Beyond Mark McGwire’s tears

Baseball -- and all of sports -- will have to grapple with how to police performance-enhancing drugs far into the future.

Mark McGwire did the right thing on Monday, for himself and for baseball. But a giant question mark about performance-enhancing drugs still hangs over baseball (indeed, over all of sports).

Nearly five years after refusing to answer to Congress about his drug use, Mr. McGwire confessed to using steroids. His admission came in a carefully orchestrated confession that began with afternoon interviews with key news media outlets and culminated in an evening sit-down with Bob Costas on Major League Baseball’s own cable channel, MLB.

McGwire now admits that he used steroids on and off throughout his career, including 1998 when he hit a then-record 70 home runs – a mark eclipsed in 2001 by Barry Bonds, whose career has also been tainted by alleged steroids use. Like many other athletes in the past, McGwire says he used steroids to help him recover more quickly from injuries, not as a way to improve his performance.

“I wish I had never touched steroids. It was foolish and it was a mistake,” McGwire said in a statement. “I truly apologize. Looking back, I wish I had never played during the steroid era.”

There’s no reason to think his tears and contrition are not heartfelt. They do come, however, after years of seclusion, at a time when McGwire is returning to baseball as hitting coach of the St. Louis Cardinals. He was bound to be pounded with questions from sports reporters, embarrassed that they had not uncovered his drug use a decade earlier. By choosing the time and place of his mea culpa, McGwire had a better chance to shape his image going forward.

Has his contrition paved the way for his entry into baseball’s Hall of Fame? Or, by removing any doubt that he was a steroid user, has he ensured he’ll never join that elite group? It’s much too soon to tell. Hall of Fame voters will want to take time, maybe many years, to weigh that question.

McGwire still will have to answer questions about his drug use – offering more details about the where and when and who else of it.

Bud Selig, baseball’s commissioner, claims that the “steroid era” is now over and that steroid use in the sport today is “virtually nonexistent.” Maybe. It’s true that it’s rarely being caught in the stepped-up testing the league now demands from players. That doesn’t mean illicit drug use has ended. And other banned substances, such as human growth hormone, remain virtually undetectable.

Excitement over the 1998 home run race between McGwire and Sammy Sosa (another alleged steroid user), injected new excitement into baseball. Many of these new fans (and some traditional fans) are undisturbed about the use of performance-enhancing drugs. If players take them voluntarily, and the drugs make the game more exciting, what’s the problem? they argue.

But what of the players who didn’t use drugs, who played by the rules and missed out on potential extra home runs or World Series appearances – not to mention the inflated paychecks that have gone to the cheaters? The whole era needs a giant asterisk in the record books, saying something like, “We know illegal stuff went on during this time. We’re still trying to figure out the extent of it and how it affected the game.”

Mark Cuban, the controversial owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, has argued that steroids ought to be legal in some professional sports under approved medical supervision and if the drugs can be shown not to cause long-term health problems.

That proof is a long way off. Meanwhile, the use of performance-enhancing drugs by famous and successful athletes continues to entice college and high school players, who see them as a part of the formula for reaching the pros.

Mark McGwire should become a persistent, vocal opponent of the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports. But which message will impress youngsters more: his present contrition and warnings – or the vision of the fame and fortune he enjoyed when he swung a steroid-charged bat?

McGwire told Mr. Costas he “absolutely” could have beaten the record without using steroids. “That’s why it’s the most regrettable thing I’ve ever done in my life,” McGwire said.

Could he really have set home run records without steroids? That’s a question he, and baseball fans, will never be able to answer.

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