Did baseball’s culture of permissiveness give the players an excuse for using performance-enhancing drugs?
As a result of the “Steroids in Baseball” issue there has been a lot written – and said – about a “culture of permissiveness” that existed in Major League Baseball. The prevailing wisdom - or “P.W.” - on this subject is that for at least the past 50 years MLB knew that players were using amphetamines in order to get through the season, and that depending who you are listening to this use was on the order of about 70% of the players.
At the dawn of the steroid era, which despite what you may think started in the 80’s and not the 90’s, the P.W. employs the logic that since baseball already allowed – by ignoring – players to use “uppers,” the players had no reason to believe the league wouldn’t want them to use steroids. Especially since there were no rules that expressly banned steroids.
As baseball players started to look like football players, and the teams and the league reveled in the power and glory of the resulting emergence of the long ball, players had even more incentive to “juice up.” Teams like the Oakland A’s celebrated the size and power of their players, and even had a season long power lifting competition among the players, the results of which were posted on a blackboard in their clubhouse.
Other teams picked up on the lead set by the Oakland A’s, and certainly nobody in the league office wanted to do anything to derail this power train…after all chicks dig the long ball.
Which brings us back to the question of, “Did baseball’s culture of permissiveness give the players an excuse for using performance-enhancing drugs?”
The short answer is, “No!”
Here’s the long answer. There is no doubt that the baseball hierarchy – including the players union - knew that players were using drugs. This is evidenced by the way all parties conducted themselves during labor negotiations, negotiations that specifically dealt with drugs and drug testing. Speed was never prohibited, steroids were never prohibited, and there were no real testing measures in place to deter players from using, nor were there any real penalties in place to punish the players in the unlikely event anyone got busted.
This permissive culture did exist in MLB.
The problem with ascribing this excuse to the players for their use of these drugs is that the players themselves – with 2 notable exceptions – have NOT used this excuse!
Besides Jose Canseco and the late Ken Caminiti no player has come out and said that they used steroids because they worked, they needed them and they knew that no one would stop them because steroids weren’t prohibited by baseball. Canseco has been unrepentant in recounting his use of the juice and is on record as saying that there is no way he would have accomplished what he did if not for the steroids. He also has said that since the teams and the league knew that players were already using other drugs to improve their performance – amphetamines – the players who used saw no reason not to use steroids.
Now you can agree or disagree with Canseco, but he has owned up to what he did. If Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire came out and said the same thing, steroids in baseball would be a dead issue, or at least not the scandalous issue that has become. If McGwire had told us that that baseball knew what was going on and subtly encouraged this drug use his critics would have had a very tough time countering this position.
If Mark McGwire had come clean on this issue the vast majority of people would have taken his side. The players would have had the sympathy and understanding of their fans, and while actions may have been taken to keep steroid out of the game, this situation certainly would not have escalated to the present day’s scandal.
Instead, these guys decided to insult our intelligence; McGwire, by repeating his "I'm not here to talk about the past" mantra, and Bonds by telling us that he thought he was taking flax seed oil — flax seed oil that cost thousands of dollars.
But here’s the kicker. Despite the fact that the league didn’t expressly forbid the use of steroids, and despite the fact that many fans would have taken their side, these guys ALL know that using steroids is CHEATING. Deep down these players know that the vast majority of their peers aren’t using, and the users know that they would earn the ire of their fellow union members if they admitted steroid use. The users know that by using they are making more money than the non-users and setting records and earning accolades that other wise would go to the clean players. Steroid use does not occur in a vacuum.
I haven’t heard any player – user or not – express the position that since steroids weren’t specifically prohibited, that steroid use was ok. Fans and other supporters of these players have used this line of thinking, but not players. Players have used the argument that there aren’t a lot of steroid users, but never has the “it’s not cheating” argument been used.
MLB certainly can be held complicit in this whole mess but the players who have used, by denying their use, are ultimately to blame for their actions. For cheating.