Swing and a miss, or a home run? Anti-doping experts don't agree

Originally Published: December 13, 2007
By John Helyar | ESPN.com

The highly anticipated Mitchell report played to highly mixed reviews among anti-doping officials and crusaders.

To some, former Sen. George Mitchell might have just hit a game-winning home run.

To others, he took a great big swing at baseball's great big steroids problem, and missed.

"It was a recitation of history. It was another validation there's a problem. But we've got to do better than that," said Gary Wadler, a New York physician and consultant to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) who found the report long on pages (409 of them) but short on new insights and initiatives.

[+] EnlargeDr. Gary I. Wadler
Scott J. Ferrell/Getty ImagesDr. Gary Wadler wanted more than a history lesson from the Mitchell Report, and doesn't think he got it.
"I wanted to know the testing numbers, to know specific recommendations for changing the testing program," Wadler SAID. "I got nothing of this."

To WADA chairman Dick Pound, the ballyhooed report betrayed just how little some things have changed with Major League Baseball.

"The players' association has behaved outrageously in refusing to cooperate," Pound said. "I don't understand how [union members] have allowed their leadership to do this. Every baseball player walking down the street has people looking at him and thinking, 'He's a user.'"

The reality is it will require union buy-in to implement some of Mitchell's key recommendations. One is turning drug-testing over to an independent administrator. (It's now handled by a committee made up of representatives from the players' union and ownership.) Another is conducting year-round, no-notice testing. The current system, part of MLB's collective bargaining agreement, was negotiated in 2005 and is to be in force until 2011.

While that deal toughened baseball's drug-testing procedures and sanctions, it still left MLB in an untenable position, according to Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).

"You can't both promote and police your report; it doesn't work," Tygart said, noting that WADA and USADA were created as independent agencies after Olympics organizations proved ineffective at regulating doping.

Tygart liked Mitchell's call for an independent drug-testing administrator. USADA would be a logical candidate for the job. He also liked Mitchell's call for a stronger investigation arm in the commissioner's office to look into illicit drugs. USADA worked alongside federal prosecutors to investigate Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative.

[+] EnlargeRichard W. Pound
AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de OlzaRichard Pound pointed a finger at the Players Association for the shortcomings in the Mitchell Report.
But Tygart didn't like Mitchell's recommendation of amnesty, or something like it, for the players named in the report.

"I think any violation that undermines the integrity of a sport should be dealt with," said Tygart, who called the report's release "a sad day for the national pastime."

But in its own way, some experts believe, Thursday might also prove to be a red-letter day.

"This is a historic event, just as March 17, 2005 was," said John Hoberman, a University of Texas professor who has chronicled the history of sports doping, referring to the congressional hearings on steroids. "Mitchell has just hit everybody involved with a big club."

As Hoberman sees it, commissioner Bud Selig fell into step immediately with Mitchell's findings and recommendations. And while MLBPA chief Donald Fehr did not, the report rachets up the pressure on the union to give further ground on drug matters, just as the congressional hearings did. (The union agreed to stricter drug testing and sanctions in November 2005, as Congress was considering taking action of its own.)

Donald Hooton, a central figure in the March 2005 hearings in Washington, was present at Mitchell's presentation in New York. He is the brother of former big league pitcher Burt Hooton and the father of Taylor Hooton, a Texas schoolboy whose death was linked to steroids use. He was a powerful witness for steroids' potentially tragic consequences.

Hooton was thrilled that the report touched on steroids' impact not just on major leaguers but schoolboy players, too. He was happy to hear Selig tell him, in a meeting after the Mitchell news conference, that, "MLB is going to implement all of these recommendations that are up to management."

[+] EnlargeDonald Hooton
Scott J. Ferrell/Getty ImagesDonald Hooton Sr., whose son committed suicide after steroid use, applauded baseball for the Mitchell investigation.
MLB contributed $1 million over two years (2005 and 2006) to the Taylor Hooton Foundation, started by the late pitcher's father to promote steroids education. Donald Hooton hopes to get more funding now to help MLB implement another Mitchell recommendation: more steroids education.

Hooton sees the Mitchell report itself as an educational -- and impactful -- document.

"There have been a series of waves on this -- the hearings, BALCO, Bonds -- and I think today was another one of them," he said. "They have raised awareness about steroids and lately they have raised consciousness about the penalties. You can go to jail. You can give up your reputation. Before, I don't think that got through to kids."

For Donald Hooton, the unveiling of the Mitchell report made for some amazing moments: standing near the senator as he gave his presentation; meeting with the commissioner in his office.

But the most amazing of all, he said, was the thought that hit him at one point during Thursday's proceedings: "Taylor is alive."

John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He previously covered the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine and is the author of "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball."

John Helyar

Sports Business
John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He previously covered the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine and is the author of "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball."