April 29, 2005
Handling the Steroids Issue
Lessons Learned from Other Sports
How long will it take before steroids aren't an issue for baseball? No, that's not the right question. How long before fans have enough faith in it that it's not such a huge, distracting issue?
There are no easy answers to these questions. But we can learn a good deal from the precedents set by other sports, specifically the NFL and NBA.
The NFL's steroid policy as we recognize it was instituted in 1989 after a series of legal fights, as the league attempted to impose a policy. It had, in a much weaker form, started in 1982, allowing the league to test all players once, as part of their pre-season physical. The league tried and failed to impose testing again in 1986 after the cocaine-related death of Browns safety Don Rogers. An arbitrator ruled they could not impose random drug testing for all league players. This led to a strange limbo for several years.
Some clubs, like the San Francisco 49ers, were testing players on their own (players agreed to be tested voluntarily after being asked by Bill Walsh, or that's what they said in public; the players' union protested but did little to stop it). The New England Patriots asked their players to submit to testing, and they voted to accept the plan, 52-7.
In some cases, players with drug or alcohol problems were tested for other reasons, or as part of contracts approved by the league. The Players Association attempted to get an injunction against the league-wide policy and failed. By the time they were denied by a U.S. District judge in mid-September, 13 players had already been suspended.
Suspensions ran 30 days, and many of the protests will sound familiar. "As I told the commissioner, everything that I did was doctor-supervised. I gave him the names and everything else and it all checked out," guard Ron Solt said.
Some players, like Dexter Manley, Tony Collins, and Stanley Wilson, were banned from football (though allowed to apply for reinstatement) after testing positive three times. For Manley, his testing went even farther back than the imposition of the policy, but that's not particularly important.
Many of these players ended up reinstated--Manley, for instance, was one. Hal Garner missed the 1989 season after he was first suspended for 30 days and then tested positive in the off-season. The league offered to let him retire and avoid the announcement, which Garner took them up on. The NFL cleared Garner to return in the summer of 1990 and the Bills signed him.
Eventually, the drug testing became part of the collective bargaining agreement. This led to a brief controversy in 1996, when allegations were made that 16 players who'd tested positive in 1995 were allowed to slip through and go unpunished.
Suspensions grew in length until testing positive became a full-season suspension. The league also covered off-field drug-related offenses. In 1997, for instance, you could get arrested for marijuana possession and be suspended or fined if you pled to the charge.
But all of that's beside the point. What's interesting is that in reading the 16 years of media coverage is that, especially during the early ban-and-reinstate period, there was a great deal of skepticism about the program. There have been occasional charges that the NFL was "looking the other way" (most frequent phrase), but by and large, it's fair to say that they've gotten credit for having a serious policy while taking fire for its failings and oversights.
Then there's the NBA. In 1980, Eddie Johnson was charged with possession of cocaine. The league announced that if a player were convicted of a drug-related offense, he wouldn't be able to play in the NBA again (which would put players in an impossible position if they were to try to plead guilty and get help). By 1986, the NBA was in a state much like the NFL: Under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement signed before the 1983-1984 season, some contracts called for testing on demand, and some players tested because the NBA had persuasive evidence they had used drugs. A player who admitted drug use the first time could enter rehab (with pay). The second time, he had to enter rehab without pay until his release. Third offense was a two-year suspension.
So they struck a balance between trying to encourage treatment with a severe punishment for being caught. Sort of strange. But even in 1987, Commissioner Stern was against mandatory testing, saying "I don't like the idea of having to prove yourself innocent when you're not guilty."
The league eventually went to mandatory testing following a series of drug (and particularly marijuana) incidents in the late 1990s. Penalties remain severe.
Basketball, though, has benefited greatly from the general perception that it's not a sport where steroids help performance. While this may be a gross misunderstanding about the nature of steroids and the varied reasons an athlete might use them, it has given the NBA an easy time of it.
So what can baseball learn from these other sports? How does it get clean from dirty?
We've seen two waves of suspensions of players tested in the spring training camps, but no household names. The belief that steroids pervaded baseball will not be persuaded by marginal players. The media want the league to cough up that bit of lung that proves it's willing to make the painful sacrifice. Someone big needs to be caught and suspended to make people feel reassured, and if it's someone they've long suspected, all the better.
MLB can't control that, though, unless it wants to tamper with the results. There are two obvious avenues that baseball can pursue that will, over time, greatly help:
The penalties for violating the policy need to be much greater. As the NFL's early attempts were viewed with scorn, many fans feel that a 10-day suspension for violating the major league drug policy is a joke. Comparatively, it is true that baseball's penalties are quite light. A baseball player misses far less of the season compared to his other peers. In this, fairness of the policy is not the issue: Even if 10 days is as effective a deterrent to substance abuse as a full-season suspension, if it did not carry the same weight for the intended observer, it would fail.
This gets complicated, though, in that if the drug policy is intended to satisfy fans and reassure them that the on-field product is not chemically-enhanced, baseball will need to strike a balance between reasonability and satisfying the extreme and most vocal of its critics. Some of these people would like to see a first-positive one-year ban, which even with modern testing techniques would threaten to end the careers of innocent players on a false positive. There are some extremists who might argue that a first offense should result in a lifetime ban that can't be appealed.
The more reasonably baseball tries to treat the problem (double-testing to try to prevent false positives, for instance) the more the one-strike-and-out critics will bray that it's a cover-up, and so on and so forth.
Baseball will eventually strike a balance that includes much harsher first-time penalties--something that will give the concerned fan pause, while leaving some unsatisfied. Thirty days seems to be a good magic number: a full month on first offense is weighty enough that it can't be easily dismissed, followed by the harsher full-season second offense.
The other thing baseball will need to do to reassure fans is increase or publicize the scope of the drug testing, depending on its current, secret scope. Today, we don't know what's on the banned list. For instance, are amphetamines banned? Getting a straight answer to this question is more difficult than it needs to be. If they are not, as has been rumored, it would be a great reason to believe that the current steroid testing was only adopted to quell public criticism. Abuse of amphetamines has been at least as prevalent as any steroid, but because the outcry was over HGH and THG and deca and whatever else fell under "juicing," those drugs were banned, while amphetamines seem to have escaped. Amphetamines, could help players more than steroids in some cases; they can also be just as harmful, sometimes more so. If MLB is testing for amphetamines, they're only going to be caught by random, in-season testing--the drugs have an extremely short detection window.
A lack of a proven and reliable test for Human Growth Hormone hamstrings any drug testing policy in much the same way. What is the point of testing for older-generation steroids if players can get as good or better results with something that can't be detected today?
At some point, left unchecked, such omissions will form the next scandal, as they have in both the NBA and NFL in the past: One drug, not covered in the current policy for whatever reason, rises to prominence through scandal or allegation. Fans start to regard the drug-testing program as toothless, and then the sport has to win confidence all over again. If baseball, while actively pursuing those who attempt to cheat through one drug family, gives a wink and a nod at a much more destructive set of drugs just because they weren't the subject of misguided Congressional hearings or public outcry, it would undo much of the good will the testing is meant to gain.
I've long argued for a rational approach to the issue of drug abuse in professional baseball, while as a fan I wish we could all get past this and start enjoying games again. I sit on the same balance baseball does: I want to see my sport do whatever it has to in order to get back to being the finest major sport in this country even if that means excessive punishment, while at the same time I wish for a compassionate and reasonable approach of education, treatment, and prevention to help the people who put on uniforms from extended spring training to Yankee Stadium.
May baseball tread wisely, and succeed in this.