Pro Baseball’s Dirty Little (Legal) Steroid Secret

Of all the absurdities related to baseball’s steroid problems, one of the biggest has been commissioner Bud Selig’s loud and frequent claims that baseball’s drug testing policies actually work. The cheerleaders of baseball point to high-profile busts like Manny Ramirez as evidence that steroids are being eliminated from the sport, and that Major League Baseball actually cares about keeping the playing field safe and level.

Dog steroids

(Los Angeles Dodgers OF Manny Ramirez)

All that carefully-cultivated image of propriety and progress came unraveled pretty quickly today, when YAHOO! SPORTS’ Jeff Passan pulled back the curtain on MLB’s steroid policy to reveal a gaping loophole in the policy and the dirty Congressional tricks that put it there.

For as much hand-wringing as there has been about “designer steroids” developed solely to elude baseball’s testing apparatus, Passan writes that the real danger is the legal steroid hidden right there in plain sight:

…get this: a baseball player can still swallow a steroid with absolutely zero repercussions.

It’s true. There is a drug called dehydroepiandrosterone, better known as DHEA, and it’s legal in the United States and available at your friendly neighborhood meathead market. Experts are divided on the performance-enhancing impact of DHEA. On the steroid spectrum, it is considered a lower-grade testosterone.

But a steroid it is. The NFL, NBA, NCAA, NHL, Olympic doping programs saw through the political malarkey that allowed it to avoid the controlled-substance label of its testosterone-boosting cousin androstenedione, or andro. Baseball has 58 anabolic androgenic steroids on its prohibited list. DHEA is not one of them.

Ratfaced MLB lackey Rob Manfred naturally blames it all on the union, and the union says that since it’s legal, it should be allowed in baseball. That doesn’t explain why other legal substances are banned in baseball, but logic has never been a strong suit with the MLBPA.

The real story here, however, is how DHEA became legal in the first place. Let’s put it this way - not all of Congress wants to see steroids out of baseball. In 2004 during the height of baseball’s steroid panic, Congress banned a laundry list of supplements and substances that had slipped through the cracks. Substances like androstenedione, made famous by Mark McGwire during his 1998 home run chase, were reclassified as controlled substances. Curiously, though, DHEA was not. As Passan explains,

One problem: Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) fought it. An outspoken advocate for nutritional supplements, Hatch was especially bullish on DHEA, threatening to torpedo the bill so long as it remained in it. That was no surprise. Hatch’s son, Scott, worked as a lobbyist for a company that produced DHEA. Hatch’s influence won out, and DHEA remained a legal over-the-counter steroid, an orphan in the performance-enhancing drug world.

To date, nobody in the sports media has taken Sen. Hatch to task for his vehement support of a substance banned by every major sport other than baseball. Interestingly, Hatch has a long history of hypocrisy when it comes to mind- and body-altering substances. The former Mormon bishop is a Congressional leader in taking money from alcohol lobbying interests despite being a teetotaler, so it should come as no surprise that he would play hardball with a potentially harmful substance like DHEA. Blatant hypocrisy - it’s just another way that sports and politics really aren’t so different after all.