At the beginning of last year, shortly after news leaked of Ryan Braun’s pending suspension, and through his successful appeal, I wrote about his situation a lot, largely because I found it easy to write about. I’ve shied away from writing about the latest round of stories, partly because I feel like I should diversify my content some more, but also because I feel like most of what I want to say is what I wrote a year ago (in particular, I feel like this piece holds up pretty well). But I have been reflecting a lot on the situation, and I do have a few points I want to add, so I’ll use the recent reports that MLB is ramping up its investigation and specifically targeting Braun as an excuse to share some of my thinking.
This story is fascinating, and that has nothing to do with Ryan Braun’s guilt or innocence. The notion that Braun might have used performance enhancing drugs is relatively uninteresting, because athletes will always seek to find whatever edge they can to get ahead. The very nature of competition not only ensures this, it selects for those who are willing to go down any avenue in the pursuit of success. This doesn’t make his alleged behavior right, merely unremarkable. But the response of fans and the league is interesting. Here is an athlete about whom there is suggestive, but inconclusive, evidence that he used PEDs. A large swath of baseball fandom has declared him guilty, cannot be convinced otherwise, and feel the need to vocally share their declaration. One gets the sense that these people feel a need to loudly proclaim their cynical view, lest they be mistaken for a naïf. This is interesting. Even more interesting, Major League Baseball seems hellbent on punishing Braun through any means necessary, reportedly offering immunity to PED offenders in exchange for information, and even filing suit against Anthony Bosch and other solely in an attempt to acquire records that can lead to punishment for players. The League apparently feels they’d be better off keeping this story in the news and continuing to smear and tar one of the best players in the game, rather than trust their current system going forward. If they manage to suspend Braun, will this really reaffirm trust in the game? Will this keep baseball associated with positive thoughts in people’s heads? Is there some significant population boycotting the game for PED reasons who will be mollified by this suspension? Color me skeptical, but MLB seems to believe so, and that is where we’re at. That is the current state of the game, and it is fascinating.
It doesn’t matter whether Ryan Braun is guilty or innocent, because that’s not the real story. The system and the culture are.
Where did this system and culture come from? It seems to me there is one unanswered, and largely unasked, question about the Steroid Era that seems to sum up our response to the issue: Why is our reaction solely focused on eradicating performance enhancing drugs, and not on making them safer? Hear me out. Intrinsic to the logic of any PED ban is that these drugs are harmful to the user. It is not enough, by itself, to note that their use encourages other players to use them, because this fact alone is banal. The use of weight training by some players encourages other players to weight train, but we do not ban this, because weight training isn’t harmful. We ban PEDs because we don’t want players to feel pressured into harming themselves in order to reach and stay in the Major Leagues. This is perfectly reasonable, but would it not also be perfectly reasonable to note that as long as the possibility of chemical enhancement exists, some players will avail themselves of it, so we should want to find the safest ways for players to engage in this? It’s silly to say we won’t allow it because it wasn’t available in baseball’s past; there are scores of training methods that didn’t exist for most of baseball’s history. In Babe Ruth’s day, state of the art training meant wearing a rubber suit to sweat more. Some might object that there is no way to make chemical enhancement safe, or that to embrace it would mean opening a Pandora’s box, greenlighting substances that seem safe now but have horrible side effects decades down the road. This is a perfectly legitimate objection, but as far as I know, no one has raised it because we aren’t even having the discussion. No one is talking about trying to safely chemically enhance, because the steroid furor is not and has never been about player safety. It is about the notion of chemical enhancement itself.
Zack Greinke was in the news recently for discussing the anxiety disorder that nearly drove him away from baseball, and in particularly for saying that the medication that he takes to deal with it, “is the greatest thing ever.” It shouldn’t be, but it still is somewhat jarring to hear someone speak so openly and positively about an anti-depressant. There has long been a stigma associated with the use of drugs to treat mental illness; it is less than it used to be, but it’s still there. There is often the (completely untrue) assumption that sufferers of mental illness need to merely “get over it” on their own, and to rely on some sort of scientific assistance for help is somehow dishonorable. It’s obviously not a perfect analogy with PED use, but I think there is an expression of the same uneasiness with chemical enhancement. Our bodies are more like machines than we want to admit, and there is something threatening about the idea that the human machine can be improved like any other. This, I believe, is a large part of what we’re reacting to when we react to PED use. We’re scared by the intersection of science and life.
It doesn’t matter whether Ryan Braun is guilty or innocent, because that’s not the real story. We are.