Tuesday, February 19, 2008

In Defense of Steroids (sort of)

The term "steroids and baseball" has, since 2000, become ubiquitous. Roger Clemens has recently joined a long line of baseball players who have either been suspected of, accused of, or admitted to, taking steroids or human growth hormone (HGH). His case, like Barry Bonds', has left sportswriters, the fans and the general public bemoaning the sorry state of baseball and what Bonds’ and Clemens’ usage means to the history and records of the game. With the revelation that Clemens (probably) took steroids we’re facing the fact that not only the greatest hitter in baseball in 50-years (Bonds), but also the greatest pitcher in baseball over the last 50-years, both juiced. Which logically begs the question of whether a home run counts if it was hit off a juiced pitcher? And conversely whether or not a pitcher’s strikeout counts if the hitter was juiced? I can understand how their stats shouldn’t count if they were the only ones cheating, but if everybody was cheating doesn’t it all wash out? And depending on who you listen to, EVERYBODY in baseball was cheating. If you believe some reports, between 1988 and 2004 approximately 100% of MLB players were juicing and Bud Selig was even personally injecting every minor leaguer with a congratulatory shot of Winstrol as soon as they made it to the majors. With such rampant drug usage, all the statistics should either count or everything over the last 20-years should be thrown out completely. But that’s another discussion… for now, what I want to do is try to understand how Clemens and Bonds arrived at the decision to juice and what we should think of them for their decisions. Baseball, and every pro sport in America, is a truly unique career experience. Consider that at any one point in this country there are only 15 major professional sports leagues going (the four major sports, auto racing, boxing, golf, tennis, volleyball and soccer) and that, all told, the combined total population of those leagues is less than 10,000 people. That means 0.000035 percent of the people in this country in any given year earn a living as professional athletes… consider that there are at least 80 companies in this country that employ ten times that many people (100,000) and if you take an even larger cross-section (by breaking careers down by industry) then most of us either work in a company of more than 10,000 people or an industry larger than 10,000 people. Few of us will ever experience the utter uniqueness of a pro sports career, let alone the kind of high-profile, competitive pressures of the life of a professional athlete. And that pure competition and the competitive drive it takes to be a pro athlete can’t be ignored when talking about steroids. No other career choice is so directly competitive, forcing its employees to overcome difficult odds and heated competition against other employees or outside agencies to secure a rather short-lived career. As an example… there may be a feeling amongst the upper management at Best Buy that they'd like to be better than Circuit City, but I doubt the management team at Best Buy will ever be accused of taping Circuit City’s management meetings or stealing their income statements before their 10-k filings (or whatever the equivalent of what Belichick did is). So, even though Best Buy management wants to beat their competition, it's probably not an all-consuming drive and each individual manager’s performance isn’t measured daily against the guys over at Circuit City. To keep following this example, let’s think about the steepness of the success curve of pro athletes. Let’s say there’s a hotshot accounting whiz at Best Buy who rises through the ranks to become the Senior Treasurer for the company at age 29. He performs well for about 6- or 7- years, is at the top of his game and handling the money for Best Buy like nobody else before him. But all of a sudden, as his 40th birthday looms on the horizon, he walks into work one day and realizes his accounting skills are deteriorating… at a rapid rate. So rapid, in fact, that he knows by the time he actually reaches 40 he won’t just be a lousy Senior Treasurer, but he probably won’t be good enough at accounting or finance to handle the budgeting for a single department anywhere within the company. Pro sports accelerate the usual curve of success and it’s obviously a much steeper rise and fall in both directions than any career in the real world. Where most people, in just about any profession, are just hitting their stride in their 30’s and peaking in their 40’s and 50’s, that success occurs about 20-years earlier for athletes. There is pretty extensive psychological evidence out there that we would much prefer the longer, flatter success curve than one with a steep rise and fall, even if the top of the steep rise curve is higher than the flatter curve will ever approach. But this thinking is counterintuitive and we envy athletes for their meteoric rise to success but can’t comprehend how that rise doesn’t cancel out the fall. Studies that followed child stars, lottery winners and others with steep success curves show high levels of depression and difficulty coping with the fall off, DESPITE the fact that they won big early! In fact, it’s been shown that for psychological health, it would be better to take lottery winnings or a job with steadily increasing amounts rather than one with a huge, up-front, one-time payoff. Even if that one-time payoff is significantly larger. Ever wonder why athletes, after signing a huge contract with a front-loaded bonus, start complaining a few years in? Because their pay has been decreasing every year and psychologically that’s not rewarding and the previous earnings successes don’t still resonate two or three years later. The point of this is to try to understand that professional athletes are in an industry where they’re bound to be unhappy as their careers sharply decline. And that’s part of the (small) excuse for Clemens and Bonds.
Now think about how much more depressing that decline must be if everyone around them is accelerating it even faster by taking performance-enhancing drugs. Psychologically that’s a lot to resist and I think we can understand how it might be difficult to reject taking steroids. If Clemens or Bonds, with their millions of dollars and past successes, tried to tell you they were depressed or upset about falling off and really wanted to remain relevant we’d have a tough time believing them. But their usage also might be easier to understand when you consider the general culture surrounding pro sports. Lombardi’s famous quote, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” stands as the mantra for all athletes today. We celebrate that phrase constantly and coaches, owners and players espouse similar phrases virtually ad-nauseum. We excuse co-workers for not “giving 110%” every day because people are supposed to have interests outside work (family, hobbies, life). In fact, if you worked alongside a competitive person who gave 110% every day, you’d probably hate the S.O.B. But fans, players, coaches and the sportswriters don’t forgive that same less-than-110% effort in players. A seemingly lazy player, or one more interested in pursuing interests outside his or her sport is often crucified and derided. In such a “win at all costs” environment with such a steep success curve, where a lot of other people are doing what they can to get ahead, is taking performance-enhancing drugs really unexpected or even unforgiveable? Smack in the middle of all that, I’m not sure either Clemens or Bonds thought they were attacking the integrity of the game. Weightlifting, proper diet and exercise and the 8,000 legal supplements available at GNC all provide an edge. Some players put in the work and, despite the obviously positive effects of that (legal) work, some don’t. You think John Kruk ever saw the inside of a gym in his playing days? If Clemens and Bonds are getting an edge over Kruk by working out, dieting and taking supplements, then what’s the difference between taking a steroid or HGH which is just a more powerful supplement? It’s just continuing to add an edge over the guys like Kruk who do nothing besides eat doughnuts anyway. It’s not like it’s “direct” cheating. They’re not stealing signals from the catcher, they’re not holding (if they were NFL lineman) or travelling (like every player in the NBA does). So it’s not a direct “cheat”. But it is illegal in the United States and it does have serious long-term side effects and can damage your health. Steroids can also be abused and as role models for youngsters (and believe me, if you don’t think all this talk of steroids hasn’t increased use by kids in high school and college, you’re crazy) both Bonds and Clemens should have been thinking more about what they were doing. But, at some point in the future, the science behind steroids will eventually create a supplement that offers all the benefits of a steroid (increased strength, energy and recovery) with none of the side-effects. What then? Certainly at that point the general public will have to come to a consensus on what the records and history of the game mean and realize that no comparison can be made across eras… if steroids become safe and legal and a hitter comes along who plays until he’s 50 and hits 1,000 homeruns can we compare him to Bonds and say he was better? Can we compare him to Ruth? Aaron? Of course not. We all understand that baseball players, football players and pro athletes face the intense psychological pressures mentioned above, and that steroids are probably going to be a part of the game for the forseeable future. It’s also easy to see that a ton of players in baseball over the last 15 years have juiced and that records (in ANY sport!) can’t be compared across eras. So why are we so angry at Clemens and Bonds? Well that’s what’s unforgiveable. If they admitted their usage and tried to help us understand the pressures they were under and gave us the reasons for why they did what they did, we’d probably be able to forgive. But when questioned about their (alleged) use, both Bonds and Clemens flatly deny it. They both choose to lie, despite the overwhelming evidence against them (from the resurgence of both their careers when they should have been seriously declining, to the drastic physical changes obvious from just looking at Bonds’ current physique). With that evidence it’s a massive, disrespectful slap in the face to us every time they open their mouths. They're basically calling us all stupid. And that's what's so angering. McGwire avoided doing this to us because he retired and disappeared from the spotlight and refused to grant interviews when the steroid questions directed his way got more pointed. But Bonds and Clemens can’t hide and they’re both fully committed to their lies. And now the public simply wants to catch them at it. Does what they’ve done taint or ruin the game’s history? Without a massive investigation into who was juicing and who wasn’t, that’s an impossible question to answer. Does it change Clemens’ and Bonds’ places in the history of their sport? Again, tough-to-impossible to answer… would either of their careers have declined if everyone else wasn’t juicing? Did their juicing just keep them at the same level as the other players? It’s all impossible to judge. Can we accept what they did given the culture of the sport and the fact they weren’t the only ones doing it? Yes. Can we forgive them both for choosing to take steroids? Maybe. Can we forgive them for thinking we’re all stupid and lying to us about it? Absolutely not.


R to the Parr said...

Hmmmm, not sure about this arguement. I can grant it has some relevance if the leagues (which they probably dont) do any conseling on how to manage money, fame, and 'life' expectancy of a pro ball player. But even that is pretty ludicrix. What have ball players been told since high school? Get a good education, playing ball won't last forever. Once they are of the age to accept their first contract, they are old enough to realize 'Hmmmm, I could get hurt this year better save some cash.' or 'Yeah, I'll probably play 5-7 years of ball so I should save for the future.'
Why I'm saying this is that there is no excuse for players to postpone ending their careers by taking drugs. When the time has come, the time has come. Greed, envy and pride and you got 3 of the 7 sins.
The best year in my life BY FAR was my senior year playing high school football, but I didnt shoot up so I could get on a college team (albeit division 2).

This comment:
"If Clemens and Bonds are getting an edge over Kruk by working out, dieting and taking supplements, then what’s the difference between taking a steroid or HGH which is just a more powerful supplement?"
Thats crap. People who have a certain IQ, which I'm sure these guys have, know right from wrong. Steroids I believe is illegal in the US so that is wrong. Nevermind that them and the rest of the players detroyed the game. Makes me pretty disgusted. Don't get me started on Bud Selig....

Sprizouse said...

Well, just checked in on Gladwell's blog and he's got a post (before mine, which sucks since it looks like I wasn't original) that's very similar to mine. He feels the current steroid scandal is a witch hunt being conducted with an appalling amount of intellectual sloppiness . One of his commenters also brought up Lasik Eye Surgery as a corrollary to steroids... interesting read.