I’ve spent the last year of my life in the steroid underground, watching from a distance. It’s the science, not the scandal, that interests me; and the facts, not the speculation. My book, “The Juice”, and my articles have always been informed by the idea that the truth is the part of the story that never seems told. By taking this middle ground, I’ve been attacked by both sides, called an apologist by one side and a witch-hunter by the other.
What I’ve learned in a year (besides turning off my cell phone after I hear that another ballplayers been caught by the drug testers), is that we have a holy war going on. No crusade or jihad will listen to science; and the battle over performance-enhancing drugs is no different. The white-hat, black-hat mentality – you decide who wears which hat – resembles the science vs faith battles our society is facing with abortion and evolution. Feet firmly dug in, there’s no middle ground, just a no-man’s land. It’s the perfect place to observe both sides as long as you understand it’s the exact epicenter of the crossfire.
I was asked to make the keynote speech at the New England School of Law’s symposium on steroids. I’m no lawyer. I’m no scientist. I’m just a writer who wrote a book he didn’t really want to write because he couldn’t find that book on the shelves. It’s one thing to stand at a lectern ready to deliver a speech to students and an entirely different thing to look out and see Rick Collins, David Cornwell, and Denise Garibaldi looking back. It seemed my position in no-man’s land was becoming near-literal.
“I wanted to scratch your eyes out” is a phrase that would normally stop a polite business lunch. To my left was Dr. Denise Garibaldi, best known for her testimony regarding her son’s death at the Congressional Steroid Hearings. To my right was Rick Collins, the noted attorney and author. Listening to them discuss their appearance on a TV show as well as sharing some of their views – as nearly opposite as any view could be – was enlightening. If Collins and Garibaldi could sit down over ziti and tiramisu, couldn’t we all just get along?
There is a middle ground in the battle. Instead of crossfire, it’s a place where we could all find compromise. To me, there are four main points where both sides (prohibitionists and exhibitionists) can agree:
• Performance-enhancing drugs have no place in sports
• Youth should never use performance-enhancing drugs
• We don’t have enough science to help us understand the problem, and
• The current program of testing isn’t effective.
That was easy. What isn’t so easy is trying to find the next step: a halting, short step towards each other. I’ll try to break each point down quickly and simply, in hope that by coming closer, we’ll attempt to solve the problem.
Both sides agree that sport has a problem with drugs that must be eradicated. In an era where new drugs are overtaking the scientifically primitive steroids that have been around since the ‘60s, the challenge is being able to step aside from the ‘cat and mouse’ nature of testing and moving to one of education and prevention. It is the nature of any scientific revolution to take a full generation to effect change, but we don’t have that type of time. While others ignore the facts and call steroids addictive and pervasive, we could instead be arguing that performance-enhancing drugs have one purpose: to enhance performance. If they can’t give that single functionality, they are of no use.
To date, there is no evidence, scientifically or statistically, that there is any effect of steroids on the hitting of a baseball. In a soon to be published study by Nate Silver of Baseball Prospectus, he found that power spikes (the unexpected increase in home runs by a player), were no more pervasive in the so-called steroid era from 1994 to present, than it was in the preceding twenty years. Add in the complicating factors of new stadiums, new bat composition, new expansion; and isolating their use is difficult. What we can say is that a power spike could almost be evidence against the use of steroids. Honestly, do you know anyone that stopped using something that worked?
The mystique that “everyone is doing it” and that any feat of strength is evidence juicing is folly. At its height in baseball, there was no more than ten percent experimentation. The recent story of Wally Joyner is typical of many flirtations with steroids. According to ESPN, Joyner obtained a bottle of pills purported to be steroids, took some according to instructions, then quickly flushed the rest away. Yes, it appears Joyner (an all-star caliber player), used steroids. He hardly saw any effect. Much like many in society experimented with marijuana, you could hardly call them potheads.
Moreover, the 12 suspensions seen in 2005 show the type of player that uses steroids. Half are pitchers. Nine are Latin, coming from countries where steroids are available widely and the culture tells them not to ask questions about the things they are given by people in authority. Only Rafael Palmeiro (continuing to insist that he was given spiked vitamins by a teammate), has name recognition. If steroids are so effective, why isn’t Alex Sanchez hitting tape measure home runs? Why didn’t Juan Rincon’s fastball reach 100mph? Why didn’t Jorge Piedra make the majors out of spring training? For all the hysteria, the fact is that baseball’s steroid convicts must have had a bad batch. Their stats, almost to a man, went down.
Everyone agrees that youth – those under the age of 21 – should not be using steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs. The chemistry and structure of their bodies, as well as the immaturity of their decision-making, precludes the informed use of these substances. It troubles me to see athletes aided by their parents and enabling doctors taking human growth hormones, willing to take unknown risks for one or two inches of height and the promise of professional riches. Society has set limits for certain acts and steroids should be no different. I don’t want the 16 year old down the block buying a case of beer any more than I want him buying a vial of boldenone. Sure, some will get it other ways, but for the rest of users (what I’ve come to call the cosmetic chemists), shouldn’t be shunted to the backrooms for the modern equivalent of bathtub gin. Requiring prescriptions, regular lab testing, and counseling with a physician and pharmacist may seem onerous to some libertarians, but this is compromise.
Congress has introduced no less than seven bills regarding steroids in sports during 2005. What they may not realize is that there’s some money in an old bill (perhaps as much as $25 million dollars for education programs), that has yet to be spent. As hard as it is to imagine Congress not spending available tax dollars, that’s exactly what has occurred. Major League Baseball upped its research dollars from $100,000 to $300,000, just under the salary of a first-year player, proving its commitment. It also made a $1 million donation to the Taylor Hooton Foundation. Other professional leagues spent similar amounts supporting all kinds of scientific research. That’s pathetic. As nice as the million dollar grant sounds, we don’t yet know the intended purpose (beyond public relations).
While some of the needed scientific research simply can’t be done due to restrictions and simple humanity, there is much that could be done given proper funding. The simplest solution would be to fund more research, something that Congress or the sports governing bodies could do at the flick of a pen. Perhaps the players could get involved by donating one percent of their salaries. Perhaps the government could allow them a tax credit if they donated this so that money wasn’t being extorted, or (as hard as it is to grasp about million dollar athletes) so that money wasn’t being taken off the tables of their families. Then accountability kicks in. As money is granted to scientists, results could be posted, studies could be published, and the effort noted.
We are heading into a territory where testing could become irrelevant. The last twenty years of steroid enforcement has been based on detection, not prevention. With HGH, the challenge was that there was no test. An athlete could show up to his urine test with a needle hanging out of his butt and still pass. Even blood couldn’t reliably give a positive result. New drugs such as Increlex rapidly went from lab to playing field and again, testing for it is near impossible for the foreseeable future. When I traveled to Montreal to speak with some of the world’s top antidoping officials, the most chilling thing I heard was when they spoke of genetic doping in the present: something I hadn’t expected until the 2008 Olympics at the earliest.
While testing is relevant, we should make use of it. Today, testing is both intrusive, frought with fear, and has no value to those outside the game. The World Antidoping Agency has a document program they call the “Athlete’s Passport.” This document shows a history of tests that the athlete has taken. When asked, an athlete can hold up this certified document and say “I’m clean.” Today’s world of marketing dollars could really use this concept. “I’m clean,” says the home run champ. “I’m clean,” says the Cy Young winner. Think that someone will just game the system? America may love a comeback, but they hate a liar. Just ask Palmeiro. Instead of 12 positive tests and a questioning glance at the rest of baseball, the media and public would start in the face a series of athletes passing test after test in a documented, consistent, and certified fashion. Given an administrative cost near zero and the potential upside, there’s no reason this program couldn’t be in place by the start of the 2006 season.
It’s time to look forward. Naming the names of the past, finding dealers that hung out in gyms in 1995, and questioning records does nothing for the future of the game. We missed our first chance to stop steroids in sport in the late 1980’s and it’s taken baseball this long to make any honest effort. Like a good closer, you have to forget your losses and worry about the next game. Both sides may never hold hands and sing Kumbaya but both sides could find a more effective middle ground; one that could make deep inroads against the problems and avoiding the collateral damage that now litters the criminal justice system. In the conclusion of “The Juice,” I said that after writing the book I still had no conclusions. I do now. I stand in the middle of the issue, holding the objectivity of the reporter firmly in my hand. Stand with me and put the problem in no man’s land.