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Paying the Price?

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

In a year of sports shame, the Major League Baseball steroid controversy was the biggest scandal of all. But it may not hurt MLB profits in 2008, writes ALAN W. DOWD.

Barry BondsThe past year may go down as one of the most ignominious in the history of big-time athletics. It is no exaggeration to say there were almost too many scandals to keep track of. 

There was the NBA gambling scandal that began with one referee and ultimately enveloped the entire officiating corps. (According to ESPN.com, “All of the league’s 56 referees violated the contractual prohibition against engaging in gambling, with more than half of them admitting to placing wagers in casinos.”) There were reports that a Big Ten football referee was bankrupt and deeply in debt to casinos. There was the fall of former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, who is now serving jail time for his role in financing a dogfighting ring. There was “Spygate,” in which the New England Patriots were caught using video equipment to illegally intercept the defensive signals of their opponent. There was perhaps the biggest cheating scandal in NASCAR history, which saw several teams illegally use fuel additives to gain an unfair advantage at Daytona. There was the doping scandal that stripped sprinter Marion Jones of her Olympic medals and expunged her name from the Olympic record books. 

But the biggest sports scandal of 2007 involved the revelations of widespread steroid use in Major League Baseball. The seeds of this scandal were sown more than a decade ago. Hoping to win back fans after the 1994-95 labor strike, MLB officials looked the other way as steroid-juiced sluggers turned the post-strike era into a veritable game of Home Run Derby. Fans seemed to like the gaudy numbers, the monster hits, and the ageless pitchers. In the summer of 1998, as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased the single-season home run record then held by Roger Maris, the bitterness of the strike seemed a distant memory. 

The 2007 campaign saw another historic home run chase. But this one ended with grim reports of federal investigations. Every homer that Barry Bonds hit in his pursuit of Hank Aaron’s career record exposed baseball to ridicule. Every road trip he took in the seasons and months leading up to the historic home run gave opposing fans a chance to mock Bonds and imply that his success was tainted. So it was fortunate both for Bonds and for MLB that his big blast ultimately came in the friendly confines of his home stadium, San Francisco’s AT&T Park. 

Yet neither MLB Commissioner Bug Selig nor Aaron was there to see it. (Aaron did congratulate Bonds via videotape, expressing his hope that “the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams.”) And it was impossible to discuss Bonds's record without mentioning allegations of steroid use. Bonds tried to blunt the criticism, declaring after the game, “This record is not tainted at all—period.” But just three months later, in November 2007, the new home run king was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice relating to federal investigations surrounding the manufacture and use of steroids. The indictment suggested that Bonds had indeed tested positive for steroids and then lied about it under oath. Selig vowed to “take the indictment very seriously.” 

Ironically, as Congress convenes hearings, high schools start testing programs, and federal investigators keep digging, fans appear more interested than ever in Major League Baseball.

But it was too little, too late. While MLB looked the other way, Bonds and other players had rewritten the record books and transformed baseball—and themselves. ESPN.com noted that Bonds broke into the league “as a lithe, base-stealing outfielder.” A decade and half later, “he had bulked up to more than 240 pounds—his head, in particular, becoming noticeably bigger. His physical growth was accompanied by a remarkable power surge.” 

The numbers are striking. As The New York Times has detailed, Bonds took four years to reach 100 home runs and ten years to reach 300 home runs—but just five more to reach 500. He swatted his 600th, 700th, and record-breaking 756th in a five-year span from August 2002 to August 2007. He hit #600 at age 38, #700 at age 40, and #756 at age 43. 

Just a month after the Bonds indictment, a report written by former U.S. senator George Mitchell—and sanctioned by Selig and MLB—hit the sports world as hard as one of Bonds’s home runs. Running at more than 400 pages, the Mitchell Report named 86 players as steroid users, ranging from “players whose major league careers were brief to potential members of the Baseball Hall of Fame.” ESPN.com labeled this group “the game’s most infamous lineup since the Black Sox scandal.” Calling the scandal “a collective failure,” Mitchell leveled blame at commissioners, club officials, the MLB Players’ Association—and, of course, at the players themselves. 

The report also stated an obvious truth: “Widespread use by players of such substances unfairly disadvantages the honest athletes who refuse to use them and raises questions about the validity of baseball records.” A U.S. House of Representatives committee has summoned Mitchell, MLB officials, and players to testify about the steroid scandal next week. 

We can already catch a glimpse of how the scandal is affecting young athletes with professional aspirations. Estimates of how many high school athletes are taking the steroid shortcut range from 2.3 percent to 15 percent. As The New York Daily News observes, “Even if five percent of them have taken illegal anabolic steroids, it puts the number of teenage users at 700,000.” 

Some states are taking preemptive action. For example, Texas is launching a steroid-testing program at the high school level, and California is training high school athletic directors to look for warning signs of steroid use. Suspicion now falls on all athletes, no matter their age or sport. 

But, ironically, as Congress convenes hearings, high schools start testing programs, and federal investigators keep digging, fans appear more interested than ever in Major League Baseball. The New York Times reports that “every team currently shows an increase in ticket sales compared with the corresponding time the previous offseason.” In fact, according to the Times, MLB projects that overall attendance in 2008 will break 80 million—this following the record-setting attendance of 2007 (79.5 million), which followed record-setting seasons in 2006, 2005, and 2004. Those 80 million tickets translate into skyrocketing profits for MLB, which expects to collect as much as $5.8 billion in total revenue this year. 

In short, it doesn’t seem that most baseball fans really care about the steroid scandal—at least they don’t care enough to stop attending games and buying merchandise. That may comfort MLB officials as they deal with fallout from the Mitchell Report. But it cannot fix the irreparable damage done to the game’s integrity. 

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research.

Image credit: photograph by flickr user guano.

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