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Why Steroid Use is Bad

Some thoughts.

A new steroid scandal appears to be fast approaching baseball as records from Biogenesis of American have leaked to the press containing notable names and suspicious treatment notes. Major League Baseball is attempting an investigation, though what kind of proof they can dredge up and what actions they can or might take remain unclear.

On a surface level, I do not care much at all about athletes taking steroids, performance enhancers, growth hormones or whatever else there is out there, even if they were or are Seattle Mariners. I think it's darkly humorous how vigilante lots of people get in condemning steroid use by athletes while letting domestic abuse, drunk driving or a weapons charge slide by with barely a feather ruffled.

However, I have seen it advocated in some places, usually after the latest doping revelation in the cycling world, that professional sports should drop the facade altogether and just let athletes dope if they choose to. I can understand where such an opinion comes from, but I disagree with it.

For one, while in baseball or cycling, steroid use is fairly limited to the player himself and rarely tends to physically hurt others, that is not universally true. For instance, in the NFL, I think that steroid use presents a sizable health hazard not just to the users but also to other players since that's a sport revolving around physical collisions.

Anytime there's a spillover like that, an externality in economic-speak, where the person not doing the activity can be affected, we should think very hard about regulating it.. A basic economic tenet tells us that costs (negative externalities) or benefits (positive externalities) caused by an action will generally be ignored if inflicted on a non-actor (i.e. a person not involved in making the action).

Steroid use in baseball, as opposed to football, doesn't present many chances for externalities. One could mention the unfairly displaced records of past players as a form of injury or injustice, but I don't much buy that. Players have been cheating with whatever they could get away with since ever. I've witnessed baseball announcers praise pitchers such as Gaylord Perry and his infamous spitball in one breath and then demonize supposed PED users such as Barry Bonds in the next. I find their outrage on that subject mostly hypocritical.

There is a way for PED use in baseball to create negative effects on non-users though. If PED use in MLB were sanctioned, either explicitly by removing the rules against it or implicitly by stopping meaningful attempts at enforcement, I don't think it's a leap to think that in that environment, many players would enhance. How many is the big question, but consider the potential consequences if it were a large percentage.

The barrier of entry to a Major League job would get higher because it would become harder to displace the current crop of now enhancing players. If Major Leaguers are enhancing, then will players stuck in the minors start enhancing to try and level their chances of winning a Major League job? Some will of course, we've seen players busted already; the concern is tied to how prevalent it becomes.

Because, taking it further, if the minor leagues become more saturated with players feeling they need to enhance to compete with their Major League counterparts, what stops that use from spreading further down the chain to college, high school and international youth players, whose bodies could be more adversely affected by such products?

It's a bit of a slippery slope argument but I don't think it's an invalid possibility. It's certainly not a complete fantasy. We know it occurs already, especially in the college football crowd. We just hope it's not happening all that often but I can't think of why unpunished usage in the professional ranks wouldn't make it happen more in the amateur ranks, them knowing that those pros are the players they'll need to be better than.

Beyond a medical concern, I also have a financial one. Steroid regiments are expensive and complicated. At each step that their use becomes commonplace, it would create a bigger gulf between those that can afford them and the medical oversight and those that cannot. Poorer players, desperate to compete, might feel forced to turn to shadier options.

It's not an inevitable course of action. Having never been involved in team sports at any high level of competition, I have literally no personal insights into its current prevalence or culture. It might turn out that even if they had a punishment-free chance to take PEDs that many athletes would abstain. I doubt it though.

I'm not going to attach a morality appeal to steroid enforcement. I don't care about any "role model" argument. As mentioned, players cheating is as old as the first rules of the first game invented. I wanted the Mariners to sign Barry Bonds when I thought he could help the team. I don't care if Bret Boone used steroids in 2001. If it came out that Ichiro, Edgar Martinez, Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., Felix Hernandez or Jesus Montero* used steroids, it would change nothing about how I think of them.

*Please do not use this as an invitation to speculate about steroid use by specific people. That's unfair.

But that doesn't mean I'm totally apathetic about the issue. I do think there are real and possibly very bad financial and medical consequences to an environment of lax steroid enforcement. Even if for those reasons alone, I think sports leagues should do their actual best to keep enhancing — I do think there's a mostly clear line between restorative (e.g. LASIK, Tommy John) and enhancing (e.g. artificially high testosterone) — procedures to a minimum. Yes, if only, for the children.