Friday, December 08, 2006

Drug Testing

During the week of the ADT Championship, LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivens announced that the Tour would begin testing for performance-enhancing drugs beginning with the 2008 season. No specifics about penalties for one or more violations or exactly what drugs (PEDs) would be tested for were released. The announcement did mention that the policy would be developed by the LPGA during the upcoming season under a working agreement with the National Center for Drug Free Sport, the organization which manages testing programs for the NCAA and about 150 individual colleges and universities.

Since we don’t know what the various penalties will be, we can only as yet debate the wisdom of creating the policy. With the exception of a few rumors here and there, we haven’t heard anything about women golfers taking PEDs. That does not mean there isn’t a problem – if you don’t look out the window, you don’t know for sure if it’s raining or not. If you don’t test people for drugs, you have very little evidence that they are NOT taking them. I believe that drug tests are not 100% reliable but they are certainly much more reliable than you or me looking at before/after pictures of somebody, and follow-up testing or backup samples can be used to increase that reliability.

You can peg the November 15th announcement as a PR move by Commissioner Evil, and you would be correct (although I doubt she is truly evil). It was a win-win decision. Being proactive instead of reactive (a la MLB) comes across as a smart move. Also, giving a year’s advance notice before testing provides anyone in violation time to “clean up” and heads off the publicity of as many positive tests as possible. The perfect scenario for the LPGA would be that no players are or ever have been doping, but whether there was no one in violation to begin with or 50 doping players who got off their juice several months before, the first round of testing would show them PED-free. And if any players are in violation, the focus becomes “the player failed the test she had a year to get ready for” instead of “the LPGA’s new policy prevents the player from competing”.

Would taking a PED really help a golfer? I’m no expert on them, but I do know their basic benefits are increased muscle mass with a minimal decrease in flexibility, and a quicker recovery time from exertion. So the simple answer to me is “Hell yeah, it would help a professional golfer”. They already have the muscle memory to hit the ball squarely 99% of the time, the extra muscle with equal flexibility would equate to extra length (the one golf asset that is virtually impossible to teach), and the quicker recovery time would enable longer practice sessions and reduce overall fatigue over the long season. If I were a struggling player with a good short game who kept failing to earn a Tour Card every year, the temptation would be enormous.

As bad as the general public’s visible disdain for drugs is, the notion of drug testing itself has developed a stigma these last few years. I believe that stigma has its roots in invasion-of-privacy arguments, which as far as recreational drug use is concerned has reasonable grounds. Add to that another negative theme that testing for PEDs has spawned – with each positive test result you topple somebody’s idol, you effectively re-write history. Hero becomes villain. Some of us would rather they quit bursting our collective bubbles and let the participants run amok, popping and shooting themselves to early graves while we watch them perform for our amusement. Once this bunch is gone, don’t worry - they’ll make more!

But I can’t support that stance, especially with my female golfing heroines (yes, I see the irony in using that word). I have a personal attachment to these ladies – when Grace Park has to take six months away from the Tour because her back is bothering her, I hope for her to recover so she can come back to doing what she enjoys. It would devastate me to find out she was able to come back quickly because she took some “wonder drug” that ends up taking several years off of her life. It would infuriate me if Grace was to return to her playing level of 2004 and lose a major championship or honor to a player who was eventually found to be “enhancing her performance”. This may have already happened to YOUR favorite player.

If I wanted to watch a human hit a golf ball 400 yards, I’d watch the guys play and maybe sometime this summer one of them will do just that since the PGA doesn’t think it necessary to do any of that silly testing. How you can ultra-regulate the equipment these players can use in the name of competitive fairness and not regulate PEDs is beyond me. Just because some other sports organizations haven’t “seen the need” is no reason for the LPGA not to institute a policy that is reasonable and fair. The policy is not a “witch hunt” – the witches the good people of Salem were looking for didn’t really exist, while Carolyn Bivens is genuinely hoping she doesn’t find any. But she’s not going to let them be conjured up, either.

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