Why do we care about PEDs?

Dan Wetzel at Yahoo Sports is one of the smartest and most insightful sportswriters around. Today he wrote:

Perhaps nothing upsets baseball fans and executives more than the double-standard reactions to PED use in football. The NFL is awash in this stuff, yet fans and media mostly shrug it off. In baseball every suspension is treated with over-the-top seriousness and a chorus of condemnation.

And in basketball, hockey and other sports, no one seems to care at all. Those sports get an even bigger pass than football.

There is a difference though. In baseball, the PED advantage enjoyed by power hitters was so obvious and significant it didn’t just change the game – consider how teams had to pitch around Barry Bonds in his heyday – but completely obliterated so many sacred records.

This is one of those observations that makes me slap the side of my head and go, “Duh! Why didn’t I think of that?”

Of course people are cheating in those other sports. Given the nature of sports like football and basketball, where muscle mass is a tremendous advantage, and basketball, tennis and soccer, where aerobic capacity is of paramount importance, they must be. That’s more or less what Andy Murray just said when he called for more drug testing in tennis. (Interesting isn’t it, that an athlete asking to be tested makes news?) As anyone who has ever competed in amateur sports knows, people cheat when there’s nothing at stake but a six dollar plastic trophy with your name misspelled on it. (Third place—Utherweiss.)

Thus Wetzel’s question: Why do we care in some sports—baseball, cycling, track, swimming, and not in others?

We care because sport is entertainment, and entertainment is about transporting us from the world we are in to a different world. If something interrupts us, it breaks the spell. We care in those sports where PED usage ruins the entertainment experience, and we don’t care when it doesn’t.

There are three ways PED usage can ruin it for us.

The first is by straining credulity. We sports fans are suckers. We want to believe in exceptional performances. We want to watch Tiger and Kobe not because they are good human beings, but because we know that there exists the possibility of an exceptional performance each time they compete. We crave exceptional performances.

However, we bring with us some amount of knowledge (or what we think is knowledge). We automatically compare what we are seeing to what has come before. And in the case of baseball, cycling, swimming and track, we cannot compare what we are seeing to what came before because the numbers are meaningless. As I have written elsewhere, we cannot compare today’s cycling performances to historical performances because of PEDs. We can’t compare home run records, or pitching victories, or 100 meter times. PED’s have taken away our ability to know what is exceptional.

(Yes, baseball players and cyclists have always used drugs [strychnine anyone?] but there’s no doubt today’s are better. Are we observing exceptional human performances or advances in pharmacology?)

That’s not the case in football, hockey or basketball. It might be some day. But so far, in basketball no one has broken a kneecap on the rim or put up 110 points in a single pro game or done something so outlandish that we sit up and say, “Wait, that’s not humanly possible.” Or as Wetzel says, if running backs started running 3.0 40s, our mental computers would start shorting out, because we would be watching something that just didn’t make sense. We might well suspect Ray Lewis of using PED’s to miraculously recover from what should have a season-ending injury. After all, he lied about murder, it doesn’t strain belief to think he would lie about steroids. But in the Super Bowl, he did not make forty tackles, twenty sacks, and jump ten feet in the air to slap down passes. He didn’t do anything that strained belief.

The second reason is PED usage in some sports undermines the credibility of the event itself. The East German women in 1972 and the Chinese women in 1990 fundamentally changed the nature of the swimming competition. For other competitors, silver was the new gold, and bronze the new silver, and just making the final was the new bronze. Yes, drugs might well also unbalance the equation in those sports we don’t care about like football, but it’s not obvious. In baseball, swimming, track and cycling, it creates imbalances so obvious we can’t ignore them.

And that obviousness is the third factor. We don’t like events where the outcome is pre-determined, or WWE would be in the Olympics. A basketball game in which many of the players are cheating doesn’t look that different from a basketball game in which they are not. Nor does a football game, because in both those sports, performance is team-based. In individual sports, it is obvious when someone is cheating. Baseball, cycling, track, and swimming are basically individual sports. There PED usage sticks out like a hypodermic in fruit salad. (Yes, technically baseball players are on teams, but in fact, 90% of baseball is individual vs. individual, pitcher vs. batter, batter vs. fielder.)

Again, it’s not about the sport, it’s about us. Seeing results which don’t make sense takes us away from the moment. Seeing events in which the ending is predetermined ruins the suspense. And when it is so obvious and visible we can’t ignore it, the spell is broken. We stop watching the game and instead start trying to make sense of what we’re seeing.

Look, no one really cares about the health of giant, wealthy, spoiled supermen and women. We don’t care when actresses carve themselves up or young girl gymnasts starve themselves. We don’t even really care about drugs. Maybe that’s what we’re really saying to athletes. It’s not that we really care about what you do to your body to earn millions of dollars. We don’t care about concussions or pain injections to allow you to play through injury or PED’s. We don’t blame you, even. We probably would do the same if we could.

That is, we don’t care except when it messes with our enjoyment of the game. Cheat all you want, but don’t rub it in our faces. Just knock the ball into the upper deck, not into the San Francisco Bay.

4 replies »

  1. I think you make an important point about baseball. It is the individual aspect that makes PEDs stick out more, and while the final score is a team effort that effort is very much a collection of individual efforts more than in other team sports.

    Also yes on the fact that we find it more disturbing in sports with long histories and which we regularly compare individual achievements against historical ones. So, yeah, was Mark McGwire really better than Roger Marris or was it just the drugs? Of course in the old days baseball was full of alcoholics and methamphetamine uses (MLB banned methamphetamines after steroids)

    Oddly enough, PEDs are likely to bring down football but probably not directly. Watch some old film of the NFL from the 50’s and 60’s. Not only are the players a helluva lot smaller, but they play the game completely differently. All that unexciting form tackling and what not instead of punishing, knock out hits. But PEDs don’t keep you safe from CTE and massive concussions, they just make everyone a lot better at inflicting them.

  2. Good point. They may destroy football over time. If not the nature game as you point out, they may at least destroy football players. Of course there are off-field deaths from PEDs like Alzado’s cancer or some of the cyclists whose hearts have stopped while they sleep or suicides from concussions. But at some point, we will see men start dying on the field. A 350 pound linebacker running into 300 pound quarterbacks at 20 mph each (3.0 40 yd dash equivalent) is going to tear someone’s head off. That’s much more impact than a car wreck.

  3. I was thinking about this topic just the other day listening to talking heads blather on ESPN radio on XM. They were on again about whether the Yankees were being “mean” to A-Rod over his new connection to the Miami based PED dealers. And I got to thinking about how I consider the PED question. I find myself pleased when they nail some rat I hate, like Clemens or Bonds, a little sad when they nail some guy I find likable or goofy or both, like McGwire or Sosa. So I realize I have no rational response to this question.

    And the focus on baseball to the near exclusion of the sport where they really PED it up, the sacrosanct NFL? My gorge rise at it. But more and more what I find is that all this is meant to be nothing but distraction from our real issues as citizens and humans, like so much of the widely publicized info we get from what are supposed to be “news” sources. Crap for crap lovers….

    Let them all juice all they like until they explode like Terry Jones’ character in THE MEANING OF LIFE. Given what the NEW YORKER just published about NFL players and their nearly certain shortened lives – and our lack of long term data on the effects of using PED’s we may be moving in that direction – I no longer care in any meaningful way about sports – it’s been reduced to Prole entertainment. And its participants to sacrificial lambs to Mammon. I can’t save them – they don’t want to save themselves.

    I’ll tend my own garden…