Column: Is Drug Testing Futile?January 20, 2014

Column: Is Drug Testing Futile?What should not be lost in the drama, rhetoric and legal maneuverings of the Alex Rodriguez saga is the uncontroverted fact that drug testing in sport doesn’t catch all the druggies.

Regardless of whether you think A-Rod was railroaded by MLB Commissioner Bud Selig and the league, got what he deserved, or fall somewhere in between, the testimony – and 60 Minutes interview – of Tony Bosch was eye-opening. Here is a man who is neither a chemist nor a licensed physician and yet was concocting what Travis Tygart, U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO, told the Associated Press was "probably the most potent and sophisticated drug program developed for an athlete that we've ever seen." And yet A-Rod never failed a single drug test administered by MLB’s agents.

Bosch singlehandedly was able to steer his clients unscathed through the gauntlet of MLB’s in-season and out-of-season drug testing, even though baseball has the most stringent drug testing protocols of any North American sports league. And A-Rod wasn’t alone. None of the thirteen players who were suspended as a result of the Biogenesis investigation – the other twelve having agreed to their suspensions without contesting the evidence against them – failed a drug test related to their involvement with Bosch’s clinic. All the suspensions were for non-analytic violations of the Joint Drug Agreement between MLB and the players’ union which authorizes the Commissioner to take disciplinary action for drug related activity other than a failed test.

MLB isn’t alone in failing to catch all drug cheats. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), which adheres to the World Anti-Doping Code (WADA), has a reputation for having the strictest drug testing protocols - and penalties - in all of sport. Athletes are subject to having their blood and urine randomly tested 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. But before anyone gets too warm and fuzzy about how clean Olympic athletes are, keep in mind that Lance Armstrong competed in two Olympics and did not fail a single drug test. Currently, Olympic athletes who test positive can be banned from competition for two years. Under the new WADA Code, which will take effect next year, the ban for athletes who intentionally use performance-enhancing drugs will double, from two years to four. Penalties imposed by professional leagues in the U. S. pale in comparison to those contained in the WADA Code. But unlike the Olympics, our professional leagues are not required to follow the Code. Each league must collectively bargain drug testing protocols and penalties with their players’ association. While professional athletes and leagues are all about money, most countries and their athletes compete in the Olympics for glory and political capital. The motives may differ, but the reality is similar: Competitors aren’t always clean.

Regardless of how stringent the testing protocols may be, Bosch is proof positive that the bad guys will always be one step ahead of the testers. And now that A-Rod’s drug regimen is public, rest assured that more violators will go undetected. As Dr. Gary Wadler, past chairman of WADA’s banned substance committee, asked rhetorically: "How many guys will take [Bosch's] protocols and adopt them? Plenty.” Of course, the testers will pay attention as well. New and better science will lead to new testing protocols. But the next Tony Bosch will simply return to the lab and concoct the next generation of PED cocktails for athlete consumption.

Given these facts, a cynic might ask the following questions: What’s the point of prohibitions against PEDs and drug testing policies if not all users are caught? Why waste the time, money and energy to catch drug users if the cheaters will always be one step ahead of the testers? Are rules against the use of PEDs merely an exercise in tilting at windmills?

Perhaps a couple of comparisons would enlighten our thinking. Countries around the world spend billions of dollars for security and yet acts of terrorism abound. Should we eliminate security spending entirely? Target and other retailers spend millions to protect their customers’ personal information and yet no security system is impenetrable to the savviest hackers. Should companies forego spending for such purposes? Some drivers will always exceed the posted speed limits. Does that mean we should do away with speeding laws?

I know how I would answer those questions. Do you?