Spring training is about to become spring shaming. This Thursday, a House committee begins hearings on muscle-enhancing steroid use by Major League Baseball players.
Given the superstar stature of the players being subpoenaed, the proceedings run the risk of being simply a way for a few congressmen to get national attention rather than a way to solve a real problem.
But Congress should fully air and seriously consider the extent of the problem of illegal steroid use by athletes. More important, the hearings should set the stage for a broader public discussion on what can be done to deal with the threat posed to many sports by continuously evolving "designer drugs" and chemical enhancements - including pure oxygen treatments.
The hearings should also serve as a catalyst for baseball to chart its own course in preventing steroid use by players. Or they can be the first step for Congress to pass laws regulating baseball players' behavior should baseball fail to police itself. Congress could also revisit the legal grounds by which Major League Baseball was granted an anti-trust exemption in a 1922 Supreme Court ruling as it did in 1998 when lawmakers revoked baseball's anti-trust exemption in matters deaing with labor relations.
Though the league and players' union hoped to avoid having players testify, they abandoned that idea as a public relations fiasco. They also realized it would be illegal.
Testing for drugs does not guarantee an end to their abuse. But it sends a message, one that young athletes in particular need to hear again and again. Using steroids is cheating. Using steroids can be physically and morally harmful. How one plays the game is still more important than winning. "Just win, baby" should never have become the slogan it has for ignoring the means to an end.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, for the last three years use of steroids declined significantly among all teenagers except high school seniors, where it remained the same. More troubling, the World Anti-Doping Agency reports that in 1992, 71 percent of seniors thought steroids were harmful. By 2000, only 55 percent did. The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan called such trends "leveling down." "Leveling down" is at the heart of what these hearings are about.
For players, league officials, and parents not to step up to the plate and refute the use of steroids would be the moral equivalent of looking the other way while someone throws a beanball at today's youth. Hard work, team play, discipline, and natural talent, not drugs and other artificial or unfair props, are what should motivate and elevate all athletes.