In the wake of A-Rod’s suspension, Ryan Bradley talks to his son about Performance Enhancing Drugs.
I shushed my five year old to hear the Baseball Tonight crew discuss Alex Rodriguez and the suspension he’d just been handed. “I want to hear this,” I said. I knew at that moment I had better start formulating an explanation of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), why they are bad, and why cheaters who use them should be banned from their sports.
Parenthood is an ongoing process of explaining to our children in ever-changing ways the world around them. The way we explain something to a one year old will pretty much evolve every year until that child is an adult, and we all know that even as adults our parents can’t help trying to explain things to us now and then.
Luckily I have a real knack for father-son discussions about tricky topics. When my older son first started going through puberty my insight was this: “One day you’ll wake up with hair on your balls and that won’t be the weirdest thing.” And the best piece of advice I could think to write down for my five year old before he was born? “Hate the Yankees.” If there was one benefit to Alex Rodriguez being the poster boy for PEDs, it was that every image my son was seeing on Sports Center was of the cheater in Yankee pinstripes.
It’s simpler, of course, to reduce PEDs to “steroids.” Explaining things like human growth hormones will have to wait until he’s a little older. Unfortunately our dog Sophina, aka Feeny, recently died of cancer, and before she was put down she was on a lot of medications, including a steroid. So my son’s first observation about A-Rod was that he was “like Feeny!” Like most “grown up” topics, unpacking steroids as a whole is complicated. It falls somewhere between trying to explain the destruction of our planet through pollution and how to pedal a bike.
The “there are different kinds of steroids” discussion aside, I pressed on, and just as quickly I learned another lesson. In explaining steroids to a five-year old it’s best not to say they give people big muscles. But what was I supposed to say when he asked me why people took them? He countered by asking, “What’s wrong with that?”
To him, my explanation for why people take steroids seemed awfully similar to the reasons I give him for why he should take his vitamins and eat his vegetables. I should have known the argument for doing something should never be confused with why he shouldn’t do something. That sort of duality is above a five year old.
I tried switching the gears of my spiel. He might only be five, but he loves baseball, and sports in general, and I want to make sure he’s instilled with an understanding that “right” and “wrong” apply to sports as much as they do anything else. But I had no frame of reference for how to talk to him about this.
I was a teenager when the “Steroid Era” became a thing in baseball, old enough to understand not only that PEDs were wrong, but the many reasons why. I thought briefly of the public service announcements that used to air on TV. Depictions of baseballs, soccer balls, basketballs, volleyballs, and footballs deflating, a not so subtle allusion to the fact that steroids have been known to shrink men’s testicles. When you think about it, it was a brilliant angle to take with teenagers. Stop steroid use not only at the developmental point where athleticism begins to become truly apparent, but also when boys are most concerned with their genitals. But I worry if I were to tell my five year old that steroids shrink testicles he would laugh—why wouldn’t he? He’s five, his testicles are really only ever going to get bigger.
In a lesson I constantly re-learn, I tried to reduce my explanation to its lowest common denominator—not in a “dumbing it down” way, but in a “nuts and bolts” approach. “It’s against the rules to use steroids, which means they’re cheating.” These are concepts that are more than common by age 5. Once I got to this stripped down version of the issue, the answers to his other questions got easier. “They take steroids because they think the only way to be a better player is to cheat.”
That’s where I got the dad “win,” because the natural segue was this: “The best way to get better is always to work hard and to practice.” My son nodded, threw me a Nerf baseball from across the living room. “I always practice,” he said. “Like all day.” For a brief moment in time, I had done my job as a father and as a lover of the game of baseball.
A few days later, my wife told me our son explained to her that if he took steroids he’d be able to throw “so much faster.” Just another reminder that parenting is an ongoing process. In the long run, I guess it’s not so different from trying to clean up baseball. In the end, I have faith we’ll both get there—me with a semi-functional adult son and Major League Baseball with a game we can all be proud of again.
Photo: AP/Peter Morgan