The villain of the piece

I have been watching the furor over the public release of information that baseball star Alex Rodriguez used an unapproved steroid around 2003. What I don’t understand is why he is being made into the villain of the piece.

So many people have expressed public rage toward him. Clearly taking enhancement drugs was not heroic, but neither was it all that out of the norm for that time. The voluntary testing in 2003 (with guaranteed privacy) was initiated precisely because organized baseball was aware that the taking of enhancement drugs – which was not yet clearly regulated in 2003 – was likely pervasive, and deeply embedded in player culture. The goal was to change that culture by initiating regulations – which was done the following year.

The worst you can say about A-Rod was that he claimed in interviews that he’d never taken performance-enhancing drugs. Lying in interviews is certainly not heroic behavior, but neither is it illegal. The fact that people are so upset by that speaks mainly to our crazy collective fantasy that sports figures are supposed to be something other than what they are – highly talented professional entertainers. It’s a little like saying that because Amy Winehouse is a great singer, she also needs to be an exemplary human being. Who are we fooling here?

But I’m not here today to talk about A-Rod. He’s not the villain of the piece. The villain is whoever took the fateful step, along what was apparently quite a long chain of steps – to make this privileged information public.

We might start with the federal subpeona of the test results during the 2003 BALCO investigation, but it’s clear that these federal investigators were operating with every expectation that the information they had seized would not become public, so they are almost certainly not our villains.

I understand that the leak was provided by four different anonymous sources – which is what gave Sports Illustrated the confidence to print the info. I would argue that the true villainy here is shared, in various amounts, by those four sources and the decision-making managing editor of S.I.. Compared with these folks, A-Rod is as innocent as a lamb.

Why do I say this? Because what these people did is attack you personally – you who are reading this. You put confidential medical information down in a lease or a contract, you provide confidential information about your child’s behavior problem to his teacher – under written guarantees of privacy. You type your private phone number into a Web form that explains it will never release that info, or look for informatoin using a search engine after reading the policy that clearly states your query terms will not be shared with anybody. You talk to your doctor about your wife’s bouts with depression, and her fears that her condition might become publicly known.

You do many things in the course of a day or week or month that involve a clear and explicitly stated contract of privacy. What these villains have done is take that away from you. Your rights, your privacy, the ability to shut your door and have a private conversation. Apparently none of it is real – your silly little illusion that you are entitled to the simple dignity of having people honor their word to you.

This is what has been taken from you by the villains of the piece. And you will not get these things back that you have lost unless the law recognizes that a crime has been committed – against all of us.

So the next time you rail against A-Rod, please keep in mind that you, or even your child, could be next.

7 thoughts on “The villain of the piece”

  1. I live two blocks from the University of Miami, where the new baseball stadium, donated to and named after A-Rod, has just been completed. Until a few days ago, I was completely unaware of this fact, only that there had been long term construction going on there. While working outside on my own house last week, I was listening to NPR programming featuring discussion of the A-Rod (aka “A-Roid”) controversy. An hour later, while driving for supplies nearby, I came up on the rear bumper of a black Maybach, an outrageously pricy vehicle, with the tag “A-Rod” on the back. There he was, on my turf. Strange.

    I am not a baseball fan, or even a professional sports fan in general, so I don’t know why I became so familiar with the story. I do not identify with any team; Pro sports is a business, and if I am not involved or profiting, it is not MY business.

    So it was unusual for me to resonate on this story. Ken’s point about privacy and its violation is spot on. For me, it raises a grave concern about the current push for computerization of all health records contained in the current stimulus bill. Our “confidential” records can and will be used against us, as they were with the baseball players.

    But I continue thinking about the steroid thing, and why drug use might be especially egregious in baseball. Why, within the context of “sports”, are the same fans who accept Hulk Hogan, who is obviously a cartoonish creation of chemistry, and some football players who are more covertly enhanced, so upset about steroids in the case of baseball?

    Rain Man, school boys, and grown men who are life long baseball fans, all love the predictable security of baseball statistics. More than in any other sport, the shared culture of baseball history seems intensely important to these fans. And performance enhancing drugs shatter the illusion of a fair comparison between players. They nullify the scientific framework.

    And, baseball is the only culturally US sport I can think of where a person of ordinary stature, say 5’11” and 170 lbs, can successfully compete. You don’t have to be seven feet tall or 330 lbs. to succeed on the diamond; Baseball is a dream less limited by genetics than by drive. Until drugs are involved.

    So I can see why people are upset when, what has up to now been perceived as a level playing field, isn’t.

    But I think for the general public, outside of the die hard fans, the anger at A-Rod has more to do with the context of our times than anything else. GM is on its knees, begging for handouts. Madoff, the markets, retirement funds, the costs of gasoline and houses, job and health security, the stability of a government job, all of the basic assumptions of our society have become unstable and unpredictable. Mom is a single unemployed nutball in California having 14 kids artificially. Apple pie is genetically engineered. And baseball is, well, not the same.

    I think the anger at A-rod is a measure of our current national insecurity. He is a scapegoat for the scary fact that our common givens no longer are. And subconsciously, the perceived decline of baseball is symbolic of the decline of the nation. It’s a hard thing to accept.

  2. couple of issues… first off, the rights to privacy. I personally like privacy. I like to think that I have some control over what someone can know about me.

    This is one of the reasons that the national healthcare registry scares me. Not that I, personally, have anything to hide, but, there is already so much information about us in various databases describing our finances, our buying habits, our travel habits, etc… At least let me keep my methodone treatments private… 🙂

    I also believe that certain positions in life require you to give up certain privacies. Such as political figures, police, military, politicians, etc. Because the public has a need to know EXACTLY who they are entrusting.

    I extend this to steroid use in athletes as well. I agree with you that they are little more than entertainers, but, I also think that they are something more than that. They are figures of aspiration. And, as in so many of my positions on this blog, what I really care about is how it affects my children.

    I want a clear and uncloudy message that drugs are not the answer to excellence. That you can compete without chemistry. That my children have a chance, as natural humans, to compete.

    I HATE the fact that so many look the other way, or don’t seem to care. What message is this sending?

    On the other hand, if I want to see robots playing football, I’ll watch a Pixar re-enactment… It’s much more interesting for me to think that there are natural humans playing that are naturally good at what they do.

  3. It might be useful to clarify something here. The issue with performance-enhancing drugs is not that they are not “natural”. There are many non-natural elements to the success of a top athlete, from space-age materials in shoes to high-tech training equipment to state-of-the art technology for monitoring food intake and metabolism, and much more.

    The issues with steroids is that they are harmful and dangerous to the health of their user. That is why there has been so much effort to ban them. We don’t want our kids feeling pressured to use substances that can result in heart attacks at an early age, damage to their bodies, or uncontrollable aggression.

    Even when they were taking the steroids, the steroids didn’t make Rodriquez or the many other enhancement-taking players excellent. The drugs just allowed the players to work and train harder and longer before hitting the point of exhaustion. People on those drugs still need enormous talent, skill and concentration and a rigorous work-ethic to succeed at the highest levels. These top competitors – even with performance enhancing drugs – are still very much people, not robots. But they are people who have put themselves at risk of great harm, which sets a terrible example – and that’s the point of the ban.

  4. I think we need to fix the tacit cultural acceptance of drug use, period. It really needs to be more than just a ban, it needs to be a cultural distaste. A “shame on you!”. It needs to be seen as something very negative, and not simply as something that you try to get away with, or, try to maintain a semblance of plausible deniability. Don’t just shrug your shoulders and claim ignorance, or imply “so what?”

    The fact that it is assumed that most professional athletes do it, but few get caught is hugely damaging. It leaves the spector of needing something extra to be able to compete. It makes it “OK”. Our young and impressionables will see this as a way to compete in life, not just on a professional athlete level…

    And to your note about the fact that these athletes are already exceptional, and steroids simply help them work out longer, harder, or revover more quickly… Well… Maybe… But who knows what the landscape would look like if artificial steroids didn’t actually exist? Maybe some react more favorably to chemistry than others… then, is this truly a competition between two exceptionals, or, did one gain a greater edge due to better drugs, or, better reaction to them?

    I agree that the point of the ban is the physical danger presented. As it should be. But, even if its use wasn’t dangerous… Wouldn’t you rather live in a world where achievement was based on working hard, working intelligently, and being healthy? Yes, there are undeniable genetic dispositions… But, I like to think that mere grit can allow those with enough drive, to overcome. It’s that idea that should drive us, not an answer in a bottle. Besides, I’m trying to get rid of my man-boobs, not grow them larger…

  5. Many things improve performance but are not bad for you – vitamin supplements, meditation, regular workouts. And some people certainly react better than others to each of these things, so none of them offer a level playing field.

    If steroids were not bad for you, their only effect would be to allow you to work harder. They don’t replace hard work. All they do is let your muscles work to a point of greater fatigue. If you were to take steroids and then didn’t put in the work, nothing would happen. It’s still “no pain, no gain”.

    But unlike other forms of performance enhancement, such as vitamin supplements, high-tech shoes, meditation and strength/stretching exercises, steroids are bad news. They shut down your body’s own natural production of hormones, they seriously mess with your liver, shoot your cholesterol levels way up, enlarge your prostate, increase your blood pressure, harm your kidneys, inflate estrogen levels, mess with your immune system, and often induce a kind of mania which can lead to aggressiveness-related personality disorder. They can also make you sterile.

    For kids it’s even worse. Basically, while you’re taking steroids your growth stops – you don’t grow any taller, and your physical maturation is arrested. Even when you stop taking the steroids, you never get back that lost growth.

    We don’t need to get into arguments about which forms of performance enhancement are “natural”. Whether a pair of expensive sports shoes or access to a first-rate gym are natural enhancements is a matter of cultural convention.

    But steroids are seriously bad news for your body, and kids who are led to believe it’s cool to take them can suffer a lifetime of irreversible damage. It’s not that steroids are “immoral”. It’s that they’re dangerous and harmful.

  6. Even non-bio advantages have been curbed in many sports. Countering the technological evolution of the sport. Things such as the material used in making a baseball bat, or, the maximum legal length of a golf club. I’d guess that flubber-soled shoes are also frowned upon in professional basketball…

    I would argue that the use of a steroid, by a knowing user, in an attempt to gain an unfair advantage, and in secrecy… IS immoral.

    No, a steroid isn’t in and of itself immoral, but, the clandestine application of it can be argued to be. And, asserting its influence or a percieved acceptance on our children I would argue as immoral.

    But, as we have clearly demonstrated on this blog, many times, you and I start from a very different moral baseline. And morality, is obviously, in the eye of the beholder.

  7. The fact that its use was clandestine meant that it held a stigma – which is exactly the opposite of assertiing its acceptance to our children. So the purpose was indeed served of sending a message to kids that using stuff that kills you is not cool.

    Ironically, A-Rod’s series of bad decisions has done more to discourage kids’ use of steroids than all of the official commissions put together.

    So in an ass-backwards way, he ended up acheiving something very moral. 🙂

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