Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Stop Treating Symptoms and Treat the Problem

If life could be lived in a bubble, where actions did not have cause-and-effect reactions, I would have absolutely no problem at all with players like Alex Rodriguez using steroids. He could set all of the records, make all of his money, and deal with all of the negative publicity that comes from it because that was his choice.

I have wavered in my stance on the steroid issue for some time and have gone from a libertarian viewpoint, like my good friend James Wilson at Independent Country, to a viewpoint of indifference similar to that of Joe Aiello, over at View From the Bleachers.

But as I think more about the ramifications that steroid use by athletes such as A-Rod, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, etc., have on the actions of young athletes, the more I do feel that something needs to be done, and like it or not, the government is the only one that is in any position to do so.

The problem with steroid use, as opposed to recreational drug use, is that steroids have been shown to dramatically improve one's ability to play sports. Sports that, when played at an elite level, can increase your earning power beyond most people's dreams. Currently, what lesson do aspiring athletes learn from A-Rod using steroids? That you can earn almost half a billion dollars before you are 40 years old by hitting a baseball really far, sleep with Madonna (and basically any other woman you choose), and occasionally do a tough interview with Katie Couric or Peter Gammons. What a hard life.

Its bad enough that sports is usually the only ticket out of abject poverty for a lot of kids in Latin American countries and the inner cities of the United States, but now there are seemingly magic pills that will help anyone get the edge to get out of those situations. Not only that, but if you get caught, you say you are sorry, you have a suspension, and you move on. There are people who will help you not get caught by getting around the tests. The potential payoff is far greater than the perceived risk.

So now you have a bunch of kids shooting up in order to be able to bench press more weight, run faster, and jump higher. The kids who aren't in dire economic situations, but who are also gifted athletes get left behind by the cheaters, so they start using. It just snowballs.

Do you know how casinos prevent most people from cheating? They beat the living crap out of those that are caught. There is real incentive to play on the level. Do you know how you know that the Bellagio isn't rigging its slot machines and playing with stacked decks? The gaming commission will shut a casino down without hesitation if the house is caught unfairly tipping the odds more into their favor. Again, the risk of the penalty outweighs the potential reward of taking tourists for a few more dollars here and there.

So who can provide that kind of pressure on multimillion dollar professional sports teams and the multibillion dollar sports leagues? Plain and simple, it should not have to be the government's job, but since the American public clearly can't turn off the TVs or stop buying tickets to games being played by enhanced supermen, the sports leagues have no reason to be tough on users.

The government is the only entity with enough power to do anything about it. Unfortunately, as is usually the case with the government, they are going for the high-profile, cosmetic actions that they can point to during elections to prove they are tough on drugs and a friend of safety for children. They are not solving the problem, they are merely treating symptoms. They are chastising individuals for their actions, hoping that lessons will be learned by others who do not want to go down that same path of destruction.

That lesson is not being heard. Athletes know that there are far more users that are not getting caught than ones who are. They know down deep inside that despite no physical proof, there are guys like Sammy Sosa and Luis Gonzalez who fall into the category of "Everyone knows they used, but we can't prove it." Sosa gets to keep all of his money. He will go into the Hall of Fame. Luis Gonzalez gets to keep the extra millions he made after suddenly becoming a 50+ homerun hitter after showing no potential for that level of power production at any level of his career before that. There is no disincentive on the player's part.

The teams keep making money. Even the small-market teams are profitable now after the resurgence in popularity fueled by the 1998 homerun chase between two allegedly juiced superstars. The Cubs just hired a bunch of employees for the summer, the new owners (once approved) are rumored to be interested in increasing the team's administrative headcount and increase the number of scouts. Who else is hiring in this economic environment? Clearly, the status quo works for the teams, and by extension, the Players Union because they like the rising salaries that result from the rising attendance figures and increased revenue streams.

So instead of trotting Barry Bonds out to a perjury hearing, and holding hearings where they scold players and owners for being irresponsible while doing their best to look indignant while on camera, they should be fining the hell out of any sports franchise that has a player tested positive for steroids or other illegal performance enhancers. You hit these teams hard enough in their bankbook they will start to rethink their evaluation and hiring of players.

They will not want guys like A-Rod on their team. They will start building clauses into long-term deals that void remaining years, and allow fines that will allow them to take back some of the money they already paid for medically enhanced statistics. Barry Bonds would have been dropped from a roster long before he had a chance to break Hank Aaron's homerun record. The extra revenue the Giants brought in during his chase wouldn't have been worth the risk. If you think they would have been too loyal to drop him, notice they had no problem dropping him as soon as his chase was over and there was nothing left to market. He became a drain on their resources instead of a benefit, so he is out looking for work.

Teams would step up testing so they could make sure they had done their homework before signing players, minimizing their risk. Do you think that Tom Hicks, the owner of the Rangers (who says he feels betrayed by Alex) would have gone ahead with an investment of $252 million over 10 years if he had the added risk of getting nailed with a $50 million fine if one of his players is caught using? He would have done his homework. He would have built clauses in to protect himself from that risk. He would have taken action to create vigilance around the team to prevent the use of illegal performance-enhancers, instead of pretending that what happens in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse. Suddenly, the statistics would not be the key to big money anymore. When the risk of using steroids outweighs the potential gains, the demand will go down and usage will drop.

There would still be cheaters because there will always be someone who can find their way around rules. There would still be people who get away with it, because no monitoring system is flawless. But fining the teams would finally create an incentive to become more vigilant of their players and to act accordingly to keep the sport as clean as possible.

When steroids are finally stopped being perceived by young athletes as a magic ticket to riches, they will heed more of the warnings about shriveled testicles, impotence, and death. Until then, they are willing to risk a couple of shrunken balls because they think that one day they will be able to sleep with Playboy bunnies on a big pile of money.


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