Steroid policy all bulked up
Baseball players and owners are high-fiving themselves and think they've quieted critics by agreeing to a slightly stronger steroid-testing program.
Don't be fooled.
The new policy announced Thursday is progress that will keep the politicians at bay, but it's still just a bunt, not a home run, in the effort to rid baseball of performance-enhancing drugs.
It's a watered-down version of the minor league anti-doping program that commissioner Bud Selig has been touting. It's more PR and a dangerous delay in acting decisively.
Baseball released some details of the revised program, which, unlike the current system, includes penalties for first-time offenders.
Penalties are onlypart of the solution
The penalties are still paltry: a 10-day suspension for a first positive test, increasing to one year for a fourth positive.
Contrast that with the World Anti-Doping Agency's code, adopted by most Olympics sports, where the penalties are normally two years for the first positive test, a lifetime ban for the second.
Penalties, as crucial as they are to success against doping, are only part of the solution. There are all those devilish details about when and where players can be tested, how the tests will be handled, which laboratories will do the analyses, and how extensive the list of banned drugs will be.
To its credit, Major League Baseball will now conduct an undisclosed number of random tests during the season in addition to one random mandatory test per player.
There will be no maximum number of tests for each player during the season. If a player has one mandatory test and is selected by a computer for a random test in the first poll of names, he still will be subject to selection again in the second or third random polls. Left undecided is how many random tests will be conducted during each poll.
Importantly, random off-season testing of an undetermined number of players will be conducted in baseball for the first time, regardless of where players travel. Unlike in-season tests, however, there is no provision for testing all players in the off-season.
Increasing the number of tests is significant. To really work, there must be total unpredictability in testing -- anytime, anywhere.
"Everybody who abuses steroids knows how to play the calendar to avoid testing," said Dr. Gary Wadler, a steroid expert and member of WADA's medical research committee.
The problem of performance-enhancing drugs is not limited to steroids. Human Growth Hormone has now been added to baseball's banned list, though there's no provision for the HGH blood tests used at the Athens Olympics. Baseball officials say they will wait for the development of HGH urine tests.
Amphetamines and other stimulants are banned in the minors, but are still OK in the majors, despite a long history of players popping "greenies" to rev them up during the season.
"The fact that they drew a line in the sand around amphetamines is a metaphor for the sincerity of the initiative," Wadler said.
It took a federal investigation that involved high-profile players plus public and political pressure to get baseball to rework the weak drug-testing program put into place in 2002.
Reaction frommembers of Congress
The revised agreement, which expires in December 2008, was enough for Sen. John McCain to call the changes "significant progress," though he would have preferred stiffer penalties and a ban on amphetamines. McCain said that considering the deal, he did not think legislation was needed.
Sen. Joe Biden was more skeptical.
"The new testing system sounds better than the flimsy one they had before," Biden said. "But the penalties are weak and it is still unclear what substances will be banned under this new agreement."
Rather than tweaking its testing and penalties, baseball should contract out the whole anti-doping effort to WADA, which has the resources to deal with it.
It takes medical and scientific experts, trained testers and specialized labs around the world to stop doping. It takes ethicists and legal scholars to study the issues, panels to adjudicate challenges.
WADA chief Dick Pound called baseball's revised program a step forward, though "not much of a step forward."
"Either you want your sport to be drug-free, or you want to do just enough to get people like the president and Sen. McCain and Sen. Biden off your back by throwing them some scraps," Pound said. "If it's the latter, your risk is that people will see it as a token and be insulted. If it's the former, then it's clearly not a vigorous enough program to really catch everybody's attention.
"At least they're acknowledging there's a problem. They've had their heads in the sand on that for a long time."
XSteve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein(at)ap.org.