George J. Mitchell is a former majority leader of the U.S. Senate and a co-founder of the Bipartisan Policy Center. He conducted an independent investigation of the use of performance-enhancing substances in Major League Baseball.
This week’s announcement that three baseball players have been elected to the Hall of Fame sparked another round of discussion about the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs by Major League Baseball players. Who wasn’t elected, and why, has received as much attention as who was. Many fans long for an end to what has become known as the steroid era. Unfortunately, that is unlikely.
In December 2007, I released my report on the illegal use of performance-enhancing substances in Major League Baseball, which concluded that for more than a decade anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing substances were widely used by players in violation of federal law and league rules. This was not an isolated problem involving a few players or a few clubs. Each of the 30 clubs had players who used such substances at some time in their careers. Club officials routinely discussed the possibility of substance use when evaluating players.
The league’s response was slow to develop and initially ineffective. For years, citing concerns for players’ privacy rights, the Major League Baseball Players Association (the union that represents the players) opposed mandatory, random drug testing of its members. But in 2002, under pressure from the public and Congress, baseball and the Players Association adopted such a program. While that program reduced the use of steroids, the use of human growth hormone expanded because it was not detectable through urine testing.
While much of the media coverage of the report focused on the players it identified, my recommendations for reform were the heart of the report. They included improvements to baseball’s drug prevention and treatment program, such as requiring periodic reports of aggregate drug testing activity, making the program more independent, increasing the frequency of testing and improving the collection process to ensure effective testing. I also recommended that the baseball commissioner more aggressively investigate evidence of use or possession of prohibited substances by players, including by establishing a department of investigations.
The commissioner adopted all of my recommendations that were not subject to the collective bargaining process. Later, he and the Players Association agreed to changes that incorporated most of the remaining recommendations.
Looking back, my most important recommendation was the establishment of a department of investigations to gather evidence of use of performance-enhancing steroids from sources other than drug tests. An important lesson learned is that drug testing is not a foolproof detection method: It’s an ongoing cat-and-mouse game between the cheaters, their enablers and those who use science to prevent cheating. With its investigative capacity, baseball has another weapon in enforcement.
Some social problems persist despite laws to prevent them. Every society has laws against crime, but no one expects an end to crime; it’s a continuing problem that must be aggressively deterred and punished. So it is with the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports.
There will always be people who want so badly to gain a competitive edge that they are willing to cheat, even at great personal risk to their health. There also will be those who see profit in meeting that demand. As the money offered to premier athletes continues to rise rapidly, the risk-reward ratio skews increasingly to greater risk-taking. All sports, not just baseball and not just professional sports, face a continuing challenge.
Major League Baseball has moved in recent years to meet the challenge. For that, Commissioner Bud Selig deserves great credit. Credit also should go to the players and their association; they have come to understand that their interest lies in a strong, effective and fair program of testing and vigilance to limit drug use to an absolute minimum. I am heartened that more players than ever are speaking out against steroid use, as has the Players Association. I hope the tide is turning against it in all sports.
Learning that our childhood heroes are fallible is disillusioning. But we grow up and get over our disappointment, and we understand it as another example of life’s complexity. Not every great human being is a great athlete. Not every great athlete is a great human being. Talent and morality may coexist, but they often do not.
It’s understandable, and human, to want clarity and finality. But in sports, as in life, some complexity and uncertainty are unavoidable, for fans and for those sportswriters who vote on candidates for the Hall of Fame.