16 September 2014

Responsibly Addressing Baseball's Drug Problem

Last week, an emotionally charged issue came back full-speed as the Orioles were calmly tying up the American League East. Chris Davis was suspended for 25 games for using an amphetamine without a doctor’s note. The amphetamine in question, Adderall, is a fairly common one used to treat individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. A little over 10 percent of major league players use the drug fairly because they have applied to use it. That number may seem high, but it resides right about where you would expect use to be.

According to the American Psychiatric Association DSM-5, 5 percent of the population suffers from ADHD. More recently, studies have found that more than 13 percent of males have ADHD. It is uncertain whether this is a trend upward, that physicians are more aggressive in defining the condition, or that it is an overdiagnosis. Regardless, the numbers in the major leagues are not exceptionally different.

This recent incident has shown, though, that many have trouble discerning differences between performance-enhancing drugs, and Major League Baseball is largely at fault for that. MLB labels chemicals as performance-enhancing without evidence of them actually enhancing performance. In the case of amphetamines and steroids, the evidence is there to varying extents. However, treatments of human growth hormone show no impact on athletic performance, but MLB has gone out of its way to ban its use. Mind you, this delivers absurd credibility to the dozens of gym rats and pseudo-pharmacologists that pretend they are on the horizon of successful experimental drug therapies. That indirect impact is actually a rather dangerous thing. Players may wish to take care of their bodies and improve them as best as they can, but they are not trained to know the difference between a harmful snake oil salesman and a legitimate therapy.

That is a major problem with MLB’s drug program. A drug like Adderall is well understood and it is easy to learn how to use it effectively. A drug like human growth hormone is anything but. Researchers have spent millions upon millions of dollars trying to show some level of improvement in performance through the use of human growth hormone with only scant and highly questionable success. No study has shown that human growth hormone treatments improve strength or fitness. That said, few research teams even bother with figuring out if these treatments are effective anymore because so much money is flooding in to be able to detect these chemicals in blood and urine.

The perversion of scientific discovery we are witnessing is that the overwhelming call for action against therapeutic cheating has led the scientific community to be able to find ways to detect human growth hormone and its metabolic products while ignoring its efficacy. Baseball and other sports have invested so much money into the concept of performance-enhancing drugs that it no longer matters whether a drug actually performs as advertised. The result is a booming and somewhat pointless scientific enterprise that provides the cover that professional sports is serious about drug use.

On top of MLB’s confusing grouping of chemicals is another problem: their draconian implementation of their drug policy. By pandering to the crowd and demonizing the use of drugs, baseball has pushed use further into the shadows, which leaves a lag time between the initiation of drug use and MLB acting on it, the further cementing of the perception that these drugs work, and players having their health jeopardized by trusting snake oil salesmen. The actions of MLB are not in line with having concern for the health and welfare of their players. Their actions push players into the shadows and have those players make choices that can severely impact them.

With that in mind, the proper course is obviously to improve trust and communication. First, MLB should certainly have a prohibited drug list that holds players accountable for taking drugs where persuasive evidence finds that its use is detrimental to the game. Second, MLB needs to be open with players and provide them with third-party medical consultation for the players to make informed choices about their supplements. This information, after being scrubbed of personal identification markers, would then be shared with MLB to help them understand what drug therapies are used. Third, the league should aggressively provide health awareness programs to the minor league system where players are far more dependent on cheaply acquiring information and are often very desperate to move up the chain to get out of their below minimum wage earnings.

With those points in mind, MLB would remain serious about offensive drug use while providing tools to help ensure the health and well-being of their most precious commodity: baseball players. That is the responsible way to handle the situation and, unfortunately, MLB appears completely disinterested in behaving responsibly.

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