Column: Steroids: Who cares?

Like Bill Clinton before him, Rafael Palmeiro must regret adding his wagging finger to history’s scrapbook. In an instant, his career as one of baseball’s “good guys” disintegrated into scandal with a recent positive test for steroids.

Significant in the world of sports, Palmeiro’s steroid use captivated the attention of not only the public, but also Congress, specifically the House Government Reform Committee. While cheating in baseball is significant in its isolated environment, the amount of attention paid to it and the frivolous debate stemming from it borders on absurdity.

Rampant steroid use represents a fundamental challenge to the integrity on which sports rest. The entire theory of sport is predicated on the foundation of pure competition between individuals or teams without the influence of substances or other materials designed to provide a competitive edge. While continued indifference to steroid use threatens the integrity of sport, the indignant rants of the sports punditry fail to place it in proper historical perspective. Steroids simply follow corked bats and doctored balls in the timeless art of cheating.

Just because steroids follow in this tradition does not mean they should not be taken seriously. It would be near impossible to find one who argues against a more stringent testing policy in Major League Baseball. In Olympic competition, one positive test results in a two-year ban from competition, and a second a lifetime ban. If baseball instituted such a plan, rest assured steroid use would dry up quickly. While steroids would disappear from baseball, the underlying desire for competitive advantage in sports would not. Many experts predict gene therapy injections could soon replace steroid use for this purpose. Injecting genetic code to enhance muscle mass, stamina and other athletic traits would be both potent and undetectable.

Because many fail to understand steroid use in the broader context of cheating, it has elicited a massive public outcry not commensurate with its overall significance. Cheating in sports should be dealt with in-house; leagues should address the issue themselves during collective bargaining with their players’ unions. Some would argue this approach would not adequately solve the problem. Although the collective bargaining track has not eliminated steroids from baseball, the process is working.

Due to an outcry from consumers, baseball was largely forced to change its existing steroids policy to give suspensions and public disclosure upon the first offense. Because testing revealed steroids are in fact prevalent in baseball, increased consumer pressure will force owners and players to adopt an even more stringent policy. As penalties mount, fewer players will subject themselves to the financial consequences imposed by steroid use, and the problem will wilt away.

Because this is an internal sports issue, Congress should not be involved. Congress’ high-profile hearings achieved little in the broader struggle of ridding the sport of steroids. Instead, it merely provided legislators another opportunity to dabble in more superficial frivolities. Unauthorized steroid use is already a crime; therefore it is unclear precisely where Congress’ authority lies in the matter.

Treating steroid use like an atypical occurrence in sports history tragically miscalculates its place as the most technologically advanced form of cheating. While steroids must be eliminated from sports, it will be very difficult to eviscerate the mentality driving athletes toward them. Instead, society must resign itself to the fact that there will always be cheaters – only their methods will change.

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