A-Rod's Scarlet Letter: Does it Really Matter?

02/09/2009 04:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Add A-Rod to the list of players now branded with the Scarlet Letter (A for Anabolic Steroids, perhaps?) According to a report on, four sources have confirmed that he was indeed juicing back in 2003. Rodriguez joins players like Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro and Barry Bonds, who will be forever tarnished (and some prosecuted), not just for their illegal drug use, but also for lying about it.

And just two weeks ago, the results of Barry Bonds' urine samples were made public. The reports reveal that Bonds used injectable steroids, not just the "cream" and the "clear" -- substances he claimed to have thought were arthritis cream and flaxseed oil.

It's just further affirmation of what we already know: Athletes have been using performance-enhancing drugs for years, while many people chose to look the other way. Fine. But the real questions are: Should we really be upset by these types of A-Rod "bombshells" or simply regard them as further examples of society's hypocritical view of athletes and drug use? And should we even bother trying to regulate drug use in sports at all?

In the book GameFace (Virgin Books 2008), which I co-wrote with Chris De Benedetti, we cover this issue in-depth. The bottom line is that athletes are being held to a set of standards, while other individuals who turn to performance-enhancing drugs -- from Hollywood A-Listers to NYPD cops -- are simply not held accountable. And whether or not we want to admit it, most of us turn to legal performance-enhancing substances on a daily basis.

Just go to an NFL game and just look around. The fans have spent the day loading up on alcohol. Plenty of the cheerleaders have had plastic surgery. The overworked coaches, with their legendary 20-hour workdays, undoubtedly are fueled by coffee or Red Bull. The players? At least some of them are on steroids or human growth hormone. The in-stadium advertising includes Viagra or Levitra logos, pushing sex-enhancement pills. Major League Baseball takes the Viagra ads one step further, placing them quite visibly on the wall behind the catcher during TV telecasts. (Maybe there should be a Linda Ellerbee-hosted special on Nickelodeon for parents: "How to Handle the Kids' Inevitable Viagra Question While Watching Sports.")

On TV, turn the channel to professional wrestling or Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts. Then click the remote to MTV and watch hip-hop stars Mary J. Blige, 50 Cent, Wyclef Jean and Timbaland, whom upstate New York prosecutors said were linked to a Florida pharmacy that also allegedly provided steroids to Major League Baseball players and at least one NFL star. (Most of the accused musicians denied the reports.) Oh, and flip the channel to an old Meg Ryan movie on any given Saturday afternoon, where you'll find that the '80s "girl next door" has certainly had some procedures and used some products designed to enhance her performance and longevity.

So, it's official. The use of artificial means to "improve" oneself is everywhere. Why should it be any different with athletics? Increasingly, it's not. The line between what's acceptable and what's not may be most blurred in sports. Players constantly are given mixed messages. Asking your trainer to inject you with deca-durabolin or androstenedione, to name two illegal steroids, is against the rules. But having your trainer shoot you up with cortisone or other pain-killers is perfectly legal and common practice, even though that drug is the only thing allowing your injured body to play. Until a few years ago, amphetamines reportedly were common in baseball, readily available in clubhouses for players needing an energy boost. In that world, it's easy to see how some ballplayers could rationalize using steroids or HGH, even when everyone knows they're illegal.

So, it doesn't seem to make much sense to "tell these athletes they are going to be society's last pharmacological virgins," as John Hoberman said, a professor and author who has written extensively on the issue of performance-enhancing drugs. "There is lots of selective indignation here. There is something crazy about this. Hypocrisy is not quite strong enough a word to describe it ..."

Read more on this topic, as well as an excerpt from our book at