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Athletes, steroids and public hysteria

March 02, 2009|MICHAEL HILTZIK

First things first: I am not in favor of athletes doping with steroids.

I am also not in favor of junk science, junkier legal procedure or, junkiest of all, emotion and hysteria driving intelligent thought out of the debate over performance enhancement in sports. Yet these are the central components of our national anti-doping policy. All of them are featured in the latest doping "scandal," the case of New York Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez.

Baseball is big business, so the way it handles this particular incident is worth examining -- particularly against the backdrop of the Barry Bonds steroids trial, which is set to get underway soon in San Francisco.

In 2003, A-Rod was tested for doping along with every other major league ballplayer. The idea was to provide baseball with the basic data it needed to craft an anti-doping policy -- indeed, to determine if it needed a policy. To secure their cooperation, the players were promised that the testing would be anonymous, the results not individually compiled, and the samples promptly destroyed.

Instead, the players union hung on to identifying documentation long enough for it to be subpoenaed by the feds. In due course A-Rod's anonymity was breached and his results leaked to the press. Prosecutors possess the names of the 103 other major leaguers who flunked the 2003 screen, so undoubtedly more violations of confidentiality lurk around the corner.

What does this mean?

It doesn't mean that all baseball statistics from the early 2000s should be tossed because of steroids. Nor does it warrant tossing out A-Rod's stats from the period 2001-03, during which he now admits to having used the substances. There is no evidence -- none -- that steroid use in general produces any consistent, measurable improvement in baseball offense, or that A-Rod's use produced any improvement in his own performance.

By 2001, after all, Rodriguez was already marked as the best player in the game, with the potential to become the greatest ballplayer ever. He had been named an All-Star in three of his five previous full-time seasons. He had already received the richest contract in baseball history. As for the numbers he racked up under the juice in 2001-03, they were equaled or exceeded in 2007, when there's no evidence he was still doping. Sure, at one time he thought steroids would help. Sure, he was stupid about it . . . almost as stupid as people who say he consequently should be barred permanently from the Hall of Fame.

The A-Rod case reminds us that neither major leagues nor the government is serious about addressing the issue of artificial performance enhancement -- at least if that involves doing anything more than grandstanding.

Plainly, no anti-doping program can succeed without the athletes' cooperation. Yet the league owners persistently treat anti-doping policy not as a goal to be reached in accord, but a cudgel to hold over the players' heads. The union, accordingly, views with suspicion all talk of a testing and discipline regime. Members of Congress? They'll continue to honk away about steroid abuse because toughness on drugs is a surefire election-year crowd-pleaser.

To be sure, these parties aren't alone in avoiding a reasoned discourse about performance enhancement in sports. Everyone avoids it.

Thoughtful public discussion about performance-enhancing technologies, pharmaceutical and otherwise, is nonexistent. The extremes of sentiment are represented by knee ligament reconstruction (acceptable) and steroids (despicable). Between those poles lies a whole world of performance enhancement, with no clear principles by which to judge it.

Human growth hormone is thought to build strong bodies 12 ways, like Wonder Bread. No evidence exists that it's harmful in the long term if taken under the guidance of a physician. Should it be banned? Give your reasons, keeping in mind that using the word "cheating" as your entire argument is, well, cheating.

What about physical mutilation? Athletes line up for laser eye surgery by the thousands, striving for vision sharper than 20/20 -- in other words, better than what nature gave them. What's the verdict on Tommy John surgery, which involves grafting a new tendon in the pitching arm?

Possibly the best argument against allowing steroids in high-level sports, even under a doctor's supervision, is that prep coaches will emulate the pros by pumping the stuff willy-nilly into schoolkids, whose bodies can suffer long-term damage as a result. (That's why I'm not comfortable with their pro-league role models doing it.) But kids as young as 14 are being subjected to the Tommy John procedure, whether as preemptive bionics or because their arms have been blown out by parents or coaches hoping to give the little leaguers a head start on a pro career. How long will it be before we hear about promising prep players getting their eyeballs etched?

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