By Ciro Scotti If you thought the pectoral-thumping (that's breast-beating to you underpumped weenies) over steroid use in big-time sports had subsided a bit, think again. The headline trollers in Congress, those little men with the big nameplates who turned up the heat on Major League Baseball players last month, have found some new, unnaturally large fish to fry.
On Apr. 27, according to the Associated Press, House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, and ranking panel Democrat Henry Waxman of California will open hearings on steroid use in the National Football League. And after that, who will these champions of American youth burn next in that big skillet on Capitol Hill? Senior tour golfers hopped up on arthritis medication?
JUICED ATTENDANCE. Oh, don't get me wrong, the steroid hearings make great television. Among the Bulky Boys of October on hand for the last episode was Jose Canseco, the former slugger who named names in his best seller, Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big, ensuring himself a place in the Baseball Hall of Shame as Most Voluble Rat of the 2005 season.
Also in the cast were home-run record holder* Mark McGwire, who boo-hooed and stonewalled, the bery, bery inarticulate Sammy Sosa, and an indignant Rafael Palmiero, who swore he'd never touched the stuff (now, Viagra, that's another story).
All fun until you remember that the taxpayer is bankrolling this reality show. Which begs the question: Does the public really care whether athletes shoot steroids, eat human growth hormone, or gulp chemical cocktails mixed up by overly aggressive trainers? Perhaps, but it isn't voting with its feet. Major League Baseball reported on Apr. 17 -- just a month after the first hearings -- that attendance at home openers was up 2.2% over 2004.
PARALLEL UNIVERSES. And what about those youth whom Congress says it's trying to protect? Are they outraged? Hardly. To them, the world is one big video game. The more pow! bam! splat! the better. Bigger, faster, farther -- that's what counts. And it's not just the kids. Unlike the rest of the world, which goes wild for low-scoring professional soccer, America is all about numbers. Runs, touchdowns, baskets.The more, the better. Who cares how you make the Teletron light up.
Still, there are the purists. Protectors of the Game who think you ought to build your strength the old-fashioned way, run your heart out with no extra boost, and compete on a playing field so level it's got a bubble in the middle. How quaint. But they buy tickets.
So maybe there's a business opportunity here. No need to ban steroids. Just establish parallel sports universes: Straight Ball and Steroid Ball. Or, how about Major League Baseball and MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL.
EVERYBODY WINS. In Straight Ball, the players must stay chemical-free, work out religiously to build their muscles, and bless themselves before each at-bat. They would, of course, be required to take a drug test prior to each game and during the seventh-inning stretch.
In Steroid Ball, the Incredible Hulks stuffed into uniforms made for humans could hit a buffet table catered by BALCO (Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative), the San Francisco outfit that allegedly designed steroid cocktails for MLB players, before ambling out on the field. Pitchers would fire fastballs at 110 miles per hour, shortstops would leap into the clouds, and any catcher who had to stand up to throw out a base stealer would risk suspicion of being a real player.
When the Straight Ball team plays at home, the Steroid Ball team plays away -- and vice versa -- so club owners would double their money. Plus, TV would have more of the live content it craves, more jobs would be created for beer venders and sportswriters, and fans who get all gooey over the ballet of a triple play would be as happy as the yahoos who yearn for power blasts and dugout-clearing brawls. Everybody wins.
Except, of course, those poor, lonely pols in Washington who'll have to think up some other way to get their names in the morning blogs. Scotti is a senior editor for BusinessWeek in New York and offers his views in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only for BusinessWeek Online