Why We Are Angry at the Players

Now that we have all read the (in my view) excessively lengthy Mitchell Report, I would like to see the reaction leave the realm of hysteria and sensationalism, and settle into a much-needed deliberation and thoughtful discussion that just might help us go beyond the current state of useless anger and recriminations and lead us to some plausible course of action.

First, we need to be clear that what makes some of us so angry and vituperative has NOTHING to do with the players' potentially damaging their health.

Nor does it have much to do with our worries that the players' behavior will already have had an inevitable "downstream" effect on our children who will now all abuse anabolic steroids to succeed in the ever-growing competition of sports.

The sole issue that upsets us so much is the sanctity of numbers, the alleged pristine-ness of records that in baseball (arguably more than in any other team sport of the North American variety (football, basketball, ice hockey) but also of the various rugby versions, cricket and, most certainly, soccer far and away the world's most popular team sport) so much defines the essence of the game.

In other words, our fury is based almost solely on feeling "cheated" in that we now do not see the numbers that this players attained as "real" and "fair."

To wit, few folks beyond the narrow confines of track and field were truly disappointed about Marion Jones' being convicted of doping and having her Olympic medals stripped and her records voided. And Marion Jones was arguably as big a track star in America as one can get.

So what we need to do is not fool ourselves and remain sanctimonious about the reasons we are angry at the players and the issue of doping in baseball. It is not about their health, it is not about our kids, it's about the sanctity of numbers and records, pure and simple.

Once this is clear, we will need to analyze what "cheating" really means -- or put differently why a certain record is deemed "clean" and why another "tainted."

Once we get into that very important discussion, we will realize that this dichotomy is not so crystal clear. All records have some grey zones: set during day games, set against weaker competition, set with different strike zones, set with different materials. Now some of these might indeed favor distant eras, others might advantage more recent ones; the point is that NO RECORD is a purely objective fact. All have some subjective dimensions of era, age, time, effort, on and on that render it comparable with some leeway and some level of interpretation.

This gets to the whole area of drawing the line of doping. How and where does one do that? Only at the non-natural, i.e. the chemical and synthetic world? Only at drugs that enhance strength? Why are certain training methods -- like sleeping in oxygen tents, for example -- considered legitimate while others are considered doping?

To be sure ALL rules are ultimately arbitrary -- as will be the ones that will define what baseball players will henceforth be allowed to take and not take. But let us be much more circumspect in our deifying the purity of past records and past achievements by vilifying the current players as miscreants.

Lastly, while I do not condone the use of anabolic steroids -- just like I do not condone the use of amphetamines or that of most so called "recreational" drugs the consumption of which seems to concern us very little when it comes to their effect on the players' health. I am, as a concerned civil libertarian, quite worried about the supervision regimes that will be introduced to "clean up" the sport. All of these will inevitably undermine the players' privacy if they are to be effective. Be it in a restaurant with friends, on Christmas Eve with the family, on a business trip -- whatever the place and whenever the time -- the players will have to fully abide the commands of a complete stranger who, with inquisitorial powers, will make them urinate into some contraption right in his presence.

Again, we really might want this as a society and as sports fans. So be it. But let us not obfuscate and beatify the real reasons why we do.

Andrei S. Markovits is the Karl W. Deutsch Collegiate Professor of Comparative Politics and German Studies at the University of Michigan. An avid sports fan, he closely follows the four major North American team sports plus the world of soccer everywhere. He is the author of OFFSIDE: SOCCER AND AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM, published by Princeton University Press, and many articles on comparative sports cultures. His most recent book, on anti-Americanism in Europe, is called UNCOUTH NATION also published by Princeton University Press.