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.


The so-called health risks of steroids are so overblown and villified for purposes of demonization, anyway. But, as long as steroids remain illicit, the light of day won't be shined on responsible and safe use for those where such information is crucial (typically, not professionals).

As for the anti-steroid "traditionalists", they will all die off soon and then the whole issue will become moot.


Regarding post #12, the retroactive testing of Lance's urine from 1999 was "ostensibly" to develop a reliable test for old specimens. However, it seemed an odd reason, since no control samples were saved from '99. Anyway, that was the reason given. Up to that point, no one had done any testing to see how old samples would fare. What strikes one odd about that testing, is how Lance's purported '99 samples could be positive, and yet the '00 and '01 and '02 and '03, and '04 and '05 samples did not. If one were to believe the '99 results, then it would force one to believe the other results as well, implying Lance was a 6-time champion without doping.

Back to the original article, obviously, I agree with Point 1. Protocols should be developed for the proper storage of samples so that future testing can be done, reliably, with future state-of-the-art tests.

It's wonderful to have Betty Andreu weigh in on the conversation. In regards to the Macur article, there are lots of unanswered questions, like how did Frankie acquire EPO, who administered it, who did he talk to about them, etc. Even the actual dates of administration, etc. would all shed light and help expose the network of doping in the peloton. Without that information made public, I'm sorry to say, but his admission only smacks of hypocrisy. Talking about exposing doping, without actually exposing anything. Now, if Frankie told all of those things to Macur, but she didn't publish them, then I certainly apologize, but it seems to me that withholding that information does not expose the doping network but only helps hide it. If Frankie and Betty would write an article or a book on all they know about Frankie's own doping, that would be a wonderful help in the battle against doping. TIA, if that article or book is coming.


cory buerstine

i think that this topic is completely off the boards,its just the fact that if they will take it to this level then they should be punished without sterilization.


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.


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?


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.



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?


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.

Mike B

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.


Jeppe Lisdorf

Apart from the reasons mentioned the Armstrong doping case concerning tests from the 1999 edition of the Tour de France (which the ASO said at the time, that they would not store) was not followed up by the UCI, because they lacked scientific evidence to prove that the storage of blood in so many years could not generate a 'false positive'.


While I don't disagree with Mike B. above - I think it might not be as simple as 'open' leagues.

There is an aesthetic problem with 'doping'. In short, few people can stomach the idea that their heroes (or their childrens heroes) would be sticking a needle in themselves to gain an edge.

The NFL has managed this aesthetic admirably - and I wish cycling followed suit. In the NFL, instead of telling the world how the players are playing on epidurals and vicodin - they laud how tough their are to 'play through the pain'.

In cycling - Tyler Hamilton road an entire grand tour with a broken collarbone. Afterwards he had reconstructive dental surgery because he had ground his teeth down to the nerves as a result of the pain. Hamilton was later failed a homologous blood doping test (a new test, for which there is no standard of false positive) - and villified.

Brett Favre recovered from Vicodin addiction (a habit he picked up while playing with a busted shoulder) and was celebrated for his tremendous strength of character in overcoming addiction to a powerful narcotic.

The NFL is arguably the most successful professional sport from a business standpoint. Despite the truly reprehensible 'problems' under the covers with retired players suffering early onset alzheimers as a result of multiple concussion syndrome. The league doesn't air its dirty laundry - and the medical practices of the teams are not highlighted for the fans.

Cycling is collapsing. Sponsors are withdrawing left and right and talented riders can't find teams. The UCI does a terrible job of managing the image of the sport - and instead seeks to blame the riders and the doctors and stands in opposition to them at every turn.

The NFL isn't a WADA sanctioned league (none of the large North American sports are) - but cycling is. The aesthetics of doping is too much for sponsors and for fans. I contend that, as a sport, cycling is much cleaner than the NFL in terms of unsavoury medical practices - but the UCI publicizes every failure while the NFL has a tremendous code of silence.

In short - I think what is really needed is managed and supervised use of biomedical technology and a reasonable 'don't ask, don't tell' management of the optics of the situation. I believe this is the defacto position of most of the large professional sports in North America and that baseball's troubles recently are really an example of terrible PR - similar to what the UCI, IAAF and other WADA affiliates have done with their sports.


Anna Turtle

I'm not sure that option 1 would deter steroid usage that well. It seems like the people who use steroids are looking for short term gain and ignoring the long-term risk. So why would adding another long-term risk deter them?


Were I a drug-using athlete, I'd be much more concerned about my dealer getting arrested and talking than I would about some hypothetical future test for the things I was taking. That should be deterrent enough for many athletes.

Andy Raskin

This proposal addresses the athlete's incentive to use steroids, but doesn't address the team owners' incentive to have their athletes on steroids. If it turns out that Barry Bonds was using steroids, for example, then the SF Giants probably benefited financially from that. If athletes have to defer earnings and make them contingent on clean future tests to prove they're serious, the teams have to do the same with their TV receipts.

Rich Wilson

Direct compensation is only part of the picture. Guys like Armstrong and Jordan make a lot more money in endorsements than in actual salary.


simplest idea of all - don't buy tickets and don't watch the televised broadcasts for a few years. that might send a message to the owners and players unions that are so drunk on the millions of dollars they're making.

Peter Brady

The only problem with allowing professional athletes to use whatever performance enhancing substances they want is the effect this will have on H.S. athletes. I work for a school that has a championship baseball team. It is so sad to see all of these kids who think that they are going to be professional athletes, while the chances of that are almost non-existent. Teenagers are dumb & it doesn't take much to encourage them to do dumb stuff. This is not to say that I care whether or not pro athletes use performance enhancing substances, I'm just pointing out a fact. Pro sports can do whatever it wants as far as I'm concerned. And I certainly don't see why Congress is involved in this. I was a star track athlete when I was in school(no, I didn't use steroids) & am very grateful to have had that experience, but this country's, as well as other countries', obsession with sports is obscene & pathetic.


Peter Brady

John S., I couldn't agree more. You can't get people around here passionate about anything other than sports.

leah snare

they are being paid by a club to do the best job they can. if it means steroids or coffee so what? what crime actually has been committed here? marion jones in jail????congressional hearings with baseball players?????what has the hypocrits in washington got to do with professional sports??? and why would taxpayers be interested in having their money spent this way? if a club doesn't want their players to take steroids than they can address it in the club. again i reiterate, what crime exactly has been committed?

Matthew Pytlak

Steroids are unfair to those players who set records in the days prior to steroid use. Ruth, Maris, and Aaron didn't use steroids. It is unfair to these players.