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Bonds Away: The Short History of an Asterisk August 5, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Current Events.

The sturm und drang of Barry Bond’s quest for perhaps the most hallowed record in sports is now over. He ties Henry Aaron for the most career home runs and will likely break the record in a day or two.

But there is little joy in Mudville. Although, his use of chemical substances has not been proven in court, the evidence is mounting and strongly indicates guilt, and Bonds has admitted he may have used the substances though he claims he did not know what he was taking. Bond’s alleged use of now banned performance-enhancing drugs will taint this record, which is likely to be notated by an asterisk in the record books.

Should we care whether Bond’s home runs were chemically induced? I have heard three arguments that the record is not tainted–none are convincing.

The first is that Bonds is among the best players to ever play the game with or without chemical enhancement so we should not begrudge him this honor. But this argument is a non-sequitur. The issue is not whether he is a great player (he is) but rather whether he has earned the career home run record. The chemical boost is a reason to doubt that.

The second is that in order for these strength-building substances to have an affect, you have to hit the ball first, which is a skill that performance-enhancing drugs do not influence. Thus, Bond’s performance is largely due to natural ability and training, not drugs. This is unconvincing because these substances prolong careers thus giving Bonds time to accumulate home runs. Furthermore, steroids boost the performance of fast-twitch muscle fibers that influence bat speed. Thus, not only his power but his consistency is likely to be chemically enhanced.

The third argument is some version of the claim that “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.” Everybody cheats to try to gain an edge; that is just part of the game. So why single out Bonds for disapproval?

There is some truth to this claim. Shortstops, on a double play, rarely actually touch second base, first-baseman often illegally obstruct runners diving back to the bag, pitchers often doctor the ball to influence its rotation, etc.

But there is an important difference between this sort of “ordinary” cheating and the use of performance-enhancing drugs. “Ordinary” cheating does not undermine the competitive dimension of the game because it is equal opportunity cheating. Everyone knows the practices that count as cheating and their consequences and can evaluate the risks involved in getting caught. How far to push the boundaries of the rules is a strategic decision and the umpire’s job is to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand. It is simply another dimension of the game that one has to excel at in order to win, and no one is excluded from competing by pushing the boundaries of the rules.

This is not the case with performance enhancing drugs such as steroids or human growth hormone. We do not know the long term consequences of using these drugs, and many are known to have disabling short term effects on mood, temperment, etc. When players use these drugs, they are taking excessive risks that can substantially harm their well being in a variety of ways. When some players use these drugs, it creates a coercive atmosphere that undermines the competitive aspects of the game. Players who do not want to use them are at a competitive disadvantage simply because they don’t wish to risk their health and well-being.

Of course, all players in competitive sports incur risks of injury; and some risk long-term disability. But these risks are well-known and players have the opportunity to evaluate for themselves how much risk they are willing to incur. This is not the case with performance enhancing drugs. Given the uncertainties surrounding performance-enhancing drugs, no player should be coerced into taking them.

Thus, the problem with Bonds is not that he had access to something Henry Aaron didn’t have–that would be true of all players today who have better equipment, better training regimes, better instruction, etc. Rather, the problem is that Bonds is guilty of taking unfair advantage of other contemporary players, an advantage which has enabled him to break the record. The asterisk seems appropriate.

There is one argument, however, that I think is compelling. In 20 years or so, it is likely fans will look back on this controversy and wonder why it created such heat. We will eventually learn enough about performance-enhancing drugs to administer them safely. Once we have that understanding, it is not obvious that we should treat these drugs any differently than the new technology and training regimes that improve performances in most sports. See this article for more discussion.

At that point, perhaps the asterisk noting Bond’s transgressions should just disappear. 



1. Thea - August 7, 2007

Yeah, for real. I mean, women have been suffering the indignity of having their bodies compared to chemically-enhanced, surgically altered and airbrushed versions of women since before I was born. And, to the best of my knowledge, men have always had too high a place in society to be insulted in this manner. Their natural bodies are supposed to be “good enough” even though ours are not.

Sorry to be so base, because while my cerebellum is deeply concerned about what Barry Bonds actually being recognized for this record means for our society down the road, my lizard brain is prancing around and singing gleefully, “That’s right! Welcome to our world!”

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