Revolution #93, June 24, 2007

Who’s Putting the Heat on Barry Bonds… and Why

What About Steroids?

Some might say, what about steroids? Aren’t they a problem? Isn’t that really why Bonds is the focus of all this?

The basic answer to that is that the whole attack on performance enhancing drugs is sports is fundamentally a cover and disguise for carrying out a political and ideological clampdown in sports. Is there a problem with performance enhancing drugs in sports? There is some danger to athletes’ health, though less than other things (including painkillers, which are commonly used to enable injured athletes to play, or the repeated concussions pro football players are subjected to). The owners of baseball, let alone the U.S. government, have never been that concerned with athletes’ health. As for the "values" involved in steroid use, the main difference between things like powerful painkillers and steroids in terms of values is that the painkillers have been declared legal and steroids have been declared illegal (though most steroids weren’t illegal in the 1990s).

But, some argue, isn’t steroid use unfair to the players who don’t use steroids? Isn’t it cheating? George Will put it this way: "Sport is play, but play has a serious side. It can elevate both competitors and spectators. But cold, covert attempts to alter unfairly the conditions of competition subvert the essence of sport, which is the principle that participants shall compete under identical rules and conditions."

There are several things involved in this. On the one hand, it is true that you need to have "identical rules" in sports--but the whole history of segregation in sports and the fact that many records still on baseball’s books were made in the era when Blacks could not play in the major leagues points to how the inequalities in society make for something very different from a "level playing field." The Babe Ruth era, when records were set in leagues that banned Black players, is pointed to as the time when baseball was "clean" and records were "pure." That shows just how deeply the oppression of Black people still lies as part of the foundation of baseball, and it shows what a lie this whole steroids scandal is.

Secondly, for the last several decades and more, science has quickly developed new and sometimes more powerful performance enhancing drugs, one after the other. And they have sometimes made their way into the game through hidden back channels of distribution (whether legal or not). And it is often not clear what long-term medical effects there will be. But as long as you have capitalism, with teams run as capitalist enterprises in a sport involving billions of dollars, and within that athletes competing with each other for tens of millions, the outlook that will prevail will lead athletes and teams to try to win by whatever means they can get.

San Francisco Giants player Barry Bonds is approaching the all-time home run record in baseball, under an extraordinary attack from the government and near lynch-mob atmosphere. Bonds has now hit 748 home runs and needs 7 more to reach Henry Aaron’s record of 755. Bonds is getting death threats, and sports writers across the country are whipping up fans to jeer and vilify him when he plays in their cities. And even more, he is facing a multi-pronged attack from the government--he faces possible indictment for allegedly lying under oath about steroid use to a grand jury; Greg Anderson, his friend and former trainer, is sitting in federal prison for refusing to testify against him about using steroids; and he is even being investigated by the IRS for tax evasion.

All this reveals some important things about not just baseball but America.

Many players and even some sportswriters will say that Bonds is, as progressive sportswriter Dave Zirin called him, "the best ballplayer of his generation, and perhaps all time." But the dominant attitude among the mainstream sportswriters is that you can’t talk about Bonds without insisting that he has "cheated" by using steroids or other performance enhancing drugs. Conservative columnist George Will has accused Bonds of being a "stain on the game" and, by implication, the country. (To those who don’t know or haven’t been paying attention to baseball, Bonds is Black, and, in his way, a stubborn and defiant character.)

Zirin points out the viciousness and stark racism of the attack on Bonds: "But despite the fact that Bonds has never failed a drug test, he has also been subjected to seething hatred in the press that is utterly unprecedented. Nothing is off limits. I’ve seen it all: comparing him to O.J. Simpson? Sure. Comparing him to a child molester? Sure. Calls for a lynching? These are the words of John Seibel on ESPN radio: ‘if he did it, hang him. Now I’m not saying hang him. I’m not saying hang him from a tree. I’m not saying strap him to a gurney and inject poison in his veins…’"

The Attack on Big Mac

To get at what is really going on with steroids, the absurd hypocrisy of the steroid hysteria, and to look at the underlying inequalities and real power relations, it is helpful to look at what has happened to Mark "Big Mac" McGwire, who was a big home run hero of baseball in the 1990s. McGwire came into major prominence after a 1994 baseball players’ strike, which led to cancellation of the World Series (which really should be called the American Series, as the rest of the world is not allowed in) and part of the season, and which disillusioned many fans. The owners of baseball, in a very conscious attempt to save the game, made an all-out effort to promote home runs, the most exciting part of baseball. They built new and smaller ball parks so there would be more home runs; they changed the rules and narrowed the strike zone so it would be easier on the hitters; they changed the ball and changed the bats to make for more home runs. And around this same time, baseball players began to do more intensive weight lifting, and got much stronger and able to hit the ball farther. And in this mix, steroids and other performance enhancing drugs were brought into baseball in a big way, with the clear knowledge and approval of the owners and management.

One product of all this was a big home run contest in 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa engaged in a home run duel. The record for most home runs in a year was demolished, and Mark McGwire, who ended up winning the duel with 70 home runs, was hailed as a hero who saved baseball and by the end of the 1990s was appearing on many sportswriters’ lists of the greatest baseball players of all time. And, oh, by the way, McGwire openly had in his locker, in the view of all of the baseball writers, his dosage of androstenedione, an over-the-counter muscle enhancement product. Steroids were not illegal and not against the rules of baseball.

Move ahead to 2005. A full-blown inquisition around steroids in baseball was on. Players were dragged before Congress and ordered to testify about what they know of the steroid scandal, what players did what when. McGwire, by that time retired from baseball, was one of them. He took a principled position and refused to be part of the circus. "I will use whatever influence and popularity that I have to discourage young athletes from taking any drug that is not recommended by a doctor," McGwire said in his testimony. "What I will not do, however, is participate in naming names and implicating my friends and teammates." McGwire spoke against the hypocritical moral indignation that is part of the steroid witch-hunt: "I do not sit in judgment of other players--whether it deals with their sexual preference, their marital problems or their personal habits--including whether or not they used chemical substances. That has never been my style, and I do not intend to change just because the cameras are turned on."

For his refusal to be part of the witch-hunt, McGwire was blasted by the press, and this past year, when he became eligible to be voted into baseball’s Hall of Fame, he was decisively turned down by the voters (who are established sportswriters). It was widely acknowledged that the reason was his refusal to go along with the anti-steroid campaign in his testimony in 2005. Today, to be a baseball hero requires more than the ability to hit or pitch--you have to be willing to rat out your fellow players, you have to take your place in the crusade to cleanse the game of its "stain." And no player missed the threat involved in how McGwire was treated--no matter your accomplishments, even if you have retired from the game, they will still go after you and drag you through the mud and worse if you don’t go along.

And it is not enough to just criticize the use of steroids, far from it. Especially for star players, to be in synch with the demands of the crusade, you have to know just exactly who you can and must finger, and who absolutely cannot be fingered. Jason Giambi, a player for the New York Yankees, who has been implicated in the scandal and who had been hauled before the same Congressional committee as McGwire in 2005, told USA Today recently, "I was wrong for doing that stuff." Giambi went on, "What we should have done a long time ago was stand up--players, ownership, everybody--and said: 'We made a mistake.'"

This caused a sports page sensation, and considerable speculation about whether the Yankee ownership would tear up Giambi’s contract (worth over $100 million). Giambi was quickly hauled before the Commissioner of Baseball, Bud Selig (who is selected by and represents the owners of the teams), and told to shut up. Why? Not because you could interpret his quote to mean that he was admitting guilt for steroid use--that might end his multi-million-dollar career these days, but that was not the real problem in the eyes of the commissioner. No, the real problem was that Giambi pointed the finger at the owners as well as the players--he stated in public what in fact everyone who has looked into this knows--that the entire ownership structure of baseball was deeply implicated in the wide distribution of steroids and performance enhancing drugs in the mad home run rush of the 1990s (and much of the sports press was deeply involved in covering this up). The message to Giambi and everyone connected with the sport was crude and blunt--the role of the team owners in the steroid scandal cannot be admitted or talked about by anyone who wants to make a living on the game.

The hypocrisy here is enormous, and many sportswriters remarked on it. There is a demand on the part of the owners--concentrated in the power of the commissioner--that the players, even stars with multi-million-dollar contracts, be good modern-day slaves and say only what is in their master’s interests and nothing more.

But there is more going on here. If it were just the owners going along and doing what is good for their financial interests, they most likely would never have launched a big campaign against performance enhancing drugs in the first place. But baseball, and sports in general, are about more than just profit-generating entertainment. Sports promote one kind of values and ideology or another, and what kind of values and ideology baseball promotes is the concern not just of baseball but of the whole capitalist system. Especially at times like today. And so a higher power stepped in and gave orders to baseball. This was the point made by George Bush, who called for the purification of baseball (and sports generally) in his 2004 State of the Union address.

To help children make right choices, they need good examples. Athletics play such an important role in our society, but, unfortunately, some in professional sports are not setting much of an example. The use of performance-enhancing drugs like steroids in baseball, football, and other sports is dangerous, and it sends the wrong message--that there are shortcuts to accomplishment, and that performance is more important than character.

By raising the anti-steroid campaign in his State of the Union speech in such a prominent way, Bush was declaring that baseball (and other sports as well, but we will stick to baseball here) are an important way that "values" are projected into society, that there is a big problem with baseball, and that the government was entering into baseball in a big way to make it project values and an outlook consistent with Bush’s overall program--predatory war abroad and repression and Christian fundamentalism at home. And this has special meaning for baseball, which was for many decades "the American pastime" and which has been granted a special place by the government, with laws giving it special exemptions from anti-trust legislation and special tax breaks, to build it up as a special sport to represent America and American values.

Barry Bonds stepping up as the all-time home run king of baseball at just this time did not fit the program. Records are really important in baseball, and the home run record is the most important of all. The most hallowed figure in baseball, Babe Ruth, "saved the game" with his home runs in the era when baseball was whites only. When Henry Aaron, a Black hitter, broke Ruth’s lifetime home run record in the 1970s, he faced death threats and all kinds of racist attacks, and the commissioner of baseball, in what was seen as an open gesture in support of white supremacy, refused to attend the game when Aaron broke the record. Now, with Bonds approaching Aaron’s record, Aaron himself has announced that he will not be in the ball park when Bonds breaks the record, and Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball, will not say where he will be--but it would not be wise to put money on him being in attendance.

Why Do They Hate Barry Bonds?

What is it with Bonds and why is he under such attack? Bonds has long had a reputation in the press as a self-centered character, hostile to the press. But some reporters admit that there are very big white stars in baseball (e.g., the pitcher Roger Clemens) who act very much like Bonds, but who are treated very, very differently by the press. Many reporters furiously deny that the attack on Bonds has anything to do with racism. It is worth noting the comment by Peter Magowan, CEO of Safeway Supermarkets and owner of the San Francisco Giants: "I don’t believe this is a case of racism. In fact, I think this shows how far we’ve come. If the media brought this up 20 years ago, they would have been considered racists." The fact that the media can get away with the kinds of things it has been saying without being broadly considered racist--when those things would have been considered racist 20 years ago--only points to how deeply national oppression is rooted in America, and how this is getting worse not better, in society overall and in baseball as well. (One thing which is not talked about much is that the number of African-American players and stars in baseball has been steadily going down over the years.)

There is also the way that Bonds isn’t the kind of snitch and flunky that Bush and the lords of baseball are demanding of those who represent "values" in baseball today. At times Bonds shows pointed insight into the hypocrisy of the system. When asked in an interview about the claim that steroid use is "cheating," Bonds replied, "You want to define cheating in America? When they make a shirt in Korea for $1.50 and sell it here for 500 bucks." And in 2005, when Congressional hearings were held on steroids in baseball and people like McGwire and Giambi were called to testify, Bonds was not called. When asked why, since even then Bonds was the most important target, the spokesperson for the Congressional committee, David Marin said, "He tends to ramble and get off-point." I.e., he can’t be trusted to stick to the script.

The Babe Ruth Role Model

In an article titled "How We Learned to Start Worrying and Hate the Bomb: Mickey Mantle, Barry Bonds, and the Bad Boys of Summer," writer Robert Lipsyte had this to say about Babe Ruth and the kind of role model and values he concentrated (which the system venerates):

"In the Bambino, America found its prototype male athlete: the arrogant, self-absorbed rowdy whose excesses, commercial greed, and tunnel vision were justified by winning. The cock-jock has since become a business, entertainment, and political role model."

Barry Bonds has a lot of the outlook and persona Lipsyte describes--and even has a little gold cross hanging from his earlobe. But it is a sign of how deeply national oppression is embedded in this country and all its institutions, that the fact that Bonds is Black and can’t be counted on to tow the ridiculous and vicious ideological line demanded of him has made him the focus of such an intense assault as he nears the all-time home run record.

Bush’s Anti-Steroid Crusade

The anti-steroid crusade championed by George Bush has at bottom nothing to do with making the game more “fair”--what it is really about is enforcing a culture of snitches and some highly paid stars who have to be good “role models” in an increasingly mad and oppressive American culture. The fact that Barry Bonds cannot be tolerated as all-time home run king shows just how serious these people are, and how deadly the changes they are seeking to make in baseball and the culture of the country.

As we go to press, Bonds needs 7 more home runs to tie Hank Aaron’s record. At this point, it is not yet clear whether he will be indicted by the feds for lying to a grand jury before he gets the record, or possibly face some other criminal charge, like tax evasion. But much more important than whether Bonds gets the record is what will come out in opposition to the whole ugly assault represented by the government’s anti-steroid campaign--in baseball and in society overall.

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.

What Humanity Needs
From Ike to Mao and Beyond