Clemens Saga: Why Steroids Killed Baseball's Credibility

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The indictment of Roger Clemens for perjury once again recalls the disgraceful era of baseball when steroidal grotesqueries lumbered to the plate and blasted home runs and records to pieces. I don't want to get into the whole denial blame game that surrounds the whole era and that Clemens perpetuates with his bald lies. I want to remember why using steroids and performance enhancing drugs is wrong.

We need to remember why steroids and performance enhancing drugs are wrong. The people who use them should not be respected or rewarded. Oddly fuzzy nostalgia and rationalization creeps up in commentators and broadcasts. Last week I was watching a game where the national broadcasters lamented the decline of the long ball and how this impacted the attendances at games. You could almost hear a longing, "bring back steroids for attendance." Others mutter, "well everyone did it, so it's ok and we should not penalize them." Of course this flaccid excuse justifies most evil in the world and is also patently untrue. Finally, some folks talk about how human growth hormone and steroids and other new mechanisms both benefit healing and are helpful to athletes. They suggest laissez faire attitudes.  They are all fundamentally wrong and misunderstand the moral nature of sports.

Clemens like Barry Bonds poses a unique challenge. Both were genuinely great players, but not great humans, who seemed to defy the statistical odds and get  second winds. We felt something was amiss but it at least seemed plausible, although less so with Bonds' World Wrestling Entertainment body. The other players like Sammy Sosa or Mark McGwire were above average players who soared to heights beyond their talent thanks to chemically augmented physiologies. The Huffington Post has an interesting sequence of pictures of McGwire over the years to illustrate the change of body form.

Performance enhancing drugs have three main moral problems. The first, we might call the equal playing field problem. This means that using them gives a player a special advantage over everyone else. Secretly using them gives you an immoral competitive advantage because everyone else is playing by regular rules. Part of the issue is fairness, but the deeper issue is that the player is living a lie. He or she is pretending that they are playing by the same rules. They pretend to practice, condition, work just like that other players and they win because their work ethics and refined skill surpasses other players. They live a lie, even worse, they deny and lie about it as did the three baseball players and Marion Jones and the whole crop of cyclists who perpetuate the frauds on the cycle tours.

The second moral problems is one I've often talked about, the Achilles Choice problem. Once the fair and straight players discover others are cheating and not only not getting caught, but getting rewarded, they start to use them. The prisoner's dilemma, if I don't cheat, I won't win or stay on the team, pushes many players to use them who normally would not. They do so because of fear of losing and outrage over the cheaters winning. This corruption seeps down into high schools and club ball where young athletes emulate the stars and come to believe they can only win by using drugs, drugs that will undermine their minds and bodies in the long run.

This degrades the entire sport so it becomes a charade, again baseball, cycling, football reduce to World Wrestling steroidal enhanced entertainment rather than real human sports. The other moral cost here is that the rush to performance enhancers leads to human loss and cost. As we continue to discover from the awful fate of East German and Russian swimmers and track and field athletes, long term damage is done to the body and even to the children of athletes who use the drugs. Short terms damage distorts the mind and judgment.

A drugged world of sports spawns a shadow world of cheating and scams, much like the drug wars spawn drug cartels. All the testimony surrounding Clemens and Bonds involve shady half hidden creatures who develop illegal drugs without regard to costs to humans but only to how to beat tests. So the sport degrades, the human suffer in the long run and a shadow world of drug dealers supply the athletes.

Each athlete who uses the drugs lies to other athletes, lies to the fans and lies to themselves. They participate in a path the will undermine their health, makes a mockery of their sport and contributes to an illegal underworld of drug trafficking. I will discuss the deepest moral problem in my next entry.