HAD KEN CAMINITI been a less famous ballplayer, or had he merely confessed his own sins, then it would have been a transient controversy. But it wasn't. Last May, Caminiti, in a cathartic sit-down with Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, became the first major league baseball player, current or retired, to admit to using anabolic steroids during his playing days. Specifically, he said he used them during the 1996 season, when he was named the National League's Most Valuable Player. And his truth session didn't stop there.
"It's no secret what's going on in baseball. At least half the guys are using [steroids]," Caminiti told SI. "They talk about it. They joke about it with each other....I don't want to hurt fellow teammates or fellow friends. But I've got nothing to hide."
The suggestion that steroids are a systemic problem in professional athletics is hardly shocking, but such candor from players--particularly baseball players, who until recently weren't subject to league-mandated drug testing--was virtually unheard of. Before the Caminiti flap had time to grow stale, Jose Canseco, another high-profile ex-ballplayer, upped the ante, declaring that a whopping 85 percent of current major league players were "juicing."
The estimates were unfounded, the sources unreliable, and the implications unclear. But a media orgy had begun. The questions that are being asked of the players--Do you think it's worth it? How many are using? Why did the players union wait so long to adopt random testing? Why won't you take a test right now?--are mostly of the "Have you stopped beating your wife?" variety. The accusation is ensconced in the question.
This approach may be satisfying to the self-appointed guardians of baseball's virtue, but it leaves important questions unexplored. Indeed, before the sport can solve its steroid problem, it must determine whether it even has one.
From those sounding the clarion call for everything from stricter league policies to federal intervention, you'll hear the same two-pronged concern repeated time and again: Ballplayers are endangering their health and tarnishing baseball's competitive integrity. These are defensible, if dogmatic, positions, but the sporting media's fealty to them obscures the fact that both points are dubious.
A more objective survey of steroids' role in sports shows that their health risks, while real, have been grossly exaggerated; that the political response to steroids has been driven more by a moral panic over drug use than by the actual effects of the chemicals; and that the worst problems associated with steroids result from their black-market status rather than their inherent qualities. As for baseball's competitive integrity, steroids pose no greater threat than did other historically contingent "enhancements," ranging from batting helmets to the color line. It is possible, in fact, that many players who use steroids are not noticeably improving their performance as a result.
There are more than 600 different types of steroids, but it's testosterone, the male sex hormone, that's most relevant to athletics. Testosterone has an androgenic, or masculinizing, function and an anabolic, or tissue-building, function. It's the second set of effects that attracts athletes, who take testosterone to increase their muscle mass and strength and decrease their body fat. When testosterone is combined with a rigorous weight-training regimen, spectacular gains in size and power can result. The allure is obvious, but there are risks as well.
Anecdotal accounts of harrowing side effects are not hard to find--everything from "'roid rage" to sketchy rumors of a female East German swimmer forced to undergo a sex change operation because of the irreversible effects of excess testosterone. But there are problems with the research that undergirds many of these claims. The media give the impression that there's something inevitably Faustian about taking anabolics--that gains in the present will undoubtedly exact a price in the future. …