Steroids: The Great Sports Digression

By Wendell P. Simpson
Updated: October 30, 2007

ORLANDO — The debate in the war on steroids, like the discourse on the street drug war, is a digression, as transparent as the front windshield on your SUV.

It’s a convenient distraction that diverts our attention from the disastrous public policies that inform our lives, such as the war, the anemic economy and the health care crisis.

It always makes good media copy, and a second front in the so-called drug war gives politicians another hot-button issue over which to masturbate. But the rhetoric and the moral outrage are hollow and empty.

The truth is, nobody’s going to clean up professional sports. In our self-absorbed, win-at-all-costs culture, everybody’s dirty and cheating is as mandatory as the bat and the ball.

And there’s so much at stake: there’s a lot of money to be made at the top, billions in revenue for the owners; and stardom and super-salaries for the kids who might otherwise languish in a regular life; and then there’s the bloodlust of we fans who can’t get enough.

Getting over is as American as apple pie and just as ubiquitous in the world of sports. Everybody’s looking for that edge and steroids are just another part of the program.

Belichick has his hidden cameras, Sosa his corked bat, and MLB’s Gentlemen’s Agreement insured that the likes of Ruth, DiMaggio, et al, would be spared the terrible truth of Paige’s inscrutable heat. Hell, even Pee Wee League football coaches teach cut blocking these days.

But what puts — and keeps — our fat, sedentary asses in stadium seats on a regular paying basis is the bloodlust. We watch sports to bear witness to the sublime, the transcendent, the freakish play.

We cheer at the big hit, scream at the improbable catch, leer at the bodies that twist to impossible, painful angles, and explode in ecstasy each time the Incredible Hulk jacks another record-breaking ball over the right field fence into San Francisco Bay.

And we get to live vicariously, for a moment or an hour, through the daring do of supermen and wonder women who defy the parameters of the norm — we know it’s artificial, illusionary, a chemically enhanced dance with the devil, but we don’t care. We must feed at the bloody trough.

It is our appetite that pays the bills, that makes the owners rich and prosperous, and that subsidizes and sanctifies the hypocrisy, and we’ll accept nothing less on the menu than the superlative.

Then there are the kids who pin all of their hopes on the game. I can see the commercial now: “See your local dealer about ‘Steroid-alis’ (17B — Hydroxy — 17-alpha; methyl — 2 — oxa — 5 alpha abdrostan — 3 one, in small print); possible side effects include the likelihood of cancer and shrunken gonads, a Congressional investigation, public humiliation and the book contract that comes with it, and a multi-million dollar a year endorsement deal (salary not included).” The risks are acceptable because the alternative is obscurity and struggle.

That’s why it was so painful to watch Marion Jones’ implosion on television. She was always so majestic on the track, but the allegations of steroids abuse that had dogged her for years finally got to her.

Jones was no longer able to resist the incessant pressure and the guilt. Our beautiful gazelle, prostrate and debased, simply served herself up as a sacrifice to the phantom edifice that is honor in big time sports.

It’s to her credit that, in the moment of her greatest humiliation, Jones managed to maintain some semblance of the grace and dignity that characterized her athletic accomplishments, but by then it was way too late. Her fall was complete.

And for we fans, there was no reconciliation, no redemption, not even a pyrrhic victory in Jones’ self-evisceration, because we know the truth: she was merely the one who got caught—and, just as it is in the case of street drugs, it’s always the people at the bottom end of the drug trade chain, the users, who ultimately pay the highest cost.