For all the splash it made in the national news media and sports circles, former Sen. George Mitchell's report on the use of performance-enhancing drugs by major league baseball players barely scratches the surface of the problem.
Mitchell and Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig deserve credit for trying to shine a light on steroid use. The Mitchell report released Thursday will be hard to ignore, but solutions also will be hard to come by. The report's conclusion that there has been widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs by professional ball players isn't particularly surprising. The use of steroids and other drugs had been only thinly veiled in recent years.
The reason to look back at this scandal is to allow baseball and other amateur and professional sports to chart a course for the future. The validity of records set by drug-using athletes will be debated; some records may be nullified. But the most important issue is how to move forward in a way that restores integrity to professional baseball and sets a standard that other sports can follow.
The years that baseball and other sports have swept performance-enhancing drug use under the table have created an atmosphere in which good athletes feel unable to compete without using substances that threaten their health. In recent years, the Olympic sports have made a concerted effort to detect steroid use, and a number of top athletes like Marion Jones have had their medals revoked and their careers ruined.
However, the continued willingness of athletes to use illegal drugs and the difficulty of policing the use of an ever-evolving array of substances makes this a tough problem to solve. Human growth hormone already has replaced steroids as the drug of choice for ballplayers, according to Mitchell. Because there is no urine test for HGH, it is impossible to enforce a ban on the substance. Once a test for HGH is available, athletes will seek some other enhancement.
It's hard to know the answer. The outrageous financial rewards of being a top athlete unfortunately provide a strong incentive for anyone who thinks using performance-enhancers might allow them to make the cut. It's especially troubling when those athletes are youngsters, in their teens or even younger, who have little concern for the long-term health effects of their actions.
It is disappointing, but not surprising, that spokespeople for Kansas University and local high schools seemed to suggest they didn't think performance-enhancing drugs were a serious problem at their schools. They said it was of concern but they didn't think many of their athletes were using such drugs. Denial is not the way to wage an effective fight to reduce drug use.
The potential prize is worth the risk for many athletes, but the realization by sports fans that many of the achievements they've applauded were accomplished only with the use of steroids or other drugs may turn that tide. Major league baseball may find that a failure to clean up its sport will lead to fan disenchantment that ultimately will affect teams' bottom lines.
Selig is right that the Mitchell report is "a call to action." Those actions need to include some system of independent drug testing that can't be influenced by players' unions or team owners who have an obvious incentive to hide drug use.
The use of performance-enhancing drugs by professional baseball players and other athletes has been hidden for too long. We can only hope it is not too late to save the integrity of both amateur and professional sports.