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.


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.


The players' union would never agree to it.


I loved your book and I am glad to find your blog.


The payout over 30 years is a necessary component; it provides the only incentive for players to care about what future tests uncover. It would have a value to the players as well - while ex-baseball players aren't quite as badly off as ex-footballers, they could absolutely use the boost. This encourages a more healthy fiscal perspective among ballplayers and also does help to discourage steroid use.


A few comments have asked about the 30 year payout. That isn't far fetched, actually. Many players, particularly those with the large salaries, are paid with deferred compensation packages. They receive some money during the season in which they play, and then get more money later (even after they have presumably stopped playing or moved on to another team). For example, Bruce Sutter signed a contract with the Atlanta Braves in 1984 for which he will still be getting paid through 2021.

A more recent example is Alex Rodriguez, who has $36m of deferred compensation to be paid starting in 2011. On a related note, the "$252 million" contract he signed in 2000 is actually worth more like $166m due to the time value of money effects from annual payments and deferred compensation (assuming an 8% interest rate) - only the nominal value is $252m.


The players' union would never agree to it.

They would never agree to mandatory, non-guaranteed, deferred compensation either...

Which I think is the underlying point here: Steroids ISN'T that big of deal for the players or the owners. There are many, many other bigger issues for them.

It's not like people are staying away from the ballpark because of these steroid scandals (in fact, just the opposite).

Dwight Schrute

I suggest a parallel scheme for politicians clamoring regulate things like athlete steroid use.

1) An independent panel of economists evaluates the costs and benefits of pieces of legislation passed by congress at intervals of 10 years, 20 years, and 30 years later using the most up-to-date economic analyses.
2) Congressional salaries are paid over a 30-year interval.
3) A congressman's remaining salary would be voided entirely if the sum total of his votes proves to have imposed a net cost, rather than added a net benefit to the economy.

John S.

Logically it seems to make sense for professional sports to embrace new technologies and science because the forces are so overwhelming it makes much more sense to just allow the modern enhancements. I think they are trying to regulate it to retain "purity" in sport. (It cannot be viewed in the same light as wrestling)

Professional sports, especially the big 3 are one of the many forces that distract ordinary people from pursuing other endeavors that would lead to more populist-power. Instead of being turned into fanatical jingoists through sport they would have other things to pay attention to which are counter-productive to the power centers that fund/maintain/regulate sports.

Using this logic, it makes sense that the solution they are aiming for is to preserve the purity of sport, thereby preserving the disillusion of the masses. After all, if people lose faith in sports, they might start to ask the questions like...

Why does it matter if "my team" wins or loses?

Why am I paying attention to something that has relatively zero impact on my life?

Professional sports is just one of many mediums used to shape public opinion in favorable ways to the interests that fund and operate the sporting industry. (Another example would be celebrity culture) These mediums often intersect but all seem to seem to have the same effect. They distract people from focusing on anything that matters for their life, but instead redirect people's attention to things that have no effect on their life.

So yes, lets implement the aforementioned 3 prong approach. What a great way to make sure professional sports remain honorable and respectable.



There is so much money and status involved that I don't think anyone could ever be certain even considering improvements in testing that will be offered in the future. Further, that testing could be wrong as well as right. Look at the incentives and what people do for one hundred thousand dollars and then consider the incentives when one is dealing with the amounts of money these athletes are being paid. Someone might even go as far as altering the blood samples or the testing. It sounds like all we will be doing is increasing the number of middlemen. Of course if the pay was lousy we wouldn't worry about these problems. No one would care.

Poul hansen

THe reason Armstrongs urine showed traces of EPO is that the urine degrades after a period of time. The testing needs tp be carried out quickly or it will provide a false positive, because of the breakdown of differing compounds in the urine.
THis is a well published and well known fact. That makes one of your strongest points invalid. Too bad....

Blake W.

Great idea about storing the blood and urine samples and testing. There is no way the players union would ever allow salaries to be paid over 30 years - but great idea.

While I think money is at the heart of every player in the league, I think that for some players who do take steroids are very concerned with their legacy as well. If MLB is able to detect steroid use 10,20, or 30 years from now it may very well deter players from juicing up.


Uh... the crime of possessing illegal drugs?


Gee, we have an even bigger problem than steroids in sports -- we have an issue with dishonest lawyers and with newspaper reporters who have falsified stories.

Since the rule of law is crucial in any society, and the 4th estate and an informed citizenry is the bedrock of Democracy, we need to do something about that:

Let's take Lawyer/Journalist salaries, and pay them out over 30 years. In the event of an ethical transgression by the attorney, or a fabricated news story by the reporter, they forfeit the balance of their pay. Aftewr all, both of these roles are much more important than entertainment like sports!

Now, how absurd does that idea sound? Almost as if it was an academic proposal written by a clueless student . . .

John Federico

I like the name Dwight Schrute and his comment on clawing back money from legislators after the long-term impacts of their decisions are revealed....but at least we have the ballot box every two to four years to take care of them.

There is also a post this week at Tuesday Morning Quarterback that is more to the point...why clawback entertainers' salaries -- they at least delivered a couple of hours of value and tv viewer eyeballs to the sponsors. Why not go after the real money -- the finance and banking industry CEOs and investment managers who designed such complicated financial instruments relying on the ability of poor credit risks to pay....why not design a compensation system that gets salary and bonus back from the knuckleheads who thought they were geniuses and are now hemorrhaging money....


Poul Hansen you are wrong about Armstrong and the epo in urine regarding the 'appearing' EPO bands; that is too silly for words! EPO bands can degrade - but they would disappear, not appear!
And Mr. Levitt there was nothing murky about the retroactive testing done on Mr. Armstrong's samples. They were done for research purposes only. In fact, there was enough urine left in that same sample (which was tested showing the epo in it)that WADA had requested permission from Mr. Armstrong to test it. His answer was a resounding "NO!" Were Americans to follow cycling like we do baseball, Mr. Armstrong would be testifying next to Mr. Clemens.

Mary P. Walker

This idea is not original with me, but I think it would work quite well with team sports. After every event, such as a football game, everybody on the winning team pees in a bucket. The urine in the bucket is tested. If it fails the test, the win is forfeited. This gives the team members, coaches and management the incentive to police each other and not tolerate drug use. Steroid and illegal drug use would be gone within weeks.
Alternately, you could test every player after every win, such as what is done in cycling. If anybody fails, the win is forfeited. result, but on a team basis.

A Bad Idea From the Government

I have an idea.

Let's implant all baseball players with a small chip that records the chemical composition of their blood, and uses EVDO to upload it a central server, monitored by the Department of Homeland Baseball. If a player is out of range of upload, or otherwise blocks the signal, the chip will automatically tase the player and try to use short range signals to bring police to the scene.

This policy will end steroid use as well as clamp down on other illicit or questionable activities taken by players of homeland's national pasttime. Those players that object to this plan on the terrorist-sympathizing grounds of 'privacy' have every right not to play in the two homeland leagues.

Also, since the government will pay for the program it will be free.

Chris Dankberg

Testing is a health issue for the player's association and a marketing issue for management. Real testing does not need to be independent, it needs to be done by the player's association. The issue is that MLB had a lot of incentive to allow look the other way. Players were able to recover from injury faster - a direct benefit to the teams paying millions of dollars in player salaries.

This is a complicated issue. But the bottom line is that the player's association has incentives that most closely fall in line with ending steroid abuse in the sport, not management.


Elizabeth, of course he said NO. If you have been following the Floyd Landis case and whether or not you believe he is guilty or not, You need to acknowledge that the treatment of his samples by the lab technicians was outragious. So many errors. Samples are measured by scientific exact meaurements with some room for deviation. When the results fall outside the criteria for an accepted positive then you should not charge someone. It also has been shown that different labs have different criteria for testing. That being so, it has been acknowledged that the results for Floyds samples would NOT have been declared positive in another lab. The UCI and WADA seem to make up their own rules as they go along. This is someone's career and life here. Make the rules and apply them equally to all athletes under the same standard measurements in all labs. If I were Lance would I let them test my samples? NO. I could not trust them. Sorry but I would not trust them to make a cup of tea at this stage.


Stephen M (Ethesis)

You know, the place to start is high school, and there are two methods to start with:

weight class limits and hair samples.

There is a reason that Nike had an Olympic wrestler they were sponsoring who didn't use steroids -- he didn't want to build excess weight (in muscle mass) where he didn't want it. Weight class limited high school football would also reduce injuries.

In addition, you could test hair samples -- that wouldn't tell you who on a team was using drugs, but it would tell you if someone was, and works across a large spectrum of drugs. Just take a little hair from each athlete and test the combination at mid-season, teams that fail being washed out for the rest of the season.

That is a start.

Sure, there are lots of other targets for lots of other agendas, but with sports and drugs, start with the easy targets.

Kind of like requiring female gymnasts to be at least 5'3" tall and to weight at least 110 pounds to avoid artificial manipulation of their development and avoidance of puberty.