Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Pariah and the Pitchman

Two Sundays ago, I sat in front of my television and watched the evisceration of a world-famous user of sports drugs.

Last Sunday, I sat in front of my television and was sold a beer brand by a world-famous user of sports drugs.

The dissonance breaks a mind. One night, we're destroying a person over the belief that the use of "performance enhancing" drugs is one of the great crimes in our society. We sign off on the idea that an employer can pay off criminals, use the legal system to extort people for information, position itself as a quasi-law enforcement entity, allude to bribes and even death threats by the target, all in the interest of sussing out the possible use of substances deemed anathema to our sports culture.

A few nights later, the person who has gained more from the use of steroids than any person who has ever lived stands smirking, zipping up a jacket, teasing an ad campaign for light beer produced by a company that is wholly integrated into our sports culture.

"It was what I had to do to compete."

That's a quote from Tom Farrey's fantastic ESPN piece on Arnold Schwarzenegger, written in 2008, which attempts to get at the juxtaposition of Schwarzenegger's success and our newfound religion on the use of steroids in sports. Schwarzenegger has talked about his steroid use at various times, acknowledging his consumption -- at a time when anabolic steroids were legal -- while minimizing their role in his success. It's an interesting line to walk; after all, Schwarzenegger got his start in muscle-building competitions, events in which size and definition are the goals, and the benefit of steroid use is as clear-cut as the oiled-up pecs and delts on display. The connection between a syringe and a Mr. Olympia title, or seven of them, is certainly easier to see than the connection between a lozenge and a double into the gap.

No baseball player, no football player, no cyclist, no one has built more on a base of sports-drug use than has Schwarzenegger. His bodybuilding titles begat Conan, which begat Terminator, which begat entreƩ into America's royal family, which begat leadership of the biggest state in the union. Alex Rodriguez may or may not have tacked some points onto his slugging percentage; Schwarzenegger helped set policy for one of the world's largest economies.

As Farrey writes, prior to 1990 there was nothing illegal about using steroids for athletic purposes. Of course, legality has rarely been the key factor in these conversations; the substances BALCO used on Barry Bonds were legal at the time, and certainly some percentage of baseball players, especially those in the minors, have been suspended for use that is legal in the nation in which that use occurred. Amphetamines were illegal as far back as 1961 and reclassified in 1971. You'll have to forgive me if I don't recall the extensive discussions about the lawbreaking use of greenies. No, legality isn't the line. The behavior by Schwarzenegger and Rodriguez -- using drugs to be better at sports -- is identical.

The difference is us. We didn't care then, and now we do. That's the difference between shame and suspension and $25 million lost, and stardom and elected office and a commercial deal.

Two men did the same thing: used illicit substances in an effort to get ahead in their chosen field. One is a pariah, the other is a pitchman. I don't know which is wrong, but I am certain both cannot be right.