So here’s a quick quiz for all of the baseball fans out there: Which of the following players have taken performance-enhancing drugs?
a. Barry Bonds
b. Alex Rodriguez
c. Henry Aaron
The answer might surprise you: All of them. You surely guessed Bonds, who used steroids during his pursuit of Aaron’s home run record. And everyone knows about Rodriguez, who was suspended on Monday along with 12 other players—including the Phillies’ Antonio Bastardo—for allegedly taking PEDs. Rodriguez’s penalty was longer—211 days, as opposed to 50 days for the others—and he also filed an appeal, which allowed him to keep playing until his case is resolved.
But you probably left out Hank Aaron, who surpassed Babe Ruth’s own home run total. In 1968, mired in a prolonged slump, he took an amphetamine that a teammate gave him. “When that thing took hold, I thought I was having a heart attack,” Aaron wrote in his autobiography. “It was a stupid thing to do.”
Let’s leave aside the question of whether amphetamines can actually improve your performance on the field or whether they’re as dangerous as steroids. Aaron believed that the drug would give him an edge, so he took it.
And did you know that the great Babe Ruth once tried to inject himself with extract from sheep testicles, hoping to get a boost of strength and energy? For more than a century, athletes around the world have taken drugs for exactly the same reason. The only thing that has changed is our attitude toward them.
Consider the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, where marathon champion Tom Hicks received doses of strychnine and brandy from his doctor as he ran. In the same race, another runner was disqualified for riding in an automobile part of the way. But nobody accused Hicks of cheating. To the contrary, his doctor boasted about the pharmaceuticals he used. “The marathon race, from a medical standpoint, demonstrated that drugs are of much benefit to athletes along the road,” the doctor wrote.
The athletes knew it, too. In 1925, the manager of the storied Arsenal soccer team in England gave his players “pep pills” before a key match with rival West Ham United. The Arsenal team “seemed like giants suddenly supercharged,” the manager recalled. They earned a tie against the highly favored West Ham squad, which could offer “no defense against the pluck-pills.”
Drug use among athletes probably peaked during the Cold War, when Western commentators charged—correctly―that many Russian and East German Olympic competitors were taking steroids. But so were many Western athletes, whose physicians studied and often imitated Communist drug regimens.
“The feeling of these doctors was that if they could in any way help an American athlete bring home the gold, they had somehow struck a blow for freedom,” one American athlete recalled. “The choice seemed to be to give drugs or risk an American humiliation and an open the door to Communism.”
Back home, meanwhile, steroids became the drug of choice in pro football. The 1963 San Diego Chargers distributed steroid pills at team meals, supervised by a strength coach who had observed Russian weight-training methods. “I learned a little secret from those Russkies,” the coach quipped.
Doping in sports did not become controversial until the 1970s, when new information about side effects—plus the larger problem of drug abuse in society—led to bans on performance-enhancing drugs. The Olympics prohibited steroids in 1975; pro football did the same in 1983; and pro baseball in 1991―although baseball didn’t start testing players for PEDs until a decade after that.
But the restrictions were never really about health. The average NFL career lasts about four years, and many players incur injuries that last a lifetime. If the issue were players’ health, we wouldn’t just ban drugs—we’d ban football.
Instead, the new anti-doping rules reflected the rise of meritocracy, as a social and political ideal. In a world where everyone was supposed to rise or fall based on their individual talent and effort, drug use seemed like a way to tilt the playing field. It wasn’t just harmful; it was wrong.
But here’s the problem: The field is already tilted. In sports, as in life, some people get terrific coaching and instruction from the time they can walk. But nobody calls that “cheating” because we all want to believe that we earned the advantages we have.
To be sure, earlier generations of Americans celebrated individual merit as well. But they also accepted the fact that your circumstances of birth―especially race and class―would have a huge influence on how far you could go. They knew the game was rigged. We like to think that it’s fair, so we get much more outraged when people try to game it.
Consider the much-circulated tweet from a former pitcher who was beaten out for a roster spot by Bastardo, the suspended Phillies reliever. “Hey, Antonio Bastardo, remember when we competed for a job in 2011,” Dan Meyer wrote. “Thnx alot.” The implication was that Bastardo got an unfair leg up, and maybe he did. But suppose he was simply born into a family where lots of people played baseball with him, and Meyer wasn’t. That’s not fair, either, but we don’t get too upset by it.
Instead, we roast Bastardo, A-Rod and all of the other “cheaters” who took PEDs. When they are good and cooked, charbroiled in scandal and disgrace, we’ll wash our hands and declare the race once more open to all. And we’ll pretend that the best man wins.
Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).