It was 43 years ago that President Richard Nixon signed into law the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, effectively starting America’s War on Drugs. That war has taken many forms in the decades that followed, but has mostly focused on a supply-side battle to get drugs and the people who sell them off the streets. The policies have also faced harsh criticism from those who have pointed out statistical and actual differences in the way these laws are enforced and from those who favor a less punitive approach to substance abuse.

Whatever your stance on the War on Drugs, I think you’d agree with the assertion that if you live in even a smallish city and had the desire to do so, you could probably find any drug you want within a day or so. I know that’s the case in my home of Madison, Wis., far from a major city and one that falls considerably below the national average when it comes to other types of crime. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about what that means from a policy perspective, because that’s not what this piece is about.

When most people think of the War on Drugs, they probably think of the sorts of street drugs they were warned against as children. For them, the War on Drugs is a war on marijuana, cocaine, heroin and the other drugs law-enforcement officials like to pile up on tables for press conferences following major arrests. That was, of course, the original intent of anti-drug legislation. In the years that followed, however, science moved faster than the law (as it usually does) and new, so-called “designer drugs” emerged on the scene, initially undetectable by traditional testing methods. These drugs were soon banned like the others, but nevertheless remain available, even prevalent, in American culture.

In a similar way to the War on Drugs taking place in America at large, the American sporting community has been battling its own substance war. For purposes of brevity, we’ll call it the War on Steroids. Despite the presence of performance-enhancing drugs for decades, the increased use of anabolic steroids in the 1970s eventually led to a series of bans, ostensibly to retain the purity of sport. The International Olympic Committee banned them in 1976, so it’s not like their use was so minor as to not warrant action. Despite the seemingly high level of use, though, the NFL did not begin testing for steroids until 1987, and even then did not suspend any players until 1989. Major League Baseball banned steroids in 1991, but did not actually begin testing players until 2003.

Concurrent (and not at all coincidental) with the rise of steroid use in professional and amateur sports has been the rise of revenue in professional and amateur sports. Prior to the 1980s, professional athletes made a fraction of what they make today. In 1975, the average annual salary for a Major League Baseball player was $44,676. That number multiplied more than seven times in the succeeding decade and continued to increase to the point where, in 2012, the average annual salary was $3,213,479. The NFL paid its players an average of $56,000 each year in 1975, but now shells out an average of nearly $2 million per player per year.

These increases have not been straight lines, either. In the 1980s and ’90s, due in large part to collective-bargaining changes and competition from upstart leagues like the USFL, player salaries exploded in a sharp upward curve. Some even argue that players, as the literal product that makes professional sports leagues and their teams their money, should be given an even larger percentage of a sport’s overall earnings, and future discussions between the leagues and their players’ unions will certainly focus on this topic. The point is, beginning in the 1980s, the rewards for excellence on the field became significantly greater, and so did athletes’ motivation to succeed.

This, in my opinion, is when sports stopped being “pure,” to borrow the adjective used so heavily by people of a certain age to describe some idyllic (if very ambiguous and purely anecdotal) time when the games they loved were just that—games. In the 1980s, professional sports became strictly business. Sure, the desire to go out on the field is cultivated in athletes as children, but at some point, the world’s best athletes start thinking about how they can maximize their earning potential using their skills. No longer did excellence on the field mean the difference between $40,000 a year and $60,000 a year. Today, the difference between an MVP-caliber player and a bench-rider can be many millions of dollars.

To illustrate this point with actual numbers, I’ll use the Green Bay Packers as an example. The highest-paid player on the team, and with good reason, is starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who will earn about $12 million in 2013 as part of his seven-year, $130,750,000 contract with the team. Considerably lower on the Packers’ salary schedule is Graham Harrell, Rodgers’ backup, who will earn $630,000. The difference between professional excellence and professional mediocrity in this case is illustrated by the fact that Rodgers will make roughly 19 times what Harrell makes, and (on paper, anyway) they have the same job working for the same company.

With so much money to be made, then, why wouldn’t athletes do everything they could (in accordance with the rules or otherwise) to be the best athlete possible? And here’s where steroids come into play.

By the time an athlete reaches the professional ranks, no longer is he playing for the “love of the game,” I don’t care what they tell ESPN. By that time, those athletes have been put through the veritable meat grinder that is high school and collegiate athletics, where people who had very little to do with what actually happened on the field made a lot of money from the athletes’ efforts. When an athlete is able to actually earn a living playing the sport to which he has dedicated the majority of his life, he’s naturally going to want to bring in as much as he can in the short window of time he’ll be on the big stage. Since sports is a true meritocracy, where the results one produces are directly related to the money he earns, there is a tremendous motivation among athletes to perform at their absolute highest levels, even if they have to resort to pharmaceutical enhancement.

This is where those of us who aren’t professional athletes find ourselves conflicted. We love when athletes are able to do things like, say, crank more than 60 home runs in a single season or break some seemingly unbreakable track and field record, because sports are also entertainment aside from being business. As soon as we discover that those feats were not performed without a little extra juice (pun intended), though, we quickly throw aside those feelings of amazement and adopt those of anger and resentment, as if an athlete’s use of performance-enhancing drugs constituted some sort of lie. Sports fans want so badly to believe that their heroes are all-natural that they’ll ignore all the signs to the contrary until those heroes are definitively proven to have broken the rules.

The best examples of this are obviously Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds, three baseball players who carried their teams and the sport into a new era of popularity thanks to their long-ball exploits, three athletes who were revered by their teams’ fans even in the face of a lot of PED-related suspicion, and three men who were summarily tossed aside by those same fans (and the sport they helped revitalize) when those suspicions became more concrete. The latest example also comes from baseball and concerns Ryan Braun, by far the best player on the Milwaukee Brewers roster and one who helped the team bounce back from a long period of irrelevance, if only briefly. Since drafting Braun in 2005, and especially since his emergence as a star, the Brewers’ fan attendance has jumped considerably, from an average of 27,296 fans per game that year to nearly 35,000 per game in 2012. Sure, there were other factors that contributed to the Brewers’ success in recent years, but none had as significant an impact as Braun, who won the National League’s MVP award in 2011.

Shortly after he received his trophy, Braun faced a 50-game suspension after a urine test revealed banned levels of testosterone. Braun appealed the decision and won, much to the chagrin of Major League Baseball and much to the ear-plugging, eye-covering delight of Brewers fans. Well, MLB got their man this year, and on July 22 announced it was suspending Braun for the remainder of the 2013 season after connections were made between him and a medical clinic that has been reportedly providing performance-enhancing drugs to professional athletes.

Reaction from Brewers fans has been nothing short of vitriolic, with many calling for his immediate release from the team and others surely trying to organize some sort of jersey-burning ceremony, as if Braun’s suspension suddenly negates the contributions he made to the club and turns him into some sort of bad guy. These same fans lived in blissful and self-imposed ignorance when Braun first came under suspicion in 2011, denying outwardly and to themselves that such an upstanding young man could break the rules like that, so I’m sure their reaction is just as much born of embarrassment at their own mental shortcomings and some bizarre sense of betrayal than anything else.

Braun won’t be the last famous athlete suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs because, as mentioned above, the benefits of using them can greatly outweigh the potential costs. Ryan Braun’s 2013 salary pays him around $9.5 million as part of an eight-year, $51-million contract extension he signed with the club in 2008. Braun will pay out $3.25 million as part of his punishment but will then come back to $11 million in 2014 and another $13 million the following year. Setting aside notions of sporting purity, one would be hard-pressed to argue that the prospect of a 65-game vacation from a last-place team and a fine of one third of Braun’s considerable annual salary outweighs the $24 million Braun will earn over the next two seasons as the result of his past performance (which might or might not have been enhanced by pharmaceuticals).

The world of MMA is certainly not without its steroid scandals, though the UFC has not had a titleholder test positive for PEDs since 2007 when Sean Sherk was stripped of his lightweight championship. There have been some significant non-champions (Chael Sonnen and Alistair Overeem, to name two) who have had highly publicized positive PED tests in recent years, and rumors continue to swirl concerning the true extent to which steroids are used by the UFC’s athletes, but the promotion’s number of positive tests has not outpaced that of the NFL and MLB. Given the enormous disparity between the paydays of the promotion’s top fighters and those even directly underneath them, though, could one really blame a UFC fighter if he enhanced his performance through means other than hard work? It could mean earning six figures instead of five.

Here’s my point: The current system isn’t working. Professional athletes are rewarded for their success on the field by earning more money in a single year than I will surely make in my lifetime, and that’s the only thing that matters. An athlete can be a really, really nice guy and a good citizen and all of that, but if he doesn’t produce during games, he’ll soon find himself being a really, really nice guy and a good citizen in another line of work. On the other hand, we routinely see pro athletes make millions and millions of dollars for being good at their particular sport and despite the fact that they do some truly deplorable things in their personal lives. Positive performance yields significant financial rewards, and steroids can help athletes perform more effectively. Given this arrangement, it seems only a pride-filled fool would shirk the potential windfall that could come from using performance-enhancing drugs.

What professional sports organizations need to do is either instill more rigorous testing and harsher punishments for getting caught (like, for example, a lifetime ban after a second positive test) or just accept defeat and allow performance-enhancing drugs to be a part of their world. This middle-ground garbage with which we’ve been kidding ourselves for the last decade or so is not going to stem the tide.

Then again, league executives and team owners alike have a vested interest in maintaining the presence of their star athletes for fans of the team. Despite what Brewers fans might say in the coming weeks and months about Braun, thousands of them will be at Miller Park on Opening Day 2014, cheering the return of the best player the franchise has seen since Robin Yount. Without Braun, the Brewers would still likely draw several thousand people, but his superstar presence boosts the team’s draw, and thus boosts the team’s overall revenue, even despite his current challenges. Stars equal dollars, which is exactly why you’ll probably never see a professional sports organization issue a lifetime ban to a star in his prime. As much money as star athletes make, the teams that employ them make exponentially more from their efforts.

The only way to deter athletes from using performance-enhancing drugs is by threatening their ability to cash in on their talents. Fining them fractions of one year’s worth of pay is not going to work. If, on the other hand, a second positive test would trigger an automatic lifetime ban, it puts in place the possibility of eliminating their sports-related income altogether. Perhaps that would be a more effective deterrent. It’s no coincidence that Wisconsin has one of the highest rates of drunk driving in the nation while also being the only state where a first DUI conviction isn’t even a misdemeanor, and it’s no coincidence that we keep seeing professional athletes get busted for using steroids when doing so doesn’t yield an outright firing.

Assuming, then, that a harsher punishment strategy will not be adopted by the leagues due to fear of losing their star athletes and the money they generate, the only alternative is to simply allow performance-enhancing drugs to permeate their sports without reprisal. Science continues to outpace regulation—there are no doubt existing performance-enhancing drugs for which the leagues currently have no test—and for every new substance the leagues add to their respective banned lists, five new ones appear in its place, unknown for months or years by the various regulating bodies.

Practical implications aside, we’re talking about sports. When it comes to baseball, PEDs made stars perform like superheroes. They hit balls with sticks, and if allowing baseball players to use steroids allows them to do that more effectively, I don’t see the downside. The argument becomes a little more difficult to defend for contact sports like football or MMA. If athletes who are already conditioned for violence are pharmaceutically made even more effective smashing machines, doesn’t that present a danger to his opponents? To that, I would point out that even without steroids, football players end up with brains and bodies that are often pretty messed up. This could be just as strong an argument against allowing steroids in contact sports, it just depends on your point of view.

Finally, there’s the hypocrisy that exists behind the demonization of performance-enhancing drugs in sports. In fact, sports appears to be the only place where performance-enhancing drugs are frowned upon. Americans from California to Connecticut wake up every day and feed their addiction to caffeine, a performance-enhancing drug that allows them to effectively make it to their offices and complete another day at work. Many of these same Americans might also be taking daily prescriptions to help improve their concentration or reduce their anxieties, thus enhancing their overall performance as people. This is completely ignoring the fact that basically every major sporting event is accompanied by ads for erectile-dysfunction medications. If those aren’t performance-enhancing, I don’t know what is.

America is an impure nation. Our elected officials (from both parties) have been sold to the highest bidder, with some literally doing anything their major contributors tell them to do. Musicians with marginal talent are made to sound like legends on their records thanks to the magic of auto-tune. So much of the very food we eat every day has been genetically modified, and the folks who do it are trying their hardest to keep their actions under wraps. These aren’t value judgements on our society, they’re just facts. Why, then, should we continue to pretend that the world of professional sports is somehow exempt from these impurities? There is a lot of money to be made, by athletes, teams and leagues alike, and the only way to make it is through success on the field, so the use of performance-enhancing drugs is the (un)natural conclusion.

We have reached a tipping point: Either professional sports organizations need to agree to truly crack down on the use of steroids in pro sports and accept the potential loss of revenue that could come from the banishment of large numbers of their stars or just accept the fact that PEDs are here to stay and focus instead on educating athletes on using them safely. Neither one is going to be especially popular with fans, but whatever is going on now is a joke.

Photo: Steroids (WiseGeek.org)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.