Calls for Harsher Penalties for PED Usage are Unfounded

As expected, Melky Cabrera's recent suspension for PED usage has inspired another round of hysteria over the issue all around the game.  Arizona Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson made no secret of the fact that he thinks that a 50-game suspension is not severe enough.  ESPN's Buster Olney is one of many writers echoing that sentiment, stating that the rule should be strengthened to a one-year suspension or to even a lifetime ban for a first offense. 

All of this is pure overreaction, overlooking some of the most important aspects of the issue at-hand.  First and foremost...  

MLB's testing system is working.

The PED testing system in baseball was never designed to act as a deterrent for illegal PED usage, offering penalties of increasing harshness for those who violate the rules.

It has done just that. 

There have been 79 players that have been suspended for PED usage by Major League Baseball since the system of testing and punishments were put into place for the 2005 season.  Over half of those suspensions (41 total) took place in the very first year of testing.  Baseball then added an additional test and increased the punishments from 10 to 50 games for a first-time offense the following year, and only eight players (a decline of more than 80 percent) tested positive. 

The number of positive tests rose to 22 in 2007, though this was still barely half of the 2005 total.  Since then, there has been a gradual decline to the point where Cabrera was just the third player this year to submit a positive test.

Speaking of which, a lot of people seem to be overlooking the fact that Melky Cabrera is being punished for violating the rules.  Cabrera is suspended for the next 50 games, which will include the remainder of the regular season and the first few games of 2013.  And as I pointed out two days ago, Cabrera's positive test in a contract year makes it highly unlikely that he will receive a high-dollar contract in free agency, effectively costing him millions of dollars in potential earnings.

So how is the system not working again?

A common retort to the decline in positive tests is that players have gotten better at timing their usage around the system or using masking agents to make their usage undetectable.  There is probably some truth to this, and calls for an increase in the number of random tests seem appropriate if baseball is interested in catching more violators of the rules.  However, it is also important to remember that...

Harsher punishments would not eradicate usage.

We have seen this time and again:  a segment of the population pushes for harsher punishments for drug users in order to eradicate drug usage in society.  Time and again, these laws do little to nothing to stop usage.  In fact, recent increases in drug use in society would indicate these laws have the opposite effect.

If harsh punishments do not prevent drug usage in the rest of society, why in the world would we think they would eradicate PED usage in professional sports?  At a certain point, such penalties start producing diminishing returns.

Players have been using whatever means necessary to get ahead in baseball pretty much from the start.  PED usage in the sport actually pre-dates the American League, and there is little reason to believe that this philosophy will ever change.

Still, this is a serious issue that upsets a great many people, who believe that PEDs are responsible for the desecration of MLB's cherished record book by unworthy names.  This, however, overlooks one major fact...

PEDs are not magic potions.

Perhaps the biggest downside of the entire issue is that it has caused numerous people to believe that the only reason that players got their names in the record books is because they took drugs.  All people have to do is read what PED actually stands for in order to see how ridiculous this idea actually is.

They are performance-enhancing drugs, not performance-enabling drugs.  They are not responsible for giving a hitter the ability to make contact with the ball or to throw the ball where he wants in the strike zone.  Those are skills developed through years and years of practice and dedication.

It is true that PEDs such as steroids can help an athlete reach a level of performance that is greater than they would get otherwise.  However, steroids will only heal injuries and help add weight if utilized by themselves.  They still need to be paired with significant weight training and nutrition in order to add muscle mass and have any improvement on athletic performance. 

And frankly, there are a lot of products that have similar effects on athletic performance, though perhaps not as great as steroids.  Many of these products (often referred to as "supplements") are perfectly legal and available in every GNC in the country.

Do we really want to create an environment where people are unable to benefit from such products because they are scared that they could be banned from the sport for life?

Conclusion

Testing and punishing for PED usage is a worthwhile cause.  PEDs are (often) illegal without a prescription, and long-term usage can lead to harsh side effects later in life. 

But it is also important to remember that they will always be a part of sports as long as we keep score and pay athletes for performance.  Nobody likes it when a Melky Cabrera tests positive for usage, but that is still no reason to overreact to such instances. 

Especially when the system is working. 

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