Can The Government Clean Up The Game?

March 15, 2004

When a President's up for reelection, his State of the Union
speech might as well begin with the House doorkeeper bellowing,
"Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines!" At every applause
line members of the President's party leap to their feet as if in
an aerobics class; the not-so-loyal opposition's backsides are
glued to their chairs--unless the President is praising the Armed
Forces, God or fiscal responsibility.

But this year, something was different. After celebrating the
decline in teenage drug use and promising more money for drug
tests in high schools, President Bush warned that "some in
professional sports are not setting much of an example....
[Steroid use] sends the wrong message--that there are shortcuts
to accomplishment and that performance is more important than
character. So tonight I call on team owners, union
representatives, coaches and players to take the lead, to send
the right signal, to get tough and to get rid of steroids now."

From the punditocracy, the general response was, "Huh?" Or to put
it more elegantly: What was sports doing in a speech otherwise
focused on war and peace, terror and security, jobs and taxes? If
sources in the White House and the Bush campaign are right, the
steroids initiative came directly from the President. As one key
participant in the drafting of the State of the Union speech
remembers, the topic first came up when the staff was discussing
the policy outline for the speech. "We were talking about a
portion of the speech--the moral integrity of social
institutions," he recalls. "We had stuff on high school
drug-testing. The President said, 'What about the moral messages
sent by adults?' He brought up the issue of steroids."

Why? "He has a unique perspective on this. His father played
baseball. He was a team owner. He doesn't like fake home runs."

One of the abiding impulses in Washington over much of the last
century has been a willingness, even eagerness, to speak out when
American entertainment or diversions irritate our cultural nerve
endings. Washington's hackles have been raised by everything from
the Black Sox of 1919 to Hollywood's racy films of the '20s to
the TV quiz-show scandals of the '50s to lewd music lyrics in the
'80s and '90s. Today, the fallout from Janet Jackson's halftime
fallout has spurred the long-somnolent Federal Communications
Commission to promise huge fines and possible license-revocation
proceedings against the stations carrying the army of shock jocks
that have had more or less free rein on the airwaves. The federal
government may bring down Howard Stern before it gets Osama bin
Laden.

The combination of presidential rhetoric, federal indictments and
the dark clouds billowing over the heads of some of our
best-known athletes ensures that this issue will not be going
away anytime soon. While it is unlikely to spill into the
presidential campaign (unlike with gay marriage or abortion,
there aren't two big voting blocs polarized by steroids), the
recent spate of publicity may pump new momentum into the Anabolic
Steroid Control Act, jointly sponsored by Democrat Joe Biden and
Republican Orrin Hatch, which may go to the full Senate in a
couple of weeks. The bill, which would classify now unregulated
compounds as controlled substances, will likely gain impetus from
an upcoming White House "steroid summit" that may take place at
the end of March. That gathering, which is supposed to include
officials from the U.S. Olympic Committee and from the four major
professional sports, has drawn a skeptical response only from the
Major League Baseball Players Association. Politically, though,
it's hard to see how the union can boycott both a White House
conference and the congressional hearings that would precede a
vote on the bill.

Moreover, the union--already under attack from journalists,
sports and otherwise, for its stubborn insistence that this is a
privacy issue--may face more pressure from another front: the
BALCO investigation, which carried enough political juice to have
the U.S. Attorney General, John Ashcroft, announce the
indictments, a grandstand usually saved for the biggest legal
occasions. What happens if (some say "when") those indictments
push "cooperative" defendants to finger some of the game's
best-known players? The image of a teary-eyed child running up to
his hero and crying, "Say it ain't so, Barry (or Jason or Gary)"
could cause a huge wave of moral outrage. Under that kind of
pressure, would the union be in any position to resist if
commissioner Bud Selig decided to demand that the collective
bargaining agreement (not due to expire until 2006) be reopened
now to beef up its current wimpy drug-testing policy?

Can Washington change the behavior of athletes? Not usually. In
past cultural controversies, politicians have been content to
offer simulated "solutions"--warning labels on recordings, a
rating system for films, a V-chip in TV sets to "empower"
parents--but enough political pressure can force private
institutions to take drastic steps, and baseball is clearly in
the crosshairs now. The last time it faced a scandal of this
magnitude, in 1919, the fear of government action helped push
owners to hire a commissioner with near-dictatorial powers, and
that may well have saved professional baseball.

Parents have good reason to wonder what lessons their children
are drawing from the way some pro athletes live and prepare for
their work. Politicians will now take those concerns seriously,
if for no other reason than that they have the preternatural
ability to sense public unease with an institution that may be
behaving badly. And when that sense reaches critical mass,
attention must be paid.

Jeff Greenfield is a senior analyst for CNN.

B/W ILLUSTRATION: MIKE KEEFE/CAGLE CARTOONS INC.

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