Wednesday, May 21, 2014


By Ronald Fox

Although many people believe the recently revised PED policy established for major league baseball, which includes stiffer penalties and more frequent testing, have effectively terminated the PED problem in baseball (the NFL,NBA, and NHL policies are much weaker, significantly not including blood testing, which is necessary to detect human growth hormones), I think this is wishful thinking. The use of PEDs must be understood as a product of a cheating culture that has crept into professional sports. The incidence of PED use may have slowed in baseball, but I suspect this may be only a temporary lull. Until the value system that sustains cheating in professional sports is changed, the problem will not go away.
Cheating in professional sports cannot be disconnected from cheating in the wider American culture. Just as racism in sports can’t be eliminated as long as racism still persists in the wider American society, cheating in sports is also not likely to be ended by in-house policing and punishment as long as cheating to get ahead is rampant in our society. I turn to the old adage: where there’s a will, there’s a way. It’s just a matter of time until a new, undetectable drug, or chemical to mask existing PEDs, is developed by some motivated chemist or entrepreneur. To solve the PED problem, it is necessary to address the “demand” side of the equation.
I say this because I see no change in the dynamic forces that have driven athletes to cheat. In America, athletes cheat because the rewards can be great, most have gotten away with it, and the perception of the cheaters is that everyone is doing it. Let’s call this the Lance Armstrong syndrome.
So, why do athletes take PEDs? It’s simple: to enhance performance. This can lead to fame and mind-boggling remuneration. Who doesn’t want to cash in on the big bucks superstars command? And, the big bucks are growing larger all the time, placing the lifestyles of the sports rich and famous so far above average performers, not to mention average Americans, that it defies comprehension. Whereas athletes once desired a fair share of the pie, today they seem to want the pie itself, and, many are getting it.
The widening gap between the super rich and everyone else in professional sports has a lethal effect on the personal integrity of players, just as it has in our wider society. In a society where winners win bigger than ever before and losers struggle along, an increasing number of people will do anything to get ahead, including cheat. Bankers commit fraud, oil drilling companies sidestep safety regulations, students cheat on tests, tax payers on their taxes, citizens file false insurance claims, young people steal music and software from the internet, lawyers overbill clients, doctors prescribe a medicine not because it’s best for you, but because of a financial incentive from a pharmaceutical company, journalists plagiarize, and, athletes take PEDs.
Cheating to rise to the top of the income heap is seductive. Why not go for it since there’s so much to be gained by breaking rules. Many players who ascended to the rarified air of the highly paid superstar learned that cutting corners made it faster and easier to move up. With the rewards for winning increasing, more and more athletes are willing to do whatever it takes to be a winner.
Besides, even if you get caught and suspended for a period of time, the big bucks remain in your bank account. Alex Rodriguez, for all his violations, has lost only a small fraction of his wealth. Barry Bonds, who escaped conviction for PED use, didn’t lose a penny (his sentence for perjury: 30 days of house arrest, two years of probation and 250 hours of community service, what a joke!). Lance Armstrong retained his endorsement dollars. The ultimate injustice: no cheater has been required to compensate clean athletes whose incomes lagged because of the bloated contracts of PED using superstars. The message is inescapable: crime pays.
As we’ve learned, PED use can ultimately bring dishonor, later health problems, and even prevent a superstar from entering a hall-of-fame. Such possibilities, however, don’t seem to have lessened the drive for the enhanced super performance. Today’s PED users don’t seem to think beyond the moment.
I wonder if professional athletes from earlier eras would have been tempted to take PEDs had they been available. I’d like to believe they wouldn’t have. I believe athletes of the past subscribed to a different set of values and ethics than the nastier, more cutthroat ones ushered in when the obsession with money and personal glory invaded professional sports in the late 1990s. In the new climate, behavior that would have been scorned in earlier periods as despicable greed, duplicity, and criminality became easier to rationalize because it was usually rewarded, often highly so.
I know what you’re thinking: athletes of the past were hardly pillars of virtue. After all sports history is replete with tales of game fixing, betting on, or against, your own team, spying on an opponent, bribing a referee, doctoring a baseball, and a multitude of other sins. To be sure, athletes were not angels. But there’s a big difference today. Because the financial windfall to be gained from artificially enhancing one’s performance is so extreme today, and the lifestyle this affords so enticing, even upstanding, law-abiding citizen athletes have succumbed to the temptation to cheat to advance personal fame and fortune.
Long-standing social norms and professional cultures in America have been taken over by a culture of cheating. While more effective discovery and prosecution may reduce the incidence of cheating, gains will likely only be temporary. What is needed is a fundamental value shift away from the uber-materialistic worship of the almighty dollar and what it can buy.
Such a shift will necessarily have to proceed from the bottom up. In sports, as long as fans are attracted to a sporting event to see a tape-measure home run, higher velocity fastball, crushing physical hits, greater speed, stars more quickly return from injuries, and consistent superhuman performances by a favorite athlete, rather than being drawn by player execution and the strategic and aesthetic aspects of a close athletic competition, professional sports organizations and league officials will continue to highly reward players who give the public the things they want. If the use of PEDs helps produce the herculean feats that lure fans to watch and attend games, and buy trinkets in team gift shops, one can understand why the professional sports establishment might soft peddle the PED problem.
Ending player cheating will thus not likely be accomplished by actions taken by money-driven team and league powers that be. Nor will it likely come from players, despite positives to be taken from MLBPA involvement in recently revising baseball’s Joint Drug Program (JDP). Fundamental change will have to come from disgruntled fans fed up with the corrosive effects of PEDs on things most hold sacred in professional sports: traditions, records, and fair competition. But first, fans themselves must undergo a value transformation. As long as the dream of average Americans is to emulate the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and they think it’s OK to cut corners to move toward that dream, a fan movement springing from the grass roots is highly unlikely.

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