#Hot Corner

We have always been at war with PED users

or, how steroids are like the flu shot

In baseball's war between PED users and perpetually indignant steroid scolds, I consider myself an anti-anti-steroidist. All things being equal, I would rather baseball players not use—or feel like they have to use—PEDs. But things are not equal. The sporting press, after ignoring steroids for decades, even turning on one of their own for writing about Mark McGwire's use of androstenedione in 1998,* made a sudden 180-degree turn only a few years later. Today it often seems like the mainstream press is in a race to see who can express the most outrage against "dirty cheaters."

* "No wonder ballplayers loathe the media. Mark McGwire is stalking one of baseball's most cherished records … and suddenly he's engaged in a tabloid-driven controversy that's painting him as a cheater and a bad role model. It's unfair." - Dan Shaughnessy

I believe anabolic steroids help some players, hurt others, and affect some players not at all. Steroids certainly can make you stronger and faster, but baseball isn't one-dimensional like sprinting or weight lifting. The skills required to hit, field, and throw a ball are vastly different. Adding bulk might help a player hit for more power, but that may come at the expense of his range afield.

I believe that, but don't know it. I can't know it. I don't mean it's some kind of recondite mystery, I mean we can't test how steroids affect baseball performance, or, more importantly, how steroids affect your health. So much anti-PED hysteria is fueled by the death of Lyle Alzado, yet there's never been anything like an established link between steroids and the brain lymphoma that killed him. Like all drugs, anabolic steroids have side effects, some of which are known, but "the so-called risks of steroids are wildly exaggerated, and often just made up." What's more, we can't do a controlled experiment to comprehensively test the health effects of steroids because it's considered unethical to give steroids to a control group. In other words, we can't test to see if steroids are bad for you because everyone knows steroids are bad for you. It's like Orwellian doublethink.

This same paradox exists with the flu vaccine. To be clear, I'm not anti-vaccine. The odd coalition of professional chemophopes and 911-Truthers who have re-introduced whooping cough into our society by encouraging parents not to get their children vaccinated have a lot to answer for. But I am a skeptic of the flu shot. The statistic invariably cited by the people who harangue you about getting a flu shot every fall is that it reduces mortality by 50 percent. That is, if you get the flu shot, your chances of dying during flu season are cut in half. But even during a flu season, the number of people who actually die of the flu is relatively small, so that "for a vaccine to reduce mortality by 50 percent ... means it has to prevent deaths not just from influenza, but also from falls, fires, heart disease, strokes, and car accidents," according to Tom Jefferson, head of the Vaccines Field at the Cochrane Collaboration. "That’s not a vaccine, that’s a miracle."

The 50 percent figure is derived not from controlled experiments, but from studies that simply compare the population of people who get the vaccine against the population that don't. But these groups are not equal. People who choose to get the flu shot tend to be more conscientious about their health. They exercise more, they eat better, they get regular check-ups, and so on. The best way to determine the efficacy of the flu vaccine would be to form two groups of people of the same ages, of similar health histories, etc. and give the vaccine to one group and not the other, then compare their outcomes. But, like steroid testing, this can't be done, and for the same—or maybe you'd say the opposite—reason: It's considered unethical to withhold the flu vaccine from people. We can't test the efficacy of the flu vaccine because everyone knows it's effective. 2+2=5.

If we don't know or can't demonstrate the effect of steroids on health or baseball performance, why the vitriol? Why the bleating and Won't-someone-think-of-the-children moralizing from the media? By all means, advocate for rooting PEDs out of the sport, but why are we comparing Alex Rodriguez to a serial murderer?

I'm sure part of the reason has to do with the destruction of hallowed records, 61 and 755, so beloved by Boomer sportswriters. But I think the overriding reason is this: People love being indignant.

We have always hated Mark McGwire.

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