After the embarrassments before Congress and the public shaming and the cries for a clean game and the protestation that Major League Baseball is really, truly, swear-on-momma's-grave trying to tidy its act, get this: a baseball player can still swallow a steroid with absolutely zero repercussions.
It's true. There is a drug called dehydroepiandrosterone, better known as DHEA, and it's legal in the United States and available at your friendly neighborhood meathead market. Experts are divided on the performance-enhancing impact of DHEA. On the steroid spectrum, it is considered a lower-grade testosterone.
But a steroid it is. The NFL, NBA, NCAA, NHL, Olympic doping programs saw through the political malarkey that allowed it to avoid the controlled-substance label of its testosterone-boosting cousin androstenedione, or andro. Baseball has 58 anabolic androgenic steroids on its prohibited list. DHEA is not one of them.
And while the inconsistency has always stood out, it was given relevancy last week when the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that Manny Ramirez's(notes) representatives were prepared to appeal his suspension by citing DHEA use as the reason for elevated testosterone levels in his urine. As MLB geared up for the hearing, it found evidence that the Dodger slugger received a prescription for a banned woman's fertility drug. Ramirez did not contest receiving the prescription, accepted a 50-game suspension for it, and the DHEA argument was not tested.
It is clear, however, that DHEA might be used as a loophole through which steroid users could escape. MLB scoffs at the idea, a spokesman saying that the loophole "has, in our experience, been purely hypothetical." The doctor in charge of the lab that runs baseball's drug tests, Christiane Ayotte of the INRS-Institut in Montreal, said her work specializes in finding individual metabolites of performance-enhancing compounds.
So if an athlete claims to be taking DHEA when actually taking a banned steroid, Ayotte said she could tell the difference. Therefore, MLB could have evidence to establish whether Ramirez's testosterone level was elevated from taking DHEA or a banned substance.
"We know very well how to differentiate those produced by androstenedione, DHEA and testosterone," Ayotte wrote in an email. "Well, most of the time."
The couching of Ayotte's answer is more careful than unsure, the science behind doping detection so complicated that she doesn't want to speak in absolutes. MLB and the MLB Players Association, on opposite sides of the debate over banning DHEA, said they believe in the veracity of Ayotte's testing.
Still, the Ramirez episode illustrated that even if a loophole doesn't exist, cheats are not above trying to create one. Any doubt reflects poorly on a drug program that knew Ramirez had elevated testosterone but ensured a suspension only by ensnaring him with a prescription for a female reproductive hormone on the banned list. Whether Ramirez could have successfully argued that DHEA caused the spike in his testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio is uncertain – and it's possible that he could have taken DHEA in addition to an illegal testosterone booster in an attempt to disguise the use of the banned substance.
"There's always a potential for a loophole," said Anthony Butch, head of the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory, another World Anti-Doping Agency-affiliated lab.
Like Ayotte, Butch cautioned the likelihood is minimal. Though so was the re-emergence of DHEA itself, one of the more unlikely tales in the multi-billion-dollar dietary supplement industry.
The Food and Drug Administration first banned the substance in 1985. However, under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act nine years later, DHEA not only became legal, it was reclassified as a supplement. In 2004, lawmakers tried to add it to the list of drugs under the Anabolic Steroid Control Act that are illegal to obtain without a prescription. Andro was on the list, along with more than 40 other new drugs. As a compound that in the body metabolized to testosterone, DHEA made great sense for inclusion.
One problem: Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) fought it. An outspoken advocate for nutritional supplements, Hatch was especially bullish on DHEA, threatening to torpedo the bill so long as it remained in it. That was no surprise. Hatch's son, Scott, worked as a lobbyist for a company that produced DHEA. Hatch's influence won out, and DHEA remained a legal over-the-counter steroid, an orphan in the performance-enhancing drug world.
There has been a movement against it, started by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). He twice read the Dehydroepiandrosterone Abuse Reduction Act of 2007 in front of the Senate, only to see the lobby he called "fairly powerful" squash it. He's trying again this year, having introduced a similar bill in March that tries to limit DHEA sales to people under 18 without a prescription.
Grassley said DHEA should be outlawed, period, "because of the dangers from the drug. Liver damage. Possibly leading to cancer. Such drugs ought to be regulated." Though some experts believe such side effects are possible, no long-term studies have been done on DHEA to verify that.
MLB not including DHEA on its banned-substance list, Grassley said, "speaks to the strength of the union and ignorance about the issue. As far as I'm concerned, if every other sport does it, baseball ought to do it. Why they aren't, I don't know."
The answer is simple: The union is strong, and it didn't want to ban something that the government said is OK, no matter how ludicrous the reason behind DHEA's legality. So during the last collective-bargaining agreement, the players' association held strong on keeping DHEA safe.
"We don't contend there's a scientific base to say DHEA is in one camp and andro should be in another, because there isn't," said Michael Weiner, the union's general counsel. "If the United States Congress decides a substance should be able for purchase over the counter, though, we take the same position. We're not searching for any loophole.
"I don't think it reflects poorly on our program that we have a principle. You can be against illegal performance-enhancing-drug use but still be in favor of fairness. I'd put our banned list up against the banned list of the other professional sports. I can justify our banned list."
Though proud of the list, too, MLB would prefer it included one more drug.
“We have consistently advocated for the inclusion of DHEA on the banned list and the union has resisted based on Congress' decision to allow its sale over the counter," Rob Manfred, MLB's chief labor executive, said in an email. "Nonetheless, the program has effectively handled the DHEA issue because the lab has been able to distinguish adverse findings associated with DHEA from those caused by other banned substances such as testosterone."
So he and the rest of baseball hope. Because the last thing the sport needs when potential Hall of Famers are dropping right and left, casualties of their own bad decisions, is having the authenticity of its testing thrown into question.
The program did its job catching Ramirez. And it keeps going, same as always, samples coming in, getting tested for those 58 banned substances and many more, with everyone crossing their fingers that the last legal steroid doesn’t slip through a loophole.