The value(s) of Barry Bonds

How can sports be “cleaned up” of steroids?

by Jason Stahl

Sometime soon Barry Bonds will surpass Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record. This might happen on the road where Bonds will undoubtedly be both booed and cheered for his achievement.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you know this is because of allegations that Bonds has used illegal performance-enhancing drugs in the past.

It is hard to use the word “allegations” only because the evidence against Bonds is so overwhelming. One only needs to read Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams’ “Game of Shadows” – the definitive book on steroid use in professional and amateur sports – to be wholly convinced that Bonds used steroids throughout the late ’90s and early 2000s. In fact, upon reading the book last year, I wondered who in baseball (as well as all other sports) was not using steroids.

Indeed, “Game of Shadows” implicates everyone from baseball and football players to Olympic athletes. Moreover, the book shows how athletes work with “designer steroid” producers to keep one step ahead of the ability to test for illegal performance-enhancing substances. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig admitted as much recently when he said, “On the steroid situation, we keep adding substances (to test for) all the time.” But the fact remains – and will continue to remain – that the testers will never be able to keep up with those intent on producing and using new steroids.

Given these facts, the question remains: What can be done to stop athletes from using steroids? It is easy to insist – as some politicians looking to gain media exposure do – that we “get rid of steroids now.” But in a world where you simply cannot test for every performance-enhancing drug, there is no quick fix to the problem.

So what do we do? First, we need to accept the reality that there will probably never be a “post-steroid era” in the world of sports. Various governing bodies in sports can and should do whatever testing is currently available, but we shouldn’t pretend like regimes of testing will “clean up” sports.

More importantly, there needs to be a long-term cultural project both inside and outside of sports which promotes a different definition of success and a different set of values than those which give rise to the use of performance-enhancing drugs. The most revealing part of “Game of Shadows” is when the authors discuss why Bonds decided to start taking steroids in late 1998. They suggest that – despite all the success he had enjoyed up until that point – he just couldn’t take the attention lavished on Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa during their 1998 race for the season home run record. Bonds said he knew McGwire and Sosa were “juicing,” so he would do the same to get some of the same attention. Here we see Bonds enthralled not with being a productive member of his team, but with media attention, public recognition and his own individual performance.

It is these values which will need to be reversed in importance – in sports and American culture – if there is any hope of bringing down the use of steroids.

In baseball itself, this could include the better promotion of athletes who personify such a reversal – say Derrek Lee or Chase Utley. Color me skeptical that this will occur given the way Major League Baseball paraded Bonds around the field with Willie Mays during the All-Star Game.

Moreover, given the fact that the fans voted Bonds into the All-Star Game also suggests that we have a long way to go before athletes begin to see the use of performance-enhancing drugs as a negative.

Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected].