This is a large subject, which I will devote more time to in the future, but Jason Whitlock’s column at ESPN.com today has it right about the NFL:
“Honestly, I feel sorry for Barry Bonds. That's no real surprise. I've been defending Barry Bonds for years. His arrogance never bothered me. His alleged use of steroids never struck me as all that unethical when you recognize the obvious fact that pitchers are more likely to use steroids than position players and the world's most powerful and popular sports league -- the NFL -- relies heavily on athletes who mainline performance enhancers in high school and college and dabble when they need to in the pros.”
An intriguing part of the steroids debate is how much attention is focused on baseball, to the virtual exclusion of the other major team sports. However lame baseball’s drug testing program and attendant penalties are (and they’re pretty lame, though improving), can anyone with a straight face say that there are more users in baseball than in the NFL? I know football has a more serious testing program but, come on, is this even a serious conversation?
Let’s stipulate that baseball has brought the harsh scrutiny on itself for its failure to address the problem much sooner. The NFL’s been testing for the stuff since the early 1990s. Baseball didn’t introduce penalties for steroid use until 2005.
But, there are at least two other reasons why sports media folks talk incessantly about steroids in baseball but barely mention it when it comes to football. First, baseball players, more than in any other sport, are judged not only against their contemporaries, but against the past. For all the talk about how unfair it is to non-users to have to compete against users (and, I agree, it is unfair), that’s ultimately not what has people so upset. It’s the tainted pursuit of hallowed records of the game, starting with the now discredited 1998 home run race and culminating in the least climactic historic home run in baseball history, Bonds’ No. 714. No other sport connects past to present through statistical milestones like baseball. So, it’s impossible to even conceive of a statistical pursuit in another sport garnering the kind of attention that Ripkengot, or McGwire and Sosa or even the anti-attention that Bonds has received.
The second reason is sports media’s overwhelming antipathy toward the baseball players union. The union is surely to blame for the weak steroids policy in baseball. But, so is the commissioner, who discovered the steroids issue very belatedly and likely when he was searching for a useful bargaining chip to hang over the players during the stalled 2002 negotiations. That the NFL almost surely has more users than baseball matters not – what matters is the perception that a pliant union has acceded to the wishes of ownership to construct a policy that serves as useful public relations for the league. That fact, combined with the near irrelevance of statistical records for fans’ relationship to the game has made the question of actual use, as opposed to perceived use, almost irrelevant to most discussions about performance enhancing drugs. Baseball’s held to a different standard than other sports, which is fine. But, the double standard by which baseball is judged compared to foorball means that much of what people say about steroids - including its negative influence on players’ health and its adverse impact on the game’s integrity - rings hollow.