On incentives and PEDs

I would say ESPN’s Jayson Stark beat me to the punch on this one, but it looks like most players and fans are coming to the same realization: The “50-game/100-game/lifetime ban” in place is not a sufficient deterrent to prevent PED use.

J.C. Bradbury’s The Baseball Economist touches upon a baseball player’s incentives to use steroids. (He also concludes steroids probably had little effect on player performance, which is probably a touchy subject to most at this point. Economists have a thing for touchy subjects.) It is not crazy for an athlete to try to work the system. especially if he or she spots a weakness in it. The reward for using a performance-enhancing drug — i.e. improved offensive statistics, leading to larger and longer contracts — greatly outweighs the risk of using it, especially if the drug is not tested or unknown by the league or organization. It also creates a sort of feedback loop: players who don’t use PEDs or steroids see their performance decline relative to the users, which would result in deflated and shortened contracts.

It makes sense then that 15 years ago a player would have been stupid not to take steroids as McGwire and Sosa and Bonds mashed home run after home run. The livelihoods of the players not yet using steroids were on the chopping block as other players, er, enhanced their performances. They, too, then had every a perfectly adequate incentive to take steroids: they didn’t want to lose their jobs.

How things change.

The PED landscape in baseball has turned a 180 from a decade ago. Players want PEDs out of baseball. They want a level playing field. A 50/100/life system was sure to stymie PED use. We’re finding out now it’s not. Players still have incentives to use PEDs, especially if the playing field is assumed to be back to level.

I don’t think the reward-to-risk ratio is quite as apparent in our current era of baseball, but a player such as Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun can get caught for using PEDs and suspended twice — for a punishment of less than a full season’s worth of games — and still lose only a fraction of his lifetime salary, which has likely inflated anyway because of PED use.

Clearly, the implicit threat of a tarnished reputation and a cancelled bus ticket to Cooperstown isn’t enough to discourage PED use.

But players, writers and fans alike are on the right track. The penalty for PED use (if this is truly what players want, which it is become readily clear among most players that it is) should be much stiffer. The MLB has to completely eliminate the incentive to using PEDs. The risk must outweigh the reward.

An instantaneous lifetime ban is a great idea, although I think the MLB and the players’ union could be treading dangerous water if they decide to go that route. A single mishandled urine test, such as Braun’s, and consequent banning of an otherwise innocent player could be far more scandalous and damaging than any PED use, especially if the appeal process is slow or nonexistent.

A cleaner and simpler solution, which Stark mentions, would be giving teams the ability to void a player’s contract. This would also have to come with a suspension, though. If the player is allowed to play out the season, a contending team may choose not to void his contract until the season is over. With a suspension, the player will be useless to the team, and he will become a publicity liability for the remainder of his career. A voided contract would leave the player jobless. However, if the player is truly talented — as Braun most likely is — he will have no problem fielding new contract offers from other teams, or even the team he plays for and has deceived.

So maybe the lifetime ban is the way to go, unless the voided contract included a much lengthier suspension, something like three years — enough to perhaps render the player irrelevant. But if it is a first-offense lifetime ban the MLB and players’ union choose to pursue, they ought to be careful of the potential fallout.

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