Steroid test devised, but grades must wait

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It took the startling revelations of two former stars and weeks of collective bargaining, but Major League Baseball finally has a testing program in place to deal with the sport's recent steroid controversy.

Now, the only question is whether the plan is a real solution or just a public relations smokescreen.

The sport was rocked by allegations from retired slugger Jose Canseco and former National League Most Valuable Player Ken Caminiti this spring that major-league clubhouses were rife with performance-enhancing drugs. Both men estimated that more than half of baseball players had tried anabolic steroids to boost their muscle mass and pad their power statistics.

Their math may have been a little fuzzy, but the message was clear: Something needed to be done to restore the confidence of fans suspicious of the offensive inflation that has transformed the 60-homer season from exceedingly rare feat to surprisingly regular occurrence.

During negotiations for baseball's new labor contract, the owners and players agreed to a four-year program that calls for "survey," or non-disciplinary, testing to determine if the problem is serious enough to warrant mandatory random testing. If at least 5 percent of players surveyed test positive in any year of the four-year collective bargaining agreement, mandatory random testing will be instituted the following year and progressive disciplinary action will be taken against offenders each time they are caught. If the number of positive random tests falls below 2.5 percent for two consecutive years, baseball will return to survey testing the following season.

Sounds simple enough. The first phase of the plan is intended to confirm that a problem actually exists, and the mandatory-testing component kicks in if there is enough real evidence that steroid use is prevalent in Major League Baseball. Throughout the program, individual players may be tested if a joint union/management panel decides there is reasonable cause to believe they are violating baseball's drug policy.

Problem solved, right?

Not necessarily. Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association already are facing criticism that they treated the steroid controversy like a public relations problem instead of a health issue. The testing plan delays any real response to steroid use at least a year, survey results will not be made public and disciplinary action for the first two positive random tests would be relatively light - treatment after the first offense and a 30-day suspension after the second.

"The good news is that we have a testing program," baseball commissioner Bud Selig said. "I'm grateful for that, and I think everyone else should be, too. Hopefully, it will be the constructive program that we believe it will be."

Management negotiators sought a tougher plan with more unannounced testing, but a compromise was reached within the greater context of the labor negotiations, which hinged more on the crucial economic issues facing the industry.

The players union considered any drug-testing program a major concession, because union leaders have long been philosophically opposed to random testing on civil liberties grounds, but surveys showed widespread support among the rank and file for swift action to clean up the messy steroid controversy.

Will it be enough?

"We'll only know whether it's enough at the end of the deal," said management negotiator Rob Manfred. "I remain of the opinion that it is a huge step for the union, considering their history on this issue, to agree to unannounced testing in every year of the agreement."

Penn State University professor Dr. Charles Yesalis, a leading expert on the non-medical use of performance-enhancing drugs and dietary supplements, sounds skeptical.

"The proof is going to be in the details," he said. "How much light of day is going to be shined on the system? The NFL does it totally in private, and how many franchise stars have been caught using performance-enhancing drugs? I think the answer to that is none."

In short, baseball still has something of a public relations problem - the public perception that union and management officials were not particularly motivated to attack the steroid issue because the impact of steroid use on Major League Baseball has been largely positive.

It's a cynical view, but one that is hard to dispute. The game has focused its marketing efforts on the same pumped-up home run hitters who have raised suspicion of steroid abuse. Retired superstar Mark McGwire set the single-season home run record in 1998 while openly employing the pseudo-steroid androstenedione in his workout regimen. Barry Bonds broke that record three years later under a cloud of suspicion because of the dramatic difference in his physical appearance from just a few years earlier, but he denies he has ever used anabolic steroids and credits his increased muscle mass to the dietary supplement creatine.

The decision to begin with survey testing may confirm the suspicions of some, but union general counsel Gene Orza insists it is an intelligent way to approach a difficult issue. It creates a mechanism for determining whether a serious enough problem exists to justify overriding the union's long-standing resistance to random testing.

"We're saying you shouldn't have to give up your urine to your employer, but if the problem is proven to be of sufficient magnitude, we're willing to give up that principle," Orza said. "You set a threshold that says, 'No, we don't believe people should be randomly tested, but if you reach a level that proves there is a problem, then you can test.' "

Management may have wanted mandatory random testing for the duration of the agreement, but Manfred conceded the logic of a survey period.

"Survey testing is an important deterrent in the first year," he said, "and it will give us a chance to figure out what the real facts are. You've got former players making statements about percentages, and nobody knows the real numbers. If a problem exists to the extent they are saying, then there will be program testing, and the program testing in subsequent years is a real program.

"Going forward, we're going to have a very credible testing program."

The 5 percent threshold required to trigger random testing would represent 60 positive tests out of the 1,200 players on major-league 40-man rosters. Whether that would be an alarming number is a matter of opinion.

"I don't think 5 percent would have caused the reaction we've seen or prompted congressional hearings," Orza said. "If Jose Canseco had said he thought 4 percent of players were using steroids, I don't think we'd be in this situation."

Professor Yesalis, however, said the 5 percent threshold is high enough to all but guarantee there will be no random testing during the life of baseball's new four-year labor agreement. It's not necessarily because fewer than one out of every 20 players use steroids, but the ones who do are difficult to catch even with widespread testing.

"There is no way they will get 50 or 60 positive tests," Yesalis said. "How many positives have you seen in professional football? How many positive tests have there been in the Olympics in the past 20 years? It's 1 or 2 percent. This isn't going to fly. They'll never reach that 5 percent. ... I really don't think it means a hill of beans."

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