We all face competition as we strive for success in our careers, but few face anything close to the challenge of succeeding in professional athletics. According to the NCAA, about 1 percent of high school baseball players will play professionally. Facing such long odds, it's not hard to understand why so many young men turn to performance-enhancing drugs.
Different sources say different things about the effectiveness and danger of steroid use, but recently the most prominent examples send a clear message: steroids work. In the past few months, leaked grand jury testimony and personal admissions revealed that Jason Giambi (whose current contract is worth $120 million), Gary Sheffield (who finished second in MVP voting) and Barry Bonds (the likely all-time home run king) have used illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Of course, not every player that uses the drugs is successful, and not every successful player uses drugs, but those who do gain an advantage over those who don't.
There is not a young baseball player in America that would turn down the career success of one of the aforementioned superstars. So the question is: why on earth would a high school or college baseball player choose not to start using steroids? Health risks aside, the answer is supposed to be that using steroids can end your career if you are caught breaking the rules. Baseball, however, has continually failed to provide real consequences for drug use, and the new rules it announced last week aren't much better.
Under the new policy, players caught using performance-enhancing drugs will be suspended for 10 days. Not for a year, not for life, but for 10 whole days. Drug-using players who do not learn their lesson will be suspended for 30 days for a second offense and 60 days after being caught a third time. This year's major league season will span 182 days. That means someone could start the season on steroids, get caught, serve his suspension, use steroids again, get caught, serve his suspension, use steroids a third time, get caught, serve his third suspension and still participate in the playoffs.
Why such lenient rules? The answer is simple: No one actually expects this new policy to stop players from using steroids. If the goal was to actually stop drug use, baseball could adopt the Olympic standard, which deals out a two-year suspension for the first offense. If players were forced to risk their careers in order to use performance-enhancing drugs, their decision would be much harder; and few, if any, players would actually go through with it. Major league players who use drugs today, however, only risk missing 10 days, or 5 percent of their season.
This brings us back to the young player deciding whether or not to use steroids. While the minor league drug-testing standards are slightly better with a 15-day suspension for first-time offenders, any would-be major leaguer has every reason to believe that many of the athletes he is competing against are using performance-enhancing drugs. If these young men face a 1 percent chance of a professional career, and drug use continues throughout baseball, then who can blame them for turning to a tube to improve their chances?
Many will argue that athletes should refuse to use drugs because it is the right thing to do or because drugs like steroids are illegal. Any athlete who actually stays clean for those reasons deserves the highest praise. Unfortunately, he also puts his career on the line. By refusing to create a real disincentive for drug use and allowing the practice to continue, baseball has given the users a competitive advantage over the non-users. While it is easy to stand on the sideline and say, "It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game," that's not what makes a successful baseball career.
Players are faced with a choice: perform or go home. Until Major League Baseball does more to protect the non-users than the users, it's hard to blame the young man who chooses to follow in the footsteps of Giambi, Sheffield and Bonds. It's good to see baseball adopt a stricter policy on steroids, but this one falls far short.
Matt Gray is a second-year law student. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.