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Cheating in Baseball and Cycling

2013 August 22
by Brian Goff

In criminal justice studies, the problem of separating actual crime from enforcement policies across jurisdictions is well known. Over the past decade, cycling has suffered from a decade of embarrassing revelations about steroid and other PED use. The suspension of 13 major league players, including one of its all-time sluggers, Alex Rodriguez, it exposes the pitiful weakness of MLB’s testing process and penalties for PED use. Use may have been no less than cycling, just pursued with less vigor.

The evidence in the recent case is best described as  “out of the blue sky” in that it hit MLB in the head through no effort of their own. A former disgruntled employee of the Biogenesis lab purported to have supplied the players with PEDs started the process in motion. To its credit, the league then pursued the case with vigilance by bringing suits against former employees in order to obtain records.

The league’s testing procedure (“analytic evidence”) uncovered only 13 users from 2009 to the present. Yet, now there is strong evidence  that many players not only using PEDs, but doing it right underneath the nose of the testing process. Whether through MLB’s feckless attempts or the Player’s Association foot-dragging, the testing procedure is a joke. Players are tested upon reporting to spring training, providing them with full knowledge of the test’s timing. MLB should just include a warning sign to users – if you are using PEDs, then stop or mask them before this date. During the season, the collective bargaining agreement allows for one random test. So, once that is out of the way, a player can supplement with PEDs to their heart’s content without the threat of a test. Of course, cycling and Olympic sports have shown that sophisticated doctors, labs, and chemists can mask PED use quite well even with more randomized tests, but baseball’s procedures don’t even make it difficult.

Beyond the testing, baseball’s CBA permits only a 50 game suspension for the first positive test. A second positive test incurs a 100 game suspension, still less than a year. At a third test, the hammer comes down with a lifetime ban. Given the extremely low probability of being caught even one time, it’s not hard to see how players tempted by PEDs descend into that pit. If I assume that the likelihood of the testing process catching a user is 1 in 100 (the data suggest its even smaller), a player’s “expected value” of games lost is less than 1.  So, the threat of lost games is trivial. The threat of embarrassment is likely a greater deterrent, at least for some players.

A cynical viewpoint is that MLB’s foot-dragging on PED testing and punishment makes some strategic sense. After all, cycling’s public relations wounds seem self-inflicted through its enforcement. That viewpoint maybe correct, but until recently, it has only been implemented by the cooperation or, at a minimum, complicit actions of the Player’s Association.  All of a sudden, the voices of the anti-steroid players have grown loud.   This heightened degree of peer scrutiny and disapproval may prove a stronger deterrent to use than the current or even stiffer policy.

5 Responses
  1. Duane Rockerbie permalink
    August 22, 2013

    Economics suggests that the highest incidence of PED use should be in the professional sport with the highest financial return to the offender. In my mind, that would be the NBA that has the highest average salary of the four major North American professional leagues (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL). Yet the NBA has only suspended two players in recent history for PEDs (Turkoglu and Lewis) and has turned a blind eye to the NBA players listed on the Biogenesis documents. Maybe the NBA brass doesn’t care – instead realizing the causation from PEDs to better player performances and ultimately profit. It is only when athletes testify against other high-profile athletes that action is forced. Lance Armstrong would never have been stripped of his titles if his teammates had not come forward. One must then consider what the incentives are for athletes to scrutinize the performances of other athletes.

  2. Kerry Waller permalink
    August 22, 2013

    While MLB’s program is far from perfect, I think you’re being unfair to them with this characterization. At least they took the slap in the face from Biogenesis and did something with it. The NCAA, NBA, NFL and tennis (whatever their main body is called these days) were presented with the same evidence regarding their players and have opted to look in the other direction.

    By demonstrating a willingness to prosecute beyond drug testing (which will always have loopholes…see Armstrong, Lance), MLB is trying to signal an increase in the cost of doing PED’s. Of course this is merely a drop in the bucket (as you suggest). The players will continue to run the cost/benefit analysis on PED use and come up with the very logical conclusion the millions of GUARANTEED dollars are worth the potential shaming associated with a suspension, regardless of the length of that suspension (within reason and short of a lifetime ban of course). The answer has got to lie in increasing the cost of getting caught by allowing teams the option to opt out of an existing contract if the player gets busted.

  3. Andrew permalink
    August 23, 2013

    The NBA & NFL don’t have HGH tests or strict testing policies in their CBA as MLB does. In fairness to the NFL, most of the eyes have turned blind because of how overwhelmingly aggressive the sport is. I think fans would rather not care about players usage of banned substances as long as they stay on the field. The NBA is all based on athletic ability. Unless you ignore basic logic or have never played even recreational basketball, it would be hard not to think NBA players are on something to aid in the speed of recovery. The lockout shortened season had players playing 4 games in 5 nights. Even the greatest athletes would need optimal recovery to be at 80%, yet most succeeded in putting up gaudy numbers.

    Baseball is different, its the most traditional sport with the most traditional fan base. You can point candidly to how baseball fans react to players IMPLICATED, not found guilty of PED usage. It is considered the Nations past time. Records are hallow, unlike any other sport. We know that Babe Ruth was the greatest home run hitter until Hank Aaron past him. We know Pete Rose has the most hits. There used to be strict measuring sticks for HOF candidacy. 3,000 hits, 300 wins, 500 Home runs.

    Labs keep coming up with new ways to mask products, thats no secret. The best way to halt the usage is either make penalties career crippling or test everyone and don’t suspend players–rather make everyone aware of how they are achieving their level of performance.

  4. Greg permalink
    August 23, 2013

    The purpose of the MLBPA is to protect the interests of its members — not necessarily the interests of MLB and more importantly, MLB owners. Notice how, weak as it may be, all the punishment is on the players. If MLB is truly interested in stamping out PED “abuse”, it would also punish the players’ employers, the teams and their owners.

  5. Scott Kelley permalink
    August 27, 2013

    The title is misleading by referencing cycling. Cycling is barely mentioned in a passing reference.

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