How to Think About Our Steroid Supermen

Lance Armstrong, the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the Meaning of Sports
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A decade ago, supermen ruled the sports landscape. Sports Illustrated arrived at the end of 2002 with a cover featuring Lance Armstrong leaning on his bike and exuding the resolve that helped him beat cancer and then win the Tour de France four times. He was proclaimed “Sportsman of the Year” and would go on to win the Tour three more times. Also in 2002, Barry Bonds, amidst his run of four consecutive MVPs all awarded after he turned 37, chased Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron to be the career home-run king, having already bested Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa for the single-season mark. An impossibly dangerous hitter, pitchers frequently opted to hand Bonds first base rather than risk him taking three more bases with his otherworldly swing. Roger Clemens, meanwhile, continued to hurl his high heater past hitters, winning his sixth Cy Young award at age 39 and his seventh at 42.

Now the era of supermen seems to be over. Since baseball created a testing regime tied to serious punishments, home runs have ebbed. Superstars like Alex Rodriguez have taken to tearful public confessions. Others, like Manny Ramirez, have served suspensions — though the fact that then-National League MVP Ryan Braun evaded suspension in 2011 due to a procedural error shows the imperfect nature of the testing regime. Cycling, meanwhile, has been revealed to be a cesspool of performance-enhancing drugs and many Americans have cynically lost any interest Armstrong inspired. Some athletes, like Olympic gold medalist sprinter Marion Jones, have served jail time for legal fallout from doping inquiries. Investigation and punishment have been the preferred means of the committees and commissions that rule our sports — and they continually struggle to keep up with the pharmacological innovations that can make our athletes jump higher, run faster, hit harder, and concentrate better.

As we gather distance from our athletes’ feats of a decade ago, we must come to grips with how to treat those giants we once worshipped. This week, Lance Armstrong alternatingly apologized and made excuses in front of Oprah’s cameras. Last week, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were denied induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. As we cajole our once-sainted into the national atonement ritual and as we deny immortality to the players we once cheered, we need to ask why. We can only punish correctly if we correctly perceive the dimensions of the sin. If we get the crime wrong, we will err in the punishment. Unfortunately, the public discussion of the problem of doping — at least as presented in the work of many sportswriters — lacks a clear understanding of the moral meaning of sports and athletic achievement.

Fairness and Safety

Before delving too far into the steroid debate that swirls around Bonds, Clemens, and Armstrong, let’s set one thing aside: Men and women can be forgiven in human terms without being exonerated as athletes. What Armstrong has done for those with cancer or what Mark McGwire has done for abused children may help the public receive their apologies, but that does not mean we should again consider them great sportsmen as we once did.

The question then is how we should treat as sportsmen the stars of yesteryear who used performance-enhancing drugs. There is already a slow-moving attempt to normalize what Bonds, Clemens, Armstrong, and countless others did. According to USA Today’s Brent Schrotenboer, Armstrong’s Winfrey interview is calculated to “start a multi-year healing process in which history will end up judging him more favorably…because he dominated cycling in an era when doping was the norm.” This claim — that Armstrong would still have been the fastest bicyclist had everyone been clean — is dubious, but the American people could well believe it. Indeed, Armstrong told Winfrey this week that he viewed doping not as cheating, but as leveling the playing field.

In baseball, too, there are those who dismiss concerns over performance-enhancing drugs in the recognition of athletic excellence. To understand their reasoning, it helps to know a bit about how the Baseball Hall of Fame works. There are a few routes to gain entry into the Hall of Fame and different levels of prestige are given to the different routes. Five years after an athlete’s retirement, he is added to a list of possible candidates for the Hall of Fame. Over five hundred members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) can give a vote to every athlete they deem deserving (up to ten). If an athlete gets votes from over 75 percent of the writers, he is inducted. Traditionally, a special class of athlete gets into the Hall on the first ballot. The “first-ballot” Hall of Famers are the best of the best. Athletes snubbed the first time around can be elected to the Hall of Fame in later years by the BBWAA, and there is an additional Veterans Committee that can pick inductees twenty years after their retirement.

Bonds and Clemens have been denied the award of “first-ballot” Hall of Famer, each receiving just north of 35 percent. But that may end up being the extent of their punishment. Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, the most stalwart opponent of any known steroids user making the Hall of Fame, believes most writers deferred their votes for Bonds and Clemens, but will induct them eventually. Other known or assumed users like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Rafael Palmeiro, have lifetime stats that do not indicate clear-cut entry to the Hall of Fame, so for these athletes, the revelation of their steroid use has only undermined the already dubious cases for their induction. Bonds and Clemens, meanwhile, have numbers that put them in the conversation for the greatest hitter and pitcher in history, respectively. Denying Bonds and Clemens the Hall of Fame is a much bolder sanction on the athletes of the steroid era than anything yet.

The arguments of those who voted for Bonds and Clemens sound a lot like the narrative Lance Armstrong hopes will gain acceptance: “If it was a juiced era, they were its best players.” “When [Bonds and Clemens] played, MLB, the MLB Players Association, owners, GMs, managers, players, and the media all ignored the [doping] issue. I have a hard time punishing them now.” “[T]hey dominated their era when the playing field, even if tainted, was level.”

The task of naming players throughout the history of baseball to a hall of fame naturally invites one to make comparisons across the generations. The origin of the first-ballot distinction comes from the fact that Joe DiMaggio was not elected in his first year of eligibility, so DiMaggio’s body of work becomes a kind of cut-off point in judging whether a player deserves to be elected in his first year (at least for some writers). Yet, the idea of stark numerical cut-offs is highly ahistorical. The sportswriters quoted above are onto something when they speak of “eras” in baseball, since so much of the game has changed over the years: the ball itself has been modified a few times and when made more springy, these innovations have benefitted the hitters; there was a time when white players faced no competition from black players; the size (and elevation) of ballparks has been modified; the mound was lowered in the 1960s to diminish the pitchers’ advantage; and so on. We cannot simply compare the earned run average of a great pitcher before the mound was lowered to another’s who came after and then say the lower average for the first pitcher is evidence he was better. But all these changes affected everyone and therefore players in the same era can be fairly compared. Perhaps the steroid era was similarly fair: Performance-enhancing drugs carried no sanction in baseball, and, because they carried no sanction, anyone could use them, so Bonds and Clemens had no unfair advantage over their contemporaries. If we think of the steroid era as indistinguishable from some of the other eras in baseball that were defined by changes in the mechanics and rules of the game — like the dead-ball era — then we have to induct its inarguably best hitter, Barry Bonds, and (more arguably) its best pitcher, Roger Clemens.

Tom Verducci shares the concern for fairness, but argues that the playing field actually was not level during the steroid era: “The hundreds who played the game clean were harmed. Many lost jobs, money and opportunity by choosing to play the game clean. I think of them every time I get a Hall of Fame ballot.” But why would anyone choose to play the game “clean” when being “dirty” carries no official sanction from the sport? One possibility is that some performance-enhancing drugs, while not explicitly banned during that era by Major League Baseball, were not legal in the United States and therefore athletes had to choose between succeeding in sports and obeying the law.

Deeper Objections

Yet the way we talk about the use of steroids by athletes — for instance, calling players “clean” or “dirty” — points to a discomfort that goes deeper than mere legality. Steroids are dangerous. We don’t want our athletes to experience liver cancer, mood swings, drug dependence, high blood pressure, or infertility just to entertain us. Nor do we want these role models encouraging youth to risk the same side effects — a chief concern of the 2007 Mitchell Report on steroids in baseball. But even these important concerns do not get to the heart of the matter. Imagine that scientists discover pharmacological means that provide the advantages of steroids but carry none of the side effects. What if those who take such a pill could suddenly build more muscle more quickly than they ever had before? Would we have any objection to this? Verducci quotes a former player and steroid user, pitcher Dan Naulty, who thinks so:

You didn’t need a written rule. I was violating clear principles that were laid down within the rules. Whether they were explicitly stated that I shouldn’t use speed or testosterone didn’t need to be stated. I understood I was violating mainly implicit principles. I have no idea how many guys were using testosterone. But I would assume anybody that was had some sort of conviction that this was against the rules. Look, my fastball went from 87 to 96! There’s got to be some sort of violation in that. It was not by natural cause.

Naulty’s implicit principles — his gut-level discomfort with performance-enhancing drugs — centers on a distinction between natural and unnatural athletic improvements. It is a cloudy and not-fully-thought-through dividing line, but it is, as we would say, in the ballpark.

A better way to investigate the moral meaning of performance-enhancing drugs is to ask some fundamental questions: What are athletes doing when they play sports, and what are we watching when we watch? The answer seems to be a certain kind of human excellence. If we just wanted to know who won or lost, we could check the paper the next morning — it is not simply that we are watching competition. Nor is it correct to say, as one recent paper on the ethics of performance-enhancing drugs claims, that “modern athletic sport is entirely focused on finding new ways to break the old records.” If our “entire” goal were to break pitching records in baseball, we could build pitching machines to pitch perfect games. It is worth asking why we would never do this, why we would never substitute our sportsmen with machines, even though machines could easily achieve superior performance. We admire winning and we admire records, but neither in isolation, only as evidence of superior human performance. We don’t admire the fastest cheetah more than the fastest man, even though the cheetah is much faster. It isn’t meaningful to compare Michael Phelps’s performance in the pool to that of a speedboat. Sport is an exclusively human kind of performance, carried out through a combination of natural gifts — unearned, undeserved, and unevenly distributed in the population — and willed activities. An excellent sportsman or athlete must be disciplined, driven, and daring. It also helps to have learned the best methods for how to train and practice. Our games are often intellectual pursuits as well: calling upon quarterbacks to read defenses, cyclists to budget energy, and batters to master the situation on the field. We admire the willed actions, but not only the willed actions. We still marvel at superior performance no matter how much of the performance relies on natural gifts. The impressively gifted LeBron James is the face of the Miami Heat, not Shane Battier even though Battier is considered among the NBA’s hardest-working and smartest players.

As Tony Gwynn told George F. Will, good batting only happens when “you stay within yourself.” Staying within oneself is a great theme of Will’s 1990 account of excellent ballplayers, Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball. These are all tedious workers, true craftsmen who refine their natural gifts but find their performance will diminish if they overestimate their natural gifts. The effortlessness we might admire in “The Natural” ballplayer is a myth. What we are really seeing is a harmony of body and mind so well-attuned and refined by hard work that it looks effortless. This harmony is the core quality of all sport, from cycling to quarterbacking to goaltending.

An athlete builds his body, focuses his mind, and syncs the two by repeatedly practicing the activity he wishes to excel in. Muscles require strengthening; skills require honing; understanding requires study. The very act of athletic training for an activity is intelligible: as the President’s Council on Bioethics put it in its 2003 report Beyond Therapy, “we can understand the connection between effort and improvement, between activity and experience, between work and result.” The growth of muscles is naturally stimulated by certain hormones and growth factors, including testosterone. The body naturally produces a limited amount of these factors, and increasing their levels pharmacologically — or, in theory, through genetic modification — can contribute to greater-than-natural amounts of muscle growth. The doping athlete is thus partially alienated from his own activity, the activity he hopes to be excellent in. One cannot be personally, fully excellent if the excellence stems, at least in part, from a chemical intervention. Rather than cultivate his own individual gifts, he has chosen to have different gifts. Rather than “stay within himself,” he has chosen a different self. So when Dan Naulty exclaims “Look, my fastball went from 87 to 96! There’s got to be some sort of violation in that,” he is intuiting how athletic achievement, once the prize of a full self who toils away at his own betterment in this activity, is corroded by the innovations of laboratories.

Modern innovations will continue to give us small and large opportunities to enhance our native gifts and thus circumvent laborious and praiseworthy craftsmanship at the heart of athletic superiority. Sometimes we will draw an uneven line. Drugs like caffeine, which enhances attentiveness, may strike us as too minor and mundane to meaningfully undermine the humanness of the activity. Perhaps we will reconsider the achievements of many mid-century baseball players, including figures like Hank Aaron, who benefited from amphetamines. This reflection on the moral problem with steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs should not be seen as a once-and-for-all line-drawing. Instead, it should reorient our feelings about steroids and about how we receive the giants these drugs once puffed up and whose moral deflation we must now come to terms with as a society.

Sportsmen and Supermen

The problem with performance-enhancing drugs is not that they are unfair, because they could easily be universally available and therefore “fair.” Nor is the problem their danger, for we could make them safer, and besides, sport and training pose many other dangers. Lance Armstrong, Floyd Landis, Marion Jones, Ben Johnson, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Ken Caminiti, Alex Rodriguez, Jose Canseco, Jason Giambi, and countless others, some of whom we might not suspect, diminished the humanness of athletics by choosing to technologically enhance their bodies. What they did was more than the cheating we’re used to, the score-fixing to win a gamble or sign-stealing in baseball or football. Rather, performance-enhancing drugs are a type of cheating that does not merely falsely alter wins and losses or individual records, but transforms the very character of the athlete. How then should we regard Bonds, Clemens, and Armstrong?

To return to the discussion of the Hall of Fame, one way to exonerate some cheaters is exemplified by the approach taken by Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury-News. Before casting his Hall of Fame ballot in late 2012, he posed the question, “Do I think the player would’ve passed Hall of Fame muster without the aid” of drugs? (Bonds undoubtedly would. He is generally understood to have started using steroids as a reaction to the public praise for McGwire and Sosa — hitters he regarded as inferior — and their home-run chase in 1998. Had Bonds retired in 1998 he would have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer and regarded as one of the five best left fielders of all time.) This strategy, though, completely misses the point. Performance-enhancing drugs do not merely inflate the outcomes for batters, pitchers, and cyclists, allowing us to nullify the offense by paring back the outlandish records of the last decade. Instead, they fundamentally change the character of the act we witness when we cheer on our sports stars. Perhaps Barry Bonds’s clever chemists helped him hit twenty more home runs in 2001 than he otherwise would. Home runs and other statistics, like wins and losses, are not the activity we value, they are only valued as the outcome of superior human performance — athletics done well. But Bonds’s steroid-aided blasts into the sky and the yellow jackets that Armstrong won with even the smallest lift from erythropoietin were instances of something other than human athletic excellence. In choosing to use performance-enhancing drugs these men chose to participate not in sport but in a spectacle that bears only a mocking resemblance to true athletic achievement. As such, we cannot induct them into our temples of great sportsmen, nor can we consider them the best sportsmen in a corrupted era. Armstrong, Bonds, Clemens, and the rest all chose to be supermen rather than sportsmen. They cannot be both.

Jeremy Rozansky, “How to Think About Our Steroid Supermen,”, January 19, 2013.

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