Baseball's Drug-Testing Error

A steroid controversy in Major League Baseball has so overshadowed spring training, that Commissioner Bud Selig this week slapped a gag order on the league's 30 teams. Employees are to decline public comment on a federal probe of steroid distribution, or even on performance-enhancing drugs in general.

Of course, baseball has a right to silence on this issue. But considering the serious consequences of steroid use - on health, on the fairness of the game, on kids who look to athletes as role models - more needs to be said, not less.

The furor erupted last month when Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the indictment of four people, including the personal trainer of home-run king Barry Bonds, on charges of steroid distribution. The indictment did not cover any players, but this week the San Francisco Chronicle named three star sluggers (among a handful of others) as alleged recipients of steroids from a Bay Area lab under federal investigation. The three players, including Bonds, deny using steroids.

At the very least, this should prompt a reexamination of baseball's drug-testing requirements, which are about as soft as a dollop of relish.

Major League Baseball adopted its drug-testing regimen belatedly, just two years ago. In every major category - substances covered, times tested, and penalties - it pales in comparison with efforts by other professional sports, as well as in the Olympics.

One of the biggest weaknesses is that major-league players face random tests just once a year (plus a follow-up), and not in the off season. The National Football League conducts preseason, regular- season, and postseason tests. The NFL covers more substances, and a third-time positive test carries a minimum one-year suspension. On the baseball diamond, the same offense results in a 25-game suspension and up to a $25,000 fine. That's concession-stand change to these well-paid athletes.

And yet, stricter drug testing is not the entire answer. Chemical masking agents that hide the presence of drugs, intermittent use, and other methods enable athletes across all sports to outsmart the tests, and so a greater effort needs to be made to improve the sophistication of the tests themselves. The federal government is also right to investigate the distribution channels of performance- enhancing drugs, thus tightening the screws on the entire system.

Baseball has a chance to significantly strengthen drug testing when the current collective bargaining agreement - and its drug rules - expire at the end of 2006. If pressure from "clean" players could speed up that process, so much the better.

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