When Karl Marx claimed that history repeats itself twice, “first as tragedy, then as farce,” he didn’t have synthetic testosterone or Major League Baseball in mind. Nonetheless, the American public has seen Marx’s principle on full display in their sports coverage over the last two weeks. Mirroring last March’s moral pandemic about Milwaukee Brewers’ outfielder Ryan Braun, we have seen, over the past fortnight, a succession of similarly irate commentaries about San Francisco Giants’ drug-using outfielder Melky Cabrera. Oddly, however, the anger shown toward Cabrera morphed into an almost carnivalesque bemusement when, just a few days later, Oakland Athletics’ pitcher Bartolo Colon was also found using illicit substances. What are we to make of these recent baseball drug scandals? Frankly, by focusing our attentions on the public’s mercurial attitudes toward Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs), we can learn quite a bit about popular conceptions of trust, morality, and punishment.
Last spring, Ryan Braun, coming off a career-best year that saw him win a National League Most Valuable Player (MVP) award and make the playoffs, found himself embroiled in controversy. Accused by the Commissioner’s Office of breaking Major League Baseball banned substances policy, Braun’s lawyers successfully argued for an overturning of his 50 game suspension based on a mishandling of Braun’s urine sample by the drug tester. While Braun did not serve a suspension – he was “not guilty,” after all – pundits flayed the ballplayer for getting off on a “technicality,” as if procedural protections were simply a hindrance to the proper functioning of law. A number of busybody journalists, clearly embarrassed by Braun’s presumed PED use, went so far as to demand a re-vote for MVP, based on the presumption that Braun had hoodwinked everyone and sullied the good name of baseball. Or something.
L’affair Braun caused a furor among the media and baseball watching public seen few times before in the game’s history. Many felt aggrieved because a “cheater” wasn’t punished (remember, he was found “not guilty”). They would never get their pound of flesh, it seemed, though it looks as if fans and the media will retroactively punish Braun anyway, ostentatiously changing drug-testing policies and denying him future MVP votes he clearly deserves. The Braun case starkly showed the lengths to which fans and the media would go to denounce drug use – but only if that drug use wasn’t loveable – in hopes of preserving their totally invented “sanctity of the game.” While the hypocrisy of such a stance is laughable on its face, it also suggests some interesting issues relating, generally speaking, to public views on drug use and abuse.