Da Meaninglessness of Denials

Why we don't learn anything from denials of wrongdoing.

Posted Aug 19, 2009

Not long ago, a baseball tradition was continued. No, not the All-Star Game or any other midsummer classic to which the old-school baseball fan has grown accustomed. I'm talking about that newest of annual rites, the anonymous leaking of additional players who failed drug tests in 2003. The latest names were of the two offensive stars of the mid-decade Boston Red Sox, Manny Ramirez (who was suspended for a subsequent drug violation this year in Los Angeles) and every Sox fan's favorite teddy bear/designated hitter, David Ortiz (left).

Now, in the often-agitated responses to my previous posts on the Henry Gates affair (here and here), I was called many things, including a partisan hack. I beg to differ, as there was nothing inherently political about either post. But in the interest of full disclosure, I will come right out and let you know the following in case it colors your reaction to all that follows in this entry: I am, indeed, a die-hard Yankees fan.

But I actually have no interest in disparaging Ortiz, the Red Sox, or their fans. At least, not today.

No, I'd rather look at the current state of baseball from a psychological perspective. And there's a lot that's interesting regarding the psychology of the contemporary baseball fan. First, there's the question of how fans react to each drip in the leaky faucet that is the steroids story. Nothing demonstrates the power of affiliation better than the fact that the team name on the front of a jersey can determine whether you react to each latest revelation with moral indignation or a willingness to extend the benefit of the doubt.

Because by this point, any rational assessment of baseball over the past two decades has to arrive at the conclusion that every team had a substantial number of users of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). To hold out hope that your team was somehow the exception defies all logic and is just another example of the romantic delusion often associated with baseball (think mystical cornfields and magical hand-carved bats).

But what really jumps out at me in the wake of the Ortiz revelations is how modern-day baseball fans find themselves playing part social psychologist, part investigative journalist just to keep up with the game. I, like many of my fellow fans, have had many a bar conversation/argument about which players we think were and weren't using PEDs. Often, such conversations include speculation as to a player's true disposition based on how he has, in the past, publicly reacted to allegations or to the steroid issue more generally. As in, he couldn't have been on steroids; remember when he publicly called for anyone flunking a drug test to be suspended for a year?

That was Ortiz, who made his plea for harsher sanctions this very pre-season.

Then there was Yankee Alex Rodriguez looking Katie Couric in the eye (sort of) and categorically denying steroid use a few years ago.
And Rafael Palmeiro, who wagged his finger in front of Congress as he issued a similar denial under oath several years ago.

In all three cases, it turns out that the strong denial or call for harsher punishment came from men with positive tests on their resumes. To those who support and root for them, this surprise was a cruel one. But it seems to me that you're just asking for trouble when you start to read anything at all into how strong someone's denial is in situations like these.

Psychologists have long known that in our pursuit to better understand those individuals around us, we learn much less from behavior that is expected under the circumstances than we do from unexpected actions. When one of my students tells me how much he is enjoying my class, that's nice to hear, but I don't learn much about this person other than that he wants to stay on my good side. When I run into a student and she tells me how disappointed she is in my class so far, now, that's an unexpected response given that I'm the one who determines final grades. There's someone who isn't afraid to speak her mind would be a reasonable inference to draw.

Applied to the steroids context, the principle that expected behavior teaches us little about the actor in question suggests that denials of PED use don't tell us very much. They're expected. Trying to read into how vociferously someone speaks out against steroids is a fool's errand, as Ortiz, Rodriguez, Palmeiro, and others have demonstrated. Am I glad, as a baseball fan, that Albert Pujols was on the cover of Sports Illustrated this year proclaiming his performance as clean and inviting the drug tests to prove it? Sure. But I've learned not to let this rule out the possibility that he, like anyone else in today's game, could have failed tests in his future (or in a supposedly under-Grand-Jury-seal past).

In general, when you think about the situations in which they emerge, denials–and the ways in which they're issued–don't tell us much at all. When is the last time that someone accused of racism didn't respond with a quick and forceful denial, sometimes even with the icing on the cake of and I even have Black friends! Remember how resolutely Bill Clinton asserted that he did not "have sexual relations with that woman"? Or, for that matter, the strong public condemnations of the immorality of Clinton's behavior from senators who later had their own sexual indiscretions, like John Ensign and Larry Craig?

Think about situations like these. When accused of wrongdoing, almost everyone will deny it. When an opponent is accused of wrongdoing, many will pile on. So we don't learn anything regarding the actual moral fiber of these people based on how strongly they deny wrongdoing or condemn others for their sins. We just learn that they have relatively normal, expected reactions to their circumstances.  Unexpected behavior would tell us something more.

Unfortunately, we've reached the point when baseball players' denials have become essentially meaningless. Actually, it's worse than that.  The end result for many a clean baseball player is a Catch 22: deny steroid use too vociferously, and we think you doth protest too much; stay silent and the specter of "no comment" looms ominously. But baseball fans have most certainly moved beyond the era of naivete that would allow us to think we'd hear anything meaningful in response to allegations of steroid use. When you think about the current state of the game, "Say it ain't so, Joe" just doesn't cut it anymore.