After A-Rod doping penalty, don't expect meritocracy in baseball

Doping sanctions leveled against A-Rod and 12 others don't mean that meritocracy has returned to baseball. The field is already tilted. In sports, as in life, some people get terrific coaching and instruction from the time they can walk. Nobody calls that 'cheating,' but it's also not 'fair.'

David Banks/AP
New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez, or A-Rod, leaves the dugout to take batting practice before a baseball game against the Chicago White Sox in Chicago Aug. 6. He's appealing a doping penalty. Op-ed contributor John Zimmerman writes: Doping restrictions 'were never really about health.'

So here’s a quick quiz for all of the baseball fans out there: Which of the following players have taken performance-enhancing drugs?

 a. Barry Bonds

 b. Alex Rodriguez

 c. Henry Aaron

The answer might surprise you: all of them. You surely guessed Mr. Bonds, who used steroids during his pursuit of Aaron’s home-run record. And everyone knows about Mr. Rodriguez, who has admitted that he took steroids earlier in his career. Rodriguez was suspended on Monday for the rest of this season – and all of the next one – for  allegedly taking PEDs again. Rodriguez appealed the suspension, which will allow him to play until an arbitrator rules on his case.

But you probably left out Hank Aaron, who surpassed Babe Ruth’s own home run total. In 1968, mired in a prolonged slump, he took an amphetamine that a teammate gave him. “When that thing took hold, I thought I was having a heart attack,” Aaron wrote in his autobiography. “It was a stupid thing to do.”

Let’s leave aside the question of whether amphetamines can actually improve performance on the field, or whether they’re as dangerous as steroids. Aaron believed that the drug would give him an edge, so he took it.

And did you know that the great Babe Ruth once tried to inject himself with extract from sheep testicles, hoping to get a boost of strength and energy? For more than a century, athletes around the world have taken drugs for exactly the same reason. The only thing that has changed is our attitude toward the substances and people who use them. 

Consider the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, where marathon champion Tom Hicks received doses of strychnine and brandy from his doctor as he ran. In the same race, another runner was disqualified for riding in an automobile part of the way – a practical joke on a hot day. But nobody accused Hicks of cheating; to the contrary, his doctor boasted about the pharmaceuticals he used. “The marathon race, from a medical standpoint, demonstrated that drugs are of much benefit to athletes along the road,” the doctor wrote.

Drug use among athletes probably peaked during the cold war, when Western commentators charged – correctly – that many Russian and East German Olympic competitors were taking steroids. But so were many Western athletes, whose physicians studied and often imitated Communist drug regimens.

“The feeling of these doctors was that if they could in any way help an American athlete bring home the gold, they had somehow struck a blow for freedom,” American bodybuilder Bob Goldman once recalled. “The choice seemed to be to give drugs or risk an American humiliation and an open the door to Communism.”

Back home, meanwhile, steroids became the drug of choice in pro football. The 1963 San Diego Chargers distributed steroid pills at team meals, supervised by a strength coach who had observed Russian weight training methods. “I learned a little secret from those Russkies,” the coach quipped.

Doping in sports did not become controversial until the 1970s, when new information about side effects – plus the larger problem of drug abuse in society – led to bans on performance-enhancing drugs. The Olympics prohibited steroids in 1975; pro football did the same in 1983, and pro baseball in 1991 – although baseball didn’t start testing players for PEDs until a decade after that.

But the restrictions were never really about health. The average NFL career lasts about four years, and many players incur injuries that last a lifetime. If the issue was players’ health, we wouldn’t just ban drugs; we’d ban football.

Instead, the new anti-doping rules reflected the dominance of meritocracy, as a social and political ideal. In a world where everyone was supposed to rise or fall based on their individual talent and effort, drug use seemed like a way to tilt the playing field. It wasn’t just harmful; it was wrong.

But there’s a big wrinkle in the meritocracy claim: The field is already tilted. In sports, as in life, some people get terrific coaching and instruction from the time they can walk. But nobody calls that “cheating,” because we all want to believe that we earned the advantages we have.

To be sure, earlier generations of Americans celebrated individual merit as well. But they also accepted the fact that circumstances of birth – especially race and class – could have a huge influence on how far a person could go in life. We like to think that the race is fair, so we get much more outraged when people try to game it.

Consider the much-circulated tweet from a former pitcher who was beaten out for a roster spot by the Phillies’ Antonio Bastardo, one of the 13 suspended players. “Hey, Antonio Bastardo, remember when we competed for a job in 2011,” Dan Meyer wrote. “Thnx alot.” The implication was that Mr. Bastardo got an unfair leg up, and maybe he did.

But suppose Bastardo was simply born into a family where lots of people played baseball with him, and Mr. Meyer wasn’t? Or suppose that Bastardo had access to better trainers and physicians than Meyer did. That wouldn't be fair, either, but we don't complain about those kinds of things nearly as loudly. In fact, we often don't notice at all.

Let me be clear: I'm a big believer in the meritocratic ideal. I'd much rather live in a society where people are judged based on their individual achievement rather than on their inherited status. But the circumstances of our birth can still play a big role in determining how much each of us achieves. In that sense, everyone is either gaming the system, or getting gamed by it, depending on where they started.

But nobody wants to admit that. It's so much easier – and fun, apparently – to roast Bastardo, A-Rod, and all of the other “cheaters” who took PEDs. When they are good and cooked, charbroiled in scandal and disgrace, we’ll wash our hands and declare the race once more open to all. And we’ll pretend that the best man wins.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).

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