Durkheim, deviance, and “Why Baseball Still Needs Steroids”

A sociology PhD student argues that punishing the occasional steroid use in baseball might be more effective for fighting steroids than getting rid of PED use all together:

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…

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.

This sounds like a Durkheimian argument. Rather than seeing deviance and lawbreaking as fully negative, Durkheim argued punishing deviant acts helps remind society of the lines between deviant and non-deviant activity. To translate this into other terms Durkheim used, this helps remind people of the difference between the sacred and profane.

There may be some merit to this argument. Baseball went over a decade with widespread steroid use happening beneath the surface. I even heard someone argue recently (somewhat facetiously) that players who weren’t using steroids were the fools because their counterparts were reaping all the benefits. And there is a longer history of amphetamine use stretching back decades. So now you have a perfect opportunity to enforce the rules with some great players: a recent MVP, Ryan Braun, and one of the best players of all-time, Alex Rodriguez. Add these names to known PED users like record-setters Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire as well as MVP Ken Caminiti. While it is sad to see great players implicated, imagine that it was only minor league players who were caught. Imagine baseball could sweep all of this under the rug and claim that the problem didn’t extend to the major leagues or it was only limited to players with few skills. Wouldn’t that be a worse situation overall?

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