It’s a bad sign for sports that this article could have been written five years ago with the same complaints. Namely: are we ever going to use the groundbreaking technology at our disposal, or are we going to meekly refer to the players’ ever-dwindling rights to privacy? But this isn’t an essay about inaction on the parts of the players, the players’ unions, the managers, the fans, the media, or the league brass. Cheating has been exposed and unsolved for over ten years. It’s time we looked at why we allow it to continue because, make no mistake, we are consciously allowing it.
Sports are more fun to watch on steroids. Health risks and bygone records be damned, having bigger, faster, more athletic players is the fullest evolution of sport as defined by our terms. Anyone who, given the option, doesn’t boost all player stats on Madden up to 99 is just trying to make things competitive for him/herself. But if we can have Level 99 players running around on both sides, in real life, that’s nothing short of Sports Nirvana. We don’t hate steroids for enabling this. We can say we hate steroids for ruining the legacies of the respective sports, even as the viewership increases to lockout-necessitating extremes.
Do we care about the player’s health? Yes, because we need them to keep playing with bloodlust at full capacity. Unfair generalization? Probably, but it doesn’t always feel like it. What is most unfortunate about steroids is it reveals a dark monster that looms over the game – that dark monster being us.
Steroids have forced the hand of morality in sports. Think about it: when a player was injured, whom did we used to blame? It was the coach’s fault for putting him in a risky scenario, which was especially egregious if the victory was already in hand. It was a football player’s fault for delivering a menacing hit. It was the baseball player’s fault for choosing to compromise his integrity for the sake of money, fame, and success. It was Lance’s fault for being more cunning than the system. (Even as a former LIVESTRONG employee, don’t read that as a defense. He’s an asshole.)
This whole mess was never about athletes outperforming their peers to stay in the game, not unless the kids from the Sandlot were rubbing The Cream on each other behind the swimming pool. Steroids are no bigger mystery than the rise of sequels and reboots or the sudden pre-eminence of televised drama. Athletes take steroids to keep their jobs in an economy 100% funded by the preferences of the fans. If this wasn’t exactly what we wanted, the trace marks would have healed years ago. Before Steroids Were Discovered and Definitely Not Before Then If We Don’t Look Into It, it was OK that receivers’ heads were being ripped from their bodies. It was not as bilesome to learn that a player tore his ACL trying to keep us happy. But the constant suspicion of steroids brings about a problem: we can’t say it’s “part of the game” anymore, and talking about the legacies of Hank Aaron and Roger Maris is only a cover-up for the guilt of demanding too much from entertainment.
Here’s the nut of the steroid hate: we will tune into see the inhumane barbarism for as long as we can say it was their decision. If the game is broken, fix the rules (but not without a firestorm of anguish about Ye Ole Tradition). If the player dished out a dirty hit, punish him by all means. But if it be proved that the life-altering injury happened as a freak result of two men who trained their hearts out in the gym, without roids, then it’s just the breaks of the game. Or, I’m sorry, did you think the unstoppable PPV juggernaut known as MMA just coincidentally intersected with the unprecedented violence in the Steroid Era? This is all a bit like getting divorce papers after years and years of infidelity: the cheating finally morphed into something beyond the will of conscience.
Unfortunately, even placing the blame upon ourselves, as many sportswriters are wont to do, is existentially not enough. The continual existence of steroids in sports is only ancillary to the fact that we’ve enjoyed the hell out of it. So don’t e-mail the Commissioners with rage about the lack of proper drug testing that they are more than capable of in 2013 – not unless you can recall the time before the stigma of cheating arose and remember being disgusted by the carnage you saw on the field, in plain sight. And if you were, e-mail the friends who called you a pussy to see if they flip-flopped, because they’re all damned hypocrites.