Column: The Public Eye: Steroid America

By Bob Burnett
Tuesday January 08, 2008

Throughout 2007 Americans were warned of a looming steroid scandal in major league baseball. Nonetheless, many fans were surprised when Barry Bonds and 88 other players were identified as steroid users in the Mitchell Report. Sadly, indications are this is only the tip of the drug iceberg, as steroids are said to be an issue at all levels of American sports. Recent estimates suggest two to three percent of high school athletes use steroids, a number in the tens of thousands.  

Athletes use steroids because the drugs enhance their appearance and performance in the short term; they ignore long-term consequences including liver and heart damage. The epidemic use of dangerous drugs is a metaphor for our national character: America seeks to look buff now; we disregard the impact on future generations. Our massive overinvestment in the military-industrial complex helps us feel secure in an uncertain world, but undermines the viability of the American way of life for future generations, for example, by adding to our staggering national debt and deferring needed domestic expenditures. 

It’s possible to discern five aspects of what might be termed “Steroid Ethics.” The first is that many Americans only care about the short term. The “make hay while the sun shines, in the long term we’ll be dead” attitude is not unique to professional athletes or politicians. Many U.S. business leaders now focus exclusively on the present, taking the position that what matters most is performance in the current quarter. As a consequence, corporate executives take ethical shortcuts, for example, by abandoning communities where they have established ties and moving their factories to countries where labor costs less. And it’s become an entrenched cultural pattern for Americans to live beyond their means, often using their home equity to finance their profligate lifestyle. 

The second aspect is that many Americans will do anything to win. In the past athletes were told, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” Unfortunately, this isn’t being taught anymore, or if it is, few of us are listening. Our national motto might well be “the ends justify the means.” 

While the origin of our “winning is everything” attitude has many roots, we can point to the presidency of George W. Bush for providing the moral example that, for many Americans, legitimized Steroid Ethics. During his 2000 presidential campaign, Bush’s subliminal message was “greed is good” and “it’s in your personal interest to vote for Dubya.” His goal as president has been to consolidate his personal power, increase the influence of Republicans, and feather the nests of his affluent supporters. The sine qua non of the Bush Administration has been to maximize personal advantage.  

Sadly, a third aspect of Steroid Ethics is that many of us have adopted a herd mentality. Steroid users typically rationalize their behavior by arguing that all their friends are taking the same drugs. Business executives justify their exorbitant salaries by noting their peers are also raking in millions of dollars. Republican members of Congress ignore their president’s ethical lapses because, as the titular head of their party, all their peers support him. At a time when many of their fellow citizens are struggling to make ends meet, wealthy Americans justify exorbitant tax breaks by arguing they have to look out for number one—everyone does it. We’re willing to go along with the crowd, to participate in what columnist Frank Rich termed ‘the good German” syndrome. 

A more subtle aspect of Steroid Ethics is our reliance on magical thinking. Many steroid users hold onto a childlike faith that advances in medicine will eventually remedy the deleterious side effects of the drugs they ingest. Similarly, President Bush believes “history” will vindicate his administration. In the same vein, conservative theorists and many business leaders argue that despite Dubya’s mishandling of the American economy, in the long run “the market” will make the necessary corrections and everything will be okay. Neoconservatives argue that by having a bloated military we can enhance our national competitiveness; they seem to believe other nations like to trade with bullies. 

Finally, Steroid Ethics suggest we have become a nation of narcissists. Drug abusers are obsessively interested in themselves, they show bad judgment and selfishness. Many captains of industry are also overly concerned with money and personal power. This same psychological condition afflicts the president and his closest advisers, as they too are obsessed with their own image. A large segment of the American public favors image over substance, feels it’s better to look good than to be good. This explains our obsession with trash celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. 

My point is that the ethical system that supports steroid use, and drug use in general, has a corrosive influence on American society. At the personal level, this drastically diminishes the long-term quality of life. At the societal level, it undermines democracy: It’s a way of seeing and behaving that exaggerates the importance of individual accomplishment and ignores the notion of common good. Steroid Ethics is cultural cancer. 



Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at