Drugs in sports are on the mind of just about every sports fan these days, at least in the United States. Earlier this year I was invited to speak at a high school in Atlanta, and one of the first questions concerned the issue of Michael Phelps, the Olympic star who lost some of his luster after being photographed recently with a marijuana pipe at a party. Meanwhile, the media are filled with stories about New York Yankees superstar Alex Rodriguez, baseball's highest-paid player, who has admitted having used banned performance-enhancing steroids several years ago.
While the Phelps story will pass—authorities have decided not to press charges—the saga of A-Rod, as he is known, once again throws baseball and U.S. professional sports back into the glare of the drugtesting spotlight. Whatever is ultimately revealed—and we have now found out that there were another 103 baseball players who tested positive in 2003—I am pessimistic that anything will change. Baseball is in a period of denial.
To understand why, consider the contrast with amateur sports and the Olympics, where athletes must make themselves available for random drug tests by telling the governing bodies where they are going to be over a period of time. Experts from the World Anti-Doping Authority can turn up and require athletes to be tested anywhere, any time. True, the system remains imperfect. For evidence, just look at the number of Olympic medalists who were sanctioned between the Sydney Olympics and Athens, and between Athens and Beijing. But at least Olympic officials are using their weapons to fight drugs, and have shown themselves willing to ban top athletes for up to two years for violations.
By contrast, professional sports merely attempts to "manage the issue." In baseball, the penalty for using banned steroids has been increased to a minimum 50-game suspension for a first offense. But with no random testing, there is little chance of being caught. Can anything change? When I helped devise anti-doping policies for the U.S. Olympic Committee, between 1989 and 1994, Donald Fehr, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, used to come to all the meetings. I explained how drug testing worked in the amateur-sports world. But he seems not to have gotten the message. Fifteen years later, steroid use is still rampant, and random drug testing remains a nonstarter.
The reality is that there's too much money in baseball and in other professional sports to allow a more aggressive approach. There are too many vested interests, too many people who want to keep things as they are. The players' union wants to protect the players. There are corporate sponsors of baseball parks who don't want to see their home team sullied by a positive test. Each club has a TV contract, players get paid millions and there are advertising revenues and seat sales. The need for more home runs and power pitching goes right down to the hot-dog concessions.
Sports fans might ask why government can't do something about it. Congressional hearings were held last summer, after George Mitchell came out with his report on doping in baseball, but the politicians just pontificated and then sat back down. Politicians want new stadiums built for their constituents, and photo opportunities with the big-name pro sports stars. At the end of the day, big sports generate tax revenue. Politicians know what's going on in baseball, but, like most people, they don't want to go near it.
The question, then, is how far authorities and fans want to go to know that athletes are clean—or will they always accept performance over integrity? That's what I discussed with those kids at the Atlanta high school. My message to them is that regardless of all the distractions they are forced to deal with in their daily lives, they need to concentrate on going to college, and avoiding drugs, teenage pregnancy, domestic violence and crime. After all, most will never become professional athletes. Yet they do pay attention to sports, and the conduct of the competitors has a huge impact on their lives.
So I tried to make those kids realize they can still achieve what they want without resorting to recreational drugs (as Phelps appeared to be doing) or performance-enhancing ones (as A-Rod admitted to doing). These kids deserve to know that this is possible, and baseball and the rest of professional sports can help by doing the right thing, right now.