Thursday, February 04, 2010

Unintended Consequences

They’re often called unintended consequences or hidden messages, but when the topic is doping in sports they play a major role. When Ben Johnson was caught using steroids in Seoul in 1988, the message the anti doping community hoped to send was that cheaters are caught and punished. Instead the unintended consequence, the hidden message, was that steroids work. Where can I get some?

A short time ago Mark McGwire performed an orchestrated media tour to admit that he had used performance enhancing substances. The admission he made were part of the deal he’d made with his old and current employers, the St. Louis Cardinal baseball team, to allow him to return to the club as a hitting coach. The unintended consequence of his act was to devalue one of baseball’s previously most cherished records and send a message to everyone that crime does indeed pay.

You disagree? Consider this. He admits he got at least some of the steroids he used from his brother, not a physician. There was no legitimate medical use for their procurement and use. That is illegal. It was also against the rules in baseball at the time. Rules that were not enforced, were not backed up with a testing program to attempt to catch those who broke the rules. That’s a crime. That’s breaking the rules.

He knew what he was doing. He did it willingly, and he also willingly hid what he was doing from those around him. He did it during the year he broke baseball’s single season home run record, one of the most cherished in the sport. He claimed in his recent statements that he regretted that he played during the “steroid era.” That he regretted using the drugs. Yet, when AP reporter Steve Wilstein observed and wrote about the fact that during the same season he set the record that there was a bottle of androstendione in McGwire’s locker, McGwire didn’t confess what else he was doing. He didn’t regret it. He wasn’t sorry. He did everything he could to cover it up.

McGwire bought into the dopers credo that “everybody was doing it.” Indeed, Barry Bonds, who would go on to break McGwire’s record for single season home runs, as well as Hank Aaron’s career home run record, is alleged to have justified his own use of performance enhancing substances because of what he saw others, such as McGwire, doing, according to information printed in the Game of Shadows by then San Francisco Chronicle reporters, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams. It’s the same mantra that Johnson and any other athlete who is caught using drugs talks about as one of the main inspirations for drug use. “It isn’t cheating if everybody else is doing it,” is how Johnson’s coach, Charlie Francis, articulated it.

And it certainly isn’t cheating if you don’t get caught. Or, in McGwire’s case, if you don’t admit it until the statute of limitations on the punishment for your crime is up. When called before a Congressional hearing about the use of drugs in baseball, McGwire claims he wanted to confess, but only if he was given immunity. In other words, if he could avoid the consequences of the crimes he committed, he’d admit he committed them. Tom Davis, who was the chairman of the House Government Reform Committee that compelled McGwire to testify, told the Associated Press, that he had a three hour meeting with McGwire the day before McGwire was scheduled to testify.

“We put him in a pretty tight spot,” Davis told the AP. “He was candid and honest in our interrogation of him. He said: “Some day, I’ll tell the story.’” Some day when he wouldn’t be prosecuted for what he said. “He did it to protect himself and his family,” one of McGwire’s lawyers, Mark Bierbower told the AP. He did it to protect the money he’d made for setting those records while using the drugs. And he admitted what he did so that he could enrich himself and his family with more money from a job as a hitting coach for the Cardinals, but hopefully avoid any penalties for what he had already done.

And how did baseball react? Did they act to expunge the fraudulent records? Did they say McGwire had to pay back the ill gotten gains from his transgressions? Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said that he was glad McGwire had admitted what he did, and that the “steroid era” in baseball was over. Contrast this to when Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s record for single season home runs back in 1961. Then baseball Commissioner Ford Frick declared that unless Ruth’s record was broken by game number 154(the number of games played when Ruth set the record) the record would be listed with an asterisk. Some saw it as an overly protective attempt to preserve the memories of Ruth, one of the games’ icons. Others noted it as an example of how special the records were to baseball.

No more. There has been no move by the executives of Major League Baseball to purge McGwire’s “records.” No consequences for breaking the rules. This is similar to the actions of the IOC when faced with cases where athletes who set records or won medals are subsequently revealed to have doped. To their credit, the IOC does have a process in place to handle such situations, but there is an eight-year statue of limitations. Within the last week, for example, a US relay runner, Crystal Cox, was convicted of a doping violation that occurred inside the mandated statute and the IOC has said it will investigate the matter, but Finnish cross country skier Mika Myllylä, who won gold medal in 1998, outside the eight year window, admitted to doping, thus no investigation was initiated.

The message being sent here is simple. Rules, like records, are made to be broken. If you can get away with it.

No comments: