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.

3 thoughts on “Fans Care about PED Use — Sometimes”

  1. I have a theory that there is a disconnect between the casual watchers and the ‘ guys”. And the more dogmatic l and focussed on the history or purity of the sport the more this is the case.

    The baseball writers who vote for the hall and are baseball guys and have a view on the history and place of the storied game are very bothered. Joe six pack who cheers his team might go to the park a couple times a year gives a big shrug. How a sport reacts is largely determined by which group their paying fanbase and advertising audience falls into.

    I think you see this effect most strongly with the olympics. Most fans pay attention once every four years (or two years if from Russia scandinavia, or Canada) and so despite indications that a significant proportion of top athletes in many sports are doping. They just don’t care and the games still turn in amazing ratings and sponsor dollars. The nordic skiing fan is bothered by the high number of athletes using epo and blood doping, the swimming fan wonders if phelps is clean, the true cycling fans watch who shows up for Olympic duty and who doesn’t and is bothered by what that means… But most fans don’t care.


  2. Armstrong’s case is also a little different in that there was evidence of his PED use early on, and that his competitors were (irregularly) getting caught doping while he was beating them – only 2 people who shared a TdF podium with him were not also caught, admitted, or linked to PED use. He also didn’t help matters, by making such an effort to hound out people who correctly noted the unlikeliness of his performances, and by protesting his cleanliness so much. In that way (as well as the obvious), an author of his own downfall.

    Incidentally, your phrasing suggests that Indurain got away with PED use by stopping at 5 TdF wins. Is that deliberate, or is that just my inference?

  3. What do fans like more? Athletes who use PEDs to be the best or athletes that collect paychecks and don’t try their hardest.

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