Ken Burns: Deregulators Ruined Baseball, Too!


They're not saying "Youkilis," they're booing!

As someone whose single proudest moment as a baseball fan this year came when I lustily (and drunkenly!) booed the shit out of Ken Burns at an opening pitch ceremony in Washington D.C.'s taxpayer boondoggle of a stadium, I did not expect to not hate last night's opening half of "The Tenth Inning" as much as I did (didn't? I'm lost….). But that doesn't mean there weren't some howlers, particularly in the opening pitch from Keith Olbermann (!) claiming that modern baseball is played by the same basic rules as the baseball of 1860, which would definitely come as a surprise to overhand pitchers and base stealers, among others.

But since Burns is begging us to see 1994-2010 baseball as a mirror of our national politics and culture, it behooves me to call shenanigans on the one-liner voice-over about Mark McGwire using Androstenedione during his record-breaking 1998 home run binge:

You can see, but you can't unsee!

Thanks to government deregulation, it was sold over the counter.

Burns has elaborated on both the claim and the broader symbology during his promo tour, insisting that:

in a pharmacological society, a society built on a winner-take-all mentality, in which globalization has made us all not just consumers but exploiters, where deregulation has fueled the kind of liberties that have created more problems than opportunities—all of that contributes not just to the strike, but the kind of mentality that would allow steroids to grow out of control and unchecked as long as it did.


But more to the point, this was in a climate of deregulation everywhere in the United States. And, in fact, the availability of these drugs had to do in large measure to deregulation. And baseball was unregulated, and these players without rules were free to do whatever they wanted to do without punishment. Just as in our larger society we have had our comeuppance as a result of deregulation, financially and in many other aspects of our national life, so too is baseball coming to terms with that as well.

Leaving aside the question of whether there has been meaningful deregulation in the financial sector and otherwise over the past 15 years, is Burns at least right about his favorite subject, base-ball?

Er, no.

Anabolic steroids were regulated (i.e., made illegal without a prescription), by the the Anabolic Steroids Control Act of 1990. States also began regulating steroids like crazy in the late '80s and early '90s. Andro, which isn't anabolic in nature, was reportedly introduced on the market as a dietary supplement in 1996. In April 2004 the Food and Drug Administration banned Andro as unsafe, and in case that wasn't enough, Congress mis-classified it as an anabolic steroid when it passed the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 2004. It's possible that I'm missing a nuance somewhere, but WHERE THE FUKUDOME IS THERE A "DEREGULATION" IN THIS STORY? Burns' treacly nostalgia is painful enough without the bald-faced, politically motivated BS.

Reason on steroids in baseball here.

UPDATE: Alert commenter Dr. Manhattan flags the suspected bit of deregulation, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994, which brought a whole host of dietary/nutritional supplements under the regulatory authority of the Food and Drug Administration. How was that a deregulation? Because, according to this skeptical take, the supplement industry "evade[d] the law's intent" by promoting medicinal benefits not on labels (which were where the FDA had strongest authority), but "through books, magazines, newsletters, booklets, lectures, radio and television broadcasts, oral claims made by retailers, and the Internet."

So "deregulation" was a regulation that didn't regulate far enough, is my best guess. FWIW, here's a publication called Obesity, Fitness & Wellness Week writing in 2001 about two DSHEA "myths":

Myth: Dietary supplements are virtually unregulated.

Fact: The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), enacted in 1994, gives considerable powers to the Federal government to assure the safety of dietary supplements as well as the accuracy of their claims and labeling. Under DSHEA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has the same powers to regulate dietary supplements as the agency exercises over commonly used foods. This means that, like most other foods, it is the manufacturer's responsibility to ensure that the company's products are safe and properly labeled prior to marketing.

Myth: The passage of DSHEA has weakened the FDA's enforcement powers over the dietary supplement industry.

Fact: Its passage actually maintained and increased the FDA's enforcement powers by establishing new labeling and potency standards and by making violations of these standards a crime.