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Let Juice Loose

Baseball is self-flagellating over steroids with wet noodle George Mitchell. It can’t be serious about stopping them. And it shouldn’t be.

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Illustration by Darrow  

Even apart from the pudding-bowl haircut, it must really suck to be Bud Selig. Here you are in Chicago on the third day of the new season, delivering last year’s World Series rings to the defending champion White Sox—and all the press wants to talk about is steroids. After years of catching flak for acting like all three wise monkeys (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil) rolled into one on the topic, you’ve just appointed former Democratic senator George Mitchell to conduct an investigation—and yet all you’re getting is more abuse about the quality of your selection. The criticism strikes you as being almost as unfair as being saddled for life with the name Bud. “George Mitchell, after all, is a man who solved the problem in [Northern] Ireland that nobody else could,” you tell reporters plaintively. “He had the Mitchell Report when the U.S. Olympic Committee was in trouble. His credentials are so good.”

Well, they certainly must seem good to Selig—but to the sports commentariat . . . not so much. As a director of the Boston Red Sox and the chairman of the Walt Disney Company (which owns ESPN), Mitchell stands accused of being prey to a screaming conflict of interest. As a close friend of Selig’s, he’s been assailed for benefiting from wanton cronyism and battered with suspicions that he’ll be unable (or disinclined) to ask the hard, if obvious, questions about Selig’s own role in allowing the steroids era to flourish. Then there’s the question of whether Mitchell would be up to the job even if he weren’t a consummate baseball insider. As the late journalist Michael Kelly wrote of Mitchell’s career—after his stint as Senate majority leader helped to end his party’s 40-year control of Congress—he has “gently floated ever higher, borne on the uplifting vapors of mediocrity rising to its natural level.”

Yet on one point, at least, Selig, Mitchell, and their critics all see eye to eye: With baseball having finally gotten tough on steroids, as Selig put it, “we’ve taken care of the present; we’ve taken care of the future; now . . . it’s important to look at the past.” That Selig chose Mitchell for this task is unsurprising—he considers steroids a political problem, so he selected a politician. That Selig’s detractors find Mitchell wanting is unsurprising, too—they see steroids as an ethical-cum-legal problem, so they’d prefer a prosecutor. But by resolutely looking backward, both sides are ignoring an array of looming issues that are scientific, not political or juridical. And those issues raise a more fundamental question: Should steroids be banned at all?

From 1998 to 2002, the years during which Barry Bonds (the proximate cause of the current steroidal hysteria) swelled to the size of a cartoon action hero, I lived in San Francisco. In that time, I probably attended a hundred Giants games. I also happened to make the acquaintance of a sports agent who represented athletes both professional (baseball, football) and amateur (track and field, bicycling). At one point, naturally, I asked this fellow about the prevalence of juicing in the sports with which he was intimately familiar. Without commenting specifically on his own clients, he replied that he thought that something like 90 percent of the amateurs, and half or more of the pros, were at least occasional dopers.

Even if those percentages are exaggerated—though I wouldn’t bet on it—no one doubts that even the most stringent drug-testing regimes catch only a tiny fraction of the athletes who take banned performance-enhancing drugs. Why? Because the science of testing is always at least one step behind the science of doping, and often many more than that. On the day that Selig announced Mitchell’s appointment, he boasted that baseball is funding research at UCLA to develop “a credible test” for human growth hormone—a flavor of the juice that’s been around now for, oh, only 30 years.

The arguments for persisting in this Sisyphean push basically boil down to three. The first is that steroids and their ilk are dangerous for the athletes who take them. But, in fact, the physical risks of steroids—taken under a doctor’s supervision and not in excess—are relatively mild. (Two years ago, baseball-union chief Gene Orza noted, correctly, that steroids are “not worse than cigarettes.”) Certainly some sports, such as football and hockey, entail a greater degree of risk in the normal course of competition. (Two out of three NFL players finish their careers with a permanent injury.) More to the point, professional athletes are vastly compensated grown-ups. If they’re willing to suffer testicles the size of raisins, why should we object?

The second argument is that performance-enhancing drugs are dangerous for the kids who look up to, and thus often emulate, the pro athletes who take them. But the antidote here is better parenting and coaching, not a steroid ban—especially one, as the stories make clear, that’s so manifestly ineffective.


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