Wednesday, November 7, 2012

In Defense (Sort Of) of PEDs...But Not of Grandal

There are two very distinct opinions I have on this entire story regarding Yasmani Grandal's suspension. They dovetail nicely but it is important that both be given equal time so as to avoid in confusion about what I'm saying. So, let's break this down in two sections. First, regarding Grandal himself.

Part I

I like Yasmani Grandal. What's not to like? The mohawk. The energy. The power from both sides of the plate. Aw, the power. You cannot help but now question, even if its only a slight question, as to whether or not what we saw in 2012 was real. In 60 games, he hit .297 with 8 HRs and 36 RBI. A WAR of 2.6. Again, in only 60 games. More importantly, he was a marked improvement from the minimal production the Padres were receiving from behind the plate.

But now, we wonder. He tested positive for testosterone. I'm not a doctor, but from a layman's understanding testosterone helps build muscles in athletes. As this article from the New York Times from 2006 points out, "Steroids are not going to take someone without athletic ability and turn them into a star athlete, or teach you how to swing a bat and connect with the ball, but if you have a certain athletic presence, testosterone could take you to the next level."

This begs the question as to whether or not the 2012 half season of Yasmani Grandal was in fact a bill of goods. We won't know the answer to that for some time. The most damning evidence in any of these cases is a marked drop-off in performance (conversely, what helps Braun in the public mind, at least somewhat, is that he reproduced at the same level in 2012).

More importantly however is how long this has been on going. Experts seem split on the short-term effects of testosterone. But the long-term effects are clear. Was Grandal using as a 1st round draft pick in 2010? Was he using when the Padres traded away their ace pitcher to bring him (among others) to San Diego? If it turns out that the Padres gave up Mat Latos for a player who's prospects are now built on a foundation with a very serious crack, then he will not only have cheated himself and his competitors but the franchise that has pegged him as a cornerstone of a talent-filled youth movement.

One final thought on Grandal. Regardless of what comes out of all this and regardless of what you are about to read next, this is an incredibly selfish thing for Grandal to do. Whether PEDs should be illegal in sports or not (more on that in a moment) is irrelevant for now. Because they are illegal in MLB. And Grandal knew it. And did it anyway. He now takes his tremendous talent off the field for 50 games, and has hurt his teams chances at being competitive. Simply put, this was selfish.

Part II

In law school I went to a sports law symposium once where the keynote speaker was David Cornwell, former Assistant General Counsel for the NFL and former attorney for Shawne Merriman during his PED issue. He made the argument that perhaps instead of pushing PEDs into dark rooms and alleyways (hyperbole obviously) that they should be made legal in sports.

Before we continue I think it's important to make the following statement. In absolutely no way do I condone abusing any drug, legal or illegal. From a health perspective, it is clear the damage that abusing drugs whether it's steroids, cocaine or alcohol is a very real danger to one's health. In no way should it be condoned.

But this isn't an argument about the health risk. If players are made aware of the risk and choose to take those risk nevertheless, so be it. This is about the "Performance Enhancing" aspect of this. Because that's why these suspensions are so serious. Professional sports leagues don't care that much about player safety. Not as much as they care about compelling sport and profit.

So if we view this problem from a perspective of "performance enhancing" then I think the question is fair. Why aren't they legal? Through time we have allowed people to ingest, in some form, any number of things to help aid one's performance. Most people begin their morning with coffee. A caffeine boost to get your day started. Caffeine is nothing more than a chemical being ingested to "enhance" your "performance." Test takers take medication to help them concentrate. Sleeping pills, pain relievers, and even prescribed steroids are all used to help every day people get through the day.

So where do we draw the line? Obviously I'm not suggesting that caffeine is in the same ballpark as a steroid. Only using an obvious exaggeration to point out that this bright line we have drawn is a moving target.

If players were allowed to use PEDs then the primary reason that leagues make them illegal (unfair competitive advantage) ceases to exists. The science has caught up with the athletes. Legalizing it could lead to safer use amongst player, perhaps off-setting some health concerns. There is some evidence that these drugs in fact help players recuperate from injury, aiding in the healing process.

And if health is the concern, and at this point we all accept that some portion of athletes are using, does that not make it more unsafe for players who don't use?

I don't know the answer to many of these questions. But in a week where recreational marijuana was made legal in two states, I'm left wondering the same for PEDs. Perhaps legalizing it is the easiest way to get control of it.


Londog said...

Performance enhancing activities *are* regulated. You can ingest all manner of dietary supplements that are approved. You can have a massive strength and conditioning regimen. You can employ specialty trainers. You can take cortisone shots to allow you to ignore pain and play through. There is a lot a player can do now, all approved, to improve his performance.

I don't know that there is sufficient data to understand what constitutes safe use of the current crop of PEDs. Obviously, massive use has caused issues (see Lyle Alzado, or Tom Verducci's article in SI this summer, "To Cheat or Not To Cheat", but at what level will players still see improvement while avoiding ruining their long term and short term health?

Assuming we knew that, and usage was allowed within these limits, wouldn't this prompt college and high school athletes to start using PEDs (more than already do), with potentially bad results? What's safe for a 21 year old pro might not be so safe for a 16 year old high schooler.

And once regulated, it would be harder to catch those who are going above and beyond--after all, it would be normal to find the substance in the player's system, and there would no doubt be appeals and arguments about the validity of findings of too high of a concentration.

That said, I wouldn't have a problem with allowing steroids, for example, to help with recovery, so long as it was used during down-time for the athlete with a short window of use and some gap between end-of-treatment and start-of-play.

It's also the start down a slippery slope. Hey, it makes the game "better", so why stop there?

-- How about the composite bats that have been outlawed for youth sports because the ball comes off too damn fast--EVERY ballpark will be a hitters park.

-- Let's put the baseballs in dehumidifiers, so they help get themselves out of the yard, too.

-- The DH doesn't go far enough. Expand the roster to 40 year round, and allow for players who only play offense or defense. A player could play both, but would not be required to. Got a player who can hit but is a defensive liability, or vice-versa? No problem.

-- How about free substitution: You start a LH batter in the number 2 spot against a RH starter, but a LH reliever comes in--put your RH hitter in there. And if another RH pitcher is brought in, bring the lefty back.

-- If a pitcher hits a batter, take your base--no warnings, because people LOVE to see fights.

-- And if a fight does break out, the umps get out of the way and let it settle itself.

I've quit watching baseball in the past, mostly over labor/management disputes. As Bukowski said, "The poor came out to watch the millionaires play." I'm over that now (besides, the poor mostly can't afford to go to games anymore...well, the Park-in-the-Park is pretty cheap). Making the game 'exciting' like that would prompt me to drop it again.

...And yes, I'm no fan of the DH.

GTH said...

I totally agree that there are plenty of options that are currently legal to help improve one's performance. In a way, that's my point. We've just decided that performance enhancer A is ok while B is not ok and I'm not sure how that line is being drawn or if that line should be drawn.

Massive uses are dangerous, no question about that. But abuse of any narcotice, legal or illegal, is dangerous. By making them illegal I fear the likelihood of players abusing these drugs is much higher than if it were being prescribed and regulated.

As for youth players (HS, college, etc) I hear that concern and that is certainly not lost on me. I liken it to things like alcohol and cigarrettes. As a society we've decided what ages are appropriate for those substances. I'm sure we could do the same with these drugs.

Perhaps the first baby step is your idea of legalizing them for recovery purposes and within certain windows. Perhaps that process can be the test case to see if players do take advantage of the legalization as you fear.

I don't buy the slippery slope argument as much however. The examples you cite (and certainly they were chose as much for hyperbolic reasons as anything else) all effect the integrity of the game. Free substitution, dehumidifiers, fights, etc all would upset the integrity of the sport. I suppose one could argue that so does PEDs and that's fair. That's probably the crux of the whole argument. Does PED use, if legal, effect the integrity of the sport?

Some would say replay does. 60 years ago some argued desegregation ruined the integrity of the sport. That's a very difficult question to answer in the end I think.

I have more questions than answers. But I think it is at least worthy of conversation of legalizing it in some manner. Players careers and reputations are being ruined by this scarlet A and I'm not sure that that is fair.

One thing we do see eye to eye on? The DH. An abomination.

Londog said...

Integrity of the game is indeed what I'm concerned about.

I've got this (unrealistic) Utopian ideal for a handful of sports--the Olympics and baseball being the exemplars--standing firm as the last bastions of pure human performance. Football and basketball are freak shows, and quite entertaining they are, too; so be it ((although the life-ruining damage being done to players in football is truly sad). One of the great things about baseball is that the players look more or less normal. They are getting more athletic all the time, and during the steroid era, many ballooned up to superman size, but still, we have our skinny Josh Spences and our Falstaffian Johnathan Broxtons and everything in between. As John Kruk said, "I'm not an athelete, I'm a baseball player!"

Mandatory PED use would change that.

Manditory? If legalized, it would come to that. The vast majority of those that chose not to partake would be weeded out as inferior. Your occasional undoped Josh Hamilton or Giancarlo Stanton might be able to hang for a while, but an enhanced Stanton would out-Stanton the unenhanced version.

You say: "We've just decided that performance enhancer A is ok while B is not ok and I'm not sure how that line is being drawn or if that line should be drawn." Civilization is all about lines being drawn--it's why, for example, I can't just up and shoot you if I disagree with you (that, and I don't own a gun, and they scare the hell out of me). The examples of "enhancers" I've cited are all widely agreed to be reasonable in the level of "enhancement" and of sufficiently low risk--they are within the societal norm. Most of them require diligent application (nutritional supplements) and hard work (workouts), and are widely considered as healthy activities. Shooting up drugs (not used to battle injury or illness)? Not so much. And some PEDs have demonstrated truly destructive results, the antithesis of healthy.

As soon as you start wondering if lines should be drawn at all, my admittedly hyperbolic examples are no longer so. The slippery slope turns into a steep, polished slide.

But I know you're not in favor of a free-for-all--for example, you dismiss concerns about potential juvenile PED use because we've also established age limits for alchohol and tobacco use, a line drawn that you agree with. Which, of course, hasn't been terribly effective, but it has kept honest people honest and at least made it necessary to obtain a really good fake ID, which is much harder to do than it was when I was a kid. And no, I'm not arguing for a return of prohibition. I like a little "enhancement" for personal recreation now and then! But that's a very different--and accepted use case.

I think we can and do agree that each item must be looked at on its own merits. Assuming we isolate a single PED, and can identify a usage case and level that provides some agreed upon reasonable benefit (e.g., roughly equivalent to the use of cortisone), then that would probably be OK. That's drawing a line, too, and maybe I'd want to draw that line a little closer to the zero tolerance/low benefit end of the scale than you might. I don't want to go back to the era of Conseco, Sosa and McGwire, where we scratched our heads and tried to figure out how to compare stats from the dead ball era, the live ball area, and the PED era.

Like my food, I prefer my baseball players without chemical additives.

GTH said...

I'm torn on this in many ways.

You are right that I don't want a free-for-all ala the Conseco, Big Mac, et al days. As entertaining as that was back then, in retrospect I realize how dumb and naive I was to think that was being done "on the up and up" as it were.

But I'm not for turning my back on technology either. MLB, more so than any other professional sport is very slow to adapt to a changing world around us. Every sport uses some form of instant replay and has for some time. MLB is just now coming around to it.

Aren't PEDs just another form of technology? Medically speaking, most of the steroids we are talking about are prescribed to treat ailments. That says to me that there must be a safe way to use them. The problem comes in the abuse of them.

To be clear, I am in no way for abuse of any drug, legal or otherwise. The abuse is where the problem comes in. Should an 18 yr old be able to have alcohol? I think, probably so. But the fear is the self-control.

Can PEDs (at least certain ones, obviously this is not an across the board idea), under the advice of a doctor and monitored be controlled? I think it can. It's certainly easier to curtail abuse when the drug (be it marijuana, alcohol or steroids) are legal. This can come with an entire host of side projects as well. Wellness training, classes on the pros and cons and possible negative effects, and so on.

The danger comes in the abuse. And I fear that players are more prone to abuse when they are left to their own devices.

Londog said...

Fair enough. We agree that abuse is bad, and if rules for reasonable use were established and agreed to, abuse would still be bad. We'd have a level playing field, and that's all I really want.

I'm not a total Luddite when it comes to applying technology in baseball, by the way. I'm all for the intensive application of instant replay, including giving each manager some number of challenge opportunities per game, ala the NFL.

Also, I'd be totally in favor of any ballplayer that wanted to use the body-hacking techniques outlined in Timothy Ferris' "The 4-Hour Body". No drugs, it's all about radically optimizing nutritional intake and exercise. Wouldn't be surprised if some already are.

Maybe Grandal can look into that...


I think there should be some rules and regulations to handle the dispute. It will be very helpful to control the bad situations.