Course:JRNL503B/MLB Steroid Era

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The Steroid Era in the Major League Baseball was a landmark period that had far-reaching consequences for the game, the players, and others involved in the league. It was marked by the rampant use of steroids by players and their subsequent effects that had on gameplay, viewership, and development of the sport. This Wiki Page discusses the media coverage and media framing of the MLB Steroid Era and analyzes the stances of publications like ESPN, Sports Illustrated, San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and USA Today among others.


Steroids in Baseball

There is no defined start or end time for the “Steroids Era” of Major League Baseball (MLB[1]). However, the era is generally considered to have run from the late 1980s through the late 2000s[2]. While some[3] date the Steroid Era as the period from 1994 to 2004, there were speculations of steroid use in the game from the years 1985 to 1993[4]. According to research published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine[5] and an ESPN[6] report the number of players on the Disabled List (DL) increased by 31%, from 266 in 1989 to 349 in 1998. The injuries logged were often vague, causing suspicion for a specific cause of injury.

Jose Canseco

Jose “The Natural” Canseco[7] is recognized as the self-proclaimed “Godfather of Steroids”[8] as, in his book Juiced, he credits[9] himself for being the person who introduced steroids into the game[10]. Canseco began using steroids in the mid-1980s[10] while playing Double-A ball in Huntsville, Alabama. He did so in order to fulfill a promise to his mother that he would become the greatest baseball player ever to play the game[11].

By the late 1990s, Barry Bonds had replaced Jose Canseco as the face of steroid use[12]. The former Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder joined the San Francisco Giants in 1993. This was a move that changed the course of Bonds’ career as his new placement was accompanied by a change of trainer. He began training with Greg Anderson, a known steroid dealer[13]. It was Anderson who introduced Bonds to Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative BALCO[12]. BALCO sold tetrahydrogestrinone ("the Clear")[14], a performance-enhancing anabolic steroid that was undetectable by doping tests. People began to question Bonds as he hit 73[15] home runs at the age of 37.

In 1990, Congress cracked down on anabolic steroids with the Anabolic Steroids Control Act, which effectively made them an illegal drug. A few months after, on June 7, 1991, MLB commissioner Fay Vincent sent a memo[16] to the players union stating[17]: "The possession, sale or use of any illegal drug or controlled substance by Major League players or personnel is strictly prohibited ... This prohibition applies to all illegal drugs ... including steroids." The use of steroids[18] was thus outright prohibited. Though steroids have been banned in MLB since 1991, the league did not implement league wide Performance Enhancement Drug PED testing[19] without penalty until 2003[20], and testing with penalty in 2004[21].

Major Investigations


Victor Conte

The Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO[22]), was a nutritional[23] supplement firm in Burlingame, California suspected of distributing undetectable steroids to athletes. In 2003, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA[24]) received an anonymous tip[25] that an undetectable, designer steroid was being distributed by Victor Conte[26], the founder of BALCO. The tipster was later identified[27] as Trevor Graham[28], the former coach of track athletes Marion Jones[29] and Tim Montgomery. In September 2003, federal investigators raided BALCO[24] and gathered evidence that many MLB players and other professional athletes were using anabolic performance enhancing steroids[30].

In addition to the list of athlete patrons that was discovered, the USADA discovered containers that held steroids and human growth hormones. In a search of Greg Anderson's house two days after the initial raid, investigators discovered steroids, $60,000 in cash[31], patron lists, and dosage plans[32].

In the fall of 2003, the case was turned over to a grand jury that subsequently subpoenaed[33] Barry Bonds (Greg Anderson’s personal trainee), Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, and dozens of other alleged BALCO customers.

The Mitchell Commission

In March 2006, MLB commissioner Bud Selig[34] asked U.S. Senator George Mitchell[35] to head a panel to investigate steroid use by Major League players. The league announcement[36] indicated that the investigation would focus on the period beginning with 2002[37]. During the year-long investigation, the team interviewed hundreds[38] of people[39] directly or indirectly related to BALCO and the MLB about their knowledge or involvement in steroid use. After the investigations were wrapped up, a 409-page[40] report was published in 2007[41] that detailed the Mitchell Commission’s findings. The document revealed the early use of steroids in MLB, the players investigated, the BALCO investigation, and information obtained regarding other players’ possession or use of steroids, and Human Growth Hormones[39].

The report concluded that the use of these illegal substances posed a serious threat to the integrity of the game and made 20 recommendations[36] to strengthen the MLB drug policy. Some such recommendations included an independent overseer, greater education, and increased testing.

Banning, Testing, and Suspension

Although steroids finally made it to baseball’s banned substance list in 1991, testing for Major League players did not begin until the 2003 season[42].

In order to begin tackling the rise of steroid hysteria, MLB banned Jose Canseco in 2002. Following the BALCO scandal, the league finally decided to buckle down and issue harsher penalties for steroid users.

Later in 2005, 10 players[43] were suspended following the BLACO investigations, including, Agustin Montero[44], Rafael Betancourt[45], Rafael Palmeiro[46], Ryan Franklin[47], Carlos Almanzar[48] among others.

On June 12, 2006, the Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Jason Grimsley[49] was suspended[50] for 50 games without pay, to take effect if he ever returned to Major League Baseball. The suspension was based on Grimsley’s reported[51] admissions[52] to federal agents of his possession, use, and intent to use human growth hormone, as detailed in the search warrant affidavit.

Coverage of the Beginning of the Steroid Era

Mark McGwire

One of the first media archives to have brought attention to baseball’s steroid era dates back to 1998 when Steve Wilstein of the Associated Press[53] noticed a bottle of pills titled “androstenedione” in St. Louis Cardinals' player Mark McGwire's[54] locker and wrote an article titled “Drug OK in Baseball, Not Olympics[55].” This article brought Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s[56] steroid usage in the limelight. Small newspapers like the Jackson Clarion-Ledger,[57] which was published in Mississippi, had this news across its sports pages[58]. While most of this coverage brought attention that drugs were being used by players to enhance their performance, the audience seemed to care little about it.[58]

The 1998 season was called the Home-Run Chase for the competition between Cardinal’s McGwire and Cubs’ Sammy Sosa who were trying to break the 37-year-long 61-homer record by Roger Maris.[59] The former scored 70-homers and the latter 66. This competitive season was revisited by ESPN in the 2020 documentary film called “Long-Gone Summer[60]” which includes in-depth interviews with both the players and also analyzes the impact of steroid usage on their accomplishments[61].

In 2001, McGwire’s record was broken by San Francisco Giants’ Barry Bonds with a 73-homer season. Sportswriter at the New York Times[62] Selena Roberts stated in her article, “This is the totality of Bonds's incredible power at age 37. And it is why few pitchers have wanted to challenge him over the last two weeks.”[63]  In the previous season, Bonds averaged at 39 home-runs per season[64] before his stellar performance 2001 season onwards which led to suspicions of steroid intake and connection to the Bay Area Laboratories Co-Operative (BALCO)[65] What followed was the BALCO Investigation.

Sammy Sosa (R) and Mark McGwire (L) on the cover of Sports Illustrated on Dec 21, 1998

Investigations and Subsequent Bans

Tom Verducci’s 2002 article entitled  ‘Totally Juiced[66]’ was a catalyst for the steroid ban in MLB. Verducci interviewed various minor league and major league baseball players who admitted to taking steroids and divulged the harmful effects of the drugs. The piece ultimately revealed the alarming rate at which players were consuming steroids and the disheartening prevalence by which PEDs were being used. One of the key interviews was of San Diego’s Ken Caminiti[67], dubbed the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1996[68]who died in October 2004 of an accidental drug overdose.

Game of Shadows by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams

In 2004, an anonymous source leaked confidential federal grand jury testimony of the BALCO investigation to the San Francisco Chronicle. The reported detailed that Bonds, Gary Sheffield[69], and Jason Giambi[70] had all accepted and used supplements that BALCO had provided.

The 2006 book Game of Shadows, written by San Francisco Chronicle reporters Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada, expands on the the above mentioned investigation. The work offered researched claims that Bonds' trainer was providing illegal performance-enhancers to Bonds and other athletes. The controversy became even more prevalent after the release of Jose Canseco’s autobiography Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big.

U.S. Senator George Mitchell who formulated the Mitchell Report

After the Mitchell Report was made public, some questioned if being the director of the Boston Red Sox[71] created a conflict of interest for George Mitchell. The New York Times reported[72] on Mitchell’s investigative practices and his possible bias through interviews with crucial witnesses and his colleagues but also mentioned that Mitchell himself refused to answer any questions. This speculation arose because no prime Red Sox players were named in the report despite the fact that stars David Ortiz[73] and Manny Ramirez[74] were accused[75] of using performance-enhancing substances during the 2003 season.

Former U.S. prosecutor John M. Dowd told[76] the Baltimore Sun[77] that he was convinced the former Senator had done a good job. The Los Angeles Times[78] reported that Mitchell acknowledged that his "tight relationship with Major League Baseball left him open to criticism". Mitchell responded to the concerns by stating that readers who examined the report closely "will not find any evidence of bias, of special treatment of the Red Sox".[79]

Framing of the Steroid Era

This examines media framing of baseball as well as its major players and executives who were heavily implicated in coverage of the scandal. The coverage of each individual will be examined within the timeframe that is deemed most relevant to their part of the story.

The coverage from three outlets will be examined. Firstly, The New York Times[80] will be examined as the stalwart of American journalism has a long history of covering the nation’s national pastime. Secondly, San Francisco Chronicle[81] will be examined as its sports writers showed particular interest in steroid era stories due to the implications surrounding Giants[82] legend Barry Bonds[83]. Finally, USA Today[84] will be examined as the steroid scandal was heavily featured in its coverage due to their commitment to telling stories that are of national interest[85].

Framing of the Sport

Prior to the Steroid Era, baseball was widely seen as a repository of American values[86]. Although the training methods of individual players had already been called into question[87], the disturbing revelation of widespread steroid use revealed that America’s pastime was not as representative of rugged national idealism as once thought. When news of doping among Major League Baseball players broke, fans[88] and media[89] personalities alike were understandably troubled. Sports writers often castigated those complicit in the scandal as villains[90] unworthy of admiration[91] while the game itself was heavily vilified[92] in the media.

Coverage of the game turned largely negative during the 1990’s and 2000’s as investigations shed light on rampant[93] steroid use in MLB. Many writers focused on the tangible aspects of the game by calling into question[94] every achievement made in the game between the two decades. Others emphasized the intangible, namely the tarnished legacy[95] of a game synonymous with the purity of the American dream. Regardless of the particular lean of individual news pieces, the game of baseball had suffered immense rhetorical damage.

Framing of Players and Executives

Mark McGwire

The framing of Mark McGwire[96] during the steroid era must be examined as, due to Wilstein’s groundbreaking article[97], he can be seen as the primary catalyst for the scandal. To capture McGwire’s treatment by the media, the period of August of 1998 to August 1999 must be examined as it was during this time when media response to McGwire’s use of performance enhancing drugs was most prevalent.

McGwire playing for the St. Louis Cardinals. Image: Jon Gudorf

Surprisingly, media outlets generally defended McGwire in light of his alleged transgression. Support for the slugger manifested in a handful of ways. Firstly, while Wilstein and some like-minded contemporaries[98] illustrated that the use of andro raised testosterone levels (and thereby enhancing athletic performance), many sports writers responded by pointing out[99] that the substance was not prohibited[100] by MLB. Numerous articles thus centered around the fact that it was senseless[101] to brand McGwire as a cheater for acting within the established rules.

Secondly, coverage of McGwire generally downplayed the beneficial effects of andro. Many articles noted that the science[102] regarding andro’s ability to enhance the human body was far from settled[103]. Some even highlighted[104] andro’s rehabilitative[105] effects to suggest that McGwire might have been using the drug for recovery purposes. Others, including USA Today writer Gary Mihoces, simply resorted to the common defense of illustrating[106] that performance enhancing drugs are not nearly as consequential in baseball as they are in other sports. According to Mihoces “[n]obody, not even the manufacturers, claims it will help a hitter like McGwire with all the hand-to-eye skills that make for hitting a baseball, which some say is the toughest test in sports.” Some of Mihoces’ contemporaries seemed to share[107] this view with fervor.

Finally, a number of articles noted that a moral[108] debate swirled around the use of andro. Some even stated that, as andro was legal in MLB, blame[109] for the controversy should have been placed on the league[110] rather than McGwire. Regardless of the particular messaging, McGwire’s treatment by the media was notably more positive than that of some fellow players.

Rafael Palmeiro

As the scandal intensified, a Congressional hearing was held on March 17, 2005[111] to determine the scope[112] of doping in the sport as well as the merits of tougher restrictions. Baltimore Orioles[113] first baseman Rafael Palmeiro[114] had a very notable presence in the media during this time as he was among the star players subpoenaed[115] for the hearing. In addition, he was ostensibly most famous[116] player that would be suspended for doping under the newly established rules. As Palmeiro evolved into a central figure in the coverage of the scandal in the mid-2000s, the media’s framing of Palmeiro must be examined. These events of the steroid era are best illustrated by coverage from August 2005 to August 2006.

Rafael Palmeiro playing for the Texas Rangers. Image: Jeff Nyveen

The coverage of Palmeiro during this period was largely negative and was in stark contrast to the relatively kind treatment shown to McGwire. Sports writers tended focused on two particular transgressions that painted Palmeiro as a newfound villain of the steroid era. The first was Palmeiro’s apparent perjury[117] during the Congressional hearing. The slugger was famously noted[118] for having wagged his finger at the committee while indignantly stating[119] "I have never used steroids, period". However, on August 1st[120] of that year, Palmeiro tested positive for the banned[121] substance stanozolol[122] and was subsequently suspended for ten games. Unsurprisingly, the baseball world was outraged[123] by the revelation that yet another[124] star player had cheated in the game of baseball. Coupled with this newfound fury, baseball writers sternly castigated him as a liar[125] and a perjurer[126]. Although Congress eventually declined[127] to charge[128] Palmeiro for perjury, the media’s response to the controversy had already caused immense damage[129] to his image[130]. Following the Congressional fiasco, coverage of Palmeiro shifted to focus on his damaged[131] prospects of entering the Hall of Fame[132] and the lasting impact[133] on his legacy.

During the hearing, Palmeiro implicated[134] teammate Miguel Tejada[135] for giving[136] him the steroids. This incident would become his second major transgression of the time. Media response to the issue turned outright salacious. Articles not only highlighted Tejada’s feeling[137] of betrayal[138], but also pointed out that, by indicting a teammate, Palmeiro had committed a mortal sin[139] in the world of sports. Above all, the coverage of Palmeiro was devoid of any semblance of the kind of positive treatment that was shown to McGwire.

Barry Bonds

Barry Bonds received far more negative treatment in the media than both McGwire and [140]Palmeiro. In light of his steroid use revelations, he became a central focus of the media’s disdain as not only was one[141] of the greatest hitters of all-time[142], but also came from a family of baseball royalty that included his father Bobby Bonds[143] and Godfather Willie Mays[144]. This section examines coverage of Bonds from 2007-the year[145] of his retirement from MLB-to determine how he was portrayed within the media.

Barry Bonds playing for the San Francisco Giants. Image: Kevin Rushforth

Although Bonds generally maintained his [146]innocence the media was nonetheless eager to vilify him as one of the game’s great offenders. Many outlets sought to discredit[147] the many of his career accomplishments[148]. Others attacked his character[149], not only for his use of steroids but also his response[150] to media intervention during the scandal. The majority of media outlets framed Bonds as a dastardly character[151] whose accomplishments were questionable[152] at best.

Surprisingly, media outlets also took a perspective in their coverage that had not been present in that of McGwire or Palmeiro. Sports writers tended to highlight the apparent disdain[153] and apathy[154] with which Bond’s achievements (namely, setting the career home run record at 755) were being received. Bonds was continually cast in a negative light, not only due to the steroid scandal but also his famously abrasive personality, which resulted in relatively little fanfare for arguably the greatest achievement the sport has ever seen.

Bud Selig

Bud Selig is the former commissioner of MLB. Image: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Flickr

Allan Huber “Bud” Selig[155], the commissioner of MLB at the height of the steroid era, understandably played a key role in the scandal’s development. Selig oversaw a number of major developments like the McGwire revelations, the Mitchell Commission, and the time that some consider to be the end[156] to the era. As his decisions (and indecisions) shaped the history of the game, the media kept a watchful eye on the commissioner. Unlike many of the players whom he governed, Selig’s treatment by the media varied over the course of the scandal. Selig’s characterization in the media is best examined during the period of 2004 to 2006; a period that saw major developments in the baseball’s scandal that thrust leaders into the limelight.

The media was, at first, highly critical of Selig’s handling of the steroid situation. Much of Selig’s earlier treatment focused on his inability[157] to take decisive action[158] against steroids. To further illustrate this issue, sports media played on the fact that throughout his tenure as an executive in MLB, he had demonstrated a track record[159] of poor[160] leadership. Writers relished bringing up Selig’s ineffectiveness[161] in handling the Pete Rose[162] gambling saga as well as his failure[163] in running the Milwaukee Brewers[164]. USA Today’s Jon Saraceno offered perhaps the most damning assessment of Selig as he likened[165] the executive to an absentee father illusioned by the kind of incorrect priorities that catalyzed the steroid era. However, it was Selig’s consistent characterization[166] as a weak[167] leader that would eventually spark his turnaround.

As the scandal worsened[168] in the mid 2000s[169], and as the negative effects[170] of doping were increasingly publicized, Selig was inspired[171] to pursue to greater and more immediate action. When the commissioner showed a change of character by revamping[172] his approach to tackling[173] the steroid issue, the media followed suit and began to laud his efforts to revitalize his handling of the scandal. As New York Times writer Murray Chass [174]noted, Selig’s newfound inspiration was due to his growing concerns for both the players he governed and his legacy. Sports writers celebrated Selig’s new resolution[175] and bold attitude[176]. Columnists began to recognize Selig’s new efforts and the positive effects[177] they were having on the game.

Donald Fehr

Donald Fehr is the former head of the MLBPA. Image: Bruce C. Cooper

As head of the Major League Baseball Players Association[178] (MLBPA), Donald Fehr[179] worked closely with Selig on on issues related to the steroid scandal. The two executives were present[180] during Congressional hearings and had hands in developing[181] new doping policies while navigating MLB through the tumultuous mid 2000s. Thus Fehr’s treatment by the media should be examined in the same timeframe as Selig’s to determine key differences in how the men were framed.

Fehr’s framing in media differed from that of Selig’s. Unlike the commissioner during the period of 2004-2006, Fehr was framed uniformly negatively[182]. As sports writers grew restless for closure[183] to the steroid saga, so too did their hatred of Fehr deepen. The executive was often deemed an obstacle[184] to the resolution of the steroid era due to his hesitancy[185] to address steroid issue as well as his staunch defense[186] of players complicit in the scandal. Media personalities also highlighted this ineffectiveness to brand him a hypocrite[187] in light of his work with the United States Olympic Committee[188].

Post Steroid Era

Baseball players like Bonds, Sosa, and Giambi continue to make occasional appearances in mainstream news. They are especially prevalent in articles that discuss[189] the Baseball Hall of Fame. As of November 7, 2022, the Associated Press reported[190] Bonds was leading the Contemporary Baseball Era Hall of Fame ballot along with a few other players despite his controversial history.

In early 2022, ESPN revealed[191] that MLB had stopped testing its players for steroids due a player lockout and the incidental expiration of the sport’s drug agreement [192]on December 2, 2021. The New York Daily News[193] speculated[194] that while a new agreement was yet to be instituted players were seeking ways to safely consume steroids as they were no longer technically illegal in the sport. However, when the 99-day lockout ended on March 10, the sport surged back to life. The New York Times reported[195] “As part of the new agreement, the 2022 season is expected to feature the most tests in the program’s history and blood testing for human growth hormone has resumed but with new technology.” This meant that the MLB was going to crack down on players harder than ever.[196]

In August 2022, Fernando Tatis Jr.[197], the young San Diego Padres[198] phenomenon, tested positive for using performance-enhancing drugs and was subsequently suspended for 80 games. Tatis’s explanation for using steroids was not received well by critics[199]. Similarly, two years ago in 2020, Robinson Cano was banned for 162 games[200] after testing positive for using steroids. This suspension came after his first in 2018,[201] and as proclaimed by the New York Times, “turned his career into a farce.”  [202]

Reactions to the Steroid Era Today

Reactions to this era of baseball are rather mixed. Gavin Norley on Medium [203]calls the steroid era the saving grace of baseball and says, “The MLB benefitted from the cheating, but now that the Steroid Era is done, they are stuck with lower viewership and less profit.” On the other hand, some deem the era as a destructive force for the sport. Bleacher Report’s recent article[204] by Nicholas Martinez points to the Steroid Era as the culprit for the low viewership of the sport in the current scenario. It mentions, “The people that insist MLB needs high scores and home run races like the one they witnessed in the late 1990s are only serving to destroy an entire sport.” However, Associated Press reports[205] that the sport of baseball is finding itself in a real “numbers problem” today as audiences are dwindling by the season and state that one of the reasons may be because the audience is “tired of watching everyone swing for the fences with two strikes.”



Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, popularly known by its four letter acronym ESPN, is one of America's leading sports network. Founded in 1979, licensed to broadcast Major League Baseball in 1990s, and only launching its website in 1995, ESPN's coverage of the steroid era began when public discourse had also began. From the pieces analyzed[2][17] and used in this Wiki page, it is clear their coverage was dominantly informational, rather than critical or analytical. The pieces used were collated reports of the steroids era, that employed more thematic frames than analytical frames. The thematic framing of their reports explain the neutrality in tone and individual framing of subjects and events.

The New York Times

Writers covering the Steroid Era for The New York Times, did not take a consistent stance on the issue. Instead, they opted to cover developments in the scandal as they unfolded and offered expert opinion based on the latest information[206]. The Times had thus adopted a thematic approach to their coverage that saw their writers file a wide array of articles.

Associated Press

Associated Press, founded in 1846, remains to be one of the oldest news publications running till date. For the purposes of this analyses, the articles and columns observed displayed a heightened sense of critique, analysis of news events and sportspeople, as well as a strong stance against the steroid era. Some pieces analyzed also showed investigations which were based on thematic framing and columns took an emotional turn  but other pieces which dealt with hard news were more neutral and episodic.

Sports Illustrated

Sports Illustrated is an American legacy sports magazine. For the purposes of this topic, it was observed that Sports Illustrated maintained a neutral stance on the steroid era. However, Sports Illustrated showcased a high investigative quality and was thematic in its framing, identifying larger aspects of the issue at hand, involving expert voices, and explaining trends, definitions, and certain news events.

USA Today

USA Today was often more clinical[102] in its assessment of steroid revelations. Articles frequently offered extremely reasoned[99] approaches for their opinions that would help fans avoid getting caught up in the emotion of the scandal. This outlet also used a thematic frame in their coverage.

New York Daily News

The New York Daily News was founded in 1919 and aims to tell the stories of New York and its people[194]. The pieces analyzed for this Wiki page were extremely explanatory but also showcased a thorough thematic explanation of the issue. There was also a presence of a narrative in the feature piece as if the journalist was writing a column. Moreover, there was also a hint of personal perspective that showcased through the emotional language used.

San Francisco Chronicle

While writers for the San Francisco Chronicle also took a thematic approach to their coverage, they were often more opinionated than many of their counterparts in the traditional media space. Chronicle articles were adorned with more condemning language[124] and greater appeals to emotion[118].

Bleacher Report

Founded in 2005, Bleacher Report's approach to framing their stories were more episode than thematic. Often times singling out characters [207] and performing analyses on their involvement to the larger story. This form of framing can be said to humanize the event rather than allowing its audience get caught up in abstraction of the events. Another piece used, though report-like, was more critical, negative with bits of sarcasm in its tone.


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