This past weekend, Chris Benoit, a 40-year-old professional wrestler working for World Wrestling Entertainment, killed his wife and 7-year-old son, and then hung himself. Impossibly, each lurid detail disclosed by the investigation has made the story more horrific than the bare facts would have it.
As the story has grown into what looks like a major scandal, one that could (and should) inspire congressional intervention in the sewer-like wrestling industry, a main focus has been on the possibility that Benoit killed his family in a drug-induced frenzy. Typically, a report on the Fox News Web site was headlined, "Wrestler Chris Benoit Double Murder-Suicide: Was It ‘Roid Rage'?" Investigators have said that they found large amounts of steroids in the family's home and won't rule out steroid-induced psychosis as a reason for the murders; WWE reacted with a bizarre press release in which it claimed "it is entirely wrong for speculators to suggest that steroids had anything to do with these senseless acts." More interesting were two other bits in the release, which stated that Benoit had passed a WWE-administered steroid test in April, and that all steroids in Benoit's house were believed to have been obtained via legal prescriptions.
Both of these last two points are doubtless true, and of the highest relevance for baseball — far more relevant, actually, than the fact that, according to the Albany district attorney's office, Benoit was a client of the same Florida company that also supplied ballplayers like Gary Matthews Jr. These facts show, on the one hand, how fraudulent a drug-testing program can be; and by offering a point of contrast to baseball's drug policy, they show how rigorous that policy really is. That people aren't aware of this shows how bad a job baseball has done of letting people know how serious its efforts have been to clean up the game.
WWE instituted its drug testing program in the aftermath of the 2005 death of Eddie Guerrero, who was just one among dozens of wrestlers who have died at age 45 or younger in the last decade, of causes related to long-term abuse of steroids and prescription medications. It's a shamefully inadequate policy. According to documents to be found on the company's Web site, for instance, "A Testosterone/Epitestosterone (T/E) ratio of four (4) or less shall be regarded as a negative test result." Without going into eye-glazing detail, T/E ratio is the chemical clue steroid tests are often actually used to find. A normal ratio is 1-to-1; baseball, following World Anti-Doping Agency standards, considers 4-to-1 a failure.
Many people think that baseball's drug testing policy is a transparent public relations ploy. It truly isn't. Determined athletes can beat it, but it's close to state of the art — independently administered, adhering to the anti-doping agency's protocols on technical matters like proscribed substances and T/E ratios, and by all accounts intolerant of quack prescriptions. WWE, on the other hand, not only counts athletes with hugely elevated testosterone ratios as clean, but allows them to use whatever drugs they can lay their hands on so long as they can get some doctor somewhere to write a prescription. That's not a policy, it's a fig leaf.
Baseball has to start doing a better job of educating the public about steroids, because no one else is going to do it. Right now, many people believe that steroids drove Benoit to strangle his own child — a belief so self-evidently simplistic and ridiculous that it allows WWE to point to its pathetic drug policy and ignore the real issues at play, which involve not only Benoit's own private demons, but a brutal, dehumanizing schedule, work that requires a level of physical punishment the body just can't handle, drug abuse as a near condition of employment, and a string of dozens and dozens of deaths about which no one has cared.
This is a problem for baseball because it shows how deep the ignorance about steroids runs. If people truly find it plausible that someone can murder his own family simply because of an injection of Winstrol, there's no reason to expect them to know or care that baseball's stance on T/E ratios and unannounced specimen collection shows the sport to be profoundly serious about doing its best to eliminate drug abuse from baseball.
People believe the mechanistic explanation, though, because they're ignorant about steroids and indifferent to the issue's complexities. And who can blame them, when those with the greatest interest in dispelling ignorance refuse to do so?
Baseball has every right to unapologetically point out that no matter how deep the steroid crisis in the game is, it has only affected competition — something that's not the case in, say, bodybuilding, prowrestling, and even football, which have seen violence, suicide, mental illness and all sorts of early deaths connected to steroid use. Baseball also has every right to point with pride to a comprehensive drug testing policy that's better than that found in any other major team sport. Instead, baseball threatens to suspend Jason Giambi unless he cooperates with the sad, impotent investigation helmed by Senator Mitchell. This is anti-publicity. It's time for baseball to stop playing into the hands of the hysterics.