Opinion Focus

Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, December 18, 2007; 1:00 PM

Washington Post opinion columnist Eugene Robinson was online Tuesday, Dec. 18 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.

Discussion Group: Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood

The transcript follows.

Archive: Eugene Robinson discussion transcripts


Eugene Robinson: Hello, everyone, and welcome to our weekly get-together. Today's column was a break from politics -- a meditation on steroids in sports and the Mitchell report on baseball. But from now until whenever, I guess it will be pretty much "all politics, all the time." The Democratic race in Iowa is what Dan Rather would have called "tighter than a tick," and Mike Huckabee's rise has thrown the Republican party into yet another identity crisis. This is going to be interesting.


Baltimore: Since you brought it up, in this era of everyone trying to get an edge, I hope you have a basis for your assertion that Tiger added muscle the old-fashioned way. I really do. I would note that he was a pretty skinny kid at Stanford when he joined the tour. But who is to say that even Tiger might not try something to help his workouts or his recovery from injury in his pursuit of the most major championships in professional golf? Remember, there is no testing in golf.

I really hope you are right, because if I found out that Tiger had taken performance-enhancing drugs, it would be just as depressing as if I, a Baltimore Orioles fan, had heard that Cal Ripken had used steroids. Like it or not, they are both role models and I never want to hear anything to suggest that they would let their fans down by cheating.

washingtonpost.com: Fans on the Juice (Post, Dec. 18)

Eugene Robinson: Obviously, I can't prove a negative. But no one has ever alleged anything about Tiger, to my knowledge, and he has come out strongly in favor of testing for PGA Tour golfers. Plus, there was never a moment like there was with Bonds -- one year, lithe and sinewy; the next year, Michelin Man.


San Jose, Calif.: Very disappointed in your column today -- there are no supermen and superwomen, and sports needs to emphasize that reality by dealing the harshest punishment to the offenders, whether they admit to "knowingly" taking steroids or not. What is your message to young people and future athletes when the steroid-makers and cheaters of the future -- and they will be there with newer and better drugs -- try to poison sports and young people? Is it "go ahead and do it, make money and smile all the way to the back"? Integrity has no price tag.

Eugene Robinson: My message to young people is stated point-blank in the column: Steroids are bad. Don't take them.


Arlington, Va.: "Wouldn't submitting healthy eyes to a performance-enhancing operation be just as problematic as taking steroids or growth hormones?" That's a ridiculous and irresponsible question. The grave dangers of steroids are well-documented (depression, addiction, violence). There are no such grave dangers associated with LASIK surgery.

Eugene Robinson: My point was to ask whether that would be an artificial enhancement, like adding muscle with growth hormone or repairing it with steroids. Plus, as you know, there is some degree of risk with any surgery.


Eugene, Ore.: You are the first to put this situation into a rational perspective. I've always believed the owners deserve a good part of the blame for steroid use -- they agree to pay a huge salary and then demand super performance. I didn't hear them mentioned in the Mitchell report.

Eugene Robinson: George Mitchell did make clear, in the report and in his press conference and interviews, that he holds everyone in the sport responsible, including the owners. But I haven't seen any of them hauled before a grand jury, the way Barry Bonds was.


Philadelphia: I appreciate your generalization, but put me down for wanting normal-sized athletes struggling to make normal-sized accomplishments. I too am struck by the mediocrity represented by many of these accused, but unquestionably Bonds and Clemens put in some transcendent years that were timed perfectly to their supposed steroid usage. Steroids and HGH can harm a person, period. No one, ethically, should have to take (or feel unreasonable pressure to take) these substances to remain competitive. That's all there is to it.

Eugene Robinson: Bonds and Clemens would have been shoo-ins for the Hall of Fame even if they had never seen a steroid. But let's try to imagine what their (alleged) thinking process might have been. Bonds was the best hitter/slugger in the game, and he had to watch while Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, both of them bulging with new muscle, had their epic home run chase. Clemens, as he aged, might have seen other ancient pitchers quickly recover from what once were career-ending injuries. Maybe they thought they needed to juice to claim what should have been their rightful place in the game.

That's just speculation. More poignant, to me, is seeing names like Chuck Knoblauch on the list -- journeymen who (allegedly) juiced so they could stay in the game.


Longmont, Colo.: It's simple: If the rules state "no use of steroids or HGH," then you can't use them; because the rules do not say anything about corrective eye surgery, that's okay. Also, I think the point of these rules is that steroid abuse could be dangerous to the athletes' health.

Eugene Robinson: I was looking at right and wrong in a somewhat more general sense. If you want to stick strictly to the rules, then you will have no quarrel with players who used steroids before MLB made juicing against the rules.


Bethesda, Md.: Steroid use has been obvious for years. Just check out the 1985 World Series on ESPN Classic and compare it to the 2007 World Series. Where did that extra 30 pounds of muscle come from for the average player? Above all, the players know who uses steroids and HGH. You wonder why they don't blow the whistle on each other. Maybe it's like the mafia -- a code of silence. Is the solution to mandate longer jail sentences for the producers and suppliers?

Eugene Robinson: You could make a similar then-and-now comparison in almost every sport. You will recall that Wilt Chamberlain was a dominating freak of nature when he played, running roughshod over the whole NBA; now, there are scads of players who are bigger and stronger (though not better). It's not true that all of this bulking up is from steroids -- the whole world of sports is different, training methods are different, kids start lifting weights earlier, etc. In terms of muscle, the change looks most dramatic to me in baseball.


Anonymous: Hey Eugene. I know a lot of people hate the race card being brought up into a discussion, but I'm going to be the bad guy and do it anyway. I'm not a fan of baseball (I think the sport is too slow), but I know a foul ball when I see one. I just finished reading Sally Jenkins' article and couldn't agree more: where's the hatred and vitriol for all the white players who have been implicated in the Mitchell report?

I don't remember anyone (except a few commentators) who wanted to hear Barry Bonds give excuses or explanations, but now that we have an entire lineup of baseball stars, we give them the benefit of the doubt. I'm sure my observation will upset some people -- but hell, I'm upset too. Why aren't these athletes going to court or being threatened with never being voted into the hall of fame? (P.S.: 23, African-American male.)

washingtonpost.com: Singling Out A Double Standard (Post, Dec. 18)

Eugene Robinson: Thank you for bringing up Sally's fabulous column -- if nobody did, I was going to mention it. You and she are right. Let's drag Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Kevin Brown and the others named in the report in front of a grand jury and see if they tell the truth, as was done with Barry Bonds. If Bonds and Marion Jones are the only athletes to face legal charges and perhaps jail time in this whole steroids scandal, people will be right to ask why both scapegoats happened to be black -- when so many all-star white athletes were also implicated.


San Diego: Your "lithe and sinewy; Michelin Man" comment made me spill my coffee. Excellent description of the changes in Mr. Bonds physique. My question is off the baseball topic and is more political. Sorry! After the Democrats took control of Congress earlier this year, Bush was somewhat conciliatory and talked of his desire to compromise, etc. Well, I don't see a lot of compromising by the administration, nor do I see many journalists bringing this to light. Whereas nothing is stopping Democrats from saying "too bad the resident isn't keeping his word." Do you think that the media also should be gently reminding us that this is the case, and that the president is leaving his promises unfulfilled?

Eugene Robinson: Thanks, and sorry about your coffee. I'm not sure I agree that Bush's partisan intransigence has been kept under wraps. It has been reported in my paper (and basically all the others) that he has picked fight after fight with the Democratic Congress. What frustrates me, and probably you too, is that without 60 votes in the Senate, the Democrats can't really force him to make reasonable compromises.


Kensington, Md.: Twice recently Mitt Romney has gotten misty-eyed as a way to combat a perceived insensitivity to an issue (blacks barred from Mormon priesthood, soldiers dying in Iraq while his sons "serve" the cause of getting him elected). By the media's account however, the only reaction I see to this is that Romney is defending those tears against implications that it is weak to cry (or something along those lines). Am I truly the only one who sees these contrived tears for what they are -- another scripted (likely focus-group-approved) ploy to disarm a criticism? I'm aghast at the media's naivety -- you'd think they were covering a Bush press conference.

Eugene Robinson: I'm shocked -- shocked! -- that you would think that any politician's tears might not be genuine. Obviously, Mr. Romney has allergies.


Washington: Gene -- all good points in your piece about Huckabee last week, but you didn't even get into his advocacy of the FairTax. Why has there been so little scrutiny of that in the media -- or, for that matter, by his opponents? I'm no economist, but it looks to me like a plan begging for ridicule by conventional thinkers -- to say nothing about asking him for his fallback position should he not succeed in getting the 16th Amendment repealed. Thanks!

washingtonpost.com: Code Huckabee (Post, Dec. 14)

Eugene Robinson: I think you're right that not enough has been made of this crazy idea.


Fairfax, Va.: Obama has been at it for a while now but unless I have missed it he hasn't given even one specific example of an issue or problem where there are politicized attitudes, on which he would bring people together. So is he just a lot of rhetoric, or does he have actual solutions in his game plan should he be elected? And if he does, why do you think he isn't talking in specifics about them, especially if he really is a wind of change?

Eugene Robinson: I don't think that's quite fair -- Obama has very specific plans on health insurance, for example, and a list of other issues. But your more general point is right: that Obama presents himself -- his background, his intelligence, his personality, his youth, his method thinking -- as a key element in the way he would bridge divisions and solve problems.


College Park, Md.: I always find your columns interesting, but I really have to disagree with the notion that fans want juiced players. As a lifelong baseball fan who grew up with the Big Red Machine, I still can remember how hurt I was at the idea of Pete Rose cheating the game by gambling. I cringed before looking at the list of names in the Mitchell report, afraid to see some of my favorite player included (thankfully, there were none). I admire the players who take what they're born with and work hard to do the best they can. I don't admire anyone who tried to take a drugged short cut. It demeans the game and insults the fans.

Eugene Robinson: I can't disagree. I'm sure that if it were put to a vote, baseball fans would overwhelmingly reject steroids. At the same time, the fans who go out to the ballparks these days seem to want to see a lot of scoring and especially a lot of home runs.

What's hard for me is where, exactly, to draw the line. For example, sportswriters tell me that there was a time when pro football players would think nothing of popping an amphetamine or two before a game. Might this have ever been the case in baseball? I'm totally against steroids, growth hormones, uppers, downers, whatever. But I have the nagging suspicion that many of our sports heroes of the past took advantage of anything that would give them an edge, and that this may have included chemical enhancement.


Bethesda, Md.: How about these players coming out now saying "I only used HGH once but I never used steroids," or "I only tried steroids once"? I am sure if I told my wife "I only cheated once or twice" she would understand. And Andy Pettitte saying he used HGH even though a year ago in an article he said he never used HGH? So he is not only a cheater, but a liar. And when are they going to fix New Orleans (separate topic)?

Eugene Robinson: Right. It's like Clinton saying that he smoked pot but didn't inhale.

Not enough time today to answer your question about New Orleans. I'm going to try to get back down there soon, but maybe not until after the early primaries.


New York: Babe Ruth's stats were "enhanced" by not having to face black pitchers.

Eugene Robinson: So true.


Raleigh, N.C.: Foul, foul, foul! The reason Marion Jones and Barry Bonds are in legal jeopardy is that, coincidentally, they bought their stuff from BALCO and BALCO is being investigated by the feds. Bill Romanowski, a white guy, had to answer to a grand jury, too.

Eugene Robinson: So why aren't the feds investigating "Dr. Feelgood" Kirk Radomski? And the thing is, now that all this stuff has been made public in the Mitchell Report, which has no force of law (or threat of jail time), it will be much harder to mount a criminal prosecution. If anyone even cares to try.


Seattle: I used to live in Little Rock, Ark., and if you think Huckabee is scary (he can be unintentionally), wait until you start reading about Janet Huckabee.

Eugene Robinson: ... And on that tantalizing note, my time is up. Thanks for participating, everybody. There will be no chat for the next two Tuesdays -- Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! -- so we'll meet again on Tuesday, Jan. 8. By then, we'll know who won Iowa -- and voters will be trudging through the snow to the polls in New Hampshire. Onward.


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