Is Banning Doping The Right Choice For Major League Sports?

Weekends on All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden interviews sportswriter Justice B. Hill about how performance-enhancing drugs affect major league sports, and what the league can do about them. Hill says the best option is to stop banning steroids and other drugs, and instead legalize and regulate them.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

Steroid use has roiled Major League Baseball this summer. Fourteen players have been suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs, the largest number of players ever suspended at once. One of them, the Yankees' superstar Alex Rodriguez, was banned for over 200 games.

ALEX RODRIGUEZ: The last seven months has been a nightmare, has been, you know, probably the worst time of my life for sure.

LYDEN: A-Rod is appealing the ban and continues to play. Justice B. Hill has covered the controversy over performance-enhancing drugs for BET.com. He joins us from member station WCPN in Cleveland to talk about it. Welcome.

JUSTICE B. HILL: Thank you.

LYDEN: This is a big black eye for the league. Since the MLB spokespeople have been arguing that the tide was turning, the players are realizing that using performance-enhancing drugs was wrong, that they'd be caught. Do you see any cultural shift here?

HILL: A little bit. I think most of it comes from the fact that people are frustrated with what's happening in baseball. And I think fans are tired of it. We're having a wonderful baseball season, but look how much time we're spending talking about PEDs and steroids.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm. The incentives for the players - when you think about, say, the culture - I'll pick on Alex Rodriguez since he's brought us to this state - the incentive to perform at a high level, the culture, cars and trainers and the payoffs that come to him or any other major league player, is there really a big incentive to change? Is suspension enough?

HILL: No, suspension isn't enough. And there's no incentive for the players to change. We're not talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars. We're talking millions of dollars. As a society, we know that people cheat. Look at Wall Street. Athletes are no different. They're very competitive. They always want to be the best. And if you come to them with a miracle potion saying that, I can guarantee you phenomenal career and riches, who's likely to turn that down?

LYDEN: What about if there were a counterargument: oh, and by the way, this causes cancer. I mean, would that be effective if we pushed back with health warnings?

HILL: No, because we know that people still smoke. There's a bioethicist, his name is Max Mellman, who tells a story about a Canadian survey. They asked: if there was a potion out there that could guarantee you fame as an athlete but would shorten your life substantially, would you take it? Seventy percent of the people said that they would take the potion. Understanding that their life would be much shorter, they were willing to go for the fame and the fortune over longevity.

LYDEN: What if these were regulated? What if the drugs were made legal and then regulated, as is often proposed for marijuana and other drugs?

HILL: I have to say, Jacki, I'm starting to believe that that's the only way to do it. Detection will always stay behind the science. If you ban A-Rod right now, he still made over 100 and some million dollars. His career is already out there. You can't pretend he didn't have the career he did. He may never get into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but he still had a wonderful career and made millions and millions of dollars. I think he should be satisfied with that. Should we as sports fans be satisfied with it? I don't know.

LYDEN: Do you think that we fans bear some responsibility? Each generation has to be so much better, faster, stronger. Fans have come to expect that.

HILL: Oh, absolutely. I blame the fans. The 1998 baseball season where McGuire and Sosa chased Roger Maris' home run record, it was the most intoxicating era of baseball probably in the past 50 years. Everybody was riveted to that home run race, even though during that season there was some questions about the substances that McGuire was taking. But we care less about that talk. We care more about the home run race. Fans love pushing performances to the edge. And fans should accept a bigger blame for allowing this to happen, for the most part, without saying a thing.

LYDEN: Justice B. Hill, a sportswriter, is also associate professor of journalism at Ohio University. Justice Hill, thank you very much for being with us.

HILL: Thank you, Jacki.

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