Witch-Hunt on Steroids

Revolutionary Worker #1273, April 3, 2005, posted at rwor.org

"It's like McCarthyism or something. They're looking to see who looks like a communist. I'll probably get in trouble for that, too, but that's how I equate it."

Dusty Baker, Chicago Cubs manager, on baseball's steroid "scandal"

On March 17, while national TV cameras beamed the scene nationwide, world-renowned personalities were called in front of a congressional hearing under subpoena. Congressmen from both political parties demanded that those under subpoena "name names." They were told that they were being given one last chance to clear themselves—or face the consequences of ruined careers and possible perjury convictions.

This was not a flashback to the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, when Congress called prominent figures from the entertainment industry (as well as people in politics, government and other arenas) and demanded that they declare whether they "had ever been a member of the Communist Party" and to inform on their friends and associates.

Rather, this was a hearing of the Government Reform Committee of the House of Representatives investigating the use of steroids in major league baseball. Some of the top players in the history of baseball—including Curt Schilling, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, and Sammy Sosa—were made to testify before the Committee under government subpoena, with the threat of perjury convictions and five-year prison terms hanging over their heads.

None of the players called to testify had been charged with any crime or even accused of breaking any rules of Major League Baseball. Baseball didn't ban steroids until September 2002 and only began testing for them with penalties in 2004. What all the players called before the Committee had in common was that they were named in Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits and How Baseball Got Big , the tell-all book by former slugger Jose Canseco.

High-Level Involvement

This hearing is part of a larger witch-hunt atmosphere being created in baseball around the use of steroids. Players are being told that they must submit to extensive drug tests and even lie detector tests or be automatically considered guilty of using steroids. Players like Barry Bonds, who is poised to become baseball's all-time home run king, are having their records called into question and are being hounded by the media. Recently a reporter for Sports Illustrated confronted Sammy Sosa, handed him the name of a drug-testing lab and demanded that he go immediately to be tested or be presumed guilty.

High levels of the U.S. government have been involved in fanning this controversy and using it to implement repressive measures. In his 2004 State of the Union Address, Bush spoke more about steroids than "weapons of mass destruction." And shortly after Bush's speech, then Attorney General John Ashcroft announced federal indictments against four men accused of conspiring to provide steroids to athletes. The government subpoenaed a number of prominent athletes to testify in front of a secret grand jury.

This anti-steroid hysteria is very much linked to the larger repressive clampdown going on in America. With the Patriot Act and other recent moves, the government has been working to reverse long-held legal principles, such as that people are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. The same insidious logic is at work in the baseball steroids scandal—players are presumed guilty until they can prove (to the satisfaction of those in charge) that they are not.

Big Mac Steps to the Plate

Mark McGwire, who retired from baseball in 2002, was the only player called to testify who stood up to the Committee's inquisition. McGwire refused to answer questions regarding steroid use and refused to name other players. "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."

McGwire also sharply challenged the entire logic of the proceedings. "Asking me, or any other player, to answer questions about who took steroids in front of television cameras will not solve this problem," McGwire said. "If a player answers, `No,' he simply will not be believed. If he answers, `Yes,' he risks public scorn and endless government investigations."

For this stand, McGwire came under bitter attack in the mainstream press. Sports columnist Larry Biel wrote, "McGwire's silence was deafening. In the court of public opinion, McGwire looked very guilty." Another columnist, the Washington Post 's Thomas Boswell, wrote that McGwire "left the hearing room with his reputation in tatters."

What About Barry Bonds?

There was one player who was conspicuous by his absence in the hearings: Barry Bonds. Bonds has been at the center of the steroid controversy. When asked why Bonds wasn't called, Reform Committee spokesperson David Marin said, "He tends to ramble and get off-point."

Clearly it's not Barry Bonds's being "off point" the Committee wanted to avoid, but Barry Bonds's being on point.

Bonds has been defiant in the face of the steroid charges and very well may have told the Committee to go to hell. Bonds—who has a "reputation" for a combative attitude toward the press—has become increasingly political in the face of the steroid witch-hunt. Some have said that records by Bonds and others accused of steroid use should be erased because they are "cheating." When asked in a recently interview in Arizona 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."

Although the congressional committee did not subpoena him to testify, Bonds has been attacked in other ways. He was called before the secret grand jury investigating steroid use, and then his grand jury testimony was leaked to the press. In the past few weeks, the press has also been headlining unsubstantiated allegations by a former girlfriend that Bonds used steroids.

The "Purity" of Sports

"Over the past century, baseball has been part of our social fabric. It helped restore normalcy after war.. Now America is asking baseball for integrity. An unequivocal statement against cheating. An unimpeachable policy. And a reason for all of us to have faith in the sport again."

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.

"Quit looking for virtue in American sports. It's not there. It left when the dollars arrived."

ESPN columnist Jason Whitlock

While TV cameras from ESPN and CSPAN rolled, Congressmen on the committee, from Republican right-winger Cliff Stearns to Democratic liberals like Henry Waxman and "anti-war" presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich spoke about how the use of steroids had destroyed the purity of American baseball. Committee chair Tom Davis kicked off the day by paraphrasing the baseball poem "Casey at the Bat." Some Congressmen spoke about how they had collected baseball cards as kids and played catch with their fathers. We even learned that Rep. Chris Van Hollen's son sleeps in a Sammy Sosa jersey.

Get real, people! As the RCP Draft Programme says, "In capitalist society, the institutions of knowledge, entertainment, and the ideological life of society—the mass media, schools, laboratories and centers for science, art, education, and sports—are dominated, shaped and twisted to meet the needs of capital and the bourgeois class." (p.108)

Racism, the "win-at-all-costs" culture, the quest to maximize profit at the expense of the game and the players, crass commercialism, male domination, and reactionary patriotism are all part of what drives sports in capitalist society. What's so "sacred" about the records of a Babe Ruth, when they took place in a league that excluded Black and Latino players? What's so "pure" about a player like Ty Cobb, who was well known for his racism? Even a partial accounting of the racism in baseball's history could fill a whole book.

Many people say they are upset at the harm that athletes do to their bodies with long-term use of steroids. But anybody at all into professional sports knows that the health of the athletes is not that important to the owners or the media. "Unless you do spectacular things on the field or on the court, you're nothing special,'' said Oakland Raiders running back Tyrone Wheatley. "Is it okay that athletes are shot up with drugs to keep them playing with broken bones and torn ligaments but not okay when they take supplements to keep them on the field?"

Baseball in the 1990s—and Now

Look at what was going on in baseball in the 1990s, the period of time that is being examined in the steroids investigation. In 1994, players went on strike. The strike forced the cancellation of the rest of the 1994 season, including the World Series, and stretched into 1995. Many people became disillusioned with baseball, and ticket sales and TV ratings plummeted. That is, until 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa had the most explosive home run race in the history of major league baseball. McGwire ended up as the all-time single season leader with 70 home runs, surpassing Roger Maris's record of 61, which had held up for 37 years.

Canseco's book has gotten a lot of attention in the media. But one part of the book which is NOT being talked about much is a section that tells how steroid use was known about and encouraged by the baseball establishment and owners. For example, Canseco says that steroid abuse was common in the 1990s when he played for the Texas Rangers, a team owned at the time in part by George W. Bush. However, it's a safe bet that you won't see President Bush testifying before Congress on what he knew about steroid use in baseball in the 1990s.

Why wasn't there a steroid inquisition in the 1990s? Because the very survival of the "American pastime"—and big profits—was at stake. More overall, this was a period of economic "recovery" under the Clinton administration, with its more highly "globalized" and "flexible" production. This "turbo capitalism" fostered the spread of an outlook—particularly, but not only, among highly paid professionals—characterized by frenzied striving after material gain and self-gratification and erosion of "traditional values," including old-style patriotism and willingness to sacrifice for the "national interest."

But now, in early twenty-first-century America, a different dynamic is at work—not just in baseball but in the country as a whole.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto : "The bourgeoisie, wherever it has gotten the upper hand...has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous `cash payment.' It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of Philistine sentimentalism in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value.... In a word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation."

As Bob Avakian has pointed out, "There is a great irony here: the very `triumph' and `triumphalism' of capitalism in today's circumstances has produced effects and sentiments which tend to undermine, among significant sections of the U.S. population, the willingness to make personal sacrifices for `god and country'—that is, for the interests and requirements of the imperial ruling class, within the U.S. itself and in the world arena. In reaction to this, the `conservatives,' with the Christian Right playing a decisive role, are attempting to revive and impose precisely `the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of Philistine sentimentalism'—to resurrect a situation where worldwide exploitation that is unsurpassed in its brutality is at the same time `veiled by religious and political illusions.'" (See "The Truth About the Right-Wing Conspiracy. And Why Clinton and the Democrats Are No Answer")

Baseball's steroids inquisition fits right into these efforts to resurrect and impose "traditional morality." The politicians getting teary-eyed over baseball cards and the "national pastime" in a highly publicized congressional hearing is an example of "Philistine sentimentalism" at work.

Targeting the Players or the System

Part of what is behind the steroids inquisition is an attempt to exert greater control over high-level professional athletes who have a great deal of ties to and influence over the basic people as well as more broadly in society. This attempt to reassert control over star athletes relies on a sort of crude populism to line up the people to support the repressive moves. The media is promoting the idea that "these guys make tens of millions and think they are entitled to do anything—they don't care about the average fan, so they should get snapped into line by the state." This kind of revenge logic is not in the interests of the people. That many pro players are fairly privileged is true at some level, but it is hardly the point. It isn't the athletes themselves that have created the huge disparities in income distribution in this country.

The steroids "scandal" is taking place in the context of an America where tenured college professors are threatened for making speeches challenging the U.S. Where high school teachers fear teaching students the basic science of evolution. Where lawyers face 20 years in prison for defending their clients. Where immigrants live every day in fear.

It should give us all pause when the government arbitrarily picks on a handful of athletes—none of whom have been formally accused or charged with anything—and treats them like criminals (or perhaps "sinners"), making them the target of a government inquisition.

What Are Steroids?

Steroids are a kind of drug that work by binding to the nucleus of muscle cells, causing the cell to produce more protein that increases the size of the muscle. Chemically, steroids are similar to hormones like testosterone that occur naturally in the body. They are used medically to treat a number of conditions from osteoporosis to AIDS-related wasting.

Long-term use of steroids is associated with a number of health problems, including heart disease, liver damage, and tendon tears (because the muscles are growing faster than the tendons). They also can cause impotence, hair loss, and enlarged breasts in men, and facial hair, disruption of menstruation, and male pattern baldness in women.

Public health experts—including those who oppose the use of steroids—have a hard time justifying the emphasis being given to these drugs. "As a matter of public health policy, it is very hard to defend that prominence,'' according to Professor Robert MacCoun, a professor of law and public policy at UC Berkeley. MacCoun said that while steroid use was "not a trivial problem, it's just very hard to put it on the same scale as some of the other health problems we deal with, including alcohol, tobacco, HIV and obesity. It's pretty far down the list."

If the government is really concerned about the health hazards of steroids, why doesn't it do something about the steroids that are fed to 80% of the cattle in the United States? Steroids in the U.S. food supply have been linked to cancer, especially breast cancer, and other health problems. Steroids carried into the water supply from cattle manure have caused fish downstream to develop with both male and female sex organs. Although steroid use in cattle has been banned in Europe, its use continues in this country. Why? Because it is a tremendous source of extra profits for the beef industry.