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Are we not men?

January 15, 2010

Only a couple of weeks after steroids were named “Story of the Year” for 2009, baseball has once again been tossed back into the clutches of the shadow now that Mark McGwire has chosen to shed some light on his own steroid usage. There’s not much to say about McGwire, apart from the obvious points that:

  1. he should have said this five years ago, but
  2. since Mark presumably doesn’t own a time machine, this is the next best alternative

I don’t know if he was told to do this as a condition for returning to baseball, or whether he just did it now so he focus could on his job spring training, but whatever. I don’t think there will be much of an immediate effect on his Hall of Fame chances; some sportswriters have already jumped in to say that they will never vote for McGwire, but “never” is a notoriously long time.

But despite the fact that this is a “duh” story – McGwire admits to something we already knew – it’s gotten plenty of coverage, so much so that even non-baseball writers take notice. From Andrew Sullivan’s blog:

Well, knock me over with a vial of deca. Here’s the main thought I have: why do Americans obsess about steroids in baseball when obviously they’re focused on the wrong sport. How many football players in this country are not on steroids? And the effects of these super-huge juiced-up athletes running hard at each others is an increasingly worrying amount of brain damage.

I mean: look at those dudes. They look like contemporary cattle in human form. I’m fine with it and wouldn’t interfere. But the cognitive dissonance is amazing.

I’m not going to try to answer the question from the baseball side of things (one of his readers has already given it a decent shot); instead, I want to focus on one word – cattle – that I wish sportswriters would use more often.

Lots of people have pointed out the steroids double standard that exists with baseball and football. I’m a baseball fan, but I’m not going to defend the league; Major League Baseball generally deserves whatever criticism it gets. The people who run it, from Bud Selig to the owners, are neither honourable nor ethical; they are what they are, rich guys who have been given a legal exemption to act like robber barons. So they do.

The thing I don’t get is… I don’t understand why young football players in the United States, from age 16 years up, are treated like ground beef. The vast majority, anyways; star quarterbacks may be treated like royalty, but most football players are not Tom Brady. There are thousands of them, and they all have to weigh over 300lbs to have any hope of making the big leagues. They get their brains bashed in for a few years; if they are one of the lucky few who make the NFL, then they get their brains bashed in for a few more years, but at least they make a little money as well.

All but a few dozen are out of the game before age 30; and for the rest of their lives they face a litany of health problems, from chronic knee and back injuries to potential brain injuries to the many ill side effects of obesity to God Knows What side effects from all the God Knows What drugs they have used.

And you can’t just blame the big bad NFL; it’s the schools, the coaches, and even the parents, who have devalued the lives of these young men to be worth the equivalent weight in hamburger.

(Full disclosure: I don’t get American college sports. I come from Toronto, I grew up with the Blue Jays and other local teams and went through a phase in my teens when I watched Monday Night Football every week (the “Frank and Al and Dan” era). But when I turn on an American college or high school football game… I may as well be watching a cricket match in Pakistan or a soccer match in Cameroon or a Kabbadi match in India. The culture shock is just enormous.)

Steroids were pretty much a non-issue during the 1990’s; they exploded into a hugh issue during the past decade, when people started to care. Why do they care? Two reasons are often given; I’m skeptical of one, but I’ll also offer a third:

  1. the integrity of the game argument. I know there are people who think that steroids have damaged baseball’s integrity, and who badly want fans to feel the same way, but I think this argument has pretty much zero resonance with the general public. Steroid users make their teams better – unlike, say, the Black Sox, who did the opposite. The Black Sox had an integrity problem.When someone says that “fans don’t care about steroids“, what they really mean is that “fans don’t think that the game’s integrity has been compromised”. Perhaps the statistical records have been compromised, but, well, that’s been true since forever.
  2. the “save the children” argument. Yes, it’s been tossed around shamelessly over the years, but nevertheless has a great deal of truth and resonance to it. Forcing teenage boys and girls to take steroids so they can pursue an athletic career is simply unacceptable.
  3. the third reason is difficult to define, but I call it the “ewww” factor. Steroid users are gross; Barry Bonds is to steroid use what Donatella Versace is to plastic surgery. You can talk yourself blue in the face about the health risks of steroids, and you won’t get very far (you can even warn young men that their dicks will fall off, and they won’t hear you); but icky images, such as bloated heads or bacne, can be far more powerful.

So… why don’t people care about steroids in football? Like I said, the integrity of the game is not a big issue; especially when there are no fans on the planet Earth who care more about winning than American college football fans (except maybe for American high school football fans).

The “ewww” factor? Football players are supposed to look gross. They’re supposed to look like cattle. That may not be right, but that’s the way it is.

The “save the children” argument? One would presume that the lives of children who play football are worth just as much as the lives of other children, but… like I said, I really don’t know. As an outsider, I “get” American football culture to the same extent that I “get” Indian Kabbadi culture – I don’t get either at all (actually, that’s not right – I think Kabbadi is sort of analogous to rugby, so maybe I get it a little bit. American football? Not so much.)

Like I said, baseball usually deserves whatever criticism it gets; that doesn’t bother me. But if we can at least acknowledge that football players are celebrated for looking like cattle, then perhaps we can make some headway in trying to figure out why this is.

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