Mets pitcher Jenrry Mejia recently got banned for life from Major League Baseball for testing positive for steroids three times.
The internet wasn’t kind in its response.
WWE super-duper-duper star Daniel Bryan recently prematurely retired from professional wrestling after testing positive for concussion-based health issues.
The internet, in this case, was overwhelmingly supportive.
Both athletes were effective and popular. Both pushed their bodies to their human limits. Both are out of work way before a healthy career would otherwise dictate.
Our thesis, as usual, is:
What important truth do very few people agree with you on?
For a casual observer, Mejia faced a very straightforward rule, “Do not take steroids,” and then broke it, and then broke it, and then broke it. It draws to mind a 2nd grader who, despite being scolded by his teacher, can’t stop pulling girls’ hair. How can a grown man, a 26-year-old young adult, fly so brazenly in the face of the law?
Most of my peers believe Mejia, like all steroids users, is a bad guy. The truth is that if you write incentives a certain way, you can get almost anybody to behave badly.
Most of my peers believe that taking steroids is wrong. The truth is that if I were in Mejia’s shoes, I don’t know that I’d pass up the opportunity.
This idea is important, because it’s bigger than steroids, and bigger than personal health, and bigger than rule-breaking. It’s about incentivizing behavior of all kinds.
Let’s think critically about what might make Jenrry Mejia tick.
I found a profile on Mejia here. It explains that Mejia started shining shoes at age 11, and made the equivalent of $8 a day. He didn’t even grow up playing baseball; he only started at age 15 when he learned about Pedro Martinez’s $53 million dollar contract with the Mets in 2004.
Flash to 2015 where, even in light of his second outstanding steroids offense, Mejia signed a 1-year contract with the Mets worth $2.5 million. (He’d only receive a portion of that while serving his 2nd ban.) Here’s his professional earnings history. He earned $2.6 million in six years with the Mets. Think about this: If Mejia stuck to shining shoes, earning $2.6 million would’ve taken him a little over 890 years. If Mejia even lasted three more years in baseball before getting caught, he’d more than likely walk away with a millenium’s worth of shoe shining commissions.
You think Mejia is a bad guy for taking steroids?
Stanozolol, the drug Mejia got twice suspended for, can be consumed in a tablet or dissolved in water.
- Do you know what the active ingredients are in Advil? Do you know or care about the long-term health effects? Ibuprofen has long been closely linked to increased risk of heart failure, kidney failure, and liver failure. I’ve taken Advil. I didn’t have $2.5 million on the line; I had a headache.
- In 2011, Bradley Cooper starred in a movie called Limitless. “With the help of a mysterious pill that enables the user to access 100 percent of his brain abilities, a struggling writer becomes a financial wizard.” Limitless is actually the story of Jenrry Mejia. And it’s such a popular story that, in 2015, it got adopted into a successful TV show that’ll probably get renewed for a new season later this year.
- I’ve been casually offered Adderall, a pill prescribed for attention deficit disorder. I’ve never taken the stuff, but I know plenty who have; sometimes because it was prescribed to them, but other times to help with studying, exams, or work. These remarkably intelligent, relatively health-conscious peers of mine chomp prescription meds not because they have 890 years of working salary to gain, but because they’d rather get an A than a C.
Really, you still think Mejia is a bad guy for taking steroids?
Mejia looked at the situation around him, the possibilities in front of him, and the pills his friend in the white jacket was boosting and promised were fine, and he made a choice: Can I push my body a little bit more for this? Is it worth the risk? He looked back at his home town of Herrera, described only in the profile above as “mucho pobre” (“very poor”), and I think the answer was pretty obvious. “Yes.”
Speaking of “Yes,” this is almost the same exact decision that Daniel Bryan faced multiple times — and answered the same way. (You might say, his response was YES! YES! YES! YES!)
Bryan has a history of severe health issues. At one point he lost all strength in his right arm — for months — which required multiple neck surgeries to recover. Forget the nebulous future health ramifications that we’re trying to protect athletes from by banning steroids. THE DUDE’S ARM STRAIGHT UP WASN’T WORKING.
That’s not even what caused him to retire!
Bryan retired because of concussions. He’s had TEN — and that’s only the ones that have been documented.
Bryan walked away from his sport. Perhaps he reached a point where his success was enough. He was a world champion, he’s authored a book which will sell well, he married a beautiful WWE diva. He probably (unlike Mejia) doesn’t have many friends or family living in desolate poverty to support, having grown up as a middle-class kid in the US pacific northwest.
These are the same young men facing and making the same hazardous decisions. And they both acted very much in their own best financial interests at the expense of their health.
There is one meaningful difference between steroids and concussions, and it’s the idea of “fairness.” It’s not fair when some athletes have access to and abuse PEDs while others don’t. It can fundamentally unbalance and undermine the “tossup” nature of a sport. The same problem as when an athlete gambles on their own sport — even when they’re only betting on themselves. If one side has an advantage, physical or intellectual, the game is broken. There’s a reason why Pete Rose is the only other major league baseball player besides Mejia facing a lifetime ban.
What’s unclear to me, though: Is uneven access to steroids really so much worse than uneven access to healthcare providers? Like this one doctor in Phoenix who Bryan somehow found, who was willing to clear him to return to wrestling after 10 concussions, who Bryan insists “it’s not like he’s a quack doctor”. Maybe we should’ve banned Bryan from wrestling years ago.
I think one thing that most of my peers underestimate is how the majority of professional athletes are wildly under-educated. There are Jeremy Lin and Ryan Fitzpatrick who’ve graduated from Harvard, then there’s the fact that for the 2012 season, only 39 of the 913 people to appear in a Major League Baseball game had a college degree.
With that all said: I don’t think we should rush to evangelize Bryan or vilify Mejia. We’re no saints ourselves, though we hold our idols to higher standards. I don’t think we need better protocols to test for steroids or concussions; we need better education for our athletes about the ramifications. It’s a moral hazard problem. Mejia and Bryan advance themselves and see big green dollar signs overshadowing small red crosses, without any consideration for how their selfish decision-making could unravel the entire companies they work for.
And that’s a lesson I think we can all apply not just to sports but to our lives, where our peers, our subordinates, and sometimes we ourselves make morally hazardous decisions on a regular basis. Don’t just read the label, or the rulebook, but understand how the system itself is benefited or hindered by your actions.
The steroids and concussions problems in sports aren’t about the rules or about personal health, they’re about decision-making in moral hazard. The solution won’t be found in harder rules or more rigorous testing, but in better education.