PED’s and Big Time Cheating: MLB, Team Owners, Players and Fans
By Walter Hsu (8/13/13)
In light of the recent scandal involving Milwaukee Brewer’s player Ryan Braun, Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez, and the Biogenesis Clinic, the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) has been in the forefront of sports news yet again. While Major League Baseball (MLB) has continued to assure fans that their drug testing regiment is as strenuous as it has ever been, PEDs’ re-emergence makes me wonder, has anything really changed since the 2007 release of the Mitchell Report?[i]
A slew of tarnished names and asterisks fill the record books (e.g., Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds). America’s pastime has been chopped down and dragged through the mud. If anyone needs proof of this, just take a look at World Series TV ratings over the past ten years. Since the steroid scandal height in the early 2000’s, we have seen a steady decline in TV viewership with 2012 being the lowest rated season since the World Series first aired on national TV in 1973. There is no doubt that PEDs’ use has diminished the number of fans due to the belief that the sport is no longer legitimate.
There are signs that the days of rampant PED use have ended. Between 1998 and 2006, the MLB averaged approximately 5,400 homeruns per year. From 2007 on, that average has dropped to only 4,800 homeruns per year, still much higher than the averages in the 80’s, but evidence that the doping epidemic has diminished. However, players with the disposable income are able to invest in new ways to get around the system. It’s not that the cheating has stopped, but that the cheaters have become smarter.
Current MLB policy, as stated by the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program, requires players to be tested at the start of spring training and the end of the post-season. In addition to those tests, 1,400 random tests are conducted during the season and 250 in the off-season. The policy clearly states that any player who has been randomly tested remains subject to additional testing regardless of the number of tests taken by that player during any calendar year. While this appears to be a strict drug testing regiment, the policy does not account for a few major issues.
First, players are not required to report their whereabouts to the MLB in order to ensure that they are available for testing at any given time. Players can simply not answer the door and take the necessary measures to mask the banned substance when they show up for their drug test. Second, the 750 players signed to MLB teams during the off-season only have a 1 in 3 chance of being tested over the course of four months. Human Growth Hormone (HGH) only stays in the body for 28 days. While it is a risk, the odds are clearly in favor of the players.
The American public has called for Commissioner Bud Selig to clean up the sport, but with billions of dollars at stake, this task is much more complex than simply handing plastic cups to every player in the league. Imagine the fallout that would take place if MLB stars found themselves testing positive for anabolic steroids and HGH. If the league wanted to know who was using PEDs, it could readily find out. Selig and the rest of the MLB are turning a blind eye in hopes that their deliberate ignorance will trickle down to the fans as well.
As it stands, the MLB gains nothing from testing their players too rigorously for PEDs. No one benefits from Alex Rodriguez sitting at home as the Yankees take the field. Stadium attendance will drop. TV ratings will fall. Jersey sales, endorsement deals, and every other money-making tool will suffer. While many believe stricter punishments will deter athletes from doping, more suspensions ultimately equal fewer profits. How many times have we seen athletes lose endorsements based on their actions on and off the field? If it were up to brands like Nike and Under Armour, we wouldn’t even hear about players outside of the game and their commercials. Consider, for example, how fabricated the public image of Tiger Woods was before he was forced into a limelight not controlled by Nike. And Woods’ scandal, of course, had nothing to do with PEDs.
Within this controversy is an even greater contradiction. Players like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire build themselves up as such iconic homerun sluggers that they back themselves into a wall. While players are told that doping is illegal and wrong, they are also expected to maintain their batting averages, if not improve on them. These athletes sit at home watching SportsCenter pundits discuss how they’re past their prime. Fans and members of the media criticize players to the point where all too many must make a decision: dope or die as a prominent sports figure.
The Oakland Athletics’ Bartolo Colon is a prime example of how the benefits of PED’s outweigh the risks. In 2011, the 40-year old right-handed pitcher was earning $900,000 playing for the New York Yankees. After a solid season with 135 strikeouts, Colon was picked up by the Oakland A’s for $2,000,000. In August of 2012, he was caught testing positive for synthetic testosterone and was suspended 50 games and fined $25,000. Despite being caught for PED’s, the A’s went on to sign him in 2013 for another year at $3,000,000 with the potential of an additional $2 to $3 million based on player performance. Colon juiced and was rewarded for it. The MLB’s punishment is merely a slap on the wrist, rather like the fines that major corporations face when they’re caught cheating, endangering people’s lives, or bilking the public. The offenders can count and determine that they are better off flouting the laws and regulations.
Meanwhile, in a sport where up and coming athletes often hail from impoverished countries, MLB prospects on the cusp of making it in the big leagues are often tempted by PEDs. Again, while these players are tested, their tests’ legitimacy is in serious doubt. When faced with the opportunity to earn millions of dollars or go back to the shantytown you came from, it is not a difficult decision to make to cheat. This holds true with young athletes in the U.S. as well. The anti-drug slogan “don’t be an asterisk” attempts to encourage our youth to avoid PEDs, but the truth is these youngsters who are competing for college scholarships are no more deterred than the professional athletes who dope.
The system is currently constructed in a way that places the blame on players. They are the ones who decide to cheat; therefore they are the ones who must suffer the consequences. MLB teams walk free and don’t face any repercussions for having players test positive for PEDs so long as they plead ignorance. Roger Clemons perjured himself but it was Brian McNamee, a Yankees assistant strength and conditioning coach, who was the one physically injecting the steroids into players’ bodies. How can we vilify these players so quickly without even batting an eye at the teams who enable the use of PEDs? The team owners take home the bulk of the profits, yet they pay nothing when their players are caught cheating.
In 2012 the Yankees made $471 million in revenue, half of which was spent on player expenses. The Boston Red Sox came in second in net revenue with $336 million in 2012, over $100 million dollars less than their archrivals. As a whole, the entire MLB brought in $1.5 billion dollars last year. With such huge revenues, the league owes it to the fans to present an honest game.
The PED scandals only shed light on the true intent of team owners and league officials. As long as the profits are flowing in, there is no reason for them to change. Forget setting an example for younger players or competing for the love of the game. The MLB is first and foremost a business, yet in the context of a deeply troubled economy for the majority of people, fans’ identification with teams has become much more pronounced, probably a form of compensation for the decline in their own personal fortunes. Fights between fans have become far more common, including near fatal encounters. These behaviors are escalated by the presence of alcohol, but baseball fans are fooling themselves if they think that their teams would do anything remotely similar for them for being loyal, paying customers: free bobble heads on fan appreciation night is hardly the thanks they deserve. Although attendance has dropped in recent years, ticket prices have gone up and the league continues to profit as the years progress. In 1999, the average cost of a Houston Astros game was $13.30. Today that average is at $30.09. Sports are big business and business for the big companies is very, very good.
Just as banks defraud the American people for a quick buck, our beloved teams are willing to sell their fans down the river in the interests of growing their brand. Although suspensions are being handed down, I have no doubt that in a few years we’ll be having this same conversation again because MLB refuses to put a system in place that truly ends the use of PED’s.
i The Mitchell Report was a 21-month investigation conducted by U.S. Senator George J. Mitchell on the use of performance enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball. The report was released on December 13th, 2007 and consisted of a list of 89 MLB players who are alleged to have used PED’s. The list was criticized for not being comprehensive enough, as many players who were suspected of using PED’s by fellow teammates and team staff were left off the list.