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The War On (Some Athletes Who Use Some) Drugs: A Thing That Should Not Be A Political Priority

[ 136 ] February 13, 2013 |

The single conviction from the ludicrous prosecution of Barry Bonds will finally be facing the scrutiny of an appellate court. And while I wouldn’t say I have a great deal of faith in the American legal system, in this case I’m pretty confident that the total number of convictions from the Bonds and Clemens lighting of the moneys on fire prosecutions will ultimately be “none.”

On a related note, I evidently found a great deal to disagree with in Bill Simmons’s drug warrior manifesto, but I’ll focus on this:

You’re on the list because your players union negotiated ironclad drug-testing rules, ostensibly to protect your rights, but really to protect your right to cheat without being judged. You’re on the list because our President claims to be a big sports fan but refuses to get involved, and apparently would rather see every sport go to hell over risking political capital and doing something about it.

Leaving aside that a lack of testing certainly hasn’t prevented players from that era from being judged (and how!), I find this blithe dismissal of privacy rights baffling and disturbing. I think it’s great that professional athletes (unlike so many American workers) have representation that prevents them from being subjected to testing without their consent. The fact that ordinary retail workers frequently have to undergo drug testing without any individualized suspicion should be seen as absolutely outrageous.  We should be leveling up, not down.  If the arguments that PEDs damage a player’s health are convincing enough that players want to collectively bargain a testing regime, fine with me. If they don’t, also fine with me. And as for the idea that this would violate the “sacred trust” of baseball records that are comparable throughout the eras, this has never actually been true. Babe Ruth was a remarkable talent, but he was able to dominate his league the way he did in part because baseball in the 1920s was far, far less efficient at getting the best talent into the majors — not just the color line but the lack of systematic scouting and farm systems. The Hall of Fame is teeming with merely good players whose stats were compiled during the high-offense twenties and thirties. And while Roger Maris’s record was not established in a high-offense era, it was still the product of many contingencies — an expansion year, a ballpark that made the record possible (which it would not have been for a right-handed hitter in Yankee Stadium or any hitter in Griffith Stadium), having a better hitter behind him to increase the number of ABs in which he could homer. The idea that baseball stats before 1995 were easily comparable across eras is very wrong.

Then, there’s the idea that Barack Obama should be using his “political capital” to “do something” about PEDs. First of all, this implies a political risk that isn’t there; grandstanding about drugs, while it has had catastrophic public policy effects, certainly isn’t politically risky or unpopular (hence, for example, not only the silly congressional hearings but the farcical Clemens and Bonds prosecutions.) But secondly…I suppose it’s not literally true that “athletes are using performance enhancing drugs that threaten sacred records that were never in fact sacred” should be the lowest priority issue for today’s executives and legislators. But close enough. And if the justification for political intervention is the public health effects of PEDs, well, I’d love to hear a public health justification for putting high priority on reducing the use of  PEDs that wouldn’t logically require tackle football to be immediately banned for anyone under 18 and at a minimum stringently regulated for adults.  If Barack Obama is going to invest his “political capital” in a sports issue, how about dealing with the scandal that is NCAA football instead?

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