Monday, January 03, 2005

Poniewozik article

Revisiting steroids, I wanted to give a shout-out to an excellent essay I read in Time this week by James Poniewozik. I know DM's view especially on the steroids issue and I share it for the most part. We have done a decent amount of Bonds bashing here, and I still believe rightfully so. But Poniewozik's treatment of the issue is the first one to make me think about it on a deeper level.

His take on it is essentially: what right does society have to criticize the steroid users when people get plastic surgery to enhance their image and get ahead in jobs and lives, people take brain tonic to get smarter, people send their kids to these intensive SAT courses to do better on a test designed to measure natural ability, people use drugs and surgery to increase their sex lives (and lengths), singers voices are enhanced dramatically in the studio (and at concerts), nations spend millions to get their athletes gold medals, smaller children are given growth hormone to get them taller, tons of research goes on every day to get genetically smarter and faster babies or so that you can choose your baby's gender, eye color, etc. You can add other examples Poniewozik leaves out--a particular pet peeve of mine is studios paying millions in ads and gifts to get films nominated--but he makes the points well in the limited space he has.

I think it is a pretty good point. And it's probably a pretty shallow argument to counter with: "we expect more of athletes" considering these are the same people to whose actions the public turns a blind eye when they are arrested for DWI or domestic abuse among other sordid activities, as long as they are helping the team win.

I guess my best counter would be that while I don't expect more from athletes, I enjoy living in my sports purist fantasy world. Part of my joy is the history of the game (for all sports), comparing feats from era to era, from player to player, trying to account for the differences in the game over time, and such. And the steroid issue takes that away from me, which simply upsets me. I think Poniewozik's essay does put things in perspective very well--the steroid issue is simply a larger societal issue, and a small part of it at that. But for those of us to whom the game really means something, we care a lot more about it than whether the waitress just got her breasts augmented.


At 4:00 PM, Blogger DM said...

Sorry, Dexys, but to me Poniewozik's argument is the absolute weakest one you can make against hammering those who use steriods in baseball, and easily dismissed for several reasons:

(1) "Level Playing Field" -- We use that expression in many other endeavors (employment, school, business) but it comes from sports for a good reason -- the games are only as good as the enforcement of the rules. There are rules against steriod use, many players probably abided by those rules to their detriment vis-a-vis Bonds and others, and thus we MUST condemn those actions for their sake and the very integrity of the game. It's not really a choice. All of the other activities you and Poniewozik mention don't really have that stricture. Asking ballplayers to play by the rules is not asking for their purity, but necessary to the game itself.

(2) Comparison to History -- As you mention, the level playing field argument applies to history as well. Our ability to gauge players accurately is negatively affected. One of the best things about baseball is ruined by Bonds' violation of the rules.

(3) I've never understood the argument that because other things have gone bad, we can't condemn actions that would make yet another thing go bad. The examples that you and Poniezowik raise (Olympics, Oscars, academic achievement, lip-synching) to me make the case FOR imposing harsh penalties, lest we find baseball diminishing in value like those things.

(4) It proves too much -- This argument calls into question practically all of baseball's rules. Why don't we let some batters have four strikes, since we make exceptions in business and education to give some people breaks? People hold sit-ins to protest a bad decision by government -- why don't we let players sit-in during games to protest bad ump calls (recall the 1988 Korean boxer). Again, integrity of the rules is critical to a sport -- you can't shrug your shoulders at a violation.

Bottom line: We do expect more from athletes -- we expect them to play by the rules.

At 5:35 PM, Blogger dexys_midnight said...

I don't know, DM. I think your view on this one is a bit narrow and falls into Poniewozik's trap--i.e., isn't expecting more of athletes hypocritical, or more to the point, isn't making such rules hypocritical.

For example, here are your four arguments:

1)Level playing field. Are you saying that we aren't supposed to have a level playing field in other endeavors? Or from the converse, that the fact that someone can hire private tutors to ace a standardized test while a poor person in a school where no one takes the SAT gets no support doesn't go against something that is supposed to have a level playing field? Or something supposed to be judged by merit is instead based on money like Oscars, Olympics, what have you isn't? In fact, can't you make the argument that by failing to have a salary cap baseball by its own rules has specifically killed the idea of a level playing field?

2)Comparison to history. I agree, but still you could say that about many things. Without steroids, because of training regimens, homers and such might still be up and you'd have to account for that in your comparison to history. I think Poniewozik makes a good point when he talks about mid-level runners today killing Roger Bannister's mile time. Again, I agree with you on this, I just don't think it is as black & white.

Some bad things don't mean other things should be bad: agreed, but his point is just that it is hypocritical to point this particular thing out when the fans do completely analogous things in their own lives.

All of baseball rules are called into question: Your weakest argument. Come on, no they aren't. Just because a guy makes a point about steroids being part of the society we've created doesn't mean we need to, say, go back to 1885 baseball rules for the hell of it or allow murder on the basepaths because people kill each other in society.

I don't think any of what you attack is his point. Rather, I think his point is that it is funny that we so vehemently criticize these guys for doing what SO many people do in their own lives and businesses. It is disappointing to me as well, but I think his point rings true.

At 6:08 PM, Blogger DM said...

If Poniewozik's point is simply one about hypocrisy, then it remains a weak argument, since it is common to take a position on an issue that others can characterize as conflicting with another position you've taken. It may be relevant that such conflict exists, but it is very rarely an enlightening line of discussion, and usually ends up in squabbling about side issues.

And I don't even think Poniewozik makes the hypocrisy point, either. My point was pretty simple: it is not hypocritical at all to criticize someone for breaking the rules just because "we" might do similar things in other areas that do not break any rules. This line of argument especially fails in sports, where rules are much more important than in endeavors like the quality of a rock concert or an opinion-based thing like an awards show.

Sure, we live in a society where if something is possible, it should be permitted, especially if it "improves" or "enhances" your qualities. But if the society agrees that it is against the rules to do something like that, then we have to be able to criticize violations of that rule. To suggest otherwise is to simply abdication.

Put it this way. It is common for people to capitalize on being a position where they can help determine the outcome for someone else's benefit, whether it be in government or business or whatever. And some of it may be perfectly legal. But this should not prevent anyone from complaining about the 1919 World Series on the grounds of hypocrisy.

At 7:18 PM, Blogger Yuda said...

Lest we forget, steroids weren't against MLB rules until 2003.

I haven't quite decided where I stand on the steroids issue, but I do know I'm bothered when people make the "he was breaking the rules" argument; he wasn't.

At 8:50 PM, Blogger DM said...

I'm pretty sure that's not right, and that steroids have long been banned substances in MLB. What changed in 2003 was they finally instituted a drug-testing policy to actually enforce the rule. But those who used before then were still breaking the rules, even though there was little chance of actually being caught.

That's why one can make a distinction between Mark McGwire's use of andro in 1998. At the time it was not on the banned list, so you can't argue that he was breaking the rules. He may have been taking other stuff, but we don't know that for sure.

At 12:06 AM, Blogger Yuda said...

I haven't managed to find a clear timeline about whether or not steroids were banned before the most recent CBA. Some articles have led me to believe they were not, but I haven't found anything first-source so I'm willing to concede the point.

That said, THG was definitely not banned before 2004. The NFL has a clause to get around new drugs like this, their drug policy reads "illegal steroids or related substances" but the MLB policy did not -- THG wasn't banned until just before the 2004 season when the BALCO stuff first broke.

Now, one can ask whether or not taking a substance such as THG follows the spirit of the policy, even if it doesn't violate the letter of the policy.

Ultimately, I just find that I don't really care about the whole steroids issue. Athletes take all kinds of measured to enhance their performance one way or another. Amphetamine use was rampant through the 60s and 70s (and, probably, beyond). The bizarre ankle surgery Curt Schilling had performed in the LCS and World Series was certainly not something most doctors would recommend. Is drinking a whole pot of coffee, chock full o' caffeine, okay? Where is the line drawn, and why?

I just don't think this issue is as black and white as some people argue.

At 10:02 AM, Blogger DM said...

The Baseball Crank has a good discussion of this issue on his blog today. From his opening line, I guess I see the Poniewozik position as an example of the "strong libertarian" position, and I generally do not favor libertarian positions on much of anything.

At 10:13 AM, Blogger dexys_midnight said...

Your link to their discussion is broken, so I will look that up, but DM, I am just going to have to disagree with you on this one. I agree with you in that I am displeased and upset and annoyed and even outraged by steroids in baseball. But, while I am well aware of your intelligence, so I am not going to say you don't "get" his article, I think you are going way too far in your criticism of it. I think it is very well written and for the point that I think it gets across--we as a society use "performance-enhancements" legally in so many aspects of our lives to get ahead economically, socially, mentally, physically and in our work-places, so how odd that we get so outraged at steroids in particular--I think Poniewozik makes his point quite eloquently. I think we'll just have to agree to disagree on this one, since I really don't think he takes a strong libertarian view on it at all. I think he was just making a small point in a humorous manner and I think he did it well.

At 10:15 AM, Blogger DM said...

Trying again with the link:

baseball crank

At 10:19 AM, Blogger DM said...

Fair enough. Agree to disagree. And thanks to Yuda for joining the discussion.

At 12:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Poniewozik piece as you describe it could be called libertarian, but is also a shining example of the centerpiece of modern-day liberal thought: relativism.

We are constantly barraged by the notion that everything is acceptable, as long as somewhere, somehow, something can be found that is worse, or even loosely analogous. "How dare you object to plastic surgey--you use teeth-whitening toothpaste, you hypocrite!!" or "How dare you object to Janet Jackson's prime time publicity stunt--the NFL has cheerleaders, and they curse on the Sopranos and The Shield!" Relativism is nothing more than an exercise in intellectual laziness: it requires no introspection, demands no philosophical reflection on right or wrong, allows for no standards of ethics or even laws, and acknowledges no objective notions of truth, justice or inalienable rights. Instead, by definition, it drags us all down to the lowest common denominator.

Okay, some people get plastic surgery, take brain tonic (if you say so?!?), etc. etc. Fine. Touche. Suffice it to say that lots of people cheat at lots of things. (But some of the examples don't quite fit: the SAT's test Scholastic Aptitude, ie, scholarship and education levels, not natural ability, and thus studying is far from inappropriate--actually, it is largely the point. Did he really mean SAT's, or an IQ test? In any event, the apt analogy would be cheating by referring to a dictionary during the test, not studying for it, for God's sake.)

But the fact that "cheaters abound" does not excuse all behavior, or even any behavior. When my little boy inevitably comes to me one day and says "everyone is doing it," would Poniewozik suggest that I simply say, "good point" and let him do as he pleases? Does the fact that I once took a paperclip from the office for personal use make me a hypocrite if I demand certain conduct from him?

These guys cheated in front of a national audience. Perhaps they deserve no harsher punishment than anyone else, but that fact alone does not give them a free pass.

At 12:45 PM, Blogger DM said...

Good points, Anonymous, and well-put. You should not have to hide in the shadows.


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