Major League Baseball wants to suspend at least 20 players, including New York Yankees third basemen Alex Rodriguez and Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun, over their ties to a Miami health clinic that allegedly supplied the players with performance enhancing drugs, ESPN reported Tuesday night. If it succeeds, it would be the largest drug bust in American professional sports history and a further stain on a sport that has long sought to put its drug problem behind it.
The media and fans are already treating the suspensions as a virtual given — unsurprising since Rodriguez previously admitted to steroid use and that Braun escaped a previous suspension only on a technicality. The problem is that baseball’s case is, at least right now, far from solid. And even if MLB delivers, it isn’t showing the willingness or the open mind to address its drug problem in a serious, effective way.
The backstory, broken by the Miami New Times in January, is that Miami anti-aging clinic Biogenesis provided scores of Major Leaguers with consultation and medication, including performance enhancing drugs. The clinic’s owner, crank “doctor” Tony Bosch, decided to cooperate with Major League Baseball to avoid potential prosecution or civil litigation. But as it stands now, the only evidence against Braun, Rodriguez, and others is a sloppily-kept handwritten notebook that details the drugs supplied to players and the payments players made to Bosch.
Bosch is baseball’s silver bullet, and what and how much he says will be used to build baseball’s case. According to its collective bargaining agreement and a Joint Drug Agreement it signed with players, MLB doesn’t need a failed drug test to hand out suspensions. But it does need actual evidence that players were supplied with and used drugs. Biogenesis, though, dealt almost solely in cash and used runners to deliver its products, according to reports, so even Bosch’s accounts are going to require substantial corroboration from other sources if MLB wants it suspensions to stick.
But even if baseball succeeds in taking Rodriguez and Braun, hardly the game’s most sympathetic figures, to the woodshed, the Biogenesis case is an indication that its drug policy isn’t working and that the league office doesn’t have much commitment to figuring out a policy that would, probably because its “tough on drugs” actions earn so much praise.
USA Today’s Christine Brennan hailed MLB’s decision as “one of the most positive and aggressive yet in the fight against doping in sports,” a sign that baseball is beginning to catch up to the Olympics and other organizations that have aggressively tested athletes for years. “Parents with teenagers in sports, boys and girls who studies show are already trying PEDs to play better,” Brennan wrote today, “should be thankful that their kids will see the news of more athletes being disgraced by doping.”
There exists, however, virtually no evidence that drug testing deters drug use. Baseball doesn’t have records of drug use from before the testing era, so there isn’t any way to measure its efficacy. But the existence of tests and suspensions obviously hasn’t stopped Rodriguez, who admitted to steroid use in 2009, from associating with shady figures like Bosch, and it hasn’t stopped countless other players from using drugs either. Drug use is rampant in sports like cycling and the Olympics that have aggressive testing policies, and academic research has suggested that “testing alone is not a sufficient deterrent to eliminate drug use among college athletes.”
As for aggressive drug testing and busts of professionals serving as a deterrent for young athletes, Dr. Linn Goldberg testified in front of the House of Representatives in December that his two-year testing of high school athletes had no deterrent effect on their use of performance enhancing drugs. If drug testing young athletes doesn’t stop them from using drugs, should we really expect that drug testing professional athletes is going to stop young athletes from using drugs?
An actual solution is unclear. Goldberg developed a plan for high school athletes that centers on education, and he has seen positive early results, according to his House testimony. Others have suggested legalization and regulation. Maybe the answer lies somewhere in between. What is clear, though, is that the current test-and-suspend, wash-rinse-repeat system isn’t working (much, as Salon’s Alex Pareene noted, like our nation’s drug policy writ large). Major League Baseball and its professional counterparts, meanwhile, seem more intent on doling out punishments than on figuring out how to actually clean up their games.