THE BLOG
12/29/2007 11:58 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

"Performance-Enhancing Drugs" in a Performance-Based Society: Reflections on the Mitchell Report

Since the release of the Mitchell Report we have been inundated with editorials, commentaries, outrageous headlines (such as a picture of Roger Clemens under the headline "He Took it in the Butt"), and interviews about steroids, human growth hormones, and other substances taken by baseball players over most of the last decade and a half. They are generally lumped together under the rubric of "performance-enhancing drugs."

Everyone is quick to condemn the use of these drugs, but no one seems to be able to explain exactly why we are so uncomfortable with the use of substances that "enhance performance." Owners, players, reporters, and most of all, the fans need to consider what it is they object to about the use of these drugs.

The way we refer to them - "performance-enhancing drugs" - suggests our cultural ambivalence. We want enhanced performance in most areas of life. In our bottom-line, performance-based culture, we rarely ask how the performance is achieved as long as we like the outcome. Mutual funds warn us that "past performance" is no guarantee of future performance," but in fact millions of investors believe it is, and invest to get an enhanced performance. Television ads promise enhanced performance for those who use Viagra and its competitors. These drugs in theory require a prescription, but the internet is full of offers to buy them online, just like steroids. And, like steroids, there are all sorts of off-brands and "natural" supplements for this kind of enhancement. On the internet and television the makers of Enzyte urge potential customers to "Enjoy Natural Male Enhancement!" The company promises Enzyte will "give you the peak enhancement you deserve." Comparing such ads to those for bodybuilding "supplements," we quickly see that these drugs and products might be considered steroids for ... well, you know. But no one suggested we ban Rafael Palmeiro from baseball when he did Viagra ads.

"Performance-enhancing drugs" (from Botox to steroids to cocaine) are all over the entertainment industry. Baseball players are, after all, entertainers. We wanted to watch Roger Clemens throw 95 mile-an-hour fastballs and Barry Bonds hit towering home runs while in their forties. We filled the stands in the "steroid era" because those performances were so wonderfully enhanced. Watching players who were well past their prime playing like kids was just too delicious to resist. Barry and Roger had found the fountain of youth, it seemed, and we just could not resist watching the results.

In other words, we loved the performance enhancement, and no one really wanted to know why, suddenly, players were actually getting better as they got older. We didn't even question why Barry Bonds grew a full inch in height or why his hat size increased. We enjoyed those home runs. We did not query how Roger Clemens came back, in his mid-thirties, from four disastrous seasons to be better than he'd ever been. In 1993 the thirty-three-year-old Clemens won ten and lost thirteen with an ERA of 3.63 while playing for the Boston Red Sox. This was the third year out of four in which he had a losing record. He appeared to be washed up. A year later - when he was apparently juicing - the now thirty-four-year-old Clements, playing for the Blue Jays, was 21 and 7 with an ERA of 2.65. He then went to the Yankees and World Series fame. No one asked why in his mid- and then late-thirties he suddenly became better than ever, or why he looked so bloated. We just wanted those fastballs from the Rocket. We accepted "performance-enhancing drugs" with a nod and a wink because we wanted the "enhancement" of the "performance." The owners made more money; the players made more money; the fans got more thrills.

Now, suddenly we are faced with the problem of all those games won by the enhanced performance, all those records broken. In the New York Times on Sunday, December 23, 2007, a commentator questioned Joe Torre's great record as a manager, because his teams won pennants and the World Series with drug-tainted players. No one is suggesting Torre did anything wrong, but the implication is that he should have investigated why his players were getting better at an age when they should have been in decline or what was in those mysterious packages being delivered to the clubhouse.

Everyone in baseball may be tainted by the misuse of drugs, even those who were personally clean. In the wake of the Mitchell Report we are wondering what to do with the pennants, World Series victories, and broken records. Fans, reporters, and even non-fans are wondering if any players from the last decade and a half will get into the Hall of Fame. We can only wonder if Bud Selig will start demanding that players turn in World Series rings the way the Olympic Committee is collecting medals from past Olympic Games.

Imagine if we applied the logic of the Mitchell Report - and our obsession with "performance-enhancing drugs" - to other forms of entertainment. The greatest musicians of my youth - the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Cream, the Doors, the Who, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Jefferson Airplane - used drugs that certainly enhanced their performance. The Sixties and Seventies were one giant magical mystery tour - except there was really no mystery about what fueled the tour. Everyone knew it was drugs. Did anyone care? Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, Jerry Garcia - should we kick them out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because they used "performance-enhancing drugs?" Do we remove the Doors from the Hall because Jim Morrison died of an overdose? (Is this like taking Olympic medals from an entire relay team because one member - Marion Jones - admitted to taking steroids?)

Consider Jazz and the Jazz Hall of Fame at Lincoln Center. The first class of inductees included more than a few artists who had enhance their performances with illegal substances. The New York police busted Billie Holiday for drug possession in the hospital on her death bed. Thelonious Monk was an addict. Coleman Hawkins had a drinking problem. In the 1930s Charlie Parker started experimenting with drugs to "enhance" his music. Miles Davis was busted for drug possession in 1950.

Is anyone ready to strip the great musicians from their respective Halls of Fame because they used "performance-enhancing drugs?" It is hard to imagine how many names and faces would be left in the Rock and Roll and Jazz Halls of Fame if we followed the logic of the Mitchell Report and the U.S. Olympic Committees. Perhaps we should start taking back gold and platinum records for all those "enhanced performances." How many of us would send back our CDs if there were a recall of all this great music?

Musicians were not the only artists who sought inspiration through chemicals. Edgar Allan Poe took laudanum and opium (he also drank way too much). Samuel Coleridge was only one of a number of English poets and authors who took cocaine. Anyone think Hunter Thompson was clean? Are we going to pull the Rime of the Ancient Mariner or The Raven from the high school poetry classes?

Like musicians, professional athletes are constantly in the spotlight. Baseball players have to perform almost every day for five months of the year in front of cameras and reporters and tens of thousands of people. Their careers are short - ten years in the majors is a long time. They make a lot of money and then it is over. The desire to extend the career is huge, and for stars like Clemens or Bonds, the financial payoff is big.

As we begin to sort out the Mitchell Report and the steroid scandals in baseball, track and field, cycling, and other sports, we need to at least consider what it is about "performance-enhancing drugs" that bothers us so much. It cannot be that it is illegal - we would hardly be this upset if there were a report showing that some famous sports figures cheated on their taxes. They might be caught and fined, but it is doubtful MLB would boot them out for a tax crime. Certainly no one ever thought that Babe Ruth disgraced the game when he drank during prohibition. If Marion Jones had pled guilty only to check fraud it is unlikely she would have to give up her Olympic medals. If Barry Bonds had been indicted for lying to a grand jury about his taxes or for some financial transaction, it is doubtful MLB or the fans would care very much. If he is convicted for perjury he will not be disgraced because he lied to a grand jury, but because the conviction will prove that he took steroids.

Some people claim that performance-enhancing drugs are bad for the sport because they constitute cheating. But, that it is hardly clear cut. Taking a drug or a "natural enhancement" before a game is not like a batter having a corked bat or the pitcher doctoring the ball. There are no baseball rules against eating, drinking, swallowing, smoking, or injecting anything. There are now MLB rules against taking all sort of thing. But, MLB did not ban steroids until 2002, so it is hard to argue that those players who used them before that time cheated. Moreover, until 2005 there were no serious penalties for using steroids or HGH. The penalty was the MLB equivalent of a parking ticket. Do we really get upset with people who fail to put money in the meter and get away with it? Hardly. Are we very upset with people who are caught and get tickets? Of course not. So, it is impossible to argue that players who took steroids before 2002 were cheating. And from 2002 to 2005 the "cheating" wasn't a very big deal based on the pathetic penalties MLB imposed for anyone who got caught.

Some fans complain that the enhancements undermine the integrity of the record book, but no one who understands baseball or modern culture can buy that. The height of the pitcher's mound is much lower now than it was when Babe Ruth played, thus giving an advantage to hitters. Gloves are huge, compared with the little leather mittens fielders wore before 1930. The balls have changed over time. The style of play is different. Relief pitchers extend the lifetime and records of starters. Pinch hitters and the designated hitter have also altered any notion of comparing records over time. Tommy John surgery for pitchers and arthroscopic surgery have saved careers and led to more records being broken. Nutrition and non-drug induced training have lengthened careers and increased skills, while players have grown bigger and stronger even without enhancements. A basketball example illustrates this. George Mikan at six-foot-ten was considered the greatest basketball player for the first half of the twentieth century. He was also among the biggest. At seven feet Wilt Chamberlain was "Wilt the Stilt." Neither would be considered particularly big today. At six-two and over two hundred pounds Babe Ruth was a monster in his age; and Hank Greenberg at six-six was a Jewish giant of Biblical proportions in the 1930s. Today Ruth would seem average for an outfielder and Greenberg would seem big but not huge. The bottom line for records is that they cannot be compared over time. "Home Run" Baker led the league in 1914 with only 9 home runs! He was one of the greatest players of his age, but his stats might get him sent to the minor leagues today. Enhancement drugs may have altered the playing field for records, but they did not do it by themselves.

A more serious argument is that the steroids and HGH are dangerous. Between 1987 and 1992 more then 25 Dutch, Belgian and Swedish athletes, mostly cyclists, died from steroid-related heart attacks or other "unexplained" reasons. This was at the beginning of baseball's steroid era and the news of these deaths should have put MLB on notice that the game might also have a problem. Since 1990 numerous weight lifters, body builders, and professional wrestlers have died from heart attacks caused by steroids. So too have a number of high school and college athletes. These "performance-enhancing drugs" are clearly dangerous. The use or misuse of HGH can cause diabetes, joint pain, and other problems. Steroids cause similar problems, including liver and kidney damage in addition to heart attacks. And this is just the short-term damage. No one yet knows what long-term harms will result from steroid and HGH use. Sadly, some time in the future, today's stars may deeply regret the very high price they paid - in their own health - for a few extra years of stardom. The health crisis and the potential lifetime damage to players are tragic; MLB's non-response for at least a decade is shameful.

Despite the serious threat to players' health, it is not clear that the American public is particularly worried about the health of its entertainers. There is of course a very sad lesson in looking at the great musicians who were also drug users. Some of the drugs they used were deeply harmful. Many, like Monk and Holiday, were heroin addicts. Jimi Hendrix adopted a psychedelic style but died of an overdose. So too did Janis Joplin, Keith Moon (of the Who), Brian Jones (of the Rolling Stones), and Jim Morrison (of the Doors). Jerry Garcia died in drug rehab. But very few fans stopped listening to their music or going to concerts where performers were using drugs to enhance their music.

While a few sports fans may care deeply about performance-enhancing drugs or the about the health of athletes, most fans cheer the "real men" who play through pain, have bloody socks at the end of a game, or even play with broken bones. No one wants to see an athlete killed, but the thrill of a 95 mile-an-hour fastball coming close to a player's body is part of the game.

There is, however, one significant reason for the public outcry against steroids. It is our own sense of shame that we not only tolerated it, but also encouraged it. The fans wanted more - more home runs, more dramatic strike-outs, more enhanced performances. Management wanted to please the fans and take their money. The players were trapped in a race to the bottom. Those who did not juice up would be passed by those who did. The scandal could have been avoided if MLB had taken note of the problem in the 1990s when it became an issue in international sports. The shameful behavior of management - especially Bud Selig - on this issue speaks for itself. Management knew "performance enhancement" was going on, and it did not care to investigate or stop it because it was so good for business. Similarly, the Players' Union did nothing to protect its members. The leaders of the Players' Union were complicit in harming their own members. It would be like the United Mineworkers' Union refusing to bargain for safer coal mines. The Players' Union seemed to forget that protecting the health and safety of it its members is a Union responsibility.

In the end, as Americans, we need to come to terms with our own cultural ambivalence about performance and enhancement. MLB should ban drugs because they are dangerous. The word should come down from coaches and top athletes in schools and colleges that the professional leagues - MLB, NHL, NBA - are not interested in athletes who took drugs. Junior high, high school, and college coaches should stress, over and over, that performance enhancement is not acceptable. The professional leagues should have serious testing and strong penalties - administered by outside authorities - to prevent players from using these enhancements. We must have serious education of athletes in junior high, high school, college, and at the professional level. Like defensive driving classes, all athletes should get to watch films to see what misuse of steroids and HGH will do to them. Let them see the dead athletes taken down with heart attacks in their prime because they juiced. Let them learn what kidney and liver damage is like. And at the same time, let MLB - the owners and Bud Selig - do a reality check when their aging players get better, and bigger, over time.

But, to do this we must first deal with our own ambivalence. As fans, parents, and consumers we must ratchet down our expectations about sports and performance. This means teaching parents to behave themselves when their little leaguers play - remembering that it is just a game, and games are for fun. We need to think of a new "performance-based" evaluation for junior high, high school, and college coaches. We might ask, how many of your athletes graduated, rather than how many records did they break or how many games did they win. At the professional level winning is what matters, but it must not be at any price. This means we have to demand performances that are not "enhanced." We need to settle for performances that are real rather than drug- induced. Otherwise, chemists will continue to make new drugs and athletes will continue to use them because our ambivalent culture will continue to wink at "enhancement" and only care about "performance."

Read more news and blog posts on the Mitchell report on steroids in baseball here.