The Plank

Let Them Eat Steroids


I haven't followed the online discussion of Mark McGwire's Hall of Fame snub, but my sense is that this hints at a pretty reasonable solution to our national steroid scourge: Namely, let players use all the steroids they want, but test them regularly and make sure the fans know about it. (Or at least that they know certain players refuse to be tested.) Players who choose to use steroids won't run afoul of the law, but they probably will run afoul of certain norms, which is what appears to have soured the baseball writers on McGwire, and which is probably as it should be. If someone wants to transform himself into a juiced-up freak for my entertainment pleasure, I see no reason to stop him. But neither do I see any reason to honor him for it. I think the force of norms in cases like this tend to be much stronger than the force of the law.

There is always the question of norms changing over time, of course. Some would argue that making steroid-use legal would deal this particular norm a mortal blow. But I'm not convinced of that. The question of whether we should send someone to prison for using steroids seems separable from the question of whether we should single them out for ridicule. (Though I'll concede that the two questions can be related. Laws probably cease to have much force when no norms exist to support them.)

P.S. It's not entirely the same subject, but this brings to mind a sharp piece Jonathan Rauch wrote for us back in 2001 about laws versus norms (sadly, not online), and how sometimes we should just relax and defer to the latter.

Update: Here's the link to that piece.

The general reaction to my proposal among our commenters seems to be: 1.) You can't allow steroid-use because, as one puts it, that makes it pretty much mandatory. In a competitive marketplace like professional sports, any advantage the other guy claims is an advantage you need, too, if you want to stay in the league, get paid, win games, etc. 2.) What about the youth? My recommendation presumes you have mature, well-informed adults making decisions for themselves. If steroid use is permitted, children with professional ambitions may feel compelled to take them without understanding the consequences.

But I'm not suggesting we encourage steroid-use. To the contrary, I think we should actively discourage it. Fans should boo players who test positive (or refuse to take a test). They should shun their paraphernalia. Companies should be pressured into withdrawing endorsement contracts from them. I think all of that would be pretty healthy. The question is whether you're confident in your ability to police steroid use, and whether you think it's a good use of your resources to try. I think the answer in both case is no.

In effect, I'm suggesting we move from a situation in which the player has the benefit of the doubt--because of all the due-process requirements that must apply if you're going to ban someone from a sport, or throw them in jail--to one in which there's a broad presumption of guilt (practical, that is, not legal), and the burden is on the player to prove himself clean (e.g., by voluntarily submitting to rigorous testing). I think the latter is more workable.

What's not a good outcome is putting in place some legal or rule-based regime that most fans (and players) think is a sham. Major League Baseball did hand down some stiff suspensions last season, but none to the numerous marquee players who are almost certainly using performance-enhancing drugs. If a handful of superstars stepped up and voluntarily submitted themselves to regular testing, it would put a lot of pressure on the other guys. Why would they do that? It starts with what we saw yesterday: Sportswriters (and, presumably, fans) prefer to bestow honors on players they deem clean, and withhold them from players they deem cheaters. If all the superstars are juicing, and you're a superstar (or near-superstar) who isn't, it makes sense for you to prove it. It could dramatically enhance your stature.

--Noam Scheiber

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