Viewpoint: Why doping in baseball is punished so severely

Alex Rodriguez at a press conference

The appeals are still pending, but the takeaway is clear: Alex Rodriguez will not be allowed to play Major League Baseball for a very long time. Nate Sulat says the official outrage over drugs in the sport is rooted in its history - and America's.

On Monday, Major League Baseball handed Rodriguez, the Yankees' third baseman, a 211-game suspension for using banned performance-enhancing drugs, as well as for tampering with an investigation into his use of those drugs.

Rodriguez will be allowed to play until his appeal is sorted out. But if it should fail, he will be barred from the field through the end of the 2014 season.

He has clearly violated the rules. But the reason Rodriguez faces such a long suspension is rooted in the complex history of the sport and the US.

Americans have long viewed drug use as reprehensible. The American Temperance Society, which advocated a ban on alcohol, was founded in 1826.

Less than a century later, Congress passed an amendment to the US constitution that banned alcohol and ushered in the Prohibition era. Today, the US still wages a decades-long War on Drugs.

The primary concern, historically, has been social rather than scientific. William Bennett, the first director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, once said that beheading drug dealers who sold to kids was "morally plausible".

"We're a puritanical society," says Jeffrey Miron, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

The fact that drugs are seen as immoral - and that they are illegal - has not put a stop to the use of performance-enhancing substances in baseball. And neither have the harmful side-effects they have on the body.

"The whole notion of steroids, when I first got into baseball, was very dirty," says Scott Bradley, a former Major League Baseball catcher who teaches baseball history at Princeton University.

"You're in the back of some weightlifting gym and you were injecting pure animal testosterone."

The rise of synthetically produced performance enhancers, Bradley says, removed much of the stigma around steroids. Their use came to seem like a simple medical procedure, akin to cortisone shots in a fitness regimen.

"There were no rules," Bradley says. "There was nobody checking. It was a little bit more of a grey area."

Image caption Rodriguez allegedly obtained drugs from this office in Coral Gables, Florida

Today, there is no grey area. Performance-enhancing drugs amount to cheating, according to an agreement between the players and Major League Baseball.

Baseball is part of America's social fabric in deep, almost mystical ways. That Congress deemed it necessary to hold hearings on performance-enhancing drugs in 2005 is a testament to the game's importance.

"Baseball is perhaps one of the most physically democratic athletic competitions in the world," psychologist Paul Cantz said in May at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

"It's a sport where speed and strength don't necessarily represent the most important domains of athleticism. We also value strategy and craftiness.

"What steroids do - and this increased emphasis on muscularity - it hearkens back to a physical ideal which is patently Greco-Roman. It compromises the soul of the sport."

While other forms of cheating have long been part of baseball, rarely are they punished as severely as the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

In 2003, for example, Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa was caught with a corked bat, which allows hitters to send the ball farther. He was suspended for eight games.

In 2008, Tampa Bay Rays' Joel Peralta used pine tar to mark a baseball, increasing the movement on his pitches. He was suspended for eight games.

Rodriguez was accused of using illicit drugs, and he received a harsher punishment. In this way, baseball mimics the nation it represents.

Nate Sulat is a freelance writer based in New York City.

More on this story