I Don’t Have to Care about Papi; or Burke’s Concept of Trained Incapacity and the Steroids Controversy

Just to be sure that I’m not solely a “homer” here, on my academic blog I have long maintained that the steroids controversy was by and large a manifestation of two things: 1) media guilt and 2) general human unease with 21st century reconsiderations of the classical/Modern mind and body divide (i.e., Plato’s Ideals versus earthly reality, Christian souls versus sinful bodies, Saussure’s linguistic signifier versus the semantic signified, etc).

To address the latter: it is often difficult to realize that considerations of what a human is, and the relation between human consciousness and its material container, is not necessarily “natural.” Ideas such as these develop over centuries and are greatly impacted by various non-human technologies. Currently, my research is focusing on how much writing transformed these considerations for the ancient Greeks, and how our digital technologies are breaking up the consistent “either/or” divides initiated by and large by Greek thinking.

To jump to the manner at hand: steroids are the tip of the proverbial needle penetrating public consciousness that our relation to our bodies is quickly changing. If our bodies are temples, then these temples are getting remodeled in ways unthinkable 100 years ago. Until very recently, these technologies have been completely external to our bodies: clothing to whether the elements, glasses to correct vision, make-up to cover blemishes, automobiles to reduce distances, telephones to transport us across space, etc. Then comes the pacemaker… When I suggest changes are coming, I’m not just talking cosmetic surgery or athletic enhancement, although these are likely the tip of the iceberg (or, um, the needle, if I keep my metaphors straight). I mean an almost science fiction future in which we can engineer the genetric traits of our children. I mean a future where “selection” isn’t left to either God or Darwin’s “natural” hand. I mean a future where a baseball player will replace his eye ball with one that tracks the movement of a baseball and designates spin and velocity in a real-time readout. I mean pitchers who replace their elbow with something more composite than bone. This might sound crazy to some, but, go read Andy Clarke’s Natural Born Cyborgs, this is the future. And its closer than you think.

As an academic who works in the history of ideas, I am used to reading extremely reactionary material that looks foolish hundreds of years later. Much of the anxiety regarding performance enhancing drugs will be “reassessed” in decades to come, when we all take human growth hormone in our daily vitamins. What is dangerous now will likely be healthy then. Mark my words. Cosmetic changes (including things such as gastro bypass surgery) are just the tip.

To my first issue, media guilt: writers feel as if they didn’t do their job in the late 90’s. They saw the andro in McGwire’s locker and did what the rest of us did: cheer. As the public has shown at the turnstiles, most people don’t care about steroids. Most fans, those who don’t call in to sports radio, don’t want their sports to come with heavy doses of moralizing, crisis, and stress. Its not that they don’t care, its that they don’t have the energy to care. They are too busy caring about mortgages, health insurance, car payments, their beat-up 401k, their parents, their spouses, their children. Sports provides a 3 hour window to get away from problems. If a few athletes broke some rules to play better (or make more money), then whatever. As long as my kid doesn’t do it, all is forgiven. As a professional rhetorician, I am always suspicious of the “won’t someone think of the children” argument, but this is one time it clearly applies. While I endorse taking a long view of this issue, I do not mean to discredit immediate medical concerns. Although I would stress that contemporary steroids shouldn’t be equated with what plagued the NFL in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I don’t think Mark McGwire is going to deteriorate like Lyle Alzado. Medical technologies continually improve. While science is currently a bit ambiguous on the topic of human growth hormone’s side effects, there are dangers. My point is that, in another 20 years, there probably won’t be. (I imagine an infomercial with a side affects warning no less scary than that for any allergy medication or purple performance enhancer advertised during so many baseball games).

This, of course, is not the sole perspective of sports writers. Their livelihood is very much tied to the “integrity” of the game (or, at least this is what they think). They pronounce themselves, consciously or subconsciously, guilty of betraying that obligation. American rhetorician Kenneth Burke had a concept called “trained incapacity”: essentially, for Burke, any regular occupation provides someone with a particular way of seeing and assessing the world. This perspective cannot be transcended. We all have limited perspective on what we see, and no one can consciously claim to eliminate all professional bias from what they do. In the past few years, and I expect, for several more, sports writers will continue to disparage fans who still cheer for athletes found guilty of using performance enhancing drugs. There will be anxiety over the Hall of Fame, as if the regular fan relies on such an institution to confirm greatness. They will continue to hold investments in numbers and records that fans have shrugged off years ago. They will protect the culture of baseball against the nonchalance of fans who cheer and boo at their on discretion, but never with the proper amount of outrage.

Those writers would be wise to read Burke’s conclusion to Permanence and Change, in which he reminds us that

…there is no place for purely human boasts of grandeur, or for forgetting that men build their cultures by huddling together, nervously loquacious, at the edge of an abyss. (272)

Papi, A-Rod, Manny, Roger, McGwire, Sosa. Go ahead and cheer.



  1. raysfanboy

    Somebody’s bringing some class to this joint…

    Your point that (if I may be so base) times are a-changin’ and that that seems to excuse the juice use is a little scary to me. Scary because I like to believe in morality and the right (Sandberg-ian, if you will) way to play the game. Yet, it seems that we are all becoming more and more desensitized to the whole steroid thing. Some of us, myself included, just want it to go away. If you do it, fine. Let’s just stop talking about it. Of course, taking that stance will only permit those unscrupulous souls to continue to shoot up their drug of choice. “Fertility Drugs” in the case of (former Red Sock) Manny Ramirez and “Drug X” in the case of (current Red Sock) David Ortiz.

    Me? I think that putting such things in one’s body is just wrong. Introducing such foreign elements to alter one’s state is immoral.

    Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to go have a drink.

  2. santosis

    Part of my point, lost in the longer rant, is that the modern athlete plays the game “righter” than any other in history. They might be playing it too right, too soon. An anecdote: a few years ago I remember an interview with Cal Ripken. He explained how, when he came up to the majors, the weight room was empty. He was explicitly told not to lift because adding strength would cost him quickness and flexibility. No one worked out. Flash foward 15 years, to the post-strike 90’s. Teams are more and more employing training staff. Athletes train all off-season. These guys might have started juicing, but they also started working harder than any athletes in the history of sports.

    On point 2, that putting something in the body is wrong, well that’s exactly where we would disagree. I can’t function without my morning coffee. Am I addicted? Completely. But it helps get the job done. And, I understand that there may (or may not) be contemporary dangers to PEDs. My suggestion is that we (as baseball fans, as inheritors of the Cartesian mind/body divide, as a species) have to be ready for a future where they are not only not dangerous, but also part of our daily routine (hence the reference to “daily” vitamins).

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