Banning Drugs in Sports Does Not Reduce Drug Use, Makes Things Unsafe for Players

The logic, if you can call it that, behind banning substances in professional sports is rooted in the same kind of intentions as our 40-plus year war on drugs.
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The logic, if you can call it that, behind banning substances in professional sports is rooted in the same kind of intentions as our 40-plus year war on drugs. Drug policies in professional sports like Major League Baseball are cheered on by proponents in the name of "keeping the sport pure," just like drug warriors petitioned for harsher drug laws in hopes of a "drug free society." But there has never been a drug-free society -- ever -- and like most professional sports, Major League Baseball has never been "pure."

You may have heard that a laundry list of players were recently suspended from Major League Baseball for at least fifty games each, including one of the biggest names in the game -- 12-time AL All-Star, Alex Rodriguez, who was suspended for 211 games. To put that into perspective, fifty games is equivalent to roughly one-third of a season (or one-third of someone's annual pay), and 211 games is an entire season plus one-third of the following year. The MLB is making an example of Alex Rodriguez, and apparently they don't even really have hard proof that he ever used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Commissioner Bud Selig is looking to leave a legacy behind -- but does he want to be known as the guy who took Baseball's biggest names away from the sport?

This "tough on PEDs" approach has not stopped players from using drugs in the past, just like the "tough on crime" approach politicians like to boast hasn't stopped Americans from buying and consuming illegal drugs. Major League Baseball can suspend every player who they think uses PEDs, but is that the best thing for the sport? It was the home-run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chasing Roger Maris' single season record in the summer of 1998 that excited fans around the world and rescued the MLB from its shrinking fan base -- and they were both using some sort of PEDs. And, maybe more importantly, is it the safest thing for the players to ban these drugs?

When it comes to the safety of the players, Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation, puts it perfectly:

"Steroids and all PEDs need to be seen as an issue of public health, not crime and punishment. If seen as an issue of public health, the scandal here would not be that a group of players may have used PEDs. The scandal would be that they had to visit a skuzzy, unregulated "clinic" not run by medical professionals to get their drugs. Instead of criminalization, educate all players about the harmful effects of long-term PED use when not under a doctor's supervision. Have medical officials make the policy and determine what PEDs help a person heal faster -- an admirable quality in a medicine, no? -- and what shouldn't be a part of any training regimen. Centralize distribution under the umbrella of MLB so it doesn't become an arms race of which teams get the best doctors and the best drugs. Then, players could take advantage of the most effective new medicines and MLB would be removing the process out of the shadows where the Tony Bosch types of the world hold sway. They also then have an ethical basis for testing and rehabilitation when use crosses the line into abuse."

Many people would say that lifetime bans are the only way to get players to stop using PEDs. But people use drugs for a number of different reasons, and athletes rely on drugs just like anyone else, probably even more so than the average American -- whether for training, recuperating, etc. And if harsh drug laws that carry heavy fines or mandatory minimum prison sentences can't reduce drug use, then Major League Baseball can learn from America's failed war on drugs. They need to acknowledge that drugs are not going anywhere and implement drug policies that cause the least possible harm and the greatest possible good.

Derek Rosenfeld is the Internet Communications Associate for the Drug Policy Alliance.

This piece originally appeared on the DPA Blog.

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