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Free Dilfer, or, No Fatties: An Exploration of Sanctioned Steroid Use

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Long-dormant neurons were sparked into action when I happened upon this interesting treatment of the apathy towards steroid use in the NFL, opposed to other sports. In specific reference to the lack of public outcry following Shawne Merriman's positive steroid test, the author points out that:

baseball is escapism. it's fantasy, pure and simple... it's your dad playing hooky from work, taking you to the game in summer, buying you a hot dog. its records, which it holds so dear in its calculating heart, must be pure because of the already tenuous connection to reality.

football, on the other hand, is mythology. not in the sense that it is a thing of the past, but it is modern mythology, real tangible connection between the ideas that shape our world and ourselves. in the same way that the greek gods could be petty, because they were real, the uglier truths can exist without threatening the fabric that connects us, the fans, to the sport.

It works perfectly in a discussion of the necessity for numbers in baseball, the lack thereof in football and how this explains the level of vitriol regarding steroid use. It is also phenomenally well-written, a must-read. But is it complete?

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By any reasonable metric, football is clearly a more popular sport than baseball. Yet as a society, we continue to refer to baseball as our "national pastime" -- an antiquated idea to be sure (for our national pastime is probably closer to polling about reality TV), but a useful one for the following discussion.

Implicit in the notion of a "national pastime" is inclusivity inclusiveness, the idea that a person of any age or fitness-level could participate. In baseball, nobody personifies this sensibility more obviously than David Wells, the middle-aged, overweight ex-San Diego Padre. Wells is 44, pushing 300 pounds and hardly effective as a pitcher, hitter or runner. In short, he's reasonably close to the average American sports fan. Yet, until very recently, Wells was also a Major Leaguer. Moving past Wells, indeed past the Majors, leagues also exist for women and beer drinkers of all ages. Due to its accesibility, baseball (or variant softball) is inclusive.

Because David Wells can play baseball, because Babe Ruth, one of the most beloved figures in the history of MLB is celebrated for his rotundity, and because the basic actions of baseball -- throwing a ball, catching a ball and swinging a club (an act that is strikingly similar to the golf swing) -- are simple acts, we have the belief, buried in the id, that we could compete on that same diamond. Thus, when we hear of a baseball player using performance enhancers, it crosses this deeply-seeded belief. We are left with the idea that "If I had used these enhancers, perhaps I, too, could have played at this level." Perhaps more accurately, we believe that "If he hadn't used performance enhancers, he would be just like me."

In football, even the fatties are extraordinary. The players who appear to be the most unathletic, the linemen, continually engage in a form of trench fighting that requires more strength, quickness and agility than the normal human can imagine. The more "demanding" positions, the runners and the receivers, clearly require preternatural athleticism. Tackles weighing 350 pounds routinely run faster 40-yard dashes than fans half their size. While it's doubtful that we could ever hit a Major League fastball, it's patently, painfully obvious that we could never block Dwight Freeney or withstand a Ray Lewis tackle. And there is no drug that would ever allow us to.

It is the exclusivity of this freakishness that causes our sanctioning of steroid use in football. "These players must compete at a such a high level of athleticism, a level that I could never have approached," we reason, "That makes their steroid use acceptable." Meanwhile, "baseball players just throw, catch and swing. If David Ortiz can do it, then by gum, so can I." In short, we accept steroid use in football because we perceive it to be far more physically demanding than baseball.

And it is the perceived difference in required athleticism that creates the disparate frames through which we view the sports. Baseball reminds us of childhood because we could perform those acts as children. We could throw, catch and hit when we were younger. Meanwhile, at no point in our lives have we ever been able to bench 400 pounds. Baseball is memory: it takes us back to a time when we were capable. Football is mythology: it reminds us that we never were.

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I would add to this some other less-reasoned (if the above was reasoned at all) points of support for the football-as-mythology interpretation, the first regarding the relative profundity of football games and how this builds legend. Because the NFL regular season lasts 16 games, one-tenth of the baseball season, and because each game has roughly a week of buildup, each football game becomes an exercise in hype. And hype will breed mythology. Each week, we spend 165 hours dreaming about football, and 3 hours experiencing it. The breaks in time causes us to hyperbolize, hence the cliche, "you're never as good, or as bad, as you may believe." In football, there is but one chance to get it right. In baseball -- well, who is tomorrow's starter?

Second is the notion of football-as-spectacle, a tightly scripted form of ritualized warfare. It is the seizing of territory, the attacking of flanks and weaknesses in lines. Football is weekly battle, with the pride of communities of water cooler-dwellers at-stake. But it the level of preparedness is incredibly high. Rarely does a play occur that wasn't anticipated by the opposition. Football is a sport of patterned violence, where a man's livelihood is at stake on each play.

Finally would be the levels of failure. Baseball is a game of maximizing success -- if a batter accomplishes his goal 30% of the time, he is deemed a success. Football, meanwhile, is a game of minimizing failure. For a football team to succeed, eleven people must succeed at an unusually high level; if even one person fails, the team will fail. Because we are taught to be slightly better than average, we will regard near perfection as a more impressive feat than a 30% success rate.