There’s nothing like explosive, hypermoralistic sportswriter outrage at doping and juicing to engender sympathy for millionaire athletes. Sure, sportswriters are not usually the brainiest boys in the bullpen, and there’s an air of perpetual prepubescence to the insights, analysis, and interests they pursue. But it shouldn’t be so hard for them to realize that using performance-enhancing drugs doesn’t make you a bad person. It just makes you human.
When Major League Baseball announced its 65-game, season-ending suspension of Milwaukee Brewers superstar Ryan Braun for using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), jock sniffers around the country evinced the sort of unbridled enthusiasm rarely seen outside of old Phil Rizzuto commercials for the Money Store. Braun will lose at least $3.5 million in pay this year, and his future with the Brewers and baseball remains unclear.
The Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy passed immediate judgment, pronouncing that “in the pantheon of sports dirtbags, Ryan Braun goes down as one of the worst. He forever will be a baseball pariah.” “Who is Ryan Braun? He’s a cheater and a liar,” testified CBS Sports’ Gregg Doyel. “Braun is one of the most cravenly selfish figures in American professional sports,” seethed Fox Sports’ Jon Paul Morosi.
From all this, you’d gather that Braun had committed an actual crime that really hurt somebody. Murder, maybe, or rape, or failing to support his children—all things which athletes are known to do. But the worst thing he did—and it is pretty bad, for sure—was attack the integrity of a urine-specimen collector back in 2011.
Taking drugs in defiance of arbitrary rules and constantly shifting enforcement regimes doesn’t make Braun a role model for anybody outside Celebrity Rehab, but it also doesn’t make him a hall-of-fame-level dirtbag, either. He is what he is: a typical top-tier athlete willing to do just about anything to excel at his chosen sport. That’s why he gets paid the big bucks, and that’s what fans want to see.
You don’t have to look hard to find real villains in baseball, including literal Hall of Famers such as Cap Anson (widely credited with segregating the national pastime in the 19th century) and Ty Cobb (who once beat up a crippled heckler in the stands). Braun isn’t accused to throwing games or even half-assing it on the field; no, his crime is that he wanted to be better than everyone around him. Where’s the harm in that, exactly?
As Lance Armstrong is happy to remind us lately, PEDs have been part and parcel of pro sports since at least the first Tour de France in 1903, when riders huffed ether and chugged booze in hopes of gaining an edge. In contemporary baseball—and football, basketball, soccer, track, and all the rest—athletes use whatever substances and training regimens they think might give them an edge. They will always be a step ahead of regulators, and they will always “cheat,” because they have every incentive to improve their performance.
Most press reports say that Braun’s suspension is only the beginning of a new round of purges. USA Today reports that about 20 others, including superstars like the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez, might face similar charges and penalties. After the moral panic passes, the dust will settle down for a while (like it did after the last time and the time before that) until a new scandal erupts.
It would be much better for all involved if we could get past the preadolescent anti-’roid rage that’s spewed over the sports pages like a rancid Dodger dog. As the sportswriting legend Robert Lipsyte noted in an interview earlier this year, PEDs are not magical potions that transform no-talent shlubs into the next Babe Ruth. They are complicated technologies whose effects can’t be openly investigated and measured with any reliability.
Why not have an actual public conversation about how and why PEDs are used? Baseball players, who show a remarkable willingness to sacrifice their bodies in pursuit of beaucoup bucks and a few lines on a plaque in Cooperstown, and team owners, who rightly see players as investments worth protecting, might come up with a drug policy that actually has a chance of working without forcing grown men to pee into cups or lie to a disbelieving public.
Openly allowing PEDs might not sit well with sportswriters, who have to blow smoke on a semiregular basis like old Chief Noc-a-Homa used to do at Atlanta Braves games. But I suspect that poor, suffering fans who genuinely seem not to give a fungo bat about how athletes manage their incredible feats would be fine with it all.
We came out in droves during the great home-run derbies of the 1990s’ steroid era, and we will again, especially if we can be sure that Congress (!) will never again hold investigations into whether Roger Clemens recalled “bleeding through [his] pants in 2001.” Unless you’re a Cubs or Marlins fan, there’s usually enough drama on the field to hold your attention anyway.