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Against Narrative: Why Biogenesis is not About You Feeling Superior

The politics of starving.


"They are poor. We make billionaires."

That is the justification that Colin Cowherd gave this morning in response to the fact that 12 of the 13 players -- that is, all but Ryan Braun -- who were implicated in the Biogenesis are of Latin American descent. Cowherd's original argument -- one that was not, it should be noted, derived through him -- is becoming very popular in the wake of the Biogenesis suspension news yesterday. The logic, as it goes, is that MLB's Latin American pipeline, which has brought us players like Miguel Sano, Jurickson Profar, and, yes, Antonio Bastardo, operates in a systemically uneven way. The 16-year-olds in the Dominican Republic, for instance, are at such an economic disadvantage that they strive toward professional baseball as a golden ticket out of poverty. And as such, they use and become dependent upon substances banned by MLB, namely PEDs. The argument concludes by saying that, before one chastises the young men -- Bastardo, Fautino de Los Santos, Sergio Escalona, Everth Cabrera, et al -- that were caught up in Biogenesis, one should be careful to consider the context and have sympathy.

Cowherd went on, this morning, to back up this argument against the claim that white, poor ballplayers don't get the same sympathy, and he went on to throw out some painfully simplified economic data to support his contention that poverty in the US and poverty in Latin America is apples and oranges. Before I am misconstrued: I completely agree that the global South -- of which the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Mexico, et al are a part -- is at a radical economic disadvantage when compared to the global North; it would be wrong to claim that the US is comparable in global wealth to Latin American countries.

But it's also ridiculous to assume that poverty manifests in some kind of ur-state that we do not have here in the States. Cowherd's inane use of "average income per state" -- wherein he gives a figure for Mississippi, "the poorest state," at $38,000+ and for Maryland at $70,000+ -- merges the very rich and very poor into a numerical slurry in order to continue the myth that radical poverty does not exist in the US. Never mind that Mississippi is almost certainly not all made up of people earning roughly 15,000 dollars over the poverty line for a family of four. Never mind that it is wildly disingenuous to take an average of earnings in a state like Maryland, where one of the nation's poorest counties literally abuts one of the nation's richest counties. Never mind all the ugly proof that poverty, radical poverty, does exist in the US because, if we ignore it, we can continue the more comfortable narrative: poverty exists over there, and the impoverished are not like us.

To put it bluntly, Cowherd's whole animus here relies on his audience accepting the fact that, due to unspeakable poverty, Latin Americans cannot make decisions like (implicitly white) Americans. They are beset by circumstance, and they only have one way out in baseball -- they will do anything it takes. You cannot judge them, nor can you sympathize with them: they're barely human beings. Cowherd's argument is as good as explicitly saying this. It relies on this distinction between "American poverty" and "global poverty" to create a kind of moral relativism. "The tragic, disenfranchised Latino community needs our understanding," the argument goes, "not our derision. Poverty, that great Satan, is what is at issue here."

And this moral stance allows the left -- and I, too, cannot believe I am aligning Cowherd with the left -- an easy way to think about the Biogenesis issue. Moral outrage about steroids, of course, has long been the bailiwick of the right: maybe you have seen someone talk about "the integrity of the game," a fairly standard conservative claim. A progressive critique of PEDs cannot rely on the integrity of the game as such without eating its own tail vis-a-vis a series of topics ranging from integration to instant replay; so the integrity of the game becomes less about the rules, and more about the ethical standpoint from which we may appreciate the game. In this way, the left expands its own lens of understanding, embracing economic inequality as an unfortunate but seemingly irremediable problem in the structure of the game. And thus -- as the right feels better about itself when it fights for the game's soul -- the left feels good about itself for recognizing the inequality in the world, and extending its knowing, albeit superior, beneficence.

But I get that Colin Cowherd is walking, talking troll, and we should take nothing of substance from his words. Fine. This article, by Dave Zirin of The Nation has also been making the rounds, and I want to suggest that the claims it makes are not too far off -- despite their far greater erudition -- than Cowherd's own. Zirin begins by arguing that the Biogenesis clients, outside of A-Rod, are "a group little-known to the casual fan." I'll forgive Zirin for his cavalier language here, but we should note that it'd be a pretty darn casual fan who didn't know Nelson Cruz and Jhonny Peralta, not to mention Everth Cabrera and Jesus Montero. But whatever. Zirin's point here is that the 11 non-Braun and A-Rod players (both selected in the MLB Rule Four Draft) were international signees, members of a "notorious" market. And again, yes, that MLB exploits impoverished youth to get talent at an extreme minimum (Carlos Ruiz signed for 8,000 dollars) rubs me the wrong way, too. But Zirin goes on to say that, due to the legality of PEDs in the Dominican Republic, and due to MLB's blind eye towards their LA imports taking PEDs, that the Latin American market represents an "imperial arrogance at the heart of the game," an indication that "owners want to have their anabolic cake and eat it too." He urges "white, college educated, US-born players" who critique PED use to understand that "the context [of the PED-users' reality] is profoundly different than their own."

Once again, we see the basic watermarks: distinction between US and global poverty not just in extremity, but in type (even while citing imperalism); the urging toward acknowledgment and sympathy from readers and (explicitly white) MLB players; and the framing of poverty as a nebulous moral wrong. I'll admit, Zirin goes a bit further than Cowherd's simplicity and calls MLB out on its fairly crass handling of the Latin American market, and that's important. But to isolate this as a problem with MLB, as opposed to a problem with global economics in general is a perfect example of tunnel vision. To assume that sympathy would really make things better for these players who were suspended is inane. To assume that they all did it -- even multi-multi-millionaires like Cruz and Peralta -- because they were terrified of poverty turns them into cartoon characters. It also allows the progressive left to have a really comfortable moral standpoint.

David Murphy has the best take on this thus far, on He gets to his point with some uncited and honestly dubious economic data, but his conclusions on the necessity for moral relativity when thinking about poverty are kind of compelling. As JoeCatz noted on twitter, being young and desperate is a fairly compelling reason to take PEDs. He does it better than I'll summarize, and I encourage you to read the piece. But once again, even as he begins to sketch the basic outlines of the logic of income inequality such as it is, Murphy's solution is not massive overhaul, systemic critique, or an actual assessment of the nature of the problem: instead, he urges us to "expand our moral equivalence" through context. He urges us to understand the "Biogensis gang" and implicitly separates "them" from "us," once again indicating that the best and most moral position on PEDs is simply to try our best to understand why "they" might fail in the first place.

This isn't sufficient. It may make you feel good, but that's not sufficient for a successful politics. Or even a coherent one. While the "legitimacy of the game forever" and "let's understand the context for the PED usage" camps may seem to be diametrically opposed, they're both aiming at the same basic outcome: let's punish the offenders, but let's also be sure to keep the game the way I like it forever. In the left response, part of this might involve criticizing MLB. Part of it may involve questioning the severity and scale of the punishments. None of it involves actually thinking about the nature of the poverty the argument invokes. Instead, to call for sympathy in the way that the left has, heretofore, is to redirect the moral outrage of steroids away from the users and onto nebulous "bad guys" -- global poverty and MLB -- without actually forcing a hard look at how we ourselves are just as complicit with those bad guys ourselves.

My take on the PED discussion has always been fairly agnostic. I understand why the players did what they did; I understand why MLB prosecuted them. I think Selig overstepped his bounds, certainly, and I don't think that the whole thing is a moral issue in any way. But poverty itself -- which is what these writers casually invoke -- is not a trivial or amoral issue. It's serious, systemic, and worth some actual analysis beyond, "Walk a mile in these guys' shoes!" MLB is not a good guy when it comes to Latin America, but it certainly isn't exceptional in what Zirin might call its "corporate imperialism." We might ask ourselves why so few jobs are available in the Dominican Republic to begin with; we might ask why the US, so close by, merely clucks its tongue and offers zero solutions; we might wonder, to get explicitly political, why the free market urgings of the World Bank and WTO have produced laissez-faire drug laws with little actual profit for the countries' citizens. To ask these questions might get us somewhere closer to actually helping the people upon whom these articles focus. But to ask these questions would also require us to look long and hard in the mirror and perhaps make unflattering conclusions about our own complicity in inequality as fans of baseball. So, instead, we get a parable about difference and an urging towards sympathy that, ultimately, distances us from the accused as members of the same basic species.

After all, they are poor. We make billionaires.