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News that National League MVP first baseman Ryan Braun tested positive for performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) in October leaked last week and the reaction has been predictably indignant, but the anger hasn’t been directed entirely at the athlete. (Braun denies that he took PEDs and is appealing the test result.)
Bob Nightengale writes in Monday’s USA Today cover story, “Major League Baseball, believing a glorious renaissance was finally erasing ugly remnants from the so-called steroid era, was jolted over the weekend when it was revealed that National League MVP Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers tested positive for a banned substance.”
The article asserts that the league has not gone through a “glorious renaissance” of pure, clean competition. The history of baseball and other sports has shown that Nightengale is probably right, but Braun’s positive test is a part of the solution.
Braun signed a contract extension in April that guarantees he will be paid $145.5 million through 2020. He is scheduled to make an average of $21 million through the end of the decade, and his contract isn’t unusual for a star of his caliber. Alex Rodriguez, admitted PED user, is currently in the midst of his second contract worth over a quarter of a billion dollars. The incentives, financial and otherwise, for athletic success aren’t going away, so athletes in baseball and other sports will continue to dope. Drug testing programs exist to minimize doping and catch the inevitable offenders.
Although MLB stubbornly ignored the problem for many years, the testing program the league currently runs to police its own players appears to have successfully reduced the number of dopers in the sport, but every testing program is limited by the quality and frequency of its tests. Nightengale says if Braun is convicted, “It will mark an ugly return to baseball’s not-so-distant past,” referring to the so-called “steroid era” when many athletes doped with impunity because MLB did not have a testing program. Victor Conte, the man behind the BALCO doping ring who has assumed the role of unsavory PED truthsayer, believes, “You can easily circumvent [a] huge loophole in the MLB drug testing program.” In other words, athletes have been cheating whether MLB catches them or not. The public just doesn’t typically hear about it. But baseball’s PED problem once again became a national talking point when a star tested positive for the first time in several years.
“If Braun’s result is upheld,” writes Nightengale, “it will represent an immeasurable setback for the game,” implying it is a revelation that baseball players still dope. Any rational observer of professional sports over the last two decades can plainly expect that some elite athletes use PEDs. Finding and punishing a user is a success for MLB, not a setback. It makes next year’s games more believable than last year’s. Media coverage vilifying a sport for catching dopers creates incentive for the league to look the other way instead of vigorously pursuing cheaters. It helps keep PEDs in sports.
Twenty three years after sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive after winning the 100m dash at the Olympic Games, catching one of these walking science experiments still damages the public perception of a professional sport. If a sport does not already have a reputation for being filled with dopers, catching one can create that perception. This backwards incentive structure gives leagues reason to look the other way until the problem is too widespread to ignore. Eliminating this hypocritical motivation to ignore PED users would give sports leagues a public mandate to pursue cheaters instead of allowing PED problems to fester unnoticed as long as possible.
Punishing leagues for catching dopers gives sport governing bodies that test their own athletes, including the World Triathlon Corporation, owners of Ironman, reason to look the other way until the problem is too widespread to ignore. Eliminating this hypocritical motivation to ignore PED users would give all sports, including the one we love, a public mandate to pursue cheaters instead of allowing PED problems to fester unnoticed as long as possible.