How Prevalent is Drug Use In Professional Sports?
The year was 1998, and U.S. sports fans from coast to coast were fixated on one never-before-seen spectacle: a baseball home run race. Featuring the Chicago Cubs’ right fielder Sammy Sosa and St. Louis Cardinals’ power-hitting first baseman, Mark McGwire, the country watched as, with each game, the two men came closer and closer to breaking Roger Maris’ long-standing home run record. With a whopping 61 homers in a single season, no one from any team had come within striking distance of his illustrious feat – until now.
With each game, the counts grew higher. McGwire finally claimed the record on September 8th, 1998, as he hit his 62nd slam. By season’s end, the two men hit a collective 136 home runs: 70 for McGwire and 66 for Sosa. Through it all, as fans observed in disbelief, both McGwire and Sosa repeatedly stated that steroids weren’t a factor.
As was to be expected, Sosa and McGwire were both taking steroids during the summer of ’98. Despite claiming otherwise to reporters, fans, and a Congressional committee during a hearing on steroid use, McGwire confessed in 2010. Sosa has still never spoken publicly on the accusations against him and claimed not to understand the questions when interviewed at the same Congressional hearing, but has been linked to illegal steroid use in the Mitchell Report and other sources.
Three years later, their efforts were left in vain: Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants seized the record in 2001 with 73 total home runs. He, too, was accused of using steroids, although his record still stands. He admitted in an interview to taking supplements, but claimed he did not know that the substances he was using were considered illegal steroids.
Lance Armstrong. Alex Rodriguez. Jose Canseco. Manny Ramirez. Marion Jones. Andre Agassi. Every year, numerous high profile athletes fail steroid and banned substances tests, making drug use in sports more normalized than shocking. When role models and celebrities are revealed to be cheating, lying, or scheming to get ahead, it’s often hard to tell what’s right and what’s wrong.
In many ways, drug use is a part of the culture of athletics. With the pressure on professionals to perform and the high paying contracts that often accompany success on the field, on the court, in the pool, or on the track, substance abuse borders on understandable, even if not acceptable. Every year, new tests to combat abuse emerge, and every year, new substances designed to evade tests appear. As long as athletes see the gains in drug use outweighing the losses, it’s unlikely these trends will see an end in the near future.
The History of Drug Use in Sports
Despite the media attention today’s athletes receive when they choose to supplement exercise and a healthy diet with steroid use, these trends are anything but new. Performance-enhancing drugs date back thousands of years to the Ancient Greeks in the earliest of Olympic competitions. In fact, the modern slang “doping” stems from the Dutch word “doop,” a viscous opium juice that was favored starting in the 700s BCE.
In 100 CE, the Roman Gladiators took cues from their predecessors, utilizing stimulants and hallucinogenics to stay alert, awake, and to increase the intensity of their fights. Centuries later, in the 19th century, lacrosse players did roughly the same with wine and coca leaves, using this dangerous mix to stave off fatigue and hunger.
The trend of drugs in the modern Olympics started relatively early, with 1904 marathon runner Thomas Hicks utilizing a mixture of brandy and strychnine to enhance his performance. Instead, he almost died. His teammates and competitors did the same, however, using custom-made mixtures of strychnine, heroin, cocaine, and caffeine – a practice that continued until heroin and cocaine became prescription-only medications in the 1920s.
The first anti-doping rule was passed in 1928; prior to this time, there were no rules against using drugs to enhance natural abilities. This regulation, enacted by The International Association of Athletics Federation, was the first of its kind, banning track and field athletes from using drugs or steroids.
World War II saw progress in the field of steroid use and development, although not in a positive manner. The Nazis, as a part of their horrific human experiments, studied the effects of steroids on the body while looking for a way to increase their military abilities. Allied forces tried the same approach: American, British, German, and Japanese soldiers took amphetamines while on the battlefield to minimize fatigue, elevate mood, and heighten endurance.
This trend on the front lines translated to the fields after the war came to an end. After observing the abilities of soldiers, athletes in the 1950s and 60s began to follow suit, utilizing amphetamines nicknamed “la bomba” to stay alert and focused while exercising. The use of amphetamines translated to the development of anabolic steroids by Dr. John Bosley Ziegler in 1954, a remarkable endeavor that led to approved doping in weightlifters. Despite his successes, Dr. Ziegler stated regret for his inventions later in life.
The 1960s saw the ugly side of doping, with Danish cyclist Knut Jensen dying in competition in the time trials for the 1960 Olympics. British cyclist Tommy Simpson followed 7 years later in 1967 when he died during the Tour de France. These tragic events led to the development of the International Olympic Committee’s Medical Commission to fight against steroids, and the subsequent policy of drug testing that took effect at the next Games in 1968. Despite known use, tests did not include a measure against anabolic steroids and were, overall, quite limited in nature. Swedish pentathlon competitor Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall was the first victim of the tests and was subsequently stripped of his bronze medal.
The 1972 Games saw a comprehensive approach to testing, looking for the presence of narcotics and stimulants. In 1975, anabolic steroids were added to the list of banned substances, with initial tests occurring at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. 11 athletes tested positive. While testing began at the Olympics, it didn’t end there; surprise testing at the 1983 Pan-Am Games in Caracas, Venezuela saw numerous athletes, including over a dozen Americans, drop out without explanation.
The fight against drugs took to a federal level with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988. Signed by President Reagan, this act outlawed the sale of steroids for non-medical purposes, with special penalties applying for those selling to kids or near schools. New legislation followed the next year, with the Anabolic Steroids Control Act of 1990.
After the rash of legislation in the late 1980s and early 1990s, most major sports followed suit, with policies implemented in baseball, football, golf, swimming, and more. Today, these laws are stricter than ever, but it has done little to curb the presence of doping across the athletic disciplines.
Athletes in Popular Culture
In today’s pop culture, athletes are akin to modern-day superheroes. Idols for young children, teens, and adults alike, the superstars on the court are often seen as the pinnacle of achievement and ambition.
In many ways, this isn’t fundamentally a bad thing. Most famous athletes demonstrate dedication, hard work, and commitment to life goals, providing solid role models for young people in need of direction. However, in other ways, using sports stars as idols doesn’t always make the right statement. From adultery and spousal abuse to drug use both on and off the field, the messages sent by pro athletes aren’t necessarily so positive.
The influence of athletes is pronounced, whether for better or for worse. One study found that over 70% of children list athletes among the most admired people in their lives, second only to their parents (92%). This stat is incredibly significant – it demonstrates just how critical the role athletes play can be in the eyes of those young and impressionable.
The same study also asked children what they learned from athletes. The lessons were largely positive – most surveyed stated that they learned sportsmanship and the value of hard work from their idols – but not all gained worthy insights. Unfortunately, 20% indicated that they observed that sex doesn’t carry consequences, while 16% stated that athletes show that it’s okay to use drugs and alcohol.
Some athletes enjoy being in the limelight, but others aren’t so pleased by the attention. NBA player and commentator Charles Barkley spoke out about this phenomenon, stating that he’s not paid to be a role model and that children should look up to their parents, not sports stars on TV. While this is sound advice, it’s not going to stop children, teens, and young adults from learning lessons from the actions of their heroes.
The Media and Drug Scandals
The media plays a huge role in athletics, documenting everything from flubs and fumbles to career-changing achievements. The highs and the lows are intoxicating for sports fans, many of whom follow every word in their favorite publications and media programs, like Sports Illustrated, SportsCenter, ESPN, and even apps like Bleacher Report. When trades occur, new stats are published, and records are set, fans are always watching, reading, and discussing the latest information. This, of course, includes doping charges.
While sports news is everywhere, doping news is often underplayed. Scandals are embraced for a few days or maybe even a few weeks, but the news of big wins and devastating losses lives on.
Take, for example, Marion Jones. The star of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Jones blew her competition away, taking the gold in the 100-meter sprint, the 200-meter sprint and the 4 x 400 relay, and bronze in the long jump and 4 x 100 relay. With so many wins, she was seen as one of the heroes of the Games, exceeding expectations and capturing the hearts of fans around the world. Despite accusations of doping, she maintained her innocence vehemently, and even blamed her ex-husband’s positive steroid tests for the deterioration of their marriage in 2002.
As is no real surprise, Jones had been lying. In 2007, she came clean, confessing to the use of steroids in 2000. She was subsequently stripped of all of her medals, as were her relay teammates. The other women managed to appeal their rulings and had the decision overturned in 2010, allowing them to keep their status. The news was shocking in the Olympics community – but, oddly enough, few other areas. While millions of Americans remember Jones’ big wins, far fewer know about her fall from grace.
Why Winning Matters
The reasons for the intense focus on winning and the brief mentions of doping may happen for a number of reasons. Primarily, good news sells itself. It spreads faster on social media and fans are far more eager to talk about wins than losses. Wins inspire adoration and faith in a team, while losing promotes negativity and disdain. Doping also paints athletes in a bad light, turning away fans and compromising the number of people who may follow news or watch sporting events, consequently hurting revenue for sports media outlets.
Additionally, many doping stories come to light months or even years later. Take Jones, for example. She won in 2000, but her medals were stripped in 2007. After seven years, few people associate her wins with her scandal, but most still remember the American runner who swept the golds. Lance Armstrong’s story is similar: he won races throughout the 1990s and 2000s, including his Tour de France successes, but he didn’t come clean about steroid use until 2013.
While Armstrong’s story is extremely well-known, many others aren’t. In these moments, winning still comes first, with doping, cheating, and lying as a vague afterthought.
The Consequences for Doping
Country to country and sport by sport, the penalties for drug use vary wildly. In some cases, punishment is as minor as a slap on the wrist – a small fine, or a few days of forced vacation – while others are extremely serious, like lifetime bans from national or international competition.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, or USADA, maintains records of sanctions imposed against athletes for connection to steroid use, as dictated by their international federation or the USOC Anti-Doping Policies. As of November 2017, the list includes 564 entries dating back to May of 2001. Listing the athlete’s name, his sport, his drug of choice, and his punishment, this list provides an intriguing view into the realities of doping scandals in the U.S.
The most popular sport for sanctions is track and field with 134 entries, followed by cycling with 133. Weightlifting comes in third with 57, while UFC is fourth with 36. The most common punishment – a two-year suspension – appears 75 times, while the second most common, a public warning, is used 46 times.
On a national level, especially for sports that do not have a significant presence, it’s much more challenging to track punishments, bans, suspensions, and other consequences that bar athletes from participation. The lists compiled by the USADA largely relate to international competition; national bodies sanction when necessary, but do not necessarily publish the results.
The Olympics is a zero tolerance organization for doping, with harsh penalties that include disqualification and removal of any medals won, if drug use was detected after the fact. Since 1968, 138 medals have been stripped from athletes for doping. Russia is the largest offender, losing 39 total metals, nine of them gold.
Tolerance by League
In the wide world of sports, some governing bodies are stricter than others. While some sports impose vague penalties on a case by case basis, others enact lifetime bans.
National Football League
The NFL is known for its lax rules on doping. Unlike other sports, which maintain strict policies, the NFL largely deals in suspensions and fines. However, many substances are banned and testing is performed on a semi-regular basis. Rules are available through the NFL Players Association.
A standard panel includes:
- Benzoylecgonine (cocaine)
- Delta 9-THC-carboxylic acid (marijuana)
- Synthetic Cannabinoids
- Amphetamine and its analogues
- Opiates (total morphine and codeine)
- Opioids (e.g., hydrocodone, oxycodone)
- Phencyclidine (PCP)
- Methylenedioxymethamphetamine and its analogues
Major League Baseball
Baseball rules and regulations are stricter than football, but still leave wiggle room for those who choose to skirt the rules. However, penalties for steroid use in particular are rather rigid, with a first offense garnering an 80-day suspension, a second offense requiring a season suspension, and a third offense resulting in a lifetime ban. All players must test at least twice a season.
Tests include recreational drugs, a thorough list of 76 steroids and performance-enhancing aids, 56 stimulants, and 56 diuretics.
National Basketball Association
The NBA has one of the stricter drug policies in professional sports. Players are subject to immediate fines and temporary suspension, but further infractions can lead to a permanent ban. To date, five players have been permanently banned for drug policy infractions.
Tests include abusive drugs, performance-enhancing drugs, marijuana, and diuretics. Unlike other sports, the specifics in these categories are not detailed in the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
National Hockey League
The NHL takes a slightly different approach from its peers, focusing as heavily on recreational drugs as steroid use. Due to a rise in cocaine usage, 2017 marks the first year that will require recreational drug tests from all players rather than a random selection. However, historically, smaller doses may not be subject to harsh penalties, with enrollment in treatment coming first.
United States Olympic Committee
Arguably the strictest body in the U.S., the USOC abides by the rigid rules put in place by the World Anti-Doping Code. As the United States Olympic Committee
National Anti-Doping Policy states, athletes found in violation will have their results invalidated, including forfeiture of any prizes, money, or medals. Further, a ban, either permanently or temporarily, will be put into place. The 2017 list is the most comprehensive to date.
Drug rules aren’t applied simply for traditional athletes. E-sports also come with a list of banned substances stemming from abuse of prescription drugs like Adderall. The Electronic Sporting League maintains strict guidelines and requires anyone who has a legal prescription for ADHD drugs and the like to provide proof before participation. Interestingly, marijuana is fine for recreational use, but is banned on competition days.
Drug Use Today
With the rise in stricter rules – virtually ever major sports league has updated their policies in recent years to crack down on use and enhance the spectrum of covered drugs – there appears to be no slowdown on the use of illicit and illegal substances. In fact, some leagues are seeing notable increases, such as the evidence supporting cocaine use in the NHL. Furthermore, drug use appears to be starting earlier and earlier –in 2009 3.3% of high school students admit to anabolic steroid use, a significant rise over the past ten years.
One study provides numerous explanations for continued use, despite health and career consequences.
- Professional sports are more stressful now than ever before. With social media, web streaming, and smartphone apps, player performance is more visible now than at any point previously.
- Lack of access to mental health professionals who can address outside drivers
- Increased access to drugs with online pharmacies and states with relaxed prescription policies
- Lack of trust in the medical field, especially when coming clean under harsher policies means a higher likelihood of penalty
The practice of “legal doping,” or taking legal drugs with a doctor’s prescription, is still in use as well. While some supplements can be banned regardless, the line becomes murky when it comes to differentiating between medical need and trickery.
While testing is certainly better today than it has been historically, so are the ways in which to get around tests. As long as athletes want to continue to game the system in order to get ahead, drug use in sports will continue to be a serious problem.
Fighting Back Against Abuse
Despite the ongoing presence of drug use in modern sports, there are new testing methods on the horizon that are working to crack down on use.
The MLB, for example, has started using an extremely expensive and highly sophisticated testing method known as Carbon Isotope Mass Spectrometry (IMRS). An evolution from normal opportunities, this test costs $400 per sample and will now be run on at least one sample per player per year. Instead of standard testing options that detect steroid use within 24 hours of testing, this new method can identify use over a two-week span.
More frequent tests are also becoming a factor. For example, in the MLB, players must participate in at least two tests a year, an increase from 1,400 to 3,200 total tests year over year, with an additional 1,200 during spring training and 400 more tests to screen for HGH levels.
After the “serious failings” of the testing procedures at the 2016 Olympics, in which up to 50% of tests had to be aborted, new testing regimens for international events are expecting to see additional enforcement as well. Larger scale running events are also participating in drug testing, raising participant costs in exchange for a fair playing field.
Delayed testing is also an option. With the expectation of developing technology, the IOC preserves athlete samples to be tested again up to eight years later, ensuring athletes are playing by the rules, regardless of modern testing opportunities.
Cheating the Tests
No test is perfect, and that includes drug tests in professional sports. There are a few known ways to defeat a drug test, including:
- Synthetic urine and the use of diuretics prior to a urine test
- Blood transfusions to remove tainted blood while increasing the blood’s oxygen carrying capacity
- Erythropoietin (EPO) to stimulate the production of red blood cells
- Seeking legal alternatives, bypassing rulings related to tested drugs and banned substances lists.
While there’s no true way to beat a drug test irrefutably, athletes will continue to try as much as possible to avoid confessing to a drug habit or risking the consequences of being caught with illegal substances.
Rehabilitation and treatment aren’t only for illegal substances. Steroid use can also necessitate professional assistance, especially when related health issues arise. Please contact The Treatment Center today at (866) 295-6003 to learn more about how you can get the help you deserve. All consultations are confidential.