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Drug Bans in Sports Beg Bigger Questions

August 18, 2013

Once again, performance enhancing drugs (PED’s) have made headlines as Major League Baseball handed down lengthy suspensions to players linked to South Florida’s Biogenesis anti-aging clinic. Eighteen players, including former National League Most Valuable Player, Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers, were pinched in this latest drug scandal.

New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who has recently begun playing at the major league level again after a long rehab from offseason hip surgery, was also caught. He was suspended for the remainder of this season plus all of 2014. His punishment was more severe than that of other players because it was deemed that he used PEDs for more years than he had admitted previously, lied about his PED use, and recruited other players to Biogenesis. Bud Selig, commissioner of baseball, was rumored to be willing to disregard the specific punishments dictated by baseball’s Joint Drug Agreement and ban Rodriguez for life under his power to act in the “best interests of baseball” if Rodriguez did not agree to the 1 season + suspension.

For now, it seems that the third baseman is calling Selig’s bluff by appealing his suspension and playing while the appeal is underway.

Where exactly is the problem?

I am not in favor of athletes using performance enhancing drugs because of the medical risks. As Dr. Mike Marshall, 1974 National League Cy Young Award winner, and exercise physiologist told me in a 2007 interview, steroids make the muscles grow, but do not change the bones or the tendons. The overload of musculature on the bones and tendons eventually causes problems.

But mentally competent adults should be free to assume the risks. They should be able to take whatever medicine they wish, just as they should be able to refuse medicine (and can now do so).

But it’s cheating, you say.

Why is it cheating?

Because it’s against the rules.

The “clear’” that Barry Bonds took was legal at the time he took it. So was the androstendione Mark McGwire took. He kept it in plain view in his locker. You could have bought it over the counter at my local gym back then!

It’s still cheating, which is why they made rules against these substances. An athlete’s achievements should be all natural.

Cortisone shots are legal and cortisone is a steroid.

But cortisone use is only temporary to help heal an injury.

When the Mitchell Report on performance enhancing drugs in baseball came out, one of the names on the list of users was F.P. Santangelo, a backup catcher. He told some hosts of KNBR sports talk radio in San Francisco, that he had sustained severe leg injuries that did not respond to conventional treatment. He asked his physician about HGH (human growth hormone). The doctor said he didn’t know if it would work but they could try. The drugs did not make a superstar out of him. He got branded as a cheater for trying to maintain his career.

Bad things happen to ball players sometimes. No one is guaranteed a lengthy career.

No one is vouchsafed any number of days on this planet either, yet doctors exist to save and extend lives. If F.P. had injured his legs as an ironworker in the construction industry and he had tried to use HGH to recover to keep his job, no one would have branded him a cheater. Where do we draw the line at letting technology aid us and why do we draw it where we do? There seems no rhyme or reason to it.

If the drugs are banned because they unnaturally enhance performance, then Tommy John surgery should also be banned. According to Wikipedia “Holes to accommodate a new tendon are drilled in the ulna and humerus bones of the elbow. A harvested tendon from the forearm of the same or opposite elbow, below the knee, or from a cadaver is then woven in a figure-eight pattern through the holes and anchored.” That doesn’t sound very natural or temporary to me. Without that surgery, Tommy John’s career as a pitcher was finished. With the surgery, he won another 164 games, 40 more than he had won before the surgery. That sounds like the very definition of performance enhancement to me. Around five hundred players have had the surgery since Tommy John had his in 1974. Dr. Frank Jobe, who invented the procedure, was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame this year.

So what do you think should be done?

First, get the government out of our bodies. Laws against personal drug use by adults should be repealed, though I would maintain stiff penalties for someone causing injury or property damage to another while under the influence. I was disgusted by the fact that Congress was more interested in busting McGwire, Roger Clemens and Rafael Palmeiro for using PEDs than impeaching G.W. Bush for lying us into wars that have killed so many people.

Prescription PEDs must be administered by the player’s personal physician or a team doctor who will monitor the dosages and effects, not a trainer, teammate, friend, etc. Exception: A player may receive PEDs though participation in a bona fide scientific study of a drug. Then it can be administered by the study personnel. No one else, including the player himself or herself may administer prescription PEDs. No one under 21 can take PEDs, even if they are in the highest professional ranks

A player may take any PED or supplement sold over-the-counter for use by the general public, and can use it, including by self-administration, in the same way as any member of the general public can.

A player may receive prescription drugs only after the doctor has given all the information on risks and benefits. The player then signs a statement of informed consent. Anytime something new, good or bad, gets discovered about a drug the personal or team doctor informs the player at the earliest reasonable opportunity and the player signs a new informed consent document.

A player may quit the drug whenever he or she wishes for whatever reason, and either the personal physician, team doctor, or a qualified clinic or physician, will help the player withdraw properly. The doctor who administers the drugs may stop at any time when, in his or her judgment, the drugs are doing more harm than good. The doctor shall then help the player withdraw or recommend someone qualified to aid in withdrawal.

The administering physician or, in case of team sports, the club itself, shall present information on natural, holistic alternatives to drugs. A league, sports federation or players’ union may also supplement this information with presentations. The information shall be presented in a neutral way. The player will sign a form indicating that he or she received the information, attended the workshop, etc.

A player who takes drugs automatically waives his or her right to medical privacy with respect to the following facts: when, and for how long PEDs were taken, what drugs, what dosage size and for what purpose the drugs were taken. This way drug use can be taken into consideration by people who are voting awards or negotiating contracts if they so desire.

No employer of a professional athlete can require a player to take or continue to take PEDs. If a player thinks that he or she has been the subject of adverse employment action because of refusal of an order, or even a suggestion, by a team or league official that he or she should use or resume using PEDs, he or she and his or her union, if any, shall have a legitimate reason to grieve, demand arbitration, or sue in any court of competent jurisdiction.

Wouldn’t legal PED use by pro athletes set a poor example for children?

Open, medically supervised use of PEDs would allow for the proper scientific study of their risks and benefits, including longitudinal studies that would measure effects after players’ careers are over, and will send young people the right messages. Right now Major League Baseball is supposedly conducting studies that show ill effects from drug use. I am not saying that there aren’t any ill effects, but since MLB wants to get rid of drugs, studies they sponsor or conduct are hardly unbiased.

Proper health education, values that exalt health over fame or money, and good examples set by the adults directly in a child’s life are stronger motivators to smart behavior than prohibition. There are always those who do what’s prohibited because they figure they will never get caught. That is why you will always have periodic PED scandals in sports if all that happens is that players are tested for more substances more often.


About the author: Kellia Ramares-Watson is an independent journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of the e-book Eating Poison: Food, Drugs and Health. Her next major project will be an e-book called Demonetization: Ending the Cult of Commodity. She can be reached at theendofmoney[at]gmail.com.


6 Responses to Drug Bans in Sports Beg Bigger Questions

  1. Kellia on September 26, 2013 at 2:06 am

    The losing their jobs argument is weakened by the fact that PEDs don’t make you a superstar. And given American cutthroat capitalism, aren’t the PED users just complying with the general culture in doing what they can to get the biggest payday for as long as they can? No athlete owes a duty to another athlete to step aside so long as he can play and someone wants to employ him, right? And the reason drugs are taken matters. If Nelson Cruz is telling the truth about using PEDs from Biogenesis to recover from a severe virus, isn’t that different than using it regularly to hit more home runs? But the drug policy is only considering the substance not the purpose it is used. There are medical exceptions for some drugs, like Adderal and Ritalin for ADD, but what if the drug is experimental relative to the condition? If drug use is demonized without proper scientific study, maybe somebody like Cruz tries to keep it hidden and we end up with cover up is worse than the crime scenarios, which is what we had with the millions of taxpayer dollars wasted prosecuting Barry Bonds for lying to the Feds about using something that was in fact legal under civil law at the time he used it.

    We are better off discouraging drug use for performance enhancement based on scientific study of the health consequences including longitudinal health studies than we are in driving drug use underground.

    Also there are questions about the fairness of the consequences of violating the drug policies. As sportswriter Dave Zirin recently noted, banned drugs are available in the Dominican Republic Over the Counter. I couldn’t help but notice that most of the guys busted in MLB doping scandals are Latinos. How and at what point does race and racism enter the picture?

    The three players most heavily pursued in thee drug scandals have been Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez, all bristly personalities with difficult media relationships well outside of the drug issue. How does this factor in?

  2. heartdude on September 4, 2013 at 10:33 pm

    Wait a minute here. Legalizing marijuana is one thing but allowing people to cheat is just wrong and dangerous. Is it ok for a heavyweight boxer to use PED or amphetamines? You wish to penalize honest athletes?

    • Kellia on September 26, 2013 at 1:11 am

      I agree that it is dangerous therefore athletes should not use PEDs except under medical supervision when a particular drug has been shown to improve a medical condition, such as recovery from injury, or unless the athlete is participating in a scientific study as the the drug’s effectiveness. But why is it cheating to use certain drugs and not others. And don’t say because it is against the rules. Why do e draw up the rules where we do? Why can a player take a cortisone shot but not an anabolic steroid? Why is it bad for an athlete to take a PED but OK for a model or actress to get plastic surgery to improve her chances? There was even a song about plastic surgery in the show A Chorus Line. Yes it would be OK for a heavyweight boxer to use PEDs under the conditions that I stated. If we as a society don’t want athletes to use PEDs, maybe we shouldn’t get so excited about home runs. Lets face it, part of the PED issue is that the public has certain expectations of athletes and athletes try to meet those expectations to get a big payday.

      In what way are honest athletes being penalized? The names on the list in the Mitchel Report show that not everybody who took PEDs was or became a superstar.

  3. SteveH on August 29, 2013 at 1:23 pm

    How can their records mean anything? What good are records if every new drug technology will make the current or previous sets of records irrelevant?

  4. globalcitizen on August 22, 2013 at 10:04 am

    You make some good points, though I can’t completely agree with you about allowing PEDs. I agree there are all kinds of enforcement issues, to be sure. That’s true with anything that’s prohibited. Don’t you think if PEDs are allowed the incidence of use will skyrocket because in sports more than anywhere else, whatever gives you the slightest edge can make the difference between a job and being given your walking papers. And PEDs will become the de facto standard. That puts players who want to avoid the negative health effects of PEDs in a position of either using them or losing their jobs. What will the long term health effects be? Is that not a consideration and what about the next PE technology? And the next? And the next?

    • Kellia on September 26, 2013 at 1:33 am

      Disclosure, which is what I recommended, will allow people to evaluate in their own minds what the records mean. But in truth, maybe we set too much store by records even when drugs are not an issue, eg. Would Babe Ruth have hit 714 homers if baseball in his time had been fully integrated and he regularly would have had to face the best black pitchers? Speaking about pitchers, what about the WINS stat? How can future pitchers ever be 300 game winners when bullpens are used so much that many a starter leaves a game as the pitcher of record on the winning side only to see the bullpen blow it and the starter gets no decision. I grew up a Mets fan. Tom Seaver won 311 games in his career. He has a cabinet that contained 238 baseballs, one four each complete game he pitched. Nowadays, three to five complete games a year is a major accomplishment and guys come to the majors never having thrown a complete game in the minors or in high school or college. It is to the point where I think ERA should be recalculated based on 6 innings instead of 9. So how relevant are records when the nature of the game itself keeps changing.

      What I don’t want to see is this race between chemists and anti-doping testers that will result in more and more substances being tested for. I am sick of authorities making more and more rules limiting our choices. If the guys at my local gym and freely buy and take testosterone that is advertised on the sports talk radio show, an adult pro athlete should be able to take it without being called a cheater.

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