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Commentary: Let shame be A-Rod's punishment

  • Story Highlights
  • Jeffrey Toobin: Congressional hearings put top baseball players on the spot
  • He says best way to respond to steroid use is to publicly disclose test results
  • Athletes concerned with their reputations would steer clear of drug use, he says
  • Toobin: Drug use won't disappear but exposure and shame will help
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By Jeffrey Toobin
CNN Contributor
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Editor's note: Jeffrey Toobin is a CNN senior analyst and a staff writer at The New Yorker. A former assistant U.S. attorney, Toobin is the author of several critically acclaimed bestsellers, including "The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court" and "Too Close to Call: The 36-Day Battle to Decide the 2000 Election."

Jeffrey Toobin

Jeffrey Toobin says the best way to respond to steroid use is to publicly disclose test results.

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Congressional hearings rarely produce much news of interest, or much good for the world, but the House Government Reform Committee did a great service to baseball -- and the country -- on March 17, 2005.

That was the day that several great stars of the recent era, including Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro, were forced to answer questions about steroids.

McGwire hedged (he said he didn't want to talk about the past); Palmeiro may have lied (he later tested positive); and the usually talkative Sosa developed a sudden unfamiliarity with the English language (he testified in Spanish).

But the public got to see the stars squirm, and made its own judgments about the place of steroids in the game. To paraphrase Justice Louis Brandeis (a Bostonian if not a Red Sox), sunlight was the best disinfectant.

Those hearings came to mind, of course, when si.com broke the news that Alex Rodriquez, probably the greatest player now in the game, tested positive for steroids in 2003. (Rodriguez admitted in an interview with ESPN Monday, that he took performance-enhancing drugs while a member of the Texas Rangers for three years starting in 2001.) Video Watch Rodriguez admit to taking a 'banned substance' »

The revelations about A-Rod prompted many of the same questions that the hearing did nearly four years ago. Should he be punished? Stripped of his records? Prosecuted? Expelled from baseball? These are hard questions, but my answer is no; what he should be is exposed.

The reputations of McGuire, Sosa and Palmeiro have never recovered from the exposure they received in 2005. The same will likely go for A-Rod, who will play the rest of his career under the shadow of the disclosure about him.

The problem with doing more to steroids users is that it risks an endless cycle of litigation about the details of the testing program and the list of prohibited drugs.

Performance enhancing drugs are endlessly evolving and the line between the permissible and the prohibited is often far from clear. It would be good to think that we could always identify and punish offenders, but I'm sure that's pretty much impossible.

So why not establish a system that makes public any kind of drug test that reveals a substance that is potentially performance-enhancing? Let the issue be decided in the court of public opinion.

Players (especially A-Rod) care deeply about their public images, and they may decide they don't want to risk their reputations and thus steer clear of the juice.

Obviously, the most dangerous drugs will always have to be prohibited, but for all the others, the prospect of public exposure may deter more athletes than the uncertain prospect of expulsion or other punishments.

It's tempting to continue to expand the list of prohibited drugs and possible punishments. This is especially true because it is the lesser athletes -- the No-Rods -- who will always be most tempted to abuse performance enhancers, and they are less likely to be deterred by public exposure; all they want is to make it in the pros. But in our litigation-happy society, the best strategy is not always the harshest.

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Drugs will never disappear, but the power of public exposure -- and the accompanying shame and ridicule -- has its place in the steroids battle, too.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeffrey Toobin.

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