Stop Persecuting Baseball Players

So athletes use steroids to perform better. Wall Street traders take Ritalin and everyone uses caffeinated drinks during work to stay alert. News anchors get face lifts and actors take Botox so more people watch them. What’s different about athletes?

Yet, this weekend you would have thought that Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds had committed some unspeakable crime. Commentators spoke of them "falsifying the product." Saturday, Sen. John McCain promised hearings and threatened legislation imposing drug-testing standards if professional baseball does not crack down. By Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist made a similar call for legislation, and McCain said President Bush would sign such a bill.

Athletes may have more at stake than most of the rest of us. They may go a little farther in competing, but the risks seem pretty mild. This 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 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, 41-year-old retired baseball star Ken Caminiti’s death from a heart attack caused quite a stir. Yet, 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’ Steve Bechler died during spring training while taking a diet aid, Epherdra (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 over weight, 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."

McCain points to the NFL, with its strict testing policies for performance-enhancers, as the example for baseball to follow. Yet, football players endanger their health every game. USA Today reported earlier this year that "Two out of three [NFL players] said they left with some permanent injury."

Most likely the NFL has stricter rules simply because with direct physical contact ever-larger players are more likely to just harm each other. In baseball, few injuries result from direct physical contact.

But even if baseball players ended up crippled after their playing days as football players do, why isn’t it their choice? What’s next? Will government regulators protect white-collar workers from risking heart attacks when they pull all-nighters trying to meet deadlines?

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?