Baseball Steroids and Sports Officiating:The Myth of the Level Playing Field

It is time to say what should have been said a long time ago. The complaints about baseball steroids are ridiculous, nonsensical, and disingenuous. 

The most-cited argument is that since steroids are performance-enhancing, their use intrinsically creates a playing field that is not level. Players who use them receive a distinct advantage over players who do not which destroys the integrity of the game.

Fair enough. Except for one small thing; the field is already not level. The officiating makes it a very slanted field, particularly in baseball and basketball.

Several years ago I was watching the Baseball Game of the Week. Greg Maddux threw a pitch a couple inches off the plate which, by the rules, is a ball. It was called a strike at which point the commentator said something very similar to this:

"Because he has such great control, when Maddux throws the pitch there it is more likely he meant to throw it there so he will get that call whereas a pitcher with less control won't."

What? He deliberately threw a ball, but since he intended to throw a ball it is a strike? 

That creates a competitive advantage for him. Hitters who lay off pitches out of the strike zone lose that advantage and Maddux gains one without the use of steroids. I later heard a similar comment regarding Barry Bonds.

That comment said that if a pitch was close and he laid off, umpires were likely to call it a ball because Bonds was known to have such a good eye for the strike zone.

Forgive my ignorance, but is it not the job of the umpire to determine whether a ball is in or out of the strike zone rather than interpret the intent of the pitcher or rely on the good eye of the batter? The name of the player does not matter according to the rules, why does it matter according to the umpire?

The same concept holds true in the NBA. Just a couple nights ago in a key NBA Eastern Conference Finals game in the last minute LeBron James took 3-1/2 steps, one of the most egregious travels I have seen this side of the average Magic Johnson move in his heyday.

The announcers were aghast. "You are going to call traveling on LeBron James in this situation?"

Well, yes. As a matter of fact they should. That was a good piece of officiating in an otherwise horribly officiated year. The playoffs have been very hard to watch because they are being heavily affected by very biased officiating. 

In the interest of full disclosure, let me make clear my biases before continuing. I will be quite happy with either a Magic or Cavaliers Finals appearance. I would be ecstatic for the Nuggets to make their first Finals appearance. If the Lakers lost every game they play from today forth by over a hundred points apiece and Kobe Bryant never made another shot I would be ecstatic.

With that said, every team is suffering from the officiating.

Last night I watched Dahntay Jones deliberately trip Bryant. I watched him give him a shove in the back. I watched him clutch and grab and hack and foul again and again with nothing being called. That creates an unfair advantage when he is allowed to play dirty and break the rules in what is called "defense".

At the same time, I watched Bryant fend off with the off arm, push off from the defender to create space and not get called. Ask any Utah Jazz fan or Cleveland Cavalier fan if the offensive player gains a distinct competitive advantage from that maneuver.

Again, I wanted the Bulls to win their Finals match-up with the Jazz. I never want to see the Jazz win a game as I always despised the offensive foul-machine Karl Malone. With that said, when Michael Jordan illegally shoved Bryon Russell and was not called for it, he created a distinct competitive advantage. By missing that call the officiating heavily influenced the outcome of that series.

Watching Hedo Turkoglu fend off with his off-arm the entire time while watching the defender get called for placing a hand on his hip is disgusting. Watching Dwight Howard set an illegal moving screen that knocks the defender into Turkoglu and causes the defender to get called for a foul is dis-heartening.

Watching James initiate contact with a stationary defender and having them get called for the foul is obnoxious. Watching him run over people to block their shot and not being called for a foul is borderline ridiculous.

Make no mistake, Turkoglu, James, Howard, Bryant and so forth are tremendously talented players as were Malone and Jordan, players I addressed earlier.

But the advantage they receive when the games are not called honestly and fairly impacts the game. Fair, impartial officiating should be the hallmark. Instead we regularly get commentary along the lines of, "You are not going to get that call on the road," or ,"You are not going to get that call against a player of his stature" or the most idiotic statements of all, "They are letting them play" and "they are letting the payers decide the outcome". 

The last two are usually brought up when fouls are being committed willy-nilly with nary a call or when a key foul is committed but not called in the final moments of the game.

In truth, by breaking the rules by not calling the game according to the rules it is the officials who are heavily influencing the outcome by allowing one player to gain a prohibitive competitive advantage over the other.

Jordan was clearly a better player than Russell. But on that play in 1998 where he gave Russell a shove in the back at the top of the key in plain view of the officials and was not whistled for a foul he gained an illegal advantage that led to an easy shot opportunity.

There was no level playing field. Jazz fans probably still feel the sting of that one just as anyone who ever watched their power forward get called for a foul for sticking his head in the way of Malones' elbow feels wronged. 

Anyone who has watched Shaquille O'Neal run over a stationary defender and watched the defender get called for a foul knows that pain. Giving superstars calls that break the rules gives them an even bigger competitive advantage and one for which there is no redress. 

You can work to make yourself faster, stronger, more agile. You can study people's tendencies to learn how to defend them better. But you cannot in any way personally affect rule-breaking officiating. There is no way to level that playing field yourself.

As a life-long and die-hard Blazer fan, I fully realize the following comments will be taken with a grain of salt. With that said, I truly believe the officiating had a huge impact on the outcome of the series.

Throughout the series we watched as Ron Artest clutched, grabbed, impeded progress, and knocked to the floor Brandon Roy. We watched as Luis Scola pushed, shoved, clutched, grabbed, hacked, and fouled LaMarcus Aldridge repeatedly without getting called for a foul. 

At the other end of the floor only Joel Przybilla and Greg Oden did anything even remotely similar. There can be no doubt that much of what they did against Yao Ming was a foul. They should have been called for fouls just as Ming should have been called for fouls when he would come down the floor and give Oden a double-hand shove to gain position.

Sure, play gets more physical in the playoffs. But if you allow one team to play physical and not the other it creates a distinct advantage for one team.

There was a key moment in Game Five where Scola was shooting to the top of the key past a Ming pick. Aldridge was clear of Ming so Ming jumped out and hip-checked Aldridge. It was a gorgeous hip-check that any hockey fan could be proud of. It was also a moving screen and illegal contact. It knocked Aldridge into Scola. When Aldridge hit Scola, that certainly should be called a foul...except the correct call was on Ming. Instead they called Aldridge for his 5th which forced him to the bench for critical minutes.

It was very frustrating as a Blazer fan to watch Ming, Scola, Artest, and Shane Battier commit fouls by the armload without getting called while at the other end the Blazers were called for much less contact. There was no competitive balance.

The series can pretty much be summed up in the following sentence. Brandon Roy fouled out of a game while Artest and Battier never encountered foul trouble a single time in the entire series.

Now, even I am not going to claim that the Blazers were going to the Finals this year. I will not even argue they were definitely going to win the series against the Rockets. What I am going to argue is that as a fan it was heart-breaking to watch bad officiating create a competitive advantage for one team.

For one team to receive an advantage it must, by definition, create a disadvantage for the opposition. That is one reason I find the hysteria over steroids so ridiculous.

If the complaint is truly that steroid use creates a competitive advantage and creates a playing field that is not level, what does that say about sports officiating that ignores rule-breaking, gives the "benefit of the doubt" to the more famous player, allows one player to break the rules but not the other, and so forth?

Bad officiating creates more of a competitive imbalance than all the steroid use in the world ever could.

While I very much want to see the Nuggets beat the Lakers, I do not want to see that win occur  because Jones is allowed to play dirty and break the rules in what is charitably called "defense" against Bryant. If they cannot win it fairly they should not win at all.

I do not have a strong preference for who wins the Cavaliers/Magic series but I would really, really like to see it decided by a level playing field that allows the better team to play within the rules rather than gaining an advantage through officiating that favors one team or another.

It is time to stop officiating that favors certain players and create a level playing field. Once we clear that up, perhaps then it will be legitimate to complain about "performance enhancing substances".  Until then, such complaints are the height of hypocrisy.