Tuesday, March 22, 2005


The National Pastime: Field of Dreams or Garden of Good and Evil?

Part II of V on steroid use in baseball

The House committee hearings on steroid use in Major League Baseball are probably mere Congressional gasbagging. Though Congress was not wrong to hold the hearings, since it seems clear that baseball is unable to fix its own problem, it's hard to imagine the steroid hearings leading to anything more than the brokering of a largely cosmetic deal between baseball officialdom and Congressional grandstanders, with the penalties for steroid use being tweaked slightly upward.

Yet I wish the hearings would have continued for many weeks. At least they would have had the virtue of distracting Congress from pursuing actual legislative tasks, such as Social Security privatization, "tort reform," confirmation of Bush judicial nominees, bankruptcy "reform" to help credit card companies, and interfering with the right to die. Oops, they did manage to slip in those last two.

The steroid hearings are also strangely interesting because they bring together two of my favorite aspects of American national neurosis: our excessive sentimentality and irrationality about our heroes, on the one hand, and our criminals on the other.

It's worth going back and asking why steroids are illegal. The good reason for banning steroids is that they raise a classic regulatory health problem. They pose a serious health risk to consumers (professional and wanna-be professional athletes), but those consumers have a powerful incentive to use them: they improve their chances for athletic success, and winning the approval, adulation and riches our society bestows on successful athletes.

The temptation to make the Faustian devil's bargain – trading long term values (one's soul in the Faust myth, one's future health in the steroid reality) for short term gain – is always powerful. (And not, I would add, always illegal. The entire Bush Administration approach to public policy – on energy, the environment, finance, the economy – seems to be based on yielding to the Faustian temptation.)

Steroids should be banned to protect athletes from themselves, and it may be that the optimal regulatory approach is to impose stiff deterrent penalties on the athletes themselves. If illegal steroid use gives athletes an edge in game performance, suspend them from playing in games. If steroid use has helped an athlete win higher salaries than his peers who refrained from steroid use, take some of that salary back.

But why do we have to build steroid use into some great morality play in which evil steroid cheaters undercut our virtuous baseball heroes and thus undermine the "integrity" of the game? More on that to follow...


Comments: Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]