The Business of Major Leagues and its effects on the use of performance enhancing drugs

Hi! My name is Karishma, and as a part of my Exercise Science course, where we learn both the anatomy and physiology of our bodies, we were tasked with exploring the sociological issues that are present in sports today. In my opinion, one of the most prevalent issues in sports today is the use of performance enhancing drugs in sports. It has only been a few years since Lance Armstrong's doping scandal exposed just how sophisticated doping in sports has become, and in the post-Lance Armstrong world, testing has become tougher, evolving everyday to catch athletes in the act.

After some preliminary research, my aim was to investigate to what extent the commercialization of athletes affects the use of performance enhancing drugs. My interest was piqued when I read two conflicting opinions on the use of PEDs in the NBA (National Basketball Association). David Stern, a former NBA commissioner, stated in 2005 at a press conference, "It's not a problem," in reference to the use of PEDs in the league. In contrast, the director of WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency), Howard Stern, said in an ESPN article:

       "They've got gaps in their program, between what they do and what we suggest would be better," David Howman said.

       "They know what we would suggest," added Howman, who calls for the NBA to test for human growth hormone, among other things. "And I would just hope that they would be discussing all of those things rather than just putting them on the side table."

        The NBA declined [to] comment.

What made it even more interesting was that in the May of 2011, the Chicago Bulls' star point guard Derrick Rose said in response to a question about the level of doping in the NBA on a scale of 1-10 that it was a:

    "Seven. It's huge, and I think we need a level playing field, where nobody has that advantage over the next person."

Rose retracted his bold declaration the next day through his team.

With an obvious cover up and controversial statements about a sport with very little reported doping scandals, I turned my head to the NBA.

The NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) provided stats in 2012 that showed that only 0.03% of high school players make the jump to pro. Only 2.9% of high school players make the jump to college, and only 1.2% of those college basketball athletes go pro. And these numbers are simply for those that get drafted. It doesn't take into account how long these athletes stay in the league.

Such daunting numbers demonstrate that just to make it into basketball, you have to be a phenom. You have to be killing it, not just at your local high school, but in your state. And when (if) you do make it, the drive to be the best doesn't just suddenly vanish. In professional sports, you have a combined pool of extremely talented, competitive, and ambitious players. The incentive to be the best is evident in the numbers.

I plotted the NBA Ranks of the 2014-2015 Season (x-axis) vs. the Salary given to them (y-axis). It is an exponential decay. As you decrease in rank, your salary decreases exponentially. As you increase in rank, your salary increases exponentially. The incentive to be #1 is there. The competition is real and its dirty.

Furthermore, I found that endorsements and sponsorships from large companies are also a big motivation for athletes to be the best in their sport.

        "The highest-paid athletes often make more money from endorsements and other commercial activities than from salary and winnings. Companies try to find athletes with brand attributes that match those of the products the athlete is asked to endorse, or at least that match the attributes the company hopes to associate with those products. Companies . . . frequently point to a reputation as a winner who never gives up," said Anita Elberse, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.  

       "Brands want their endorsers to be successful, to be skillful and to play the game in style" (Sports Net Worker).

The top ten players in the NBA coincidentally have some of the most lucrative endorsement deals with large companies. In 2015, "In aggregate, the incomes of the NBA’s 10 highest earners rose 3% over the past year to $368 million, including $166 million from endorsements" (Forbes).

The following people are the four most highly ranked players in the league for the 2014-2015 NBA season.

Lebron James

#1. LeBron James

Total earnings: $64.6 million
Salary: $20.6 million
Endorsements: $44 million

In October, the NBA's top pitchman added Kia Motors to his endorsement portfolio, which already included Nike, McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Samsung, Beats by Dre, Upper Deck, Tencent and Audemars Piguet (Forbes)

Kevin Durant

#2 Kevin Durant

Total earnings: $54 million
Salary: $19 million
Endorsements: $35 million

The NBA's reigning MVP inked a blockbuster 10-year deal with Nike last summer that could be worth up to $300 million, including royalties. Other current sponsors include BBVA, Sprint, Sonic, Panini, 2K Sports, Skullcandy and more. (Forbes)

Kobe Bryant

#3 Kobe Bryant

Total Earnings: $49.5 million

Salary: $23.5 millon

Endorsements: $26 million

His current sponsors are Nike, Lenovo, Hublot and Panini, while pacts with Turkish Airlines, Coca-Cola and Mercedes-Benz expired in recent years. (Forbes)

Derrick Rose

#4 Derrick Rose

Total earnings: $38.9 million
Salary: $18.9 million
Endorsements: $20 million

Rose's 13-year, $185 million deal with Adidas was the biggest in the sport before Durant's new Nike pact. Other partners include Powerade, Wilson, Skullcandy, 2K Sports, Giordano's and Panini. (Forbes)

And finally, the average NBA player stays in the league for approximately 4.8 years (Business Insider). 4.8 years, take that in. They pushed their bodies to the limit for nearly a decade just to play in a league for five years. And so, the pressure is also there to go big or go home. After about five years, they might not be in the league anymore, so how will they sustain themselves? By being the best, as evidenced by many of the top players above (Kevin Durant's 13-year Nike endorsement deal), you can continue to make money well after your time as a player.

The combination of monetary and social rewards from being the top in your field provides a powerful incentive for athletes to get the edge over other players. The myth that basketball is above performance enhancers is naive. When players are willing to travel to Germany to inject platelet-rich plasma into their body to stimulate recovery and regeneration, to standing in line to soak their bodies in ice to "inspire a tiny amount of cellular movement", how can you say that players are not willing to go further?

In the ESPN article, "Tell me the NBA has no doping", Henry Abbott summed it up well:

      "That cellular activity, that recovery, could be coerced much more forcefully with pharmaceuticals. Similarly, the weights we'd been lifting -- we could lift more. The running could be done faster. PEDs are known to help in running, jumping, lifting and recovering. Some say human growth hormone can even help your eyesight. It's hard to find elements of basketball training where they wouldn't have the potential to make better players."

So why has the NBA not been caught with a major doping scandal? The will is there by its athletes, and no sport is immune, so what's missing?

The answer is simple. The NBA is a highly mutually-lucrative business for both the league and its players, and it makes absolutely no sense to intentionally sabotage it, which is what would happen if the drug policies became tougher and if the league started to crack down on its players.

'Many assume the sport is generally clean. But the testing program has never been a model. In 2005, lawmakers called the NBA’s anti-doping testing program “inadequate,” “pathetic” and “a joke.” A similar hearing in 2008 involved similar critiques, and sharp back-and-forths. Although the league has stepped up their program, federal intervention has been threatened time and again.' (ESPN)

Fans often disregard the effectiveness of anti-doping policies, convinced they will never catch up with the cheaters, but tougher and more aggressive anti-doping policies in cycling have resulted in a 10% drop in average fastest time of climbs and a 6% drop in average winning climbing rates of grand tours. Cycling, a cutthroat sport that was laden with doping, is now cleaning up its act. Evidently there is a better way, and if a league is serious about cleaning up their sport, they would do it.

How does the NBA Test?

The agreement that the NBA and the players' association reached in the 2011 lockout:

        "All players are subject to four (4) random tests each season (from October 1 to June 30). All players are also subject to two (2) random tests each off-season (from July 1 to September 30). All such tests are scheduled and conducted by an independent, third-party entity and are without prior notice to the player. The NBA and the NBPA are not involved in the scheduling of any tests or the selection of players for testing."


       "There is also a special course of treatment that allows NBA drug offenders to turn themselves in voluntarily, and as long as they abide by certain protocols, avoid punishment." (ESPN)

All major American leagues have more timid testing than, for example, the Olympics, because the policies are negotiated with powerful player unions who are "concerned about their members’ privacy."

The Penalties

For a first doping offence, it's a 20 game suspension. For a second, it's 45 games. For a third, it's a banishment from the league. (ESPN)

In contrast, a first failed test for "drug abuse"* (speed, heroin, LSD, etc) results in an instant disqualification from the league.

      *marijuana has more lenient standards.

The Problems with NBA's Current System

Lack of Transparency

The NBA has it's own policing program for PEDs, and this comes back to how the NBA is run like a business. As a business, it's not in your best interest to ruin what's making you money, and so it is questionable if there is any incentive to catch players.

In 2005, the medical director of the NBA's anti-doping system, Dr. Lloyd Baccus, testified that in 6 years, 23 NBA players tested positive for PEDs, but only 3 of those results, at his discretion, were not discarded (ESPN).

No Blood Testing and Biological Passports

While in heavy use in the Olympics, blood testing has been successfully banned by the players' union for being too "invasive." Drugs such as Human Growth Hormone (HGH), which is banned but not tested for in the league, are popular amongst athletes. By not allowing blood testing, it makes it extraordinarily harder for anti-doping testers to find out if an athlete is doping or not.

In addition, biological passports are when, "An athlete’s blood profile is assessed year-round, looking for the kinds of fluctuations that come with cheating, whether with blood boosters, anabolic steroids, stimulants, among others. When oddities arise, the athlete’s blood can be subjected to further scrutiny, including more expensive batteries of tests that do a better job identifying chemical supplements" (ESPN). With such an intense and meticulous approach, athletes are more likely to be turned off from risking the odds. However, this would require that the NBA do blood testing year-round, but it seems unlikely as they were unable to convince players' associations that any blood testing is acceptable.


Micro-dosing is when small doses of PEDs are taken, such as testosterone or blood boosting EPO, and the body can process and expel these banned substances in a matter of hours. The vulnerability is that the NBA's anti-doping program ruled that "testing in the middle of the night [is] both rude and invasive". By politely waiting in the morning, cheaters will have expelled the drug from their system by the time they are tested.


By having lax drug policies and not allowing outside organizations such as WADA (World Anti-Doping Association) to conduct them, the league ensures that if their athletes are doping, they can continue to dope. While disregarding the health and morale issues it has on the players and the league, by allowing them to continue to dope, both the league and the players continue to profit.

With a high incentive to dope and low penalties for being caught, it creates a prisoner’s dilemma (what is a prisoner's dilemma?).

"Unless the likelihood of athletes being caught doping was raised to unrealistically high levels, or the payoffs for winning were reduced to unrealistically low levels, athletes could all be predicted to cheat. The current situation for athletes ensures that this is likely, even though they are worse off as a whole if everyone takes drugs, than if nobody takes drugs.” (British Journal of Sports Medicine)

Finally, it is 2015. It has been three years since Lance Armstrong. It's insane that players can still hid behind unions. It's insane that the NBA (or any American professional leagues for that matter) do not have the best possible testing. Complacency should not be rewarded and players should be held accountable. We need blood testing. We need biological passports. We need them not in a few years, but now. We need to be able to believe what we can see.


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