The Cerebral Vortex

Back in the sixties, revelations of amphetamine use in athletic competitions around the globe brought to the public attention the prevalence of stimulants in sport. One sport, battered by the skepticism of a public toward the source of the revelation and without a defining turning point or rallying cry, did nothing to remedy its drug problems for another thirty years. The other sport, left with a couple of corpses, took a larger public-relations hit but began implementing nascent programs which have evolved over the decades into stringent testing programs today.

Cycling has long been regarded as a "dirty" sport on this side of the pond. The 1960 Rome Olympics saw Danish cyclist Knud Jensen fatally collapse on his quest for gold. Seven years later, British champion Tom Simpson tumbled on the side of the road up Mont Ventoux in the 1967 Tour de France. Despite the protests of the riders -- five-time Tour champion Jacques Anquetil famously quipped against drug testing, "We cannot race on mineral water alone..." -- the governing bodies of the sport began testing riders for synthetic pharmaceuticals which could lead to another tragic fatality.

Baseball, the national pastime of the rising superpower on the "New" continent, denounced that there could possibly be a problem with amphetamines in clubhouses across the country. Even after pitcher Jim Bouton released his 1970 memoir Ball Four, which revealed rampant use of "greenies" during the course of his final season in Major League Baseball, the information was lightly regarded by the powers that be. No substantive agreement to test for amphetamines, with penalties, came about until 2004... thirty-four years after the casual sports fan started hearing references to amphetamines in the sports pages. 

The highly-anticipated Mitchell Report is expected to come out any day now. Baseball may never be the same... or this could turn out to be just another hundred or so pages of ineffective bluster. Study groups seem to have become all the rage lately. Have a problem? Start a study group. What was once confined to small rooms in campus libraries is now the domain of all ofCould the Mitchell Report turn out to be just another waste of paper? America's most crucial issues. But for all the documentation and critical thought produced by these high-powered brainstorm sessions, few real results ever seem to come out of them. George W. Bush was able to effectively shrug off the work of his father's confidant and Secretary of State, James Baker, and continue to plot his own course on the disaster that has become Iraq. Appointing a study group, alas, has become mere window dressing to placate a public on the brink of mutiny...

History lends credence to the hypothesis that the Mitchell Report will neither bring about a way forward from the taint of a steroid-plumped past nor a new approach to be implemented by Major League Baseball. As stated in a report today about the impending release of findings, too many people interviewed by the investigatory commission led by former Maine Senator George Mitchell felt as if they were required to "guess" which players might or might not be using performance-enhancing drugs. The AP has stated that the report will not address amphetamines, long a popular means of remaining alert for games among professional ballplayers, merely the muscle-producing family of synthetic steroids. The scope of the commission has been narrowed too finitely in delving to the root of baseball's problems. 

In nineteen months, the commission interviewed hundreds of MLB personnel, from clubhouse assistants to general managers to players and scouts... one shouldn't be surprised if a peanut vendor or two was polled for opinions. But only two active baseball players -- Jason Giambi and an as-yet-unnamed player -- were interviewed by the study group.

Remember, Mitchell had no subpoena power. Any gains made by his study group in its quest for answers into the suspected prevalence of performance enhancement in baseball were made voluntarily by those interviewed. Only threats of disciplinary action by Bud Selig could compel any player to appear before Mitchell and his crew; Giambi first admitted his steroid use to USA Today, two months before he was "compelled" to speak with the Senator. Essentially, Mitchell has compiled a report on steroid use by Major League Baseball players with next to no interaction with the people who would stand to lose the most from the release of the study group's findings.

Each side in question has its interests in the matter --  Mitchell himself is director of the Boston Red Sox. Players naturally deplore and abhor and generally are striving to avoid at all costs losing their earning power with the revelation of any damning information. The owners, led by commissioner Bud Selig, would be content to sweep this issue under the rug... just as they did with Bouton's book and the tacit acceptance of amphetamines. No sport will ever be completely immune from scandal, but mere name-dropping will do little to bring about any redirection toward either more stringent testing protocol or more public transparency of the process. The odds are substantially stacked against this study group finding any substantive solutions for the steroid situation...

If it is truly motivated to bring sanctity back to its sport, Major League Baseball could take a lesson from professional cycling. Despite the perceived damage that decades of public release of detected dopers have wrought on the sport, cycling still attracts large followings worldwide. The Scotsman reported on 27 July 2007 that 15 million people lined the route of the 2007 race to cheer on the blur of spandex passing by at thirty-five miles an hour; another TWO-BILLION viewed the event worldwide on television. The sport continues to seek ways to root out the cheats in an effort to preserve some semblance of sanctity in its statistics...

But if baseball is intent on merely making money -- and it is doing that quite nicely -- it would do well to merely ride the status quo. Selig announced yesterday that baseball generated a record $6 billion in revenue during the 2007 season, so obviously fan interest is not waning. Fan interest was reignited after the 1994 strike by the fiery assault of Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire on Roger Maris' single-season home run record... and so too was the arms race that became the "arms" race as athletes sought every advantage -- artificial and natural, anabolic and anaerobic. Mitchell can point the horse that has become baseball down one of many paths, but he cannot make it walk down that route...


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