There are genuine issues of goodness or badness to worry about in the world. Most involve very rich people exploiting very poor people. They do not involve Ryan Braun. They do at least tangentially involve Joe Biden, except he’d rather score cheap political points at the expense of a semi-nobody like Ryan Braun.
When Joe Biden makes his bid for the White House in 2016, he’ll be 73 years old. No one will say much about that, though, because Biden has a lustrous tan, shiny white teeth, and wispy, blonde-ish hair. Like Ronald “Dutch” Reagan before him, he’s thoroughly performance-enhanced, and the pancake makeup he wears with such aplomb (can he apply it himself, I wonder?) will only further the illusion that he’s a spry, vigorous Man of the People.
He’s not, of course, but who cares? Biden has always seemed like 25% of a legendary Democratic politician; he’s got a half-decent “presence” and can work the room with the best of them.
Watch that sequence carefully: so much of Biden’s appeal rests on his teeth, tan, and hair. There’s little else in the record that stands out about the man. He rebounded nicely from a terrible personal tragedy early in his life, I suppose, but he’s also produced one gaffe after another. He enhanced his performance during the ’88 Democratic primary–a wide-open field if there ever was one, given the eventual nomination of competent, charisma-free Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis–by cribbing from old Robert Kennedy speeches. He enhanced his academic record by claiming a higher rank in his law school class than he actually had and to have earned degrees he didn’t possess. And then, perhaps most unforgivably, he utterly botched the Judiciary Committee hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas, thereby inadvertently enhancing the performance of a man who was himself extremely troubled in a number of respects.
But hey, Joe Biden hates those nasty steroid cheats. We know this because he has offered one ringing denunciation after another of those wretched men who dared do anything to outperform him on the baseball diamond or the gridiron (he was, it seems, a back on the Delaware Blue Hens football team for two years, though he never won a varsity letter or, even more surprisingly given his own history, claimed to have won one). He’s not alone in his contempt for these terrible villains; lamenting the further cheapening of our always-cheap, always-disreputable athletic spectacles has been something of a cottage industry since Teddy Roosevelt first inveighed against the squalid, bloodthirsty nature of college football.
In an unparalleled display of political heroism, Biden went to the barricades in 1989 (and against the recommendation of the American Medical Association) to have anabolic steroids reclassified as schedule IIII controlled substances:
The illegal use of anabolic steroids is a major drug abuse problem in this country. Steroids are dangerous drugs that threaten the physical and mental health of hundreds of thousands of young people. This legislation…attacks the steroid problem by adding steroids to the Controlled Substances Act. Leaders in the amateur and professional sports industry, coaches, athletes, and others [must] take a strong stand against the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
In 2004, when the Controlled Substances Act was further amended to remove the thorny requirement that an anabolic steroid had to actually “increase muscle growth,” Biden was that bill’s sponsor, too. Theoretically, anything could now be deemed bad and thereafter banned, and for no reason at all. Because I said so. Lawmaking in many instances is necessarily arbitrary–why 18 for an age of consent, hmm?–but it isn’t capricious (no one outside of certain groups in the Netherlands will argue for an age of consent that kicks in post-toddlerdom). This revised 2004 CSA, however, is both. But don’t take my word for it: freakin’ dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), which most studies have concluded is at best a placebo, is on the list! With regard to his frivolous, fruitless hearings on the sullying of America’s national pastime by its naughtiest drug cheats, Biden said the following:
Many believe we should have more important things to investigate than Major League Baseball. To a certain extent, I agree: This is clearly not the No.1 issue facing Congress. But congressional hearings on baseball’s steroids scandal are hardly a trivial pursuit. Our national pastime faces questions more serious than the legitimacy of modern-day home run records. High school athletes watch their sports heroes bend and even break the rules, and they believe their own success may depend on emulating the pros.
Sure, fine, whatever. Little John Boy is going to start gulping down dianabol tabs (the pill of choice for steroid ingénues) in a feverish and ultimately doomed quest to catch up with “Big Mac” McGwire and the other home run heroes he admires. He’ll fail, he’ll experience “roid rage,” he’ll have a heart attack. QED. Say it ain’t so, Tailback Joe!
Now here’s where the story gets real tortuous, so it’s important to pay careful attention (maybe drink a half-pot of coffee or take an Adderall XR and enhance your performance somewhat). Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun, who had already fought the “law” (i.e., the latter-day Star Chamber that is Major League Baseball’s standards and discipline division) and won, recently decided to “lay down” (in fighting parlance) and accept a season-ending suspension for his alleged relationship with a Florida clinic that provided him with various performance-enhancing drugs. He and a bunch of other well-compensated dominos will fall, because heaven forbid that baseball, which rode McGwire et al. to unprecedented levels of post-1994 strike profitability, loses so much as a single ticket sale to a parent who is worried that sweet little John Boy will start popping d-bols on Braun’s account. Fiat justitia ruat caelum and all that jazz.
When Biden made his push to classify anabolic steroids as controlled substances in 1989, the American Medical Association responded with an extremely detailed report of its own, the principal point of which is excerpted here:
In order to be controlled under the CSA, a drug must have some potential for abuse that could lead to physical or psychological dependence. The medical facts do not support scheduling anabolic steroids under the CSA. Anabolic steroids have an accepted use in the treatment of several medical conditions, including certain anemias, hereditary angioedema, and breast cancer. Moreover, anabolic steroids can be used safely under medical supervision. [Instead of adding steroids to the CSA]…one appropriate and effective approach to [controlling misuse of steroids] is by increasing the criminal penalty for sale of steroids without a prescription. The appropriate method for scheduling a drug is through the established regulatory process [which is not followed in this bill]….[and] anabolic steroids do not meet the statutory criteria for scheduling under the CSA (emphasis in the original).
This is critical to understanding how little John Boy’s and Ryan Braun’s situations are completely different. John Boy, who is feasting on the cheapest and worst of the first generation (in the US, anyway) of anabolic agents, probably obtained these pills from a friend of a friend of a friend of a sleazebag dealer of some sort. He has no clue how to use them, much like many of the great mid-60s powerlifters who died premature deaths possibly due to d-bol abuse but possibly also due to extremely unhealthy lifestyles, and thus succeeds only in abusing them and, by extension, his body. Ryan Braun, like most of today’s PED-abusing athletes (which is nearly all of them, if they’re even halfway intelligent and self-interested), isn’t mindlessly ingesting a cheap first-generation anabolic steroid. Far from it: he’s using the primo stuff under the supervision of Anthony Bosch, who admittedly isn’t much of a scientist but at least understands the rudiments of drug cycling and PED usage.
And Braun doesn’t have anything on one-man science labs such as Lance Armstrong and Bill Romanowski, athletes whose lengthy and storied careers are testament to the power of better living through advanced chemistry. Or the obese righthander Bartolo Colon, who morphed in his late 30s from an oft-injured fireballer to a devious blimp in the David Wells-ian “extreme finesse” mold and is actually occasioning the most postmodern (I use the term in its weakest sense) of op-ed encomia: his astonishing comeback is extolled by hero-worshipping journalists even as they leave open the possibility that it’s nothing but PED-driven smoke and mirrors. We’re just getting warmed up, people: what of Kobe Bryant’s Reginokine’d™ knee, LeBron James’ Rogaine’d™ hairline, and the drug Louisville coach Rick Pitino undoubtedly now takes so he doesn’t have to “finish up” in an ignominious 15 seconds or fewer?
All kidding aside, this is a subject in which I’m extremely invested. I’ve written about it at length as it relates to my own experience with PEDs, but it seems as though the point is always missed, likely because it’s too subtly or too poorly made. Readers see “anabolic steroids” in whatever article they’re skimming and the knee-jerk reaction is to relate that to “bad guys,” to “cheaters,” and so forth. We engage in similar denunciations when we see those digitally-enhanced Cosmo covers; it appears that, in our willingness to entertain any moral outrage whatsoever so long as it enables us to feel something (but not too much, and assuredly not anything that shakes us to the core of our being or forces us to remake society or anything else that’s so dangerously 1917-y), we can’t wait to decry the wretchedness of our coarsened and relativistic society.
This is a reasonably lengthy piece, which means I’m running the risk of no one reading to this point much less giving two shits about anything I’ve said here. “Joe Biden and Ryan Braun” is likely, as with any other bit of writing about anything, to disappear into the ether almost as quickly and uneventfully as it appeared. So I want to state this now, because it needs to be stated somewhere: Ryan Braun did nothing wrong. With regard to this specific issue, the driver who runs the red light in his haste to get to work and still hits no one is worse than Ryan Braun. The jaywalker is worse than Ryan Braun. The person who spits his gum on the sidewalk is worse than Ryan Braun.
The 1992 wrestling steroid show trials (the so-called “Zahorian Affair“) are at the center of my second book project. In that situation, performers working at the mercy of PED-using WWF magnate Vince McMahon were being supplied with anabolic steroids by George Zahorian, a friendly neighborhood physician who would apparently write anyone a prescription for anything (he was a “croaker,” in 1950s drug slang). Their decision to “juice,” in light of the national mania for Schwarzneggerian muscle mass and a standing order from McMahon to keep the title belts on beefcake types, was perfectly reasonable. They were labor; McMahon was capital. These bodies of theirs, you have to understand, are working bodies, mere tools of the trade. As Jim Jividen wrote in his excellent discussion of Mickey Rourke’s potential PED abuse prior to his star turn in The Wrestler, performers do what performers have to do. If Robert De Niro got a sex change to really “sell” a role, there’s a good chance he’d win at least one or two of the lesser acting awards for his courageous choice. Even the great steroid fighter Joe Biden, as I mentioned above, has enhanced those parts of his body–his teeth, hair, and skin tone–that contribute to his singular skill, which is walking around a room and shaking people’s hands.
Ryan Braun is pretty good at catching baseballs and extraordinarily adept at hitting them. He has already made $21,000,000 because of these abilities; he is likely to earn much more than that, even if the remainder of his current megabucks contract is somehow voided by Brewers management (good luck getting that past the MLBPA). If he took drugs to enhance these skills, kudos to him. He wasn’t born into great riches à la the babies of K8 & Wills or Kanye & Kim. In order to reach this point, he had to train and practice with the sort of spartan discipline that is completely alien to most of us coach potatoes. His home runs–unlike, say, Bernie Madoff’s promised investment returns or the Enron accounting records–were indeed real. Every single hit he accumulated was an actual hit, occurring as it did in a sanctioned baseball game. The same goes for Ben Johnson’s 9.79-second 100 meter sprint, Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France titles, and the last five or six years of Ray Lewis’ storied NFL career: that stuff all happened.
There are genuine issues of goodness or badness to worry about in the world. Most involve very rich people grinding up the bones of very poor people to make their daily bread. They do not involve Ryan Braun, an athletically gifted semi-nobody who injected himself with various substances in an effort to tear off a tiny piece of the pie. They do at least tangentially involve Joe Biden, except he’d rather score cheap political points at the expense of a semi-nobody like Ryan Braun, whose only real “crime” appears to be that he is much better at sports than Biden was. To paraphrase the Kansas newsman William Allen White, that’s all right. There is absolutely nothing wrong with such a state of affairs. “Every prospect pleases and only man is vile.”