Thursday, February 25, 2010

Pumped Up Pastime: A Disquisition in Three Parts (Part Three)

We come to the end of the steroid cycle. You've been feeling the manic euphoria of incredible muscle gains and the satisfaction that for once, your clothes have gotten tighter for the right reasons. Let's go out on a high note, wrapping this baby up before you start cruising for bar fights and start wondering just what the hell is happening to the family jewels.

Among the game’s superstars more recently linked to steroids is New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, widely regarded as the most talented player in the game, and worthy of consideration among the game’s greatest players. In 2007 he became the youngest player in history to hit 500 home runs in his career, a benchmark that usually guarantees entry into the Hall of Fame. Rodriguez was not included in the Mitchell report, and avoided allegations of drug abuse throughout his career. In part because he was regarded as a natural talent who would likely one day restore legitimacy to baseball’s all-time home run record, now held by the tainted Barry Bonds, following the 2007 season the Yankees rewarded Rodriguez with 10-year, $275 million contract that included incentives and revenue sharing should he reach certain career milestones and home run records. In February 2009, however, Sports Illustrated reported that Rodriguez test positive for steroids in 2003, the year he won the Most Valuable Player award with the Texas Rangers.

Over the course of two major media events that soon followed – an exclusive interview with the venerable Peter Gammons (who was far too easy on Rodriguez) and a news conference at the Yankees' spring training facility in Tampa, Florida – Rodriguez admitted to using steroids from 2001-2003, but did so in a manner that damaged his integrity and raised almost as many questions as he answered.

New York Times baseball reporter Tyler Kepner enumerated several of the reasons in his article covering the news conference: "In 2007, he lied to Katie Couric of CBS when he said he had never used performance-enhancing drugs. In his interview with ESPN last Monday, he lied about not knowing what kind of steroid he used. He also lied when he said that Selena Roberts, the reporter who broke the story of his failed drug test, tried to break into his home in Miami."

But Rodriguez's credibility problem goes much deeper than that. Rodriguez said he and a cousin had obtained the drugs in the Dominican Republic. It was his cousin who introduced him to "boli," Rodriguez said. "It was his understanding that it would give me a dramatic energy boost and was otherwise harmless." A dramatic energy boost? Athletes who take steroids do so in order to make dramatic gains in strength and muscle mass, as well as to decrease the amount of recovery time between workouts. Rodriguez may claim to have been "young and stupid," but surely he knew what steroids were and their effects on the body. (Rodriguez was the tender age of 25 when he claimed to have begun using a banned substance, and 28 at end of the 2003 season.) Surely he knew about steroid use among other players – the gaudy numbers and physical transformations McGwire and Bonds drew suspicion from even the most casual fans – and the advantages steroid use conferred to power hitters in particular. “I knew we weren’t taking Tic Tacs,” Rodriguez admitted, seeming to indicate that he knew full well what he was doing, directly contradicting the image he had been painting of a na├»ve dilettante.

It wasn't just the sincerity of his words that raised eyebrows. Rodriguez's histrionic pause when addressing teammates achieved not the intended humanizing effect of an embattled soul overcome with emotion, but rather that of a calculating politician employing a canned rhetorical device. (Aposiopesis, a sudden breaking off mid-sentence, as if from inability or unwillingness to continue, is the literary term.) "Thank you," Rodriguez finally said, after 38 long seconds.

So if the objective of Rodriguez's PR campaign is to come clean and begin the process of restoring trust, why the evasiveness and circumlocution? Why lie? Rodriguez employs collection of noted image and communication consultants, including Richard Rubenstein, the son of George Steinbrenner's spokesman Howard Rubenstein, and Ben Porritt, a former spokesman for John McCain’s presidential campaign and a partner in the crisis-management firm Outside Eyes. You have to wonder, however, weather the avalanche of advice was a help or a hindrance. “I am here to take my medicine,” Rodriguez said, using an unfortunate phrase, given the circumstances.

This is painful to watch.

Rodriguez's news conference stands in stark contrast to that of his teammate Andy Pettitte, who held his own spring training mea culpa before the media just last year. Identified in Mitchell report for using human growth hormone (H.G.H.) in 2002 and 2004, Pettitte quickly admitted his use of the performance-enhancing substance, and sat down for in hour-long news conference in which he was widely perceived to have been forthright and genuinely remorseful. Pettitte said he had used H.G.H. to recover from injuries and get back on the field as soon as possible. Though not prohibited by baseball when he used it, Pettitte acknowledged it was wrong to use it without a medical prescription. Rather than allowing negative news to drip out over time, Pettitte addressed the damaging story and all of its implications and associated questions at once. “Obviously, I’ve been put under oath,” Pettitte said. “That’s it. There’s no other surprises out there.” And there haven’t been. Pettitte went about his business during the 2008 season largely unaffected by the revelations that once threatened to derail his career.

All of Rodriguez’s PR consultants, however, could not prevent him from committing several avoidable errors of crisis management. By calling attention to a “loosey-goosey,” anything-goes culture, Rodriguez, seeking to contextualize his actions and mitigate his culpability, effectively denied the severity of the issue. The twofold upshot: Rodriguez came across as avoiding accountability and drew the ire of clean players upon whom suspicion has been unfairly cast. “One thing that’s irritating and really upsets me a lot is when you hear people say that everybody did it,” teammate Derek Jeter said the day after Rodriguez’s news conference in Tampa. “Everybody wasn’t doing it.”

Rodriguez’s misleading half-truths about what he knew of what he was taking had the effect of inviting adversaries and investigative reporters to dig deeper to discover the unvarnished truth. For example, who is Rodriguez’s cousin? How did he have access to illicit substances and what did he know about the effects of those substances? Readers and reporters were asking these and related questions at a time when straightforward crisis communications management would have put these issues to rest.

Where traditional media met Rodriguez’s performance with measured scrutiny and reviews ranging from adequate to poor, social media sites offered a full spectrum of reaction, from the strongly supportive (some) to the deeply disbelieving (many). Indeed, reaction tilted heavily against Rodriguez. From sports blogs such as Deadspin and Bleacher Report, to fan pages on Facebook and discussion forums on MySpace, Rodriguez received harsh criticism from bloggers and commentators alike. It was a performance that will require a much better second act. Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman acknowledged as much. “This thing is not dying,” Cashman said. “The shelf life of this is a lot longer.”

There are arguments on both sides as to whether it is ethical to punish players who have used steroids by banning them from the game or the Hall of Fame. Those who claim that it is unfair to ostracize these players cite baseball’s rules, which for a long time were murky when it came to performance-enhancing drugs, and its long and storied history of players gaining edges through corked bats, doctored baseballs, sign decoding, pain killers, body armor, and who knows what else. Where do you draw the line between cheating and cunning gamesmanship? In baseball, the answer isn’t always clear. Moreover, some argue, is not the steroid era in baseball merely a reflection of modern American society? Kids fight attention deficit disorder with Adderall and Ritalin, the overweight fight flab with Xanadrine and Stacker, men fight impotence with Viagra and Cialis, and everyone fights sleepiness with Red Bull and Starbucks. Why single out baseball players seeking to be the best through self-improvement?

With nearly all of America on drugs for one thing or another, is all the hand-wringing over steroids in baseball justified?

These arguments have their merits, but the argument for baseball to rid itself of illicit drug abuse through stringent testing and sustained public awareness outreach is the stronger one. President Barack Obama, when asked about the scandal during his first presidential press conference, summed up the argument quite well:

If you’re a fan of Major League Baseball, I think it tarnishes an entire era to some degree. And it’s unfortunate, because I think there are a lot of ballplayers who played it straight. And the thing I’m probably most concerned about is the message that it sends to our kids. What I’m pleased about is Major League Baseball seems to finally be taking this seriously, to recognize how big of a problem this is for the sport, and that our kids, hopefully, are watching and saying ‘You know what? There are no short cuts.’ That when you try to take short cuts, you may end up tarnishing your entire career. And your integrity’s not worth it. That’s the message I hope is communicated.

It is fundamentally unfair to force employees to consider undertaking a massive health risk, indeed a Faustian bargain – anabolic steroids have been linked to medical and psychological problems, violent mood swings, depression, liver damage, and cardiovascular disease – in order to stay competitive and retain a job. Furthermore, there is a reverence in baseball – unique in professional sports – for records and statistics. 3,000 hits. 500 home runs. 300 wins. A 56-game hitting streak. 2,632 consecutive games played. Baseball fans instantly recognize the mystique attending these numbers. They serve as benchmarks for assessing careers, comparing players from different eras, and inspiring awe and wonder for magnificent achievements. Steroids rob these numbers from their grandeur, while degrading and diminishing accomplishments that should regarded with respect and admiration.

The Mitchell Report
makes several thoughtful recommendations for restoring integrity to the game, including establishing a department of investigations, cooperating with law enforcement agencies, establishing clear ethical codes for all clubs, launching persuasive educational campaigns for both players and fans, and strengthening the current testing program so that it not only tests for steroids but also HGH and performance-enhancing drugs designed to evade detection. I agree, and also believe baseball should take the symbolic and substantive steps of installing new leadership in both the commissioner’s office and the player’s union, as the current leadership bears culpability far too great for the game to effective rehabilitate its reputation, both in terms of reality and perception. Moreover, tainted players seeking redemption should quit offering repeated denials in the face of overwhelming evidence, as Roger Clemens has done, but instead admit their errors in judgment, apologize, and commit toward working for the good of the game through drug education programs for youth.

The game of ball is glorious!

Walt Whitman once wrote: “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game – the American game. It will take our people out of doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair those losses, and be a blessing to us.” If the entirety of the game commits to doing the right thing, it may once again be that blessing.

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