Barry Bonds Gonna Git Your Mama: When Steroids Attack!
Listening to Congress, the media, and the endless yipping of sports radio, it seems that an anabolic specter is haunting America. USA Today likened steroids to "the bubonic plague of baseball, a pestilence." Congress held heavily hyped hearings and called steroids in baseball an "emergency public health crisis"—this while 45 million people live without health care. And last year, in a time of war and global conflict, George W. Bush—the Decider in Chief—took time out of the State of the Union address to speak on the evils of steroids. The message was clear. Our children are at risk. Our "national pastime" is at risk. Our sacred baseball records are at risk, preyed upon by evil, freakishly muscled athletes. As World Anti-Doping Agency chair, the unfortunately named Dick Pound, said, "How would you like to take your son to a baseball game and you've got your hot dog and you've got your Coke and you say, 'Son, someday if you fill your body with enough shit, then you can play in your country's national game.'"
Clearly having gotten all the mileage they could out of Janet Jackson's breast, the press has chosen steroids as the new Weapon of Mass Distraction. But in their efforts to hold up steroids as Public Enemy Number One, all the congressional echo chamber accomplishes is the utter distortion of our attitudes toward sports, competition, and medicine. This is not to say that steroids are Flintstone vitamins and should be put in the drinking water. They can result in some dangerous biochemistry. But the pitchforks and torches surrounding the discussion prevent an honest look at what they are, what they aren't, and what role they should play—or not play—in sports.
What's a Steroid?
Let's start with what it's not: it's not the source of all evil in the world. It's not, as baseball commissioner Bud Selig claimed, a "horrible substance that must be eradicated." A steroid is simply synthetically produced testosterone. Scientists have attempted to use testosterone to build muscle going back more than 1,000 years, but the modern era of steroids starts in 1889 when prominent French scientist Charles Edouard Brown-Sequard tried to figure out how to increase the strength and mass of workers in the ser vice of the industrial revolution. Brown-Sequard began to inject himself with a liquid extract derived from the testosterone of dogs and guinea pigs. He claimed that the injections "increased [his] physical strength and intellectual energy, relieved [his] constipation and even lengthened the arc of [his] urine."
Brown-Sequard may sound a likely villain for the next Spider-Man sequel. But his experiments were very much aligned with the dominant ideologies of Western Europe and the United States at a time when bosses were trying to figure out exactly how hard an industrial working class could be pushed before they would die. Working people were literally lab rats, and children, women, and men, young and old, were torn from their homes and put to work for sixteen hours a day, creating a very unstable capitalist system that looked like it wouldn't last the week. Capitalism, of course, survived and gave birth to a number of institutions to preserve its workforce and pass on its "morals" and "values," such as the family, religion, and regimented, professional sports. And it was in sports that Brown-Sequard's findings found their home.
As the sporting industry exploded in the 1920s, athletic trainers and their charges immediately saw the possibilities of using his research. Even the Big Bambino himself, Babe Ruth, injected himself with extract from a sheep's testicles, hoping for increased power at the plate (and in the bedroom). He attempted this only once, and it made him incredibly ill; the Yankees covered the story by telling the press that the Babe just had one of his famous bellyaches. Even though the Yankees tend to celebrate all things Babe Ruth, they have never, to my knowledge, had "Sheep Testicles Day" at the stadium.
In the 1950s, testosterone was finally produced synthetically and became known as steroids. The first athletes to use steroids were not baseball or even football players, but Olympians. State-sponsored steroid regimens were very much a part of the Cold War in the West as well as the East, as both sides rushed to see whose athletes could be pumped up faster. The scope of East Germany's state-managed doping system wasn't revealed until after the Berlin Wall fell years later, when it was found that more than 10,000 athletes were given drugs, many without their knowledge, some at as young as twelve years of age, leading both to Olympic medals and long-term health problems.
In the 1960s, steroids found their way into NFL locker rooms, with trainers putting them right next to the plates of players at mealtime, or leaving them in lockers. According to Steve Courson's book False Glory, the 1970s Pittsburgh Steeler dynasty teams, which won four Super Bowls in six years, passed 'roids out among the linemen like candy. One player said simply, "We knew that if we didn't take the pills we didn't play."
Many NFL players from that era have lived with terrible health problems, and some have died well before their time. Most famously, Lyle Alzado passed away in 1992 of brain cancer that he insisted was linked to his prodigious steroid use. Alzado, as well as sympathetic scientists, asserted that the turn of the century would see "graveyards filled with athletes" that juiced. But this didn't happen. As damaging as they were, steroids haven't proven to be nearly as dangerous as alcohol, tobacco, or the ever-present "legal" painkillers trainers inject into players to get them on the field.
This gets to the central issue about steroids. Like any drug or pill, if abused outside a doctor's care, they can cause all kinds of health problems. They can damage the heart, lungs, and liver. They can also affect the serotonin levels in the brain, leading to the depression and mood swings referred to as "'roid rage," which has been linked tangentially to several suicides. Also, 300,000 high school athletes took steroids last year, a dangerous trend because of the damage steroids can do to those whose bodies are still developing.
But taken under a physician's oversight, steroids can allow people to heal faster, build muscle mass, and train longer than they would be able to otherwise. Steroids have also been a lifesaver
for people with HIV/AIDS and MS. According to a recent report from HBO's Real Sports, there is no evidence that steroids are unsafe when taken under a doctor's supervision.
Given the above facts, it is no surprise that steroids became especially attractive to Major League Baseball players in the 1990s. Baseball is a grueling marathon of a sport that comes with all kinds of nagging injuries, due to a near nine-month season, complete with winter ball and a 162-game schedule.
The great lie, however, is that major league owners, trainers, and Commissioner Bud Selig were just "shocked" to learn that steroids had found a home in major league clubhouses. The real shock is that the media and Congress have let them get away with this crude fiction. There is a reason steroid testing wasn't in the collective-bargaining agreement until 2003: the infusion of steroids in baseball—the "juicing of the game," as writer Howard Bryant put it—was as orchestrated by owners as Hat Day and $8 beers. As one player said to me, "It's crazy that punishment is an individual issue but distribution has always been a team issue."
The juicing of the game began in earnest in 1994 when a players' strike mutated into an owners' lockout that led to the cancellation of the World Series. In a century that saw two world wars, a Great Depression, and Reaganomics, this was the first time the World Series had ever been cancelled. The game's popularity sank to historic lows.
DSHEA and the Den of Idiots
The major league owners—called by late Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams "A Den of Idiots"—consciously decided, "We need dingers. Home runs are how people will return to the ballpark."
While the Den of Idiots were wringing their hands about how to get more home runs, an amazing piece of legislation passed unanimously in the U.S. Congress at the bipartisan behest of President Bill Clinton and Utah senator Orrin Hatch: the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA).
Despite focus-tested buzzwords like "health" and "education," DSHEA was little more than a criminal giveback to the pharmaceutical industry. DSHEA's purpose was to shift the burden of proof from the health supplement industry to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Previously, a manufacturer had to prove a product's safety before marketing it. After DSHEA passed, the overloaded, underfunded FDA had to prove a product to be unsafe. As Dr. Stephen Barrett wrote,
Most people think that dietary supplements and herbs are closely regulated to ensure that they are safe, effective, and truthfully advertised. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although some aspects of marketing are regulated, the United States Congress has concluded that "informed" consumers need little government protection. This conclusion was embodied in the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which severely limits the FDA's ability to regulate these products.
DSHEA's passage spawned the almost overnight creation of the $27 billion supplement industr y and turned the locker room of the average team into a GNC store. Because of DSHEA, teams began to import completely legal weight-lifting and dietary "aids." Many of these are now banned substances. Androstenedione—or andro, a highly potent steroid derivative—was legal, available over the counter, and listed as a food supplement. After the 1998 home run race, during which Mark McGwire kept andro in his locker, sales rose 500 percent to $55 million per year. Substances like andro were available in every clubhouse. It started with a few teams, but the pressure to keep up pushed other teams to stock it as well. As former Mets GM Steve Phillips said, "I'm hired to win ball games and if other teams are doing it, I want my players doing it, too." This mentality had deadly consequences. Ephedra, which was completely legal, was linked to the deaths of both Oriole pitcher Steve Bechler and Minnesota Viking offensive lineman Korey Stringer. Now that it has been proven unsafe, it is illegal.
But few were counting the dead because home runs and the media and fan frenzy that accompanied them were making baseball Madison Avenue-hot for the first time since people were doing the Charleston and saying "23 skidoo." Owners milked the new Powerball to the hilt and used cartoons of freakishly muscled players as part of ad campaigns. They also embraced the puckishly sexist Nike slogan: "Chicks Dig the Long Ball."
Increased offense and media buzz meant increased money. In 1995, with the sport on life support, the owners sold their broadcast rights for 565 million bucks, which represented a major loss. In 2001, they sold the playoff rights alone for $2 billion.
Balls were flying over the fence at a record, ungodly pace. It was far more pervasive than the wildly promoted Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home run chase in 1998, in which both players broke Roger Maris's record of sixty-one home runs in a season. Consider that between 1876 and 1994 the goal of hitting fifty home runs in the course of a single season had been reached eighteen times. From 1995 to 2002, it was done another eighteen times. Slap hitters were hitting twenty homers. Twenty-home-run guys were up to thirty. As Joe Morgan said, "I would be broadcasting a game and there would be players hitting balls in a way that they had no business hitting them." Morgan was told by his bosses at ESPN not to raise any concerns about this fact.
Morgan's unease about the "cheapening of the home run" was rooted in reality. But it would be wildly ignorant to accept the conventional wisdom put forward by everyone from the sports media to the U.S. Congress to the baseball moralists that steroids are the reason or even most of the reason for the 1990's power boom. It doesn't even come close to telling the whole story. It's an argument born of hysteria.
The owners actually had a multipronged strategy to make Major League Baseball more like beer-league softball—and it was subtle as a blowtorch. As veteran baseball writer Bob Klapisch said, "Somewhere someone decided that baseball needed more runs. It was made at a very fundamental level. And little by little, step by step, this became the new reality. There has been too much to write it off as coincidence." People call this a conspiracy theory, but baseball has a proud history of conspiracies. For six decades, without ever putting the idea to paper, owners kept out African-American players. In the 1980s, they colluded to keep down salaries and deny players the right of free agency, costing players, according to an arbitrator's ruling, millions of dollars. This is what these guys do. They sit in a room and make unaccountable decisions.
Sources of the Boom
The reasons for the home run boom can be seen in every city, and felt in every urban budget, every underfunded school, every shuttered rec center, and every library that closes early. Since
1989, nineteen publicly funded baseball parks have been built.
The new parks are "fan-friendly"—unless your kid happens to go to a school whose shrinking budget paid for these monuments to corporate greed. They are, in any case, long-ballfriendly with shorter fences. It doesn't take George Will to tell us that shorter fences mean more home runs.
Then there are the balls and bats themselves. Countless baseball insiders believe that the ball is now wound tighter than it was twenty years ago. As for the bats, as recently as fifteen years ago, players used untreated ash bats. Now the bats are maple and lacquered. That means the ball goes farther.
Add on the impact of technology: players now go into the clubhouse after every at-bat to look at videotapes and study and correct their swing immediately in a way previous generations could not have dreamed of doing. They even have video iPods with which they can analyze their latest swing as soon as they step down into the dugout.
Next we have the incredible shrinking strike zone. The area where a pitched ball can be called a strike has shrunk, in the words of pitcher Greg Maddux, to "the size of a postage stamp." The owners consciously engineered this trend, and when umpires refused to assent to a microscopic, uniform strike zone, Major League Baseball crushed their union and installed machines to monitor their abilities. The smaller strike zone means that pitchers have to hit very precise spots to get a strike. That means batters can target those areas for upper-cut home run swings. Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer said, "The loss of the high strike has changed the game more than any pill."
Then there is the issue of basic evolution. Smaller stadiums, harder bats, tighter balls are all part of baseball today. But players are also just better than they were eighty, fifty, twenty, even ten years ago. More players from Asia and Latin America like Hideki Matsui and Manny Ramirez mean a broader talent pool. And it is a well-recognized fact that—in every sport from running to swimming—athletes get better over time. The male winner of the 1932 Summer Olympics swimming gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle wouldn't even make the Junior Olympics team today. If Babe Ruth were alive, he would be a fat guy watching baseball on TV. If Ty Cobb were alive, he would be laughed off the field for holding his bat with his hands about six inches apart. It is just a different game.
But an equally big reason that power numbers are up is that the game finally shed its nineteenth-century view of strength conditioning. Baseball is a sport that makes a fetish of nostalgia. The enduring wisdom until the 1990s was that if "Iron Man" McGinnity didn't do it in aught three, it shouldn't be done. For example, it has been the conventional wisdom for most of baseball's history that lifting weights would destroy your swing, causing the muscles to bunch up. The great power hitter Jim Rice, bragged that he never touched a weight during his whole career. Many teams even had a practice of fining or suspending players if they were caught pumping iron. Now weight lifting is a part of every team's regimen as they have realized—to the shock of the old-timers—that being stronger means you can hit the ball farther.
All of these factors are independent of illegal steroids. I made this case last winter on a radio show and a writer for Sports Illustrated asked me if I also believed in the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. First let me be clear that the data on Ms. Fairy and Mr. Claus are inconclusive at best. But the best proof is that in 2006, the off-season saw intensive testing and far fewer positive results, while home run numbers this year were up. Before he was injured, Albert Pujols was on pace for eighty-four home runs.
Well Then, Why Use Them?
If the increase in home runs is a result of weight lifting, smaller parks, shrinking strike zones, better bats and balls, and basic evolution, a very logical question is raised: Why do so many players take steroids? Here we come to a part of the story never covered in the press: the question of class. Often conflicts between owners and players are portrayed in the press as squabbles between billionaires and millionaires. This leaves out the fact that the billionaires have more often than not carried that bank account for generations while the millionaires didn't exactly come over on the Mayflower. Sports are a lottery ticket out of poverty. The gap between success and failure is razor thin, but the practical difference is astronomical. A minor league player makes on average about $1,200 a month while an even marginal MLB player can make $500,000 a year.
Poverty marks the background of most pro athletes, but in baseball this tendency is particularly extreme. Sammy Sosa, before he was even a teenager, stitched soles in a shoe factory for, as he said, "pennies, just enough to survive." As discussed in chapter three, a rising percentage of players comes from Latin America, with 30 percent of minor leaguers coming from the D.R. alone. Teams fund multimillion-dollar "baseball academies" to develop talent on the cheap. But it bears repeating that, for ever y star like Pedro Martinez or Miguel Tejada, there are thousands of Dominican players cast aside.
And the Dominican Republic is attractive to major league execs for more reasons than its sunny beaches and never-ending supply of prospects. Steroids are legal in the D.R. Top prospects can find ways to supplement their skill with a no-risk supply. But those not in the top tier often take cheaper animal steroids. Minor leaguer Lino Ortiz took this route, went into shock, and died.
This is billionaires telling people from desperately poor backgrounds to do what they say or have fun in the cane fields. Sure they're free not to juice. They are also free to go back to the ghetto or back to the island.
Steroids and the War on Drugs
Many good people see the exploitation and desperation that factors into steroid use and demand tougher laws. This is, however, a dead end and no answer. Criminalizing steroids, just like criminalizing street drugs, is failed policy that, at the end of the day, condemns more people to addiction and prisons. In 2001, the Pew Research Center released a report stating that three out of four Americans believe the "war on drugs" is an absolute failure. In 1980, the U.S. government spent $1.5 million fighting the "war on drugs." In 2003, they spent $50 billion. This doesn't include the costs of having the largest per capita prison population in the world. And the majority of new prisoners are in for nonviolent drug offenses.
This might lead one to wonder who benefits from the drug trade. Well, according to George W. Bush, that answer is obvious. "It's so important for Americans to know that the traffic in drugs finances the work of terror, sustaining terrorists, that terrorists use drug profits to fund their cells to commit acts of murder." Yes, in Bush's world, drugs help the suiciders.
But in reality the people who benefit are those working in the criminal justice industry, the prison industrial complex, tough-on-crime politicians, and, of course, the drug lords, both inside and outside the CIA, who become filthy rich by exploiting the misery of others.
As disgusting as the war on drugs is, it is even worse when it comes to steroids. Criminalization means there is a multibillion-dollar black-market steroid industry. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently looked into this issue, writing, "[T]ougher laws and heightened enforcement...have fueled thriving counterfeit operations that pose even more severe health risks." Across America, doctors are continuously reporting treating far more athletes for the side effects of fake steroids than they ever did with the pharmacy standard variety.
Excerpted from Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports by Dave Zirin copyright 2007 with the permission of Haymarket Books.