Minor Leaguers and PEDs: Another Look


“I did not knowingly take steroids.”

So said disgraced Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, who woke up a slumbering nation with his fist-raised-at-the-finish-line performance one fall day in 1988, taking gold at the Seoul Olympics in the 100m, vanquishing reigning champion Carl Lewis and setting a world record in the process.

Three days later, Johnson was stripped of his medal because of a positive PED test; to a nation, it felt like a collective kick in the gut.  Never mind that six of the eight athletes who lined up with Johnson at the start of that race had positive tests and/or strong links to PEDs themselves over time.  It was a national disgrace, and in the years that have followed, Canadians have had strong reactions to the whole notion of drugs in sport.

In light of the suspension of Blue Jays prospect Thomas Pannone, as well as a number of players connected to their Dominican complex last year, a sampling of several Blue Jays Facebook groups reveals that many members (most, but not all of them Canadian) still adhere to the notion of zero tolerance when it comes to PEDs – throw the cheating bums out, in effect.

But it’s not that simple.

This is not the same situation as it was with Johnson, whose Coach, Charlie Francis, freely admitted that he had given steroids to the sprinter in the Dubbin Inquiry that followed Seoul.  Pannone gave a statement in the aftermath of his January positive test last week:

The Dominican players likely lack the wherewithal to release a statement similar to Pannone’s, but their sentiments would probably be the same.

Chemist/writer Stephanie Stringer, writing in Fangraphs, suggests that these athletes may be guilty of a lack of judgement, brought on by an impulsive desire to see results quickly:

The marketing of dietary supplements is highly dependent upon the timeframe in which a consumer expects to see results. Humans are impatient creatures, and we like to see results fast. When a product markets itself based upon its long-term health benefits, the consumer places a certain amount of uncritical trust into the manufacturer’s claims. There may be clinical research supporting the science behind the products, but long term studies take years to demonstrate long-term health benefits, such as improving heart health or cognitive function………………….There is often inconclusive evidence linking these biomarkers to actual improvements in performance, which is why many sports nutrition studies are based on evaluating any changes in activity or behavior in a subject. This can be subjective, but there are some tangible, quantifiable measures. Fatigue or endurance may be quantified by looking at the distance a subject can travel in the same time period, for example. This benefit may manifest itself as a few more minutes on the treadmill, extra weight on the dumbbell, or an extra repetition in a weight lifting set, all of which are much easier for the consumer to gauge than a general health claim. Thus, for an athlete who might benefit from any slight performance enhancement product as soon as this week’s series of games, dietary supplements are an easy sell.

MLB players receive considerable support when it comes to proper nutrition, including the use of supplements – it’s written right into the MLB Labour Agreement.  Minor Leaguers are not covered by that agreement, and while teams would argue that they do their best to educate their prospects (they’re encouraged to speak to their team’s trainer if they’re not sure about what they’re considering taking), but it’s obvious from the number of suspensions handed out – 16 already this year, 87 last year – that the education the players are receiving is substandard.  Another possibility is that many minor leaguers can’t afford supplements that are on the NSF “Certified for Sport” list, and that’s where they’re rolling the dice:

Despite all of the claims supplements may make regarding improving one’s health and well being, there is very little regulatory oversight regarding the safety or efficacy of supplements. The Food and Drug Administration does not regulate supplements for efficacy, purity, contaminants, or safety. While drugs fall within the purview of the FDA, dietary supplements are not subject to the same regulations. They are regulated under the 1994 Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act, which the dietary supplement industry had a hand in creating. The act specifically forbids the FDA from requiring that dietary supplements must be effective, or even safe. Thus, the products that you find on the shelves of your local drugstore or mass market retailer may not have been tested for contaminants or adulterants.

While it’s not acceptable to use PEDs, it’s understandable why most athletes would seek to gain an advantage by using supplements.  Jim Bouton wrote almost 40 years ago in his epic Ball Four, “If there was a pill that could guarantee you win 20 games, but it would take five years off your life, players would take it.”  Viewed as undersized, it’s easy to understand why Pannone wanted a few extra minutes on the treadmill, or several more reps in the weight room.  For Dominican players fighting to play stateside, trying to escape a life of poverty, it’s even easier to understand:  if someone was taking a supplement and the results were obvious, many players would be tempted to try it just to keep pace.

This is not to exonerate Pannone and the Dominican players suspended for PEDs.  They still have the responsibility for everything they put into their bodies.  It is a request that the Blue Jays take a closer look at the level of education their minor leaguers receive in this area.   No doubt they have taken the right steps – I hope to learn more from Gil Kim next month.  But this is a systemic issue that all clubs need to take a closer look at.


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