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J.C. Romero, Congress, and passing the steroid buck

Sep 29, 2009, 9:25 AM EDT

I’ve been accused of being an apologist for players taking steroids. There’s an element of truth to that, I suppose, at least if you equate “not thinking that players who take PEDs are Satan” with being an apologist.  I simply think there are worse offenses in the baseball world, even if some folks disagree.

A big reason for my view of this is that not every player — and I’d argue not any player — who tests positive for PED is some cartoonish evil cheater with black intentions in their heart. Some are a little more brazen than others. Some, however, are just kind of screwed by circumstance.

Case in point: The Phillies’ J.C. Romero. As you’ll recall, he was suspended for 50 games to kick off the season as the result of testing positive for a steroid he took via an over the counter supplement last fall.  You’ll also recall that Romero has sued the supplement maker, claiming that it failed to identify the substances in the product that led to his positive test. That suit is still pending, but Major League Baseball — pursuant to a policy it implemented as the result of extreme Congressional heat — wasn’t all that interested in the details.

What gets lost in all of this is that neither Congress — the prime mover behind baseball’s current PED policy — and Major League Baseball — the enforcer — has clean hands in any of this.  Why? For one thing, Congress itself — with the help of President Clinton — was what allowed the current wild west supplement industry to blossom in the first place when it enacted the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which basically punted all oversight of the supplement industry to . . . the supplement industry itself.  We should not have been shocked, therefore, when all manner of revolutionary products with all manner of questionable yet unnamed ingredients starting showing up at the GNC.

For its part, Major League Baseball famously lagged in telling the union that the supplement Romero was taking would lead to positive tests, even though it knew so ahead of time, and even though it had pledged to keep the union informed of the latest state of PEDs. Romero, in turn, relied on the union for his information.  Of course the union could have and should have told Romero that he needed to call the Major League Baseball hotline, where he could have gotten the updated information, but they failed to do that.

Upshot: there was a metric crap-ton of stuff that happened which led to Romero getting what amounted to a $1.5 million suspension, almost all of which was more the fault of those who would go after PED users than Romero himself.

Against that backdrop, today we learn that Congress is going to wade back into the fray and think about re-regulating the supplement world. That wading is led by Arlen Specter, who was spurred on, he says, by the Romero case. “We’re looking at whether there’s adequate protection for consumers from getting these supplements which have steroids or steroid-like substances,” Specter said.  Union head Don Fehr added that “players, like everyone else, have no idea what they’re taking.”  Specter is probably right to want to take another look at the supplement industry and review that 1994 deregulation. Fehr is right that players who take over the counter supplements may very well not know what they’e taking, partially due to MLB and the union not giving them good or timely information.

In light of this, it is an inescapable conclusion that the PED and supplement world is not comprised of a landscape in which there are cheaters and non-cheaters, evil and good. It’s a complicated environment, and that’s even before you get into the issue of certain things being legal in one country and not legal in another.

To the extent we as fans have decided otherwise and have adopted the rhetoric of good and evil in the great steroid debate, it’s because those congressional hearings and all that fell out of it set such a tone.  Now even Congress is reconsidering the matter.  Maybe we all should too.

  1. Grant - Sep 29, 2009 at 10:29 AM

    If I were you I would have posted this at HBT. But you always were a glutton for punishment on these things.

  2. Craig Calcaterra - Sep 29, 2009 at 10:33 AM

    Maybe. I’d rather not preach to the choir, though, when there are masses who need to be converted. ;-)

  3. Dan Friedman - Sep 29, 2009 at 2:10 PM

    Well said, Craig, but unfortunately subtlety usually loses to shouting. I don’t mean to be cynical, but… well, I guess I can’t help it.

  4. Mode - Sep 29, 2009 at 2:29 PM

    My question is, in 10 – 15 years time when most, if not all of PEDs, are safe, over-the-counter and taken by the majority of Americans, will we look back on the PED era in a different way?

  5. Craig Calcaterra - Sep 29, 2009 at 2:32 PM

    I think the answer to that is yes, Mode. Bill James wrote an article about that a couple of months ago. The problem right now, as far as I see it, is the safety issue and the unequal access issue (some people are willing to risk more and do more to attain the benefits). If you take those things away, the objections to these kinds of drugs will go away too.

  6. Mode - Sep 29, 2009 at 3:08 PM

    Dang, James beat me to it again? First it was the Abstract, then pythag records, and lastly win shares. I haven’t caught a break in three decades!
    BTW thanks.. I’ll look around for the article.

  7. Mode - Sep 29, 2009 at 3:29 PM

    Wow, I just found and read the James article. How did I miss that? I also find it funny that the MSM reaction I saw is so shortsighted. James will be proven the sage, again.

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