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New York Times' steroids beat writer gets some perspective

Apr 1, 2010, 3:15 PM EST

Michael Schmidt is the New York Times’ steroids beat writer. He’s probably best remembered for taking a lot of heat last year after reporting names from the famous list of 103 ballplayers who tested positive back in 2003. The reason for the heat: the list was and remains subject to a court order sealing its contents and thus Schmidt’s source is almost certainly violating court orders in order to make the names public, which could constitute criminal contempt of court. Contrary to Don Fehr’s scaremongering, Schmidt isn’t himself subject to the court orders and thus did nothing illegal himself, but as my friend Johnny Caspar likes to say: ettickly, it’s kinda shaky.*

While still covering PEDs in baseball, Schmidt has since split time with the NYPD beat. The Big Lead interviewed him recently, and Schmidt says that the new beat has opened his eyes a bit:

Q: What’s the biggest difference between covering the NYPD
beat and covering steroids? What’s it like to cover a story about, say, a murder-suicide involving an entire family
versus
breaking news that a baseball players was caught using steroids. Has it
changed your attitude towards sports journalism?

Of
course. At times on my steroids beat, I believe I fell into the trap
that many journalists do and believed that everything that occurred on
my beat was really important. Not surprisingly, my perspective changed
when I came downtown and wrote stories about murders, the deaths of
children and hit-and-runs. As awful as it’s been to write those stories,
it has given me a much better sense of the big picture and how to
evaluate a story’s significance.

I obviously have no objection to people covering the steroids beat in baseball. I’d just like to see those who opine on the subject to get a little perspective is all. Taking steroids is a violation of the rules of the sport we love and it likely has some adverse effects on the drug user in question. But it’s not life and death, nor is it so starkly a question of wrong and right as it is so often portrayed.

Schmidt has had a chance to see that recently and I have no doubt that it will affect his reporting on the subject.  One can only hope that the other folks who cover that beat gain a little perspective as well.

* To elaborate, even if I was provided with the names on the list I don’t think I would report it myself because I’m a licensed lawyer and
I think my professional ethical obligations would prevent me from doing
so unless and until the sealing order is disposed of. Neither Schmidt nor anyone else who isn’t a lawyer is subject to the same restriction.

I do think, however, that anyone who gets into the subject of the famous 103 needs to be mindful that while they may be breaking news (a) they’re getting that information from someone who is knowingly violating a court order; and (b) they’re disseminating the private medical information of people who had every expectation that it would remain private and which multiple courts have since ruled was illegally seized by government agents acting outside of the scope of the Fourth Amendment. While I disagree with Don Fehr about whether reporting that sort of thing is illegal, it certainly carries with it some non-trivial ethical considerations, none of which anyone who likes to play the who’s-doing-steroids parlor games ever seem to want to acknowledge.

  1. Bombo - Apr 1, 2010 at 3:31 PM

    What’s with all the “steroids ain’t all that bad!” articles from this guy? Are you some kind of freak or something?

  2. dlf - Apr 1, 2010 at 3:42 PM

    Bombo from post #1 above? That has got to be Bombo Rivera, one time outfielder for the late 70s Twins. Platooning with Hosken Powell, and patrolling the far pastures of Metropolitan Stadium in lovely Bloomington with the likes of Lyman Bostock and Disco Dan Ford. Definitely some kind of freak.

  3. Charles Gates - Apr 1, 2010 at 3:48 PM

    Oh, just release the 103. They aren’t my ethics.
    /sarcasm

  4. gary - Apr 1, 2010 at 3:48 PM

    He is a freak, but he’s a freak who’s right about steroids.
    Funny – the captcha is “scare Hispanic”. ICE, ICE baby!

  5. Old Gator - Apr 1, 2010 at 4:01 PM

    *Well Craig, at least you’re honest. Dat’s somethin’ we can’t get enough of in dis business.

  6. Joey B - Apr 1, 2010 at 4:06 PM

    I’m not sure the first part of the article carries much weight. Obviously, sports, movies, TV, music, etc., aren’t as important as the war in Afghanistan. But there is no reason for a BB writer to give it his full attention. If you had to measure everything against the barometer of murder, then we’d report on nothing.
    However, I do agree that the names should be not made public. You have both the expectation of privacy and the law. Whether or not you are legally liable, you are at some point enabling someone that is legally liable.
    OTOH, having players going national proclaiming they don’t need PEDs to be great, while you know they cheated, presents an irresistable temptation to set the recrd straight.

  7. Reflex - Apr 1, 2010 at 4:06 PM

    “Taking steroids is a violation of the rules of the sport we love and it likely has some adverse effects on the drug user in question.”
    It seems like your forgetting something that may be important here….
    Oh yeah…
    They are also ILLEGAL under the laws of the land. One may or may not agree with drug laws in this nation(I disagree with many of them myself), but your acting like its just a simple decision that some people may disagree with. At the end of the day, its not, it is a serious crime in this country, and yes its reasonable for people to worry about people their kids looking up to turning out to be not just cheaters, but also criminals.
    Yes, the steroid hysteria is out of tune with reality. But the one thing I truly dislike about this blog is the constant avoidance of the fact that it is a crime. Not simply against the rules of the sport.
    Other than that, keep up the good work, I like the blog. ;)
    Captcha: rashly su

  8. Ryan - Apr 1, 2010 at 4:58 PM

    That SPB link has a great quote which I think is important to my point: “the MLBPA is clearly moving into bullying, threatening tactics… which tells me that there must be some really big, shocking names on that list if they are so keen on blocking distribution of the list.”

    Exactly. If it was all fringe players, no one would care, Fehr included. His lower-level officers might not be happy because it means extra work for them, but the king wouldn’t care so much because the highest value members weren’t impacted.

    This does go back to a point I made when Fehr resigned, but Don (and Michael now) don’t have to appease anyone but the 1200ish members of the union. Public relations is almost non-existent because fans have little value to the union, so of course Fehr would come out guns blazing when they feel that they have been slighted.

    IMO, this is a great example of the Streisand Effect – the more damaging the info is (either through straight egregiousness or contradiction of public statements, or in MLBPA’s case – both), the greater the lengths are taken to keep that info hidden, and in turn ends up being orders of magnitude more desirable to the public.

    Free the MLB 103!

  9. Roadrunner - Apr 1, 2010 at 10:00 PM

    Reflex, there’s no denying that some substances are illegal in some places.
    However, I’d prefer that there were no drug laws because people ought to have the final say on what they choose to put into their own bodies. If the government has the final say, then, to me, that’s violating the concept of private property in a most basic way.
    OTOH, MLB should be free to ban any substance use that they want. Nobody’s forced to play MLB.

  10. Big Harold - Apr 2, 2010 at 12:56 AM

    “I’d just like to see those who opine on the subject to get a little perspective is all. Taking steroids is a violation of the rules of the sport we love and it likely has some adverse effects on the drug user in question. But it’s not life and death, nor is it so starkly a question of wrong and right as it is so often portrayed.”
    I couldn’t be in greater disagreement with this statement, it’s wrong and it’s dangerous. Let’s be clear, I completely understand why a borderline major leaguer might take advantage of PEDs, so that he can become a MLB player. Also, I can understand why a bench player might indulge so that they can become a starter. Or, why a starter might use PEDs to be come a star, or why a star might use them to become a Super star. I understand the rationalization process. But, that doesn’t make it right. If I were in their position I might well have made the WRONG choice too but it still isn’t right.
    It’s not as simple as; the only one at risk is the user. It’s not as cut and dry as to suggest that the issue is not life and death or that it’s not a question of stark right and wrong. In fact it’s the opposite, because that is exactly what it is and to suggest otherwise is not merely naive but intellectually dishonest. I can understand the rationalizations but I absolutely can not agree that they are essentially not that important as the above quote suggest. Whether MLB players will either admit it or agree that it’s appropriate they are in fact role models to one degree or another. Young players, from Little League through high school, do watch what they do and how they comport themselves and it has a significant influence. To suggest otherwise is just plain BS. As a father of a Little League baseball player I make every effort to raise my son so as to minimize outside influences but I’m not stupid enough to think that they don’t exist.
    The bottom line here is that while I understand how and why PEDs evolved into the issue they are today it is not on any level acceptable, OK or even understandable. Once it is acceptable, OK or understandable it is essentially institutionalizing them. You might as well tell every baseball player between the age of 12 and 17 that the only way to become a MLB player is to use PEDs, cheat, break the law and risk your health. PED use needs to be viewed as what it is, .. cheating, a criminal act and dangerous. To view them as anything less is gutless, stupid and weak. Really, there is no other rational “perspective” on this issue.

  11. Reflex - Apr 2, 2010 at 1:44 AM

    First off, on the subject of drugs in general, I both agree and disagree. I do believe current laws probably go too far, and put too much focus on the addict rather than the distribution. However historically speaking nations that do not control their drug problems end up either destitute or at war. And on a societal level, I’d rather not deal with the damage legalized drugs create(if your free to put whatever you want in your body, that includes meth and PCP). I grew up in a town with a meth epidemic, and it was terrible. Constant property damage, theft and destroyed lives and families.
    Secondly, this is all besides the point. My point was that Craig continually pretends this is simply an issue of a choice some players made and the only consequences are personal. That is a very selective way to view this issue. The activity is a crime, not just against the rules of baseball. I don’t agree with property taxes, but were I to refuse to pay them that certainly would not be held up as a ‘personal choice’ that ‘harms no one’ even though it could demonstratably be shown to cause less damage to myself and my family than steroids ever could. Just because I feel the laws are wrong does not give me the right to break them at will.
    As pointed out, these people *are* role models. They are consciously breaking the law to gain financial advantage. No different than the kid on the street corner selling drugs to his neighbors, or the prostitute selling her body to get ahead, or the banker embezzeling from his employer to feed his gambling addiction. And their actions do have consequences for others besides themselves. Whether its the illicit black market that thier money feeds and the crime associated with it, the kids who follow Mr. Bonds and try to model themselves after him, or that “quad A” player who never quite makes the 25 man roster because the guy ahead of him was willing to pump himself full of PEDs, it affects people around them. And in the end they likely harm themselves and their families as well(ever think of the effect these drugs might have on thier offspring?).
    While I agree that the press is hysterical about the issue, that does not in any way diminish the fact that this is a real crime and should carry real consequences. If anything, the real disgust regarding the press on this issue should be that rather than portraying these players as criminals they are instead far more concerned about a bunch of old supposedly holy stats in the record books, stats that likely were influenced by drugs and other forms of cheating when they were created originally. I’m more worried about the societal impact than a bunch of numbers, and its amazing to me that everyone else seems to see it the other way around.

  12. Craig Calcaterra - Apr 2, 2010 at 5:22 AM

    Harold — your understanding of the rationalizations involved and the dynamics that led to the drugs getting into the game is all I’m really talking about when I say “it’s not starkly right and wrong” and when I ask that people have perspective. Really, the people I disagree with on the subject of PEDs won’t even acknowledge that which you acknowledge.

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