Mark McGwire's Pound of Flesh
In the ten years Brian Williams has anchored the NBC Nightly News, he has never once launched a broadcast by lambasting a public figure. Henry Paulson after the economic collapse? George W. Bush after Katrina? Dick Cheney after everything? All were spared the personal disdain of "America's most trusted newsman." Until yesterday. Williams began his broadcast by going after true evil: Mark McGwire.
As Williams said,
"Good evening. Because this is a family broadcast, we probably can't say what we'd like to about the news today that Mark McGwire--the home run hitter, the family favorite from the St. Louis Cardinals--stopped lying today and admitted that he did it while on steroids…..He's been unable to get into the Hall of Fame and, apparently--even for him--the shame here was too much."
Yes, cue the vultures, for retired slugger Mark McGwire has finally admitted the obvious and told the world he used steroids and other performance enhancers throughout his playing career. He clears his conscience a half-decade after a disastrous appearance in front of Congress, simulcast on C-SPAN and ESPN, where he auto-repeated "I'm not here to talk about the past" to his inquisitors. Monday's admission today, in advance of starting work as the new hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals, is a shocker right up there with "Sarah Palin finds work at Fox News." His teary audio confession also further cements McGwire's reputation as the Hamlet of the Steroid Era: tortured, indecisive, self-pitying, and in constant mourning about his own frailties.
For anyone who hoped that McGwire's confession could spark an opportunity to have an honest discussion about how we understand that juiced period in baseball history, from roughly 1992-2006, these hopes were quickly liquidated. Now is the time of the Sunday morning hangover and everyone is a born again zealot, personified by the harrumphing visage of Brian Williams. The media, so happy to cheerlead the home run barrage during the 1990s, now want an apology parade of humbled players swimming in tears and begging for mercy.
Gene Wojciechowski of ESPN penned a piece called, Line of Truth Starts Behind McGwire. He wrote,
"Bonds, Sosa and Clemens owe the game a similar apology. By finally taking the truth plunge, McGwire gives them, and other players, the perfect opportunity to make amends."
Tim Brown of Yahoo Sports went even further. In a column artfully titled McGwire's Feckless Admission is too Late, Brown writes,
"We've become so comfortable blaming Bud Selig and Don Fehr, we forget the real villains in this. They're McGwire, Canseco, A-Rod, Palmeiro, Bonds, every man in the Mitchell Report, every player who put a needle in his body and made the next player choose between that and pumping gas for a living, everyone too cowardly to compete straight up."
If you want to know "how the sausages were made" in the steroid era, read the above passages again. Yes, there is truth in what Wojciechowski and Brown write. But like a sausage, by the time the meat has been transformed it is entirely unrecognizable, and while zesty, entirely unhealthy. As early as 1992, every aspect of baseball management were officially on notice about steroids. MLB Commissioner Fay Vincent sent a memo to every team reading, "The possession, sale or use of any illegal drug or controlled substance by Major League players and personnel is strictly prohibited ... [and those players involved] are subject to discipline by the Commissioner and risk permanent expulsion from the game.... This prohibition applies to all illegal drugs and controlled substances, including steroids…"
We now know that general managers assessed whether they thought a player was juicing when they made trades. We know that trainers and their lackeys helped the players score a wide variety of performance enhancers. We know that the Dominican Republic, where Major League Baseball invests millions to develop talent on the cheap, has steroids available over the counter with next to no oversight. Even with all of this knowledge, the media still demands little more than seeing a parade of players sob in front of the cameras while owners retreat to the shadows. It's hard not to see parallels in the absence of public accountability among the banking titans of Wall Street. For the powerful, profits mean never having to say you're sorry.
It's long past time we reframed the question and asked: what did the owners know and when did they know it? Why have no owners had to speak in front of congress? Why have owners been allowed to keep every penny from the big money, big bopping 1990s, while players have been put through the thresher? How have no owners even been threatened with punishment for allowing steroids into their locker rooms? And how in the blue hell does Bud Selig still have a job? In response to McGwire, Selig said, "The so-called "steroid era" -- a reference that is resented by the many players who played in that era and never touched the substances -- is clearly a thing of the past, and Mark's admission today is another step in the right direction." Here's another step: Bud Selig joining the ranks of the unemployed.
[Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing email@example.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .]