Over the past year, I have written several blog posts about the lack of performance-enhancing properties of human growth hormone. I have not participated in any research on the subject, nor am I even remotely qualified to conduct such studies. Instead, I have relied upon experts in the field, who are in near-unanimous agreement that human growth hormone has little to no impact on athletic performance. Despite the academic consensus, the media has reported on the use of growth hormone by athletes in many sports without investigating the science. I have scolded the media enough—this is not the main point of this post—now, I wish to suggest a policy change to help rid baseball of this product.
The Mitchell Report identifies several players who allegedly purchased and used growth hormone, and it notes that players are moving to the drug from steroids because of the difficulty in detecting its use. Currently, there exists no urine test capable of detecting growth hormone. The popularity of the drug despite its benign performance effects is a paradox. Why do players spend large sums of money, while risking their health and player eligibility, to use a substance that does nothing? This is like sneaking near-beer into a high school prom, without the comedy.
Consider the story of Larry Bigbie, a marginal major league player who reports that he began using steroids during his 2001 rookie season. To Bigbie, it was easy to find a justification to use: it was a “make or break” year, he needed recover from injury to “finish the season strong,” he wanted to “jump-start” his off-season training. I’m sure he has no problem identifying with Michael Corleone—“Just when I thought that I was out they pull me back in.” When random drug testing began in 2004, Bigbie was worried. He was on the hard stuff, and there was a good chance he would fail a test if he kept up his current regimen. Though he originally rejected using growth hormone out of the fear of potential side effects, his desire to remain in the big leagues forced him to switch over to the undetectable substance.
According to the Mitchell Report, “Bigbie did not believe that he was seeing a benefit from using human growth hormone that was comparable to the effects he had seen with steroids” (p. 157). Yet, Bigbie reports buying “five or six kits” from Kirk Rodamski in 2004 and 2005. After being traded to the Cardinals prior to the 2006 season, he contacted Radomski to order more growth hormone “to prepare for spring training.” At this point, the Rodomski was already working with the feds, so Bigbie never got his drugs and also ended up cooperating with the government. This tale is so sad, because we have a player who is using a substance that he thinks is dangerous, and he doesn’t even think it works! We only know about Bigbie because he got caught, but I’m sure that his story is similar to many other players’ experiences.
The point is that players have a strong incentive to gain an edge on each other. This road will inevitably lead many of them to seek out illicit solutions in an area where the experts are the guys who sell the stuff. And when they investigate further, they find prominent sports reporters declaring that HGH is just as effective as steroids. Do you think players are going to search through the scientific literature on PubMed? Heck, if I didn’t share an office suite with exercise physiologists, I probably wouldn’t know any better.
At the end of the day, players are going to take a long hard look at the list of prohibited substances. The fact that these drugs are banned will be sufficient to convince most players that the performance-enhancing benefits are real. The desperation felt by players may cause them to behave like the citizens of Springfield when they were beseiged by the Osaka flu.
Crowd: We need a cure! We need a cure!
Hibbert: Ho ho ho. Why, the only cure is bedrest. Anything I give you would be a placebo.
Woman: [frantic] Where can we get these placebos?
The crowd overturn a truck in search of placebos, but alas the only thing inside is a crate of killer bees.
But human growth hormone isn’t benign. It’s side effects are real and dangerous. The problem is that now that everyone thinks it works, players are driven to take it only to experience the harmful effects. Baseball has a responsibility to get the drug out of the game for the sake of the players.
In order to reduce the use of human growth hormone in baseball, I suggest a two-part plan.
First, the league must educate players about the scientific evidence regarding human growth hormone. Bring in doctors and medical researchers—not league or team officials—to talk to trainers and players. Make up simple pamphlets that show a scorecard of the number of studies showing the performance benefits versus the ones that don’t—it will be an obvious blowout. Explain to these guys that they have been duped. Give players a chance to discuss this with the doctors in confidence, as well as holding public sessions to which the media are invited. Union officials need to be involved, too.
The second and most important step is to pull human growth hormone off its list of banned substances. This sends a credible signal about the efficacy of growth hormone in improving athletic performance. Education alone won’t do it. As a public school student during the “Just Say No!” era, I am well aware that propaganda serves only as comedy to the target audience. As long as human growth hormone remains on the banned list, players are going to assume there is a reason. It is a waste of resources to search for a urine test to remove it from the game. Instead, tell players, “This stuff doesn’t work. If you want to use it, go right ahead and be an idiot. But, don’t complain when you experience pain and swelling and that you have to buy new hats, shoes, and gloves.”
While my libertarian sympathies make it easy for me to suggest legalizing many things, I believe athletic leagues have a strong interest in prohibiting certain performance-enhancing drugs. My desire to legalize human growth hormone has nothing to do with concerns for individual liberty. This is a league safety concern. I feel that legalizing human growth hormone, while publicly explaining the reason for doing so, is simplest and most effective way to discourage players from taking it.