When former major league slugger-turned-tattle-tale Jose Canseco released his book of sensational steroid stories last year, Congress, seizing the chance to prove “ethics” was still part of its vernacular, quickly admonished the accused. Summoned to Washington, disgraced record setters sat aside less-accomplished players as politicians pontificated on the virtues of fairness, heroism and leadership.
Some players denied using steroids, while others indirectly pled the fifth. Shame was cast equally among them, as were the indignities of their receding greatness. The asterisk on Roger Maris’ homerun record indicating he played a longer season than record-setter Babe Ruth paled to the humility of one that now branded them cheaters.
The national uproar fanned by accusations that super-sluggers Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds used performance-enhancing drugs never materialized into a rational debate about steroid use. Rather, players were scolded, they’re legacies tarnished and their wrists slapped. The hearings concluded without having changed much. And as the 2005 baseball season came and went, the steroid scandal had all but fallen to a murmur.
Until now. A new book tracing Barry Bonds’ alleged tango with steroids to the McGwire-Sosa homerun race revisits the issue. “Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports” was excerpted earlier this month in Sports Illustrated and hits bookstores March 27. Written by two San Francisco Chronicle reporters, the book alleges, among other things, that Bonds lied to a San Francisco Grand Jury in December 2003. Bonds hasn’t commented publicly on the book.
Though most fans believe steroids give athletes an unfair advantage, UW director of medical ethics Norman Fost is trying to convince people otherwise. A pioneer in the field of bio-ethics, Fost has agitated some moral leaders and fellow ethicists with arguments that – aside from a few unpleasant, but reversible – side effects, steroids are harmless. Moreover, he claims that steroids aren’t any more unfair than employing other body-enhancement methods. Fost says spectacular media fictions have made steroids a scapegoat for 20 years.
First, he argues, the euphemism “performance-enhancing drugs” is a misnomer, because the inference is that steroids minimize effort, but increase talent. This isn’t so. Steroids have more to do with stamina than skill. Exercise causes muscle tissue to break down. Steroids accelerate the repair of this tissue damage, meaning athletes can exercise more vigorously with less rest. In other words, they’re actually putting forth more time and effort than non-steroid users. Fost contends it’s absurd to believe drugs can manifest giftedness. Besides, he says, the games are inherently unfair already.
Few colleagues support Fost, who says medicine hasn’t observed same steroid dangers as pop-media. Also, he says, the simple answers offered by politicians, pundits and fans fail to address the complexities of the debate, wherein which lurk deeper truths about unfairness in professional sports. Fost doesn’t look down on baseball’s drug-using beefcakes.
“They’re enhanced in my eyes,” deadpans Fost. “I’d drive to Chicago to see Barry Bonds. I wouldn’t drive to Chicago to see Wayne Terwillinger hit a couple of singles. He’s not diminished in my eyes anymore than any other athlete who does a thousand other things to gain an edge or competitive advantage.”
Fost recently sat with me to discuss his provocative views on steroids, why fans don’t really care about fairness and why the moral arguments against steroids are grossly flawed.
NC: Why can we artificially enhance all of our body’s parts except for its muscles?
NF: That’s a good question. Why do we have this odd focus on steroids as a problem when, as you imply, we enhance ourselves a thousand other ways. I’m not sure. Part of it is the horrible job the press does. Literally, every single article you read, it says they’re awful, they’re immoral and they’re dangerous for half a dozen reasons. And, up until a year ago, it was almost impossible to find anybody questioning the medical facts. Second, it’s a convenient distraction for sports leaders and politicians from more serious problems. For example, Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball, used to own a baseball team called the Brewers, named so because their city is proud about how much beer it produces. He built a baseball stadium called Miller Park, which is named after a beer company. People come to that park and drink in large amounts, in front of their children and then go out and drive. This results, when multiplied around the country, in tens of thousands of deaths a year. It’s hard to identify a single death from steroids.
NC: It’s been argued that the problem with drugs is that they provide a shortcut, a way to win without striving. Do you agree?
NF: It’s another argument that’s empirically false. There’s nobody who competes successfully in professional sports who doesn’t work extremely hard. You and I could take steroids for the rest of our lives and we’re not going to become major league baseball players. Barry Bonds works out more than his competitors. It’s not steroids that makes him who he his, it is many things, of which steroids are just one component. But the notion that these elite athletes who succeed with steroids are not working hard is false. We care about effort, but we don’t care enough about it to regulate it. We let people use just about anything they want to enhance their natural ability. But this one tiny little pill has been singled out among all these things for reasons that are somewhat elusive.
NC: Well, doesn’t steroid use undermine our admiration for athletic giftedness?
NF: Apparently not. From what I read, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa are what saved baseball after the ’94 strike. Their homerun race captured the country’s imagination. Barry Bonds, who’s widely believed to have used anabolic steroids, despite the criticism of him, has filled stadiums more than probably any living athlete – whether it’s admiration or not, people love to see homeruns. There’s been a relentless campaign by the press, by the Congress that this is disgraceful. But it’s not based on any coherent moral argument that I can think of.
NC: Would you say that the distribution of natural talent is more unfair than what is achieved by steroids?
NF: Yes, there’s tremendous unfairness in the distribution of talent. Was the North Carolina/Illinois game fair? When North Carolina has a center who is 6’10” and weighs 280 lbs. and has the grace of a gazelle and the hands of a pianist? Talent is unfairly distributed in all sports. The difference is that in some sports we try to do something about it because we think it does matter. In wrestling and boxing we don’t let 300 lb. people go up against 100 lb. people. So why don’t we do that in football? It’s not an unsolvable problem – if we cared about fair competition. You could have a rule that the offensive line can’t weigh more than two ton, total. In basketball you could have a total height requirement. People claim they care about fair competition, but whenever you suggest something that might actually achieve it they don’t want it.
NC: Would removing safety concerns change how we feel about athletes taking steroids?
NF: I don’t think so. Safety is just one issue that is raised. Even without the medical risks, there are four or five moral claims that the public still buys into. For example, Bud Selig says he’s concerned about fair competition. First of all, he presides over a league in which the Yankees have a payroll of $200 million and the Brewers have a payroll of $30 million. There’s not a chance in the world that the Brewers can compete successfully. Football doesn’t do it that way. Even in the Olympics it’s claimed that athletes who use steroids are competing unfairly, but this is just careless use of words and facts. Things are unfair if they’re unequally available. Steroids aren’t unequally available, even in an era of prohibition. Anybody who wants them can get them and they all take the same risks of getting caught. But there’s no unevenness about that and if there was, what you would do is legalize it. Then you wouldn’t have a fairness issue. One of the great ironies was in the ’88 Olympics with Ben Johnson. He won the 100 meter dash, broke the world record and had his medal taken away when tested positive. And literally that same day, they held a press conference with Janet Evans. She had just won a gold medal in the 5,000 meter swim. She was telling the press how happy she was that the American swim team had access a greasy swimsuit that American technology had developed. She was especially happy that the Germans and Russians didn’t know about it. So here you have, in the same press tent on the same day, one guy being raped by the press for unfair competition and over here you have somebody who’s bragging about unfair competition – she was very proud that we beat the Germans because we had something they didn’t have access to.
NC: Anything else you’d like to touch on?
NF: Well, one point you haven’t raised touches on the claim that people can’t trust records anymore. So, what does Barry Bonds’ 73 homeruns mean when they’re steroid aided? I can think of eight reasons why present day records aren’t comparable to previous records. We have Roger Maris playing 162 games versus 154, so he gets an asterisk. The height of the pitching mound changes; the fences change every year. No one’s done a systematic study but I’ll bet you a cookie that fences on the average are substantially shorter than when Maris played and certainly when Babe Ruth played. It’s not just Bonds, all sorts of players are hitting more homeruns. There’s the lively ball, there’s a dilution of pitching talent because you have twice as many teams as you used to have. Batters aren’t batting against the same number of highly-skilled pitchers. The point is that so many things can change.