Commentary

Busybodies on Steroids

This article appeared in the American Spectator, December 10, 2004.

Jason Giambi of the New York Yankees took steroids. So did Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants, though he claims not to have known what they were.

Ho-hum. These revelations are of interest only to fans, who deify athletes, and to politicians, who use any excuse to increase their power.

Steroids have long been used by gym rats to create bulging muscles and by professional wrestlers to build bulk. It was long assumed, obviously with good reason, that other sporting pros, particularly baseball and football players, often sought artificial aid in adding muscle.

Real scandal typically comes only when top athletes violate competition rules to gain an advantage. Olympic champions Ben Johnson and Marion Jones were disgraced by revelations that they used steroids to improve their performance. Blood doping and injecting human growth hormones are similarly forbidden by many sporting organizations as artificial enhancements.

Nevertheless, observes Charlie Francis, who aided Johnson: “Steroids are so ubiquitous, so omnipresent in sport; they have been for decades.” Thus, he adds, “There is a level playing field out there. It just isn’t the playing field you thought it was.”

That’s probably not good. But it hardly constitutes a national crisis.

Steroids can hurt the taker. That’s a particular concern when the users are young. There is a need for more parental involvement, improved educational efforts, and better rules enforcement.

Reliance on steroids also undercuts the perceived fairness of sports competitions. Cheating begets cheating, as athletes are loath to fall behind their peers. The most important enforcers here are associations and leagues which fear losing support, both fans and financial backers.

But in many cases the best response is neglect.

Does it matter, for instance, if professional wrestlers take steroids? Hardly. Where adult athletes are willing to risk their health, fans don’t care if their role models have feet of clay, and athletic integrity is irrelevant to the sport, why should anyone care?

In none of these cases should Washington be concerned. But Sen. John McCain (R-Az.) is outraged.

After the revelations involving Giambi and Bonds, from leaked testimony before a grand jury, Sen. McCain declared that he was “dismayed though not surprised.”

Major League Baseball had better set up “a minimum standard of drug testing,” or, he threatened, he would introduce legislation to do so. If MLB does not act, then “clearly we have to act legislatively, which we don’t want to do.”

“Major League Baseball and its players insist on turning a blind eye to the misconduct that threatens to undermine the legitimacy of their sport,” said Sen. McCain. “There are many fans disturbed,” he added.

But that’s not obviously true. A lot of fans might believe that Barry Bonds has hit a couple extra home runs because he used steroids. Surely no one thinks that the Boston Red Sox dramatically dispatched the New York Yankees because players used steroids.

It’s worth repeating that the legitimacy of Major League Baseball is the League’s problem. Congress is already doing a horrible job trying to do far too much:

  • Social Security is heading towards insolvency. Federal laws and regulations have helped create an expensive, inefficient “cost-plus” medical system.
  • The war in Iraq has become an interminable guerrilla imbroglio.
  • Federal welfare programs have encouraged family and community break-up. Washington has wasted untold billions on failed development and training programs.
  • Corporate welfare is larded throughout the budget. Government efforts to “manage” the economy have invariably backfired.

So now Uncle Sam will protect the integrity of baseball?

Sen. McCain announced that he did not care “about Mr. Bonds or Mr. Sheffield or anybody else. What I care about are high school athletes who are tempted to use steroids because they think that’s the only way they can make it to the major leagues.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) made much the same claim: MLB officials “have a responsibility, not only to the sport, but to the children of America who look up to these players.”

Whether or not there’s a MLB testing program, some kids are likely to look for any competitive advantage to get there. But who can best combat that temptation? Parents, teachers, and counselors; or legislators?

Moreover, this argument proves far too much. Some athletes drink. Some smoke. Some drive fast cars. Should the federal government ban all of these activities lest some young person somewhere foolishly follow their example?

Washington should not treat responsible adults as irresponsible children in the name of protecting children.

Congress has already foolishly criminalized steroids use. Now Sen. McCain proposes creating a federal testing regime.

Instead, the government should leave adults free to do as they wish. Craig Masback, chief of USA Track and Field, argues that “Giving up is not an option,” but leaving education and enforcement to private bodies is not giving up. Not everything that is bad should be illegal.

A free society is inevitably a messy place. Some people do things that others don’t like. Some people make mistakes.

They may be making bad decisions. But it is far more important to preserve a free society than to stop athletes from making bad decisions.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.