Friday, March 25, 2005


The integrity of the game

Integrity? What integrity? Part V of V on steroid use in baseball

My argument so far: steroid use in baseball should be banned – not because steroid use is evil or immoral – but as an optimal regulatory response to a classic health/consumer protection problem. Steroids are a product that create a serious health hazard, but their use is hard to resist because the performance-enhancing quality creates a powerful incentive to use them. (Many consumer products are harmful yet hard to resist – often because of their addictive qualities, like refined sugar, junk food and cigarettes. Interestingly, the only one of these that is arguably “evil” because of its direct harmful effects on non-users – cigarettes – will never be made illegal in our lifetimes.)

The most often repeated argument against steroids, is also the most vague and the lamest: steroid use “undermines the integrity of baseball.” This comment is typical:
“I think all sports have the moral obligation to erase any records linked to banned or illegal performance-enhancing drugs,” says Keith Strudler, a professor of sports communication at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. “This goes beyond the simple concept of justice - which is clearly relative and impossible to guarantee - but is critical in maintaining the integrity of the game.”
There are a couple of faulty premises here, but the biggest one is the nutty idea that professional baseball has “integrity.” I see three concepts interwoven (or confused, really) in the notion of “integrity” that is bandied about in discussions about “moral” issues in baseball. Integrity can mean:
1) Outcome integrity: that the games are not fixed, like professional wrestling, but are actual competitive contests with no predetermined outcome and in which the rules are applied fairly and consistently;

2) Records integrity: that there is a consistently level playing field in which measures of success (e.g., wins and losses, performance records) correlate highly with athletic skill, both on the individual and team level;

3) Institutional integrity: that the sport is an important social institution which fosters character and social virtues other than athletic ability, both in its participants and its spectators, such as “good sportsmanship,” honor, honesty, humility, leadership, respect for tradition, family values, and god knows what else.
I believe that baseball has had a good grip on “Outcome integrity” ever since the “BlackSox” scandal in which the Chicago WhiteSox threw the 1919 World Series having been promised payoffs by gamblers. As far as I know, Major League umpires do a very good job in applying their game-determining judgments fairly. Indeed, as far as I know, this is true of most competitive sports; baseball doesn’t have exceptional “integrity” in this regard, and in any event.

More to the point, this integrity – which is a very minimal, threshold notion of integrity – is not affected by steroid use. Steroid users may be able to get around on the fastball faster and hit the ball farther than non-users, but they still have to win under the on-field rules, just like the “more athletic” team still has to win under the on-field rules. If steroid users are “cheaters,” as I argued before, it is only in the sense that they have taken a short-cut to improved athletic prowess – it’s not like they’ve bribed the umpires to give them better ball-strike calls.

Folks like Professor Strudler and Senator Bunning try to bring in “records integrity” issues when they call for wiping out baseball records of steroid users. But --as I’ve argued before -- the form of "integrity" is inherently weak in baseball: Comparing player performance – between eras or even within a single season – is rendered highly imperfect by factors that may well have a much more significant affect on records than steroid use does. And baseball’s integrity is weaker than other major league sports (those with salary caps) in terms of competitive balance among franchises, with the “large market” teams occupying better positions to field highly skilled teams.

The idea that baseball has institutional integrity is something of a laugh – baseball is the entertainment business, and all other forms of integrity consistently yield, in the baseball calculus, to the demands of the entertainment business. Baseball ownership cares very little about the history of baseball, other than its importance as a marketing tool. They constantly manipulate the fields, stadiums, equipment and rules to promote fan interest and profits. Baseball owners believe that big offensive numbers generate more fan interest, and, lo and behold, the three biggest offensive explosions in the modern game occur – when? After the BlackSox scandal, during the great depression, and after the 1994 strike which cancelled the World Series... all when baseball needed to bring back the fans.

Historically minded fans might feel some attachment to “traditional” franchises in the original cities, but teams have moved around a fair amount seeking greener financial pastures. The “integrity” of the game – in terms of historical tradition and level of talent – has repeatedly taken the back seat to financial interest with franchise relocation as well as expansion that has doubled the number of major league teams.

Finally, the hero worship thing... Does baseball care about the moral character of its players? Yes and no. Yes, when bad moral character affects player performance or revenues. Otherwise no. Major League Baseball wants its players to be virtuous heroes because that is a powerful marketing tool. Many players play along with the demand that they exhibit virtuous character because that affects their ability to get lucrative product endorsement deals. (And of course, MLB and its players are quite happy to assert their "hero" status when that's useful to avoid answering nasty questions in front of Congress or to fend off criminal investigations.) Character virtue of ballplayers is a powerful marketing virtue. But if the fans stopped their neurotic demand that athletes exhibit all the other human virtues, do you think Major League baseball would insist on them as a matter of “integrity”?

The idea that baseball has institutional integrity is the silliest idea of all. The baseball establishment self-righteously crows about the amorphous institutional “integrity of the game” when it serves their purposes to promote marketing, to gain an advantage in player-management internal negotiations, or to defend their antitrust exemption before Congress. But baseball owners and players will be the first to tell you – when it serves their purposes – that baseball is a for-profit business. That’s all we hear about when players, agents and owners get down and dirty with contract and salary negotiations, when teams try to strong arm local governments into sweeheart stadium deals, or when franchises seek to relocate to new cities. If there was more money to be made by producing a spectacle of fixed contests like professional wrestling, do you for a minute believe that baseball owners would put even “outcome integrity” before profits?


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