February 18, 2009
The Rush to Judgment
People are never going to be satisfied.
One of the ongoing notions in the past decade's witch-hunting is that people-really, the media-just want players to confess, to own up to what they did. The idea is that by coming clean, the public-really, the media-will forgive them and allow them to get on with their careers. In fact, most of the case against Mark McGwire is that he didn't do just that, and baseball fans-really, the media-have never forgiven him. The legal case against Barry Bonds isn't about drug use, but about words. Rafael Palmeiro failed a test, but his reaction to it, pointing fingers at teammates, is what doomed him. We-really, the media-hate this behavior, belittle it, and yearn for a player who will talk about his use.
Yesterday afternoon, Alex Rodriguez sat down and answered as many questions about his use of performance-enhancing substances as any team-sports athlete ever has. No one has ever gone into the level of detail that Rodriguez did in his statement and in the 40 minutes of questioning that followed. No one has copped to as extensive a usage history. Whether you think he would have been there absent Selena Roberts' reporting, the fact is that he provided more information about his personal use than any player caught up in this mess.
Yet it's still not enough for many. The reaction to Rodriguez's press conference has been at best apathetic, and at worst, critical. His demeanor, his word choice, his expressions, his inflections have all been picked apart, and he's been given no credit for the details he provided. There's an assumption that he's being deceptive, duplicitous, and insincere. Whether this stems from the dislike so many people have for this very insecure man, the dislike of his agent, or the general disdain for the successful and wealthy-let's face it, sports coverage has devolved into thinly disguised class warfare-this most open moment has been dismissed, and Rodriguez has been given no credit for providing it.
Contrast that with the reaction to the press conference at which the Chargers' Shawne Merriman openly discussed his... oh, wait, that didn't happen. It didn't happen because the NFL doesn't have a vested interest in making its players look bad to gain the upper hand in an unending war against its own product. The NFL would never sustain a story like that through multiple news cycles, never allow PED use to overwhelm the story of training camps opening, never contribute to speculation that its game and its stars were somehow less than because of their behavior.
The other day, Bud Selig whined that he shouldn't be held responsible for the so-called "steroid era," claiming that he wanted to talk about the problem as far back as 1995. As I've mentioned, Selig has flipped on this issue a few times, sometimes claiming to have been fighting it for a while, sometimes claiming he didn't know there was a problem. I suppose he could have been fighting a problem he didn't know about. It's not as if Selig was running a needle-exchange program, but given that the man was an owner for 25 years and commissioner after that, I'm going to say that he had both the knowledge and the authority to do more than he did. His busy schedule of misleading Congress, putting out endlessly innumerate claims of poverty, attempting to break the union, destroying franchises, and extorting billions of dollars from taxpayers didn't allow much time for attacking this issue.
Whether you want to blame Selig for what players did or not-both are at fault-what is clear is that he is as responsible as anyone for keeping baseball players' use of PEDs front and center in the public eye. Where the NFL never, ever talks about this-or really, any of the other million problems that the league has, particularly when it comes to player health-Selig and his partners have done everything in their power to keep this story alive. In fact, management openly used the image of cheating players to turn public opinion to their advantage during the 2002 negotiations for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. When the Mitchell Report was released, Selig could have used that moment to close the door on this issue, deeming it the final word on the subject. Instead, he hemmed and hawed and allowed speculation about punishments for named players to persist. When Barry Bonds was chasing the home-run record two summers ago, Selig fanned the flames by being openly disdainful of Bonds' accomplishment. Now, rather than keep the focus firmly on the testing program, the draconian punishments for getting caught, and the limited number of positives, Selig beats up on Rodriguez, saying that A-Rod shamed the game.
Maybe he did, but the more Selig points his finger at the approved villains of the last decade, the more his silence on previous ones becomes an embarrassment. Selig owned the Milwaukee Brewers for a quarter-century prior to becoming commissioner, 25 years during which the use of amphetamines-and for a time, cocaine-was much more common than steroids have ever been. The connections between amphetamines and performance are no more clear than those between steroids and performance, though the anecdotal evidence is somewhat stronger that amphetamine use was an essential part of being a major league baseball player.
Amphetamines were just as illegal as steroids in their respective time frames of prominence. It's just that we-really, the media-have decided that one category of performance-enhancing drugs is a soul-crushing evil, and the other merely part of the game's colorful past. That's convenient, but it's also intellectually bankrupt. The contrast between the two treatments is perhaps the biggest reason why I cannot take the current level of outrage seriously. One generation's illegal drug use is OK, while the other's isn't? Please.
The lessons of the Alex Rodriguez press conference are clear, and I hope his peers take them to heart. There is absolutely nothing baseball players can do to satisfy the people who cover the game. They will be portrayed as conniving in any case short of showing up at a press conference with a stash of old needles and a box of empty vials. The media wants blood, not nuance, and there's nothing about the story of baseball players' use of drugs dating back two generations that doesn't demand an embrace of nuance.