It’s likely that you’ve thought at some point in the past few years about whether you are A Bad Person for watching football. Both science and common sense say that playing football can contribute to brain damage. Is some guy going to commit suicide in 20 years, more or less, so you could have a fun Sunday afternoon?
The same question is rarely asked about baseball, despite an ostensibly similar health crisis, namely the use of performance-enhancing drugs. It’s hard to say if PED use is as common in the game as brain injuries are in football, but there are certainly many, many players who have used PEDs over the course of the past two decades and beyond. It’s hardly a source of concern for most baseball fans, though, and if anything, baseball fans get more upset about the way PEDs affect the competitive balance of the game. Where words like “frightening” and “health crisis” are used to talk about concussions, fans talk about PEDs in baseball with terms like “cheating” and “dirty.” That is, if they discuss them at all. Despite the hype around the occasional Braun or A-Rod, PED use is only barely on the radar of the typical baseball fan. (Having to put up with 20 years of a league and a players’ union loudly running in circles on the issue will do that.)
There are, of course, key differences between a lineman getting a concussion and a third basemen injecting himself in the butt with a steroid designed for elephants. Collisions are a mandatory part of football, and butt-elephant steroids are not a mandatory part of baseball. There’s also what seems like more agreement over the dangers of concussions than there is over the dangers of the variety of PEDs available these days. Old-fashioned bodybuilder steroids are but one of a range of options in the bounteous enhancement cornucopia available to the modern athlete. There’s HGH, testosterone, the female fertility treatments that Manny Ramirez took, all the ointments Lance Armstrong made people rub on his parts before he fired them and ruined their reputations. While they all have potentially adverse side effects, none are as quite obviously or conclusively dangerous as the effects of getting hit in the brain by Ed Reed.
But really, if we’re trying to be ethical here, “possibly less dangerous than getting hit in the head by Ed Reed” is not the standard we want to set for what athletes are encouraged to do for our entertainment. And yeah — encouraged. It’s true that a millionaire athlete who lies about the things he did to make himself more of a millionaire — and who can pay a team of doctors to carefully calibrate his “treatment” to minimize damage — is not sympathetic or in great danger. But the majority of the people who might take PEDs don’t fall into that category. There are thousands and thousands of aspiring players who, as the saying goes, are looking for an edge, and many are from backgrounds where the fallback for failed baseball players isn’t as nice as an American minor-league washout’s job selling used cars or insurance. For someone in poverty in Central America, PED use might be closer to stealing bread to feed your family than to whatever Braun and A-Rod did. Teenagers in Latin America aren’t going to be getting good medical supervision or advice, either, if even the big-timers like Braun were going to a quack pseudo-doctor like Biogenesis’ Tony Bosch.
Being a fan who doesn’t care or think about these issues is not that different than being a fan who doesn’t care about concussions. So that’s the bad news — just another thing to feel guilty for your complicity in, along with eating meat, drone strikes, and Tom Cruise. (When you buy a ticket to his movie, you’re directly subsidizing the phenomenon of Weird Cruise.) The good news is that there is an easy and obvious way to help frame this issue in a way that will help the public pay proper attention.
The analogy is football’s big, helmet-on-helmet hits. It’s established that routine “sub-concussive” collisions between, for example, offensive and defensive linemen, are harmful long-term. But it’s the handful of airborne helmet-to-helmet knockouts that really reminds fans how damaging the game can be — and keeps concussions in the collective (un)consciousness. Baseball needs an equivalent to that. Here’s my idea. During every game, a 17-year-old prospect will walk to the middle of the field, where a man with a sleazy mustache and an degree from Bangkok Online Doctor School will inject him with a comically oversized syringe labeled “STEROIDS FOR AN ELEPHANT’S BUTT.”
There is no way you don’t think about the health implications of PEDs after seeing that. There doesn’t even need to be anything in the syringe. Also, I’m clearly not being serious. But the larger point — that baseball fans could use the occasional reminder of what they’re condoning — still stands. As conscientious fans, we don’t have to be sanctimonious about it. But we can probably do better than indifference about the fact that we’re encouraging entire countries of teenagers to engage in the off-label use of pregnancy treatments sold out of fly-by-night storefronts by creeps.
This guy knows what I’m talking about: