King Kaufman's Sports Daily

What are we talking about when we're talking about steroids? Not many of us have any idea.


King Kaufman
January 29, 2008 4:00PM (UTC)

Two weeks ago I wrote, as I've written before about other athletes, that I don't care whether disgraced track star Marion Jones took steroids. "It's her nickel" is how I put it.

That phrase was evidently less than clear, but what I meant is that Jones' choices were her own, and if she wanted to risk her career, her reputation and possibly her health by taking drugs, well, it's her nickel.

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What I'm trying to do here is keep from joining the torch-bearing mob. Risking her health? Unlike most commentators, I'm happy to admit that I don't understand the health implications of taking so-called performance-enhancing drugs and, barring a midcareer dive into medical school, I don't have much hope of ever understanding them.

I also don't really understand the physics and physiology of these drugs. What can I say? I'm no Jose Canseco. I don't have a mind for science.

I get how EPO and testosterone and various other substances could help competitors in purely athletic contests like cycling, swimming and the various track-and-field events. If you can train longer and harder and heal from injuries faster and get more oxygen in your lungs, it stands to reason you should be able to get stronger and faster than you otherwise might have been able to get. I'm not aware of much dispute here.

I even understand how such drugs could help the players in mostly athletic contests such as football, for the same reason: Speed and strength go a long way in that sport.

What I don't get, and I realize it sounds like I'm joking when I say this, and I also realize that people who have spent a lot of time arguing about this subject roll their eyes when someone says it but I'm sorry I still don't get it: Why is it wrong to improve performance by injecting testosterone but OK to improve it by injecting cortisone or having Lasik surgery?

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I'm also not at all convinced -- and there are people who are smarter than I who are also not convinced -- that steroids and related drugs do much for baseball players, who play a sport in which speed and strength certainly don't hurt, but they aren't nearly enough.

And that leads me to believe that, compared with the blasé treatment the media and fandom have accorded steroids in football, the exaggerated sense of outrage on display when it comes to steroids in baseball is just that. An exaggeration.

To put it another way: "Great numbers of assertions that are dubious or demonstrably wrong are being parroted by a seemingly endless parade of individuals and entities all of whom have manifestly done no actual research into the matters on which they so loudly, and usually savagely, declaim."

I think that goes beyond baseball, but that's how Eric Walker put it on his Web site, Steroids, Other "Drugs," and Baseball. Walker, whose ideas heavily influenced Oakland A's executives Sandy Alderson and Billy Beane to develop what became known as the "Moneyball" philosophy in the 1980s and '90s, came out of retirement to study the effect drugs have had on baseball, Alan Schwarz wrote in the New York Times Sunday.

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His conclusion, which should not be taken as gospel but which deserves serious attention: "There is no long-term uptrend in pure power," he told Schwarz, by way of arguing against the idea that a surge in home runs and run scoring since the '90s is evidence that steroids had a major effect on the game. "Nothing to indicate that a gradual change in culture and steroid use affected how far balls were hit -- when they were hit in the first place."

So, just to review for baseball: We don't know who took illegal drugs and who didn't, we don't know which drugs or how much of them the drug takers -- whoever they were -- took, and we don't know what effect, if any, the drugs had once they were taken by whoever took them, whom we can't identify.

But they're all a bunch of cheats!

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I'll keep my torch unlit, if you don't mind.

And yet here I was, just last week, taking the other side of the argument with Deadspin editor Will Leitch. He'd been talking about how fans don't see the steroid issue as the same kind of morality play that we bloviating commentators do, and I argued that the press has a fourth-estate duty to report on drug use in sports as a health issue.

"The use of steroids puts athletes in a position where you have to take them and jeopardize your health to compete," I said. "And that's fine if you're Barry Bonds, but what if you're a 14-year-old high school freshman? That's a serious issue, and isn't it the role of the press to pursue that?"

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"I'm not sure that's the way steroids are being covered," he said. "'Let's help out the children,' that's a thing that kind of pops up as a last resort. I'm not diminishing that argument, but I'm not sure that's the impetus for a lot of the coverage."

I think that's true, though I also believe that among the shrieking hordes on this issue there really are honest people who are genuinely concerned about kids using performance-enhancing drugs. But while it's easy and satisfying to join the mob, to call for strict testing and heavy punishment, there's a whole lot of evidence that that approach doesn't work. Unless you think America's war on drugs has been a success, that is.

Veteran sportswriter Robert Lipsyte, writing for the newsletter Momentum, put out by the Positive Coaching Alliance, a national organization concerned with youth sports, described his recent experiences talking to high school athletes about performance-enhancing drugs.

"Despite the media's attempt to demonize Barry Bonds," he writes, "the bad role models set by major league home run hitters seemed less a factor in whether a kid juiced or not than the complicity of Dad." If the coach suggests the kid bulk up over the summer and Dad responds by saying it sounds like a good idea and leaving his credit card out, Lipsyte writes, the kid knows what to do.

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Marion Jones and Mark McGwire don't really enter into it.

One of this column's most thoughtful regular letter writers, who signs himself Amerigo, liked my question to Leitch.

"At last, you are beginning to acknowledge that illegal steroid use is a significant public health problem," he wrote. "One of the reasons why governments and governmental uber-agencies are attacking it when individual sports and nations have failed. Why not write more about Operation Raw Deal, WADA, the new head of WADA, the failure of baseball to follow the recommendations of the Mitchell Report or to make its drug testing program WADA compliant?"

Because I don't want to join the mob. I'm a big believer in personal choice -- it's the athlete's nickel. I'm a big believer in logic and consistency when it comes to condemning behaviors -- if cortisone's OK under a doctor's care, why isn't Stanozolol? If we shrug off NFL players' positive tests, welcome them back after they quietly serve their suspensions, why do baseball players who test positive get a scarlet letter?

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I'm a nonbeliever in the law enforcement approach to any drug problem. If that approach worked, in sports or the larger society, it would have worked by now. And I'm a big nonbeliever in those of us in the typing classes pretending we know what we're talking about when we're talking about most of this stuff. Mostly what we do is snort and bray and wave our arms and assign asterisks.

None of which is likely to do much for the kids, including whoever the next Marion Jones is, in both the best and the worst sense.

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  • King Kaufman

    King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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