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Drugs and sports: an uncomfortable partnership

By Brian Tabakin

Section: Sports

August 31, 2012

Over the past month the issues of steroids and drugs has resurfaced in the sports world. In the mere span of a week, reports surfaced that San Francisco Giants outfielder Melky Cabrera and Oakland Athletics pitcher Bartolo Colon were both suspended by Major League Baseball for 50 games, for the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).

Then less than a week later, Lance Armstrong dropped his defense in the ongoing crusade against him by U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), over his alleged use of blood thinners and drugs in his record seven Tour-de-France victories.

The issue of drugs in sports is not a new one; however, it has come under the microscope in the age of Internet and social media. The NCAA recently revamped its drug policy. According to the NCAA’s official website each year, “approximately 11,000 Division I and II student athletes in all sports will be randomly tested for steroids, diuretics and masking agents, peptide hormones and ephedrine.”

Additionally, the NCAA tests randomly at every championship in all three divisions at least once every five years while others are tested each year. Furthermore, many institutions and universities have even stronger testing and policies that serve to amplify the NCAA’s existing provisions.

The NCAA’s strict bylaws and rules, however, are nearly absolute and provide little leeway. An Aug. 28 report from NBC Sports detailed how New York Giants safety Tyler Sash was suspended for simply using the prescription drug Adderall. Additionally, once an athlete tests positive for any banned substance, the governing body of their sport as well as the media, immediately criticizes them. In the court of public opinion, there are no considerations for extenuating circumstances or personal medical conditions. These policies are even more dangerous considering the very real possibility of false positives.

Furthermore, no test is 100 percent foolproof. With any test, there is always an inherent risk of a false positive. The stringent and guilty until proven innocent methodology of anti-drug agencies run the risk of ruining an athlete’s career from false accusations even if they were the victim of a false-positive test.

There is also an inherent moral ambiguity and double standard. All sports were not created equal with regards to PED use. MLB has a history of records that are considered sacred. The emergence of PED use has threatened the integrity of these records and the sport as a whole. When Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s record 755 home runs, his feat was regarded with suspicion, vitriol and anger over his alleged use of steroids to accomplish his new-record 762 career home runs. In comparison, however, in recent years no eyebrows were raised due to shattered NFL records.

HGH, human growth hormone, is the new battleground in the crusade against drugs in sports. While it is admirable that sports want to eliminate drug use, it is not that simple. As athletes have gotten quicker, stronger and larger, they cannot be expected to rely on the same medical treatments as previous generations of athletes.

The short-term and long-term effects of HGH are still relatively unknown; however, consider this: Hypothetically, if HGH could counter the detrimental effects of concussions or help repair torn muscles, ligaments and bones quicker, would we really continue to crusade against them?

There can be no middle ground concerning this issue. Sports leagues cannot decry and crusade against drugs while at the same time not enforce a comprehensive and fair drug policy. Sports must go all-in. Either allow drugs in sports or develop a comprehensive plan to deter athletes from using them. The current short to mid-term suspensions that result from a positive test of drugs is not enough.

In baseball, it is easily worth the risk to players to use drugs. If they aren’t caught they are likely in line for a new contract worth upwards of $50 million; and if they are caught, they just get a 50-game suspension, still able to play baseball. The money is well worth the risk. Additionally, if college athletes can stand out to scouts through the use of PEDs, why would they not use them?

For most of them, it is their lifelong dream to play professional sports. If they can accomplish their dream by using PEDs, the risk of getting caught is easily outweighed.

Sports are inherently entertainment. If PEDs provide a better product on the field, healthier athletes and more revenue for teams, what is the downside? The NCAA and major league teams need to decide where they stand on the issue.

They can no longer enforce two different sets of rules.

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