White Hat, Black Hat: The Semantics of Steroids

Drugs are bad.


Drugs are bad.

Three words, not far off from “just say no” in the pantheon of drug education in America that, you will see, summarize steroid policy. As Congress has looked into the problem of performance-enhancing drugs in professional sports over the last three months, they have looked no deeper than those three words. They have asked the Commissioners of professional sports questions designed to look bad in thirty second sound bites. They have made statements that go further than David Stern’s “despicable comment” remark, casting steroids as the deep dark evil that for all its power must have been designed by Osama bin Laden himself.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Congress doesn’t understand the problem. Simply put, they’re asking the wrong people. Bud Selig doesn’t look like he’s got a steroid problem. There’s no proof that anabolic-androgenic steroids have any effect on baseball players. In fact, looking at the careers of known steroid users, there’s a detrimental effect. Jason Giambi and Jose Canseco went from MVP to no value nearly overnight. Barry Bonds is yet to take his first swings this season. Ken Caminiti – well, as one baseball official put it, he had abuse problems, not just with steroids.

They’re not asking the NBA about human growth hormone. They’re not asking about the 10% increase in body size for all players in the NFL – including kickers and punters! They’re coming back to one thing that they think they understand – drugs are bad.

Congress is asking the role models they believe athletes to be to bear the brunt of the problem, perhaps even enforcing some type of “urine tax” to help fund the testing. This doesn’t stop the basic problem and the words they use – and seem to believe are at the heart of this. The ant-steroid crusaders are using the power of language and rhetoric to put any opposition, one already disadvantaged by a lack of coherence and by the faulty application of law, at even more of a disadvantage. Any opposition would need to fight a three-pronged battle against the power of ignorance, fear, and apathy.

America is a chemical culture. No television program goes by without a glossy ad for Cialis or Crestor, no fewer than five cars in NASCAR are sponsored by specific drugs, and the multi-billion dollar drug industry is still one of the top voices in lobbying. You see, drugs are bad, but pharmaceuticals are good. They save lives, they enhance the quality of our day-to-day interactions, and of course, they come from our friendly doctor, the one that still makes house calls.

The fiction of the pharmaceutical industry is the result of billions of dollars of advertising, a modern form of re-education. The omnipresent ads lend an ‘everybody’s doing it’ feel to everything from erectile dysfunction to major depression. Even the names of new pharmaceuticals are designed to have no meaning other than that assigned to it by the company and driven into the consciousness by advertising. Perhaps if anavar or winstrol had some pharma-onomatopoeia, they’d be more acceptable.

The semantics of steroids work much like old Western movies. The formula works that there’s a town, a problem, and two men. One enters wearing a black hat and the other a white hat. (I wonder if Stetson was the earliest product placement.) This simple milliner’s decision became shorthand for an industry and those types of terms work well in a society that is, as we say now, black and white dealing with an issue that only comes in shades of gray.

Just the names of the bills introduced in the House and Senate show both this tendency to frame the issue by using binary semantics. The “Drug Free Sports Act” (HR 1862) and the “Clean Sports Act” (S 1114), by implication, say that sports are now infected by drugs and that these bills will “clean them up.” Once again, a clean/dirty binary metaphor is used to both clarify and divide. Who among us prefers dirty?

Unfortunately, these binary metaphors tend to oversimplify the problems. No substance, whether steroid or widely used pharmaceutical, has morals or ethics of its own. No substance has an effect without a side effect. For every miracle of Prozac, bringing a severely depressed person back from the depths of profound depression, there is a lawsuit somewhere saying that a suicide or homicide came from the brain-altering chemistry of the anti-depressant. The FDA is currently investigating whether Viagra may cause blindness in some men that use the drug as well as helping to re-write Medicare regulations to prevent federally funded erections for convicted sex offenders.

Even seemingly apolitical academics have launched volleys of quotes that use the same type of semantics. Dr. Charles Yesalis of Penn State has been quoted time and again during the current national steroid debate as saying that “other than pedophilia, I’ve never witnessed a behavior as secretive as [steroid usage].” (Dallas Morning News) This oft-repeated quote serves to equate a despicable, illegal and immoral activity with steroid usage. In my research, steroid users could be described best as “normal.” Men and women that want to improve their bodies and are as willing to use an available drug to help them, just as they would take a pill to help reduce high cholesterol or control their acid reflux. At worst, we could call them cheaters, a far sight from pedophile.

Is it possible to take these types of semantical and rhetorical tactics and turn them around? Certainly! According to George Lakoff, a cognitive scientist at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” it is not only possible to re-frame a discussion by using these techniques. Lakoff concentrates on linguistics and euphemisms in politics, but the lessons he gives are equally applicable to such a binary situation as the steroid debate.

As well, the power of unintended consequences lies on the side of those that argue against draconian bans. While the facts and figures of the “toothless” steroid policy in baseball show that if the goal is to eliminate steroids from the game appears to be working, going from 83 positive tests in 2003 to only five so far in 2005 despite a more extensive list of banned substances, Bud Selig has gone hiding behind the skirts of John McCain and Henry Waxman, putting the long-term concerns of his sport at risk. The historic re-opening of the Collective Bargaining Agreement last winter was one thing, but Selig’s recent support for the Clean Sports Act and it’s Article 58 style penalties may come back to haunt him in the next labor negotiation.

By rebranding the thoughts surrounding steroids, by standing up and saying that steroid research and education is needed, or by merely being a level head in a discussion that reaches a fundamentalist tenor too quickly in any debate may be the strongest strategy. The true face of the steroid user is not some musclebound slugger, a nine-year-old girl in Oregon, or a suicidal teenager. It’s someone just like you or your next door neighbor, someone who wants to look good at the beach or is ahead of the curve with life-extending and quality-enhancing technologies such as hormone replacement therapy.

It’s time for a real debate. It’s time to take off the black hat in public.

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