Wednesday, March 4, 2009

How the steroids mess was missed

Via Buster's blog, a very good article from NY Times' Harry Araton shedding some thoughts and insight into how and why the steroids mess was missed for so long: laziness, fear of being ostracized, fear of alienating your contacts, etc. (emphasis mine)

“A good amount of sports journalism is talking to players, getting them to say things that stir up controversy,” said Tom Rosenstiel, the director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. “To some extent, that’s why the steroid story went on so long, because reporters were relying on what people said rather than going out, finding sources and what was going on for themselves.”
Selena Roberts, who broke the story, is not only a former colleague, she is a good friend. That said, she is not the first reporter to be attacked by those she wrote about, by people in power well positioned to co-opt the public. The Associated Press reporter Steve Wilstein’s professionalism was questioned when he reported on
Mark McGwire’s andro use in 1998. ...
But the real crux of this discussion lies at the feet of the reporters covering the teams. As with anything, what did they know and when did they know it...and why didn't they say anything as soon as they learned of something? Questions we'll never really know the answers to. Some writers, Buster particularly, have been self-critical. Others less so. What started out as a search for some of Buster's notable admissions and self-admonishments, brought me to an article that's two and a half years old, but as relevant as ever.

Witness some self-admitted mistakes from some of the names you know (and some you don't) as it pertains to missing the steroids boat cruise early on (from an article dated 10/1/06):
  • "The bottom line is, we were nowhere on it," says Howard Bryant, who covered baseball during the late 1990s and the first part of this decade for the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News and the Boston Herald, and now tracks football for The Washington Post. "It was too easy to ignore what was happening -- and we did ignore it."

    Adds Jeff Pearlman, a former baseball writer for Sports Illustrated, "I think we just blew it."

  • "I think all of us wish now that we had pushed harder," says Tom Jolly, sports editor at The New York Times. "I suspect we weren't as well-informed about the whole thing as we are now."

  • Ken Rosenthal, an analyst for FoxSports. com and a former baseball writer for The Sun in Baltimore, agrees. "In hindsight, I screwed up," he says about his failure to get at the steroid issue, especially during the 1998 home run chase. "That is our greatest sin, extolling these guys as something more than they were. Some of us had a feeling that something was amiss. We are more guilty of making McGwire and Sosa into heroes when they weren't."

  • Instead of being praised for discovering a questionable act by a baseball star in the middle of a record-breaking season, Wilstein was vilified. Other sportswriters didn't pick up the story or dig into what McGwire or Sosa were using as they pursued the historic home run mark. "After I reported it, people still didn't want to believe it, and it was so important," Wilstein, recently retired, tells E&P. "It may be that 'andro' was not the only thing he was doing. It probably put a little pressure on other baseball writers because it threatened the sport they loved and required them to write about something that they probably did not want to write about."

  • "I guess we were all caught up in the excitement of the home run chase," says Heyman, who was a Newsday columnist in 1998, "rather than spend all of the time and energy [on steroids] when the only guarantee was that we would annoy everyone around us, we took an easier route."

  • Peter Schmuck, a baseball writer for The Sun in Baltimore and president of the Baseball Writers Association of America, agrees, observing that in 1998, "Everyone knew that normal people don't have arms that big."

  • During the next decade, however, [Glenn Schwarz, sports editor of the San Francisco Chronicle since 2000, and prior to that at the former San Francisco Examiner] says the story was not on the paper's radar. Even after 1998, he admits, reporters missed a chance to dig into the issue with McGwire as the perfect target. "The 'andro' thing was forgotten about," he says. "You didn't read anything about it in 1999. It was a missed opportunity at the time to inform the public."

  • Add to this the rumors and off-the-record comments recalled by some former beat writers. Buster Olney, now with ESPN The Magazine, was a baseball beat writer from 1990 to 2003, the last six years at the New York Times covering the Mets and Yankees. He says he first heard whispers of steroids and other boosters while covering the minor league Nashville Sounds for the Nashville (Tenn.) Banner in 1988. "I never saw anything, never had a player admit it to me, but you'd hear things," he says. "Players saying, 'I think this guy might be on something.'"

    Later on, as a baseball writer for the San Diego Union, Olney recalls covering the 1993 World Series between the Philadelphia Phillies and Toronto Blue Jays and the rumor mill running rampant about some beefed-up players. "People just looked at the bodies," Olney recalls. He cites suddenly musclebound Phillies outfielder Len Dykstra, who hit 19 home runs that year -- twice the number he had during any other season -- as among those suspected but never proven. "That generated a lot of conversation," he says.

    But Olney also notes the difficulty in proving those accusations. If a reporter hears whispers and rumors, he can't prove it unless he gets a confession or witnesses something. "The problem is, how do you get at it?" he asks. "In 1996, I went up to a player and said, 'People think you're on steroids.' He said, 'Absolutely not.' I didn't write it because I didn't have proof."

  • Sports Editor Bill Adee of the Chicago Tribune, who previously ran the Chicago Sun-Times sports desk, had reporters looking into Sammy Sosa's conduct years ago -- but they didn't turn up enough evidence for a story. "It is safe to say that we didn't find enough where we felt comfortable to publish," he says, declining to be more specific. "People are assuming that just because we didn't publish anything means we didn't try to report something."

  • There is also the issue of angering players on the team they have to cover every day. "Somebody on a beat has to worry about getting their job done," says Gary Jacobson, a reporter with The Dallas Morning News who co-wrote a series last year on high school steroid use. "A beat writer has to continue covering a team or a sport. If you piss people off, they shut you out."

  • Still, Olney and others say sports reporters and columnists could have written about the rumors and skepticism the way Nightengale did, and might have sparked some people to come forward sooner if they had. "That is the story we all could have done," Olney says about Nightengale's 1995 piece. "We could have written general stories about what people were saying."

    Jolly, the New York Times sports editor, says the question has nagged at him for years: "I've wrestled with it and wondered if there were other approaches -- if there were other avenues outside the locker room we could have taken."

You get the point. The writers and reporters could have done more. Should we have EXPECTED more? Maybe. But honestly, how many of us are strong enough to risk our careers to be a whistleblower? You need to feed your family, a professional identity to cultivate or protect. I can see how and why some chose to cover their eyes and rejoice over McGwire, Sosa and the rest.

None of the famed writers "back in the day" would have ever shared the back page salicious gossip that followed Mickey, Whitey, Billy and Hank (Bauer). The players images were protected, cultivated, fostered, and built up by the writers. Babe's womanizing wasn't discussed like it would be today. Then again, we're just in a different age. Or "era". Every idiot with a phone, blackberry, and/or computer can break news or, like here, rant on the latest news du jour.

Blaming the media for this mess isn't fair; it's just the way it is. There is ample blame to lay at the feet of many. I don't think there is one constituency that would emerge with clean hands:

  • Dirty players: Obviously. They enjoyed (and to a degree, still enjoy) the cloak of secrecy that the Union provided.
  • Clean players: For not tipping off writers. For not yelling louder to their Union leaders. For not demanding more stringent testing.
  • Union leadership: For being so shortsighted to protect the guilty rather than the innocent. For allowing its membership to engage in potentially deadly drugs in the name of higher pay, anonymity, solidarity.
  • Selig & Co.: For not being more proactive. For not holding firm on demands for testing when the CBA was being re-written, post-strike. For having the nerve to act surprised by all of this. For not being more forceful.
  • Media: For not digging deeper. For allowing the rumors and scuttle to go unmentioned for fear of one's job and reputation. For ignoring the truths that they witnessed daily, whether obvious or hidden.
  • Fans: For donning the rose colored glasses and voting with our wallets. Unless, at the end of the day, in our quietest moments of honesty and solitude, we really don't care that much at all. Do we just want to be wildly entertained and if these guys will risk their lives for our amazement and amusement, so be it? Judging by the ever growing attendance and MLB revenues, maybe that's just it.

We and the media bang our chests in fits of rage, outrage and heightened morality about the PED users because we don't like cheating and we don't want to see our fathers' heroes trashed and passed in the record books. But we sure did love the show when we watched it. We can wear our revisionist glasses now and make a pariah out of McGwire, a clown out of Sosa and a mockery of ARod. But ARod has nine more years left to go and as we have already seen, once he hits one out for his hometown team, the fans will continue to cheer. After all, we do love a good show.


Ron Rollins said...

Even if they had reported what was going on, why would they have done it?

The writers weren't going to do it out of some noble sense of right and wrong. They were going to do it because it was a story that would sell, and a way to get noticed for it.

The reason they didn't report it wasn't because of a fear of their jobs, or their reputations, or how the players percieved them. They didn't write it because it wasn't a story then.

They had no reason to write it then. They to do know. To be sanctimonious.

Do the right thing for the wrong reason doesn't make it right.

Pete Toms said...

Jason, that is a great article that you found.

I agree with your explanation of why the beat writers weren't more aggressive and that's fair. I do have a problem with some of the more sanctimonious amongst them now finding religion after the tactitly approved of it for years. I also have a problem - for the same reasons - with them blackballing guys out of the HOF.

I also agree that we are all to "blame", although I have no problem with PED use. (I won't digress into why)

I do think the fan backlash of recent years does say something but I'm not sure what. Fans were ok with McGwire and Sosa (everybody chose to overlook the Andro as the piece notes) but not Bonds...and as the piece notes, Giambi is ok, but not A Rod...morality is fickle...we castigate some for the same behaviors that we are willing to overlook in others (is there a great difference between the actions of Clinton and Spitzer? is there a great difference in the public reaction?)

Anyway, really fine stuff here today (perhaps I should read this blog more frequently). Very thoughtful.

lar said...

Great post, Jason. I don't think I have much more to add to the conversation since everyone seems to have said everything (either here or over at ShysterBall). But I think you did a great job here, finding the story and commenting on it. The key, like you said, is that, no matter how much responsibility the media had to do something, there were still many other parties involved in the "cover-up", and I think the list you gave is pretty thorough and accurate. Great work, though, Jason.

Anonymous said...

Good article, but it did raise some random thoughts in my mind.

1. Let's not pretend the media (or baseball) is suddenly reformed. Brian Bosworth (Oklahoma linebacker) was the first athlete I remember openly caught with/ punished for steroids (1986?). Now he is being voted on for the NCAA Football HOF (announced today)? If the amateur NCAA can not keep a LB out of their HOF, why pretend that MLB can or should keep Bonds, Sosa, ARod, or the others out.

2. As a second example, a couple years ago, Sports Illustrated featured some player (Brian Roberts?) in an article about how he was using enhanced contacts to improve his vision beyond 20-20 and improve his view of the ball when batting. Can you approve (indeed celebrate?) vision enhancement and still condemn steroids?

3. As to whether the fans really care about steroids, I think you have to discuss the phrase "integrity of baseball". I think the integrity clause was intended for the fans. After the Black Sox scandal, baseball was in danger of losing fans since it was not certain that teams and players were going on the field with the intent to win. Integrity refered to an assurance for the fans that all players were doing their best to win the game. Gambling openly breaks that contract with the fan since it introduces all the issues of throwing a game (by choice or under pressure). Steroids, on the other hand, can be viewed by some (many?) as simply trying harder to win the game.

4. Finally, I do think fans care about steroids. Specifically they care that when they go watch a game in 2009, they want to be assured no steroids are used. They are not as concerned, however, about digging up all the dirty laundry from the late 90s and early 2000s. That is past and they want to remember the good times. After all, isn't baseball supposed to be 3-plus hours of escape from all the other problems of life?

Jason @ IIATMS said...

Anon: Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

I've often wondered how come cortisone shots are OK but steroids are taboo. Both are helpful in recovery and getting back on the field. As one who has had laser eye surgery, it's absolutely "performance enhancing". What about TJS? That prolongs careers that would have otherwise ended a generation ago.

I know fans "care" about steroids, but I'm waiting to hear from a fan of a team that won't cheer if an accused PED user wins a game for his/her team. We root for the laundry DURING the game. We reserve the time before and after the game to debate the evils.

Jason @ IIATMS said...

@Pete: the door's always open! And if you want to write anything FOR the site, you have a standing invite!

Anonymous said...

if it wasnt bonds, this wouldnt be a story. the middle aged white sports writers finally had their chance to savage him.