Fans Care about PED Use — Sometimes
What spurred the public’s negative view of the use of PEDs? Why have MLB and pro cycling received much more attention than the NFL? Some would say fans don’t care, even in the MLB and cycing cases, that it’s really just a media-generated series of events. No doubt, media writers and talking heads can get worked up over things that create yawns among most fans. In the case of the steroid stories, their long-lasting legs suggests that they resonate with the sporting public to some extent.
The MLB Hall of Fame voting supplies the explanation — not the details but its very existence. When PED-fueled performances start encroaching on cherished legacies, fans start to pull back. In the mid and late 1990s, the baseball-watching public shrugged at whether Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa were bashing on higher octane additives. McGwire’s 57 homers in 1997, just a pinch below Maris’ 61, promoted fan interest rather than probing questions. By 2001, McGwire, Sosa, and Barry Bonds had surpassed the landmark six times. Players from the mid 1990s to early 2000s climbed the 50 homer plateau 23 times, more than in all of the years prior combined. Beyond the yearly marks, Bonds surpassing Mays, Ruth, and even Aaron raised more fan eyebrows along with eight players from this era who wound up among the top 15 home run hitters of all time. Former players whose achievements were being devalued raised voices in protest as Hall of Fame voters and fan views soured. As a fan myself, when Bonds passed the 660 home runs of one of my first sports heroes, Willie Mays, it sickened me.
Of course, the attacks on legacies also invited more media attention and investigation, leading to more revelations and negative publicity to foment fan distaste. This avenue seems especially apparent in the Lance Armstrong case. Had Armstrong won 2, 3, or even 4 Tours, he may well have escaped with his long run reputation somewhat in question but relatively intact. That’s how it worked out for Miguel Indurain, who, ironically, was still publicly touting belief in Armstrong’s innocence as late as October in this Guardian article. Rising up to the hallowed 5 wins and then blowing past it put Armstrong in the bulls-eye of many European writers as well as international doping regulators. While his return to the sport, by his own estimation, may have led to his successful prosecution, his smashing of legacies of riders like Indurain and Hinault made him both popular and a popular target.
The other side of legacy effect on fan backlash is the lack of it in sports where legacies are not impacted so much, such as the NFL. At first glace, one might conclude that football fans don’t care as much as baseball fans, when the underlying difference may be the lack of legacy effects. In part, the lack of testing may, ironically, play a role. Cycling has been stung the most, in part, because of its rigorous attempts to get rid of PED use. MLB has been less diligent, and the NFL has lagged behind even MLB. In addition, the team nature of these sports and their outcomes has shielded players from the kind of scrutiny given in individual sports or in a “individual sport with a team score” as baseball is described. In recent years, quarterbacks and receivers have run roughshod over many passing achievements of the past, but this can be attributed to changes in rules and enforcement that make passing easier and promote more sophistication in passing, not to QB or wide receiver PED use.
Widening out the lens from sports and sports legacies, similar outcomes can be observed with companies. Extraordinary success invites extraordinary scrutiny, whether justified or not, and whether it applies to athletes like Lance Armstrong, or companies like IBM in the sixties and seventies or Microsoft, WalMart, and Google in more recent years. How a limited supply of scrutiny is doled out or, more to my point, gets traction among the public is more puzzling.