In light of Lance Armstrong’s Oprah interview and a kerfuffle over Ray Lewis and deer antler spray, the topic of performance-enhancing drugs has been in the news with renewed vigor.
It has culminated with this overwrought, hyper-ventilating column by Bill Simmons’ of Grantland, which has instigated my biggest intellectual backlash to the whole purity-in-sports movement to date.
As regular readers of this column know, I adore Simmons and his gargantuan run-on columns and entertaining-as-actual-sports podcast. He is without question the pre-eminent sportswriter of his generation, and he’s managed this by taking an unapologetic “bullshitting with friends” approach to dissecting sports. His writing is normally lucid and terrifically astute, which is why this particular column fails so dramatically. Its tone-deaf, over-the-top, soul-searching shtick would be bad enough, but there is one line that whiffs so badly, it’s unforgiveable. In speaking of who makes it onto his PED profiling list, Simmons writes:
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.
The idea that President Obama should drop what he’s doing on immigration, gun violence, education, climate change, unemployment, nuclear proliferation, or any of the dozens of other emergencies, crises, and existential threats to worry about whether Adrian Peterson had chemical help in his comeback season is so totally asinine, it boggles the mind. Mark my words, the one thing that will stop me from supporting the president would be if he pivoted to focusing on PEDs in sports. The humorless self-righteousness with which Simmons wrote that eminently silly line serves as a bit of entry point to the warped worldview of all fans and sports journalists who are obsessed with PEDs.
One of the stupidest moments in our democracy came with the 2005 congressional hearings on steroids in baseball. I watched, baffled, because this was a time when Iraq was collapsing into civil war, American soldiers were coming home in body bags or with the opportunity to test out new artificial limbs—all over a war fought on a total, abject, unequivocal propaganda campaign waged by dangerous, lying ideologues. And there were our representatives grilling Mark McGuire about his home runs.
The idea that we need the federal government to intervene to keep arbitrary organizations of arbitrary games centered around arbitrary rules in order to keep certain arbitrary substances out of those players bodies is possibly the ultimate example of daft prioritizing. Should congress also get involved over the pinch-hitter? The distance of the three-point line? The fair catch rule?
Furthermore, sports purists have never quite explained what the hell the actual problem is, except that PEDs somehow violate their sense of fairness. Simmons comes the closest to articulating why he thinks PEDs are such a huge problem when he writes toward the end of his column, “I don’t even know what I’m watching anymore.”
Well, it’s just all the same stuff, but with guys slightly stronger and faster… Soooo I can totally see how this warrants a collective, society-wide freak-out that involves presidential action. Right. Gotcha.
As I see it, there are two reasons people tend to express when they get frothy and vehement about PEDs: 1) They ruin the “integrity” of the sport and 2) They are threats to the players’ health.
Let’s take these one at a time, starting with the “integrity” of a sport. Simmons points to the home run example, where the number of home runs hit in a single season went from Jimmie Fox hitting 58 in 1932 to Roger Maris setting the new record of 61 in ’61—a record that stood for nearly forty years until the steroid era kicked off with the Sosa, McGuire, and Bonds arms race. Surely, this did ruin the purity of the home run record in that Roger Maris can’t get out of his grave, start juicing, and see how he would’ve stacked up, but you know what else Roger Maris never did? He never weight-trained. He never had dieticians working to increase his protein intake. He didn’t have trainers icing and hot-tubbing and massaging every ache and tension in his body all season long. There are all kinds of performance-enhancing amenities modern players enjoy that Maris never did. Plus, Maris got his own form of performance-enhancer when baseball added more games to the schedule, which earned him the infamous asterisk next to his record. Babe Ruth broke his own record when he hit 60 home runs, but by all accounts he played an alarming number of his games hungover and with various venereal diseases, so maybe the itching and the headache were giving him some kind of unfair advantage?