Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Costs and Benefits of Doping

Doping, it seems, is everywhere these days -- prominent athletes caught doping n the past few weeks include Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell, Ryan Braun and a promise of more to come. Here I take a quick look at the costs and benefits of doping from the athlete's perspective.

Consider Ryan Braun, the Milwaukee Brewers player implicated in the emerging scandal involving the Biogenisis anti-aging clinic. He has agreed to a 65 game suspension, the rest of the season, which equates to a $3.4 million forfeiture of salary. Big money? To place that into context, consider that Braun is receiving $144.5 million in salary from the Brewers ($133 million still to be paid) -- a salary which may have benefited from past performance improved via breaking the league's drugs policy.

Detroit Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer stated the obvious:
“I still don’t think the punishment fits the crime. MLB hasn’t closed the loophole to create the incentive to cheat. He still has his contract and he’s still financially gaining from this.”

The Brewers will still owe Braun $113 million after this year.

Scherzer said he’d be in favor of Braun’s contract being voided.“You gotta start cutting out contracts,” Scherzer said.
There is no doubt that a lifetime ban and voiding of contracts, even if practically possible given the players union, would rebalance incentives against doping. However, it wouldn't eliminate it.

To understand why, consider what has been called the "Goldman Dilemma."
There’s a well-known survey in sports, known as the Goldman Dilemma. For it, a researcher, Bob Goldman, began asking elite athletes in the 1980s whether they would take a drug that guaranteed them a gold medal but would also kill them within five years. More than half of the athletes said yes. When he repeated the survey biannually for the next decade, the results were always the same. About half of the athletes were quite ready to take the bargain.

Only recently did researchers get around to asking nonathletes the same question. In results published online in February, 2009 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, exactly 2 of the 250 people surveyed in Sydney, Australia, said that they would take a drug that would ensure both success and an early death. “We were surprised,” James Connor, Ph.D., a lecturer at the University of New South Wales and one of the study’s authors, said in an e-mail message. “I expected 10-20 percent yes.” His conclusion, unassailable if inexplicable, is that “elite athletes are different from the general population, especially on desire to win.”
With more than 50% of athletes willing to sacrifice most of their adult life in exchange for winning, lifetime bans and severe financial penalties just don't compare.

Detroit's Scherzer is correct that more biting penalties are needed, especially in baseball and other non-WADA sports. However, such penalties will only comprise one part a more effective doping regime.  


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