If you thought Alex Rodriguez's yearlong suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs would put the issue to rest, think again. Five weeks into the season, baseball headlines are still dominated by the legal issues stemming from his suspension, his former teammate's reaction and new suggestions about how to police banned substances. In short, if we have learned anything from this mess, it's that PED-use, and the issues surrounding it, are not going away any time soon.
Here's a solution: Let players take them.
First, a clarification: The term "performance-enhancing" is a mischaracterization. The debate is not about whether or not players should be allowed to enhance their bodies; the question is how much, and when you remove that distinction, the ban on specific substances seems arbitrary. A variety of "performing-enhancing" substances are still legal for players to take. For example, they can take creatine, an amino acid that builds lean muscle, and a variety of other supplements. Moreover, reconstructive surgeries like Tommy John - which is incredibly unnatural -- are increasing in popularity, and in many cases saving players' careers, let alone enhancing them. Why, then, should a substance like human growth hormone -- which is available by prescription and is effective in treating injuries -- be banned? And more importantly, who is deciding where to draw the line?
Many would respond with the fact that some PEDs are proven to be unhealthy, with many undesirable side-effects. But since when are we so concerned about the health and safety of athletes? Professional athletes already take on enormous health risks: pitchers are virtually ensured to destroy their arms, catcher hurt their knees (and if you like to watch football, you really shouldn't talk about player health). Players are getting injured all the time, and health risks associated with sports constantly change over time. Moreover, it's odd that these concerns are coming from fans, considering it was the players who created this issue in the first place by deciding to take PEDs. And even with the anti-drug regime put in place by Major League Baseball, players are still trying to cheat the tests (nearly all the players caught in the Biogenesis saga, including A-Rod, Ryan Braun, and Nelson Cruz, had been using PEDs undetected). If the players don't seem concerned about the health effects of PED-use, why should we?
And let's be honest, this isn't only what many players want, but many fans as well. Some of the brightest moments in sports, in terms of ratings, probably wouldn't have happened without PEDs, whether it was Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in the late 90s, or the thrilling career of Lance Armstrong. Fans want to see enhanced players -- they want longer home runs, faster pitches -- and PEDs can bring that.
Yet while we know PEDs certainly make players stronger, there is no convincing evidence as to their exact effect. In other words, it is entirely a stretch, at least with current evidence, to call PED-use "cheating." The press focuses most on the former All-Stars and MVPs who are caught for PED-use, but a good number of PED-users never experience the hulk-like transformation often associated with PEDs. A-Rod, for example, used banned substances, but so did Francisco Cervelli, a little known catcher who is averaging 1.25 home runs per season. In short, players like A-Rod, Barry Bonds and McGwire are still great hitters -- there is no evidence to suggest they wouldn't have hit a lot of home runs had they not taken PEDs.
Finally, Major League Baseball has been waging a war against PEDs for some time now, yet the issue has hardly gone away. In many ways, in fact, it has only gotten worse. Enforcement is incredibly difficult and, as Buster Olney notes, "the science of cheating will always be ahead of the testing." Instead of creating a level-playing field, the league's drug policy is just pushing use underground, encouraging cheating on tests, and tarnishing the image of great players -- such as Braun and A-Rod -- who are central to the ongoing success and popularity of the sport.
Baseball is no longer making headlines solely on its merits. The legal battles, suspensions, and public duels are only undermining the game. And the future doesn't look much better. As PED-users continue to retire, the shaky debates over what records should stand and who should be inducted into the Hall of Fame will ensue. No matter what you think of PEDs, the absence of Bonds, A-Rod, and Sosa from the Hall of Fame -- the premier institution of our national pastime -- is odd, undermines the baseball's rich history, and frankly makes the game look silly.
The ban on PEDs is serving no one -- not the fans who have to watch their stars get deemed cheaters, not the players who created this crisis on their own, and certainly not the game of baseball, which finds itself perpetually damaged and publicly shamed. It's time Major League Baseball declares it's arbitrary war on PEDs a failure, and allows baseball's healing process to begin.
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