Ryan Braun of Major League Baseball has been suspended for the rest of the season. Talking heads in the sports world seem to think that the NY Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez, and a host of other players, are next in line for the hammer. The issue of PEDs in football has started rearing its head again. And we all know how tainted bicycle racing was, and may still be.
So with performance enhancing drugs running rampant in so many sports that we KNOW about, we have to ask ourselves, are PEDs here to stay?
Performance enhancing drugs are ever evolving, changing, and improving. The tests that are used to monitor for PEDs are often developed only in response to a new drug. By the time the test is usable, many athletes have already moved on to the “next” thing. It’s a game of cat and mouse, but the cat is old, blind, and wearing kitten mittens. Sure, sometimes the cat wins (see Braun and A-Rod), but most of the time, the mouse gets away relatively clean. Don’t trust me on this aspect of PEDs? Then listen to Victor Conte, formerly of Balco.
When it comes to lacrosse, I’ve had the chance to speak with a number of guys at the D1 level, and none of these guys were using themselves, and none knew of any steroid abusers on their team. Some knew of football players using PEDs, which I didn’t find shocking in any way. I didn’t know any lacrosse players on steroids when I was in high school or college (at least not to my knowledge), but I did know some football and baseball players who did it.
It’s clear that PEDs are a part of our culture now, and that the battle we are fighting is a losing one. So what can actually be done with PEDs as we move forward?
I think we really have two options here:
Option 1 – Give up and allow PEDs to be used by athletes. One can argue that testing is too expensive to always be playing catch up, and that the guys who get caught are being penalized for something many others are doing. This side of the coin also argues that the current set up we have is filled with grey area, where certain boosters are legal, but others are not. For example, ibuprofen helps reduce swelling, so is it a PED? Our body doesn’t naturally produce it in its over the counter form, or in such quantities. But Ibuprofen is fine. So where do we draw the line?
Option 2 – Follow MLB’s lead. Major League Baseball has basically gotten to the point where they wait until a truly valid test pops up, and then they crush the offender. The Tour de France has done similar things. It’s reactionary, it’s slow, and it misses many offenders. When it does catch them, it can be at the tail end of their careers, and takes a lot of resources to push through. It’s an admittedly imperfect approach, but it does create a set of rules, and tries to keep the game clean. The problem here is, quite simply, cost. Staying ahead, or at least even or slightly behind, the PEDs is expensive. Testing is expensive. Lawsuits are expensive. If you’re not a huge sport, it’s probably not feasible.
So where does this leave lacrosse?
Baseball and football can continue to use their league size and mass to pay for athlete testing. They will catch some big name guys, and make examples out of them, hoping others will think twice about using PEDs, assuming the penalties are severe enough.
But for smaller sports, like lacrosse, the issue of PEDs is a much tougher one. Since our athletes make much less money, they have less money for things like PEDs, especially the new high grade stuff. At the same time, leagues like the MLL and NLL are also small, and have extremely limited resources. Should the pro lacrosse leagues follow the MLB model, or just give up altogether?
For smaller, emerging sports, maybe there is an Option 3?
Option 3 – The honor system. In a sport like lacrosse, where we are mostly trying to Grow The Game, and honor the sport, the honor system could work. There could be a list of banned substances, and every player would sign a contract that stated they were not using any of the above mentioned substances. Much like a collegiate honor code, infractions would be reported by teammates, coaches, staff, and opponents. While this can be hard to do, I believe lacrosse players are honorable enough to make it work. Add in a stiff penalty for breaking the honor code, and you’re expelled from the league, like you would be from your college if you cheated.
This third option acknowledges that testing is expensive, and that it rarely works as the sole deterrent. It also recognizes that smaller sports can try things that larger sports, where money (and not passion) is the main driver. It asks a lot of the players, but also gives them a sense of respect and trust, which I think is currently missing from PED testing. It asks the athletes themselves to take control, and be leaders, to keep their own playing field even.
The honor system might be the murkiest and least scientific system, but honestly, at this point, it also might work the best. Or we can just give up and let people abuse PEDs. I don’t know that I’m ready for that just yet. Are you?