How We Would Fight Steroids If We Really Meant It

Aaron Zelinsky, a student at Yale Law School, recently proposed an interesting three-prong anti-steroid strategy for Major League Baseball:

1) An independent laboratory stores urine and blood samples for all players, and tests these blood samples 10 years, 20 years, and 30 years later using the most up-to-date technology available.

2) Player salaries are paid over a 30-year interval.

3) A player’s remaining salary would be voided entirely if a drug test ever came back positive.

I’m not sure about points 2 and 3, but there is no question that point 1 is essential to any serious attempt to combat the use of illegal performance enhancers. The state-of-the-art in performance enhancement is the best set of techniques that cannot be detected using current technology. So, by definition, the most sophisticated dopers will evade detection, unless they are unlucky or make a mistake.

The threat of future improvements in testing technology is the most potent weapon available in this fight, because the user can never know for certain that the doping he does today won’t be simple to detect a decade from now. Retrospective testing of samples attributed to Lance Armstrong suggest that he used E.P.O., which was not detectable at the time. The circumstances surrounding this test were sort of murky (the identification of the sample as Armstrong’s was indirect, and it was also unclear why these samples were being tested in the first place), so the Tour de France champion didn’t pay the price he would have if formal testing at later intervals had been a standard policy.

The athletes most likely to be deterred by this sort of policy are the superstars who have the most to lose if their long-term legacy becomes tarnished. Presumably, it is doping by superstars that is of the greatest concern to fans.

Zelinsky has provided a measuring stick against which we can see how serious Major League Baseball, or any other sport, is about fighting illegal performance enhancers: if the league adopts a policy of storing blood and urine samples for future testing, it is serious. Otherwise, it is not serious.

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  1. amit says:

    The players union would have to agree to it. Why would they ?

    Under the WADA code, the unified standard of doping used by the IOC, retroactive testing is not allowed.

    The code is a compromise between the various governing bodies and they would not have agreed to comply if retroactive testing was part of the code – though it may be included in a future update.

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  2. Larry says:

    While I am against juicing, the discussion seems blind to the notion that “enhancement” technologies are only in their infancy.

    The technology to improve mental and physical performance for the disabled and the able alike is racing ahead. I foresee the day when the records will all be set at the Special Olympics rather than the “real” games.

    We already have surgery (e.g., the Tommy John shoulder operation) that is being undertaken by perfectly healthy athletes. What’s the difference between that and ‘roids? Harm to the athlete? OK, but what about when there are enhancement drugs that don’t harm the taker? They’re sure to come.

    We need to think about this on a longer-term basis.

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  3. Vita says:

    The players’ union would never agree to it.

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  4. Doug says:

    Mandate they all use steroids, that will level the playing field.

    How about our other entertainers (actors, musicians, authors) who are abusing substances to fuel their creative element? Do we care? Still buying the Rolling Stones albums, concert tickets?

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  5. ColinToal says:

    Science and technology constantly advances.

    Would retroactive re-instatement be possible when tests are later shown to be invalid ? If its possible to think that advancing technology would make a negative into a positive, then it is also possible that advancing technology will show some positives to actually be negatives. Is there any incentive to retest to vindicate wrongly sanctioned ?

    At its heart, the performance enhancing drugs issue is not about ethics and morality, or even health (nothing an NFL player does in his job puts his health as a priority – and similar arguments can be made for all athletes). Its really a battle between traditionalists and the relentless march of technology.

    If I learned anything from Freakonomics, its that ‘if there is a way to game an incentive, people will find it’. In the sporting arena, technology is always part of ‘the game’. Whether its ‘supplements’ or altitude training or heated pants for NFL kickers or advances in endocrinology and genetics.

    Big money leagues have done a much better job of managing the tension between tradition and technology that olympic sports and cycling.

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  6. Vita says:

    I should probably add that the 30 year salary payout period would be the real hang-up to the deal. Does any industry do this?

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  7. charles says:

    It’s a losing battle. No matter what you do there will be a way to enhance performance illegally and not get caught. It’s a testament to the power of incentives. How about begining doping programs early – ie in High School where there is less testing? You quit prior to college. It creates a new path and subsequent outcome for the athlete. The only sure-fire way to level the playing field is to legalize it. It won’t be long and there will be programs around gene alteration, myostatin, better cortisol inhibition etc. Let them do what ever they want, and let them play.

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  8. Mike B says:

    I think that you are forgetting about one of the main factors in the Baseball doping scandal was that older players wanted to maintain their their abilities. Sanctions of suspension have no effect on players whose only other option to taking performance enhancing drugs was to retire.

    I see the whole debate behind performance enhancing drugs as pointless and misguided. These drugs should be viewed as just another tool to help improve human performance, just like sports drinks and running shoes. The answer is not to try to ban them, but embrace them and bring their use into the open.

    Until genetic engineering becomes viable there will be a definite plateau of human ability. As records stagnate fans will become more and more disinterested in the games. The entire notion of progress has become so ingrained in our society that sports where records were set decades ago and improvement is effectively impossible will loose a significant amount of fan appeal. Take the example of horse racing there times peaked in the 1970′s and have been generally flat since then. While there are many reasons for the sport’s long decline, the lack of faster and faster horses setting new records has certainly not helped matters.

    Critics of “doping” typically cite the health effects of using these drugs and that athletes should not be “forced” to damage their bodies. Well I would like to point out that huge segments of the workforce are paid far less to do far more dangerous jobs. Truck drivers, fishermen, miners and soldiers in Iraq risk their lives on a daily basis for peanuts, yet god forbid that athletes do the same for millions. This is a double standard brought on by ignorant moralists who wish to try to preserve some sort of white washed nostalgic tradition of “integrity” to their favourite sports.

    What the world of sport sorely needs is a visionary billionaire who can fund a series of “open class” sporting events where the full brunt of human pharmaceutical innovation can be brought to bear. With the right combination of prize incentives the world’s best athletes will choose to abandon the regulated sporting world taking the fans with them who will be able to get faster times and better games.

    As no athlete really wants to seriously damage their bodies the creation of an “open league” would foster competition to create better drugs with fewer and fewer side effects which could have benefits for the general public much in the same way technologies invented for F1 racing has trickled down into consumer automobiles.

    The current crusade to eliminate doping is much like the old crusade to eliminate professional athletes from the Olympics. It did nothing but harm players and harm spectators until someone finally saw the light and realized that it wasn’t a big deal after all.

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