Thursday, May 05, 2005


Bill Simmons (aka the Sports Guy) wrote an interesting piece on steroid use in baseball, in which he argues that steroid use was obvious, everybody cheats, and at least it's a more interesting story than the latest meltdown of the Yankees. I basically agree, but i think that the importance of steroid use depends on the sport. For instance,

NFL Football: Doesn't matter at all to me if the players use steroids. NFL football is more spectacle than sport, and while you can argue that the players are great athletes, there's not much about the NFL that wouldn't apply to pro wrestling. The NFL would be just as interesting, and would attract just as many viewers if the players were replaced by sophisticated robots.

NBA Basketball: Would steroids help? Granted, many NBA players are massive these days, but until steroids make you taller or quicker, i can't imagine they'd help anyone in the NBA much.

Major-league baseball: Apparently, steroids make a significant difference for power players who don't have to worry too much about speed or defensive prowess. Like the NFL and the NBA, major league baseball transformed over the last decade into a bit of a freak show, with all of the emphasis on power and home run records and 100mph pitches. The one reason why i think steroid use in baseball is serious is because of the history. It might be that the last 20 years will become known as the "steroid era" and it'll have it's own set of asterisks along with the dead-ball era, and the expansion years, and the years before black athletes could play. But to me, it would be a shame to see some steroid-enhanced mutant break Hank Aaron's home run record. If you're not a sports fan, or if you weren't around when Aaron broke Ruth's record, it might seem trivial or frivolous to care about such things. But Aaron's accomplishment was, in my opinion, a major cultural milestone. Aaron at the time received death threats from racist idiots who didn't want to see Ruth's record broken by a black man, yet he went out and played (and he admitted that he was afraid). Aaron is still one of my heroes, not only because he was a great player, but because he had a great spirit. Could anyone say the same of Barry Bonds?

Track and Field: This is where i think steroid use is most serious. The reason is that track and field events are completely meaningless if they're not a pure contest of human ability. I've heard people argue that we should just accept that athletes will attempt to take any advantage they can, and so we should treat steroid use, blood doping, and other types of performance enhancement as another aspect of training, no different than better nutrition or improvements in equipment. That's bollocks. I find sprint events thrilling, and i love it when somebody in the 100m breaks 10 seconds or approaches the record. But the thrill comes not from the speed per se, but from the "how can a human being do that?" reaction. Hell, a 10s 100m is only about 23 mph. Similary, running a marathon in 2:05 is an incredible human accomplishment, but not fast for a machine. If we condone drugs, then don't we condone biomechanical enhancements? This struck me when i was reading Neal Bascomb's book The Perfect Mile, about the attempt to break the 4-minute mile barrier. While 4-minute miles aren't exactly mundane yet, they're not rare either. But the story of Roger Bannister and John Landy is still so compelling because of the struggle and the competition, not the time.

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