Baseball and Steroids: What's the Big Deal?

Baseball has long been considered the quintessential American pastime. The nostalgia, tradition and reverence for the game are just some of the many reasons why there's such an upset over the use of "performance-enhancing" drugs in baseball. Most of us consider the use of steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs to be, well, cheating, and nothing is as "un-American" as cheating. But consider this: players have attempted to gain artificial advantages in America's favorite pastime since the earliest days of the sport. Back in 1889, players were using a testosterone supplement derived from animal testicles for better performance on the field. Brilliant, no?

Although it is impossible to know exactly what percentage of major league players actually have used steroids or other performance-enhancing substances over the years, numerous well-known (and obscure) players have come forward to suggest that use of these drugs has long been rampant in the game. For example, in 2003, David "Boomer" Wells claimed that up to 40 percent of major leaguers use steroids. More recently (2005), Jose Canseco estimated that 80 percent of major leaguers had taken steroids and credited the drug for his entire career. And there have been scores of others with names familiar even to a non-baseball aficionado like me: Ken Caminiti, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, A-Rod. The list goes on.

But if steroids in one form or another have been around this long and have always been prevalent, why all the sudden fuss? It might be wise to consider some different strategies. For example, maybe we should simply form another baseball league, one that wouldn't play in the current National or American Leagues, but a separate one, where the teams would not be tested for performance-enhancing drugs such as steroids. I mean, if so many athletes are currently using - and most don't want to quit - and they aren't going to be welcome in the MLB, it seems like a good business opportunity to create an "Enhanced League" where this is not an issue.

Here's an added incentive: it is likely that in this Enhanced League, players (and franchises) would make even more money. One study that examined a player's "OPS" - a combination of a player's on-base percentage and their slugging percentage - found that an increase in OPS of .100 leads to an estimated salary increase of $2 million. Improved performance from steroids would certainly elevate a player's OPS (not to mention the increase in player product sales and endorsement deals for such exemplary athletic performance). And while there are outliers such as Pete Rose who played 3,562 games and Nolan Ryan who played 27 seasons, the average career of the major league baseball player is 5.6 years, so if he starts taking steroids immediately, we can expect him to make an additional $11,200,000.

It probably is true that the new baseball league that allows steroids is bound to be tougher and more violent than the non-steroid league, but we already know that there are other sports (football, boxing, hockey, professional wrestling, etc.) where fans are not deterred by violence. I mean, people actually like watching a sport where the objective is to do as much cortical damage to the opponent as possible (e.g., boxing). In fact, fans expect injuries, take-downs and their athletes to 'leave it all' on the field.

So there, another problem solved, right? A steroid league (everyone's an A-Rod!) and a non-steroid league (everyone plays fair). Everyone's happy, right?

Well, I guess there are the "small" issues of side effects and long-term health consequences. And this new league would need some changes...

Players would need to wear more protective gear - they're going to get hit harder by other players running to base and by the balls hit into the field. Recent increases in the nature and frequency of MLB injuries - as indicated by the 31% increase in the number of players on the Disabled List (DL) from 1989 to 1998, and the 13% increase in average stay on the DL over the same period -have been attributed to steroid use. One explanation for this is that the increase of muscle mass or striated muscle speed associated with anabolic steroid use is not accompanied by a proportionate increase in strength of the tendons, ligaments and joints. The types of injuries seen most commonly in baseball today result from muscles ripping away from tendons and joints that can no longer support them, which was typically not seen years ago. So careers would be shortened. And since only 4.3% of MLB players have a 4-year college degree, that could leave former players with remarkably decreased earning potential later.

And while it is not entirely clear how many years steroids take off of your life, there have been guesses. Five years seems to be a conservative number. Not to mention those pesky side effects: suggests minor side effects might include acne, oily skin, excess hair growth, and deepening of the voice. Not too horrible, right? But they also suggest major side effects such as an increased risk of cancer, increased risk of heart and liver disease, jaundice, fluid retention, reduction in HDL-C ("good cholesterol"), high blood pressure, changes in blood coagulation, increased risk of atherosclerosis, swelling of the soft tissues of the extremities (edema), and obstructive - and sometimes deadly - sleep apnea. These may or may not be reversible - the research is ongoing.

Since we're talking specifically about men in baseball (as of this writing, there are no female major league baseball players, but perhaps that could all change with the new Enhanced League that accepts performance-enhancing drugs?), side effects specific to men include testicular atrophy or the shrinking of the testicles, reduced sperm count, infertility, baldness, and the development of breasts. Attractive, right? But hey - for a new set of hitting records and an estimated $11 million, why not?

Well there may be some added costs of operation as an increase in male hormones may also lead to aggressive behavior, and some research indicates that steroid users often suffer from paranoid jealousy, extreme irritability, delusions, and impaired judgment stemming from feelings of invincibility. So umpires and coaches may need behavioral health training, maybe a license to deliver anti-psychotic medications - or at least some extra protection. And don't forget the spouses and children. One need only look at the headlines to see new family services needs. Sexual desire is increased, while erectile dysfunction also is increased. Could this increase the risk of sexual assault?

Something else we probably should consider with the Enhanced League is the multiple drug abuse effect. Currently, athletes abusing steroids and the like often also use different kinds of drugs to counterbalance the side effects, as well as to support the desired effects. Addiction will likely be another problem.

Then there's what to do with the players once they end their career in the Enhanced League, and with one in five position players only playing a single season, what will happen to them? Getting off steroids isn't altogether easy; withdrawal symptoms consist of aggressive and violent behavior, mental depression with suicidal behavior, mood changes, and in some cases acute psychosis. Are we to forget about our new league's players as soon as they stop performing at the elite level? Perhaps this is the sad reality of sports today anyway.

If we don't care about the short and long-term health consequences for our athletes - it is THEIR choice after all - then what about protecting the health of children who look at these athletes as role models? Teens aspiring to be professional athletes may as well start early on their steroid road; unfortunately the risks for them are even more dangerous. And what about sports like gymnastics, where many kids hit their prime prior to obtaining drivers licenses? Should those athletes not be afforded the luxury of these enhancements?

Hmmm, so maybe it won't work to have a steroid-stoked, free-for-all enhanced baseball league. So maybe we need to continue our efforts to eradicate performance-enhancing drugs from all sports. After all, using artificial means to get ahead flies in the face of the American dream - that through hard work, we will come out the winner. I mean, if we allow steroids in baseball, what happens to apple pie?

I still believe America doesn't like cheaters. And while steroid use may improve a player's chance of hitting that next home run or breaking the sprint record, even the brief examination of unacceptable costs to athletes, to future hopeful athletes who look up to them, and to sports itself leaves me wondering what's so good about being "enhanced"?