Bud Selig is right. The drug testing program in Major League Baseball is second to none. I’ll include not only the other major American professional sports, but all sports. Pro or amateur, US or foreign, MLB has it right.
What MLB doesn’t have right is the public relations angle. It came too late to the party–far too late–and has gotten knocked around for the puritanical sin of making us believe. The cardinal sin in modern America is truly Baum’s rule: never let us see behind the curtain. While the NFL talks about undersized 300 pounders and men the size of Frank Thomas playing quarterback, no one’s questioning the lack of a prominent drug suspension since the rug-swept Winstrol-fed Pro Bowl season of Shawne Merriman.
Instead, it’s easier to hit the guy who’s easy to hit, and Bud Selig is easy pickings on the pro sports playground. NBA commissioner David Stern and former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue live to challenge the media, and have stared down Congress on several issues. Selig and his minions–aside from Rob Manfred, who was alone in standing up to Henry Waxman at the 2005 hearings–seem to have “hit me again” stamped on them. However, easily hit doesn’t mean Selig’s the right target, and on this issue Congress has been dead wrong. It’s not just the U.S. Congress, to be sure–Florida funded a statewide high school testing program with the laughable sum of $100,000–but they’ve been good at grandstanding while doing little.
So when Selig, Senator Mitchell, and others sit in front of Congress this time, hearing calls for blood testing, independent testing programs, increasing the number of substances on the banned list, and an abandonment of due process, I hope Selig stands up and says “I’d be glad to improve my program once every other sport catches up to us, including the Olympics.” Baseball’s testing program has taken a problem not easily quantified and reduced it from nearly 100 in 2003 to 2 in 2007. I’ll hold my breath waiting for the Beijing Olympics to have a similar reduction, but no one expects there to be anything other than similar numbers. The NFL has done nothing to its testing program despite having its faces rubbed in the hGH issue by the Super Bowl steroid scandal involving the Carolina Panthers. The NBA, NHL, even NASCAR and PGA have nothing compared to MLB.
If the problem is one of role models, as many say, then why is Myles Brand, the President of the NCAA, not called on the carpet? The NCAA’s testing program is an underfunded joke, with the result that they haven’t caught a single Division I football player this season. Why? “We weren’t tested,” I was told by a Division I player recently. “I never saw them come in once.” I asked him when the last time he saw an NCAA tester. “I helped out at a swimming meet last spring and I saw them testing there.” The NCAA’s policy for most sports is to test the winners; silver medals are fine for cheaters, but not gold. Add in that the NCAA’s banned list is significantly shorter than any professional list, and you have a twofold problem of efficacy on top of credibility. Call it cost if you will, but I don’t see the Bowl Committees chipping in nearly as much for steroid testing as they do for flower arrangements, logos, or corporate skyboxes.
I’ll ignore the research, saying that a urine test for hGH is unlikely to ever be found, and I’ll ignore the privacy issues that overlay the calls for blood testing. Perhaps no one read pages 9-10 or skipped past page 144, or even skipped past Sally Jenkins’ phenomenal piece in the Washington Post, regarding the use and effectiveness of hGH. Jim Bouton called amphetamines a “performance enabler” in his recent BPR interview, a commonly held position (or justification) stating that “greenies” just get people awake enough to perform up to their abilities. If many of us buy this argument, can’t we do the same for hGH? Over and over, the overwhelming evidence–anecdotal and scientific–shows that the strength-building application of hGH delivers mixed results at best, but that its value in rebuilding, especially from injury, holds some promise.
Imagine Chris Carpenter coming out on Opening Day, nine months after Tommy John surgery, throwing like the ace that the Cardinals paid for. It’s possible, if you believe that Jason Grimsley‘s recovery was aided by his use of hGH. No one said that Grimsley came out of surgery a better pitcher, just that he came back incredibly quickly while getting back to the same level. That’s pretty clear to me that it’s enabling, rather than enhancing. Check the list of pitchers that have been caught–either by testing or the Mitchell Report–and the same theme comes up again and again: pitchers trying to recover from injury using hGH or steroids. Andy Pettitte? Juan Salas? Juan Rincon? Rafael Betancourt? Maybe even Roger Clemens? All simply seeking to get back on the field to throw the ball. I’m not saying they were right, and I certainly believe they made the wrong choice, but the arguments about what they did and why don’t always hold.
Nor does an increased or independent testing program stop this. Ignore that MLB uses a WADA-certified Montreal lab that would likely also administer the results if WADA took over the testing. Ignore that MLB uses a contractor to collect its samples, much the same way that WADA does for its out-of-competition testing. Ignore for a moment that baseball players have moved past the ineffective and expensive hGH treatments and on to designer steroids that are undectectable, such as Havoc, or to more advanced drugs like IGF-1 and insulin that are not tested for (or, like hGH, could not be tested for). Ignore that genetic doping is on the horizon. Ignore that no sport in the world has had better, faster, or more effective results than MLB. Ignore all that if you wish, but that doesn’t solve problems.
Baseball could do more, especially with education and research, but the money that Congress wants spent on blood tests and testers could be used right now to fund those education programs. Joe Sheehan had this right in mid-2006. Bud Selig has it right in late 2007. Stand strong, Mr. Selig. You picked the right issue to be right on.