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Biogenesis Part 3 - The Future of PED Policy

With his decision to drop his legal challenges against the MLB this week, Alex Rodriguez has effectively closed the record on the Biogenesis scandal. The long and torrid episode is indicative of the changing landscape of drug use in the MLB and the inadequacies of the current anti-PED protocols. Where do we go from here?

So THAT'S what an e-mail is?
So THAT'S what an e-mail is?

Perhaps nobody is happier to see this issue out of the headlines than baseball's cantankerous un-dead Commissioner Bud Selig. The same commissioner that oversaw unprecedented growth and success of the sport is going to retire with a legacy inexorably linked to the epidemic use of performance enhancing drugs in baseball and the subsequent moralistic Bob Costas soliloquies. Selig would like to be remembered as the man who cleaned up the sport, rather than the deaf and blind executive who silently rode the wave of chemically enhanced players to stratospheric success. With this legacy in mind, the MLB has drafted an intensely image-conscious steroid policy that reads like mad libs.

The never-ending Alex Rodriguez saga is endemic of Selig's Cold War on PED use. Rodriguez - a confirmed ego maniac who can't even escape jeers in his home town - is the perfect target for a proxy war in the theater of public opinion. You don't like him. Your mom probably doesn't like him because of what he did to Cameron Diaz. Baseball writers don't like him because he was a cocky Latin kid breaking all their childhood heroes' records. Most importantly, he publicly admitted to using PEDs and never getting caught by the MLB. A-Rod is Bud Selig's white whale.

For the league at large, the Rodriguez story also exposes why the current PED policy isn't working. If you believe Tony Bosch, then A-Rod has been flouting MLB's drug policy in multiple decades, and the testing protocols within that system haven't been able to touch him. If one of the game's most visible stars, with an openly dirty past, can have unfettered access to performance enhancing drugs, then the drug policy only exists to make sportswriters feel better about themselves for refusing to select Jeff Bagwell for the Hall of Fame. After all, you've got to take a moral stand against evil wherever it is found. #Kony2012

The Biogenesis fallout exposed several other players' PED use as well, but the consequences of their drug use have been cloudy. Jhonny Peralta served a 50 game suspension, then signed a $53m deal this offseason. Most of us have already forgiven Everth Cabrera and Yasmani Grandal. We've discussed the story of former Padre Clay Hensley - a marginal prospect that arguably used PEDs to carve out a respectable career at the major league level. Evidently, the testing policy and the graduated punishments are not serving as enough of a deterrent for PED use. The current risk calculus for many players is tipped in favor of trying to circumvent the rules. Moreover, because this effect is cumulative, players find themselves in a sort of Nash equilibrium where they know that bubble-players and aging stars have impetus to use. The clean player is disadvantaged twice by staying clean.

"BUT UNIONS! THEY ARE PROTECTING THOSE CHEATERS #THANKSOBAMA." Even if the Ghost of Commissioner's Past wanted to reform MLB drug policy to make it more effective at deterring cheating, the MLBPA would block the plate and OH THE HUMANITY. With the divergent interests of the league and the union the belief is that that the steroid situation is intractable in the MLB; however, the big divides in the policy are tenable grounds where compromise can be reached in the interest of the game as a whole.

Improved Testing

HGH, like crushing loneliness, is undetectable through urine testing. Both the NBA and NFL are moving towards an Olympic-style blood testing policy that can account for HGH use, which is thought to be widespread. The MLB has finally instituted in-season HGH testing in 2013, but its specifics are hard to find. A single test for HGH in a 162-game season isn't going to cut it, especially with the established "Christmas day effect" - where users can take any substance they want after the final in-season test. The MLB knows one test isn't enough, and that's why it commissions investigations like the one that uncovered the Biogenesis scandal.

Before the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program (JDA) instituted HGH testing, the only way anyone could be caught was if they showed up to camp with a needle in their arm or were somehow caught up in the Biogenesis investigation. Former Padres Jerry Hairston Jr. and Gary Matthews Jr. were both caught with HGH by law enforcement and faced no discipline from the MLB. Of course moral grandstanding against Hairston or Matthews wouldn't have made as good of a PR statement as taking down Colonel Alexander Rodriguez von Bismarck. Even since the inception of MLB's HGH testing in 2013, not a single player has tested positive for HGH. Keep in mind that this sample includes the players implicated in the Biogenesis scandal whose names were more or less on the receipt for HGH purchases. Even in a league where Andre Ethier continues to play center field in crucial games - nobody is dumb enough to use HGH before their HGH test. Once a year HGH testing serves no purpose other than to allow the MLB to say things like "(its HGH testing) continues to be the strongest in American professional sports." cleversmirk.jpg

Unequal Enforcement

When Selig goes to the big Denny's in the sky and passes the commissioner reins to a person with a human body temperature the MLB is going to have to say goodbye to its beloved for-camera investigations into PED users and sink-or-swim with an improved testing regime. Putting on a detective cap and unilaterally going after players that the commissioner's office decides are possible PED users is fundamentally unfair, and also ripe for abuse. Rodriguez's case is special in that he is so universally disliked that the baseball world was willing to forego the institutional safeguards designed to protect players. The circumstance made it possible for the MLB to lock onto Rodriguez in a way that 1. Allows the commissioner to appear tough on steroid use; and 2. Settles the score between the commissioner and the star player that publicly embarrassed him.

The union was unwilling to stand up for Rodriguez because his image was so obviously and irrepairably tainted that the MLBPA's own reputation could take serious blows in defending A-Rod. There was no love lost between either of them: the MLBPA wanted to go so far as to expel Rodriguez from the union, and A-Rod's own camp decided to go forego union representation during his appeal. As you know by now Rodriguez did not successfully reverse his suspension, but he did get the arbitrary 211 game sentence reduced to a tough-but-defensible 162 games. The league and the union are both happy to have some closure on the issue, but the precedent is dangerous for both. The implications of this lack of regular process for A-Rod can hurt player interests in the long term and give the public impression that the testing system is ineffective.

From a practical standpoint, the Biogenesis investigation dramatically backfired on the MLB. It implicated several players into what was effectively a criminal underworld. The league got its coveted Rodriguez suspension, but it took months of legal wrangling and public airing of dirty laundry. Rodriguez took the MLB to task for the arbitrary nature of its disciplinary procedures and even allegedly tried to call Bud Selig as a witness at the arbitration hearing ("THIS WHOLE COURTROOM IS OUT OF ORDER!"). A-Rod then flew off-script and went H.A.M. on Mike Francesca's radio show. The process unexpectedly began to rehabilitate Rodriguez's public image - casting him as a player who was unfairly singled out by a vindictive commissioner with an ironic first name. The investigation into Biogenesis has been a mess for all parties involved.

The JDA was sold as a program that would keep the game clean, but it was specifically grafted to appear hard on drugs while being minimally invasive. The commissioner's office has continued this philosophy in its prosecution of PED offenders. Perception is important in public campaigns, but PR concerns tend to tank initiatives when they take precedent over effective policy. Because the nature of PED use has changed since the steroid era - trending away from heavy-duty anabolics towards energy and recovery aiding compounds - PED use itself has become a less visible shadow on the game. Yet because of all the accumulated stigma and ill-will, the league is pressed to visibly work against drug use. It has chosen dramatic takedowns of offenders over honest institutional prevention of PED use. The goal was never to clean drugs out of baseball, but rather to ease the consciences of baseball's collective fanbase. There's no telling if this focus will shift after Selig rides off into sunset (please take the Diamondbacks with you). The commissioner's successor might be more of a pragmatist who wants to resolve the brewing conflict with the MLBPA. The clearest path to that would be to exchange some of the commissioner's non-JDA investigation powers in exchange for comprehensive testing reform. For a deal to get done, the MLB is going to have to fix the rules, then promise to actually play by them.