Floyd Landis and the future of baseball drug testing

Floyd Landis lost his 2006 Tour de France title, in a 2-1 decision that took well over a year to complete. It’s the first time the Tour de France has stripped a winner of their title over a drug offense, despite cycling’s long-standing reputation as the dirtiest of pro sports and the extremely aggressive drug testing program cycling’s pursued. In addition to the title loss, Landis will also face a two-year cycling ban, and may see additional sanctions from the French. He might appeal, but it looks like it’s pretty much over. In the saga we can see the depressing future of drug testing in competitive sports:
– a title in dispute for so long the next year’s event is completed well before a decision is made
– extremely complicated disputes over lab policy and
– no clear winner
– many losers

I’ve tried to follow the case as closely as possible, as I’m a big cycling fan, and I still don’t entirely know what to think. Landis went after the testing as flawed, not done to World Anti-Doping Agency rules (WADA, if you remember, is always happy to trot someone out to attack baseball’s drug testing as trivial and whatnot, in part because baseball doesn’t use WADA, and… anyway). And it wasn’t. Landis claimed there was a conspiracy to frame him, and while that didn’t come out, they found all kinds of problems at the lab, including this whopper of a statement, quoted in the ESPN write-up:

“If such practises continue, it may well be that in the future, an error like this could result in the dismissal” of a positive finding by the lab.

The arbitrator who sided with Landis agreed there were enough flaws to dismiss the positive – to find Landis innocent.

Was he guilty? I have no clue. Probably, but there’s just no way to say for sure.

How long before we see a similar situation in baseball? Consider a high-profile pitcher who tests positive for steroids, and is suspended 30 days. That’s only six starts, but they’ve got every incentive – and much, much deeper pockets – to defend themselves. I’m a little surprised, given the damage to his reputation, that Rafael Palmeiro didn’t bury the story in lawsuits when he tested positive. But it’s entirely likely that we could see a player during a season mount a massive, public defense of themselves while continuing to play, as the fans of other teams scream in horror each time he takes the mound.

And the second positive, with a one-season ban? That’s worth millions to a player. They’d have little to lose attacking the system.

It’s quite likely that baseball will look to sports that have coped with rampant drug use for cues in their own battle. We could soon see players who have multi-home run games tested after games, or increased random tests for players who exceed certain performance thresholds in a week, or even who perform better than their career norms. Teams who win pennant races all might be subjected to mass tests, and then tests in each round of the playoffs – or more often. And at that point, it would only be a matter of time before a postseason was thrown into dispute.

It’s certain, though, that even if baseball doesn’t pick up the kind of increased testing that nabbed Landis, it will inevitably face the same kind of long, drawn-out scandal, and would do well to be prepared.