My Solution to Doping in Sports

If you haven’t been paying attention to the Floyd Landis doping case, you’re missing quite a spectacle. The battle between Landis and the World (U.S.) Anti-Doping Agencies (WADA and USADA) is full of…well, comedy. It would be funny to laugh at it if it didn’t involve the reputation of a man who may be innocent. After winning the Tour de France last year, a drug test following Landis’s amazing Stage 17 win revealed a high testosterone to epitestosterone ratio. Supposedly, further tests have revealed the presence of synthetic testosterone.

But all of this is debatable according to Landis, and it’s hard not to be sympathetic with the cyclist. (Read more about the case at Trust But Verify). The case has been bungled throughout the appeals process, and even the original samples appear to have been mis-handled. Any objectivity the lab testing the samples had was lost long ago, because it has every reason to defend its initial finding. Furthermore, WADA and USADA officials have a lot at stake as well. I won’t detail all of the happenings in the case, but the latest mishaps involves an arbitrator rebuking his fellow arbitrators (you know, those guys who are supposed to objectively decide the case) for leaving him out of a decision that went against Landis and Landis claiming that prosecutors offered a deal to help them get Lance Armstrong. The head of the WADA Richard Pound once commented that with Landis’s identified testosterone levels “you’d think he’d be violating every virgin within 100 miles.” And you thought leaks were bad in the BALCO case?

It’s been nearly a year since the incident, and the circus continues. This case contains numerous examples for economists to use in the classroom: the incentives for competitors to cheat (prisoners dilemma), the incentives of bureaucrats to justify their existence rather than seek the optimal (public choice), and the consequences of setting thresholds for hypothesis testing (the opportunity cost hypothesis rejection cutoffs). There is no way to develop a perfect performance-enhancing (PED) drug testing procedure in any sport. Athletes have every incentive to cheat, and the incentives are not right for monitors. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, but I don’t think the current system is very effective.

I propose that we keep testing, but change the punishment. As a fan, I want to revel in the excitement of the sport in the present rather than wait for results like a high school senior anticipating the arrival of his SAT scores. The cost of using steroids is borne entirely by the participants. (Please, no sob stories about role models.) I don’t face any negative health consequences from PEDs, but the athletes I cheer for do. They ought to be the ones concerned that to succeed they must dope just to keep up with the dopers.

My solution: fine dopers 100% of their winnings and endorsement deals and redistribute the money to athletes who test clean. If you want to dope, go right ahead. And if it brings you glory, you get it. But, the additional fans you bring to the sport and take away from clean athletes, you have to give it all away to the ones you harmed. If you want to play clean, you might lose an edge on the competition, but you are rewarded for staying clean. The results of all of the tests will remain confidential, and the public has no fear that anyone will be stripped of a title. Dopers who win do get fame, but their fortunes will be limited. Garnishing endorsement deals will be difficult to enforce once athletes retire, but the financial payoff from cheating will be much lower than it is now. There is still the problem of labs, but I think they’ll behave better once they are removed from public scrutiny. If a finding is reversed, no one will know they got it wrong in the first place.

How would this work in baseball? This is something I discuss in my book. Basically, I think the players union needs to take charge of drug testing to alleviate the fear that owners will mis-use medical information contained in drug tests (e.g., THC levels), and punish players with fines that will be redistributed to players who test clean.

I’m tired of discussing steroids in sports. I think this solution will allow fans to focus more on the game, knowing that clean athletes are being compensated for their behavior.

11 Responses “My Solution to Doping in Sports”

  1. GRG says:

    Also interesting is the charge that Landis makes saying the USADA wanted him to ‘out’ Lance Armstrong’s PED use in exchange for a lightened penalty:
    http://grg51.typepad.com/steroid_nation/2007/05/landis_accouses.html

  2. dlf says:

    the latest mishaps involves an arbitrator rebuking his fellow arbitrators (you know, those guys who are supposed to objectively decide the case)

    For what its worth … this arbitration panel has one neutral and two party-selected appointees. While called arbitrators, the ones selected solely by one side or the other are largely there as secondary advocates for the side that chose them. From my experience as an arbitrator and before that as an arbitration advocate (generally, but not exclusively in the labor context) when there is a three person panel with only one neutral, it is common for the single neutral to make a ruling on a procedural matter without in depth consultations with the two party-arbitrators. Here, the neutral knows that the decision about whether to allow retesting in France will result in a 2-1 split vote which ever way he chooses; why belabor the discussions.

  3. Nolan says:

    This seems terribly misguided. First, there is absolutely no possible way that you could ever create this system. The auditing element alone would be incredibly complicated. It seems to me that this system is, at least in part, premised on the idea that the reward has to be balanced by a sufficient strong penalty. Why not simplify things by simply increasing the current penalty (in baseball)? First positive test: one year. Second: three years. Third: lifetime ban. Couple that with weekly urine and monthly blood testing. The goal is just to find the appropriate cost such that the cost times the likelihood of detection is equal to or greater than the benefit. I don’t think we need to reinvent the wheel here – just the penalties and the frequency of testing.

    This doesn’t deal with the problem of integrity in the testing system, but neither does JC’s.

  4. Nolan says:

    BTW – I just read the chapter in JC’s book regarding steroids and think the proposal at the end is a good one. My previous comment is as to the idea of of taking endorsement money into account – that would be, in my view, totally impractical.

  5. Marc Schneider says:

    I don’t disagree that the doping police have become Gestapo-like and I agree that if steroids, doping, etc. were simply a matter of personal choice, I wouldn’t care. But it’s not. The reality is that athletes will do whatever they think is necessary to succeed. If you create an environment where athletes think they need to do sterords, they will do it–and it will trickle down to the lower and younger levels. I think to take the pure libertarian approach that it’s their bodies so let them do what they want ignores the reality of how it effects society.

  6. JC says:

    I don’t think I’ve advocated anything close to a libertarian approach. I suggest an alternate punishment, which is pretty severe.

  7. Jake says:

    For the system to work, it needs to be enforceable. Testing will always lag behind the designer PEDs. I agree with punishing cheaters but the current system of random testing for drugs we may not even know exist, is laughable and the player’s know it. It doesn’t matter how high the fines/suspensions go, if a player doesn’t think he will be caught he will still cheat. The incentives of MLB’s guaranteed contracts work against the system.

  8. Shaun says:

    The problem with PED testing is that there are no test for HGH and there are ways to get around testing positive for certain PED’s.

    Also, if testing were left up to the union, there would be just enough testing to give the appearance that they care about punishing cheaters…nothing more.

    We fans do not care as much about getting PED’s out of baseball as we do seeing entertaining baseball games. Don’t believe me? Why has attendance around the game been as high as ever? Why is demand for the game higher than ever?

  9. JC says:

    HGH is not performance-enhancing.

    Players have every reason to want PEDs out since the relative advantages are negated when everyone uses. Players bear the health consequences of use and ought to prefer a world without them. Owners have every incentive to encourage their use, since they don’t bear the health consequences.

  10. Marcus Fichtl says:

    Assuming we have an egalitarian players union that punishes equally, why would PED users stay in the union? However, if the union can punish non-union members wouldn’t we fall into the same mess we have now with bureaucratic existence justification? Wouldn’t this also create an incentive for the union to over regulate non-members since they contribute little financially to the union (jersey sales, dues)?*

    More likely though the union won’t operate in an egalitarian manner and we’ll see a lot of at margin players get caught and punished. While top tier PED users will be punished less as their financial benefit to the union will outweigh the ordeal of stripping someone of a 10 million dollar salary.

    I actually think this punishment system would work great in individualistic sports where the athletes salaries come from prizes based on present performance/value, because we can directly correlate PED use to performance and reward. But in a sport where salaries are based on projected value, can we fairly punish someone for doing something that affects present value? Any net gain from steroids then goes to the owners and the player won’t see most of their gains until the next contract cycle–You could argue that their projected value salaries were influenced but then you would have to prove past steroid use, which is almost impossible.

    *Maybe scaring people into the union, while a bit unfair, would remedy some of the aforementioned problems.

  11. GRG says:

    There are several issues:

    1. There are plenty of conflicts:
    – traditional fans, and sports-entertainment fans; traditional fans don’t want records challenged by PED-users while sports-entertainment fans don’t care. They want freakish athletes (as with the WWF) for fun and show
    – scientists, who will look at HGH (as above) and say it doesn’t enhance performance; and street users who think that in street doses, combined with T4 and Insulin HGH is pretty darn anabolic

    2. Performance enhancement is an issue much larger than baseball or sports; it might be one of ‘the issues’ of this millennium in medicine, entertainment, work, sports, etc. The fights this summer about sports PEDs are simply the sports wing of the entire ‘cyborg-human-science-technology’ controversy