Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Starling Marte was suspended Tuesday after testing positive for the testosterone derivative Nandrolone, an androgenic compound that increases lean body mass and strength, decreases fat mass, and expedites soft tissue repair. Prolonged use also causes left ventricular hypertrophy and high blood pressure, but it's the first set of effects that'll cause Marte to miss 80 games and render him ineligible for postseason play in the event the Pirates make it that far without him.
Over at Yahoo!, MLB columnist Jeff Passan argues that Marte's suspension means we should revisit, for the millionth time, the MLB's policy on performance enhancing drugs.
"The line between so-called PEDs and other drugs isn't thin. It just doesn't exist," Passan writes, citing the MLB's broad use of anti-inflammatories and other painkillers, which players can gobble without fear of getting their pay docked and being dragged through the mud. "The only reason PEDs are considered cheating is because federal drug policies stigmatized certain substances, and those now come with a scarlet S. Never mind that most players who take drugs today do so in order to deal with the rigors of a full season – of the grind, the travel, the responsibility to maintain playing shape in an environment that grows less conducive to it as the demands to do more increase."
Baseball is America's most vengeful sport, governed by an esoteric code that allows victims of bat-flips and joyful baserunning to retaliate with violence, so it makes (some) sense that the reactions to Marte's rule-breaking have been Jeff Sessions-like, with one fellow MLBer suggesting that Marte's wages should be permanently depressed for the rest of his career:
Historically, fans have been no more forgiving, at least when it comes to juice. Shortly after Pete Rose admitted to betting on games while managing the Reds, Gallup asked sports fans which offense was more serious. They chose PEDs by a mile:
But I thought baseball was about rules!
The MLB's drug policy is not uniquely stupid. Former players are suing the NFL for pumping them full of painkillers and NSAIDs to keep them on the field, a vicious cycle that former NFL wide receiver Nate Jackson gruesomely documents in his memoir Slow Getting Up. Are fans outraged about guys playing hurt? Maybe, but I suspect they care far more about players being better than they should be, like that time people could not shut the hell up about allegations Peyton Manning used HGH after neck surgery. Meanwhile, the Buffalo Bills suspended a player last year for using medical marijuana, under a doctor's supervision, to treat Crohn's disease.
Not even the NBA–arguably America's most socially liberal league (David Stern's racist dress code notwithstanding)–is above this nonsense. Last month, it suspended Knicks center Joakim Noah for 20 games after he used a research chemical to heal faster from an injury. There is no drug in existence that could make Noah worth the concrete boots of a contract he signed with the Knicks last summer, because there is nothing you can inject into a surgically repaired 32-year-old seven-footer that will make him less old, less tall, or less busted. (And besides, is suspending him really worse than making him play in front of the mouth breathers at Madison Square Garden, recently seen booing the best Knicks pick since Patrick Ewing?)
Like Passan, I think it's time to revisit the PED standards for most sporting bodies, if only to bask in the dysfunction that's sweeping the globe. I speak of the Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE), in which the MLB has been a two-faced pioneer.
Back in 2005, when the MLB announced it was going to crack down on amphetamine use–as deeply ingrained a baseball tradition as beaning guys for enjoying the game–it did so by allowing players to medicalize said use. Now, when the the MLB Players Association releases its annual report on drug testing in the league, you see two or three folks test positive for prohibited amphetamines, while more than 100 players have been granted TUEs for Adderall and other ADD/ADHD drugs (because counting to three requires the utmost focus).
Whether fans like it or not, MLB's therapeutic use exemption for amphetamines has been a smashing success. One anonymous player told SB Nation in 2014 that he believed 10 percent of players were using what most of us think of us as performance enhancing drugs. "If you included guys who are using Adderall," he added, "wow, that number would be through the roof." But the MLB doesn't really need to worry about that particular scandal, because it's not cheating to use amphetamines if a doctor says a player needs them.
The MLB, NFL, and NBA could conceivably introduce TUEs for testosterone drugs (though probably not Nandrolone), but most sporting bodies are going the other way. The UFC ditched its TUE program for testosterone replacement therapy back in 2014, with UFC President Dana White calling it "garbage" in a text message while asserting in a press release, "We believe our athletes should compete based on their natural abilities and on an even playing field." That's also the approach taken by USA Powerlifting, which explicitly forbids prescription testosterone therapy for age-related testosterone decline.
The international sporting community has also grown wary of TUEs after hackers leaked documents revealing that the World Anti-Doping Agency allowed some athletes to use banned substances, while rejecting similar applications from others, even though all of them essentially had a doctor's note deeming the substances to be medically appropriate.
"I would consider banning all TUEs in competition," sports scientist Ross Tucker told The Guardian after the Russia-backed Fancy Bear hack. "What would be the downside if people with asthma cannot compete? Conceptually to me, that is fine. Because unfortunately the efforts to be inclusive with people who have valid medical issues have created a loophole that is being exploited by sophisticated dopers."
Even if Tucker's right that savvy athletes (along with their doctors, trainers, and national athletic federations) have gotten too good at manipulating the therapeutic use exemption, there is something to be said for revisiting the gravity of using a banned substance, and for being a little more honest about the ramifications of anaesthetizing hurt players.
Ray Rice's initial suspension, which he received for KOing his fiance during an argument, was two games; Seantrel Henderson was suspended for 10 games for using marijuana to treat his Crohn's. (While Rice was eventually suspended for an indefinite period of time, an arbitrator overturned it.) Is smoking marijuana worse than assaulting someone? Not in my book. Using PEDs, whether entering one's prime or clinging to it, is also several tiers less serious than assault, though the MLB's recent record of suspensions suggests otherwise. Marte will miss 80 games for using Nandrolone, but the Cubs' Aroldis Chapman was suspended for only 30 games after allegedly choking his girlfriend and firing a gun in 2015, and Jose Reyes was suspended for all of 52 games after allegedly wailing on his wife.
As for the prescription painkillers and heavy duty NSAIDs (and yes, the latter can be incredibly bad for you, which is why players have chosen retirement over taking them), that's on the fans. We applaud athletes for playing hurt, scold them when they don't, look the other way when they wreck their organs with opioids and analgesics, and call for their expulsion when they use androgens instead.
Good on Passan for pointing out the bullshit, and RIP his mentions.
Want more baseball? Check out Reason.tv's five most pointless Congressional hearings on the MLB: