The new phony steroid scandal.

The stadium scene.
Nov. 19 2003 4:39 PM

Needles and Pens

The sportswriter's obsession with steroid scandals.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Len Bias would have been 40 years old in November had he not celebrated by putting the Cali Cartel up his nose on the very night in 1986 that he'd been drafted by the defending champion Boston Celtics. The tragedy was put to immediate use by a bipartisan passel of opportunistic hysterics led by then-Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, who demanded a tough new law to placate the angry and mournful Celtics fans among his constituents. (You think I made that part up? Dan Baum limns the whoopin' and hollerin' splendidly in his history of the drug wars, Smoke and Mirrors.) That October, President Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which was sort of the drug war's Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and which visited upon ourselves a whole number of really fine ideas, including the mandatory minimum sentences so beloved these days by so many judges. Of course, we learned almost nothing from the whole Bias saga and certainly nothing about the perils of making policy by letting the hottest heads prevail.

I mention all of this because there is one sentence you should remember as the Steroid Hysteria now raging in the sports pages runs its course. This is the sentence: THG, the substance produced by the BALCO Laboratories in California and allegedly consumed by dozens of athletes, was neither illegal nor specifically banned by any professional sports league. Period, as I just typed.

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You should remember this every time you read another sports columnist's explosion of angry moral outrage at The Cheaters. You should remember it every time you read another expression of earnest concern for The Children. No professional athlete who took this stuff broke any law and no professional athlete who took this stuff broke any rule. (And, as far as any definitive scientific evidence is concerned, nobody endangered his health with the stuff, either.) In other words, the scandal that is preoccupying your sports pages these days involves people doing something perfectly legal with their own bodies. Period, as I just typed again.

Nevertheless, the old rhetoric's heating up again and it's a sign that the rhetoric is starting to float loose of planet Earth. This time around, the part of Ronald Reagan is being played by the hilariously monikered Dick Pound, who developed his fine moral sense by working with the international bagmen and titled unemployables that make up the International Olympic Committee. The part of William Bennett is being played by a guy named Dr. Gary Wadler, who's a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency. "We can't let these seminal events just pass by," Wadler told Ian O'Connor of USA Today. Of course not, not while there's authoritarian hysteria to be whipped up.

In fact, O'Connor is one of the finest sports columnists in America, so when he writes something like, "This doesn't have to be a fair fight, not with the stakes this high," as he did on Nov. 18, it's an indication that the conversation about sports and drugs is coming unhinged again, the way it did back in 1986. Seriously, what are the stakes here, so serious that we have to engage in another round of the kind of self-destruction that has failed us for almost 20 years? The integrity of the baseball record book? The integrity of Dick Pound's lucrative quadrennial track meet? (Now, there's a concept.) The integrity of the illusions of sportswriters who think they're still 10 years old?

I don't care if every record book in every sport reads like the Physicians' Desk Reference, and I couldn't care less at this point what happens to the Olympic Games. Given a choice between a non-drug-aided home run record and functioning Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution, I will side with little Jemmy Madison and not, as Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News apparently would have me do, with Reggie Jackson. Jackson whined to Lupica, "This crap is all about your muscles. Well, guess what the biggest muscle in your body is? Your heart."

I realize that with sports we are talking about the private, and not the public, sphere, but we have allowed the job of abridging our rights to be subcontracted in so many directions these days that the government hardly has to bother itself with doing so any more, and a lot of that has its roots in the days after Len Bias died. Consider, for example, Pottawatomie County v. Earls, in which the Supreme Court decided last year, by the predictable 5-to-4 margin, that high-school students could be tested for drugs if they decided to participate in virtually any extracurricular activity.

The case concerned a girl named Lindsay Earls, who'd refused a school-mandated drug test. Lindsay Earls wanted to join the choir.

Now, a society that truly valued its civil liberties would have laughed the Supreme Court majority that promulgated this foolishness right off the bench. But that was not, alas, the case. Now there's a new steroid and a new push to erect another new infrastructure of unworkable and draconian rules. That will last until another cagey scientist invents another steroid that the drug warriors haven't heard of, and then the whole process will start all over again, and we discover that we learned nothing from the tragic passing of Len Bias except how to be idiots with each other.

Charles P. Pierce is a staff writer for the Boston Globe Magazine and a contributing writer for Esquire. His latest book is Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free.