Ryan Braun, HGH In The NFL, And Why No One Really Cares About Steroids In Sports


Ryan Braun (Credit: AP)

Ryan Braun (Credit: AP)

Major League Baseball announced Monday that it had reached an agreement with Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun over his use of performance-enhancing drugs. Braun will be suspended without pay for the rest of the season — 65 games — a shorter term than the 100 games MLB was reportedly seeking, but in exchange, he won’t be able to appeal the ruling.

This is almost surely the start of something bigger, since Braun is the first one implicated in the Biogenesis scandal that apparently involves at least 20 Major Leaguers, including Alex Rodriguez. Braun’s admission, as Wendy Thurm suggested, could be evidence that MLB actually has good, hard evidence coming from the cooperation of Biogenesis founder and crank doctor Tony Bosch. Braun, who escaped a previous suspension only on technicality then swore he was innocent, was among the biggest fish for MLB here, but there are going to be more suspensions. We won’t know how they will play out or how MLB will pursue them until more details of the Braun deal emerge.

But I’m not convinced anyone outside the media and Major League Baseball’s front office cares that much. And I’m not convinced that anyone really cares all that much about steroids in sports, period. Fans sure don’t seem to — it appears the outrage that was once there in baseball is gone, and the fact that half of the National Football League looks like drug-infused lab rats doesn’t seem to bother anyone either. Most of the anger leveled at Braun, from his teammates and otherwise, stems not from the fact that he did steroids but from the fact that he lied about doing steroids.

On the same day MLB announced Braun’s suspension, the NFL and its Players Association announced that they were resuming talks about how to test for human growth hormone (HGH). That should elicit a collective yawn from across America, since they agreed to testing in 2011 but have yet to reach an agreement on how to carry it out. Both sides have appeared in front of Congress and both say they’re making “serious progress” toward an agreement. I’ll believe it when I see it, especially since the Players Association has legitimate concerns about how that testing will be done and if it will be administered in a way that respects due process.

The integrity of the game is a nice thing to aspire to, but we’re not going to rid the world of performance-enhancing drugs any time soon, or ever. Fans love to proclaim that they want a clean game, but they also enjoy what steroids create: longer home runs, harder hits, stronger and faster players, and more entertaining sporting events. It’s not a coincidence that baseball turned a blind eye to the steroid era when it needed to bring fans back to the ballpark after the 1994 strike that canceled the World Series — the 1998 home run chase and the high scores that resulted from a more offensive-oriented game were exactly what it needed. And since pressure from fans might be the only real deterrent to drug use, it isn’t going to stop.

That steroid era was propped up on lies — from the league, the players, and the media — and this one is too. The lie now, though, isn’t that players are using steroids but that we can rid the game of them. And the people who matter are no longer ignoring steroids but are ignoring instead the evidence that shows their testing policies won’t work. Need proof? Look at Tyson Gay or the Jamaican track team. Look at Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez. Look at Lance Armstrong and the Tour de France. All of those athletes are tested frequently, and they still doped. If that’s not enough, try study after study that shows that drug testing doesn’t actually deter drug use, not for professionals, college kids, or high schoolers, not for marijuana or steroids.

The economic incentives make drug use not just prevalent but rational, and because of that, the testers will always be behind the users and developers. We’re kidding ourselves into what Sports On Earth’s Patrick Hruby has called the Sports War On Drugs, and not only is it not working, it’s helping organizations like Major League Baseball evade due process and use shady legal tactics to get what they need and do whatever they please, all in a quest to achieve the impossible.

So even if people do care about steroids, the way sports are trying to rid themselves of drugs is a waste of time. It’s also a waste of money and a waste of an opportunity to actually do something productive. If we’d stop pretending otherwise, we might be able to figure out how to limit drug use and make it safer too, whether through better education and awareness programs or through, as some have suggested, legalization and regulation of the drugs so many athletes are already using.