Let’s recap. Earlier this week I wrote a post reacting to the ongoing debate over whether anabolic steroids users should be barred from baseball’s Hall of Fame. I noted that most Hall of Fame voters have opposed the admission of any baseball player who has confessed to anabolic steroid use, or who has tested positive for anabolic steroid use. This anti-steroids stand (what I referred to in my original piece as “Zero Tolerance”) has been expanded to include players who are suspected of having used anabolic steroids.
In response, writers such as Rob Neyer have argued (persuasively, I think) that it’s illogical and nonsensical to bar all steroids users from the Hall of Fame. Rob makes a number of arguments in support of his view that I think are persuasive, but one of his arguments struck me the wrong way: Rob argued that the Hall of Fame is already populated with baseball players who used amphetamines to enhance performance. If the Hall of Fame is already full of likely amphetamine users, then in Rob’s view we cannot logically take a different stand regarding anabolic steroids users. As Rob himself put it: he is “[w]aiting for someone, anyone, to reasonably explain why all the sluggers of the ’70s and ’80s [a population that includes amphetamine users] belong in the Hall of Fame, but those of the ’90s and ’00s [the anabolic steroids users] do not.” [Explanatory material in brackets is my own.]
Rob’s comment prompted my own. In my post, I argued at length that amphetamine use is a very different thing from anabolic steroid use. In particular, the performance-enhancing effects of anabolic steroids are well documented: in combination with the right diet and exercise program, anabolic steroids produce gains in size and strength that cannot be achieved by diet and exercise alone. (Whether these gains are of any use to baseball players is another question.) In contrast, there are experts who believe that amphetamines are not performance-enhancing drugs, and the side effects of amphetamines may very well overwhelm their positive effects (especially after repeated use of the drug). Since the effects of these two drugs are so different, I did not see how the admission of amphetamine users into the Hall served as a precedent for admission into the Hall of anabolic steroid users.
(It also bears repeating that amphetamines are addictive and potentially very dangerous drugs. More on this later.)
Rob has now clarified his original post. Actually, since many of my readers (Brien, particularly) understood what Rob meant all along, maybe I was the only one who needed this clarification. Rob, in hindsight I should have understood you better, and I should have been less critical, and I apologize for this failure on my part.
What Rob meant was this: anabolic steroid users are being barred from the Hall of Fame (HOF) because the HOF voters think that these users were cheaters. These players took anabolic steroids in violation of the rules of baseball, with the intent to enhance their performance on the field, which is cheating. But of course: baseball players who used amphetamines (at least, the ones that used amphetamines after 1971) were also violating the rules of baseball, and also were doing so in an effort to enhance their on-the-field performance. If what we care about is cheating, then (at least if we’re looking at drug use post-1971), anabolic steroid use is the same as amphetamine use. If what we care about is cheating, then there’s no distinction between one form of PED use and the other.
To which I reply, Emily Litella style, “oh, you mean intent, and cheating? That’s very different. Never mind.”
(For those too young to remember: Emily Litella was a recurring character in the original Saturday Night Live TV show, played by the late, great, Gilda Radner. Ms. Litella was an older woman, hard of hearing, who made guest editorial appearances on the regular “Weekend Update” faux TV news segment of the show. Her comments were always based on something she’d heard incorrectly in a TV editorial. “What is all this fuss I hear about the Supreme Court decision on a deaf penalty? It’s terrible! Deaf people have enough problems as it is!” Other Litella spots focused on saving Soviet jewelry or violins on TV. At some point in her editorial, the news anchor would interrupt her and point out that she’d misheard the original editorial, which was about saving Soviet jewry or violence on TV, at which point Ms. Litella would say “Oh, that’s very different … never mind.”)
Of course, it might have helped me if Rob had used the word “intent” in his original post. Or “cheat”. Still, the fault is mine: Rob might have been clearer, but I misunderstood. For Rob, the issue here boils down to cheating, and not which drugs are actually performance-enhancing. If this is the case, then of course there’s no argument, nothing left to discuss. The Hall of Fame is full of cheaters: not just amphetamine users, but spitballers, sign-stealers, bat-corkers, bat triple-dippers, guys who put pine tar too high on the bat handle, guys who ran outside the baselines, guys who threw pitches at the heads of opposing batters after being warned not to do so, guys who scuffed the ball with sandpaper or a nail file, you name it. By one writer, cheating is so much a part of baseball, “it has become a subculture of baseball in itself.”
You’d almost think that the Hall of Fame would welcome anabolic steroid users, with open arms, into its fraternity of cheaters.
OK. I’ll take my tongue out of my cheek. We’re not talking about just any kind of cheating. We’re talking about drug cheaters. We’re talking about guys who took drugs in violation of the rules of baseball, with the intent to gain a performance-enhancing benefit. We can leave Gaylord Perry and his Vaseline balls out of this discussion.
Problem is, I don’t think we can ignore the actual performance-enhancing capability of these drugs. What if we had a baseball player who took Lipitor (cholesterol-lowering drug) without a prescription, in the belief that the drug helped his performance? What if the drug was Flomax (for enlarged prostate) or Tagamet (ulcers)? Do we really care if baseball players abused drugs in the mistaken belief that they might be performance-enhancing?
Let’s try a more real-world example. In the 1970s and 80s, numbers of baseball players were cocaine users. Keith Hernandez has admitted to cocaine use as a ballplayer. So has Tim Raines. Other baseball players who reportedly used cocaine were Dave Parker, Lonnie Smith, Vida Blue, Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Ferguson Jenkins, Steve Howe, Denny McLain, Jeffrey Leonard and Paul Molitor. By some reports, something like 40% of all baseball players were cocaine users in 1980.
Some of these names should give you pause. Ferguson Jenkins was admitted to the Hall of Fame in 1991. Paul Molitor was voted into the Hall in 2004. The HOF voters knew that these players had used cocaine during their playing days. Jenkins was arrested in Canada on charges of cocaine possession, back in 1980. Molitor’s cocaine use was revealed in 1984. I don’t know whether Molitor or Jenkins ever played a game under the influence of cocaine, though if they’d been drug tested on game days they might have tested positive for cocaine (it can take up to two weeks for cocaine to clear out of a user’s system).
Tim Raines is still on the Hall of Fame ballot. Raines has admitted to using cocaine before, during and after games. Raines said that he’d slide head first so as not to disturb the bags of cocaine he kept in the back pocket of his uniform. Raines’ Hall of Fame voting percentage has been climbing in recent years: this year, Raines received 37.5% of the vote (75% is required for admission). His cocaine use may be a factor standing in the way of his Hall of Fame induction, though I’m not aware of any voter who has stated publicly that Raines’ use of cocaine matters at all to his Hall of Fame candidacy. (I have seen references to writers who may hold Raines’ cocaine use against him.) Raines’ 37.5% is higher than Mark McGwire’s steroid-depressed HOF vote total of 19.8%.
Why not consider cocaine use in HOF voting? Such use violated the rules of baseball. But according to Rob Neyer’s most recent post, the issue is not rule violation per se, but “cheating” – violation of the rules with the intent to achieve a performance-enhancing effect. Rob thinks that amphetamine use was “cheating”, and that anabolic steroid use was “cheating”, but I don’t know what he thinks about cocaine use. Did baseball players use cocaine with the intent to enhance their performance?
This question may sound silly on its face. We don’t perceive cocaine as a performance-enhancing drug. We perceive it as a “party” drug, as a “recreational” drug. Baseball classifies cocaine as a “drug of abuse”, as did the Mitchell Report. (For more on how we should not hold cocaine use against a Hall of Fame candidate, see here and here.)
But the truth is, cocaine is closely related to amphetamines – it has “amphetamine-like properties.” Both drugs are central nervous system stimulants. The two drugs work in certain ways that are similar: amphetamines cause the release of dopamine, and cocaine prevents the re-uptake of dopamine. Like amphetamines, cocaine increases alertness, feelings of well-being and euphoria, energy and motor activity, and feelings of competence. Federal law classifies both cocaine and amphetamines in the same way, as Schedule II prohibited stimulants. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the primary anti-doping authority in international sport, classifies both cocaine and amphetamines as category S6 “non-specified” stimulants, prohibited in competition but not otherwise. (Note that non-specified substances are treated more harshly under the WADA Code than so-called “specified” substances, and that WADA has determined to treat cocaine use just as harshly as amphetamine use.)
Granted there are important differences between cocaine and amphetamines. Amphetamines probably have a greater potential for performance-enhancement than cocaine, and cocaine reportedly is more addictive. But we cannot say that cocaine lacks any ability to help an athlete perform better. One source says that “the energy boost and self-confidence [cocaine] creates can aid in short-term athletic activity.” Dr. Gary Wadler of WADA has stated:
The acute effects of cocaine probably, overall, would impair and not enhance performance. But within a two-hour window, you may actually have some enhancement – overcoming fatigue, reaction time, and so on.
So let’s go back to the Rob Neyer argument that cheating = rule-breaking drug use + intent to enhance performance. Can we truly say that baseball’s cocaine users did not intend to performance-enhance? Can we really say that none of these guys ever thought that they might be better off with a little “blow” between innings?
For that matter, do we really care what these cocaine users might have been thinking? Cocaine is an addictive drug. Habitual users of cocaine will think they need the drug. Listen to Richard Pryor on the topic of cocaine (warning: this clip contains language that may be inappropriate for children and sensitive viewers). I cannot imagine anything crazier than casting a Hall of Fame vote based on how a baseball player intended to use cocaine.
This is NOT meant as a critique of Rob Neyer, who of course was not thinking about cocaine when he wrote his last post. Actually, I think Rob Neyer’s take on this subject is about 99% correct. Cheating does equal drug use against the rules with intent to enhance performance … only we don’t care about the subjective intent of the user. What we care about is what we think that intent might be.
What matters here is our perception of this drug use. We don’t perceive cocaine users as performance-enhancers. We perceive cocaine users as recreational drug users, and we perceive cocaine addicts as people with a problem who deserve treatment and help. We perceive cocaine-using baseball players as guys whose careers were hurt, derailed, wrecked by cocaine. The pharmacological similarity between cocaine and amphetamines is not relevant to us. The intent of the cocaine abuser is not relevant to us. What is relevant to us is what we think about cocaine.
Ditto for amphetamines. It does not matter whether amphetamines enhance baseball performance. What matters is how we perceive amphetamine use. We live in a culture where it’s perfectly acceptable to use stimulants to enhance performance. Our performance-enhancing drug of choice is caffeine, which is well understood as having a sports performance-enhancing effect (though there are dissenters on this point, caffeine in sufficient quantity is listed as a performance-enhancing substance under the WADA Code, prohibited in such quantity during competition.) We drink coffee, and Red Bulls, and Jolt Cola, and it doesn’t matter much to us if baseball players do the same thing. For a long time, we felt the same way about amphetamines. When amphetamines were called “pep pills”, when they were being prescribed by the bucketful to help with weight loss or just to treat a case of the blues, they were perceived in a relatively positive way. Eventually the perception changed, and we called amphetamines “speed” instead of “pep pills”, and we banned their use without a prescription. But the perception has not completely changed. Just review the comments to my last post, most of them by highly responsible and intelligent people, many of whom believe that amphetamines can sometimes be used safely. (More on this later.)
We Americans, we baseball fans, we are not particularly bothered by amphetamine use. The baseball players who used amphetamines are like the truckers and pilots who use amphetamines to stay awake, like the students who use amphetamines to “cram” all night for a big test. They’re just like us. Rob Neyer, this is the main reason why Hall of Fame voters distinguish between amphetamine users and users of anabolic steroids. It is a matter of perception. We don’t perceive amphetamine use as being a big deal. Our perception of anabolic steroid use is another thing entirely.
Why do the baseball writers care so much about anabolic steroid use? Because skinny young players like Barry Bonds transformed themselves into hulking home-run hitting monsters with the help of anabolic steroids, and they assaulted our precious book of baseball records, and it scared the hell out of us. Why do baseball writers care so much about HGH and HGH drug testing, when the drug does not appear to be performance-enhancing and when the testing for this drug does not appear to work? Because we’re afraid that HGH is an undetectable drug that works just like anabolic steroids.
I repeat: the distinction here is in the public perception of these PEDs.
To better understand the problem, consider the use of anabolic steroids in football. Do NFL fans care passionately about anabolic steroid use? How about football sports writers (many of whom are also baseball sports writers)? Anabolic steroid use is against the rules of the NCAA, and the NFL, and the performance-enhancing potential of anabolic steroids is much higher in football. But we don’t perceive anabolic steroid use in football in the same way that we do in baseball. We accept the fact that football players need to be bigger and stronger (in fact, we want them to be bigger and stronger), and we sort of ignore what it must take for most of these players to get that way.
ESPN’s Howard Bryant has made this point quite powerfully. He talks about “a Congress that ostensibly shamed baseball as a public health issue but has been patently disinterested in the health of football players …”, “a public that has made its emotional peace with football as the gladiator sport of real men, accepting the implausibility that players that big could run that fast naturally” and “a media world that covers the requisite four-game suspension for violating the [NFL’s] PED policy the same way it does a player returning from a routine hamstring injury.”
Bryant sees this issue as I do: it is a matter of public perception:
Football players clearly are willing to risk losing 25 percent of the season because the real loss — the credibility of one’s name — is not at stake. There is, in football, no public shame for using performance enhancers. Rodney Harrison, who admitted to using human growth hormone, holds a plum position as a “Sunday Night Football” analyst. Popular ESPN radio host Mike Golic openly discussed his steroid use as a player during the news cycle for accusations about other athletes such as Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds. In 2006, Merriman was suspended for PEDs, then not only was welcomed back without comment but resumed his position as a leading candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
And of course, football’s Hall of Fame is loaded with anabolic steroids users.
Why the difference between the treatment of steroid-using baseball and football players? The drug abused is the same in both cases. The intent behind the use was the same. The performance-enhancing effects may be doubted in baseball, where the use of this drug is now widely condemned, but these effects are clear and obvious in football. By Rob Neyer’s definition, football players who use steroids are cheaters, same as the baseball players who used steroids. The difference, the only possible difference between the use of this drug in these two sports, is one of public perception.
This matter of public perception is an untold part of the story of anabolic steroids in baseball. The truth is, our perception of this drug has changed over the last 15 years. We baseball fans used to see anabolic steroids in much the same way as football fans presently view this PED: we didn’t necessarily like this drug, but we were willing to tolerate it, or ignore its use, particularly when the guys using the steroids were likable guys like Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. We enjoyed the sight of Mark and Sammy assaulting Maris’ single-season home run record and helping us forget the players’ strike of 1994. We did not enjoy the sight of Barry Bonds doing the same thing later on, and this changed our perception of anabolic steroids. But my basic point is this: the Bondses and McGwires of the baseball world used anabolic steroids when they were perceived differently than they are today. I don’t feel particularly sorry for anyone who used anabolic steroids during the so-called Steroids Era – the drugs were illegal then, and their use then was against the rules. But the truth is, anabolic steroid use in the early to mid 1990s was perceived differently, and our different perception back then affected the willingness of players in that era to use that drug.
So … after writing thousands of words on this subject, I finally find the ground to agree with Rob Neyer. Anabolic steroid use during the so-called steroids era was very much like amphetamine use in earlier eras: both of these drugs were used by ballplayers in violation of the rules, but the use of both of these drugs was tacitly tolerated then, much like anabolic steroid use in football is tacitly tolerated today. To be sure, the use of amphetamines after 1971 was cheating, as was the use of steroids, and if what we are about is banning cheaters from the Hall of Fame, then we’re going to end up with a smaller Hall of Fame. Obviously, that’s not going to happen. Instead, I think the logical step is to recognize that there have been eras in baseball where the use of certain PEDs was tolerated even if such use was formally prohibited, and that the use of steroids during the Steroids Era is one such era. We have a precedent of admitting players into the Hall of Fame who used PEDs during eras when such use was tolerated, and we should follow that precedent in considering the Hall of Fame credentials of those who played during the Steroids Era.
(In effect, I’m giving a belated vote of approval to Ken Davidoff’s policy of distinguishing between anabolic steroids use before and after the advent of drug testing in 2005.)
Is this argument sufficiently persuasive to change the minds of HOF voters? I don’t know. But I think it’s a pretty good argument, one that gets even better if it makes us consider how our policy towards PEDs is affected most of all by the vagaries of public perception.
My last post on ‘Roids and Greenies generated a lot of terrific comments. Many comments were to the effect that amphetamines could not be nearly as dangerous as I made them out to be. After all, baseball players (by all accounts) used this drug liberally for many years. So did truckers, and students pulling all-night study sessions. We don’t have records of thousands of amphetamine users falling to pieces and requiring medical attention.
Or do we? There were reported “amphetamine epidemics” in Japan, Sweden and the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. One report on the use of amphetamines in New York Magazine in the 1960s (by the esteemed journalist Gail Sheehy) described amphetamines as more dangerous than heroin. By one “conservative” estimate, there were at least 300,000 people in the U.S. who were addicted to amphetamines in 1970, and nearly 1 million Americans back then who met “one criteria of dependence” on amphetamines. It may well be the case that not every baseball player was able to use “greenies” without consequence.
Look. I’m not a doctor or a public health expert, and I’m not qualified to judge whether amphetamines posed a serious public health risk back in the days when “greenies” were prevalent in baseball clubhouses. But there is certainly evidence to this effect, sufficient evidence to make me question whether amphetamines (used without a prescription, without a doctor’s supervision) are better classified as “dangerous”, or as a “drug of abuse”, rather than as “performance enhancing”. In fact, after reading some of the reports and seeing how readily amphetamines were prescribed by medical professionals in the 1950s and 60s for no good reason, I’m coming to doubt whether these drugs were safe back then even when used under a doctor’s care.
Of course, the dangers of amphetamines may have been exaggerated, as the dangers of using marijuana was exaggerated back in the day. I’m not qualified to judge. Moreover, I have been duly chastised by my readers like williamnyy23, who have quite correctly told me that we know less about these drugs than we think we do. Quite right, readers. I’d add that since we know less than we think we do, we should be even more cautious in our description of these drugs, and even more reluctant to consider any non-medical use of these drugs as tolerable, or safe, or potentially beneficial.
However, prompted by my readers, I’ll admit to the possibility that certain people may have been (might possibly have been, we cannot know for certain) occasional, non-frequent, and non-regular users of small amounts and low doses of amphetamines who did not suffer from this practice. Some of these people might even have derived benefits from this use. I would also say that notwithstanding this admission, any non-medical use of amphetamines is ill-advised and potentially dangerous. This is not a drug to mess around with.
I want to make special mention of a comment received from Jay, who cited an article stating that the military continued to prescribe amphetamines to pilots until 1991, and that this practice may have been a good one for all concerned. I’ll say in response that the use of amphetamines advocated in this article is medically supervised, in low doses, occasional, and is judged against the danger of non-use (which of course includes the danger of the pilot getting drowsy and crashing the plane). Jay is right to suggest that this kind of amphetamine use might be beneficial, but of course the use of “greenies” by baseball players (no medical supervision, no dose control and no real danger in non-use) is a different matter.
I should probably also mention that some observers think they can see in the statistics the effect of the withdrawal of amphetamines from baseball clubhouses, and that others (correctly in my view) think that any such argument is nonsense.
With all this said, with my admission that there’s much we do not know, with my admonition that our lack of knowledge should only serve to increase the caution we take in our approach to amphetamines, I’m hoping that we can view amphetamines as a drug with possible but uncertain status as performance-enhancing, and with a more certain status as potentially dangerous. I’ve tried to make the point here that our perception of PEDs is all-important; we might as well do what we can do to get this perception to match up with reality. If you view this drug differently, you are welcome to your opinion, in particular if you can find source authority to support it, but I have (probably) said my last word here on the effects of amphetamines.