In Defense of Steroids

Mark McGwirealex-rodriguez1












Nobody likes steroids. On a list of things that are popular, steroids probably fall somewhere between cancer and traffic. While the popular outrage over steroid use in baseball has diminished recently, the primary reason for this is not any change in attitude; it’s mainly due to the fact that so many players have now been revealed as steroid users that fans have generally become jaded about the entire subject.

Most fans, however, still think that steroid use is objectionable, and that if Bud Selig could wave a magic wand and eliminate them from the game, then he should.

What exactly is it that makes steroids so despised, and should we so hastily vilify their use?

Now, a lot of people have made the argument that steroid users should be allowed in the Hall of Fame, and that their accomplishments should not be erased or totally invalidated. Even Bill James recently released a paper saying that he expects steroid use to be tolerated in the future—though his article is descriptive as opposed to normative.

But it doesn’t seem that anybody, aside from Jose Canseco, is actually advocating that baseball lift its ban on steroids.

Well, I am. Steroids are not bad for baseball; banning steroids is bad for baseball.

The arguments against steroids are not completely invalid: Steroids are bad for you. You don’t need to be a doctor to realize this.

But lots of things that are bad for you are not banned by baseball. When Mark McGwire used Andro to break Roger Maris’ home run record in 1998, the substance was allowed by Major League Baseball. Andro, like steroids, is bad for you.

Now, the response to my criticism is that Andro, like steroids, is now banned, that MLB should just put anything that could be harmful to players on its banned substances list, and that it should rigorously test its players. But banning and regulating controlled substances almost never works. Instead, banning steroids drives them underground and keeps players in the dark about them.

Take, for example, Alex Rodriguez’s confession from earlier this year:

“I’m guilty for a lot of things. I’m guilty for being negligent, naive, not asking all the right questions. And to be quite honest, I don’t know exactly what substance I was guilty of using.”

david-ortiz-and-manny-ramirez-011249579971What’s most startling about this confession is not that A-Rod was using a banned substance, but that he didn’t know which substance it was. Similarly, David Ortiz blamed his failed test on a mysterious “protein shake” he took in the Dominican.

It seems unlikely that these two examples are aberrational; it’s a safe bet that lots of baseball players have used or are currently using substances that they have little to no information about.

Some of this ignorance is likely due to the fact that many of these substances are the kind of new, designer drugs that can beat MLB testing, and hence there is little information about these substances available. Part of it is also probably due to some players’ desire to maintain their own ignorance about what they are taking so that they can use the “I never knowingly took a banned substance defense.” Some of it is probably just the fact that players want an easy boost and don’t care to look into the details.

Whatever the reasons, ignorance is hardly ideal. The status quo is currently encouraging players to take things that they have little information about with no advice/supervision from medical professionals.

The majority of the arguments against steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs are not really against specific substances, but against the dangers of the competitive-edge culture that steroids breed.

But this is not really fair: Sports are inherently about gaining a competitive advantage. The phrase “performance-enhancing drugs” is almost Orwellian, since virtually everything people do nowadays is in some way “performance-enhancing.” As Joe Posnanski pointed out a few weeks ago, Viagra and Cialis are “performance-enhancing,” and those are two of the most successful drugs of the past decade. People who drink coffee before work often do it because it is “performance-enhancing.” Athletes who dedicate their off-season to working out and improving are hailed because of all the “performance-enhancing” they are doing.

What’s dangerous about “performance-enhancing drugs” isn’t even the “drugs” part, since “drugs” is basically the same as “medication,” and steroids themselves often have legitimate medical uses—medications only become “drugs” when they are abused. Drugs prescribed to recover from injuries (occasionally steroids) are designed to enhance performance as well.

BondsSuppose, then, that Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Jose Canseco were not “abusing” the substances they took. Suppose they were doing it under the watch and advice of doctors (granted, the ethics of doctors willing to prescribe or administer banned substances is debatable, but bear with me). Suppose they understood the risks as well as most patients understood the risks of what they do, that they elected to use the substances anyway, and thus became much, much better at their sport. How is that different from what we expect athletes to do, i.e. make sacrifices and take risks to improve their abilities?

The only difference between this hypothetical and reality is the fact that substances are banned categorically, and that players are thus influenced by people like Greg Anderson, Victor Conte and A-Rod’s cousin, instead of licensed and respected medical professionals.

Now, I don’t think players taking steroids or illicit substances of any kind is ideal, but banning them doesn’t effectively deter players from using them; it just encourages players to use them more dangerously. Actually, encouraging players to know what they are taking, and the drugs’ probable effects is more likely to deter them than keeping substances banned: Rates of smoking in the U.S. have declined far faster than those of illegal drug use. Also, making steroids legal and permissible would encourage the development of a market for safer, more effective drugs, as opposed to the current “one-step-ahead-of-the-testers” philosophy.

The idea, though, of trying to eliminate the demand for steroids and P.E.D.s is misguided. The lure of a drug that makes people perform better for longer is too good to resist even when millions of dollars aren’t at stake, as evidenced by college students who use Ritalin and Adderall to help them study. As Bill James says in his essay, in the not-too-far-off future, virtually everyone will take some kind of steroid to look better, feel younger, etc. This may sound like science fiction, but Viagra—a drug that promises on-demand erections regardless of age—probably sounded insane a few decades ago as well.

And the guiding principle behind steroid use is not deplorable. Performance-enhancement is generally a good thing. It is not unreasonable to want to be better at your chosen field for longer. In fact, we often consider it admirable to jeopardize your long-term health for short-term glory in sports: We encourage players to play hurt and ignore pain. If steroids can help players do this, then I don’t know why we would want to ban them. There is, of course, a smart way and a stupid way to use steroids—virtually every activity or substance people consume can be abused—but right now, MLB is only encouraging the stupid way.

I have, admittedly, ignored the ethical implications thus far. This is mainly by necessity: Since 2002, certain drugs have been explicitly banned by MLB’s collective bargaining agreement. Players who use them in spite of this are, undoubtedly, cheating. I don’t think this invalidates statistics, since it’s likely that many players were doing it and you can find reasons to invalidate any statistics (Babe Ruth never played against black players, Bob Gibson pitched on a crazy-tall mound, etc.).

Although it is at best ethically dubious (it’s not like these players were using steroids as an act of civil disobedience), I certainly understand the reasons players took steroids. The fact that players shouldn’t have used steroids doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have been permitted to use steroids: You can hate the players, but you should also hate the game.

11 responses to this post.

  1. The real reason that people became outraged about steroids in baseball was that revered records, like Maris’s 61 homers, were being broken. Also, what most folks don’t realize is that steroids are helpful in recovering quickly from injury. That’s why older players like Bonds and McGwire rediscovered their youth.. As soon as they stopped using them, they were old again. Yes, they increase strength, but McGwire hit 49 homers his rookie season. Injuries had destroyed his career and steroids either prevented them or allowed him to heal quicker. That’s why so many pitchers are starting show up in the reports – Clemens is a good example.

    Performance enhancing drugs and baseball have been linked for a long time. Willie Mays openly talked about taking “greenies” (stimulants) in the 50’s and 60’s daily to help his performance. It’s a long and grueling season. John, your idea about allowing players to use them legally is interesting. Finding doctors though who would prescribe properly would be a problem though. There are plenty of Dr. Feelgoods out there. Steroids are quite dangerous and have led to the deaths of teenagers, so I am don’t think that they will ever be legalized. And ironically, they lead to different kinds of injuries. Todd Hundley, former Met, completely tore his arm out from his shoulder, a typical steroid injury. Interestingly, Hundley had played for the Mets and went from 15 to 41 homers over the course of a couple years.

    Lastly, having been around a couple of pro athletes, they know exactly what they are putting in their body (except for Manny Ramirez, who doesn’t even know what he ate for breakfast). I have a friend, a former pro football player with the Jets, who watched his teammates take steroids. Trainers often were very helpful in securing and injecting them. They are all lying when they claim ignorance, plain and simple (except Manny, who doesn’t know the definition of ignorance). I found it ironic that while Raphael Palmero was starring in Viagra commericals, he was shooting up steroids. Actual, that makes perfect sense. They are both performance enhancing drugs. (Advertising your impotence at a young age – he must have been married, that’s all I can say!)


  2. Posted by D. Graham on September 5, 2009 at 12:57 PM

    You expect me to believe these guys when they claim they didn’t know?


    • Posted by John S on September 5, 2009 at 6:11 PM

      I don’t think they “didn’t know” that what they were taking was banned or bad for them, but I DO believe that in many cases players don’t know all the details about what drugs are, what they are designed to do, and what the risks of taking them are. I mean, people take drugs without knowing the side effects or risks all the time; I don’t think professional athletes are amateur chemists.


      • John, they really do know – trust me, I am a man of great knowledge, experience, wisdom, and modesty. Athletes know their bodies better than any other human beings. Now, the may not know exactly the chemistry of every steroid they inject, but they know they are injecting steroids or using “the clear” or the next generation drug. I have talked at great length with my ex-NFL athlete friend, who is still in touch with today’s athletes (he ate dinner the other night next to the starting QB for the Jets, what’s his name) and it is still the same. Athletes will always try and enhance their performance and are more than willing to take a risk of getting caught. Think about it – would you rather be retired or making $10,000,000/year? I think many of us would take that risk. Bonds did it out of pure ego – he couldn’t stand that others were hitting more homers than he, despite his 2 MVPs at the time. Between money and ego (see A-Rod, Kate Hudson sees plenty of him, the little bitch), the risk is worth it. The worst thing that will happen is that they may take a little time off and might not get in the hall of fame. Most are young adults who barely give any thought about mortality, atheism, or even the timelessness of the hall of fame. The care more about money, fame, adoration, domination of their sport, and getting laid, not necessarily in that order.


  3. […] S defended steroids the other day. Joe Posnanski offered a similar defense a few weeks ago, and Bill James, of course, doesn’t […]


  4. Posted by Douglas on September 8, 2009 at 10:53 PM

    “Suppose they understood the risks as well as most patients understood the risks of what they do, that they elected to use the substances anyway, and thus became much, much better at their sport. How is that different from what we expect athletes to do, i.e. make sacrifices and take risks to improve their abilities?”

    Taking steroids is hardly a sacrifice if it’s as innocuous and “well-used” as you claim…in any case, it’s just an injection. It doesn’t compare to the athlete’s work ethic, which is what has been traditionally admired. Sure, players have dietary regimens and other restrictions on their behavior, but the fact is that in many sports, such as baseball, a player can do many of the same things that a non-athlete can do (drink, eat red meat, engage in casual sex, etc). The ability to manage when you take steroids and how much you take doesn’t make you a diligent, driven athlete. It’s effortless, and therefore worthless.

    I also contend your point that there is a “smart way” to use steroids. You won’t find many doctors recommending steroids to their patients as a “smart” choice for good health. What you mean is that there’s a stupid way, and a really stupid way.

    Additionally, the idea that the underlying motivation of “enhancing performance” is good is flawed. First, there’s the previously mentioned fact that taking steroids isn’t hard, so even if the motivation is to enhance performance, it’s not like it takes a lot of drive to accomplish that. But the motivation isn’t really to enhance performance. Athletes take steroids to make money. As a general trend, professional athletes who don’t make much money don’t take steroids or other banned substances. If stricter penalties were enforced, the incentive would go away.

    Okay, now your rebuttal may be that “performance” in this case is practically equivalent to earning ability, or that stricter penalties can’t be enforced because the players wouldn’t stand for it. These are fair points, but consider that both scenarios reflect poorly on the players. What professional athlete wouldn’t want to support extremely harsh penalties (i.e. forfeiture of all contract pay and lifetime ban from the league)? Well, it’s the ones who rely on steroids to get the edge. These aren’t the true athletes. These are simply the most reckless players, or the ones who respond well to performance-enhancing drugs. The quality of the sport wouldn’t diminish if these people weren’t allowed to play.


    • Posted by John S on September 8, 2009 at 11:47 PM

      Well, “Douglas,” there are three disputable points in your claim. First of all: “As a general trend, professional athletes who don’t make much money don’t take steroids or other banned substances.” This is demonstrably false. With the exception of Manny Ramirez, no player who has failed a drug test since testing began in 2005 (you can check on this list has been a star (the best player on that list other than Ramirez is Jose Guillen). The have generally been players on the fringe of the sport who doesn’t make much money. These are players who are taking substances to prevent from getting cut or sent to the minors.

      Now I don’t think this means that stars don’t take steroids; they can probably just afford the undetectable stuff, but it shows that people aren’t taking them purely for money. I mean, I’m not saying “performance enhancement” is always some pure and charitable motive: Most people who are good at things want to be compensated for doing them well. But, again, that should not be deplored or criticized.

      The second point I want to contest (and not “contend”) is your primary one, that steroids are “just an injection.” Steroids do not make up for a bad work ethic, they complement a good one. Look at Roger Clemens (one of steroids’ greatest success stories): He was renown for his legendary workout regiments and diligent training. Steroids helped him do that, but he still had to DO IT. Saying that these people aren’t “true athletes” is ridiculous: All true athletes have to cultivate and develop natural talents, steroids just allow you to do that more effectively.

      Finally, there is your statement that “You won’t find many doctors recommending steroids to their patients as a “smart” choice for good health.” First of all, this seems to validate my point that taking steroids ought to be considered a sacrifice. Secondly, though, it’s not entirely true. Steroids are often prescribed for patients recovering from injury or disease. Now, this doesn’t mean it’s healthy for everyone, or even most athletes to use (I mean, the AIDS cocktail has effective medical uses, but I wouldn’t drink it), but it indicates that steroids could potentially be used for positive gain. Obviously there are risks, but this is why athletes need to make choices and sacrifices.


      • Posted by Douglas on September 14, 2009 at 12:10 PM

        You’ve either twisted or misunderstood most of my points. When I referred to the fact that professional athletes who don’t make much money generally don’t take steroids, I wasn’t clear enough. What I meant to suggest is that categorically speaking, players who don’t make much money (such as professional LAX players or jai alai players) don’t take steroids. This is because excelling in those sports doesn’t equate to meaningful income. Even “poor” baseball players are still making a lot of money, or as you say are simply holding on to dying careers. I should have clarified my standard for that.

        Your statement that “steroids are often prescribed for patients recovering from injury or disease” could also read “steroids are ONLY prescribed for patients recovering from injury or disease”, which was my point. Doctors don’t recommend it for general strength training or athletic conditioning because the risks outweigh the benefits. Therefore, there is no “smart” steroid use for the non-injured athlete.

        It is true that steroids complement a good work ethic in the gym, but what you’re overlooking is that steroids allow players to compensate for poor (or relatively poorer) skill sets. The best hitters are often the strongest, but sometimes they’re the ones who are actually most skilled at making contact with a ball. That comes from natural ability coupled with skill training, not natural strength coupled with injections. Furthermore, players who take steroids may have a rigorous training regimen, but the point is that it’s still more difficult to achieve results without steroids. The biggest guys who aren’t on steroids typically max out their bench press at about 600 pounds, whereas the guys who are on steroids are now over 1000 pounds. Does the guy benching 600 work any harder than the guy benching 1000? No, he doesn’t, but only because they are both completely maxing out. But if the guy on steroids simply wanted to beat the guy who wasn’t on steroids, he could spend a lot less time in the gym and put up, say, 700. That’s my point. Certainly there are some steroid users with tremendous work habits, but some of them are edging out guys who work a lot harder than them but choose not to do steroids because it’s not ever “smart”.


  5. […] Bill James doesn’t often write in free public forums, so when he opines on Slate about Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds, it’s a must-read — even if or especially because his take isn’t too dissimilar from our own John S’s. […]


  6. […] Speaking of unnecessary drug laws, has Ryan Braun changed the public sentiment on steroids in baseball? John S would certainly welcome it… […]


  7. […] of ignoring the elephant in the room w/r/t Milwaukee, aren’t you? What, that? You should know how I feel about steroids, even if Braun was using them. In all honesty, Braun’s production will go down more because of […]


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