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Understanding Biogenesis: how professional sports deal with drugs

Alex Rodrigues (photo by Keith Allison via Flickr)

Major League Baseball is poised to announce a flurry of player suspensions involving high-profile athletes linked to Florida-based wellness clinic, Biogenesis, and the use of performance-enhancing drugs or PEDs.

Writer Gavin Au-Yeung asked Professor Bruce Kidd of the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education about the history of professional athletes doping, the World Anti-Doping Code, and the responsibilities of those who run today’s sports industries.

When it comes to PED regulations, American sport industries play by their own rules.
I think the good news is that it means the American corporate sports industry (like the MLB, NFL and NBA) appear to be getting more serious about monitoring and cracking down on use of performance enhancing drugs.

However, American corporate sports never adopted the World Anti-Doping Code, which require a credible and independent third party regulator for sample collection, testing, result management and arbitration processes. That’s the big issue for me – it means they are still a long way from the world standard.

Widespread drug use among athletes led to the creation of the World Anti-Doping Code.
In terms of corporate sports in the United States I would say the abundant, completely unregulated, use of steroids by sluggers and pitchers all during the 90s was way bigger than the Biogenesis scandal.

Doping was a much more widespread practice in the 80s and 90s. The International Olympic Committee faced a crisis of legitimacy – how could the Olympics present true sport when everyday it was clear that athletes were doping?

That led to a series of international meetings involving sports bodies and governments to create an independent third party testing body for all athletes in sports that bought on. And in the course of those meetings they hammered out the World Anti-Doping Code: an international agreement on what substances would be banned, what the testing procedures and penalties would be and so on. That was achieved and WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) was established.

Most international sports have signed on, but not without some important exceptions. The continental pro sports have been a big exception. And it doesn’t give us confidence because we wonder why they aren’t signed on to the world list.

It could be a lot worse for guys like Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun.
According to the World Anti-Doping Code, the minimum suspension is two years for systematic use of PEDs. So basically, [Rodriguez would] have to sit out 2014, but he’d be back playing in 2015. He’s in athletic rehab now, so that would mean he would get effectively a one year suspension. That’s only half of what athletes in other sports would face.

The same goes for Ryan Braun. If MLB signed on to the World Anti-Doping Code, an independent body would have found Braun guilty and suspended him for two years instead of the 65 games he received.

I know these guys are headline players, and they generate revenue. But on the other hand, at some point, members of the sporting public are going to question how the MLB can present themselves as a viable sporting organization with integrity if they are taking such a lenient stand on dopers. And ultimately, I think, it’s going to bite them.

The MLB is headed in the right direction… but not quickly enough.
Major League Baseball and the other sports are beginning to monitor PED use, and to crack down on the outrageous examples. So in that sense, the investigation of Biogenesis is a step in the right direction, and I would say it’s not anywhere near as big or serious in terms of the culture of sport as to what happened in the past. That being said, while it’s a step in the right direction, it’s not a sufficient step because they still have not signed on to the World Anti-Doping Code.

Doping has been put back on the headlines because of the visibilities of these issues. And the fact that MLB is lenient is what I fear may encourage the dopers. The organization that leads baseball is still taking such a hesitant approach to cracking down on doping. On the other hand, there is such a strong message against doping in other sports and from sports leaders. I think there’s still a strong anti-doping message out there, but it’s discouraging to see doping in such a visible and lovely sport as baseball.

Gavin Au-Yeung is a writer with University Relations at the University of Toronto.