The following article originally appeared in the Huffington Post on August 5, 2013.
By Jill Weinberg
Major League Baseball handed down a 211-game suspension to New York Yankee's tragic hero, Alexander "A-Rod" Rodriguez, and 12 others players for 50 games. For many, these suspensions mark the end of an era plagued by excessive drugs and a society turning a blind-eye to it all.
I will be sad, if not nervous, to see the disappearance of steroids, however.
As a sociologist, I study deviance and the extent to which rule-breaking behavior affects everyday life. Steroids in sport (and drug use, more broadly) is a departure from mainstream public norms, but sociologists such as Emile Durkheim believe deviance performs a critical and positive social function.
Sports, like many subcultures, develop unique norms of wrong behavior. The steroid era of Major League Baseball, which began in the 1990s, created a culture of "winning at all costs," even if it meant breaking rules and using banned substances.
As Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa shattered the record books for season home runs, the public celebrated their success and fans returned to the sport they abandoned after the 1994 baseball strike. However valorizing players who used PEDs (whether we knew it or not) incentivized and socialized other players to use as well.
Players who dope provide an opportunity to change the culture of baseball. As a society, we became complacent to the phenomenon that many even thought allowingtheir use would be easier than trying to stop it. So having a handful of players, including A-Rod and the National League's Most Valuable Player in 2011, Ryan Braun, as the latest offenders, forces us to question what it is we value about the sport: the purity of the sport or shattering records with pharmacological assistance.
And there is a recent example in which deviance brings about change. The premiere cycling race, The Tour de France, once blemished by a ubiquity of doping, may undergo a dramatic transformation. As the cycling world attempts to shed the legacy of the disgraced seven-time winner, Lance Armstrong, there has been renewed interest to open the race to women. Put another way, the equity and democratization of the sport has become more of a possibility than before.
With Major League Baseball aggressively putting a stop to PED usage, we are seeing a change in the motivations of younger players. Players such as Boston Red Sox second baseman, Dustin Pedroia, exhibit less interest in individual performance (and paychecks) and more with team success and remaining loyal to an organization, even if it meant making less than he would have on the free agent market.
Societies need deviance to reinforce what behaviors are acceptable. Deviance affirms what behavior is right and wrong, reinforces social order, and deters future deviant behavior. I believe the steroid era combined with Major League Baseball's weak attempts at curbing behavior blurred the lines of acceptable and prohibited conduct.
There is something sacrosanct about mixing drugs with America's pastime. Whether we played catch in the front yard with our parents, played baseball with our friends at school, or stayed up late to watch our favorite team win the World Series, these sweet memories turn sour when we think about the sport becoming so dirty. And I think we lost sight of this.
The public frowns upon steroids in professional sports, but we need to be constantly reminded that they are bad. Deviant behavior such as doping serves as a reminder of society's norms regarding sport and fairness, more broadly. So every time the league suspends a player for drug use, it jogs our memory and prompts us to denunciate a rule-breaker.
I am not endorsing athletes to use PEDs. What I am advocating for is keeping the specter of steroids in the background. If we don't, we may forget about a period in baseball history where we must second-guess whether a player's impressive statistics were the result of hard work or pure athleticism. It took 20 years, government intervention, and public outcries to curb steroids in baseball, and I fear that not having a constant reminder will dismantle the work that has been done.
While I am happy to see that Major League Baseball is committed to cleaning up the sport, I hope they do a good but an imperfect job. It is the Ryan Braun's and A-Rod's of the world that we need to keep the integrity of the sport as we know it.
- Jill Weinberg is an instructor in the School of Continuing Studies at Northwestern University.