Is it ethically defensible to “treat” a healthy individual so that he can excel in a given career? Is it ethically defensible to deny him that treatment?
Others have already skewered the sanctimonious idiocy1 that accompanied the 2012-2013 voting for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, so there’s no need for me to do that. Instead, I’m going to pose a pair of hypothetical questions that might help future unqualified voters2 make an admittedly pointless and inconsequential decision about which ballers deserve to be enshrined alongside immortals such as George “Highpockets” Kelly and Chuck “Hoosier Hammer” Klein.3
Hypothetical the First
You’re this 5’11”, 185-pound guy who was pretty good at baseball, good enough to play third base in college and good enough to get drafted by your beloved hometown BoSox. After being moved to first base and spending a few years in the minors, it’s obvious that you’re nothing special. You have above-average plate discipline and field your position well, but here’s the deal: a) first base is the easiest position to play; b) plenty of first basemen, even first basemen in the low minors, are good hitters; and c) you’ve been training most of your life and it appears there’s no way that you’re going to get big enough and fast enough in time to make some real money via the skills that you do possess.
At age 23, you’re traded to another team—a shitty team, a team nobody really cares about—and you’re given an opportunity to compete for the first base job there. That offseason, somebody offers you dianabol, an easy-to-take oral steroid. You’re a good Christian, a believer in fair play, etc. but you know for a fact that big-money players like Jose Canseco are using the stuff. Your entire livelihood is on the line, and, thanks to some rather amazing lobbying from your players association during the 1980s, there isn’t any sort of comprehensive drug testing regime in place. If you start doing this, and maybe work a little bit harder in the gym, your odds of surviving past that rookie contract and earning the big guaranteed money will likely increase from .5% to maybe 2-3%.
In your first season in the majors, you win the Rookie of the Year Award. You club 18 home runs (you’ve never hit more than 15 at any level before) and you look and feel like a million bucks. Maybe you’ll soon be earning a million bucks. You train harder and incorporate more performance-enhancing drugs into your nutrition program.4 You manage to wring a decade’s worth of strong performances out of your new and improved physique, winning one MVP award and finishing second on another occasion. Finally, after sustaining a severe shoulder injury5, you decide to hang up your cleats. You finish with 449 home runs and one of the best on-base percentages in history.6 With your nest egg tucked away in the bank, you sit back and wait to see if Jay Mariotti et al. decide that you should join the likes of Heinie Manush, Rabbit Maranville, and Rube Marquard in bucolic Cooperstown.
Hypothetical the Second
You’re a young man from a home that was broken more times than Arturo Gatti’s nose. For reasons now lost to history, you performed admirably in high school and college, graduating from the latter at the ripe old age of 19. At some point between your age-20 and age-22 seasons, your thoughts become cloudy, cobwebbed, befogged. You get yourself fired from terrible part-time jobs. You struggle to read more than a few pages at a time. You alternate between being extremely tense and incredibly morose. You have no idea what you’re going to do with your life, and you wind up wasting all the extra time that you had earned by virtue of being an above-average student in below-average Southern public schools.
Somehow, your terrible and half-assed applications to third-rate law schools—which you filled out only because your father was demanding that you leave the house—all yield full-tuition (and, in a few cases, full-tuition-plus) scholarships. You don’t want to be a lawyer, of course, but you don’t want to be that any more or any less than you don’t want to be anything else. So off you go to the overcast, humid, and thoroughly unpleasant Midwest.
Your first semester of law school goes poorly. Your grades are average at best, and you don’t read a single assignment. You don’t read so much as a single page of a single assignment. You sit in your one-bedroom apartment playing video games.7 However, you do manage to gain 60 pounds, mostly from consuming mass quantities of $5 Hungry Howie’s pizza pies.
At your wit’s end, you start seeing a therapist. The therapist refers you to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist notes that, although you had a negative reaction to Prozac during your age-18 season, you might get better results with the atypical antidepressant Bupropion. He turns out to be right.
The anxiety doesn’t go away—in fact, it seems to worsen—but it does fuel an extremely successful run. 10 “highest overall grades” on the last 20 or so exams that you take at your third-rate law school. Strong scores on the GRE and MBE appear more in line with your early-life performances. You now seem to be able to remember everything that you read.
And it just gets better from there. Although you continue to experience moments of doubt and frustration, you complete a Ph.D. in a relatively short period of time. Finally, you land that rarest of things: a full-time job in academia.
In either hypothetical, is it possible to separate the effects of whatever drugs the individual was taking from the resultant performance? Or is everything else, from the weight training to the extra time invested in study, what produces these outcomes? In both cases, it can be argued, as Peter Kramer does in the case of anti-depressant users, that new “selves” have emerged through the interactions of various chemicals. Putting aside such issues of “selfhood” for now, though, we’re left with a pair of questions:
- Is it ethically defensible to treat a “healthy” individual (i.e., someone who is able to crawl out of bed each morning and perform various tasks, as both Jeff Bagwell and the individual in the second hypothetical were) in order that he might excel in a given career?
- Is it ethically defensible to deny him that treatment?
The answers to those questions seem obvious: Yes to question one, no to question two. Stanford professor Henry Greely has written extensively in support of carefully administered cognitive enhancement therapy, and, at least in one interview, spoken out in defense of the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports8. By contrast, incompetent and often uninformed sportswriters, many of whom are managing their woes with less effective antidepressants like alcohol and nicotine, are in no position to weigh such considerations. The idea that someone “cheated”9 because he violated a set of rules that hadn’t even been formalized is ludicrous.
But what else can be expected from the cliché-spewing BBWAA? America’s oldest guild of hero-worshippers remains stuck in a state of arrested adolescence, forever experiencing the pain that comes from losing first loves who have moved on to bigger and better things. Jeff Bagwell didn’t secure a bust in Cooperstown this go-round, and he probably didn’t care.10
- Srsly, bro—read that link. Jay Mariotti, who like my paternal uncle is a Trinity High School (Washington, PA) alum, is quite possibly the worst sportswriter in the history of sportswriting (and that’s saying something, given how terrible nearly all of that crap is). Mariotti’s take on the Hall is breathtakingly illogical: he won’t vote for new players, because nobody deserves to go in on the first ballot, and he won’t vote for players who remain on the ballot, because obviously they weren’t good enough to win admission on their first try.
- The great majority of whom neither understand the not-all-that-advanced statistics developed by Nate Silver and his Baseball Prospectus buddies in the late 1990s nor have participated in athletic competition at any level.
- Actually, hold on a minute. The Hall itself is a joke, overstuffed with juiced-ball ciphers from the 1920s and 1930s, but this idea of deciding who warrants popular approbation is critically important. The Clemens and Bonds trials were stupid and costly, as was that half-decade quest to ruin the reputation of cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, but they reflect something that’s critically important about our cognitive dissonance-afflicted society. What am I talking about? Think about all the shitty, emotionally distant parents who blew their gaskets when some little kid fell to his death at the Pittsburgh Zoo; think about all of the adulterers and pedophiles who rushed to lambaste everybody from Chuck Robb to Elliott Spitzer for their non-national security-threatening misdeeds. Think, for goodness’ sake, about what it must be like to be Clarence Thomas or Ted Haggard!
- Which, by the way, is nothing new. Mays, Aaron, and all of their contemporaries chowed down on exactly the sort of amphetamines that are now triggering suspensions for players like Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz. As anyone who has taken a “dexy” after a night of carousing knows, the pills work. For baseball-playing purposes (where the players are forced to endure a 162-game grind that makes the superfluous and much-derided 82-game NBA season look like a walk in the park), they’re every bit as effective as steroids and HGH. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of those things; heck, during the early 1960s, several professional football teams actually distributed dianabol tablets to their players.
- And perhaps with some awareness that a new, harsher drug-testing regime would soon be implemented by league officials who realize that they’re going to have to throw a bone to jilted sportswriters and fans (but hey, we all liked those moon shot home runs during the magical ‘98 season, right?).
- You also record a pair of 40-homer, 30-steal seasons, the only such seasons produced by a player who spent the majority of his career at first base.
- “bro u sound like a complete fuckin fool lawlz”
- “As for an appeal to the ‘natural’, the lives of almost all living humans are deeply unnatural; our homes, our clothes and our food — to say nothing of the medical care we enjoy — bear little relation to our species’ ‘natural’ state. Given the many cognitive-enhancing tools we accept already, from writing to laptop computers, why draw the line here and say, thus far but no further?”
- And here I mean “cheating” only in the vaguest sense of the term, given that the players weren’t being tested for these substances during a considerable portion of the “steroid era” (although there apparently was a memorandum circulated during the Fay Vincent era noting that steroids were “illegal,” and of course using these drugs without a prescription has been illegal since the 1980s…but what good is any of that without a testing regime in place?). Mostly they “cheated” the likes of Skip Bayless and Bill Simmons out of the opportunity to go to their graves believing that Barry Bonds emerged from his father’s (???) womb with a 405-pound bench press and a 4.5-second 40. Speaking of 40s, did you know that Jose Canseco claims to have run a 3.9 40? This is utter bullcrap, but if it were true, it would give him a 9.75 100m, which is only milliseconds slower than the time recorded by Usain Bolt. Can you imagine that Surreal Life lug running neck and neck with Bolt?
- You know what else Bagwell probably didn’t care about? The NHL lockout. Professional hockey is the one sport where the season lasts so long that you could cancel three years of it and still be left with the impression that the Stanley Cup playoffs just ended.