Dan Sutter: Steroids and positional goods


Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were recently not elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in their final year of eligibility, reportedly over their use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). The case illustrates some of the economics of rules and the nature of “positional goods.”

The case for both Bonds and Clemens based on performance is overwhelming. Bonds is the career and single-season leader in home runs and won seven Most Valuable Player Awards. Clemens won 354 games, ninth all-time, and seven Cy Young Awards. Each was compiling Hall of Fame (HOF) careers before ever using PEDs.

Baseball’s all-time hits leader, Pete Rose, is also not in the HOF, banned for life by Commissioner Bart Giamatti for betting on games while managing the Cincinnati Reds, making him ineligible for the Hall. Precedent exists to exclude greats from Cooperstown. But Pete Rose knowingly broke a rule for which a lifetime ban was a plausible penalty. By contrast, MLB never punished Bonds or Clemens for PED use. Indeed, MLB promoted the steroid-fueled home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998.

PEDs are one of many ways players can improve their performance. We celebrate players doing everything they can to get better and gain advantage. We find the contests compelling because the players take them so seriously and perform at such a high level. Why ban some efforts to improve performance?

Adverse health consequences provide an immediate answer. But on closer examination, other ways to gain competitive advantage harm health and are not banned. Most NFL offensive linemen weigh over 300 pounds. Every extra pound increases stress on the heart, and many players never lose this weight when finished playing. Many others adversely impact work-life balance. Aspiring tennis stars, for example, have long sacrificed any semblance of normal teen years.

Why do leagues need rules to keep players from potentially damaging their health? Economics provides insight. Individually players achieve an advantage by taking PEDs. Yet only the top 750 players make the big leagues, and only stars sign $100 million-plus contracts. Two thousand aspiring big leaguers could take PEDs and be able to hit baseballs farther, but the number of available roster spots will not increase.

If most players take PEDs or if all football linemen bulk up, the competitive advantage cancels out. Roster spots are what economist Robert Frank labeled “positional goods,” cases where position versus others matters. With widespread steroid use, players incur health risks without gaining a competitive advantage and not stop and risk their roster spot.

League-wide rules are necessary to regulate PEDs and other undesirable efforts to achieve an edge in the quest for positional goods. And with a rule in place, penalties are justified because everybody knows the rules.

What types of efforts at improvement should be banned? Given the numerous ways to improve performance, no alternative exists to letting leagues decide. Owners, management, and players have their interests (both physical and financial) at stake and can best balance benefits and costs. When steroid use began to diminish fan interest, MLB implemented penalties for positive tests.

Because MLB did not implement penalties for steroid use until 2004, Mr. Bonds and Mr. Clemens were arguably not breaking the rules. Yet steroids were already technically banned in baseball in the 1990s. I say technically because Congress banned anabolic steroids in 1990, bringing them under MLB’s rules against possession and use of illegal drugs.

PEDs in baseball demonstrate the futility of externally imposed prohibitions. Prohibitions can always be evaded. Psychologists know that behavior problems go unchecked until a person recognizes that they have a problem and need to change. Only a commitment from players and owners will result in prohibitions with teeth.

I frequently extol freedom, but individuals will sometimes want to sacrifice some freedom to regulate competition for positional goods. Only clear rules demarcate vigorous competition from impermissible advantage. Baseball never punished Mr. Bonds or Mr. Clemens for PED use, so I disagree with HOF voters doing so.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.