For the last several years we have seen a feeding frenzy targeting one of baseball’s greatest players of all time. What is behind these attacks? Is it that one man went astray in an otherwise pure game? Or simply a case of cheating?
Hardly. To find the answer we must look at the baseball industry, our culture and indeed our entire system.
In 1994, a massive ball player strike led to the cancellation of the World Series and part of that year’s baseball season. Many people in our country, including some of the most loyal baseball fans, became disillusioned about the sport. The owners of the major teams were desperate to build up the game and increase their profits.
One of the main ways they chose to do this was to build newer (and smaller) ballparks, making it easier to hit a home run. The baseballs, the bats and even the very rules of the game were changed (the strike zone was narrowed to give an advantage to batters) — all so that there would be more home runs.
It would be beyond naive to believe that the owners didn’t also put enormous pressure on the players to take sports enhancing drugs, so as to get more home runs and increase the industry’s profits.
It may be hard to look at Barry Bonds and other major league players, with their wealth and fame, and see them as exploited, but in many respects they are. In many ways they are simply super-sized versions of the grocery store clerk or factory worker who puts his or her life into a job and thereby makes the owner more wealthy. Bonds’ wealth is mere pocket change compared to what some of the team owners and managers make. In this way, Bonds and the other players can be seen as workers confronting management.
And as usual, the management strategy toward their workers is divide and conquer. Consider: in 2005, the famed player Mark McGwire, who currently holds the record for most home runs in a season, was asked to testify before Congress about steroid use by other ballplayers. Fortunately the divide and conquer tactic proved harder than management may have expected. McGwire refused to testify against his fellow players, telling the congressional committee: “I will use whatever influence and popularity that I have to discourage young athletes from taking any drug that is not recommended by a doctor. What I will not do, however, is participate in naming names and implicating my friends and teammates.”
Many sportswriters for the corporate media were not nearly as scrupulous. McGwire, like Bonds, was blasted by much of the press. When McGwire became eligible for admission into the Hall of Fame, he was denied the honor, due in large part to negative votes on the board of acceptance — most of whom are establishment sportswriters.
Players are punished not only for what they don’t say but often for what they do say. Take the example of Jason Giambi, a player for the New York Yankees, who was also hauled before the congressional committee regarding drug use in baseball.
Giambi recently told USA Today, “What we should have done a long time ago is was stand up — players, ownership, everybody — and said: ‘We made a mistake.’”
Oops, all of a sudden Giambi’s contract with the Yankees (worth over $100 million) was being reconsidered. Giambi was told by the baseball commissioner (who is appointed by the team owners) to basically shut up.
Do these sound like the actions of an industry that is concerned with players doing drugs? Or are these the actions of an industry that is more concerned with not letting itself be implicated in a scandal?
The evidence indicates that team owners not only tolerate drug use by players but encourage it for the sake of greater profit.
However, the real question about Barry Bonds is simply this: did his steroid use, if he indeed used these drugs (he has never tested positive for them), diminish his legacy?
Drugs may have enhanced his game, but so what? Drugs may have enhanced Shakespeare’s writing, but few question his accomplishments. Drugs don’t create record home run makers any more than they create world-class writers. Bonds got where he is because he was born with a seemingly God-given talent and worked extremely hard to refine it and himself.
That is the mark of a true athlete and something that deserves respect and support, not cheap shots and condemnation.
Teddy Wood is a student, age 23, in California.