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Steroids: Why We Should Care, Mr. Whitlock

Anyone that knows me well at all knows I have virtually no shame when it comes to my television viewing habits. But Monday afternoon, I stooped awfully low, even for me. “Rome is Burning” was on, and not only that, but they had a replacement host (as if the viewing audience couldn’t bear a single day without “Rome is Burning”). Jason Whitlock, columnist for the Kansas City Star who was also a replacement for Michael Wilbon on PTI two weeks earlier, was sitting in for the one and only Jim Rome. You absolutely cannot get any lower without Skip Bayless involved.

And yes, I watched, for about 10 minutes.

To be honest, I don’t hate Whitlock – sure, he’s fat and awkward and would probably bring up racism even in a discussion about flavors of ice cream, but he does speak clearly and generally makes rational points. But in “The Forum,” the segment where Romey (or Whitlock) and two other sports journalists argue about the hot topic du jour, Whitlock got me a little riled up. In a discussion about steroids in sports, Whitlock said we should treat athletes not as role models, but rather treat them like we treat rock stars. In other words, we should just stop worrying about what guys are juicing and just “enjoy the show.” He said that the credibility of sports has deteriorated to the point that he assumes that virtually everyone is doping, and it shouldn’t really matter to the fans or the media what the players are putting into their bodies. He added that the media is too concerned with the morality of sports, when in reality the fans shouldn’t associate sports and morality in the first place.

(This was going to be a serious column, but let me indulge myself and get sidetracked for a bit. Is there any situation today more cliché than a bunch of sports journalists, on ESPN in the late afternoon, arguing about steroids? I mean, how many times has this exact same scenario been played out in the last year? My guess is 250, although I don’t have the Elias Sports Bureau backing me up here. Of course… I still watched.)

Wow. That was my first reaction. Is this what sports has come to? Just a bunch of chemically-enhanced super humans tossing balls around for our enjoyment? That sure takes the wind out of the sails of a guy who wants to cover this stuff for a living.

But thankfully for me, Whitlock is a middle reliever for “Rome is Burning” for a reason: he’s cynical and he’s wrong (which would qualify him to work for “Around the Horn,” “First and 10,” and “The Sports Reporters 2” as well). Steroids are a problem. No matter how rampant steroids get, you cannot equate sports and music. Sports are about competition, music is not. It’s not as if cheating is condoned among musicians either (see Milly Vanilly), but athletic competition becomes virtually meaningless if cheating is the path to victory.

Admittedly, steroids is not as big of a crisis as some make it out to be; there is no reason that the federal government needs to concern itself with steroids in sports when there are hundreds of more important, immediate issues outside of sports. But within the sports community, it’s a huge problem. Ignoring the health effects of steroids, (which are “it’s not as bad as people think nor is it as safe as people think,” according to an anonymous steroid user in an entertaining and insightful interview at using most steroids are still against the rules. Whether or not they should be legal is another issue entirely; my point is that if they are illegal, then these rules have to be enforced in order for the legitimacy of the competition to be preserved. Just like improvements in sporting equipment are regulated, improvements in performance enhancing drugs are regulated, and whatever those regulations are, they need to be enforced regardless of what our opinions are about the rules themselves.

More importantly, we can’t just submit to the philosophy of “the cheaters will always be one step ahead of the ones trying to stop them” and give up. While it won’t be easy, I truly feel that the rampant use of banned substances can eventually be remedied to a great extent.

Here’s why: athletes may not be role models, but they’re not villains either. I know plenty of college athletes from my experience with them (hell, I actually qualify as a college athlete myself); most of them are surprisingly normal people. Many of us fans and many of the media grew up dreaming of becoming professional athletes; the main difference between them and us is that they had the talent and the work ethic to make it happen. What that means is that, deep down, most of them want to get rid of the problem just like the fans and the media want to get rid of the problem. Fact is (at least from my experience), most athletes aren’t roiding, and many of the guys who are probably feel like they have to in order to keep up. Do you think they really enjoy having to stick needles in their asses and throw their hormones out of whack just to keep up?

Sure, the money makes a enormous difference when you get to the professional level. If guys think there is a way to gain an edge which might translate to more money, a lot of guys will do it. But that’s because it’s too safe of a risk. It’s like traveling in the NBA: it gives you an edge, you’re not going to get called on it, so why not? Unfortunately, we cannot accept steroids as part of the game the way we accept a double jump-stop in the NBA.

Not all steroid users are bad guys, but the media still has every right to condemn the ones who get caught. In my opinion, that will curb the use of steroids as much as anything, because the threat of that type of shame will scare off as many of these fame-driven athletes as a stiff fine or a suspension will. And unfortunately, that’s what it’s going to take if we really want to get the fairness back in our sports. (Besides, when it comes down to it, the fans are the reason for the monster salaries these guys are bringing in. So if you cheat the fans, you have to pay the price.)

Whitlock has also, on past occasions, blamed the fans and media for being racist in their condemnation of Barry Bonds. I have to agree that in this country – and in the media to some extent – racism is still an awful problem, but Bonds is being hunted down because of his performance. We simply can’t focus on all the Jason Grimsleys of the world, because they may have injected just as much horse testosterone as Bonds, they haven’t shattered any hallowed records by doing so. It’s a matter of practicality, not racism. A guy who cheats and ends up second on the career home run chart needs to be caught for the current generation of athletes to have any incentive not to do exactly what he did.

So as repetitive, boring, and depressing as it seems, the steroids scandals of today do need to stay in the spotlight. And yes, that will probably result in even more round-table discussions at 4:30 in the afternoon with Jason Whitlock and Skip Bayless, as gruesome as that prospect sounds. But competition is the foundation of sports, especially sports at the highest level. We don’t just watch sports simply to be impressed with the freakish ability of the athletes involved; we watch to for the competition. That’s why ratings rise in the playoffs, that’s why people still attend high school football games, even if the level of play is obviously inferior to a college or professional game. The competition is still the same.

Competition and fairness go hand in hand, at least ideally. So either we clean the games up and make the competition mean something again, or the games will be nothing more than a rock show with jock straps. And if that’s the case, I’d rather go see a Milly Vanilly concert.

Anders Larson Archive