The saying "talking about steroids in baseball" probably should become the new cliche that replaces "beating a dead horse". Nothing about the subject is particularly surprising, new, or even all that interesting at this point, be it an admission by an individual player, commentary by a baseball analyst, or another toothless investigation by Congress, the FBI, or Major League Baseball, and yet there is still an apparent need to rehash the same obvious conclusions in public - steroids are bad, kids shouldn't use them - and an obsession with who may have done what, and where, when, and with whom they did it.
So when I watched Mark McGwire's admission yesterday, and then watched the same sportswriters who fawned over him eleven years ago chastise him, I couldn't help but think of this very poignant quote from The Dark Knight:
You either die a hero, or live long enough to become the villain
For me, that statement sums up this subject, as well as a host of other, better than anything else.
I'm not sure we fully acknowledge how much the strike impacted everything that happened in baseball in the years immediately after 1994. Total attendance across MLB did not rebound to pre-strike levels until 1998, and that only happened with the addition of two expansion teams. In fact, it wasn't until 2005 that the average attendance per team equaled what it had been in 1993. There are plenty of ways for owners to make money - TV contracts, internet rights, merchandise sales - but none of those rake in the dough quite like hordes of fans buying $20 tickets, $4 hot dogs, and $8 beers each day does.
So there was a great need for something after the strike. Fans needed something to revive their interest in baseball, and owners needed those fans to come to the ballpark and spend money. And so when Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and everyone else started hitting home runs by the boatload, everybody was satisfied. Nobody knew they were using steroids, but then again, nobody was really sure that they weren't. Truthfully, the question of steroid use wasn't useful for anybody's agenda at the time, so nobody asked. The fans were happy, the owners were happy, and the players, with their escalating salaries, were also happy. The saying goes "If it ain't broke, don't fix it", and for awhile it wasn't, so they didn't.
Baseball fully recovered from crisis in the aftermath of the 1994 strike only to face a new one. Regardless of Congress's dubious intentions back in 2005, nobody - not the owners, not the commissioner, not Mark McGwire - stood to gain anything by being subpoenad to testify in front of Congress about petty details of what may or may not have happened, or who may have injected what into who's rear end, in locker rooms and private meetings between players and trainers over the past decade. The successive efforts to clean up the game were billed as a moral crusade, but if you believe that explanation, then I've got a bridge in China to sell you.
I've gone this far without stating the obvious. Steroids are banned substances under Federal law, and Major League Baseball has prohibited their use for at least 25 years, albeit only in vague terms and without testing up until recently. So obviously, Mark McGwire was cheating and breaking the law. However, I'm more interested in the fundamental question about human nature that this type of situation raises.
It's very easy to idealize about doing the right thing or playing by the rules when our actions aren't the ones being questioned, but I think most humans are pragmatists at heart. We care about rules, regulations, and laws, but mostly just to the extent that they are actually enforced. You may not like your neighbor, and so you may do any number of things to irritate him, but one thing you won't do is set his car on fire, because you'll probably get caught and go to jail. It's a silly example, but true nonetheless. On the other hand, if you drink underage, break the speed limit, or leave $5,000 of discretionary income off of your tax return, the penalties are far less severe and the likelihood of getting caught is much lower. Steroid use by ballplayers in the 1990s clearly fell into that latter ideological category, so why do we treat PED users differently than underage drinkers, lead-footed drivers, and tax cheats?
I'm convinced Mark McGwire and every other outed steroid-using ballplayer are really nothing more than pawns in a much bigger game. Fans want to be entertained. Owners want to make money. The news media's existence depends on constantly having something to report on. And politicians need something to distract the public from how poorly they're actually doing their jobs. We like heroes, but we also have a sick fascination with watching people fall from grace.
In the end, it doesn't matter that we were the ones who elevated McGwire in the first place, because that would require us to question how we bestowed such honor while overlooking misdeeds that were pretty obvious in hindsight. That's the way society functions. We like to delineate things simply, in terms of heroes and villains, good guys and bad guys. We like utility. Moral dilemmas and fundamental questions about human nature are uncomfortable and tricky, and never really serve anybody's interests, except maybe those who are currently being thrown under the proverbial bus.
So criticize McGwire if you must for picking up the needle in the first place, but don't forget who came to his games, cheered for him, and failed to ask any tough questions during the 1990s.
Hopefully we can gain some perspective in all of this. Steroid use may be against the law, but there are far more important laws being broken each day. It may set a bad example for kids, but so do thousands of other things. It may constitute cheating, but many of us cheat to get payoffs that are much smaller than baseball players' salaries, especially when the likelihood of getting caught is small and the penalty for doing so is not especially severe. Players are responsible for their actions, but so are we.
Let's move on, and focus our attention and outrage on something that actually warrents it.