Monday, August 5, 2013

Performance enhancing drugs.
Why is anyone surprised?

Hello, regular readers, if I may use the term loosely. I'm keeping up my sci-fi blog every day and doing what I can on the math blog, but I have been neglecting my original blog rather badly. Apologies.

I write today about something that is neither about science fiction or math, but the news that multiple baseball players have been caught using performance enhancing drugs. Most people writing about it are either heading towards the fainting couch or want the cat o' nine tails re-instated.

I have a different take. I'm not surprised and I am finding it harder and harder to care.

Of the sports writers I've read, only Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star shares my lack of surprise, though he wants the cat out of the bag. (That's the original meaning of the saying. When the whip was removed, punishment would begin. Thanks, Patrick O'Brian, for making this clear.)

Kravitz also thinks that nearly everyone who was caught this time was Hispanic because they have more to gain.Sorry, Mr. Kravitz, I call racist bullshit on that. Everyone was Hispanic this time because the lab that was busted was in Miami.

Kravitz wants the punishment to be true zero tolerance. Caught once, banned for life. Again, I disagree.

Kravitz gives credit to an alternative newspaper in Miami for breaking this story, pumping up his own line of work.

That's three places where I break ranks with Kravitz. The story broke because of a disgruntled employee. That is was published in a newspaper before the cops or Major League Baseball investigated is a minor point from where I'm sitting.

Here's my view.

1. Only world class athletes have a chance to make money that can set them up for life. Triple A baseball is barely a middle class wage and it disappears when the athlete is still a young man by any reasonable measure. Baseball is a rarity in that people are loyal to watching a product that isn't the very best but still performed by professionals. (Basketball and football have made it a tradition that colleges are their minor leagues. In hockey, there are junior and minor leagues somewhat akin to baseball.)

2. There is not a single sport I can name where the anti-doping measures aren't an obvious joke. The best athletes don't get caught by failing a test. They get caught because someone rats them out. We love our procedural dramas and as a mathematician, I'm glad to see nerds get to be heroes in the mainstream media, but the system of snitches on The Wire is much more true to life than the perky goth girl genius on NCIS.

3. Athletes may make money that puts them in the top 1%, but they don't get to write the laws they live under. To my mind, the ability to write the laws you have to obey is the true measure of power in our disgustingly corrupt plutocracy that still calls itself a republic. The guys who crashed the world economy in 2008 aren't in jail because they broke no laws. Their methods of theft and bad gambling were and still are 100% kosher. Athletes, on the other hand, have to obey rules made by other people, just like the rest of us slobs in the lower 99.8%.

4. Athletes may not be the brightest bulbs on the Christmas tree, but they live with risk to a much greater extent than most of us. That experience makes their risk-taking more like an evolutionary advantage. A lot of would be athletes sound like Al Bundy from Married... With Children. They shone bright in high school or college or maybe the minor leagues and then... poof! Sometimes it's an injury, but more often it's The Peter Principle at work. And when it gets to the top level, the trait that often makes the difference is the ability to play with pain. They risk their future health to play one more game, one more season. If a drug that they know from experience can't be detected can give them a real advantage, why should they say no? I know it's standard operating procedure to hate Barry Bonds, and I hate him myself. He's a reprehensible human being, even before he took PEDs. But his enormous ego could not stand seeing lesser talents like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa put on Mount Olympus and his remarkable achievements ignored because he couldn't hit more than fifty home runs in a season without steroids. (This puts him in company with Hank Aaron, who never hit fifty but hit more than forty with shocking regularity.) Once he took PEDs, you got to see what it means to be the greatest talent of a generation. At the plate, he hasn't had an equal in a very long time, possibly never.

5. But what about the children? No question can make me more disgusted faster than this one. Maybe it's because I don't have kids myself, but I didn't learn morality from Willie Mays or Jim Plunkett, I just liked watching them play. My male role models were my dad and my older brother, and I learned from them as both good examples and bad examples from time to time. I really don't like to cheat. It annoys me when I see others do it and as a teacher, I see it way too often. But I also don't want to become obsessed with catching cheats. I make it as clear as I can that I know what they are doing and give them one clear warning. Unless I see it becoming pandemic, and in a few classes that has happened, I'm becoming less and less of a hard ass as time goes on.

6. One change to the rules could change my attitude completely. If owners, general managers and coaches could be suspended, heavily fined or banned for life for turning a blind eye to the obvious corruption in their organizations, then I wouldn't mind players getting tough punishment.

Until then, I'd like the fans and sportswriters who are shocked, SHOCKED! to find that players are breaking poorly enforced rules to gain a real competitive advantage to shut the fuck up.

Here endeth the lesson.


Abu Scooter said...

The second sentence in point 6 brings to mind the signature line in Syriana: "Corruption is why you and I are prancing around in here instead of fighting over scraps of meat out in the streets. Corruption is why we win." In MLB's case, corruption is why places like Kansas City, Miami, Oakland and Washington even have teams today.

I find any theory that no one in MLB upper management suspected the truth laughable, to say the least. Without steroids, there's no McGuire-Sosa home-run derby in '98; and without that, MLB probably wouldn't have recovered from the '94 strike.

Matthew Hubbard said...

Hey, Abu. Nice movie quote.

Baseball is the sport being raked over the coals right now, but this is going on in the other major sports as well. I absolutely agree that Mcgwire-Sosa was huge in MLB history.

Basketball has a lot less drug test stories than the other sports, but that's because their method for testing is even less rigorous. And as I stated in the post, testing doesn't work as well as getting ratted out does.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

I read an article by a guy who spent a few days on a pro football practice field. After he saw the amount of pain meds and other drugs being dispensed just for practice, he started to be able to see players who are stoned to the gills on the field; and in every major sport, not just football.

Between that and the blind eye towards concussions, football is pretty tough to watch these days.

Matthew Hubbard said...

Hey, Zombie, you make a good point.

The movie and book North Dallas Forty are forty years ago, but it's hard to think things have really changed. Amphetamines were banned from baseball in 2006. Before that, they were available in the locker room like they were candy.