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Baseball’s Hall of Shame: MLB Report Finds Widespread Steroid Use, Warns About Influence Pros Have on Young Athletes

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Thursday is being described by some as “one of the darkest days in baseball history,” following the publication of an official Major League Baseball report on the widespread use of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs in the sport. Former Senator George Mitchell, who headed the twenty-month investigation, estimated hundreds of thousands of high school students currently use steroids. We speak with sportswriter Dave Zirin about “Absolving the Owners” and a mother whose son died of steroid abuse. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryJun 12, 2007Dave Zirin on “Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics, and Promise of Sports”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Thursday is being described by some as “one of the darkest days in baseball history,” following the publication of an official Major League Baseball report on the widespread use of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs in the sport. About ninety retired and current players were named in the report, including some of the game’s biggest superstars, such as New York Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens and San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds. Former Senator George Mitchell headed the twenty-month investigation.

    GEORGE MITCHELL: The evidence we uncovered indicates that this has not been an isolated problem involving just a few players or a few clubs. Many players were involved. Each of the thirty clubs has had players who have been involved with such substances at some time in their careers. The minority of players who used such substances were wrong. They violated federal law and baseball policy, and they distorted the fairness of competition by trying to gain an unfair advantage over the majority of players who followed the law and the rules. They, the players who follow the law and the rules, are faced with the painful choice of either being placed at a competitive disadvantage or becoming illegal users themselves. No one should have to make that choice.

AMY GOODMAN: George Mitchell said the problem of steroids in sports extends far beyond professional baseball teams. He estimated hundreds of thousands of high school students currently use steroids.

Sportswriter Dave Zirin joins us in Washington, D.C. He is author of the new book Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports

, a regular contributor to The Nation magazine and writes a weekly column called “Edge of Sports.”

Denise Garibaldi also joins us on the phone from California. Five years ago, her twenty-four-year-old son, Rob Garibaldi, committed suicide after suffering from anabolic steroid-induced depression. Denise has become a vocal critic of steroid use, testified before Congress and serves on the board of advisers of the Taylor Hooton Foundation, which fights steroid abuse.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Dave Zirin, let’s begin with you. Summarize what you learned yesterday.

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, what I learned is the Mitchell report is, what I would argue, a breathtaking fraud. I mean, this is a report that took twenty months, cost $20 million, and at the end of the day, ninety players names were named, and yet George Mitchell did not touch upper management, he did not touch ownership, and we’re left to believe that steroids in baseball was something that occurred in the locker room, independent of the knowledge of upper management. And this is the narrative that we’ve been served up over the last ten years, and it just does not hold water. Mitchell let the owners skate.

And this is the problem with having George Mitchell at the front of this report. George Mitchell is on the board of directors of the Boston Red Sox. He is on the board of directors of the Walt Disney Company, which owns ESPN, which is the number one broadcast partner of Major League Baseball. I mean, this is like having Dick Cheney head up an alternative energy conference. It just doesn’t hold water, and to me it stains the entire report.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave Zirin, explain the responsibility of the owners. What have they gained?

DAVE ZIRIN: Right. Well, I could tell you what they gained with two numbers here: one is 500 million; the other is 2.4 billion. $500 million is what the owners sold the rights of Major League Baseball to after the 1994 strike, which canceled the World Series. $2.4 billion is what they sold just the playoff rights to a decade later. And in that decade, what you saw was an unbelievable surge in home runs. I mean, it’s like the insanely sexist Nike slogan, “Chicks dig the long ball.” That became the slogan for Major League Baseball over the course of that decade.

And this juicing of the game, this increasing of power in the game, was something that occurred on numerous fronts. I mean, stadiums became smaller. The bats were made with a different kind of wood. The strike zone shrunk. And we’re supposed to believe that Major League owners perpetuated all of these things, yet turned their back and just whistled when it came to what players were actually ingesting and putting in their bodies.

I mean, the Mitchell report is an expose of trainers and of clubhouse attendants and players, and it paints this picture of just sort of a benign neglect on behalf of owners. As Mitchell said, they were just slow to act. And that, to me, really does let them off the hook, and it doesn’t get us at the root of the problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave, what role do you think race has played in all of this? For years, the media has focused on Barry Bonds and his possible steroid use. Barry Bonds is African American. Roger Clemens is white. It was a shock to many when his name came up yesterday.

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah. I mean, I’ve described the Mitchell report as “all sizzle and no steak.” The sizzle is naming Roger Clemens, seven-time Cy Young Award-winner, perhaps the greatest right-handed pitcher to ever put on a uniform. And for years, some of us, you know, a vocal minority has said, why is it we talk about Barry Bonds, we drag his name through the mud, but we never talk about Roger Clemens, because their similarities are very profound. I mean, both of them had huge career upsurges into their late thirties and early forties. Both of them are incredibly moody when it comes to dealing with the press. And yet, with Barry Bonds, the assumption has always been one of guilt, and with Roger Clemens, there’s been this picture painted as if he’s somebody who just, you know, drinks a big glass of vitamin D milk, says his prayers, eats his vitamins and goes out there and wins Cy Youngs into his forties. And as one national columnist said yesterday, after Clemens’s name was named, he said, “You know what? I look at Clemens and I look at Bonds, and the only difference is the color of their skin.” So I think Clemens — I mean, it’s a breathtaking example of media hypocrisy when it comes to race and steroids.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave Zirin, of course, Roger Clemens’s attorney says he denies all of this, that it’s a lie.

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, yeah. And I think actually Roger Clemens himself, I think, is going to need to step forward and say that himself, because the evidence against him is rather damning. But I will say this in Roger Clemens’s defense and in defense of everybody who’s named in the Mitchell report — I mean, this is not holy writ. This wasn’t a court of law. Only two Major League players even spoke to — current Major League players even spoke to George Mitchell. The evidence he has is because a clubhouse attendant for the Mets and the personal trainer for the Yankees both were cutting a deal with the federal government. And that’s what really gave Mitchell the guts of the report, in terms of canceled checks, in terms of naming the names of Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, the two Yankee pitchers, which has certainly been the big sizzle in this story. And I think we have to realize that people never got the chance to face their accusers. People did not — were not able to offer counter-evidence to this. And what you’re going to see now is a grievance procedure and a line of protest that is going to be going on for months and is going to make the idea of just sitting back and enjoying the games very difficult for a lot of people.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to sportswriter Dave Zirin. We’ll also be joined by a mom who lost her son to steroid abuse. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about baseball’s hall of shame. I want to turn back to former Senator George Mitchell’s press conference Thursday. This is what he had to say about the use of steroids by high school athletes.

    GEORGE MITCHELL: The illegal use of these substances to improve athletic performance may cause serious harm to the user. Apart from the dangers posed to the Major League player himself, however, his use of these substances encourages young athletes to use them. Because adolescents are already subject to significant hormonal changes, the abuse of steroids and other substances can have more serious effects on them than they have on adults.

    Many young Americans are placing themselves at risk. Some estimates appear to show a recent decline in steroid use by high school students. That’s heartening. But the range of estimates is from about 3% to 6%. And even the lower figure means that hundreds of thousands of high school-aged young people are illegally using steroids.

    It’s important to deal with the players who are illegal users, but it’s at least as important, perhaps even more so, to be concerned about the reality that hundreds of thousands of our children are using them. Every American, not just baseball fans, ought to be shocked into action by that disturbing truth.

    I would like to recognize Don Hooton, who’s here today. He established the Taylor Hooton Foundation for Fighting Steroid Abuse after his son took his own life after abusing anabolic steroids. In a congressional hearing in 2005, Don said, and I quote, “Our youngsters hear the message loud and clear, and it’s wrong: If you would want to achieve your goal, it’s OK to use steroids to get you there, because the pros are doing it. It’s a real challenge for parents to overpower the strong message that’s being sent to our children by your behavior.”

AMY GOODMAN: That’s former Senator George Mitchell at the news conference yesterday on steroid abuse by the top baseball players.

Denise Garibaldi joins Dave Zirin now. Denise lost her son Rob — he committed suicide in 2002 after suffering from anabolic steroid-induced depression — and testified before Congress. Denise, tell us about Rob. How did he start using steroids?

DENISE GARIBALDI: Rob started using steroids when he was a young man. He had started college and was told by professional scouts that had been following him for many years that he needed to get bigger, that there was nothing else in the game — in his game that needed to improve, except he needed to gain weight. After years of really good work ethic and nutrition, he chose what he thought the only thing he could do, was to do what he believed all other baseball players were doing, or most of them, and that was, he used anabolic steroids. They did what they promised. Rob put on that weight. He went on to play for the University of Southern California. He was drafted by the New York Yankees in 1999. But he then went on to suffer for eighteen months before his death.

AMY GOODMAN: How did he get the steroids?

DENISE GARIBALDI: We know his initial use came from a trip across to Tijuana, Mexico. And what is so shocking about that is, within one hour’s time, he was able to meet a doctor, get a prescription, get all the paraphernalia, fill the prescription and be back across the border. After that, he was provided them by trainers, and he also used the internet.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you realize what was happening at the end of Rob’s life, just before he committed suicide? How did his personality change?

DENISE GARIBALDI: Rob’s whole personhood changed. And we believe it was that awareness, in addition to how steroids destroyed his ability to play baseball, that caused his decision to take his own life.

AMY GOODMAN: Barry Bonds, his role in your son’s life, his image?

DENISE GARIBALDI: Rob loved Barry Bonds. He loved Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco. He was about nine years old, living in the Bay Area in California, when the “Bash Brothers” came across and just totally entertained the baseball world. And he spent years simulating Barry Bonds’s swing. Growing up where Barry Bonds grew up, he just felt very much an affinity for him and respected him as a player. And unfortunately, Rob realized that Barry and Mark had begun cheating and really thought that it was something he was going to have to do in order to compete at that level.

AMY GOODMAN: Denise, how typical is this?

DENISE GARIBALDI: It’s more typical than anyone would like to believe. We now know about five million children in the United States have taken the course Rob has felt he has needed to take. And the problem also escalates, when we now think of young girls also using for the purpose of having that more beautiful, chiseled body. And even though the latest reports say that steroid use is down, we are so concerned that other substances are being developed as we speak and that this issue of performance-enhancing substances is not going to go away, not for a very, very long time.

AMY GOODMAN: Your son’s psychiatrist, talk about his findings with Rob’s rage and its relation to the steroid injections.

DENISE GARIBALDI: You know, it took Rob a number of years to actually talk about his steroid use. He never thought of it as being a drug. He never thought of it as causing any harm. When he first became ill, when he was at the University of Southern California, he had a mental collapse, and we really thought it was a bipolar episode. And when he went to the psychiatrist, that was — they talked about symptoms. But at that point, even though the question was asked, Rob denied his use. So Rob was actually treated for symptoms, but for the wrong disorder. It really took a few ’roid rages in which he choked his father, threw him to the ground and had to be pulled off by his older brother at great effort, for Rob and anyone to really see what was going on. And it wasn’t until he had a psychiatric hospitalization, in which he was held involuntarily for about five days, that he realized that steroids were indeed the problem, and the truth came out.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave Zirin, I want to ask him about this in the broader picture, but, Denise, you mentioned women, and I can’t help thinking about Marion Jones, whose records have now been wiped from the books this week, who admitted she used steroids.

DENISE GARIBALDI: She is just one of many. I mean, we need to go all the way back to the ’60s, when the East German swimmers in the Olympics were thought to be phenomenal, and we looked at that body shape and type and knew that there was something going on. And here, our governor here in California also admits to using. But when they were using, it was not considered illegal. And the travesty of all of this is that even though steroids were not a banned substance in the league, that they were always an illegal substance. And I have never understood why we have held professional sports above the law.

AMY GOODMAN: What now do you think has to be done, Denise, for other young people in this country?

DENISE GARIBALDI: Unfortunately, I think George Mitchell really missed an important part in not offering some kind of sanctions, disciplinary sanctions, against the players that were named yesterday. I’m not talking about fines or jail time or prosecution; I’m talking about having them feel the consequences in such that they would have made really wonderful spokespeople about performance-enhancing substances. We could really use them in our education efforts. And children, no matter what, are going to look up to them as role models. And the best role models we can have are those people that admit their mistakes and try to right them. And I wish kids would be asking to have their baseballs signed by people who can now say they live and play baseball with integrity.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Denise, your advice to parents, what to look for?

DENISE GARIBALDI: Oh, to look for rapid weight gain, muscle mass in the shoulders, significant acne — which is so typical in adolescents, but look for it on their back and shoulders; it can really become something quite ugly — swollen face, and then, of course, look at any signs of depression, mood changes, ’roid rages and delusions. These kids become quite self-centered, narcissistic, and their thinking patterns get very distorted, along with erratic behavior. It’s really important for them to talk about this frequently with their children, as much as they would maybe talk to them about sexual interactions. And kids will get tired of listening, but they will listen and hopefully make the right decision.

AMY GOODMAN: Denise Garibaldi, I want to thank you for being with us and being so brave as to speak out. Denise’s son Rob committed suicide in 2002, after suffering from anabolic steroid-induced depression. She has testified before Congress on steroids and has served on the board of advisers to the Taylor Hooton Foundation.

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