Saturday, December 22, 2007

Much Ado About Nothing: Steroids and HGH

The NY Times has an interesting Op-Ed on the effects of the use of steriods and HGH in baseball. In "More Juice, Less Punch," Jonathan Cole, a sociologists, and Stephen Stigler, a statistician, looked at the stats of players named in the Mitchell Report and found that the players' numbers (ERAs, batting avgs, home runs) do not show any statistically significant increase and in some cases show a decrease.

They do note that steroids and HGH might have aided a player to stay in the bigs and continue to perform longer, but haven't found a way to test that. If this statistical analysis is accurate, it adds more to my growing skepticism about the reasons for prohibiting the use of these technologies. If we have technologies that can prolong the careers of the game's greatest players: why prohibit them? Think of what Koufax could have done if his career wasn't cut short by injury!

Steroids raise serious long-term health risks and so that may be a reason for a private league to prohibit its use. But HGH, to my knowledge, doesn't have as significant long-term health risks. HGH is less studied, but the reported side effects are supposed to be rare (grain of salt warning: this is mostly from Wikipedia). Moreover, both steroids and HGH probably could be used safely under the direction of physicians for short periods of time to help with injury recovery (after all, this is how they are actually used in the medical establishment). And how is this any different than any other, non-prohibited, technologies used to help players recover from injury quicker?

I also think there are some arbitrary distinctions in this debate. Why ban HGH but allow cortisone shots? Big Papi got a cortisone shot near the end of the regularly season that allowed him to overcome a knee injury and perform in the playoffs. How is this any different than a player using HGH under doctor's supervision for overcoming an injury more quickly and effectively? The league bans amphetamines but not caffeine? Why allow Tommy John surgeries? For that matter, why allow weight training or physical therapy? These all help a player perform better for longer.

The argument appears to be some mix of the following:
1) The prohibited technologies are more dangerous and riskier than other technologies
2) The prohibited technologies are much more effective than other technologies

The first is more plausible, though paternalistic. The second is either arbitrary or just plain kooky. Why ban a technology that is more effective? One argument for 2 is the so-called history of the game argument. That is, in order to be able to compare the numbers of players from different eras (Ruth to Bonds), we prevent the use of certain technologies that would enhance the numbers of current players. One of the problems with this argument, however, is that it introduces the arbitrary element. Why HGH but not cortisone? Why not, then, also prevent the use of the much greater athletic training and medical knowledge we have now? Should we be using the technologies of the 20s to protect the history of the game? As this NY Times article shows, the use of HGH and steroids doesn't appear to have effected the numbers, but surely the knowledge athletes have about training and nutrition has effected these numbers to a significant degree. So this argument seems to work better if we ignore the use of HGH and focus on preventing players from using the gym and eating properly.


Patrick Stephens said...

HGH and steroids are banned because they're drugs -- no other reason. It's the legacy of the FDA and the drug war. America's War on Sense.

Shawn Klein said...

Yes, you are probably right. But what about cortisone? That's a kind of steroid and would have to be considered a drug if HGH or anabolic steroids are.

I also think it is a bit of a bias against new technology. Cortisone has a been around. HGH is relatively new.

Patrick Stephens said...

I think it's probably a matter of systemic focus. Ingested drugs (whatever the delivery mechanism) affect the entire body. Treatments like cortisone shots have a focused affect -- they don't enter the blood stream. Now, there may be good very good reasons why we should be wary of drugs that have wide systemic effects in the body, but there is no good reason why we should demonize them as such.

Shawn Klein said...

Ok, that makes sense. Though I doubt that is the actual reason that league allows one and bans the other.

Patrick Stephens said...

I think the league bans steroids now, because they think the public demands it. But they certainly ban them because they're "drugs." Not for any other reason.

I do think that the fear of drugs is related to the fact that drugs affect the entire body, rather than a specific system, but that fear is generally overblown.

Anonymous said...

I also think it is a bit of a bias against new technology. Cortisone has a been around. HGH is relatively new. And i think they must not been banned, hgh is not a drug, its a help for those who need help for real

S.P. Lunger said...

I promise I had never read your post when I posted this rant on a message board recently:

Then I complained to a friend that I hadn't found too many other people making my arguments. So I punched in "Banning Steroids is Arbitrary" and found your blog. Thanks for the this.

I've got a philosophically oriented blog too, but nothing about steroids in it. (