Commentary: The Moral Question of Steroids in Baseball

February 21, 2009

Alex Rodriguez's confession that he took steroids from 2001-2003 should come as only mildly surprising news to most rational people. A-Rod previously flat out lied to Katie Couric last year when he denied the use of any form of performance enhancing drugs. However, reports from Sports Illustrated have shown that Rodriguez was one of 104 players who tested positive for steroids in 2003. The list could have been destroyed by the Major League Baseball Players Union, but inexplicably was not and now A-Rod has been exposed.

To some fans, everything accomplished by Rodriguez is now tainted as will everything he does in the future. To those fans, many of whom wanted A-Rod to dethrone Barry Bonds as the home run king, Rodriguez is now just another product of a tainted era in baseball.

There is no doubt Rodriguez, like many of the great players of the past 15 years, is guilty of cheating. The question is what meaning we wish to attribute to the highly prevalent use of steroids and other substances during the last 20 years.

Baseball players have been guilty of "cheating" long before steroids. Any player who illegally used pine tar or vasoline, who doctored a baseball or corked a bat, or took any illegal drug (amphetamines, etc.) to help them endure a long season are all guilty of cheating.

So how do we judge Rodriguez or any other player involved in the steroid era? In my view, most of the public seem unable to separate between what I consider to be two distinctly separate types of moral judgment. (1) Condemning someone for "breaking rules" and (2) condemning someone for "doing wrong." The first is a fairly simplistic analysis, while the second is more complicated.


Let's arbitrarily break up our world into two kinds of people: Person #1 and Person #2.

Person #1 believes breaking the law or a rule has intrinsic meaning in itself. These people have no patience for arguments about whether a law or rule is moral or even should exist. The fact that it does exist, you knew about it, and you violated it, is enough. Thus, in the A-Rod example if Rodriguez broke the law or MLB rules by purchasing steroids (a fact as yet unproven) or using them, then he should be roundly condemned. To be consistent, such persons should also roundly criticize anyone who speeds on the freeway, jaywalks, or smokes marijuana for medicinal purposes.

In real life, despite what people profess, few people actually live their lives like Person #1. They live more like Person #2 (not necessarily knowing why).

Person #2 points out that the legal system changes laws all the time and laws are deemed improper or Unconstitutional only after someone directly violates one. Laws are also often not evenly enforced due to some form of discrimination or bias and therefore the law loses its meaning on that basis. Furthermore, Person #2 notes that many laws, including perhaps drug laws, should not be enforced because they do not offend their own particular conscience. Since they don't see it as wrong, why should they follow the rule if they can get away with it?

What makes the "breaking the rule" analysis relatively easy is that Person #1 is correct when stating that Person #2, whether he liked the law or not, knew the risk of breaking the law and cannot expect to avoid punishment.

However, you can only punish A-Rod according to the rules in place. The fact is that Baseball did not have a steroid policy at all until 2002 and no significant penalties existed before 2005. Like any pragmatic person #2, Rodriguez saw that there was very little to prevent someone from taking steroids and gaining an advantage. In fact, nobody seemed to care at all (remember, there was no great outcry from the so-called "clean" players either). Consequently, he broke the rules and sought the extra edge. Apparently around 2003, when it became likely he might get caught and significantly punished, he stopped.


But did he, and other players, do something wrong? That depends on how "wrong" you think it is to take performance enhancing drugs of any kind. I am no scientist but the idea that such drugs can damage the body in the long run is a good enough reason to discourage their practice. Certainly, we don't want young athletes emulating the professionals to their long-term physical detriment. But let's be real, nobody cared about that back when home runs were being hit at a record pace.

The best argument against the use of these drugs is that it wrecks our sense of history and that records accomplished with the use of these drugs destroys our ability to compare present day athletes with those of the past. How do we know who were the best players of the last 20 years or the best players of all-time if their wasn't an even playing field? In that respect, Rodriguez and others are guilty of condemnation and deserving of condemnation.

My own problem with baseball players, management, and fans is their utter hypocrisy. All are truly responsible for the problem. Both players and management showed disregard for the historic records of the sport when they either actively particpated in steroid use or consciously looked the other way. No significant voices among them arose consistently throughout the steroid era. Fans never really cared either and they still don't despite what they say, if attendance is any indication.

Thus, I don't think most people who are complaining now can claim tremendous outrage. I think this is why many fans instinctively have been lenient on baseball players who have "confessed their sins" on this issue but have reacted harshly to those who have continously lied on the subject. Rodriguez, with a proper apology, can probably find his way back in the good graces of the public before too long.

This is no defense of Rodriguez himself. In fact, I always find satisfaction when liars or hypocrites are exposed. It's just that we haven't really judged the other major liars and hypocrites of the steroid era: the ones in the owner's boxes and in the stands.

Manish Pandya
Staff Editor for

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