September 18, 2020

Enforceability and Steroids

Regular readers know that I am often skeptical about whether technology regulations can really be enforced. Often, a regulation that would make sense if it were (magically) enforceable, turns out to be a bad idea when coupled with a realistic enforcement strategy. A good illustrative example of this issue arises in Major League Baseball’s new anti-steroids program, as pointed out by David Pinto.

The program bars players from taking anabolic steroids, and imposes mandatory random testing, with serious public sanctions for players who test positive. A program like this helps the players, by eliminating the competitive pressure to take drugs that boost on-the-field performance but damage users’ health. Players are better off in a world where nobody takes steroids than in one where everybody does. But this is only true if drug tests can accurately tell who is taking steroids.

A common blood test for steroids measures T/E, the ratio of testosterone (T) to epitestosterone (E). T promotes the growth and regeneration of muscle, which is why steroids provide a competitive advantage. The body naturally makes E, and later converts it into T. Steroids are converted directly into T. So, all else being equal, a steroid user will have higher T/E ratio than a non-user. But of course all else isn’t equal. Some people naturally have higher T/E ratios than others.

The testing protocol will set some threshold level of T/E, above which the player will be said to have tested positive for steroids. What should the threshold be? An average value of T/E is about 1.0. About 1% of men naturally have T/E of 6.0 or above, so setting the threshold at that level would falsely accuse about 1% of major leaguers. (Or maybe more – if T makes you a better baseball player, then top players are likely to have unusually high natural levels of T.) That’s a pretty large number of false accusations, when you consider that these players will be punished, and publicly branded as steroid users. Even worse, nearly half of steroid users have T/E of less than 6.0, so setting the threshold there will give a violator a significant chance of evading detection. That may be enough incentive for a marginal player to risk taking steroids.

(Of course it’s possible to redo the test before accusing a player. But retesting only helps if the first test mismeasured the player’s true T/E level. If an innocent player’s T/E is naturally higher than 6.0, retesting will only seem to confirm the accusation.)

We can raise or lower the threshold for accusation, thereby trading off false positives (non-users punished) against false negatives (steroid users unpunished). But it may not be possible to have an acceptable false positive rate and an acceptable false negative rate at the same time. Worse yet, “strength consultants” may help players test themselves and develop their own customized drug regimens, to gain the advantages of steroids while evading detection by the official tests.

Taking these issues into account, it’s not at all clear that a steroid program helps the players. If many players can get away with using steroids, and some who don’t use are punished anyway, the program may actually be a lose-lose proposition for the players.

Are there better tests? Will a combination of multiple tests be more accurate? What tests will Baseball use? I don’t know. But I do know that these are the key questions to answer in evaluating Baseball’s steroids program. It’s not just a question of whether you oppose steroid use.


  1. Thanks very much for the link!

  2. Grant Gould says:

    Why not ban the natural 6.0s anyway? They were after all getting a competitive advantage from their abnormal chemical numbers, and it’s hardly fair to let them in but not let other players try to catch up.

    Of course, that’s a devil’s-advocate position. But I think it’s a hard one to avoid. Drugs-testing in sports needs a clearer statement of its purpose, separate from the essentially ideological terms of “performance-enhancing drugs” and “medical necessity” that determine permissable sporting drug use today.

    I worry that, as with DRM, drugs-testing is essentially an attempt to find a technical solution to an undefined problem.

  3. David Harmon says:

    Much of the problem comes from looking for a “magic wand”, when a more sophisticated approach is needed. For example: You could record a “baseline value” (so to speak 🙂 ) of T and E for each player, and if that T number later jump anomalously, then the player gets called back for a more thorough examination, *not* just a repeat of the same test. But of course, then you have trouble with those pre-game tests, not to mention you actually have to *think* about what you’re doing….

    As Pinto points out, part of the problem comes from the extreme stigma. When emotionality gets involved (here, a collective fear of “contamination” of the sport), rational responses tend to go out the window.

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  5. Supposing that the goal were not so much to establish a level playing field, as to restrict steroid use to a level where it was less likely to be harmful to the players. Does setting a ceiling of 6 or 8 accomplish this, or can steroids cause abnormal harm even at lower levels?

    There’s also a question of the degree of side effects. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that men with high T/E ratios, as a group, suffer certain medical conditions more than the general population. If someone wants to use steroids to put themselves into that group, and the steroid use only puts him into that group (this assumes that the side-effects are a property of the T/E ratio, and not of the artificial boost to the T/E level), is this really such a big deal?

    I’m just being obnoxious, of course, but we already tolerate a certain level of harm to athlete’s bodies, and “fair play” is a term that shifts over time. Once-upon-a-time the Tour de France was run on identical bicycles, and if your bike broke, YOU were responsible for fixing it. Certain aerodynamic technologies are still banned from competitive cycling, largely because they give their users a large advantage.

  6. Stomaphagus says:

    Certain aerodynamic technologies are still banned from competitive cycling, largely because they give their users a large advantage.

    This is partly true. Two other factors: the UCI is interested in maintaining the “traditional” look of the bicycle (which is why you can’t use a recumbent in your pursuit of the hour record); also in holding down costs (which as I understand it is the reason for the 6.8kg [!] weight floor for a pro bike), preventing the runaway domination of the sport by a single manufacturer or wealthy team.

    Reorganizing the UCI calendar would help alleviate drug use in professional cycling. The season is too long, and there are too many races. Most of the guys taking drugs are just trying to keep up; they’re not the stars, they’re the domestiques.

  7. John Mark Ockerbloom says:

    Couldn’t you take care of the naturally high T/E players by first setting a baseline for each player, and then having the ongoing tests compare against that player’s baseline, instead of a one-size-fits-all benchmark for everyone?

    (Obviously a player could try to cheat by taking steroids before the baseline test, to make the baseline higher. But this could be countered by having the baseline session also include other tests to make it less likely for players to get away with that. Since you’re only doing the baseline once, or at any rate less often than the ongoing tests, you can be more thoroughgoing then.)