Dodging Baseball's Speed Limits


The number of baseball players who claimed to need stimulants for attention deficit disorder, and who therefore received "therapeutic use" exemptions from the disciplinary consequences of a positive drug test, rose from 28 in 2006, the year Major League Baseball banned amphetamines, to 103 last year. Rep. John F. Tierney (D-Mass.) thinks this sudden, 268 percent increase looks suspicious. "When you see the number 28 one year go all the way to 103, it makes you think that we have a loophole here with performance-enhancing drugs," he said at a congressional hearing yesterday. You think?

Since Adderall (a mixture of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine) and Ritalin (methylphenidate, a drug with pharmacological effects very similar to cocaine's) enhance the performance of people diagnosed with ADD, and since Major League Baseball has decided to give medical exemptions to people with that diagnosis, this "loophole" is not an accident; it's a deliberate policy decision. Presumably Tierney thinks the recent diagnoses are mistaken or fraudulent. But maybe a bunch of baseball players with bona fide, genuine ADD (not the fake kind) were self-medicating until the amphetamine ban and have now decided to come out of the shadows. The New York Times lends support to that hypothesis:

Dr. Steven Safren, an associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, said it was estimated that 2 to 6 percent of the adult population had attention deficit disorder.

Rob Manfred, baseball's executive vice president for labor relations and the official most directly involved with the drug-testing programs, said Tuesday night that the commissioner's office was not overly concerned about the increase in attention deficit disorder exemptions.

"Nobody really knows why it jumped," he said, noting that 103 therapeutic-use exemptions out of a baseball population of 1,354 players in 2007 meant 7.6 percent of those players were claiming attention deficit disorder as an affliction, a percentage not that much out of line with the general adult population.

Dr. Safren, asked about baseball's numbers, and the surge from 28 exemptions to 103 in one year, said: "It certainly is a big jump. It could be that people weren't disclosing it. At the same time, the percentage is at the high end."

Intriguingly coincidental as the spike in ADD diagnoses looks, a more important question is why this is any of Tierney's business. "We shouldn't have to have hearings like this all the time to stay on top of these problems with baseball," he said. They don't have to, of course; they choose to. They can stop anytime they want. And given that the Constitution does not grant Congress any authority to dictate the rules by which baseball is played, that would be a good idea. 

Nor is it clear what "problems with baseball" Tierney has in mind. Amphetamines were first marketed in the United States in 1932. Seventy-four years later, Major League Baseball, under government pressure, told players to stop using them. This does not seem like an emergency of any kind, let alone one that should occupy the federal government.