Public Subsidies

Are Athletes Using Your Tax Dollars to Juice?

We’ve doled out multimillions in public subsidies for stadiums and sponsorships of teams whose players used performance enhancing drugs. And everyone’s complicit in the ongoing fraud.

Consider two recent events shaming big-money professional sports, Donald Sterling’s lifetime ban from professional basketball over racist remarks and longtime Lance Armstrong team manager Johan Bruyneel’s 10-year suspension for his role in team doping, the latest in the sad Armstrong saga.

Sterling is a billionaire whose Los Angeles Clippers play in the Staples Center, a sports and entertainment palace that received more than $70 million in taxpayer subsidies. Bruyneel’s former U.S. Postal Service team received $57 million in fees and sponsorship from the United States Postal Service. Both are stories of taxpayers funding professional sports in which the use of performance enhancing drugs has been suspected.

The NBA has largely avoided the doping scandals that have tarnished cycling and baseball, but the league has long been criticized for its weak drug testing, which the director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency has singled out as inadequate. Cycling has much stricter testing—and its scandals haven’t stopped coming. The U.S. Justice Department is now suing Armstrong, Bruyneel, and their former team organization for more than $100 million in damages. The claim is that they “unjustly enriched” themselves while damaging the image of the U.S. Postal Service. (Don’t laugh.)

But if the U.S. government is going after Armstrong and his team for using drugs and defrauding the public, why stop there? The $57 million the U.S. Postal Service cycling team received is chump change compared to the billions taxpayers have been bilked to build sports palaces for drug-enhanced athletes.

The $75 million to the Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers, with whom they share the Staples Center, was actually a good deal grading on the curve. The average sports stadium public price tag is between $89 million and $259 million, according to Harvard University urban planning professor Judith Grant Long. Her book Public-Private Partnerships for Major League Sports Facilities estimates that the average stadium costs the public 78 percent and the teams 22 percent.

Take the new Yankee Stadium. The numbers for taxpayer contribution vary wildly but never get small. New York City’s Independent Budget Office estimated the public cost at $362 million. Critics run that tab as high as $4 billion, calculating the lost tax revenues over 40 years. (The New York Yankees got a favorable deal on their real estate taxes: zero percent.)

While the true figures are debated, no one can dispute that the Yankees relied on athletes abusing performance enhancing drugs to draw fans. On the most basic level, teams like the Yankees took the money they were saving from public subsidy and paid it out to athletes in vast salaries, some of which went to PEDs. In these transactions, the use of illegal substances in sports becomes a taxpayer-subsidized drug habit.

Were the team owners complicit in the drug use? Of course they were. In a statement, Bruyneel called doping “a fact of life” in cycling, and certainly the same is true in major league sports, particularly baseball. There is even a “Baseball Hall of Shame Warped Record Book” that recounts Babe Ruth injecting himself with a mixture based on sheep testicles. Hank Aaron has admitted trying amphetamines once—he said he hated it—and Goose Gossage has said he used them, which should surprise few who had the pleasure of seeing the Goose in his native habitat.

Everybody has been complicit: the public, the team owners, the league officials, elected officials who supposedly regulate these monopolies. None of us could look at the pro athletes of the past decades and not know something very strange was occurring. Yes, training advances and nutrition have helped athletes get stronger, faster, and bigger. But please—sports shakes and better lifting routines can’t replace evolution. It’s not Darwin on steroids that has given us these Incredible Hulks; it’s athletes on steroids. And testosterone and HGH.

I’d long been an avid opponent of performance enhancing drugs, but the one article I’d never read was a first-person account of the effect of those drugs. So a number of years ago, I went on an eight-month program. Let’s say the experience made it pretty clear why cheaters cheat.

Armstrong and others have made the point that pro cycling has the most stringent drug testing of any professional sport. That’s true. And yet we know now that drug use was endemic. (For a detailed account of exactly how Armstrong and his team beat the system for so long, read The Secret Race, the extraordinary book by Armstrong’s longtime riding partner, Tyler Hamilton, and writer Daniel Coyle.) Yes, Armstrong passed hundreds of drug tests. Yes, Armstrong took many variations of performance enhancing drugs.

Compared to European cycling, the major pro sports in the U.S. have been slow to get serious about drug testing. In 1990, Congress passed the Anabolic Steroids Control Act, which made using steroids without a doctor’s prescription illegal. In an almost comic 1991 memo, Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent made it clear that there was no exemption for professional athletes, including baseball players: “The possession, sale or use of any illegal drug or controlled substance by Major League players and personnel is strictly prohibited.” Glad we cleared that up.

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But MLB took no steps to stop drug use or test players. That same year Jose Canseco went on a rampage, leading the league with 44 homers. Later he’d admit to steroid use and assert that 85 percent of the players were also on the “juice.” By 1994, the league slugging percentage was a preposterous .424, the highest since 1930. Soon the home run derbies of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa captivated America, with record numbers of hitters breaking the 40- and 50-home run level.

All that was great for the business of baseball, and owners cut deals for many new stadiums with taxpayer subsidies. Finally in 2003, the absurdity of the explosive numbers forced MLB to institute a fig leaf of testing. The league gave players six months’ notice that a drug test would be conducted with the provision that if more than 5 percent failed, some form of random testing would be instituted. As structured, it was more an IQ test than a drug test.

More than 5 percent failed.

Like Lance Armstrong, Alex Rodriguez never failed a drug test but now stands accused of what MLB calls the most elaborate doping program in baseball history. There’s no question that baseball and other sports have become more serious about testing, but if the case against Rodriguez proves anything, it’s that once again the cheaters are ahead of the testing.

There are many reasons why performance enhancing drugs corrode the essence of sports and all efforts should be made to catch and penalize cheaters. But when wealthy sports organizations are using doped-up athletes as bait for taxpayer subsidies, it’s not just ruining the joy of sports but public corruption.

If the feds really believe Armstrong took advantage of the U.S. Postal Service by racing dirty, it’s time to start looking at the big boys. I love the NFL. But it makes about $9 billion a season and is still classified as a 501(c)(6) organization, granting it the same tax benefits as, say, the Chamber of Commerce. Any chance those tax breaks are subsidizing steroid users?