Friday, January 14, 2005

Rick Morrissey: Baseball's Approach to Steroids Still Toothless

The Chicago Tribune
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January 14, 2005

They always talk about a drug policy's teeth. The more effective the policy, the sharper the teeth. Major League Baseball's new steroids policy has the incisors of a teacup poodle, OK? There's your dental reference for the day.

Once everyone in baseball was done toweling off from the self-congratulatory slobbering Thursday, what remained was a drug policy that should have been so much more. Here was a golden opportunity wasted. Instead of chasing down the problem, baseball took the baby-steps approach. Or, if you insist on the dentistry angle, when it comes to drug enforcement, baseball still is teething.

The new policy, coming on the heels of Jason Giambi's steroid admission and Barry Bonds' flaxseed-oil confession, imposes a maximum 10-day suspension on any player who tests positive for steroids for the first time. It sounds substantial, and it is when compared to what baseball had before, which pretty much was a syringe-exchange program and an Arnold Schwarzenegger calendar giveaway promotion. But if management and players were truly serious about draining their game of juice, they would have come up with something that does more to scare cheaters straight.

The World Anti-Doping Agency, which oversees most Olympic sports, hands out a two-year suspension to any athlete who tests positive for banned substances the first time. A second positive test brings a lifetime ban. That's the kind of statement that would give pause to any man with chemically enhanced pecs. And yet, every year, WADA imposes suspensions and bans on more than a few athletes who try to beat the system. It tells us that, despite the deterrents, some athletes are willing to take risks.

And it tells us that baseball players, looking down the barrel of a comparatively mild drug policy, will continue to take steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. What's the risk? Ten days for a first positive test, a one-year ban for a fourth offense. Not nearly tough enough.If your livelihood is connected to how many needles you stick in your butt, you might be willing to take a chance on a 10-day suspension, which, you can bet your bottom dollar, will be appealed by the players' union. If your livelihood brings you $10 million a year, you have plenty of bottom dollars.Baseball is counting on embarrassment being a huge deterrent. Embarrassment doesn't work with athletes. If it did, players who resembled parade-float balloons would have been embarrassed at how artificially bulked-up they looked. They weren't.

A good number of players will continue to roll the dice on steroids. Under the new policy, they will get tested unannounced once a year and then hope they're not one of the players who get randomly tested. The testing program is fine. The discipline isn't."I've been saying for some time that my goal for this industry is zero tolerance regarding steroids," Commissioner Bud Selig said. "The agreement … is an important step toward achieving that goal."Why one step? Why not get right to the end game? If steroids are a problem—and I think most of us agree they are—the game has to eradicate them. When fans aren't sure whether what they're seeing is real or pharmaceutically created, then baseball has a problem. WADA standards in the national pastime would have had the desired chilling effect. What's the point of dipping a toe into the pool? Why not a two-year ban for a first offense and a lifetime ban for a second?In no time, you would start to see normally proportioned athletes."

The object is to stop it," union chief Donald Fehr said. "The object is not to penalize for the sake of penalizing. … I will be very surprised if over time this doesn't take care of the problem virtually completely." Much was made of the fact the union negotiated this agreement when it didn't have to, that Fehr got involved without any prodding. The BALCO investigation was sufficient prodding.

Some of you are more bothered by players who use cocaine than those who use steroids. But they're two different animals. Cocaine doesn't help a player hit the ball harder. Steroids do. Cocaine isn't cheating. Steroids give a player an unfair competitive advantage.Recreational drug abusers need help. Steroids users need to be stopped.

Copyright © 2005, The Chicago Tribune

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