Alex Rodriguez and the invisible depths of steroid abuse.

Science, technology, and life.
Feb. 9 2009 7:35 AM

Tip of the Juiceberg

If A-Rod flunked a drug test, what else don't we know?

Also in Slate: Tim Marchman argues that nobody liked Alex Rodriguez before the steroids and nobody likes him now.

Alex Rodriguez #13 of the New York Yankees.
Alex Rodriguez 

Alex Rodriguez took steroids once in 2003 … right?

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Actually, we don't know that. All we know is what Sports Illustrated reported Saturday: that four sources say "Rodriguez's name appears on a list of 104 players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs" in 2003. According to Major League Baseball, it's still just an "allegation."

But what's really unsettling about the report isn't that there's less doping here than meets the eye. It's that for several reasons, there's probably much, much more.

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Let's look at the A-Rod iceberg from the top down. Start with the part we can see above the water's surface: His name is on the list of flunked players. As today's New York Times explains, "the players had agreed to the 2003 tests under the condition that their results would never be revealed."

How many other tests have been taken and flunked but, under rules dictated by the players, never disclosed to the public?

Second: The Major League Baseball Players Association could have destroyed the results—and is now being denounced by baseball officials and pundits for not doing so.

How many test results has the players association destroyed?

Third: These results ended up in the government's hands through a bizarre series of legal flukes and errors.

How many other positive test results are still out there, unknown to the government?

Fourth: The players association is asking courts to suppress the list on which Rodriguez appeared and is threatening legal consequences for anyone who even talks about it.

How many other lists have been obtained by the government but successfully suppressed?

Fifth: A drug test doesn't show when you started using the drug. It shows when you got caught. How long was Rodriguez doping before this test? Steroid evangelist Jose Canseco has already alleged that he hooked up Rodriguez in the late 1990s with a trainer who later indicated to Canseco that Rodriguez had begun doping. SI's Tom Verducci lays out additional grounds for suspicion, wondering how Rodriguez could be "so unlucky as to be caught the first and only time he tried something." Verducci asks:

Does it make any sense that somebody resisted steroids for eight years in places such as Seattle and Texas in the Wild West days when there was no drug testing or public pressure whatsoever, and then suddenly (and with the security of a $252 million contract in his pocket) choose to use them precisely when drug testing and the public pressure are put in place for the first time?

Sixth: The steroid for which Rodriguez tested positive was Primobolan, a drug on which players allegedly relied to fool the 2003 drug tests. As SI explains, "Primobolan is detectable for a shorter period of time than the steroid previously favored by players, Deca-Durabolin."

If Rodriguez was using drugs calculated to evade detection, how many other tests did he and others beat this way? How many tests are they still beating?

Seventh: Three players reportedly told SI that the chief operating officer of the players asociation tipped Rodriguez about a 2004 drug test that was supposed to be a surprise. Their allegation echoes the 2007 Mitchell report. A tipped player can beat the test by flushing the forbidden drugs from his system or using other drugs to mask them.

How many times did Rodriguez and others escape detection thanks to tips?

In fact: Did Rodriguez flunk the 2003 test precisely because its results were never supposed to be disclosed—and therefore a tip was thought to be unnecessary?

And while we're at it, SI's Selena Roberts astutely asks: Why would the players association boss tip a clean player? Wouldn't you tip the guy you suspect might otherwise flunk?

Eighth: As Tim Marchman points out in Slate, we're just now finding out, six years later, about the 2003 test. We know Rodriguez was using what was then a state-of-the-art drug for evading detection.

What are the chances that the state of the art hasn't advanced in those six years? How many players are fooling today's tests? When, if ever, will we find out about it?

Remember, none of this is conclusive evidence. These are just questions. Maybe Rodriguez never doped until the testing program began, and he was caught the first time he tried it. Maybe he was tipped just that one time and just as an innocent favor. Maybe it's pure coincidence that he chose Primobolan. Maybe the state of the art hasn't advanced, and every player on steroids is being caught. Maybe no other lists of failed test results have been destroyed, concealed, or legally suppressed.

And if you believe that, I've got a $275 million slugger to sell you.

(Now playing at the Human Nature blog: 1. Is it OK to pay for kidneys? 2. The underworld of Middle East tunnels. 3. Body parts made from trash.)