This was a piece I wrote not long ago while attaining my Master's in Journalism at Boston University. With McGwire's recent "confession" I figured that this would be as good a time as any to publish it. This is not an actual piece of journalism but rather an essay on the matter of the sports media and accountability in the steroid era.
Dropping The Ball: Lost Decade For The Baseball Media
When a historian writes the book about the culture of sports journalism in America for the first decade of the 21st century, a fair amount of the discussion will revolve around one date – March 27, 2006. That is the date that Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams of the San Francisco Chronicle released the book Game Of Shadows, which detailed the use of performance enhancing drugs by the greatest baseball player of the generation, Barry Bonds.
It was a pinnacle moment in the profession, a shift from an almost decade long trend of selective ignorance to a hyperactive media storm of speculation. Reporters, even those in the sports department, are the watchdogs of society. The Forth Estate is responsible for keeping tabs on people in power and the players of society, yet from 1998 until the mid-2000s, despite the steroid issue staring them right in the face, the baseball media turned a blind eye.
The issue steroids in baseball started in 1998 when it was reported by an Associated Press reporter Steve Wilstein. He was covering one of the most dramatic seasons in the history of American sport – the single-season home run record chase by sluggers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Wilstein found a bottle of androstendione, a body building supplement, in McGwire’s locker and reported it. Almost immediately he was pilloried by the rest of the media for tarnishing one of the most magic summers in baseball history.
“A number of baseball beat writers were put off by the story because it took a shine off of baseball's great summer," Wilstein said in an interview with Editor and Publisher in 2005. “"It was a great story for them, guys hitting home runs, in McGwire's case, farther than anyone had seen” (Strupp, 2005).
It was not until Jose Canseco, a star baseball player turned industry pariah, published his tell-all book about steroid use in the game, Juiced, in 2005 that the baseball media was forced to confront the issue head on.
“I think the baseball media should have been more attentive to the issue," said Wilstein, said. "All of us who cover baseball as a beat writer or a columnist should have been more suspicious of this, at least since McGwire, and probably before '98."
The theme of the era before Fainaru-Wada and Williams started reporting on Bonds and BALCO (the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, a “sports nutrition center” in Birmingham, California) can be summed up in the lede to Allan Wolper story “Ethics Corner: Reporters Lament Steroid Secret:”
"It was the good old boy's network at its worst. It was a confidence kept by the men who played the game, the trainers who massaged their muscles, the doctors who gave them their annual physicals, and the writers who glorified them. It was The Steroid Secret" (Wolper, 2005).
“The Steroid Secret” phenomenon can be attributed to a variety of factors. Sports writers, especially baseball writers, are some of the most overworked reporters on any beat. The days are long and the season seemingly never ends. As such, it is easy to get caught in the daily routine and the companionship of the people they spend so much time around. As Wolper called it, the “good old boy’s network” combined with a general complacency of the beat led to a collective blind eye. At the same time, starting with the McGwire and Sosa home run chase, major league baseball saw a decade of unprecedented financial growth from a little more than $1.5 billion in revenue following the strike of 1994-95 to more than $6.2 billion in 2007.
With the whole system flush with cash, from franchise owners to players to the media it was easy to for reporters to turn a blind eye. The storylines were impressive, from McGwire’s 70 home runs in 1998 to Bonds’s 73 in 2002, it seemed like there was a new golden age of baseball.
"Then came BALCO, which, as the story goes, was stumbled upon by almost by accident. The Bonds probe began in 2000 in an almost innocuous fashion. That was the year a federal investigator named Jeff Novitzky . . . expressed wonder and not a small degree of suspicion over Bonds' amazing size and strength, as he watched the black athlete working out at a Burlingame, California gym. 'Do you think he's on steroids?' Novitzky reportedly asked a state agent one day, who also exercised at the gym. 'I think they're all on steroids,' the agent told him. 'All of our top major leaguers'" (Neil, 2006).
The casual wondering of a federal investigator led to a 2002 raid on BALCO labs which ended up (quite a bit later) turning up the names of Bonds and then-current New York Yankees slugger Jason Giambi as clients. Yet, despite the cumulating evidence in the mainstream (and non-sports) media and the ballooning of baseball players and their stats, the real storm would not come until two years later until Game of Shadows was published. The storylines were a series of whispers and innuendo attaching the names like pitcher Jason Grimsley and Bonds to BALCO owner Victor Conte. Yet, nothing concrete ever came out.
Why was this? Were reporters too busy covering the day-to-day grind in an industry that had started to lose its own revenue stream? The decay of the traditional media business structure has led many publications to cut back on expensive investigational reporting units and what was the baseball beat really? Just another bureau in the sports “Toy Department?” At the time the Spot Light team at the Boston Globe was busy looking at finances in “The Big Dig” along with sexual abuse by Catholic priests. At the same time it cannot be overlooked that The New York Times company, which owns the Globe, also owns a 17.5-percent stake of the Boston Red Sox, a significant foothold in the burgeoning revenue stream of Major League Baseball. There were similar stories at the time, like the fact that another major American newspaper, the Chicago Tribune Company was the sole owner of the Chicago Cubs. It is notable that neither of the papers published significant investigative stories on the steroid issues from 1998 to 2004 while the San Francisco Chronicle, unassociated with any professional sports franchise, went full tilt into the BALCO case.
Ethics in journalism is not supposed to be influenced by economic factors. At the same time it is easy to wonder if the San Francisco Chronicle thought they could sell more papers by pursuing the steroid-scandal while the Chicago Tribue and Boston Globe (hence, the New York Times which has the largest investigative staff in the world) were content with covering the daily occurrences of their teams and not rocking the boat which might have the consequence of alienating its readerships.
There is also the question of race. The pursuit of Bonds was the catalyst to further media examination of the steroid scandal which ultimately led to Major League Baseball appointing former Senate Majority leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner George Mitchell as the head of a special investigative commission into steroid use in the game. Black authors and journalists wondered, fairly or not, if the fact that Bonds is an African-American was why he was being singled out.
In fact Jonathan Littman specifically pointed to racism as the driving force behind the BALGO investigation. McGwire "essentially gets a free pass," the journalist told Knight-Ridder in 2004. "He's not under near the scrutiny as [Bonds]." Why? "Because, I think, Mr. McGwire is a white guy" (Neil, 2006).
Though it is important to acknowledge that race may have been a factor the argument may not hold a lot of weight. Sosa, who has subsequently been tied to steroids as well, is also a dark-skinned athletes (Sosa is originally from the Dominican Republic) and there was no other person more closely tied to McGwire the Cubs right fielder.
The media storm took off after Game of Shadows and it seemed that the entire industry was trying to make up for eight years of apathy and ignorance. The day the Mitchell Report was released ESPN ran a day long special to cover nothing but news related to steroids in baseball. In the last couple of years there has been a smattering of stories, mostly tied to a 2003 list of MLB steroid drug tests that were originally supposed to be anonymous. The list, which reportedly has 103 players, has been leaked and from time to time a prominent player’s name will be released. Every time that happens the media coverage of that team and that player jump to chaotic proportions. I have written in the past that “The List,” should be completely released. Hence the media storm involved with the release would be resolved all at once. As it stands now, with slow leaks coming every couple of months the game of baseball and the baseball media suffer from a series of slow, embarrassing slashes.
As a sports reporter who has been trained as an investigative reporter I have started my own, early, investigation into the source of the leak of the “The List.” As of yet I am still in the early stages of my research but it is my hope that a story uncovering the leak would bring a cap to the roller-coaster of steroid coverage that has defined the last decade. I believe it would be a cathartic moment for the industry. The goal would be to cap the era once and for all with media transparency that was lost when the era began.
Neil, H. (2006). The Barry bonds probe and the shadow of race. The Black Scholar, 35(4), Retrieved November 25 from http://vnweb.hwwilsonweb.com.ezproxy.bu.edu/hww/jumpstart.jhtml?recid=0bc05f7a67b1790ef048455c0eadfff1b5bdb26ffce9b4bf776de2c55277a92fe1661d08d3cc4a8a&fmt=H
Strupp, J. (2005, March 18). Sportswriter Who Broke '98 McGwire 'Andro' Story Slams Steroid Coverage. Retrieved November 28, 2009, from http://www.allbusiness.com/services/business-services-miscellaneous-business/4674052-1.html
Wolper A. (2005, August 1). Ethics corner: reporters lament the steroid secret. Editor & Publisher, Retrieved November 24 from editorandpublisher.com