Congress on Steroids

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Politicians simply cannot leave well enough alone. Even a Republican Congress seems unable to resist the lure of publicity and accept that private companies might do a better job than itself of figuring out what customers want.

Last year, it was Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) who threatened baseball with government-imposed standards unless the sport adopted rules that he thought were acceptable. Now, in a move more reminiscent of Congresses long ago subpoenaing the Mafia, the House Government Reform Committee has forced baseball players to testify before their committee. Last Sunday, congressmen appeared on national television threatening the players with jail sentences if they didn’t buckle under. They threatened the league with losing its antitrust and tax exemptions.

Baseball responded after the first threats, adopting year-round testing of players and more severe penalties. But despite the blessing of McCain, the changes haven’t apparently satisfied everyone in Congress.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Tom Davis (R., Va.) dismisses baseball’s new rules, justifying the tough threats because steroid use by juveniles "is a public health crisis. [W]e have the parents of kids who have used steroids and committed suicide."

The New York Times ran a long story earlier this month on a high-school student, Efrain Marrero, whose family claims that his stopping using steroids provides a "plausible explanation" for his suicide. While there is no scientific evidence linking steroids and suicide, the Times points to "persuasive anecdotal evidence."

Yet, some perspective is needed here. While Davis claims that currently "over a half a million youth are using steroids," the Times notes that, in addition to Marrero, only "two previous suicides had been attributed by parents to steroid use by young athletes." With steroid use in high schools dating back to the 1950s, the suicide rate — even if Marrero’s death were actually linked to steroids and not other factors — seems negligible compared to a male suicide rate for 15-to-24-year — olds averaging more than 20 per 100,000 over the last 30 years.

Even more startling is how the young male suicide rate has fallen over the last decade while steroid use has grown. On Meet the Press, Rep. Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) claimed that, over the last decade, steroid use had risen from one out of every 45 kids to one out of 16, while the young male suicide rate has gone down from 26 to 20 per 100,000.

To lose one’s child seems unimaginable, and the desire to explain it is understandable. Perhaps the parents are right in these cases, but congressional hearings should focus on the real risks endangering children’s lives. Considering that 397 teenagers die per year from drowning, 77 from bicycling, 504 from poisonings, and 91 from just simple falls, it is difficult to understand the hysteria over steroids.

The risks seem pretty mild for professional players. Last spring a baseball players’ union representative, Gene Orza, claimed that steroids are "not worse than cigarettes." With over 4,000 people playing major-league baseball over the last decade and claims that 40 percent or 50 percent of players are using some form of anabolic steroids, what is striking is how rare baseball deaths are and that these are not really related to "performance-enhancing" drugs. Take the last two years:

– In October 2004, 41-year-old retired baseball star Ken Caminiti’s death from a heart attack caused a stir — but it proved a false alarm. The medical examiner ruled that the death was due to an overdose of cocaine and opiates.

– In 2003, the Baltimore Orioles’s Steve Bechler died during spring training while taking a diet aid, ephedra (a stimulant). Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) quickly rushed forward with legislation to require stricter standards. It only became clear later that the death likely had another cause: Bechler had a history of heart problems, came to camp out of shape and way overweight, and was playing while dehydrated and not eating.

Scott Gottlieb, a former senior policy adviser to the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, notes: "There are plenty of people with [multiple sclerosis], Crohn’s and colitis, and rheumatoid arthritis and lupus and other diseases, who are on much higher doses of chronic steroids. Certainly, they have a lot of side effects, but they don’t drop dead of [heart attacks] so easily."

With Congress grossly exaggerating the "public health crisis" from suicides to justify their involvement, it is hard to believe that their motives are based on little more than grabbing attention. Congress has already intervened too much with threats and ought to leave baseball alone and let them work out their own problems. Baseball has already made changes, but those changes have not been given any time to see if they work. If this is a continuing problem, the fans will speak loudly and clearly, letting a private company know exactly what the customer wants.

The greatest risk to athletes may be the drugs’ very prohibition. Getting the drugs in secret and not having the proper supervision may result in complications that could otherwise be easily avoided.

Possibly the strongest argument against drugs in baseball is the same reason the sport opposes changing how it makes baseballs. Sure we could make balls that go farther today, but baseball is a sport where history matters and such changes would make it difficult to compare performances over time.

Purists may not like the designated-hitter rule. But would it make sense for government to determine what rules baseball has? If fans like spectacular plays made possible by performance-enhancing drugs more than the loss of historical comparisons and the risks borne by players, allowing enhancements makes sense.

People take risks with their bodies everyday. Yet, without some evidence that athletes aren’t properly weighing their choices, shouldn’t politicians just leave the decision to those who are affected?

John Lott [send him mail], a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of The Bias Against Guns (Regnery 2003). Sonya D. Jones is a law student at Texas Tech University.

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