Sunday, December 30, 2007

Looking back, Part V

Sports, it has been said, are the toy department of life. In 2007, though, all the conventional wisdom was proclaiming at the top of its frenetic collective lungs that the toy called baseball was severely contaminated with, not lead, steroids (and other performance-enhancing drugs).

As with politics--and, in reality, this, too, is politics--the old rule of thumb that volume of declamation is inversely proportional to fact content therein remains true here.

The claims set forth against PEDs are four, simply summarized:

  1. They are medically harmful.
  2. Their use by major-league players leads children to use them.
  3. They artificially distort records and achievements.
  4. Their use by some coerces unwilling others to use them to remain competitive.
Each of those is mainly or entirely untrue, and there is plenty of fact to back up that statement.

The "medical risks" claims are on a par with those of "Reefer Madness". While there is no doubt that there are some risks from PEDs--as there are from any medication whatsoever--those who prefer their facts from scientific studies as published in peer-reviewed medical journals, as opposed to from ignoramuses, will find that the risks are low in probability, are mild when encountered, and disappear when use of the substance is discontinued.

Mind, that is the case for adults; use of PEDs by adolescents, whose bodies are still growing and shaping, appears to be very bad business. So, one might think, at least the second reason makes sense. Well, it would were it true; but it's not. While it's possible that some adolescents might wear their baseball caps back to front because they've seen athletes doing it, that they will also start shooting up with expensive illegal substances is not a logical corollary.

But we don't have to stand on common sense alone. Numerous medical studies have shown that adolescents use steroids--to the extent that they do, which is perhaps 2% of them, not exactly an epidemic--first and foremost because they are boys trying to grow muscles to impress the girls; second, because they have severe body-image problems (the obverse of bulemia and anorexia), third because they are athletes (mostly in high-school football) who want an edge, and fourth because they are generally screwed up psychologically and are indulging in a horrifying spectrum of seriously risky actitivites.

Rarely if ever are kids primarily motivated by a desire to emulate "heroes" (a word they'd probably choke with laughter over), and even when their primary reason is not emulation but one of the things listed here, the reported use of PEDs by ballplayers scarcely enforces their desire or justification. The reality is that professional scare-mongers are stirring up parents ("Reefer Madness" again) for purposes of their own.

But at least no one can doubt that PEDs have jumped home-run production and tainted records . . . can they? Of course they can, because none of those things have, in cold fact, happened. We don't have to wonder if use of PEDs caused the effects because the effects aren't there.

This reality is hidden by two things: first, there is and has always been a slow but steady long-term uptrend in power production in baseball, starting over a hundred years ago; and that is exactly what we would expect, in light of better training, better nutrition, expanded pools of talent (first blacks, then Latin America, and now Asia), more professionalism, and so on--all the reasons why achievements in every field of athletic endeavor whatever always slowly but surely go up over the years.

Second, superimposed on that upward drift have been several instances of juicings of the ball itself, whether purposeful or merely as a side effect of changed manufacturing processes. Two such have occurred well within living memory: one, in 1977, when MLB officially switched manufacturers, the other (denied by MLB) in 1993, when the manufacturing process was changed.

The evidences and proofs of this lack of effects of things other than the ball itself come from several independent sources (including me), all using somewhat different approaches, but all agreeing on the fact: no boost.

How can that be so when "anyone can see" the musculature effects of steroids? Two answers: one, how exactly do you discern the difference between muscularity obtained by unaugmented weight training from that assisted by steroids? And two, there is a very substantial differential between the effects of steroids on upper-body muscles and on lower-body muscles--they do far more for upper-body strength.

As to reason one, recall that no ballplayer is developing to his maximum possible musculature (a few freakish-looking bodybuilders might, but that's not the issue); that necessarily being so (because none look like those muscle freaks), all that steroids can do is reduce the time needed to reach a given level of strength. That is, they don't make players stronger, they just let them get strong a little faster.

But reason 2 is really the crux: hitting is all about lower-body strength--the very kind that steroids don't do much for. So a ballplayer can get biceps and triceps and deltoids and suchlike pumped up all he wants; it might impress the baseball Annies, but that won't help him hit home runs. As the inimitable Casey Stengel famously said, "you could look it up".

Finally, the ultimate hypocrisy, claim #4, that poor, innocent, doubtless-churchgoing ballplayers are being "coerced" into using those Big Bad PEDS to remain competitive. Well, first off, that's bullshit because PEDs, as we saw, do not help make anyone more competitive. Second off, so what? PEDs are not seriously harmful--certainly vastly less so than tobacco, which is not banned by MLB, much less law. If we just had a little basic education on the point of their lack of effectiveness, no one would want to bother: they're expensive, not entirely risk-free, and above all illegal. Why screw with them for no perceptible gain other than a buffed look?

And never forget that when Congress was "considering" the proposed law that made steroids and hGH "controlled substances", there was vigorous testimony against the law from, among many others, these folks:
  • American Medical Association
  • U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse
Any far-left hippie pinko crazies in that lot? But no, the Congress that had the very year before publicly announced that steroids were just as addictive, harmful, and EVIL as--ready for this?--cocaine, that Congress decided to enact the law anyway. Isn't it nice to know that we can sleep sound in our beds, watched over by such solons, safe from attack by knife-wielding crazed ballplayers under the influence of steroids?

Good night and good luck.

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