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It's Not Just About A-Rod -- It's the Failure of PED Testing in MLB

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The current debate seems to be about why Alex Rodriguez, in light of the evidence of his ties to the Biogenesis clinic, his purported use and possession of several forms of PED substances for many years, and his obstruction of the MLB investigation doesn't capitulate and accept the 211 game suspension levied by MLB; or whether the proposed length of penalty is fair.

What is getting lost in the controversy is the bigger picture issue that A-Rod and all of the other 12 players who have signed on to their suspensions have never failed a drug test since the MLB began formally testing for PEDs. This is an alarming revelation! Assuming that the players who have accepted their penalties did so because they were found to have received PEDs from Anthony Bosch and the Biogenesis clinic, it means that the prevalence of false negative testing results is substantial. Have we been misled about the success rate of the drug testing program?

Players are speaking out in support of the suspensions as a victory in cleaning up the game. But Jose Canseco has previously claimed that 85 percent of major leaguers used banned substances. While Canseco is not always portrayed as a paragon of truthfulness, many people believe him to be reasonably accurate in this realm. Pardon my skepticism but might we have a silent majority of players who are juicing and are careful about how and where they obtain their supplies?

Beginning in 2003 MLB instituted a steroids testing program which was initially a very weak plan, and gradually toughened up the plan with stiffer penalties for offenders, culminating in a 50 game suspension for the first time a player tested positively. Rob Manfred, baseball's executive vice-president for labor relations asserted that the drop in the number of players who failed a drug test in 2006 was attributable to the deterrent effect of harsher penalties in the upgraded program. However, it now seems plausible that more players were becoming increasingly skillful at avoiding detection by switching to HGH and other designer steroids which eluded detection. As the number of positive test results declined, it was proclaimed that the steroids era in major league baseball was over.

When it comes to gaining an edge, many ballplayers have always been creative in staying a step ahead of the curve and beating the system. For example when MLB added amphetamines to the list of banned substances in 2006, the number of players who received "therapeutic use exemptions" for the prescription stimulants Ritalin and Adderall for their presumed A.D.D. disorders, increased.

The media and MLB are trumpeting the notion that the current round of suspensions will serve as a meaningful deterrent to curb the use of PEDs. From another perspective, however, the awareness of the magnitude of false negatives may serve to encourage players to find new ways to attain the benefits of PEDs without getting caught. We want to be able to view our cherished sports heroes as clean and committed to performing on a level playing field, but the incentives that accompany cheating will continue to hold some appeal. These incentives include the enormous salaries bestowed upon superior producing players (the greed factor), the group norm factor which inculcates the belief that you are disadvantaged if others are using PEDS and you are not, and the dream of immortality, which translates into permanent fame for record-breaking achievements.

David Brooks, a well-respected New York Times columnist naively expressed puzzlement over why would someone like A-Rod, with supreme baseball talent, become a steroids user and risk the consequences of being exposed as a cheater. The answer lies in the hubristic motivation of athletes like Rodriguez and Barry Bonds to not settle for being great, but, rather to need to carve a pathway to being the greatest.

As fans we want to believe that our sports heroes will embrace their image as positive role models and withstand the pull toward crossing the line. When faced with temptation, we want them to have enough conscience, and an inner voice, which says "NO!", but many star athletes have been conditioned from an early age to believe that they can do whatever they want without being accountable for consequences that follow transgressions.

I do not believe that the use of PEDs among major leaguers is over. What is needed is a more effective drug testing program which eliminates the false negative issue, and more stringent penalties in order to make the risk/reward ratio less appealing.

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