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At first, a stunner

As David has recounted, the big news of the day is that first baseman Rafael Palmeiro has been suspended ten days by Major League Baseball for violating the league's drug policy. The league's press release announcing the suspension did not identify the banned substance turned up by Palmeiro's drug test, but early reports from other news sources indicate that it was a steroid.

The juice comes out

Palmeiro has released a statement through the Orioles. He too did not reveal by name the banned substance that triggered his suspension, although in the statement he explicitly declared, “I am here to make it very clear that I have never intentionally used steroids. Never. Ever. Period.” Thus it is not difficult to connect the dots. He added that he “filed a grievance and challenged the suspension on the basis that I have never intentionally taken a banned substance,” but that an independent arbitrator ruled that Palmeiro had to serve the suspension because he “could not meet the heavy burden imposed on players who test positive under the new drug policy.”

He added, “I want to apologize to MLB, the Baltimore Orioles organization, my teammates, and most of all, my fans.... I hope that all MLB players and kids will learn from what has happened to me. I have never intentionally used a banned substance, but I unfortunately wasn't careful enough.”

Peter Angelos, the majority owner of the Orioles, and Vice President of Baseball Operations Mike Flanagan also made brief statements in support of Palmeiro. And the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) and player rep Donald Fehr issued statements of their own.

The MLBPA press release included the following from the arbitration panel that heard Palmeiro's grievance: “The result reached by the Panel is based on the uncontested positive test result and our determination that the evidence in this record is not sufficient for the Player to meet his burden of establishing that his positive test result was not due to his fault or negligence. The Panel considers it important to point out that our decision does not equate to a finding or belief that Rafael Palmeiro — whose testimony in many respects was quite compelling — was untruthful in his testimony before this Panel or any other body.”

Fehr, in his statement, expressed sorrow at Palmeiro's suspension, but added a paragraph backing the current testing regime, which has been criticized for being weak: “However, today’s announcement should serve to dispel doubts about our determination to rid baseball of illegal steroids, or the strength or effectiveness of our testing program. All players are treated equally, even potential members of the Hall of Fame, without respect to their tenure or status in the game. The steroid testing program in baseball is working and will prove to be effective if given the chance.”

Positively shocking

Of all the players on the Orioles, Palmeiro is one of the last that most people would have expected to trigger a positive drug test. After all, this is the same player who was dead set against steroid use in his testimony to Congress back on March 17. Here are excerpts from his opening statement to the House Committee on Government Reform:

I have never used steroids. Period. I don’t know how to say it any more clearly than that. Never....

I am against the use of steroids. I don’t think athletes should use steroids and I don’t think our kids should use them....

To the degree an individual player can be helpful, perhaps as an advocate to young people about the dangers of steroids, I hope you will call on us. I, for one, am ready to heed that call.

Many observers considered Palmeiro's emphatic testimony the most convincing of all the players' at the hearing. Not only that, but in the question-and-answer session he said that he would support a tougher drug-testing regime, even a zero-tolerance policy, if necessary to even the playing field. Had a zero-tolerance rule been in place today, Palmeiro would have been banned from the sport for life.

In that March hearing, Palmeiro all but volunteered to serve as a representative of MLB to discourage young athletes from using steroids.

I do believe that we are role models, and we do have a lot of power in what kids listen to, and the message that we send to them. And I believe that if we do send the right message, we can help tremendously....

I believe that we can go around to high schools around the country, use our names, use our—who we are to send the right message, to send the message that steroids are wrong and they're costing lives every day.

Couple Palmeiro's public statements with the fact that he was in the process of winding down a stellar playing career. Surely he would have known that registering positive for a banned drug would cast doubt on his accomplishments over the past 20 years. If he were at all concerned about his public image and his legacy, that possibility alone would be a significant deterrent.

The next test

Taken in that light, Palmeiro's drug test violation raises a lot of uncomfortable questions about him specifically and the league's drug-testing policy in general. Here are a few, in no particular order:

  • For which drug did Palmeiro test positive? If it was a steroid, which steroid? At what levels was it detected?
  • Is Palmeiro telling the truth when he says that he never intentionally took steroids or any other banned substance?
  • Was he being forthright to Congress back in March when he denied using steroids? In other words, is his alleged steroid use a recent development?
  • If his substance use did arise recently, why now? Did Palmeiro's slow start at the plate this season cause him to have a change of heart and decide to use something he had not tried before in hopes of keeping his career going?
  • If his illegal substance use predated this year, then how many years ago did it start and how frequent was it?
  • Did he take any prescribed or over-the-counter medications or supplements that could have caused the positive result, and if so, what are they and how long had he been taking them? Did he show them to a doctor or one of the Orioles' trainers to make sure they were kosher?
  • Did Palmeiro submit a second or third sample after his initial positive, and if so did they confirm the existence of the same banned substance?
  • In general, what is the probability of a false positive on a drug test as administered under baseball's current policy? (A false positive would occur if a test indicated illegal levels of a banned substance in a urine sample when in fact the player did not have illegal levels in his body.)
  • More particularly, what is the probability of a false positive for a steroid?
  • If the false-positive rates are significant—and with so many tests being administered, they would have to be very low (say, below 0.01%) to be insignificant—then what legal recourse is available for players who accidentally test positive and find they have few avenues by which to avoid mandatory suspension?
  • What is the likelihood that an unregulated, over-the-counter supplement contains steroids or other banned substances?
  • What can players do to keep from tripping in the minefield of banned substances short of having everything they ingest tested and approved by a doctor, nutritionist, or pharmacologist?
  • Will Palmeiro be able to clear his name after this incident? (To do so, he would have to determine that he tested positive because of something he took legally that contained an unlabeled banned substance.)
  • Could this result eventually deflate his chances of election to the Hall of Fame?

The answers to most of the specific questions about Palmeiro remain unknown mainly because of confidentiality issues, but I hope that the truth will be revealed in time. Meanwhile, the larger questions about drug testing will be in play for years and perhaps for good.

Baseball's drug-testing procedure is described in detail in the collective bargaining agreement (786-kB PDF) between the players and owners. The CBA was written in 2002 and its drug policy (Attachment 18, pp. 157-183) has been amended since then, but most of the changes have been to the punishments and the list of banned substances, not to the testing procedures. The collection procedures (Addendum A, pp. 172-175) indicate that a player must submit two samples taken 5 to 7 days apart and in the interim he must not take any nutritional supplements. The delay between samples is intended to isolate the supplements as the potential cause of a positive test result. The list of banned substances (Section 2, pp. 159-160 and Addendum C, pp. 178-183) is voluminous and includes seventeen steroids (Section 2.B, p. 160). As the program is still in an early stage, it is likely to be subject to continued tweaks and refinements.

For now, Palmeiro will serve his suspension and should return to play the rest of the season, but he will be subject to further drug tests for the remainder of his career per the CBA. And from now on, the doubts will swirl around him wherever he goes.

Update (10 p.m.): Baseball health maven Will Carroll has written an informative article about the Palmeiro firestorm on Baseball Prospectus. (Access to the article is free until the site's preview week ends Wednesday.) In it Carroll addresses some of the questions I asked above as well as a few other pertinent ones. Most of his answers are well-informed speculation based on the limited information that has been provided to the public thus far.


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I thought I'd collect links to what various bloggers are saying about the Palmeiro suspension. Negative: Athletics Nation feels they owe an apology to Canseco. Coalition of the Darkside is convinced of Palmeiro's guilt. Humbug Journal says it with poet... [Read More]

Comments (1)


Palmeiro has not revealed what he took -- so far he's sticking with the dubious answer that he doesn't know how the steroid (since identified as stanozolol) got into his body.

I'm no expert on supplements or bodybuilding products, so I can't help you much. If I were in your position, though, I'd steer clear of so-called legal steroid products. The fine print on SDI Labs' web site, for example, states this disclaimer: "The Domain Name Legal Steroids.com is representative of products that may enhance bloodlevels of steroid hormones in the body." In other words, "If you test positive for steroid use after taking our product, don't say we didn't warn you."


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