Tougher PED penalties may be necessary
Voided contract, then permanent ban could further deter banned substances
Human nature dictates that as long as there is money to be made or an edge to be gained, some -- not all, but certainly some -- will try to skirt the rules.
Scientific advancement dictates that chemistry will always be at least a step ahead of jurisdiction.
And so it is that, despite arguably the strongest drug testing program in professional sports, there exists some unknown percentage of Major League and Minor League players using performance-enhancing substances. To them, the threat of the penalties in place does not outweigh the temptation of chemically sophisticated shortcuts.
Perhaps, then, it's time to take another look at those penalties.
The report published by the Miami New Times on Tuesday morning encourages the conversation, loaded as it is with detailed accounts linking several active players to a Miami anti-aging clinic believed to sell PEDs. Alex Rodriguez, Melky Cabrera, Bartolo Colon and Yasmani Grandal -- all of whom have either previously admitted or been suspended for PED use -- are included in the report, which alleges that a man named Anthony Bosch distributed human growth hormone, synthetic testosterone and other PEDs to players. The Rangers' Nelson Cruz is mentioned, as is the Nationals' Gio Gonzalez (though it should be noted that none of the substances listed alongside Gonzalez's name are banned by MLB).
It's an explosive story that has already prompted a denial from Rodriguez, the biggest name involved. As MLB continues to investigate the matter, a number of major ripple effects could be in store. More details -- and possibly more names -- will arrive in the coming days, and it is possible, if enough evidence is acquired, that Commissioner Bud Selig will exercise his right to "just cause" and suspend those implicated.
"We remain fully committed," read a statement from Major League Baseball, "to following all leads and seeking the appropriate outcomes for all those who use, purchase and are involved in the distribution of banned substances, which have no place in our game. We are in the midst of an active investigation and are gathering and reviewing information."
It is a credit to the Joint Drug Program in place that MLB was already investigating multiple wellness clinics in South Florida after growing concerned about a rise in the number of PED-related suspensions in 2012. There were seven Major Leaguers suspended for PED use and 104 Minor Leaguers suspended for violations of the drug policy, both numbers the highest in at least five years.
But for all its preventative efforts -- efforts that will now include in-season testing for HGH -- MLB cannot completely curb the culture. There will always be somebody bending or outright breaking the rules.
So all the league and the union can reasonably do is put a set of restrictions and penalties in place to deter all but the most brazen of cheaters. The current program, for all its strengths, still hasn't prevented the Melky Cabreras of the world from trying to profit through the use of PEDs.
Maybe the next necessary step is a stiffening of the discipline.
As it stands, first-time offenders of the drug program receive a 50-game suspension, second-timers get 100 games and third-timers are banned for life. It's the three-strikes-and-you're-out policy that was originally put in place on the diamond and has been mimicked by many a state's habitual offender laws.
But baseball has a much harsher penalty for betting on ballgames. Any player, umpire or club official caught betting on a game he has no connection with receives a one-year suspension for the first offense and a permanent ban for a second.
Is it outrageous to suggest that a player knowingly using a banned substance to better his performance has done more to defile the integrity of the game than a player who places a wager on a game he has no involvement with? I don't think it is.
With permanent banishment, of course, comes ineligibility for the Hall of Fame. But that's only a deterrent for the elite of the elite. What's really at stake here, when you look at a 162-game suspension vs. a 50-game suspension, are the financial incentives (or disincentives) at stake.
Cabrera, for example, took a 30.8 percent hit on his $6 million salary last season. That's a big drop, sure, but he still made $4.15 million on the year and put himself in position to get a raise -- to $8 million a year over two years -- from the Blue Jays in free agency this winter. A full-season suspension, which would have left him sans paycheck until the second half of 2013, obviously would have been much more damaging to his financial profile.
That, ultimately, is how you get the attention of the big-time athlete. Go after his money. Void his contract if he gets suspended under the drug policy. Ban him for life if he's dumb enough to get tripped up twice.
"There's not a lot of guys who would want to go a whole year without a pay check," union rep Brad Ziegler told MLB Network Radio. "It puts you in a little bit of a crunch and makes you think at that point, 'Do I want to risk this?' ... The one thing you always worry about is what if it's a false positive and you legitimately did nothing wrong? I know the odds against that are astronomical [but] I know that's what a lot of guys are concerned about.
"In-season HGH testing is definitely a step in the right direction, but I'm still not sure that solves all the problems."
In light of the recent spike in suspensions and now a troubling Miami report that has drawn comparisons to the BALCO scandal, perhaps that's a conversation the league and the union need to have. It's a difficult conversation, admittedly. But while the system in place is tough, it could be tougher, and that is an issue the players' union, whose membership includes no shortage of honest individuals who want the game played right, could be compelled to confront.
Science will always be ahead of testing, in some measure. But it stands to reason that the stiffer the penalty, the smaller the percentage of players willing to take the risk.