Bill James recently made the interesting comment, talking about changing views on steroids use by athletes, that “history coalesces only around an extreme position.” Let’s leave the odd locution aside for a minute and look at the issue he’s talking about, and his view on it. He means that for any controversial issue on which the dominant opinions are each extreme, in the end, one will win out, without there being a compromise. In the steroids example, he argues that while right now, most people—most sports fans, sportswriters, and sports officials—are resolutely in favor of banning steroid users and denying them the right to win awards and go into halls of fame, etc., down the line, we’ll see widespread acceptance of the other extreme position, that steroid use is no big deal and merits no punishment.
Is James right about steroids? I think so. Steroids have been demonized but they are widely used as medicine and this use is increasing. Over time, as we all become more familiar with steroids, will we really see them as so different from, say, aspirin or cortisone? Both are performance-altering substances. And indeed we accept that athletes can use either or both, without deserving any punishment.
The dividing line, in the received view, would seem rather to fall between substances that help athletes recover from a problem, to return to their “natural” physical state, and those that enhance their “natural” abilities. But what about coffee? Tony Gwynn, one of baseball’s best-ever hitters, is famous for having drunk enormous amounts of coffee while he played, before and during games. Coffee certainly heightens awareness and there are studies showing that it also improves athletic performance. And nobody cares that Tony Gwynn drank so much coffee—he was elected to the baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
So the “recovery vs. enhancement” dividing line doesn’t hold either, at least when it comes to taking substances we accept as a part of everyday life. And as James notes, “more of us are going to be using more and more steroids for more and more things.” So even though steroids come from a lab rather than a berry, and enhance, or seem to enhance, performance, we’ll likely come to see them as an ordinary part of all of our everyday lives asas aspirin and perhaps even coffee. Meaning that like cortisone, we’ll be fine with athletes getting them from a doctor, to be used to treat some problem or other. And once this happens, it will be hard, or at least much harder, to argue, that we should punish athletes who took them, even if this wasn’t done under a doctor’s care.
What about James’s argument about “history”? Here, I think, he’s less right, if not totally wrong. Yes, it’s true that in any number of instances in any number of societies, we can see that a position broadly perceived as radical, challenging a position seen as important to the identity and indeed the future survival of the society in question, can eventually win broad and seemingly total acceptance, against all odds, at least as those would have been set, at the outset of the debate. Think of the victory of abolitionism, in European and then US public opinion and politics, over the course of the 19th century. Think even of the—brief—victory of prohibitionism in the US in the early 20th century. There is also the civil rights struggle in the US south in the 50s and 60s, and, yes, I think James is right to cite, as a parallel to the current reaction against, and coming “so what” attitude about, steroids, the evolution of attitudes about gay marriage, Andrew Sullivan’s once-chimerical dream.
But in each of these instances, did the radical vision really win, in the way James suggests? I’d suggest that the reality is more complex. Arno Mayer, in The Persistence of the Old Regime, a masterful study of 19th century Europe, stressed the backward-looking focus of the continent’s new bourgeois elite, which had risen to power by virtue of its having created a new, vital capitalist, trading economy, yet remained subservient to a nobility and royals whose power was based on moldy traditions and landed wealth that no longer much mattered. The bourgeoisie, and the previously radical position that there should be popular control over the state, had “won,” but this victory was everywhere tempered by the continued hold of an old elite on key levers of power, and, critically, of the terms by which power was defined. Even after the collapse of the European old order, in the First World War, the power of the old elite persisted—and persists today to a real degree, despite the arrival of democratic rule and decades of wealth taxes and redistribution, even in a place as nominally egalitarian as Sweden.
As to gay marriage… It’s marriage. Yes, the acceptance of gay marriage is indeed a huge victory for the gay community—and indeed for anyone who cares about equal rights—but this “victory” is a compromise. Indeed Sullivan intended gay marriage to be a means by which gay rights could be advanced in accord with very traditional views on relationships and family. In his famous New Republic article advocating for gay marriage, he pooh-poohed domestic partnership as too un-traditional, arguing that “the concept of domestic partnership chips away at the prestige of traditional relationships and undermines the priority we give them.” His victory, ultimately, is the victory of tradition—redefined, yes, but still recognizable, to the point that a generation or two down the line, many people might well wonder what the fuss was all about.
Back to steroids, and Bill James. Yes, all the best ballplayers of the post-strike era, steroid-taking sluggers included, will eventually get into the Hall of Fame. To my mind, they should be in there now, because there is a legitimate question whether steroids actually improve performance significantly and in the long run, and anyway there are plenty of guys in the Hall who did amphetamines, or otherwise played outside the rules, as a way to get an edge. Cheating at the margins is as much a part of baseball tradition as balls hand-sewn in Haiti.
Moreover, as James himself says, we’ll all come soon enough to see steroids as just part of life. But when this happens, this won’t represent the victory of an extreme position. Or not just. Rather, it will represent the redefinition of a tradition by which we see sports as a competition among athletes who’ve made the most, by everyday means, of their “natural” abilities. The distinction is important, I think, because without the persistence of this tradition, in the minds of people who care about the game—not just writers and players, but, above all, fans—baseball would become something very different. A baseball that preserves that tradition, even by redefining it to include practices that now seem abhorrent to so many, is still a sport, in the standard sense. The key being not just suspense about outcomes and the thrill of watching athletic feats, but also the sense that those performing those feats represent the best of ordinary humanity—what anyone could be, given some natural talent and incredibly hard work. Absent that, and thus absent the deep connection between fans and players, baseball, like any sport, would become a lot like the circus, or any other show or spectacle that makes no pretense that it, or its performers, bears any relation to those who watch it, or their everyday lives. And thus it would be much less compelling, not to say much less popular and lucrative as a business. Preserving its traditions, however that’s done, is essential to baseball’s survivals. Leaving the best players of the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s out of its Hall of Fame would be, in essence, an admission by baseball’s leaders that it had let itself become something other than a sport, for a significant length of time. That’s too great a risk for baseball to bear. Better to let evolving attitudes about steroids carry everyone to a point when it’s possible to say that really, nothing bad happened then at all, and baseball’s traditions were never put at risk. Even if those traditions are, by then, much different than what they seem to be now.