Monday, May 11, 2009

The Politics of Outrage

As you have likely heard, Manny Ramirez has recently tested positive for both hCG and synthetic testosterone. 1 Sorting through how I feel about this, once I get past all the tattered facets of my Red Sox fandom, I get primarily to this: I’m sick of the filter the vast majority of baseball’s steroid reporting gets filtered through. Yes, steroid use in baseball is cheating, flat out. It is, in its way, morally repugnant. But I have no rage left for individual cases, and anyone that does is either trying to ignore the full picture or ginning up their feelings for effect.2 I’m ready for the discourse to move on, from black and white moralizing to the nuanced discussion of performance-enhancing drugs that is the only reasonable response I can imagine in the real world.
1: I had planned on talking about the burden of proof, and how it was possible (though extremely unlikely) that Manny had taken hCG for a reason that, if not defensible, was at least foolhardy but not dishonest. This report, however, blows that need out of the water. If this is accurate, then it's pretty damn cut and dry.
2: This pair of LA Times articles reinforces my point. The writers decry the lack of fan outrage over Manny's steroid suspension. It's possible some of the fan indifference is related to Manny's persona, but I think mostly it shows how the hysteria over steroids in baseball has in large part taken place in a media echo chamber.
It never stops being a little jarring to hear about baseball’s “steroid era”. 3 The very nature of the term implies a horizon past which we will be in some new, different time. Like the dead-ball and segregated eras, baseball will evolve past this and carry with it only the truer aspects of its nature. But that’s ridiculous. A cursory look at the global sports scene will tell you that PEDs are here to stay, for concrete reasons of economic incentive, willful ignorance from parties that benefit from their use, and the weakness of the human drive for power/excellence/glory/victory. 4
3: It's interesting to see how different writers define the era. It seems to exist as a sliding time period that starts at some point in the late 80's/early 90's and runs, variously, up through some point between testing being introduced to the sport and the present.
4: The best point I've heard about the incentives is this Bill James remark good enough that I'm going to crib it in its entirety from this fine Joe Posnanski post. “You give me the opportunity to earn $22 million a year by taking steroids, I’ll shoot the pharmacist if I have to. I’m not saying it’s right. I’m not saying I shouldn’t be punished for shooting the pharmacist. I am saying it is self-righteous to pretend that I don’t have the same human failings that these guys do, and further, if you are insisting that you don’t have them, I don’t believe you.”
How does the narrative of steroids play out from here? I think it’s relatively instructive to look to professional cycling as an example. Bicycling is about as purely physical a sport as you’ll find. The machine is as perfect a machine as ever devised to turn human effort into velocity. Though the actual racing is a complicated team game of strategy, at its base, a bicyclist’s currency is simply his ability to ride his bike at speed for a prolonged period of time, and this capacity can be significantly boosted through a variety of chemical means.

Doping has dogged cycling since the early days of the 20th century, but things boiled to a head at the 1998 Tour de France, and were cemented by the swirling rumors around Lance Armstrong, Operation Puerto, and Floyd Landis. At this point, the sport has a system of random, repeated testing with draconian penalties for failing any tests. And yet people are still caught. Tests and penalties don’t get rid of doping. They certainly tamp it down, but the incentives are still too great if you’re a guy who feels like it’s your only shot of making your dream, or if you’re the guy with a chip on his shoulder from always coming up just a bit short. Or even if you’re a guy looking for every edge you can find.

The current leader of the Giro d’Italia is Alessandro Petacchi, a man who just came back from a inhaler-related suspension. He had permission to use his inhaler, but his levels tested at above acceptable limits. Maybe he accidentally took too much, or his body reacted in an odd way and retained the drug.5 Maybe he was trying to pull a fast one. There’s no real way of knowing, and that’s my point. The advantages in professional sports can be razor-thin. It’s ridiculous to try and talk about PEDs as if an athlete either is clean or has steroids (or oxygen-vector drugs or whatever) coursing through his or her veins. There’s a continuum, with a vast, hazy middle in which most athletes will by necessity operate. No one will ever be able to prove a negative. In cycling, an athlete can get dinged, spend one or two years suspended, and then get on with his career. Petacchi refers to his suspension as a “parenthesis in [his] cycling career”. Alexandre Vinokourov wants to race again when his suspension ends. 6 Any individual athlete’s reveal as guilty can cause recrimination from his fans and team, but on a more macro level, it’s understood that this a sad fact of how the world now works, and maybe always has.
5: It's worth a quick note here that I have no particular knowledge about how drugs interact with the body, and whether or not this is even possible. But I doubt you do, either, unless you are a doctor or work for the WADA.
6: Vino, when he was in his prime, was amazing. A rider who had to be feared less for his ability, though he certainly was good, than for the fact that if he decided to attack, he would absolutely turn himself into a missile. In the 2003 Tour de France, especially, he would attack, get reeled back in, and bide his time just long enough to get up the strength to attack again. It wasn't the smartest riding I've ever seen, but it was electrifying.
So Manny Ramirez. Responses have been all over the map, but the most interesting have been the realpolitik analyses of the Dodger’s new position. They save $7m in salary they had budgeted for Manny. If they can hold on decently without him, they could potentially use that money to pick up another arm or piece the team needs later in the season and be in even better position come playoff time. Not that such a thing is what they had planned or would want, but it’s where they are. Players have taken drugs, players are taking drugs, and players will take drugs. If that doesn’t get legalized, that means that sometimes players will get caught and punished, and teams and fans will have to deal with the fallout. This is not a temporary situation, but it’s also not the end of anything but the false innocence born of willful ignorance. In a world of imperfect people, what makes sport perfect isn’t the people playing it, but how the game makes their imperfections beside the point.

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