Steroids And Major League Baseball: Is More Testing The Answer?

The Miami New Times published a bombshell investigative piece this morning that tied multiple Major League Baseball players, including New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez, to a Miami drug company that was supplying them with anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, and other performance enhancing drugs. The story of Biogenesis, the drug firm, and Rodriguez, who admitted to steroid use before, brought back an ugly issue baseball thought it had largely put behind it when it instituted strong drug testing and harsh penalties in 2004.

The response, of course, has been an immediate call for more testing and harsher penalties. But here’s a question few seem to be asking: do drug tests and harsh penalties deter drug use? And if they don’t, how will more drug tests and even harsher penalties do any better?

In baseball, that’s impossible to know definitively, since there are no before-and-after testing numbers. But academic research suggests that random drug testing probably doesn’t prevent drug use. Dr. Linn Goldberg testified during a House Oversight Committee last month that his two-year testing of high school athletes had no deterrent effect. Other academic research has found that “testing alone is not a sufficient deterrent to eliminate drug use among college athletes.” Research into random testing for drugs like marijuana, meanwhile, has found little proof that such testing prevents use.

If Rodriguez, who had already admitted to steroid use once, indeed used performance enhancing drugs again, drug testing and the threat of penalties and public shame obviously failed as a deterrent. Random tests and the threat of rescinded titles, a lifetime ban, and federal punishment didn’t stop Lance Armstrong, and harsh rules and penalties in professional cycling and the Olympics haven’t prevented numerous athletes from using performance enhancers.

It’s easy to suggest that drug testing acts as a deterrent and that more of it would prevent even more use, but it’s hard to find proof of how effective drug tests are at actually preventing use. I’m not sure what the solution to sports’ drug problem is. I’m not even sure there is one, especially if the technology and funding that goes into producing performance enhancing drugs continues to outpace the technology and funding that goes into testing for them. But before we rush to the intuitive “more testing, harsher penalties” solution, shouldn’t we first figure out if the testing that is being conducted now does any good?