating a very easy and traceable path from sample to player. Even if you’re not smart enough to notice this – and there’s no reason to think this would’ve ever worried someone like A-Rod – you have been assured that all the evidence has been destroyed. By the time of the Couric interview, the test samples were more than four years beyond the date when they should have been trashed. If anyone could’ve known that A-Rod tested positive, they’d presumably have known well before the Couric interview.
Also important is 2.i, which states that a positive test has no disciplinary consequences. Rodriguez knew that he’d tested positive, but also knew that per the CBA, he could not be disciplined by Major League Baseball for doing so. Only in the court of public opinion could he be held accountable for his past discretions, and so he did what any human being would do in his situation: he lied. He lied because he had the implicit backing of Bud Selig and Donald Fehr and Gene Orza to do just that. Had he told the truth, he would have been punishing himself for something that not even MLB or the MLBPA saw fit to punish him for. He would have been sacrificing his own career and, because he was perhaps the league’s best player, the careers of any and all of his contemporaries. He knew that to indict himself was to indict the era, to open the floodgates to the shadow of doubt that would irreversibly entrench itself over every single person to ever don a uniform during those years. And for what? Ethics? A clean conscience? Why would he care about those things? He is a self-absorbed star, and while that may be annoying, there is nothing unethical or illegal about it. For being himself and doing what he does, grown men are willing to make him a financial god amongst men (by the time his career his over, his career salary will likely total over $450 million). Jeopardizing that wouldn’t have been honest. It would have been insane.
Since the first time men were paid to compete athletically against other men, the message has been the same: go win. Above all else, this is the manifesto of the elite physical competitor. Win. When in doubt, do what it takes to win. The doubt, of course, is a moving target. Seldom are cases so extreme as you’ll find in say, The Last Boy Scout, when a wide receiver is so affected by a gambler’s threats that he shoots three defenders in the middle of a game. The truth of the matter is that when a young Alex Rodriguez partook in PEDs, there was almost no doubt to speak of. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were American heroes, and though you couldn’t just come out and admit your usage after the androstenedione story, without probable cause, no player could even have been tested for PEDs. The coverage given to steroids was so fringe and lackadaisical, and the rewards for performance so massive, that it was only “morals” (or concerns about your balls shrinking) that would have prevented any player from using, and for international fame and $25 million a year, you’ll find an endless list of volunteers who’ll accept just about side effect you can throw at them. Can you really argue that professional baseball players ought to be leaders in professional ethics?
Where was the outrage in 1998, when Steve Wilstein spotted the andro in McGwire’s locker? Shouldn’t that have sealed it right there? It took five years for baseball to even start testing, and ten years for most fans to care. How is it that a reporter could obtain leaked information from a supposedly anonymous test administered a half-decade ago to break a story, yet no one could break this story when PED use was actually at its peak? The people who get paid to poke around clubhouses and asks endless questions of players and managers didn’t notice something that they now decry as a massive bacchanalia of immorality? No one could break the story because no one cared. Retroactive outrage is amongst the most stupid of moral ventures, but if enough red-faced reporters froth over the past, people will pay attention to the histrionics, and suddenly history is rewritten. The players weren’t fighting to get a freely-available edge; they were corrupting the country, urinating on the American Flag, lying to the children. They were stealing fans’ hard-earned money, their honestly-earned money, and selling them a fake product while trampling on the honest records of the past. If you’re not sure about an average baseball player’s level of intelligence and moral sophistication, go read Ball Four. Can you actually expect those same individuals to have done any different than they did?
Most American sports, in their own unique ways, reflect our society as a whole. Baseball, some might argue, is the American pastime, and so should we treat it. While it is true that this means we should revere and protect it, it also means we should know what to expect from it, and that amongst these things is the tacit celebration of individual extravagance and the willingness by all involved to bend the rules a bit if it leads to bigger and better outcomes for those who might receive the bounties. It’s about doing everything you can to get ahead. The point here is not that cheating should be allowed, because it shouldn’t be. Major League Baseball should be testing its players for PEDs, and players should be punished for using them, because that’s what the fans want right now, and because the game of baseball could not survive if its image were that of a juiced-up freakshow. But blaming Rodriguez (et al) for ruining the game is pure media-driven theater, and if you are going to participate by joining in the chorus of venom and bile, you should at least understand that you are doing so. You’re joining hands with those same folks who bubbled over with joy when Sosa and McGwire were chasing Maris, who turned a blind eye because the nation wanted them to. You are not participating in a learning experience, you are satisfying your own selfish urge to expose and condemn those who have more.
Maybe you can make the argument that part of the reason you pay the athletes so much is because when you want to be able to shoot them down, you can do so without intelligent cause or reason. Fine. You demand your highly paid entertainers to be, amongst other things, ready-made sacrifices. But understand that you sound like an idiot when you do so, which is of course your right as an American, but as a national attitude is one that is not sustainable. What treasures, after all, have our largesse so recently turned to rot? So confident are baseball’s decisionmakers in our collective ignorance that Bud Selig can openly claim to be “heartsick”over the “news” that A-Rod was a PED user. He fears no blame from the game’s fans because he knows that the lot of us are simply not smart enough to wonder how some lady from Sports Illustrated could expose test results from five years ago that not even the most powerful man in the game was acute enough to be aware of. He knows we’re not intelligent enough to put aside our disdain for Rodriguez – who, as a narcissistic, Madonna-dating jerk, is perfectly detestable – and admit the fact that we’re holding him to totally unrealistic standards. He is insane enough to claim that he is mulling over “punishing” Rodriguez for coming clean and considering altering record books, because no one will really ever identify how ridiculous those thoughts are. Selig made over $18 million dollars last year, and he knows that baseball players – young, rich, successful, handsome – are the perfect foil.
It’s true that the current MLB braintrust has presided over the most profitable period in the history of the game, but they have simultaneously bred this, perhaps its ugliest hour, the inevitable consequence of indiscriminate opulence. Such extravagance is unsustainable, and littered throughout the annals of human history are examples large and small of unchecked growth leading to painful contraction. From the Egyptian Empires to the dot-com boom, it is as much a law of nature as it is a law of man.
George Bernard Shaw once observed, “If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must man be of learning from experience!” If your intent is not to learn from your experience, than by all means, continue to typify mankind’s timeless stupidity. But if you consider yourself an intelligent person, you simply cannot demonize Alex Rodriguez – a stupid kid from Miami – for doing what he thought was best for himself. You can mindlessly shout because it feels good, or you can stop to think, but if you do the former, you may not be all that different from those at whom you shake your fist.