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Longer PED Suspensions: Deterrent or Retribution?

In the wake of the Biogenesis reports linking several more Major League players to a PED supplier, Bud Selig has begun to talk about enacting stiffer penalties for failed drug tests. From last week:

“The time has come to make meaningful adjustments to our penalties,” said Selig, according to CBSSports.com’s Jon Heyman.”We need to do everything possible to deter the use of performance enhancing drugs … [the recent Biogenesis investigation has] driven my intensity to increase the toughness of our PED penalties … Apparently the penalties haven’t deterred some players.”

And then, earlier this week, Selig made this statement:

“If people want to continue to do what they shouldn’t do, then the one thing that you have to do is you have to have stricter penalties,” Selig said. “It’s as simple as that.”

If only it really were as simple as that.

In reality, punishment theory is actually a pretty complicated subject, and Selig’s oversimplification of the issue might be better PR than policy. It would be terrific if enacting harsher penalties actually stopped people from doing things that society didn’t want them to do, but unfortunately, the decision of whether or not to break the law is much more complex than simply weighing the benefit derived by breaking the rules against the cost of the penalty associated with getting caught.

I’m not a behavioral scientist and I don’t want to pretend that I know more about this than I do, but I have done some reading over the years on the motivations behind punishment and the relative effectiveness of those ideals. The generally accepted reasons for punishment include deterrence, retribution, incapacitation, and rehabilitation – most penalties fall under one of these four headings. Selig’s stated goal for harsher penalties is that of deterrence, but I wonder if we’re not getting to a point where actually increasing the severity of the suspensions would move MLB further from deterrence and closer to some combination of retribution and incapacitation.

I’d suggest that the list of players that Major League Baseball has suspended for failing a PED test should give us pause before thinking that longer suspensions are going to actually serve as a deterrent. With perhaps the notable exceptions of Melky Cabrera, Yasmani Grandal, and Carlos Ruiz, pretty much every other player that has had to serve a suspension — we’ll deal with the separate case of Ryan Braun in a minute — for a PED violation has either been a fringe Major Leaguer or a former star trying to hang on at the end of his career. Those who have actually been punished by MLB’s drug testing problem lean far more towards the Marlon Byrd/Kevin Frandsen pool of player types.

There are essentially two conclusions you can draw from the types of players that have been suspended to date – that the great players who are using have enough money to purchase PEDs that aren’t yet being tested for (or can afford to hire enough lawyers to get their suspensions overturned), or that the incentives for using PEDs are skewed towards those players who aren’t necessarily risking much by using in the first place. Personally, I think both conclusions are likely true to some extent, and the latter statement is why harsher penalties may not act as much of a deterrent to begin with.

If you’re a player on the fringes of the big leagues, you may very well become convinced that you will not have a Major League career without resulting to some chemical assistance. Former MLB player Erik Knott penned a great article on this very subject last week, and this paragraph is worth reading again even if you already read the article:

Moral objections aside, players who used steroids proved they would do whatever it took to get to the big leagues, and I didn’t. I could have ordered them and learned how to use them just as easily. Maybe I would have jumped from 87-91 to 90-93. That would have been enough velocity to get the ball by hitters from the left side. Control was never an issue for me, and neither was keeping the ball on the ground and in the park. Would that extra velocity have gotten me more swings and misses, more time in the bigs, and therefore more career earnings? As I sit here and reflect on it frankly, I think the answer is probably yes.

Knott believes that using PEDs may have given him a Major League career he might not have otherwise had, though he chose not to use them for reasons not related to the possibility of being caught. I’m sure he is not the only player who feels that they may have pushed him over the tipping point, and if one sees PED usage as the difference between a big league career and no big league career, then no length of suspension is going to deter him from using. After all, under that belief system, not using is essentially the same thing as imposing a lifetime ban on yourself. What is the difference between MLB keeping you out of the sport for failing a drug test and MLB keeping you out of the sport because you’re not good enough to play at that level? From a utilitarian perspective, both not using and getting a lifetime ban have the same result.

This is the problem with punishment-as-deterrent. There are too many scenarios in life where you cannot establish penalties harsh enough to move the needle on the decision. The only thing MLB can threaten to do is take away something that he believes he can’t receive without the use of PEDs in the first place, so the calculation of use-or-don’t-use has to come down to some other factor. In Knott’s case, it was his moral compass and his family. For someone in the same situation, but with less interest in what his father thinks about him and without a wife to encourage him to stay clean, what’s the motivation to not use? If the punishment can’t effectively act as a deterrent, then what?

That leads us into incapacitation. This is, essentially, the goal of the lifetime ban. If you can’t motivate a player to not use PEDs, then you can keep him from competing in MLB to begin with. Incapacitation is an effective reducer of crime, and there’s little question that moving to that ban more quickly would indeed reduce PED usage among Major League players. But it would get us to that reduced state of PED usage by throwing players out of the population, and if we’re actually looking to clean up the game, we should note what kinds of players have failed two PED tests so far: Neifi Perez, end-of-career Manny Ramirez, Guillermo Mota, Ramon Castro, Prentice Redman, Wilson Delgado, Luis Ugueto, Randy Ruiz, and Brian Mallette.

For all intents and purposes, those players are already serving lifetime bans. It might not be an official blacklisting, but Major League teams are not signing up for a third go around with twice suspended players. Codifying the rule into law might be a nice PR statement, but it wouldn’t actually change anything in the population of players being selected as potential MLB players. Right now, the 100 game suspension and the stigma that comes from that has been enough to keep teams away to begin with.

So, if we’re already practically incapacitating repeat users, then moving to a harsher penalty for second time violations is really more about retribution than anything else. There’s a natural element to wanting to punish people for violating the rules, and retribution serves to make us feel better about the justice system if we are punishing criminals for the crimes they have committed. But retribution isn’t as easy of a selling point for tougher penalties as deterrence, even if we eventually have to conclude that’s really what longer suspensions and a quicker path to an official lifetime ban would effectively be.

Michael Weiner, head of the player’s association, seems to understand quite well that this issue isn’t as black-and-white as Selig’s recent statements make it out to be. His response to Selig’s push for a “quick resolution” to the conversation of increased penalties for failed tests:

“There is a reasonable debate you could have in this context and the criminal justice context as to whether increasing the likelihood of detection is the way to deter — or increasing the penalty,” Weiner said. “There is a lot of serious study that says it doesn’t matter what the penalty is, it depends upon if you think you’re going to get caught.”

That last comment is really the key. If Major League Baseball wants to actually increase the deterrence of PED usage, the variable to increase is detection. You can change the calculation of whether to use or not by limiting the likelihood that a player will get away with it. If you can reduce the odds of successful PED usage without detection to a low enough point, then the benefit of using effectively goes away.

Most studies suggest that people respond much more favorably to incentives rather than penalties. The carrot works better than the stick. Even harsher penalties won’t do anything to change the incentive structure that is currently in place for players who see PEDs as their path to the big leagues. However, taking that path away through more thorough testing and increased detection can greatly reduce the allure of that incentive.

While harsher penalties might satisfy our desire to punish the bad guys that are sullying the good name of baseball’s pure history — tongue very much in cheek — I tend to side with Weiner. If MLB wants to reduce the amount of PED users in baseball, it is very likely that increased detection is the better path to pursue.

To MLB’s credit, they are also pursuing this path. HGH is being tested for in-season for the first time. Weiner’s statements suggest that the player’s association is willing to discuss implementing better testing procedures to cast a wider net and catch those who may have been getting away with PED usage previously. If we’re going to see further prevention of PED usage in Major League Baseball, it’s likely these changes — and not stiffer penalties — that effect actual change.