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.