Thomas Sowell Is No Capitalist

Thomas Sowell has penned a column on the need for professional athletes to model their behavior aound the fear children will take up fraud, dog fighting and the abuse of steroids, and in the latter case it's strange to see someone writing for Capitalism Magazine cast aside the principle of self-ownership (this is my first encounter with the online rag, so maybe the shock will quickly fade).

Sowell joins a long line of folks who overstate the potential harm to children caused by steroid use by professional athletes and couples it with with a complete lack of understanding that it is currently impossible to completely remove performance enhancing drugs from baseball. Let's start with the latter.

There is a huge difference in the minimum salaries paid to players in Triple-A (the highest of six levels of organized minor league baseball) and the Major Leagues. Triple-A players make a minimum of $25,800 and Major Leaguers a minimum of $380,000. If you're a fringe Major Leaguer making the equivalent of $12.40 an hour in Triple-A, there's a $354,200 annual reward to the risks that accompany steroid use. Maybe you get caught, face legal charges, hurt your reputation and get suspended from baseball (currently the first offense is a 50-game suspension), but maybe without steroids you never make it to the big leagues anyway. And from a health standpoint, shouldn't it be up to the individual what risks they'll take for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars?

Among established Major Leaguers, one group of players that has shown up in investigations and testing are players that suffered serious injuries. Major League contracts are guaranteed, but injured athletes still have strong incentives to recouperate as quickly as possible. And healthy Major Leaguers' careers can also benefit from steroid use, especially as players reach their mid-to-late thirties and forties. It seems highly unlikely that even impassioned pleas to "think about the children" are going to curb demand.

On the supply side of things, the scientists devising the testing are always reacting to the scientists developing the masking (you probably can't develop a test for a substance that doesn't exist just yet), so baseball will always be playing catch-up. There isn't even a test for Human Growth Hormone (HGH) yet. All of the players that baseball has caught through testing were either minor leaguers too poor to buy the newest performance enhancers or Major Leaguers too stupid to stop using the old stuff. The only players accused of HGH use have been mentioned in testimony or paper trails.

I fully support whatever penalties baseball wishes to impose upon steroid users. The sports sells the product of competition and if steroid use, made public, undermines that product in the eyes of the public and lowers the demand for it, baseball would be foolish not to take steps to prevent the practice.

What I don't support is Sowell's assertion that the children of America are going to start taking steroids in large numbers because some professional athletes have, or that what an athlete chooses to put into his own body is anyone else's business, particularly if the foundation of their criticism rests on a bed of failed parenting and a lack of property rights.

Sowell also recommends the implementation of asterisks, as if baseball went through no significant peroids of change (desegregation, night games, the screwball and the split-finger fastball*) prior to the recent surge in steroid use. Hell, there was a significant spike in homerun rates when MLB moved the manufacturing facilities for their baseballs from Hati to the Dominican Republic in 1987. The better machinery wound the balls much tighter and had to be corrected for 1988. Should anyone that hit a homerun in 1987 have an asterisk next to their name in the Baseball Encyclopedia?

*Check out Mike Scott's 1986 season, the year he was taught to throw the splitter by pitching coach Roger Craig. The splitter's emergence dates only as far back as the mid-seventies, with Hall of Fame closer Bruce Sutter being indentified as one of the first pitchers to feature the pitch.

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