Sociological Imagination, Ethics, and the Steroid-Era of Professional Baseball

1) What are the three sorts of questions that the best social analysts have consistently asked? How does this relate to C. Wright Mills’ “sociological imagination”?           

The three types of questions consider society’s structure, standing, and stand-outs.  The first of these questions asks about the particular structure of a society as a whole and its essential components.  C. Wright Mills finds the structure in which an individual belongs to be essential to understanding how they both shape each other.  Using marriage as an example, Mills offers an example of how the structure of some issue in society can be more to blame than the individual who experiences the personal troubles.  Next, where society stands in human history and the mechanics by which it is changing are questioned.  The intersection between history and biography can only be understood by asking these questions, which is essential to possessing quality of mind.  Last, the best social analysts ask what types of men and women stand-out and prevail within that society and within that time period.  This enables the individual a feeling, in Mills’ words, “that they can now provide themselves with adequate summations, cohesive assessments, comprehensive orientations.”  Asking questions regarding these three topics is what typically makes up the classic social analyst.  Having this socialogical imagination enables us to grasp our biography and history in relation to its intersections, providing a much greater quality of mind.

2) Trevino and Nelson say that the most serious ethical scandals result from multiple parties contributing in different ways to join together in the creation of the catastrophe.  What are some of the different parties that came together in forming the financial crisis of 2008, and what pressures led to these actions?  Lastly, were all of these actions unethical, or just a result of common practice?

The first factor that played a role was that borrowing money was cheap.  However, Alan Greenspan’s decision to lower the Fed Funds rate was just a common act driven by the soaring stocks in high-technology companies.  The rise of investing in real estate then became a major factor with such low borrowing rates.  At this point, nobody had acted unethically, but the rating agencies might be the first to blame.  They listed investments in the real estate industry as the highest “AAA” rating, which gave investors confidence that they would at least recover the initial value, if not more, from their investment.  Of course this was a primary cause of the catastrophe, but many factors on Wall Street also contributed.  Highly-paid CEOs and executives, a focus on short-term profits, and bonuses for employees taking great risks, also led to the problem.  These pressures to get ahead and have short-term personal gain are possibly a result of the society in which we now live.  Like Trevino and Nelson said is normally the case, many factors did come together to lead to the end result of the financial crisis.  However, while some factors were clear of any wrong-doing, there were certainly others that could have their ethics called into question after seeing their personal benefit at the expense of many others.


3) Describe a situation in pop culture in which the ideas of the sociological imagination can help shed light on an issue involving business ethics and cynicism.

“I wish I had never touched steroids. It was foolish, and it was a mistake. I truly apologize. Looking back, I wish I had never played during the steroid era.” – Mark McGwire, January 2010

 These words from Mark McGwire, one of baseball’s greatest home run hitters of all-time, really exemplify the attitude many baseball players had during the 2000s in Major League Baseball, “the Steroid-Era”.  He was sorry that he cheated, but then again, doesn’t it sound like he is trying to excuse himself on the grounds that nearly everyone else did too—like his guilt was simply a product of having played in the steroid-era?  Well, his apology did not help him much, as he failed to be voted into the Hall of Fame again this year for the seventh time.  Interestingly though, this year’s Hall of Fame voting was only the third time since 1965 that not even a single member of the ballot was inducted into the Hall of Fame.  With the ballot consisting of many new names, nearly all from the steroid-era of baseball, perhaps the general cynicism of society played a role in voting down a number of player who would otherwise have statistically qualified when being compared to the Hall of Fame’s existing members.  The best sports journalists and analysts of the sport have found themselves in a situation where C. Wright Mills’s idea of the sociological imagination comes into play.


“Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.”  This quote from C. Wright Mills gives depth to the steroid-era and the players who played during that time.  Clearly there was an ethical issue involved with using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) to increase your performance, and consequently, your future salaries, but it was not all the fault of the players.  The structure of the league was such that testing and enacting penalties for those caught using these PEDs was entirely misconfigured.  It was everywhere in the clubhouses, but team personnel always seemed to turn a blind eye.  The society in which this issue took place is also relevant.  More home runs were being hit, attendance was up at games, TV contracts were going through the roof, and the game of professional baseball, more importantly the business of professional baseball, was stronger than ever.  Finally, the main type of individuals who prevailed in this society of steroid-era professional baseball were those who chose to take part in the cheating.  Not only did it go unpunished, but instead, the decision was often times rewarded.  These three questions that C. Wright Mills says are essential to developing the quality of mind necessary for a strong sociological imagination, should probably be considered more closely by the journalists and baseball writers who will be voting in next year’s Hall of Fame ballot.


Yes, these players acted unethically by taking steroids, but enough with the cynicism.  The game of baseball, now with a better structure, has proven to clean up its image greatly.  However, the shadows cast by the giants of the steroid-era continue to loom large in the media.  Just like the professors Trevino and Nelson talk about in their piece on Managing Business Ethics, there were many pieces that came together to cause the debacle of lost trust in the MLB that resulted from the steroid-era.  Of course the players played a role in it, but when you consider the previously mentioned three questions for the society in which these players belonged to, while also considering the commissioner, salary-driven incentives, and other factors that played a role in creating the catastrophe, maybe some of these players should be elected in to the Hall of Fame.  They were great for the game in the time in which they played.  Their unethical actions, while not excusable, were not entirely a result of their personal character, and therefore, I believe they should be recognized in the Hall of Fame with the many players who came before them who also made similarly massive impacts on the game, and business, of professional baseball.



9 thoughts on “Sociological Imagination, Ethics, and the Steroid-Era of Professional Baseball

  1. So in response to your discussion in question 3, do you think that other scandals like the recent Lance Armstrong controversy will help to transform the professional sports climate as a whole, in the ethical direction?

    • I also thought about the Lance Armstrong scandal when reading your discussion of “The Steroid-Era”. I’m a huge Lance fan and still am. Lance may have cheated because he did take performance enhancing drugs. But let’s be honest – if you want to be the best in the Tour de France – there’s no way you’re doing it without doping. Lance doped just like everyone else – except he was better – 7 straight Tour de France’s better. He made so much money for the sport of cycling and helped greatly impact cycling in America. Did he go about the lies and controversy the right way – no – he definitely could have handled it better. But he did deserve to win those championships – he just shouldn’t have kept the lie going this long. Furthermore i think the cycling world will start being more ethical. They will see what happened to Lance due to doping and it will begin to be seen less in the sport. Once no one does it and the field is level without doping the sport will be much more ethical. So maybe what he did will ultimately help transform cycling in the right direction.

      • Interesting response, Gil. This raises an interesting question of sacrifice. Barry Bonds, Mark Mcgwire, and others, took the fall for baseball. The structure of MLB itself was flawed, and many players were forced into an “adapt or die” situation. Now, the system has been restored, but at the expense of these players’ reputations. You mentioned how Lance might ultimately transform cycling. Following up on Jordi’s comment between the parallels between sports and business, I wonder if a huge company will ever end up taking a fall to save the industry or company to which it belongs.

  2. I do agree that there was a lot of temptation for baseball players playing in the steroid-era to take steroids to make them bigger and stronger. This temptation did came from all different aspects of baseball teams at the time and it was greater than just a personal decision. There is so much pressure being a professional athlete and at that time steroids was considered a quick improvement for an average player. Every player knew that steroids was cheating and still decided to do it instead. I am completely against Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens being recognized next to Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig in the Hall of Fame. I am not downplaying the amazing careers of the famous players on the Hall of Fame ballot, but the players were not induced into the Hall of Fame for a reason. Professional athletes are always under a lot of pressure to perform at their highest level to increase their earnings capabilities, but cheating is still cheating. These major baseball stars did make baseball much more exciting at the time, but it was not just on their own ability. This players willing decided that it was okay to cheat. By inducting players who have been publicly accused multiple times of cheating it is sending a clear message to the children, the future society, that it is okay to cheat.

  3. Very thought-provoking blog post. I generally agree with you when you say that using sociological imagination can better understand what the players were thinking when they made the decisions they did. There was a lot at stake during that era in baseball, namely salaries, fame, and the potential to go down as some of the greatest players in history. However, I cannot help but wonder why these guys did not think of the consequences of their actions. Didn’t they wonder what would happen if they were to get caught? What would the public reaction be? How would it affect their legacies? I strongly believe they did think these consequences through – and decided to juice anyway. They thought they were invincible and that their words would be strong enough to protect their legacies and ultimately beat the truth. Obviously, we are finding out now that they were wrong.

  4. I agree and disagree with your stance on professional baseball players during the “Steroid Era” in the hall of fame. Yes, using sociological imagination to critically analyze the factors that influenced these baseball players decisions provides great insight to why the chose to use steroids. Yes, I believe that the MLB greatly decreased the use of steroids and improved their image. Yes, I believe that the managers, owners, and league are also to blame. However, I believe the players who took steroids during that era should not be in the Hall of Fame. I agree with KLM that these players were wrong and did not think of the consequences. They chose to cheat the game and use performance enhancing drugs to become better baseball players. Unlike the other hundreds of players before who played naturally and earned their right into the Half of Fame, they acted unethically and now pay the consequences for it.

    • You make a lot of claims that make me wonder why you can’t take the final step at placing these “steroid-era” players in the perspective of the time in which they played. I understand your point that previous players did not take steroids (hypothetically), but they need to be considered in the context of the time they played, as well. There weren’t the pressures of free agency and high contracts, culture of “acceptance” for using PEDs, or other factors shaping the league in which they played. I guess the easiest way to put this is to answer the following question. If Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, or some other past Hall of Famer would have had the same exact skill set that earned them the Hall of Fame rights, but played in the 2000s, would they have taken steroids? And if so, would they then not be Hall of Famers? If Babe Ruth was in Barry Bonds’s shoes, facing the same factors that Bonds dealt with regarding the league’s steroid problems, would he have resisted the urge to take steroids and still earned the same Hall of Fame career? It is a tough question, but I think that thinking of it in this way sheds more light on how great an impact the society can play in shaping the actions of an individual.

  5. The sociological imagination is very helpful in considering this ethical dilemma in baseball. The time and place and opportunities surrounding players’ decisions to use PEDs is very important to consider when evaluating this issue. Although the game of baseball has remained the same over the years, with the exception of the designated hitter rule in the American League, its history in relation to the society is incredible. I have been to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown several times and spoken with the curators and directors there, whose goal is to celebrate, preserve, and reflect the history of baseball and America. There is no doubt these men that used PEDs are as much a part of the history and enhancement of baseball as the first basemen that used larger gloves and the batters that used pine tar and hollowed barrels on their bats. I do not believe these men should be banned from the Hall for using steroids, but should recognized for pushing the game further and motivating other players to compete at a higher level. As an athlete and competitive person by nature, I know that current and future athletes will see those records and find a way to surpass them whether there is an asterisk there or not. Ethically or not, the performance was there and the story needs to be told.

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