Workers Vanguard No. 946
6 November 2009
Baseball, Racism and Steroids
Down With the Witchhunt! Decriminalize Drugs!
It was a quintessential America’s national pastime moment. Following a series against the St. Louis Cardinals, on 18 August 1908 the New York Giants took a day off from a grueling pennant race to play an exhibition game against a local team in Springfield, Illinois. For three days before the Giants came to town, white mobs laid waste to the city’s black business district and then destroyed the impoverished black Badlands neighborhood. Two black men, Scott Burton and 84-year-old William Donnegan, were lynched, and just about every black person was forced to flee the city. Immediately before the game, with embers from the Badlands still smoldering, Giants manager John McGraw was presented with a piece of one of the lynch ropes as a souvenir. McGraw promised he would keep it for good luck.
The Giants failed to make the World Series, but McGraw went on to become one of the first dozen admitted into baseball’s hallowed Hall of Fame. Though not part of his exhibit at the Hall, McGraw’s “good luck charm” could have easily found a home there. Enshrined with him are Ku Klux Klan members Tris Speaker and Rogers Hornsby; Ty Cobb, a racist sociopath who once beat a black chambermaid; and Cap Anson, manager and star of the Chicago White Stockings, whose refusal to play against an integrated Newark team in 1887 ushered in 60 years of Jim Crow baseball. Eddie Collins, Tom Yawkey and Larry MacPhail, who all labored long and hard to keep blacks out of the major leagues, are honored there as well.
It is this American sports temple that Barry Bonds, one of baseball’s all-time greats—a seven-time Most Valuable Player who holds both the single-season and career home run records—along with a growing roster of predominantly black and Latino superstars, such as Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Gary Sheffield and Sammy Sosa, are denounced as “morally unfit” to join. This is because of their purported use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs)—anabolic steroids and human growth hormones (HGH). What could await Bonds instead is another venerable American institution far more receptive to black men and women—prison. Blacklisted out of baseball while he remained one of its most productive offensive players, Bonds was indicted in November 2007 on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice for telling a witchhunting federal grand jury he did not knowingly use PEDs—before they were made illegal. He faces up to 30 years in prison.
Bonds isn’t the first black athlete dragged through the mud and deprived of his livelihood—nor would he be the first sent to prison—by the racist morality police under the “war on drugs.” A number of black track and field stars have had their medals stripped and been banned for life at the whim of the sports czars. One of the most vicious campaigns has been the persecution of Marion Jones, the black sprinter who won five medals at the 2000 Olympics and whose picture graced advertisements, magazines and posters. In October 2007, Jones was forced to plead guilty to lying to the Feds about using PEDs and sentenced to six months in jail, with two years’ probation. The Judge “spared” Jones more jail time, instead tacking on 800 hours of “community service” in order to “educate children and school-age athletes about the importance of competing without cheating.” Although she has a few productive years left, Jones was forced to retire from the sport.
In the 1980s, black baseball star Willie Wilson and football great Mercury Morris were sent to the slammer for cocaine use, while Mitchell Wiggins and Lewis Lloyd, Houston Rockets stars, were banished for life. Black Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, who set a world record for the 100-meter dash at the 1988 Olympics, was stripped of his gold medal for “cheating” after testing positive for a steroid. White U.S. swimmer Janet Evans also set a world record at the 1988 Olympics, which she attributed to the special fabric of her swimsuit—without any retribution.
According to Dr. Linn Goldberg, codirector of the Adolescents Training and Learning to Avoid Steroids program, “Our research showed that steroid use is linked to other drugs and alcohol abuse. You can’t just look at steroid use in isolation.” Behind every attack on drug use in this country has been the capitalist rulers’ efforts to enforce social conformity and concomitantly bolster the repressive apparatus aimed at the working class and oppressed minorities. Democratic president Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 “Safe Streets Act” and Republican Richard Nixon’s 1970 “Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act” were designed to clamp down on the ghettos that had exploded in rage against poverty, dilapidated housing and cop terror in the mid to late 1960s. The 1980s’ “war on drugs,” launched by conservative president Ronald Reagan, was a central part of the bourgeois rulers’ efforts to morally regiment the population during Cold War II against the “godless” Soviet Union. We said at the time that the “war on drugs” was a war against black people. For their part, black Democrats like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson were the most enthusiastic champions of Reagan’s anti-drug witchhunt, which ushered in a broad-ranging attack on fundamental rights—from the right to privacy in your own home to the right not to have the cops beat a confession out of you.
Today, the government’s steroids witchhunt against Bonds and other high-profile athletes sets a dangerous precedent for further attacks on the rights of us all, not least the right to confidentiality in medical and legal matters. The government raids on the BALCO lab and the home of Bonds’ trainer, Greg Anderson, in order to obtain records of Bonds’ urine tests are replicated in the escalating seizure of medical records by anti-abortion prosecutors. Federal agents unlawfully “leaked” the names of four of the 104 baseball players whose samples came up positive in “anonymous” testing in 2003—leading to calls to reveal the other 100. And Bonds’ perjury charge is a page straight from the McCarthyite witchhunting textbook. Professional athletes are hauled before Congressional committees and grand juries and asked to confess to using PEDs, likely ruining the careers for which they have worked their entire youth. Yesterday you were an admired sports star, today you are a convicted felon—for “cheating” at sports—facing time in prison, especially if they don’t like your attitude or deem it time to make an example of you to “save the children.”
Whether an individual uses recreational drugs or steroids for bodybuilding or perceived enhancement of athletic ability is a personal choice. Hands off Barry Bonds! Government out of the locker room! We call for the decriminalization of drugs, which would also take the huge profits and consequently much of the violence out of the trade. For those whose addiction to drugs impairs their ability to function or who just decide it’s time to quit, what is posed is a medical question, just as with smoking or alcohol. Under socialism, drug treatment and prescriptions would be easily accessible to those who need them as part of a broader program of free, quality medical care for all.
The Racist “War on Drugs”
The Congressional witchhunters and Justice Department lawyers have also caught in their web a few white players like Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire. During his 2005 testimony, McGwire admirably refused to name names: “I do not sit in judgment of other players, whether it deals with their sexual preference, their marital problems or their personal habits—including whether or not they used chemical substances.” But the hysteria about PEDs is part and parcel of the broader “war on drugs,” which is racist to its core.
Over the past 30 years or so the prison population has grown by over 500 percent, with nearly one million black people behind bars—destroying the lives not only of those in prison but inflicting incalculable damage on families and entire neighborhoods. Nationally, 2 percent of the population cannot vote as a result of felony convictions, with some 13 percent of black males disenfranchised. According to a 2007 Justice Policy Institute report, black men are sent to prison on drug charges at 10 times the rate of white men, even though their drug use is approximately the same. Only 12 percent of the U.S. population, blacks make up over 40 percent of prison inmates, six times the rate of imprisonment for whites.
In a society that has few jobs for young black men, this mass incarceration has been buttressed by a racist ideological onslaught depicting an entire generation of black youth as inveterate criminals—“superpredators.” Under “anti-gang” and post-9/11 “anti-terror” laws, black youths are routinely rounded up and thrown in jail for nothing more than wearing baggy jeans, hoodies and colored bandannas while congregating in groups of three or more. Many black professional athletes are just months removed from those same street corners and, no matter how many hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars they may make, are constantly reminded that one false move and they, too, could be packed off to jail.
The depiction of young black athletes as “thugs” was given further fuel in 2004 when Ron Artest, then a member of the Indiana Pacers, attacked a Detroit Pistons fan who had showered him with beer and a racist tirade. Artest was suspended for the season and forced to forfeit his salary. Compare this to the treatment of hockey player Terry O’Reilly, who, joined by all of his Boston Bruins teammates, left the ice during a 1979 game at Madison Square Garden to viciously hammer a New York Rangers fan. Suspended for only eight games, O’Reilly went on to become a coach for the Bruins, and his jersey hangs in tribute from the rafters of the Boston Garden alongside those of other Bruins stars. That their status as professional athletes provides little protection from the racist cops who routinely terrorize the ghettos and barrios was brought home to black players for the Cincinnati Bengals, who suffered more than ten arrests, many on charges related to drug use or alcohol, during the 2006-07 seasons.
In this racist society, Bonds’ defiant attitude and refusal to bow down to the owners or ingratiate himself with the racist press corps marked him as an “uppity” black man and made him a target. ESPN writer Jeff Pearlman calls Bonds “a truly evil man” who “has deprived the game of integrity and turned its record books into mush.” “Is steroids cheating?” Bonds declared with his classic flair. “You want to define cheating in America? When they make a shirt in Korea for $1.50 and sell it here for 500 bucks. And you ask me what cheating means?” (cited in “The Juice and the Noose,” International Socialist Review, November-December 2006).
In racist America it is seen as obscene that some black sports stars get to be multimillionaires. Writing of his stature as baseball’s highest-paid player in the early 1970s, Hank Aaron recalled, “The Atlanta fans weren’t shy about letting me know what they thought of a $200,000 n----r striking out with men on base.” Shortly after pitching ace Dwight Gooden led the New York Mets to the 1986 World Series championship, he made the mistake of thinking he could return to his Tampa, Florida, hometown in a silver Mercedes. Gooden was pulled over by 22 white Tampa cops for an alleged traffic violation and then beaten and bloodied. The uniformed thugs went for his pitching arm, yelling, “Hit his arm, hurt it, end his career!” Hoping to dispel rumors that he was on drugs, Gooden requested a drug test, which turned up positive for traces of cocaine, leading to his suspension by the Mets. Gooden was hounded throughout the rest of his career and ultimately thrown in the slammer on drug charges in 2005.
Raging About “Roid Rage”
From the “reefer madness” of the 1930s to the crack cocaine scare of the 1980s-90s, the anti-steroids crusade is replete with phony science—both falsifying the health risks and grossly inflating the abilities of performance enhancing drugs. Of course, this is all accompanied by what one could call “hypocrisy on steroids.” We can only wonder how many members of Congress and medical “experts” condemning sports “cheaters” had some unlawful chemical assistance to get them through their bar exams and medical boards.
In 2004, tennis great John McEnroe announced that he had “unknowingly” used a steroid for six years during his career—nobody called for him to return his trophies or step down from his lucrative career as a sportscaster. Arnold Schwarzenegger parlayed the physique he attributed in part to performance enhancers into a movie career and ultimately the governorship of California.
Congressmen rant against steroids as a “national public health crisis” while the media peddles tales of “roid rage,” suicides and pituitary tumors. This is as specious as the mythical “crack baby” hysteria of the mid 1980s (see “‘Crack Babies’ Furor Was Big Lie: Down With Racist ‘War on Drugs’!” WV No. 933, 27 March). Even the Partnership for a Drug-Free America concedes that most health hazards are short-term and reversible and the “long-term, high-dose effects of steroid use are largely unknown.”
For the high school, college and professional athletes exploited for school, nation and the bottom line, there are very real documented health hazards having nothing to do with PEDs. The athlete forced to take the “needle” to play while hurt, jeopardizing his future, is a sports ritual. Repeated concussions to football players have caused extensive brain damage and related chronic depression and dementia that have led to at least two suicides. The National Football League’s response has been to deny the overwhelming medical proof and instead propose generating more revenue by making the season longer—ensuring even greater damage to players’ health. The life expectancy of Canadian Football League players is 20 years less than that of the general population. Many colleges fail to even provide medical insurance for their athletes, who are often left to foot the bill for disabling injuries. High school football players dying of heat prostration during midsummer twice-a-day workouts in full uniform (pads and helmet) is an annual occurrence. And the whole purpose of boxing is for impoverished fighters, predominantly black and Latino, to scramble each others’ brains.
Anabolic steroids have been used medically for 70 years, and the doses used by athletes are often comparable to those prescribed for men needing replacement testosterone due to testicular cancer. While there have been exceptionally rare cases of liver tumors related to oral ingestion of steroids, most steroids in use today are administered topically or by injection. The known side effects—acne, increase in blood pressure and cholesterol and shrinking of testicles over time, are all reversible within weeks of stopping use. In an interview in Scientific American online (11 February), Jay Hoffman, a professor of health and exercise science, described his use of anabolic steroids as a college and professional football player in the 1980s, when they were legal. Back then, team physicians “monitored our health. I had constant exams to make sure my liver enzymes were functioning properly and my heart was doing well, and that all the blood lipids were fine.” Hoffman added, “I don’t regret at all what I did, because I did it with care
. I would do it again. There are no long-term effects—I have three healthy, beautiful children. I didn’t grow a third leg or become impotent or any of that BS you see on TV.”
Anabolic steroids are a class of steroid hormones related to the hormone testosterone that stimulate protein synthesis within cells. They affect muscle mass by increasing the production of proteins and reducing physical recovery time by blocking the effects of the stress hormone cortisol on muscle tissue. They also decrease fat. They increase strength over time by allowing an athlete to train harder with quicker recovery—which then allows him to train more. While anabolic steroids may give a quick fix of limited muscle strength and size without exercise, they will not turn a Woody Allen into an Albert Pujols. And the main attribute of HGH appears to be cosmetic. A study published in 2008 revealed that HGH “may alter body composition” but “has minimal effect on key athletic performance outcomes and may, in fact, be associated with worsened exercise capacity.” Over the course of a season, steroids may allow athletes to recover from minor injuries, muscle and ligament strains more rapidly.
While some athletes may get a benefit from PEDs—or at least believe they do—there is no conclusive evidence that steroids or other PEDs actually enhance performance. Of the 23 pitchers named in the 2007 Mitchell Commission report on steroids in baseball, 16 performed worse after their steroid use supposedly began. For the 48 hitters, their overall home runs and batting averages dropped.
The anecdotal “evidence” commonly cited is willfully ignorant. During his rant at the 2005 Congressional hearings about “cheating” in baseball, Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning, a Hall of Fame pitcher with a reputation for cheating by scuffing the ball with his belt buckle, retailed the most common claim: “When I played ball with Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Ted Williams they didn’t put on forty pounds of bulk in their careers, and they didn’t hit more homers in their late thirties than they did in their late twenties.” In fact, Aaron’s best span of home runs came from the ages of 35 to 39 (exactly the same as Bonds), and at 37 he had his best year for home runs. (Bonds was 37 when he set the single-season home run record.) Ted Williams had more home runs per at bat in his late 30s than in his late 20s and batted .388 at the age of 38. Warren Spahn, career leader for most wins by a left-handed pitcher, had his second-best season at the age of 42, and Bunning himself had his best ERA (earned run average) at the age of 35.
With an increase in life expectancy, scientific training techniques, better playing conditions and better pay, there are many reasons why athletes as a whole play longer at a higher level today than did past generations. In other venues, Bunning expects capitalism’s wage slaves to work longer and harder. Earlier this year he called for raising the Social Security retirement age from 67 to 70.
Because they have been prohibited by organized sports and are now illegal, there has been no study of the long-term effects of prolonged massive usage of PEDs, as no subjects are willing to undergo such examination. Even anti-steroid campaigner Linn Goldberg conceded that without people willing to be tested, “you can’t draw much of a conclusion.” Just like the insipid “Just Say No” campaign, the prohibition on steroids actually increases the potential dangers. As Julian Savulescu, professor of practical ethics at Oxford, pointed out in “Ethics of Performance Enhancement in Sports: Drugs and Gene Doping” (printed in Principles of Health Care Ethics ):
“Because doping is illegal, the pressure is to make performance enhancers undetectable, rather than safe. Performance enhancers are produced or bought on the black market and administered in a clandestine, uncontrolled way with no monitoring of the athlete’s health. Allowing the use of performance enhancers would make sport safer as there would be less pressure on athletes to take unsafe enhancers and would generate pressure to develop new safe performance enhancers and to make existing enhancers more effective at safe dosages.”
A rational society would both embrace the potentialities of improving human athletic performance, particularly the broader uses of anabolic steroids in muscle and tendon repair that would benefit a broad range of society, while at the same time conducting an objective scientific study of the potential medical dangers. But capitalism is not rational, and American capitalism, maintained on a bedrock of black oppression with all its commensurate racist ideology, is even less so.
Level Playing Field— Social Reaction on Steroids
The use of performance enhancers is as old as competitive sports itself, with natural steroidal substances used to enhance androgenic and anabolic growth in the body by athletes in ancient Greece. In the 1904 Olympics, American Thomas Hicks won the marathon after being given a dose of strychnine and brandy to help him get through the race. This particular PED didn’t catch on. Internationally, controversy over anabolic steroids arose in the 1960s and ’70s as athletes from the Soviet Union, a bureaucratically degenerated workers state, and the deformed workers states of East and Central Europe caught up to and in many sports surpassed the U.S. in international competitions. At the same time that steroids and amphetamines were not only commonplace but encouraged in the locker rooms of professional teams in the U.S., accusations flew that the success of Soviet and East European weightlifters, wrestlers and shot putters, and East German women runners and swimmers, could only be attributed to increased strength gained through steroid use, rather than the enormous advantages of the planned economies of these countries where capitalism was overthrown. Of course, artificially increasing body mass and strength could not explain the grace and skill of Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, Soviet high jumper Valery Brumel or East German figure skater Katarina Witt.
Domestically, the condemnation of PEDs in sports fits like a glove with the dismantling of social programs that benefit blacks and other minorities and echoes the rationale for eliminating affirmative action in education in order to provide a “level playing field.” In his 2004 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush denounced the use of PEDs as sending “the wrong message—that there are shortcuts to accomplishment.” Echoing his right-wing predecessor, President Barack Obama, responding to the February admission of steroid use by Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, stated: “I think it tarnishes an entire era to some degree. It’s unfortunate because I think there are a lot of ball players who played it straight.”
The flap over steroids in sports became white-hot as Bonds approached and smashed Babe Ruth’s milestones and Hank Aaron’s career home run record. Bonds was deluged with racist hate mail as well as death threats. Predictably, the sports press corps—who sup on the steaks and single-malt scotches paid for by the multimillionaire team owners—disingenuously claimed it was steroid use and not racism that was behind the hostility to Bonds. But, as revealed in a CBS News/New York Times poll published in 2007, 57 percent of blacks—compared to 29 percent of whites—were rooting for Bonds to break the home run record, while 62 percent of black baseball fans believed race was a factor in the steroid charges against Bonds, as against 14 percent of whites.
Why baseball is ground zero for the steroids witchhunt is alluded to by Zev Chafets in his 2009 book Cooperstown Confidential: “Its statistical obsessions, antique uniforms, and ancestor worship all look back to an idealized version of America that did not include blacks and that many blacks simply don’t share.” Unlike other professional sports, baseball uniquely hasn’t changed in any significant way in over 90 years, and the statistical measures of excellence for hitters and pitchers have remained constant. Nobody—in their right mind—would argue that Bob Cousy and George Mikan were better basketball players than Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, or that Bronco Nagurski and Elroy Hirsch were better football players than Emmitt Smith and Jerry Rice. But pointing to their statistics, it is still common for Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson and especially Babe Ruth to be named as baseball’s greatest players, and their era—one in which blacks were banned from the sport—to be considered not only the high-water mark of American professional sports, but an ideal for the country as a whole.
This is so embedded in American culture that in the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, James Earl Jones declares, “baseball has marked the time. This field, this game—it’s a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again.” According to Jayson Stark, ESPN senior writer, “Once, the numbers of baseball used to mean something special and magical. And the men who compiled those numbers were transcendent figures in American life.” Calling steroids use the worst scandal in American sports, surpassing the fixing of the 1919 World Series and college basketball betting scandals of the 1950s, Stark laments that baseball “as a unique paragon of American culture is devastated” (ESPN.com, 8 February).
This “paragon” harkens back to the era of segregation, and these “transcendent figures” are the racist Ansons, Cobbs, Speakers and Hornsbys. Attributing the success of Bonds, A-Rod, Sosa, Jones and others to chemical enhancement is the latest incarnation of the bogus biological rationales that have long flourished to demean increasing black athletic achievement in some sports. When Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Avery Brundage, head of the U.S. Olympic Committee, declared, “one could see, particularly with Jesse Owens, how the Negroes could excel in athletics. Their muscle structure lends itself to this sort of competition.” Dean Cromwell, track coach for the University of Southern California, wrote in 1941, “The Negro excels in the events he does because he is closer to the primitive than the white man.” In 1971, Sports Illustrated ran an article, “Black is Best,” stating that black athletes had an advantage in “double-jointedness and general looseness of joints.”
This racist trash is not a relic of a bygone era. Esteemed former NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw gave it his imprimatur when he joined with Jon Entine in making the 1989 documentary Black Athletes: Fact and Fiction. Entine expanded on the subject in his 2000 book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It. Entine claims that blacks of West African ancestry, who make up most of the U.S. black population, have proportionately more lean body and muscle mass, broader shoulders, larger quadriceps and bigger musculature in general. Regarding jumping ability and sprinting success, he attributes to blacks “a higher percentage of fast-twitch muscles and more anaerobic enzymes, which can translate into more explosive energy.” Adding a point that would be endorsed by any plantation overseer who demanded that a just-whipped slave return to the cotton field, Entine claims that blacks have “the ability to perform at a higher level of intensity with quicker recovery.”
Despite protestations that his work has nothing in common with the racist tract The Bell Curve, Entine is a visiting “scholar” for the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think tank whose other “scholars” include Bell Curve coauthor Charles Murray, Newt Gingrich and John Yoo, architect of the Bush administration’s infamous torture memos.
Boston Celtics great Bill Russell exposed this garbage back in the 1970s: “It’s okay to be racist as long as you try to sound like a doctor.” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the National Basketball Association’s career scoring leader, defined the real reason for black stardom in sports: “Yes, I was just like the rest of those black athletes you’ve read about, the ones that put all their waking energies into learning the moves. That might be a sad commentary on America in general, but that’s the way it’s going to be until black people can flow without prejudice into any occupation they can master. For now it’s still pretty much music and sports for us.”
Today, little has changed, and even that window of opportunity is narrowing. U.S. blacks are now only 8 percent of major league baseball players, though there is an increasing number of black players from Latin America. They, too, have come under attack, as in the cases of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. A New York Times (25 October) article accusing Dominican “handlers” of providing PEDs to young athletes quoted a Dominican coach who admitted to providing vitamin shots to his players because “I can’t afford to give them meat.” Meanwhile, the predominance of blacks in professional basketball has declined with the influx of European stars, satisfying the call by Larry Bird in 2004 for more white stars in the NBA. And increasingly stringent NCAA standards have made it even more difficult for blacks from the ghetto prisons, euphemistically called schools, to gain athletic scholarships. As we wrote in “Racism in Sports” (WV No. 426, 17 April 1987):
“For a minuscule number of blacks, sports can be a way out of the grinding poverty of America’s hellish ghettos. But if Dwight Gooden, a hero, superstar and millionaire, is not safe from cop brutality, what black is? Certainly not the millions of unemployed black youth whose ‘future’ under capitalism is imperialist war or the scrap heap. For them, life is only injustice with no rewards. But capitalism has not simply spawned victims, it has created its own gravediggers. Black workers, strategically organized at the point of production, are potentially the most combative section of the working class. United in a multiracial Trotskyist vanguard party along with their white brothers and sisters, they can lead all the oppressed in a class-struggle fight against the rotting capitalist system.”