Monday, December 13, 2004

Steroids in Baseball

Though I don’t agree with all his conclusions or lack of them, Skip Bayless helpfully connects some dots here. As others have pointed out, on the list of public scandals, baseball players using steroids should rank way below the leaking of grand jury testimony by federal prosecutors. But Bayless reminds me of something I’d forgotten: Herr President cited steroid abuse as one of the nation’s leading ills in his last State of the Union address. And he wants to be able to say Mission Accomplished somehow. It looks unlikely that Bush’s Justice Department will manage to nail any scalps to the courtroom wall (quel surprise), so a “victory” in the court of public opinion, by way of a politically motivated press leak or two, will have to suffice. Right-wing scolds could hardly invent a better scapegoat on this issue than Barry Bonds: an unpopular player in that blue state Sodom & Gomorrah, San Francisco. Jason Giambi, overpaid free-agent bust for the New York Yankees, is almost as good for the part.

Slate used the occasion of the recent Bonds/Giambi disclosures to republish this Charlie Pierce article, a timely reminder that in the past, drug scandals in sports have had some really bad ramifications for American public policy and constitutional law.

I realize that with sports we are talking about the private, and not the public, sphere, but we have allowed the job of abridging our rights to be subcontracted in so many directions these days that the government hardly has to bother itself with doing so anymore, and a lot of that has its roots in the days after Len Bias died. [Bias’s death from cocaine overdose contributed to the war-on-drugs mood and legislative excesses of the 80s.] Consider, for example, Pottawatomie County v. Earls, in which the Supreme Court decided last year, by the predictable 5-to-4 margin, that high-school students could be tested for drugs if they decided to participate in virtually any extracurricular activity.

The case concerned a girl named Lindsay Earls, who’d refused a school-mandated drug test. Lindsay Earls wanted to join the choir.

Pierce also makes the very salient point that much of what Bonds and Giambi are alleged to have done wasn’t illegal at the time, neither in the eyes of the government nor of major league baseball.

I don’t have a whole lot to add. I really had no faith in Bonds’s or Giambi’s innocence even before the recent revelations; the circumstantial evidence is pretty overwhelming. It bothers me, I admit, especially in the case of Bonds, who has broken or will break some of baseball’s most cherished records. But it's an aesthetic objection, and a wee bit of an irrational hang-up on my part.

There's a colorful tradition of stretching the rules in baseball, including throwing a spitball and corking a bat. The spitball, of course, was legal for many years, and when baseball finally outlawed it, they grandfathered the active practitioners. Today, when you can just about about calculate the value (at ten of thousands of dollars) of every double off the wall that could be juiced into a home run over the wall with a little help from a syringe--why would any fan be surprised?

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