Care Package: Does Drug Use Upset Sports Fans?
When former U.S. Senator George Mitchell listed 20 current and former New York Yankees in his report on performance-enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball in December of 2007, one angry fan decided to take the Yankees to court. He sued the team for $221, the exact amount of money he had spent on five tickets between 2002 and 2007.
The fan, Matthew Mitchell, filed his claim in the Brooklyn Small Claims Court in January on the grounds that he had not received the goods he had paid for, namely an honest game, since some of the players’ performances may have been chemically enhanced. At the core of his claim was Game 2 of the 2003 World Series, in which pitcher Andy Pettitte led the Yankees to a 6-1 win over the Florida Marlins. Pettitte was implicated in the Mitchell Report and later admitted to having used human growth hormone in 2002.
Though publicized across the country, the lawsuit remained a footnote exception in the public’s response to the Mitchell Report, which labeled the past two decades as “baseball’s steroid era.” For many fans, Mitchell’s findings that professional baseball had “a serious drug culture” didn’t come as a surprise. Their outcry was modest despite the scope of the problem and they certainly didn’t sue their favorite teams.
And while memories of the BALCO scandal and Barry Bonds’s tainted home run record were still fresh, angry fans hadn’t had much of an impact on Major League Baseball’s popularity. In 2007, the overall attendance reached almost 80 million, a record for the fourth consecutive year. With more money than ever before being spent on tickets and memorabilia, academics, steroid experts and some members of the media wonder whether the performance-enhancing drug culture really matters to the American sports fan.
“I have said for years that they don’t care. It’s inarguable,” said Charles Yesalis, a sports science professor at Penn State University and expert on performance-enhancing drugs. “If you look, as a measure, at the financial success in the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NCAA, there’s no way to conclude that the customers are upset.”
While Yesalis certainly isn’t alone in his opinion, there are some academics who give the public the benefit of the doubt. “Even if attendance is high you might suggest that people care,” said Robert Simon, a sports philosophy professor at Hamilton College in upstate New York and an author of “Fair Play,” on sports and social values. “We don’t know how many people actually stay away.”
Simon’s opinion seems to be supported by polls of baseball fans across the country. In the most recent survey conducted by the New York Times and CBS News, more than half of those who identified themselves as fans said they cared a lot if a player used performance-enhancing drugs. Only 16 percent said it didn’t matter to them at all. But, while other polls conducted by ESPN, Gallup and others revealed similar results over the years, some experts say they don’t present the complete picture.
“In every survey that asks, ‘Do you want to get rid of performance-enhancing drugs in sports,’ the majority of course is going to say yes,” said John Hoberman, a professor at the University of Texas and author of “Testosterone Dreams.” “One thing has been obvious over the past five years. The huge coverage of the drug scandal had no effect on the number of fans going to games.”
Hoberman said MLB managed to save its image by introducing harsher penalties in 2005 and commissioning the Mitchell Report. “It’s all public relations,” Hoberman said. “If proper adjustments are made, the consensus is that mistakes will be permitted.”
The Times/CBS survey showed that especially fans under the age of 30, those who grew up in the “steroid era,” were more forgiving than older ones, or didn’t care in the first place. Only one-third said they cared a lot about performance-enhancing drugs, compared to more than half of fans above 30. At the same time, however, younger fans were more likely to say that most players use drugs. This may indicate a generational shift in how the public views performance-enhancing drugs.
In his book, Hoberman explains this shift. He writes that, as new drugs are developed, the line between illegitimate doping and socially accepted forms of drug-assisted performance enhancement is slowly disappearing. As a consequence, Hoberman says, society legitimizes drug use for desirable purposes, such as increasing the chances to win a game.
“I believe this process is continuing indefinitely into the future,” Hoberman said. “But you can’t generalize the public either. Yes, attitudes are going to evolve into the direction of gradually tolerating drug use. But it’s not a one-directional process.”
Hoberman said continuous anti-doping efforts in many sports show that many people care about the drug culture and that MLB can’t afford to simply wait around until everybody accepts the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Still, he says he believes it’s possible that in a generation or two, society will have embraced PED use as totally acceptable.
One of the reasons might be that fans find it increasingly difficult to separate therapeutic drug use from performance-enhancement. Combine that with a decline in morality and sportsmanship and you find yourself in the current situation, Yesalis said.
“The differentiating between drugs for rehabilitation and enhancement has become increasingly fuzzy along with the morality in our country,” Yesalis said. “If you buy into that junk you can rationalize anything. We are teaching our kids that it’s only cheating when you get caught and that everybody does it anyway.”
A common argument among fans is that if most athletes take steroids and other performance enhancers, it doesn’t really matter. Simon describes this attitude as a method to justify immoral behavior in which morality is being put aside. “When the rules break down, anything goes and people rationalize it that way, even though by that argument they should favor stricter rules,” he said.
Some academics believe a societal fixation on winning drives much of this attitude among athletes and fans. They say Hall of Fame football coach Vince Lombardi spoke the American mind when he said, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” And that the “nice guys finish last” attitude of former major league baseball manager Leo Durocher dominates American sports.
“Winning has always been the most important thing is this country,” said Murray Sperber, professor emeritus of American studies at Indiana University and author of several books on college sports. “It’s more important than fair play and sportsmanship.”
C.J. Nitkowski, a former pitcher for the New York Mets and Yankees and several other teams, agrees that the pressure to succeed on the field drives many players into using PEDs. “To get this close to fortune and fame that cannot be gained in any other field for these athletes raises the temptation to cheat to amazingly high levels,” Nitkowski wrote in an e-mail from Japan, where he currently plays for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks. “It's almost impossible for the average Joe to comprehend the temptation.”
Nitkowski said that to become successful professionals, athletes operate at higher levels of adrenaline and competition than most people will experience. “Add an option to cheat to gain an edge into the equation and you have the issue we have today,” he wrote.
Nitkowski himself doesn’t believe that fans really care about the problem. “They like to read about it and they like to talk about it. They like to get angry at or complain about athletes regardless of the issue,” he said. “But that doesn't stop them from coming to games and supporting the sport.”
Bruce Svare, a psychology professor at the University at Albany and expert on steroid use among athletes, has a simple explanation for this “culture of acceptance,” in which fans want to see bigger-than-life athletes perform larger-than-life feats. “They view sports as entertainment and as long as they view it as entertainment anything goes,” Svare said. “Performance enhancement is part of that culture. Fans have always turned a blind eye to these things.”
An unscientific survey of 30 baseball fans at recent Mets and Yankees games partly validated Nitkowski’s and Svare’s assertion. Almost all the fans who were questioned said they were upset about the PED culture among athletes. But interestingly they were also likely to say that fans in general didn’t care that much.
“I think people want to see exciting games. They want to see numbers, home runs, strike outs and obviously great athletes who use steroids can make that happen.” said Tollin Sullivan, a med student at Ross University in New Jersey. “But I think the key for people to recognize is that it is wrong.”
Angelo Pestosa, a retiree from Monroe, N.Y. said he felt cheated by athletes who chemically enhance their performance. “It’s not rocket science. It’s cheating. That’s all there is to it,” Pestosa said. “It’s not fair to me. It’s not fair to the fellow players.” Pestosa said he was angry that fans quickly forget the problem. But while he said he favored banning players for life, Pestosa said he wouldn’t stop going to games himself.
Charlie Piazza, a carpet installer from Long Island, was mainly worried about the stats. “I think it’s a load of crap because all these old-time records have been broken,” Piazza said. “What these guys are doing today makes them meaningless. I don’t think it has helped the sport at all. I think it actually ruined it.”
Only one fan said she would stop going to games if the problem got worse. “The tickets are expensive enough and I shouldn’t support anybody’s habit,” said Jeanette Loum, a hospital worker from Mastic Beach, N.Y. “Anybody that uses drug enhancement should be fired.”
Four fans said they didn’t care about performance-enhancing drugs at all. One of them was John Smith, an accountant from Buffalo. “If they want to do it, they can. It’s only cheating when you get caught,” Smith said. “The other players can do it too if they want. It’s survival of the fittest.”
Joe Linblatt, a post office worker from the Bronx, said he didn’t care on one condition: “If my favorite athletes are doing it and they help my team win, I don’t care.”
This mentality isn’t exclusive to sports, but a vast problem that affects society as whole, said Kadence Otto, associate director of The Drake Group, which promotes academic integrity in the college sports industry. “It’s a degradation of values and ethics that we have seen in business, politics and sports,” Otto said. “We often talk of sports as a microcosm of society and this is a prime example of that.”
The Drake Group has long criticized the lack of punishment for PEDs and other ethical violations in sports. “When Congress threatens actions, MLB installs lame punishments. The NCAA’s sanctions are also a slap on the wrist,” Otto said. “They made the decision to sacrifice value and ethics for money, exposure and winning.”
Frank Splitt, an essayist for the Drake Group, said that while the NCAA can’t afford to implement mandatory drug testing, it might not have a particular interest in doing so in the first place. In one of his essays he writes that the likely widespread use of PEDs is ignored because enhanced game performances generate “an ocean of tax-exempt money for participants in the college sports entertainment business.”
“Our value system is so disoriented that it is blinding our moral vision. It’s all about money,” Splitt said. “It’s absolutely disgusting. They can get away with it because people just don’t care.” Otto said the NCAA and the professional leagues are responsible by not making stronger efforts against PED use. “When the leaders don’t take a stand for what is right it permeates into the public,” she said.
This culture of acceptance paired with high tuitions and the athletic scholarship system drive many high school and college athletes into using PEDs, experts say. “We don’t think about ethics as much anymore, partly because there are pressures to think about sports as a meal provider,” Simon said. “The fact is that college is so expensive and many people think their best bet is an athletic scholarship.”
Most academics are skeptical whether or not we have concluded the “steroid era” with the Mitchell Report. Svare said he believes there isn’t any sport that is clean at the moment and that the number of athletes who are using drugs is vastly underestimated. “We are at the beginning of this,” Svare said. “All the sports writers who say we have seen the end of it are in denial and don’t know what’s going on.”
Otto said people are oversaturated with these problems and choose to ignore them. “The only chance to change this is if the people rise up,” she said.
The one person who did by filing a claim against the Yankees was mostly ridiculed in online forums for his “frivolous lawsuit.” The outcome? His case was dismissed in April.