Steroids, Baseball and the Failure of the Press
Editor & Publisher focuses it’s microscope on sports journalists and how they missed baseball’s budding steroid scandal way back in 1995:
It wasn’t a particularly long story. The 730-word piece by sportswriter Bob Nightengale in the Los Angeles Times on July 15, 1995, included no flashy graphics or leaked documents. But what it said turned out to be both groundbreaking and foreshadowing: Steroids had become both common and acknowledged in Major League Baseball…In his piece, the sportswriter — now with USA Today — quoted several major league general managers on and off the record who admitted that steroids were part of the game. Several players who spoke to him urged that testing be implemented to weed out suspicions. “We all know there’s steroid use, and it’s definitely becoming more prevalent,” San Diego Padres general manager Randy Smith told the reporter. “The ballplayers all know the dangers of it, we preach it every year.”
But instead of sparking a wave of follow-up articles or investigations to ferret out the details of steroid use in baseball — who was using it, where it came from, what it did to the body — sportswriters essentially left the story alone. For several years, even through the home run derby summer of 1998 when McGwire and Sammy Sosa shattered the long-held 61-dinger mark, barely a word was printed about the illegal substances that were likely helping to boost home runs and endangering long-term health.
Now, in retrospect, sportswriters are issuing mea culpa’s.
“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 IIlustrated, “I think we just blew it.”
More than a dozen current and former baseball writers and their editors spoke with E&P about the often shoddy job sports reporters did on the steroid scandal in baseball, which now appears to date back almost 20 years. Most of them admit that those covering the sport either ignored or failed to properly look into the growing epidemic, which many say was prompting rumors and speculation as far back as the mid 1980s.
“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.”
Healthy skepticism (fairly applied) is a keystone of good journalism and a larger dose of it would have (hopefully) helped. On the other hand, according to one academic, it’s really the fans who are to blame.
Charles Yesalis, a University of Pennsylvania professor and the author of three books on steroids in sports, places much of the blame for the lack of coverage on the fans themselves. He contends that most don’t want to know bad news about their heroes, and editors know this. “It would be like telling a “Star Wars” fan about the special effects during the movie,” says Yesalis, who testified before Congress during last year’s steroid hearings. “They don’t want to know it, they want to be entertained.” He adds that many of the writers are too close to the game as fans: “They don’t separate their love of the sport from their job.”
Way to insult the fans and the professionalism of journalists, professor. The truth is, while many fans may not care, I bet that more than a few want to be reassured that the athletes they enjoy watching are performing on the proverbial ‘level playing field.’ We of the faceless masses aren’t all so easily sated, oh enlightened one!