February 18, 2009

The Man Behind the Steroid Era

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Commissioner Bud Selig chastised Alex Rodriguez for “shaming the game” when he used steroids.
“While Alex deserves credit for publicly confronting the issue, there is no valid excuse for using such substances, and those who use them have shamed the game,” said Selig, according to ESPN.com.
First off, Selig’s comments are horribly hypocritical. He praises Rodriquez for facing the issue, yet Selig put off an honest discussion of the steroid situation for a long while and still has not been completely open about the subject.
Aside from the double standard in Selig’s statement, he is way off-base with this accusation. As much as I loathe A-Rod, he does not deserve to be vilified for his actions. There are plenty of people who deserve blame for the steroid culture that overran baseball in recent years. Individual players who took performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) are well down the list of people who deserve the most blame.
One man who deserves quite a bit of flack is Selig. He had to know that PED use was widespread in the MLB, yet for years he did nothing. As early as 1995, Padres General Manager Randy Smith told The LA Times that steroid use was prevalent in baseball. That same year, MLB star Tony Gwynn estimated that 30 percent of MLB players were using PEDs. Throughout the 90s, home run numbers were ballooning, radar gun readings were jumping and individual players were developing muscle at inhuman rates. Nonetheless, Selig likely saw the league’s income statements and decided that the league should reap the rewards of the PED era for as long as it remained profitable.
MLB owners and front office executives also had to realize that a huge percentage of their players –– 85 percent according to PED whistleblower Jose Canseco –– were taking performance-enhancing drugs. Instead of confronting the issue and cleaning up the game, the owners placed an obstacle between the game and fairness: their wallets. As home run totals climbed, television ratings and attendance also soared. This led to an explosion in revenue for MLB teams. Owners likely feared that a crackdown on steroids would hurt home run totals and thus damage their cash cow.
The MLB Players Association also failed to nip the PED problem in the bud. The union needed to protect the players who were clean from facing an unfair disadvantage. Instead, the players union elected to protect the cheaters by fighting against testing. The people who do not receive nearly enough attention during PED discussions are the marginal players who remained clean and as a result fell just short of making the major leagues. Some players spent years perfecting their baseball skills, only to fall short of reaching the MLB because they refused to disregard morals and cheat. The union had just as much, if not more, of a responsibility to protect those players as it had to protect the MLB players who were cheating. The only people harmed by drug tests are the ones taking illegal drugs.
When the league’s executives and owners turned a blind eye to the steroid problem, they placed enormous pressure on players to abuse the drugs. Due to the fact that so many players were taking PEDs and so little was being done to stop the epidemic, there was tremendous incentive for players to do whatever was necessary to gain an edge. If a player was watching his peers pass him on the way up the minor league ladder –– possibly with help from illegal substances –– his best chance to remain competitive was to cheat. Steroid testing did not occur in the MLB until 2003, and legitimate repercussions for failing a test were not put in place until 2005. As a result, for many players, the benefits of using PEDs far outweighed the expected consequences.
Now that the cat is out of the bag, MLB higher-ups are trying to shift blame to the players. Selig’s statement about Rodriguez is just the latest example of how the responsible parties are blaming everyone but themselves.
Since the steroid issue began to garner major media attention, there have been shifts in who receives the most criticism. Early on, Jose Canseco was derided for allegedly making accusations that were off-base. Since then, numerous Canseco accusations have been revealed as true. As Canseco’s reputation has slowly been restored, criticism has shifted to players like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez, all of whom allegedly used PEDs.
Meanwhile, the people who deserve the most condemnation are those in MLB front offices who allowed the steroid era to thrive. Bud Selig is right that someone shamed the game. He only needs to look in the mirror if he wants to see the primary culprit.