Purifying Sports: An All-Star Panel
I have a strong interest in sports law. In fact, I have a video blog called “Law and Batting Order” solely devoted to discussing legal issues in sports. So when I found out that there would be an anti-doping panel discussion featuring sports lawyers, big name athletes and sports business professionals, it was a no-brainer. I was in.
On Wednesday, September 4, I headed over to the Grand Central Hyatt Hotel for the event, sponsored by SKINS PureSport, a not-for-profit organization devoted to raising awareness of the dangers of performance-enhancing drugs (PED’s). The event was open to the public, but it seemed that the only attendees were members of the press. In any event, I’m quite sure I was the youngest person in the room, and the only law student.
The panel was moderated by sports and entertainment attorney Darren Heitner, who founded SportsAgentBlog.com and contributes to Forbes.com, and as soon as the discussion began, video cameras began rolling, journalists typed frantically, and SLR cameras clicked away. As a first time LASIS reporter, I listened intently and felt slightly inadequate taking notes on my iPhone 5.
The panelists were terrific: Olympic runner Ben Johnson, famously stripped of his gold medals for testing positive for PED’s at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul; Jaimie Fuller, the International Chairman of SKINS Compression Apparel; Troy Ellerman, a lawyer in the BALCO steroid scandal in 2005; sports psychologist Dr. Stan Teitelbaum; US Olympic sailor and top-ranking CrossFit athlete Anna Tunnicliffe; and former MLB outfielder and designated hitter Jose Canseco, author of “Juiced,” the tell-all 2006 book alleging that a majority of MLB players were using steroids.
The discussion made it very clear that while doping’s been around for a long time, until not that long ago, it wasn’t necessarily illegal. Mr. Canseco said that in 1985, MLB had not yet adopted a drug-testing procedure – there wasn’t even talk about drug testing on the horizon. In fact, he added, PED’s at that time were endorsed by players and trainers alike as a means to help injured players return to the field. Ben Johnson said that his experience confirmed this. Back in the 80s, he said, he knew that the Olympic committee banned these drugs, but when he saw everyone else taking these drugs, he didn’t see why he shouldn’t, too.
The panelists also addressed the progress of drug-testing in Major League Baseball. Mr. Ellerman said that with the BALCO scandal and the release of the Mitchell Report, MLB has made massive strides in drug testing. “I think in the context of sports, you have to approach drug testing with grace, truth, and time,” he told the audience.
But Dr. Teitelbaum took a different approach. While acknowledging that progress has been made, he stressed that testing is not where it should be. “Athletes are being cunning about being ahead of the curve.”
To illustrate this point, the doctor shared a telling statistic. In MLB, in order for an athlete to use amphetamines to treat ADD/ADHD symptoms, the player must have a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) with written permission from three doctors. Without the TUE, the athlete is in violation of MLB’s drug testing policy if found to be using a banned substance. According to Dr. Teitelbaum, in 2006, 28 players had a TUE to use amphetamines. In 2007, the number of TUE’s to use amphetamines increased to 107 players. While these numbers are a bit outdated, Dr. Teitelbaum said the TUE numbers have grown since then, and are growing still.
Mr. Canseco laid some of the blame for the increased use of amphetamines and other PED’s on the sanctioning bodies themselves. “Players have taken huge responsibilities for using steroids. But it’s not just us.” He added that he participated in players association meetings to address the use of marijuana, cocaine, and alcohol in MLB, but these meetings have not discussed steroids. Why? “One reason: money.”
The conversation overall focused on ways to educate young athletes about performance-enhancing drugs. Mr. Johnson feels that the price he had to pay (he was stripped of his Olympic gold medals) can provide a good lesson, and warning, for young athletes. Mr. Canseco shared that he would love to go in locker rooms and educate today’s baseball players, but doesn’t think MLB would ever let that happen.
According to Ms. Tunnicliffe, Olympic athletes today are well-educated about performance-enhancing drugs, and if they choose to use the drugs, these athletes must face the penalties. “You need clean athletes who have reached the top and those who have failed [after using the drugs] and together,” she said, “the message can be made to young athletes that cleanliness and hard work will allow athletes to reach the top.” The problem with her idea, of course, is that we don’t really know who’s clean.
As to what can be done to put an end to PED’s in sports, Mr. Fuller and Mr. Johnson, with the help of SKINS PureSport several ways to help solve the issue of widespread athlete doping. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is a custodian to world sport and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is a custodian for the fight against doping. But WADA is underfunded and lacks the resources to provide sufficient drug testing. Mr. Fuller and Mr. Johnson believe that the IOC must help WADA through funding and by delegating real oversight authority. They also advocate that an athlete support council should be established providing an opportunity, and amnesty, for athletes to come clean to anti-doping agencies about PED use. Whistleblower services and athlete counseling should also be provided.
I was pleased with how the discussion progressed. The existence of an organization like PureSport is a good start in ending doping in sports. While their plans are still tentative and focus more on the Olympic front, they are making every step possible to educate athletes and the public about PED’s. For that, they should be commended.
My hope is that major sports leagues will follow in the footsteps of PureSport and carry out their own initiatives to eradicate PED use. This starts with effectively educating athletes about PED use, from understanding the science of a PED to learning about the potential long-term health hazards that could ensue from doping. Instituting better drug testing procedures may be another solution to the doping problem. Efforts to end doping should be implemented soon. Unfortunately, the fight against PED’s will take time.