Commentary by University of Texas drugs and sports expert John Hoberman, author of "Testosterone Dreams: Rejuvenation, Aphrodisia, Doping" (2005, University of California Press)
Last week's US congressional hearings on steroids in baseball should be seen as the dying gasp of a failed exercise in social engineering. The idea that America's national pastime can help to remedy our social ills acquired its credibility back in the 1940s and 1950s, when Major League Baseball (MLB) finally allowed black athletes to integrate the country's most celebrated sports venues. This highly publicized experiment in race relations, starring the charismatic Jackie Robinson, convinced many people that shaping behavior in the sports world could produce larger social effects. Ordinary people would emulate their heroes, and these role models would help American society to leave its racist past behind.
Over the past year the Bush administration, and now the Congress, have resolved to apply another sports-based strategy to the War on Drugs, a favorite project of the Republican Party ever since Richard Nixon launched his campaign against marijuana in 1969. The launching pad for the anti-steroid initiative was the Balco "designer steroid" scandal that erupted in October 2003. Four months later, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced federal indictments against four men alleged to have distributed illegal steroids. In a single stroke the federal government had annexed the anti-steroid campaign and assigned it a starring role as the latest version of a War on Drugs that already enjoyed the status of a sacrosanct social policy.
The untouchable status of the anti-"drugs" campaign in the United States was already evident when the House Government Reform Committee issued its invitations, backed by the threat of subpoenas, to MLB players and executives. Despite the bitter ideological warfare between the major parties that has virtually paralyzed the Congress, here was a committee leadership that had risen above the political fray. When it came to the war against steroids, bipartisanship was alive and well. With Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA) on the right and Henry Waxman (D-CA) representing the left, the entire nation was poised to confront this latest manifestation of the pharmacological Axis of Evil that sprouts as many heads as Medusa herself.
Summoned to this crusade, Major League Baseball executives found themselves caught in a painful dilemma that produced two contradictory responses. On the one hand, they had no choice but to swear allegiance to the effort to protect American youth from the medical hazards of these drugs. Using language that bordered on the hysterical, Commissioner Bud Selig dutifully castigated anabolic steroids as "horrible substances," thereby ignoring the perfectly legitimate medical roles these drugs have played over the past 65 years. Likeminded sportswriters fed this misguided crusade. One USA TODAY writer called steroids "the bubonic plague of baseball, a pestilence," as if the Black Death had returned to wreak the horrors of the 14th century upon the children of the 21st.
But verbal compliance with the government's anti-steroid campaign was not enough to satisfy the members of Congress who had seized upon the drugs-in-baseball scandal as a platform to promote the cause of steroid-free children. After six years of stonewalling and evading the steroids issue, the MLB leadership had squandered whatever credibility on the drugs issue they had once had. The drug-testing program that went into effect in 2003 had been widely (and correctly) disparaged as ineffectual. The revised plan that would eventually face the televised scrutiny of Congress on March 17 was not much better. As damaging revelations about players' steroid use continued throughout 2004, some politicians lost their patience and resolved to impose their will on a branch of the professional sports industry that had worn out its welcome in the halls of Congress.
Confronting a House committee that threatened to impose its will on the baseball industry, MLB executives and the players' union had good reason to view the March 17 hearing with trepidation. Leading the industry's public resistance to political intervention was Stanley Brand, an attorney whose ringing defense of personal autonomy made him sound like an emissary from the American Civil Liberties Union.
Brand challenged the committee's jurisdiction, charging that it was involved in "an excessive and unprecedented misuse of congressional power." He likened its intrusion into baseball's self-regulatory activity to the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee of the 1940s and 1950s, which "destroyed people's lives." Most ingeniously, and invoking the language of a classic Supreme Court decision on obscenity, he denounced those members of Congress who were bent on satisfying "their prurient interest" in which celebrity ballplayers might have been taking illegal drugs.
While baseball's challenge to congressional tyranny left much to be desired in terms of the motives and ethical stature of those who had launched it, their resistance did have the salutary effect of catalyzing the resistance of other critics of governmental hubris. The conservative National Review, for example, declared that: "Congressional hearings are not for shaming people randomly without any possible legislative purpose." Another conservative, the columnist George Will, described Republican politicians bent on driving drugs out of baseball as conservatives who had "gone native" in Washington. Such hygienic meddling was, he suggested, better suited to the paternalistic welfare mentality of the liberals.
But what, in fact, did the baseball executives really have to fear from the House Government Reform Committee? Stanley Brand had detected an unwholesome, Joe McCarthy-style appetite for "subpoenaing players and officials for unwelcome, pointed questions." What actually transpired before the television cameras was far less ominous than what Brand and some others had anticipated. The MLB leadership heard what they had already heard before, that their program was inadequate and that a failure to institute more rigorous testing would lead to congressional intervention. If the committee thought they could force Bud Selig's team to mend its ways in the course of this hearing, they were mistaken.
The committee's soft treatment of the players, by contrast, befitted a group of witnesses who came off as mentally underdeveloped and painfully lacking in the maturity one expects of responsible adults. The glib Curt Schilling, cast in the role of teacher's pet, said he had exaggerated steroid use in the past. Rafael Palmeiro, matinee idol handsome, said all the right things about drug use in a tone so wooden and formulaic he sounded like a marionette. Sammy Sosa, cowed and inarticulate, projected a childlike vulnerability. Jose Canseco, the unstable celebrity author, betrayed his own book by claiming he had now converted to the politically correct line on steroids. Again and again, these big men parroted each other like schoolboys copying the answers to a test.
But of all these characters only Mark McGwire managed to disgrace himself in front of the nation that had once made the mistake of idolizing him. His craven refusal to take responsibility for his own past conduct left him diminished in a way one could hardly have imagined. One can only hope that his legion of admirers will now reexamine the proposition that the ability to hit the stuffing out of a baseball confers heroic stature on those who can do it.
Yet it is precisely this sort of primitive thinking that underlies the congressional campaign to enlist Major League Baseball in the War on Drugs. The idea that these athletes are indispensable "role models" for youth is the Unifying Theory of the anti-steroid crusade, invoked over and over again by politicians, doctors, and all of the other concerned adults who regard adolescent steroid abuse as a public health emergency. What this Unifying Theory implies is that our children are being held hostage by the world's most publicized athletes. If these celebrities don't clean up, our children are in peril. Alternative scenarios are conspicuously absent and even unwelcome.
Has it occurred to these social engineers that the athletes who cut such a sorry figure at last week's hearing represent an athletic population that is simply unfit for this role? Do they really believe that forcing abstinence from drugs on these public figures will cause young people to disregard the pharmaceutical propaganda that has become a ubiquitous presence in our media universe? Indeed, it has become painfully obvious in recent years that prying drugs out of the hands of elite athletes around the world requires a major policing operation that faces daunting odds. Do those in charge of anti-doping campaigns really think that these reluctant role models will inspire children to lead "drug-free" lives?
Survey data show that the last dozen years of the anti-doping campaign have coincided with a decrease in the number of American high-school seniors who regard steroids as dangerous. Most French children already believe that performance-enhancing drugs are the norm for high-performance athletes. Given the enduring popularity of the drug-soaked Tour de France, that is hardly surprising. In short, the idea that coercing elite athletes to serve as "drug-free" role models will protect children from the consequences of the larger pharmacological culture that surrounds us in an illusion.
The second mistaken assumption of the anti-doping campaign is that "the public" is demanding an end to athletic doping. Politicians who address the voters as anti-doping activists either assume or pretend they are addressing a population that is up in arms about athletic doping.
Survey data and stadium attendance figures show, however, that "the public" responds to doping scandals in various ways. Large majorities usually tell opinion surveys they want drugs out of sport. Yet one-third of American adults 30 or older told a New York Times poll in December 2003 they do not object to medically supervised doping by professional athletes. The comparable figure for younger Americans between 18 and 29 was even higher. According to this poll, every seventh American is really bothered when professionals use doping drugs.
"The public" can also vote with its feet and its spending power. Awash in "bad" publicity about their steroid-boosted sluggers, professional baseball is watching attendance figures go through the roof. Those who observed the 1998 Tour de France doping scandal may recall that the Festina corporation sold more watches after their riders had been disgraced than they did before all the trouble began. Where is the anti-doping politician with the courage to lecture the voters on their shameful toleration of drug-assisted athletes?
It is time to admit that the traditional arrangement that presents elite athletes as drug-free "role models" is dying before our eyes. As traditional distinctions between "therapy" and "enhancement" evaporate, what we call "doping" becomes more difficult to define, and athletes become more rather than less identified with the various technologies that can enhance their performances. It is most unlikely that these performers will ever consent to serve as the last pharmacological virgins of the modern era.