Reconstructing Fame

Joel Nathan Rosen is assistant professor of sociology at Moravian College and co-editor of Reconstructing Fame: Sport, Race, and Evolving Reputations. Reconstructing Fame is a collection of essays that examines twentieth-century athletes whose careers were affected by racism and whose post-career reputations have improved as society's understanding of race changed. Below, Rosen explores the topic of the modern athlete and steroid use.

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Reconsidering the Steroid Controversy: A Counter Claim for Reason

In his recent essay in which he supports a small but committed number of European athletes who have refused to bow to the most recent spate of Draconian anti-doping measures within the EU sporting authorities, un-affectionately known as the “whereabouts” system—where is Orwell when we really need him!—British columnist Tim Black contends that these active rejections signify a timely and even energizing labor struggle against the forces of sport management intent on treating athletes as property that stretches beyond the playing field and into the most private of domains. And yet, while this sort of resistance is gaining support on the continent, we here in the States are seeing little of this sort of rejection of anti-doping policy as exemplified in the two latest casualties of the American panic over the use of so-called “performance enhancing drugs,” Olympic swimming icon Michael Phelps and baseball’s mighty yet tainted erstwhile wunderkind Alex Rodriguez. Now beyond the ├╝ber-obvious, which in my eyes is the question of how, short of perhaps a power-eating phenom, cannabis smoking can be deemed “performance enhancing,” both of their stories present fascinating aspects of a story long past its shelf life and well beyond sport.

From the outset, and especially in regard to the glaring lack of substantive evidence supporting one side or the other, the use of prescription or over-the-counter supplements by athletes has always been a moral question. Dating back to a dying Lyle Alzado’s very public contention that steroid use was to blame for his cancer, American sport has been wound up over the idea that supplements not only can kill and maim but are also un-American, a mantra that has developed its own potency and state-of-the-art presumptions that clearly move beyond the more substantive questions. That it is all anecdotal barely seems to register with a populace reportedly poised to accept these terms uncritically, though I’m not convinced that we are, by and large. In fact my read is that this story is being driven by political and media elites who have found a ready-made answer to the political stagnation that so marks our age. The coalescence of American’s new-found sense of voyeurism with existing strains of morality has been a master stroke for an exhausted body politik, but beyond a collective “This is what you call doing the people’s business” cry from the electorate, these can’t really be our concern, and again—I’m not convinced that it is. Nor should it be our concern as to whether or not a suspected user (typically regarded as an abuser) is no longer moral enough to sell cars, shaving cream, cereal, and so forth.

So…let’s take a moment to ask a rather (im)pertinent question that moves beyond the moral posturing:

What exactly make such supplements performance enhancing?

This is especially true in baseball, where the grind of the interminably long season led to the unabashed use of amphetamines way back when, which only came to light—humorously so—in Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, though it would take nearly forty years from MLB to include amphetamines in its anti-doping policy. Thus, the day it was announced that everybody’s original favorite most recent whipping-boy, Barry Bonds, seemingly forgotten amidst the hand-wringing and clothes rending over A-Rod, tested positive for amphetamines, many long time aficionados of the game laughed it off as just another dog bites man tale! That the ubiquitous “greenie” could be assigned the same level of contempt as, say, HGH, is indicative of a culture that seems to relish in telling children in countless D.A.R.E. seminars that cigarette smoking and narcotics use run hand-in-hand (have that conversation with a five year old while you try to finish a smoke!), the glaring lack of proportionality here and there both should be the real story, but alas—that wouldn’t seem to fit the moral claims, not to mention the high-ground assumed by the arbiters of what’s right and wrong on America’s playing fields, in its classrooms, and in all domains private and public.

Going back to the original question, however, these claims to enhanced performance are themselves anecdotal. Estimates of what guilty performers might have done without the juice vary as widely and as wildly as suppositions regarding the healthful effects of steroid usage itself, but in spite of the lack of evidence—hard, scientific evidence—we have been asked to simply accept that those in the know, i.e. panelists on ESPN programming, Congress, the USOC—all with spotless records themselves, to be sure, have the market cornered on this question. But what’s glaringly obvious is that there’s a wide expanse between what we think we know and what we do know, and for now, questions pertaining to steroids and such are simply speculative.

I dare say that I fully expect to be excoriated as some sort of A-Rod apologist or even as a dupe of large pharmaceutical companies—whatever fits works best for me—but the reality of those claims too pale in comparison to the absurdity of continued claims that steroids are a scourge, a sink-hole poised to suck our children into an abyss that at the end of the day show themselves for what they really are: reminders that sport simply doesn’t have the ability to serve the nation in the way they once had. Of course, even these suppositions fail to hold up to scrutiny, as Steven Overman notes in his landmark study of the American athletic heritage, The Influence of the Protestant Ethic on Sport and Recreation, in which he decries that in assigning sport it’s “Sunday school atmosphere,” sport’s earliest proponent’s leadership ultimately sealed its future, a future that is being played out before our very eyes in print and electronic mediums telling us that we should be appalled and that we should be dismayed unless we’re complicit or morally bankrupt ourselves.

Ultimately, the spectre of steroid use among athletes is an industry concern that has very little do with sport or its fandom. Uncovering the latest user has itself become a (degraded) version of sport, and the more we try to convince ourselves that this story has meaning, and the more we try to envision who will and who won’t get into their respective halls of fame because of such misbehavior, the more we should remind ourselves that this drama is a non-story, unless of course we take into account that the more we are thought to push for tighter regulation for athletes, the more likely we are to erode whatever precious freedoms remain ours for the taking—not the asking, mind you, which is less performance enhancing and certainly more along the lines of performance retarding.

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[1] Black, Tim. “Sports Stars Strike a Blow for Dignity and Liberty.” Spiked Online. 5 February 2009. Accessed 11 February 2009.
[2] Bouton, Jim. Ball Four. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 1990.
[3] Overman, Steven J. The Influence of the Protestant Ethic on Sport and Recreation. Brookfield, VT: Avebury, 1997:200.