Is drug testing futile?

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Largely because I live a few thousand miles away from many of our top baseball scribes, I miss a lot of stuff. The first time around, anyway. What Twitter taketh away from Pacific Zoners, Twitter giveth:

Guthrie was referencing Rosenthal's latest column. I'm going to show you just the beginning and the end of said column; most of the subtlety and case-making comes in the middle (so you should read the whole thing for the whole argument) ...

The most damning aspect of the "60 Minutes" report Sunday night was not that Tony Bosch claimed to have injected Alex Rodriguez, not that an associate of A-Rod’s allegedly threatened Bosch’s life, not that baseball confirmed doing business with Bosch and other shady characters.

No, the most damning aspect is something we already knew – or at least should have known, if we were paying attention.

That drug testing is essentially futile.

--snip--

Some experts suggest that drug testing is little more than public relations, a way for each sport to demonstrate that it is at least trying to keep its athletes clean. That is probably too harsh; testing surely deters some. But in the end, a player who wants to cheat will cheat – and avoid getting caught.

Only fools test positive. The cheaters always are ahead of the testers. The cycle never ends.

There's one HUGE quantity missing from this equation: the number of players using banned drugs who don't get caught. My guess is that it's somewhere between 1 and 100 ... but the actual figure would go a long way toward defining the futility of drug testing.

Alas, we'll probably never know what the actual figure is. So absent the figure, how else might we define futility? If futility means not dissuading drug use completely, then yes: testing (and the associated penalties) is futile. But as Rosenthal points out, that was never a realistic goal anyway. I think realistic goals were a) dissuading some drug use, and b) more generally, changing the culture at least somewhat.

I believe both of those goals have been accomplished. It seems to me unlikely that nearly as many players are using illegal drugs as a decade or so ago. It also seems to me that the culture really has changed. When Alex Rodriguez once referred to the "loosey-goosey" attitude toward drugs, he was right; without any testing or collectively bargained rules, many players were only too happy to take any edge they could find, just as players always have. That's why it's hard for me to come down real hard on most of the players who used drugs in that era. When something's an accepted part of the culture, how can you hold so many individuals responsible for that culture?

If anything, you might reserve special blame for those who did their best to create the culture (and yes I'm looking at you, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire). Barry Bonds didn't create the culture; he just worked harder than most to exploit it. For which I can't really fault him.

Anyway, I'm getting away from the subject at hand. Testing does deter drug use, and it has changed the culture. So I don't believe it's futile. And that's just on the ground. There's another level, too. This is public relations. There's one overarching reason for the media-driven uproar over steroids in baseball: home runs. I believe that if McGwire (and Sosa and Bonds) hadn't broken Maris's record and Bonds hadn't broken Aaron's record, steroids would be ... well, not essentially ignored, as they've been in football. But without the obliteration of the home-run records, I don't believe that sports drugs would be the defining issue of the last 25 years.

Well, it's been a while since anybody's broken a home-run record. Nobody's threatened to hit 70 home runs in some time, and Alex Rodriguez's downfall means that nobody will threaten 700 home runs in quite some time. Hello, public relations! Because without the home runs, this isn't really an issue until a star gets busted or the BBWAA's Hall of Fame balloting gets announced. Which means we're talking about a week or two per season. And that's a public-relations win for Major League Baseball.

The War on Drugs, waged by these United States for the last 40-odd years ... now that is futile by virtually any measure. But by a number of measures, MLB's war on drugs -- including amphetamines, by the way -- has been successful. Fewer players are using drugs (probably), baseball's reputation has improved, and fewer hitters are racking up video-game numbers.

All that said, while baseball does have a better handle on drugs, there will be more than drugs. I'm going to take a wild guess that Bud Selig has absolutely no idea about GENE DOPING and doesn't want to know. The next Commissioner, though, won't be so lucky. Players will always look for an edge. It's not their integrity. It's their nature.

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