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Crisis in U.S. Baseball: East Germany Revisited?

Can steroid-using baseball players sue their teams and league — just like former East German athletes now sue some German institutions?

February 19, 2004

Can steroid-using baseball players sue their teams and league — just like former East German athletes now sue some German institutions?

Since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, sports fans around the world have gotten an irrefutable factual confirmation for what they had long suspected was going on in East Germany.

Namely, that all those swimmers and shot-putters who left their competition in the dust — and won dozens of Olympic medals for the German Democratic Republic — weren't just hefty German girls and boys.

Rather, they had been sculpted into super-strong and fast athletes through anabolic steroids, hormones and other illegal substances by the East German state.

Worse, athletes were juiced up on performance enhancing substances from a very young age onward — usually without their knowledge.

Doping was a huge, thriving industry in East Germany. Sports officials, coaches, state propagandists and doctors — all working to enhance the glory of their country — were involved in this activity.

The reason why those substances are illegal in the first place is because they can have very serious side effects. They can turn superhuman athletes into wrecks in just a few short years after their careers come to an end.

Problems affecting habitual anabolic steroid users include high blood pressure at an early age, heart disease, damage to the liver, urinary and bowel problems, strokes and blood clots — and difficulty sleeping. Infertility among women and impotence among men are also common.

This is why the International Olympic Committee and international bodies that govern individual sports expressly prohibit their use.

And these organizations administer rigorous, frequent tests at all venues to make sure athletes stay away from them.

Ironically, allegations of widespread use of steroids have swirled around Major League Baseball (MLB) in the United States for years. Anonymous testing conducted randomly showed that at least 5-7% of professional baseball players regularly use such substances.

In San Francisco, four individuals were indicted for allegedly making designer steroids available to various athletes, including baseball star Barry Bonds.

However, MLB has always been opposed to testing players for steroids openly and systematically — as is the practice in international sports, and even in U.S. professional football.

And now, although it has caved in to public opinion and mandated steroid testing in the season that is slated to start April 4, 2004, league officials have once again chosen to give every advantage to abusers to avoid detection, if they are so inclined.

For instance, testing will not be conducted in the off-season, which is precisely the time of year when most steroid-users build their muscles.

Not surprisingly, the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency has called MLB's steroids policy "a complete joke."

The international sports establishment is made up of public institutions — national sports bodies which are run by individual states and staffed with sports bureaucrats.

American baseball, in contrast — like most professional sports in North America — is a private institution. Teams are owned by wealthy private individuals or corporations and are run as for-profit businesses.

And in the United States, you don't tell private individuals how to run their businesses. It's the American Way. That is despite President Bush's call for reforms during his January 2004 State of the Union address.

While the International Olympic Committee regulates the use of doping substances, in the United States the only way to really stop the use of steroids in baseball would probably be through the courts.

Fear of legal action, in fact, is the only effective way to regulate U.S. business. Courts have forced tobacco companies to crack down on the sale of their products to minors, for instance.

They have also been instrumental in bringing about the widespread use of air bags and many other safety features in cars.

In Germany, former East German athletes have already taken their case to the courts, even though the true culprits — the state and its officials — are long gone.

Still, courts have allowed former athletes to sue some German institutions — such as the Olympic Committee, even though it is not regarded as an heir to the East German Olympic Committee.

For example, a German appeals court ruled in 2003 for 33-year-old Karen König — the European gold medalist in relay swimming — who received monetary compensation from the German Olympic Committee.

Of course, the situation in U.S. baseball is different. Baseball players are not kids — they are grown men who are taking steroids willingly and with the full knowledge of their adverse effects.

Besides, there isn't anyone really to sue. Doping in baseball is not organized, as it was in East Germany, and coaches and team owners are not known to have a hand in it.

Given all the rich supply of players — and competition — it is they who do the bulking up in order to make the team. Moreover, steroid makers and providers usually are not giant pharmaceutical companies, but shady fly-by-night operations.

But don't underestimate the ingenuity of U.S. trial lawyers. After all, these are the people who got McDonald's to pay thousands for serving hot coffee to a customer.

Major League Baseball and team owners would do well to prepare themselves for a rash of possible legal claims.

One legal argument under which baseball could potentially be sued was recently suggested to The Globalist by a New York trial lawyer — on the condition of anonymity.

The argument could go something like this: Professional baseball is a highly competitive sport. It has been called a game of inches — even fractions of an inch. Every tiny advantage counts.

By not cracking down on the use of steroids, MLB officials are in effect forcing those baseball players who would have ordinarily stayed clean to take steroids — since otherwise, they would be unable to compete in their job.

Players who suffered health problems as a result of steroid use can sue for damages. An even more interesting possibility could be a suit by somebody who refused to take steroids — and suffered from the unfair advantage that his juiced-up competitors obtained.

This is not a proven line of argument, of course, but it is a starting point.

And such suits might put an end to a dangerous — and illegal — practice that baseball has not been willing to address on its own.