blame the owners

Was anyone really surprised when A-Rod was found to have used steroids? Not me. I’m a Giants fan, and as a fan of the Giants and Barry Bonds I long ago lost my innocence when it comes to the steroid question. Of course the best players in baseball used steroids! Duh.  The owners of Major League Baseball created enormous incentives for players to do so and they provided few to zero mechanisms to hold players accountable for using illegal substances. Heck, steroids weren’t even explicitly banned by baseball during the steroid era.  So what do you expect to happen when high rewards go to players who use steroids and the organization they work for fails to do anything to discourage their use? Rampant steroid use!!! It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out.

Or does it? A fan poll at shows that the majority of fans (61% the last I checked) hold the players responsible for the spread of steroids in baseball. I just can’t fathom this logic. Baseball fans have somehow fooled themselves into believe that steroid users were a few bad apples and continue to demonize those players who were known to have used. I thought that this A-Rod revelation might be the final nail in the coffin that causes fans to lose their innocence forever. But this doesn’t appear to be the case.

Sports fans recreate the illusion of individual accomplishment every year. They believe that athletic competition really does reward individual merit and that the best individuals find a way to rise to the top. They believe this despite the fact that the most popular sports tend to be team sports in which interdependence is a major factor. We’ve talked about the team in team sports here before.  It’s almost certainly true that there are great athletes out there who simply outshine their opponents when called upon, but the ability of any great athlete is modified by the team context and, more generally, by the competitive context. A-Rod is great, no doubt, but would he have been able to maintain his greatness in an era when great pitchers were using steroids to enhance their recovery and strength? Would he have been able to attain super-stardom without the use of steroids in a field of other steroid users who were setting new records right and left?  Maybe not, we just don’t know. The point I’m trying to make is that A-Rod was acutely aware of the competitive problem he faced by not using steroids and that is why he chose to use. It’s the same reason that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens – the two other superstars of this generation of baseball players – chose to use steroids. It’s the reason that hundreds of lesser talent also used.

I’m not saying that as a baseball consuming public we should just call it good and move on, but I do think that the narrow focus on the individual players as a source of the steroid problem is completely uncalled for. Why not blame the owners? They were obviously profiting from the steroid era (at least as much as the players were). They had the power to negotiate for greater control of substance testing in players. They could have used the media in a campaign to institute testing before it became a huge problem (Bob Costas and others were calling for more intense scrutiny for a long time). It’s not as if they weren’t aware of steroid abuse. They could have done more and they didn’t because they were basking in the glow of the home run and the revenue it brought. So before you blame and unthinkingly reject their Hall of Fame-worthiness, it’s about time someone started holding owners accountable for this mess.

Written by brayden king

February 10, 2009 at 4:06 pm

12 Responses

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  1. Ah, yes, now it’s coming to baseball….I was always dubious about the efficacy of doping in baseball, since it requires fairly low levels of athletic ability. But, I guess you gotta whack the ball or throw the 100mph fastball.

    The bottom line is that the players are screwed, and they’d better do what they can to organize and resist. It’s a spectator sport, and the ‘tators think that drugs are bad. And, there is a strong individualist bias in doping which assumes that individuals dope, not teams, or entire leagues. Since penalties accrue to individuals, not to teams, the teams can enforce codes of comportment (doping regimens, exclusive doctors, don’t ask and definitely don’t tell), and can cut ties to individuals who get caught.

    Professional cycling has been dealing with this nonsense since the late 1960s, and with a few minor and recent exceptions (all of which are really a function of organizational politics in the governing bodies of cycling), sanctions against teams have been rare and minor. Baseball is going to be even less likely to sanction management or owners because it is not an international game, and there are not multiple organizational bodies with a stake in it’s success or failure. The owners of the teams control the sport. If they’re smart (doping controversies are bad for ‘tator sports in the long run), the owners will institute easy-to-pass testing regimens, and viola, nobody will test positive. But, the owners may instead use this as a way to reduce players’ salaries and power. Owners can use internal and external controls and positive tests to negotiate for lower salaries.



    February 10, 2009 at 6:43 pm

  2. Bzzt, no, sorry Brayden. There are many things you don’t do, not because your institutional environment provides checks on your otherwise hedonistic, selfish behavior, but because you know it’s wrong. Call it morality, call it cultural embeddedness, tell me your mama raised you right and would be disappointed. But don’t tell me it’s ok because of the incentive structure in place. You know better.



    February 11, 2009 at 1:35 am

  3. It isn’t a matter of right and wrong, so much. If you aren’t on the juice, you aren’t in the structure. It isn’t just that the incentives are in place. It is that humans cannot compete at that level without chemical assistance. At that point, when people are just looking at the athletes who doped, where’s the moral clarity?



    February 11, 2009 at 2:58 am

  4. I agree with Brayden. It wouldn’t have been difficult for the owners and the Players Association to write rules into the CBA about strict testing policies, penalties, etc. But they didn’t, which is precisely why A-Rod won’t be suspended for testing positive in 2003. People were being drawn to MLB games in record numbers, owners and players were making money hand over fist, thus making it easy to turn a blind eye the ethically questionable use of PEDs.

    By the way, I deliberately used the phrase “ethically questionable” rather than “outright immoral” for a reason. Keep in mind that the boundaries for what supplements are acceptable and those that are not are culturally defined. Creatine is widely used to improve muscle endurance these days, allowing for longer and more productive workouts. Same as anabolic steroids. Its also a synthetic version of something that you is naturally produced in the body. Same as anabolic steroids. Why is one MLB approved and the other isn’t? How do you draw the line?

    One final note: check out what has been happening to JC Romero of the Phillies. He is being suspended for 50 games to start this season because he took a tainted supplement. The interesting thing is that this supplement was bought over the counter, and was actually on the MLB list of approved supplements. The manufacturer failed to accurately report the chemical contents of their product label, neglecting to list a banned substance. Nonetheless, MLB is holding Romero responsible for the substances he puts into his body. They denied his appeal last month.


    Mark Bissonnette

    February 11, 2009 at 4:48 am

  5. I am a big fan of cricket, the forgotten mother sport of baseball. One thing that I could be proud of being a cricket fan is that this game is not plagued by doping. The only incident that I remember where a player was tested (false) positive for doping was in the case of Shane Warne, one of the best spin bowlers the world has seen so far. However, Warne is a spinner and spinners generally bowl at less than 50mph. The fastest spinner that I remember seeing is Anil Kumble, who still bowls at less than 60mph. So, in Shane’s case, doping was not even needed, unless they found a drug that could help him generate a spin of 60 degree… No wonder, Shane was acquitted of all doping charges ;D However, there are fast bowlers like Shoaib Akhtar of Pakistan, Brett Lee of Australia and Shane Bond of New Zealand have at times been charged of chucking, an unacceptable (not illegal) bowling action… Where a bowler bends his arm to deliver a quicky or to generate a sharper spin (like in the case of Muttiah Muralitharan as spin bowler from Srilanka)… However, these are not fully purposeful. Some times, the bowlers do so just because they were too tired. Yet the do not resort to doping which could potentially help them to bowl faster.

    That said, the thing that I was extremely surprised about was match fixing. Some of the very big names in International cricket were charged of match fixing or having ties with the bookies. This is illegal and could ruin the players career, yet players resorted to such acts? What could be the reason for such behavior? Incentives could not be it as these players are rewarded handsomely and they are respected like war heroes in their respective countries… So what could it be?


    Rajiv Krishnan Kozhikode

    February 11, 2009 at 9:36 am

  6. Peter – I’m not saying that the players weren’t acting immorally by taking steroids. Of course I think they were personally wrong for using drugs. My question was more about the macro-question of “who is to blame for the spread of steroid use in baseball?” And in answer to that question I think I’m right in placing the blame on the owners (and to a certain extent union officials). The owners profited greatly from steroid abuse and so they were intentionally lax in their monitoring of drug use. They could have done more and they didn’t, and the result was reinforcing/rewarding immoral behavior among their athletes.



    February 11, 2009 at 2:39 pm

  7. so let’s say that you, Brayden, were caught making up data. you make the argument that universities have a tenure system that makes it all but impossible to succeed without being ‘unethical’ in some fashion (casual stealing of time/labor from graduate students, putting yourself as first author when credit should be shared, having a couple interviews included that didn’t explicitly get informed consent). That you were caught in an egregious case is bad, sure, but it’s really the university’s fault for creating a system littered with incentives for you to act unethically (this is Merton’s work, yes?). In this case, it’s the university’s fault. They set up the incentives. They profit more from the current system than one where they give more resources and expect less output.

    Should I find you convincing in this case?

    Or let’s say I’m a CEO of an investment bank…

    I’m getting a little bit of the vapors over this just because it’s a formulation that provides an academic justification for evading personal responsibility.



    February 11, 2009 at 5:58 pm

  8. It’s about the incentive structures, if universities were punished for researchers’ faking data, they would have an incentive to monitor, and punish or prevent it. Sherkat’s point about teams in cycling is key. And I for one would love to know if (or just to what extent compared to his competitors) someone like Lance Armstrong was/ is juiced.

    The benefits in baseball must be pretty marginal – placebo effect? Even John McEnroe took them in he early 80s.



    February 11, 2009 at 6:22 pm

  9. Peter – Individually the players should take responsibility for their own actions, but collectively the owners are to blame for designing a system that rewarded this kind of behavior (I’m sticking by my story). I think about it this way. If you want to change the rate of drug use, what’s the best way to do it? Educate people about the ethical/moral/physical problems with drug use or change the incentives to make drug use less rewarding for the players? Clearly the latter will have a greater effect. It won’t wipe out drug use altogether, especially among those drugs that are recreational and not performance-enhancing, but it will make them less likely to do it. The owners purposely didn’t pursue this latter policy because they benefited so much from the performance enhancement. That’s why they’re to blame.

    If you asked your question about academic fraud in a different way, I’d totally agree with you. If we saw a rapid rise in academic fraud and you asked me to explain it – is it that people have become less ethical or is the system designed to encourage cheating? – the system explanation would probably hold more water. Does that make the cheaters irresponsible for their actions? No, but it does give us some perspective on how to solve the problem. The difference between the latter situation and the former is that in academia there probably isn’t a great awareness of cheating going on among professors. The owners were very aware of the fact that steroids were a problem in baseball. If they say they weren’t aware they’re either lying or they don’t follow the sport.



    February 11, 2009 at 8:19 pm

  10. Ding ding! Since we are doing sound effects…

    I think Brayden is right. The question is why is steroid use spreading, not, were some people wrong to do it. Taking as a given, that its incidence is spreading, there are a number of possible explanations (to name a few; access, incentive structure, potency of the chemical, embedded practice that facilitate and socialize players to their use). The idea that lots of bad apples suddenly emerged has less salience.

    Just to complicate this discussion… how many players are in the top ten in various stat categories who are not using? In other words, how widespread is this and how much does it warp the underlying, “true” (i.e. non juiced) performance.

    I think Peter’s criticisms are important. Recently, I read someone pointing out that at Davos, it is always systems that cause failure and great individuals cause success. We need some balance on both sides- people contribute to failures and systems support individual success.

    Just to take his analogy from financial services further… the real scoundrels for me are not only the ones taking bonuses from banks failing from their strategy and management, bot more importantly, the ones who advocated for rules changes or business practices that made it systemically more likely to see opportunism and socialized risk without benefit.

    The baseball analogy is the juiced player who fights to keep teams from ever being held responsible for players. It is about changing the rules to make the incentive structure more likely to produce lapsed ethics.

    That path is institutional entrepreneurship with a twisted soul.



    February 15, 2009 at 4:16 am

  11. Hmmm … are baseball “athletes” really participants in a “team sport” in the ordinary sense of that idea? I’m not so sure. If not, perhaps we should cut fans some slack for their yearly riutal recreation of “the illusion of individual accomplishment”, as you put it. After all, this is not something you see among fans of, say, the 49ers, Warriors, Sharks, or Quakes, to name a few sports that are, at the least, much more team oriented.

    Now, if only steroids were a problem exclusive to less team-oriented sports, but I’m not ready to conclude that yet. Perhaps basketball, hockey and soccer are more drug free than football, but there is enough variance here for me to at least question the premise of your post …

    Regardless, fun topic!




    February 17, 2009 at 7:50 pm

  12. Hey Mark – Good to hear from you. I agree with you that fans of other sports, football especially, talk differently about the team-oriented nature of the sport than do baseball fans, but I don’t buy the idea that baseball is just an individual sport wrapped up in a team facade (which is basically what Michael Lewis argued). Just ask a non-power pitcher how much his team’s defense matters to his ERA or how much a team’s offense matters to a pitcher’s win-loss record. (RBI? You can’t tell me that doesn’t depend on other players’ skill level.) The game is still task- and skill-interdependent and because of this we can’t attribute all of a player’s success to his individual talent (or steroid use) alone.

    Fans of baseball are just particularly skilled at reproducing the illusion of individual accomplishment. The fetishization of statistics makes this illusion seem more real than it is in other sports. Football fans try to do this to a degree (I mean, what kind of statistic is a QB rating???) but the sport lacks the tradition of statistical analysis to which fans of baseball have subjected their sport.



    February 18, 2009 at 1:54 am

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