Thursday August 5th, 2010

You know what sounds easy? Punting on the whole steroids issue. Give 'em all hypodermic needles with their signing bonuses. Let them pop pills. Let them inject pure, unfiltered testosterone. Let them eat uranium yellowcake if they think it will make them bigger, stronger, faster, quicker or better-looking.

You could do that. It would give sports journalists less work. It would theoretically make the games more fun (though I doubt it; more on that in a minute). It would allow Lance Armstrong to be an unquestioned hero, and it would save future Baseball Hall of Fame voters from making any moral judgments.

Of course, one day your son or daughter might be a professional athlete.

And all the other successful pro athletes will be juicing until their organs fall out, because they have no choice.

And your kid will figure: hey, it's legal, and this is my only chance.

And then what?

The first goal of any legal system should be to protect the innocent. And I sure hope there will always be a place in popular sports for athletes who simply want to be their very best, naturally.

That is why sports need performance-enhancing drug testing. If you get rid of the testing, you punish those who are right so you can forgive those who are wrong.

Steroid use is not a victimless crime: there are only so many roster spots in each major sport, and the athletes who choose to stay clean are at an inherent disadvantage. And yes, some of them absolutely do choose to stay clean.

The fact is that people avoid drugs for all sorts of reasons: they're squares, they fear drugs will kill them, they don't want to get caught, they worry about their facial features and personality changing or a hundred other reasons. We all know performance-enhancing drugs are prominent in professional sports. It is the height of cynicism to say that literally everybody is doing it, or wants to.

Athletes, like any workers, have a right to believe their employers care about their health. Besides, a lot of the stuff on the banned substances lists is also illegal in this country. As a practical matter, you can't say it's OK to do something that the government says is illegal. What would happen then? If an NFL lineman gets arrested for steroid possession, would commissioner Roger Goodell suspend him for getting arrested but not for using steroids?

As for the stuff that is legal: that doesn't mean it's OK for everybody to ingest as much as they can. Some drugs have a medical purpose but are also performance-enhancing and dangerous if they are used in the wrong circumstance. (As a general rule, any baseball player who uses a female fertility drug should have to change diapers between innings.)

So this is not as simple as saying, "Hey, sports would be more entertaining if we just let everybody use steroids." There are serious ramifications for the people involved.

Also: who says sports would be more entertaining?

If steroids were totally legal, would somebody hit 80 home runs in a single season? Possibly. Would somebody break Usain Bolt's 100-meter record? Probably. But you know who could definitely break Bolt's record? A cheetah on amphetamines. So what?

Elite spectator sports are supposed to be about the very best that humans can do, not the best drugs we can create. One of the problems with the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home run races, in retrospect, is that they didn't even seem real then. They seemed like something George Lucas created.

At the time, that made McGwire and Sosa compelling. But if you knew then what you know now, would there be any thrill in watching them break Roger Maris' record? Or would it all seem artificial -- which, of course, it probably was?

Dunking from the foul line was mind-boggling when Julius Erving did it, but it's only mildly entertaining when the Phoenix Suns' Gorilla does it, because the Gorilla uses a trampoline. Do we really want our best athletes to use pharmaceutical trampolines? Would that make this more fun?

For all the talk about steroids in sports, the fact is that we never, ever absolutely KNOW that an athlete is on drugs when we watch live. Sometimes we guess and sometimes we're right. But I think this would be a very different experience if we knew they were all juicing.

It is pretty clear, at this point, that any public outrage about performance-enhancing drugs is selective outrage. People are outraged that Barry Bonds and his ever-expanding head obliterated the record book, because most Americans love baseball records and hate Barry Bonds. People are far more forgiving of Shawne Merriman and Julius Peppers and Rodney Harrison, because the NFL controls 10 percent of the average American's brain, and we figure what the hell, it's a violent sport, and does this really affect my fantasy team?

Alex Rodriguez seems like a fraud, so when he (sort of) admits to steroid use, he gets ripped. But when A-Rod hit his 600th career home run, many people cheered. Jason Giambi seems like a nice, easygoing dude, so when he (sort of) admits to steroid use, he gets forgiven.

Does this all make sense? Of course not. Sports are entertainment, and these guys are all cartoon characters to us.

But they aren't really cartoon characters. And I don't think we truly want them to be cartoon characters. We want humans to do superhuman things -- but only in a very human way. Yes, you can try to make steroids legal. That doesn't mean they will ever seem OK.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.