How Baseball Drug Testing Works


Mark McGwire admitted to steroid use while playing Major League ball and during the time he broke the home run record. See more sports pictures.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

In 1998, as St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire was closing in on Roger Maris' 37-year-old home run record, an Associated Press article noted that on the top shelf of McGwire's locker, he kept a little brown bottle with a big, hard-to-pronounce name on the label. It contained Androstenedione -- a "steroid precursor" substance that the body converts into the muscle-building hormone testosterone -- so that he could hit the ball farther and harder. McGwire didn't see anything wrong with that. "Everybody that I know in the game of baseball uses the same stuff that I use," he told the AP [source: Associated Press, FDA].

Unfortunately, McGwire was right. A 2007 investigation conducted on behalf of Major League Baseball by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell found evidence that players were using muscle-building drugs as far back as the late 1980s [source: Mitchell Report]. By the early 2000s, the use of performance-enhancing drugs -- including anabolic steroids, which directly induce muscle growth -- had cast such a shadow on baseball's integrity that the sport was investigated both by Congress and a federal grand jury, which called 10 players to testify [sources: Bloom, MLB.com]. One player, career home-run leader Barry Bonds, was convicted years later of obstruction for lying to the grand jury about his drug use [source: ESPN.com]. Former Oakland Athletics star Jose Canseco noted in a tell-all book, "The challenge is to find a top player who hasn't [used steroids]" [source: Canseco]. Indeed, in a poll of 568 major league players, 79 percent said they believed that drugs played at least some role in recent record-breaking performances [source: Jenkins]. In 2003, fans were shocked when Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler collapsed on the field and died after taking ephedra, a stimulant [source: Jenkins].

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That's why, in 2004, after many years of denial and feet-dragging, the major leagues began random testing of players for certain banned performance-enhancing substances, with penalties for those caught trying to get an unfair chemical edge [source: Bloom]. It's a system that some hope will lead to a drug-free sport. But others warn that more recent fiascoes -- such as a June 2012 labor arbitrator's decision that overturned the 50-game suspension of Milwaukee Brewers star Ryan Braun because of botched drug testing -- demonstrate that baseball's anti-drug program remains deeply flawed [source: ESPN.com].

Baseball: Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program

On April 13, 2011, former Major League Baseball player Barry Bonds was found guilty of obstruction of justice for lying about his use of performance-enhancing drugs.
On April 13, 2011, former Major League Baseball player Barry Bonds was found guilty of obstruction of justice for lying about his use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

As growing revelations of performance-enhancing drug use battered baseball's public image in the early 2000s, MLB commissioner Bud Selig had little power to do much about the problem. Though athletes' use of steroids was already banned by federal law, MLB's labor agreement only allowed drug testing when officials had strong evidence that a player was dirty. But finally, in August 2002, Selig and the players' union worked out a deal to create the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. In the following 2003 season, players arriving at spring training were for the first time subjected to "survey" testing to determine the extent of illicit drug use. Violators weren't punished, but the results were disturbing: Five to seven percent of 1,438 tests were positive. Armed with hard evidence that detection and enforcement was necessary, baseball officials set in motion mandatory random testing for the 2004 season, with possible penalties attached [source: MLB.com].

With a few modifications, such as stiffer penalties, that basic system has been in place ever since. Every player is tested during spring training, and once the season begins, additional unannounced tests are conducted of randomly selected players. Both urine and blood samples are taken, since various drugs show up in different places. Players also can be selected for testing if teams or MLB learns of evidence they may be using banned substances [source: MLBplayers.mlb.com].

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Unlike players caught using recreational drugs like cocaine or Ecstasy, who are diverted into a confidential treatment program and allowed to keep drawing their salaries, athletes caught using most performance-enhancing drugs are hit immediately with tough penalties. A first offense earns them a 50-game suspension without pay, and a second bite of the apple puts them in civilian clothes for 100 games. A three-time loser gets a "permanent" suspension, which in baseball means he can apply to the commissioner for reinstatement after two seasons. Use of illegal stimulants like ephedra get lesser penalties -- a warning and follow-up testing for a first offense, a 25-game penalty for a second infraction, 80 games for a third failed test, and ultimately, indefinite suspension for a fourth offense [source: MLBplayers.mlb.com].

Baseball: Health Policy Advisory Committee

From the start, baseball has had a tough time establishing and operating a drug testing program. Like most other big-time professional sports, there's a delicate balance of power between the players' union and the MLB commissioner, who really represents the interests of the team owners. Initially, at least some of the players thought that allowing drug testing would put them under the MLB's thumb, and some even made noises about folding their arms and refusing to comply [source: MLB.com]. Fortunately for the sport, that didn't happen. But the tension did lead to an uneasy, awkward compromise, in which control of the program was given to a group called the Health Policy Advisory Committee, composed of both player representatives and baseball management.

But Congress and other critics thought that setup was too weak and pushed for drug testing authority to be turned over to an outside group such as the World Anti-Doping Agency, the organization that enforces antidrug policies in track and field and other Olympic sports. However, neither the MLB nor the players were willing to go quite that far. Instead, in 2008, they agreed to disband the HPAC and transfer its authority to the Independent Program Administrator (IPA), an official that they jointly appoint for a three-year term, and who can only be removed by an outside arbitrator [source: Associated Press]. In June 2012, Jeffrey M. Anderson, M.D., the longtime director of sports medicine and head team physician at the University of Connecticut, was appointed at IPA. At that time, Anderson also served as chairman of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports [source: Meisel].

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Baseball: Prohibited Substances

Baseball players are prohibited from taking any sort of muscle-building or performance-enhancing drug considered a controlled substance under federal law. That includes at least 70 different chemicals, most with complicated names that would be unrecognizable to anyone but a chemist. They range from steroids and precursors, such as the androstenedione that Mark McGwire took, to synthetic versions of substances that naturally occur in the human body, such as human growth hormone (HGH) and insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) [source: MLBplayers.mlb.com].

Additionally, players are banned from using 56 different stimulants -- most of which, again, are chemicals you've probably never heard of. One recognizable name that does jump out is ephedrine, the chemical in the once-popular supplement ephedra. The latter caused the death of Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler in 2004, and was banned from sale by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the following year [sources: MLBplayers.mlb.com, FDA.gov].

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In addition to muscle-building steroids and illegal stimulants, players also are required to stay away from "drugs of abuse," which generally are the same ones considered controlled substances under federal drug laws, including the following [source: MLBplayers.mlb.com]:

  • Natural cannabinoids -- i.e. marijuana, hashish and any extract containing THC, the mind-altering chemical in those drugs.
  • Various forms of synthetic cannabinoids, including illicit drugs such as K2 and Spice.
  • Cocaine
  • LSD
  • Opiates such as oxycodone, heroin, codeine and morphine
  • MDMA, also known as Ecstasy
  • PCP, also known as angel dust
  • GBH, also known as liquid ecstasy, a drug that causes euphoria and disorientation.

Baseball: Drug Testing Procedures

Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers challenged the results of a drug test and was able to overturn his suspension.
Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers challenged the results of a drug test and was able to overturn his suspension.
Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

Under a 2005 agreement between MLB and the players' union, every player is now tested twice during each baseball season, and in addition there are an unlimited number of random tests. The actual testing regimen -- scheduling the tests, supervision of the sample collection, to transportation of samples to a lab certified by the World Anti-Doping Association, oversight of the lab work, and reporting of positives to the MLB and players' union -- is handled by Independent Program Administrator [source: MLBplayers.mlb.com].

The MLB also bans amphetamines and amphetamine-like stimulants, but doesn't go after them with quite the same rigor as steroids, possibly because the latter have done more damage to the sport's reputation. Players aren't subjected to mandatory annual tests, but the IPA still has sweeping power to test anybody, anytime, without needing prior evidence of a possible violation [source: MLBplayers.mlb.com].

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While hardly anyone argues with the justification for drug testing anymore, there's plenty of criticism of how baseball actually does the testing. Rather than turn the process over to a completely separate organization, as the International Olympic Committee does, MLB sends its own staff to the ballpark to handle and transport urine and blood samples. A brouhaha involving Milwaukee Brewers player Ryan Braun, the reigning National League MVP, highlighted these problems. After a staffer collected Braun's urine sample in October 2011, he reportedly took it home with him and stored it in his refrigerator before shipping it to a laboratory. After the test came back positive, Braun was able to get his automatic 50-day suspension overturned by an arbitrator in February 2012, on the basis that the long delay had compromised the results. It was the first time that baseball's drug testing system had been challenged successfully, and it may have opened the door for other players to contest the process as well [source: Belson and Schmidt].

Baseball: Discipline for Drug Usage

Since performance-enhancing drug testing began in earnest in 2004, the penalties for violating the rules have been stiffened. A flunked steroid test triggers an automatic 50-game suspension without pay. A second positive test results in a 100-game ban, and strike three results in a lifetime ban, with the player having the right to seek reinstatement after two years, and to seek arbitration if he's turned down. If a player is actually caught by law enforcement officials and convicted of having illegal steroids in his possession, the punishment is even tougher -- a 60-to-80-game suspension for the first offense, with up to a one-year ban for the second strike, with the third strike triggering the same lifetime penalty as a failed test. A conviction for distribution -- i.e. giving or selling steroids to other players -- will earn a player an automatic 80-to-100-game ban for the first offense, and a lifetime ban the second time around. That's in addition to whatever prison term a player might receive from the courts [source: MLBplayers.mlb.com].

The penalties for using amphetamines and other banned stimulants are considerably less severe. A player who tests positive for speed gets off with just a warning and mandatory follow-up testing, and a second positive earns him just a 25-game suspension. A third offense takes him out of uniform for 80 games, and it takes a fourth offense before the Commissioner can impose harsher penalties, up to and including a lifetime ban. The possession penalties are similarly lighter than steroids, though the ones for stimulant distribution are comparable [source: MLBplayers.mlb.com].

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Author's Note

I've never been that huge of a baseball fan, I admit, so I probably wasn't as shocked as some real devotees of the game when the first revelations of players using steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs began to emerge a few decades ago. I do have some sense, however, of how much damage these drugs can do -- not just to the integrity of the sport, but to the athletes themselves. Back when I started my journalism career in the early 1980s, I was doing an interview with someone at the Pittsburgh Steelers' training facility when offensive lineman Steve Courson happened to walk into the room. He looked shorter than his listed height of just more than 6 feet, but his torso was so thickly muscled that he looked like a comic book superhero. I couldn't help but notice that for such a robust physical specimen, his breathing seemed to be oddly labored. I thought maybe he had a bad cold. Years later, though, it emerged that Courson had a serious heart condition that he believed was caused by abusing bodybuilding drugs. To his great credit, Courson -- who died in 2005 in a tragic tree-cutting accident -- eventually not only voluntarily went public with his own steroid use, but became an eloquent spokesman about the dangers of performance-enhancing drugs. Perhaps baseball needs its own Steve Courson to help clean up its act.

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