When a President's up for reelection, his State of the Union speech might as well begin with the House doorkeeper bellowing, "Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines!" At every applause line members of the President's party leap to their feet as if in an aerobics class; the not-so-loyal opposition's backsides are glued to their chairs—unless the President is praising the Armed Forces, God or fiscal responsibility.
But this year, something was different. After celebrating the decline in teenage drug use and promising more money for drug tests in high schools, President Bush warned that "some in professional sports are not setting much of an example.... [Steroid use] sends the wrong message—that there are shortcuts to accomplishment and that performance is more important than character. So tonight I call on team owners, union representatives, coaches and players to take the lead, to send the right signal, to get tough and to get rid of steroids now."
From the punditocracy, the general response was, "Huh?" Or to put it more elegantly: What was sports doing in a speech otherwise focused on war and peace, terror and security, jobs and taxes? If sources in the White House and the Bush campaign are right, the steroids initiative came directly from the President. As one key participant in the drafting of the State of the Union speech remembers, the topic first came up when the staff was discussing the policy outline for the speech. "We were talking about a portion of the speech—the moral integrity of social institutions," he recalls. "We had stuff on high school drug-testing. The President said, 'What about the moral messages sent by adults?' He brought up the issue of steroids."
Why? "He has a unique perspective on this. His father played baseball. He was a team owner. He doesn't like fake home runs."
One of the abiding impulses in Washington over much of the last century has been a willingness, even eagerness, to speak out when American entertainment or diversions irritate our cultural nerve endings. Washington's hackles have been raised by everything from the Black Sox of 1919 to Hollywood's racy films of the '20s to the TV quiz-show scandals of the '50s to lewd music lyrics in the '80s and '90s. Today, the fallout from Janet Jackson's halftime fallout has spurred the long-somnolent Federal Communications Commission to promise huge fines and possible license-revocation proceedings against the stations carrying the army of shock jocks that have had more or less free rein on the airwaves. The federal government may bring down Howard Stern before it gets Osama bin Laden.
The combination of presidential rhetoric, federal indictments and the dark clouds billowing over the heads of some of our best-known athletes ensures that this issue will not be going away anytime soon. While it is unlikely to spill into the presidential campaign (unlike with gay marriage or abortion, there aren't two big voting blocs polarized by steroids), the recent spate of publicity may pump new momentum into the Anabolic Steroid Control Act, jointly sponsored by Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Orrin Hatch, which may go to the full Senate in a couple of weeks. The bill, which would classify now unregulated compounds as controlled substances, will likely gain impetus from an upcoming White House "steroid summit" that may take place at the end of March. That gathering, which is supposed to include officials from the U.S. Olympic Committee and from the four major professional sports, has drawn a skeptical response only from the Major League Baseball Players Association. Politically, though, it's hard to see how the union can boycott both a White House conference and the congressional hearings that would precede a vote on the bill.
Moreover, the union—already under attack from journalists, sports and otherwise, for its stubborn insistence that this is a privacy issue—may face more pressure from another front: the BALCO investigation, which carried enough political juice to have the U.S. Attorney General, John Ashcroft, announce the indictments, a grandstand usually saved for the biggest legal occasions. What happens if (some say "when") those indictments push "cooperative" defendants to finger some of the game's best-known players? The image of a teary-eyed child running up to his hero and crying, "Say it ain't so, Barry (or Jason or Gary)" could cause a huge wave of moral outrage. Under that kind of pressure, would the union be in any position to resist if commissioner Bud Selig decided to demand that the collective bargaining agreement (not due to expire until 2006) be reopened now to beef up its current wimpy drug-testing policy?
Can Washington change the behavior of athletes? Not usually. In past cultural controversies, politicians have been content to offer simulated "solutions"—warning labels on recordings, a rating system for films, a V-chip in TV sets to "empower" parents—but enough political pressure can force private institutions to take drastic steps, and baseball is clearly in the crosshairs now. The last time it faced a scandal of this magnitude, in 1919, the fear of government action helped push owners to hire a commissioner with near-dictatorial powers, and that may well have saved professional baseball.
Parents have good reason to wonder what lessons their children are drawing from the way some pro athletes live and prepare for their work. Politicians will now take those concerns seriously, if for no other reason than that they have the preternatural ability to sense public unease with an institution that may be behaving badly. And when that sense reaches critical mass, attention must be paid.