09/13/2012 12:37 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Why Has the NBA Never Had a Major Doping Scandal?

This question originally appeared on Quora.
By Jonathan Brill, VP of Sales at a Software Start-Up

The NBA hasn't had a major doping scandal due to a combination of steroids not being as helpful to pro basketball players and the NBA having relatively weak testing (ironically, due to not having a scandal).

Here's what we know:

  • Several players have been busted for PEDs, none more high profile than OJ Mayo and Rashard Lewis in recent years.
  • The NBA will tell you it has been vigorously testing for every kind of drug for decades and is just smarter than the other leagues.
  • Congress will tell you this: Under the NBA policy, NBA players face no random testing at all once they complete their rookie year. They are only tested once each year, during their one-month training camp. The policy also fails to cover a vast number of drugs. There are literally dozens of steroids and stimulants that are outlawed in Olympic competition that are still legal for use in the NBA. The policy fails to cover performance enhancers such as human growth hormone or EPO. And it fails to cover designer steroids."
  • As of 2009, the media reported it this way: Lawmakers on the House Government Reform Committee called the NBA's drug-testing policy "a joke," saying it's weaker than the NFL's or baseball's. As the NBA's steroids policy was branded "pathetic" by lawmakers Thursday, the head of a congressional panel said he will propose a law creating drug-testing standards for the four major professional sports leagues.*
  • There have been no steroid-related illnesses, deaths, or cover-ups involving NBA players.

Here's what I think:

  • Although I agree that steroids wouldn't have as much as an advantage for an NBA player as they would in other sports, I wouldn't say they'd have no advantage.The healing properties alone would be beneficial to all players recovering from injuries throughout the season, especially as they get older.
  • In the NBA, weight is the enemy. In baseball and football putting on more weight can give you an advantage. In basketball, it just kills you. Although there are corner cases for younger players; what you typically hear from veterans is that they're trying to shed weight to offset their declining vertical and burst speed. Most steroids help stamina or muscle gain, and neither of those are optimal (although both are useful in the right amounts) for the NBA
  • What busted open the steroid story in baseball was a combination of things that are somewhat unique to baseball: strength literally makes a lot of difference in the sport and caused two good players to break one of the most sacred records in all of American sports. I covered that in some detail here: Jonathan Brill's answer to MLB: Why are steroids such a big problem in MLB but not in the NBA or NFL?. This is unlikely to happen in the NBA. The records worth chasing are measured over years and require precision, not strength or speed. Making an NBA basket is more like hitting a golf ball than hitting a line drive, and form and balance are more important than strength or speed.

I wouldn't be surprised if steroids were used widely throughout the NBA for injury recovery. In my personal opinion, the monetary stakes are too high for this not to be the case. Looking at a player like Mike Miller of the Miami Heat, he's facing medical retirement with three years and $18m left on his contract. Mike has made some money in his career, but is unlikely to ever get close to that earning power again. If Mike could cycle some doctor-prescribed HGH a few months after his back surgery and dodge the NBA's congressionally-mocked PED tests (which apparently don't even test for exotics such as HGH) enough to get back to playing shape this season, I'd expect him (or a similar player in that position) to do that. At some point, the health risks of a slightly risky treatment plan and the entirely manageable risks of getting caught seem trivial compared with that kind of money. As salaries continues to rise, and knowledge of how to use HGH and other drugs makes them less risky, I'd expect usage to grow.


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