By: Allan Wolper
It was the good old boy’s network at its worst. It was a confidence kept by the men who played the game, the trainers who massaged their muscles, the doctors who gave them their annual physicals, and the writers who glorified them. It was The Steroid Secret.
Today, news of Rafael Palmeiro’s recent suspension for steroid use makes the front page all over the country. But for much of the ’90s, when bodybuilding drugs became a presence in locker rooms and sports apologists helped keep it that way, baseball reporting was virtually steroid-free. In 1998, Steve Wilstein of the Associated Press was even criticized by other writers when he spotted androstenedione — a steroid — sitting in Mark McGwire’s locker and wrote about it. It was unsafe to make steroids a public issue.
The sports pages that year were intent on focusing on the feel-good home run race between McGwire, the massive slugger for the St. Louis Cardinals, and Sammy Sosa, then a bulky outfielder for the Chicago Cubs. McGwire won, and everyone cheered.
When a slimmer McGwire, now retired, testified before Congress earlier this year, he said he didn’t want to talk about his past. The reporters who defended him seven years ago are still apologizing for not reporting what they saw in the clubhouses.
“Your eyes don’t lie,” said Lee Ivory, publisher/executive editor of Sports Weekly, part of Gannett Co. Inc. “It had been an open secret for a number of years that players were using steroids. The sportswriters joked about it, but none of the papers were willing to take a stand. And we couldn’t get anyone on the record.”
Ivory says he regrets how timid the media had been: “I wish we had been a little bit braver. Maybe we should have gotten more into the face of Major League Baseball. We probably did a disservice to our readers by not being more aggressive.”
The steroid wall of silence might still be intact if The Daily Journal of San Mateo (*see correction below) had not published a November 2003 news item about an FBI raid on the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO), a sports nutrition center in Burlingame, Calif. Word leaked that BALCO’s customers included the personal trainer of San Francisco Giants superstar Barry Bonds and New York Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi.
T. J. Quinn, a reporter for New York’s Daily News, disclosed in December 2003 that Bonds testified before what became known as the BALCO grand jury. But Bonds blew off anyone who asked him about it.
It wasn’t until December 2004, a full year later, that the steroid scandal got some traction. That’s when San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams got a hold of the leaked grand jury testimony of Giambi and Bonds.
The Daily News recently reported that the FBI informed organized baseball more than a decade ago that its locker rooms were stocked with players on ‘roids. But baseball ignored the warning. It would seem logical that the media corporations that own baseball and television stations were told about that FBI report. But sportswriters say those media corporations stonewalled them. “They wouldn’t talk to us,” says John Erardi, a sportswriter for The Cincinnati Enquirer — a newspaper owned by Gannett, which has a 10.5% interest in the baseball team.
Bill McEwen, a metro columnist for The Fresno (Calif.) Bee who was a sports editor five years ago, believes media corporations wanted the steroid stories buried. “Most of the columnists back in the ’90s who could have written about steroids claimed they had more important issues to worry about,” he told me. “Call me guilty as anyone.”
Without incriminating documents and on-the-record interviews, it’s hard to prove that media corporations discouraged their editors from pursuing steroid investigations. Still, I wonder why the best stories on steroid abuse were broken by the Chronicle and the Daily News, two papers with no corporate connections to baseball. In contrast, steroid coverage by The New York Times Co., which owns a 17% share in New England Sports Ventures LLC (owner of the Boston Red Sox), The Boston Globe and The New York Times, was embarrassing at that time.
The St. Louis Post Dispatch, which owns 3% of Mark McGwire’s St. Louis Cardinals, and the Tribune Co., which owns the Chicago Cubs, WGN (the broadcast outlet that televises Cubs games), and the Chicago Tribune, also brought up the rear on the steroids issue.
One possible explanation: The most valuable media players used to be columnists and anchormen. Now, in some cases, it’s the Barry Bondses of the world.
There is no way any media organization can claim to have a functional ethics policy when they’re on the same financial team as the corporations they’re covering.
* This story initially reported that the San Mateo County Times broke the BALCO story, when in fact it was The Daily Journal in San Mateo that had it first. E&P regrets the error.