Players’ Union Drags Feet on Ephedra Ban

Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Major League Baseball Players’ Association (MLBPA) are facing a difficult situation: the death of 23 year-old pitcher Steve Bechler, minor league pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles.
The loss of any athlete is always a shock, as fans and coaches expect these athletes to be in peak condition. The truth of the situation is that, just like in any other profession, there are some people that take their job seriously, and some that do not.
Bechler arrived in training camp overweight and out of shape. This is not such an uncommon thing in sports. Some athletes take their off-season conditioning program more seriously than others, while a few disregard it completely. A prime example of this is Los Angeles Lakers superstar and vital cog of the three-time defending NBA champions Shaquille O’Neal, who waited almost until the season began to have surgery on his big toe.
What makes Bechler’s death especially difficult for the two ruling bodies of baseball is that the death may be linked to ephedra. Ephedra is a dietary supplement used in weight loss, and is found in supplements such as Ripped Fuel, Xenadrine, and Metabolife. As a supplement, it is unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
It is beneficial in weight loss, but can have many dangerous side effects, including heat illness, hypertension, seizures, comas, and death. It has caused numerous deaths in athletes, and this week was linked to the 2001 NFL preseason death of Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Korey Stringer.
It is a banned substance in the NFL, NCAA and the International Olympic Committee. MLB and the MLBPA reached a new drug testing agreement in 2002, but ephedra is not one of the drugs banned.
The MLBPA said during the negotiations that their athletes should be able to use enhancing supplements such as androstenedione, creatine, and ephedra, since these drugs are sold over-the-counter. The union’s current stance on ephedra is “wait and see.”
Union head Don Fehr said, “You can’t, it seems to me, draw any conclusions from this tragic event at the very least until we see what the toxicology reports show.” Meanwhile, a medical examiner for Bechler’s case has said that ephedra was very likely linked to his death, and a bottle of Xenadrine was found in Bechler’s locker the morning of his collapse. This may not quite be a smoking gun, but it is very, very close to one.
Why is the union so slow to move on banning ephedra? At the very least, banning ephedra makes the union and the league no longer liable in wrongful death suits, as it becomes the individual player’s initiative to use a banned substance. This defense will likely end the lawsuit against the Vikings by Korey Stringer’s wife, who in testimony admitted that her husband used Ripped Fuel. Even if Bechler’s death is related more to hypertension, an enlarged heart, or a history of heat illness (all conditions the pitcher had), the signs also point to ephedra.
The fact that Bechler died is indeed a tragedy. The idea that another player may have to die before the union makes a move to ban ephedra is almost senseless. Bechler’s death should be a lesson for MLB and the MLBPA, not a precursor of more deaths to come. The MLBPA needs to be responsible for its constituents and ban ephedra before another player dies.