In the first installment of Ken Burns’ latest addendum to his epic documentary “Baseball”, there is a considerable discussion of baseball’s steroid problem, and its effect on the game, its image, and integrity. Washington Post sportswriter Thomas Boswell is one of those interviewed, and caused quite a few PBS watchers, including me, to drop their jaws when he volunteered this:
“There was another player now in the Hall of Fame who literally stood with me and mixed something and I said ‘What’s that?’ and he said ‘it’s a Jose Canseco milkshake.’ [ Note: Star outfielder Jose Canseco was widely believed to be a steroid user from early in his career, and he finally admitted it after retiring.] And that year that Hall of Famer hit more home runs than ever hit any other year. So it wasn’t just Canseco, and so one of the reasons that I thought that it was an important subject was that it was spreading. It was already spreading by 1988.”
Boswell, who knew exactly what the player meant by “Jose Canseco milkshake,” never reported the apparent use of steroids—illegal in 1988, as it is now— to the team, Major League Baseball, or the public. He had an obligation, as a reporter, to tell the public that baseball stars were cheating. He he had a duty, as member of the larger baseball community, to alert the game to a serious threat to the game’s integrity and take measures to see that action was taken. If he didn’t realize the significance of what he witnessed in 1988, he certainly came to realize it within a few years, as he saw sluggers like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds mutate themselves into muscle-bound home run machines. What possible justification can there be for only telling this story now. more than 20 years later? Was he holding on to the incident for a book? Was he protecting the player? Neither of those are his jobs, as a journalist. His duty is to let the public know what is happening in baseball, and if the players are cheating, if games are being altered by prohibited substances acquired illegally, that is something the fans…and the authorities…must know.
It is worse than that. Boswell knows that Mark McGwire and Raphael Palmeiro have been rejected by Hall of Fame voters because of the widespread belief that they used steroids. The controversy will continue when Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and other presumptive performance enhancing drug-users come up for eligibility in the next few years. Yet Boswell, apparently, knew that a candidate who played in 1988 was a steroid cheat, and kept quiet about it, apparently allowing a steroid-user to be voted into the Hall without that factor being taken into consideration. That was unfair to voters, future candidates, and the fans. Maybe, at some point in the future, it will become the consensus that players from baseball’s steroid era should be honored whether they were proven users or not, but that is not the prevailing attitude now. If Tom Boswell knew that a steroid-user was going to be voted into the Hall under the false assumption that he was not a cheat, he was obligated to let the public, his colleagues who voted the honor, and Major League Baseball know about it too.
Finally, Boswell’s innuendo in Burns’ documentary was irresponsible and unfair to all the great players who have been admitted to the Hall of Fame since 1988. Because he didn’t name the player he saw, Boswell cast suspicion on all players, leading to published speculation about which Hall of Famer was a “juicer.” The baseball blog Weezen-ball, for example, listed its eight most likely candidates for Boswwell’s un-named cheat, including Tony Gwynn, Kirby Puckett, Wade Boggs, Paul Molitor, Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson, Cal Ripken, Jr., and Rickey Henderson. Most of those players—indeed, all but one of them—have exemplary reputations that have been free of even casual suggestions about steroid use. (If Ryne Sandberg or Cal Ripken used steroids, I’m Gloria DeHaven.) No more: they’ve all been sullied now. I don’t blame Wezen-ball at all; Boswell’s statement invited the inquiry.
The ethics verdict, then, is this: Boswell betrayed his journalistic duties by withholding important information from the public. He aided and abetted the spread of steroid use in baseball, when he could, and should, have sounded an early alarm. He allowed voters to put a cheat in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame when he knew they did not want to admit steroid users, thus assisting the deception of the voters, who were his sportswriting colleagues, degrading the Hall’s membership, and creating a precedent for admitting future P.E.D abusers. And he harmed the reputations of some of baseball’s greatest, and most honorable, players by refusing to name the player he saw drink the steroid milkshake.
I’m sure Boswell could have handled this more unethically, but I don’t know how.