By Tom Grant
PhD student, Center for ETHICS*
of New York Yankees pitcher Bartolo Colon has been phenomenal. So
phenomenal that Major League Baseball is investigating whether his
rehabilitation surgery may have been cheating.
Colon was the Cy
Young Award winner in 2005, when he went 21-8 for the Anaheim Angels.
But he tore his rotator cuff during the playoffs, and his career went
downhill rapidly. His best season since then was 4-2 with
the Boston Red Sox in 2008. He didn't play in 2010.
When the Yankees
signed him to a minor league contract in 2011, he was 37 years old and 25 pounds overweight. He's 38 now. But his record is 5-3 and he's throwing his fastball in the mid-90s.
The secret of his recovery, according to The New York Times, was stem cell treatment.
Stem cells, according to the National Institutes of Health,
serve as sort of an internal repair system. The doctor who treated
Colon in the Dominican Republic says he used a pioneering technique of
removing stem cells from Colon's bone marrow then injecting them in his
elbow and shoulder to help repair his ligaments and rotator cuff.
Was this just good medical treatment? Or is it cheating? The line is not clear. Here's what ESPN columnist Howard Bryant wrote:
real question is where on the continuum of available therapies
rehabilitation and recovery ends and gaming the system begins. One end
of the spectrum is Gatorade and aspirin, which are legal, available to
everyone and widely used. But it gets murkier as the treatments grow
more aggressive, experimental and scarce: from ibuprofen to cortisone,
glasses to laser eye surgery, Tommy John surgery to stem cell
procedures. What of cloning and gene therapy and the ideas doctors and
scientists are just beginning to explore in labs? It is a question that
has never been answered, and the league's attempts at regulation -- such
as limiting the number of cortisone shots a player can receive in a
given season -- disappear in a pennant race or contract drive.
Colon's doctor had used human growth hormone (HGH) to supplement the
stem cell treatment, as he has done for other patients, the case would
be clear. Major League Baseball has outlawed HGH and can test for it.
neither Major League Baseball nor the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA)
have a position on the use of stem cell treatments. Is using stem cells
to rehabilitate a pitching arm like using laser treatments to improve
eyesight or getting Tommy John surgery? Or is it more like using HGH in
baseball or blood doping in bicycling, which are both illegal. After
all, doctors can use HGH treatment for non-athletes and blood doping is
just taking an athlete's own blood and transfusing it back at a later
One way to look at it may be to consider whether the
treatment is truly for rehabilitation, or whether it is being used to
gain an advantage. Athletes should be allowed to rehabilitate. But even
that line seems blurry sometimes. HGH can be used for rehab, but it's
illegal. And anabolic steroids can help healing, too. And they're
illegal. In fact many medicines are banned in competition. Even beta
blockers, a common heart medicine are banned in some sports. Should the
old guy in a curling match be forbidden to use his medicine? WADA says
those beta blockers are cheating in curling.
Another way to look
at it may be to consider whether the athlete is being honest. If Colon
or his doctor lied about whether there was HGH in the treatment, that
would clearly be a violation of Colon's agreement with Major League
Baseball. But what if they told the truth about the treatment, but lied
about whether it was being used to gain advantage. What if he used stem
cells not merely to rehabilitate but to strengthen this arm. What if
anyone could use stem cell treatment to create a stronger throwing arm?
Would that be honest and fair?
And what about the other athletes
the doctor has treated with stem cells. No one noticed until Colon made
this dramatic comeback. But now many are noticing. Major League Baseball will have to
address that issue as more athletes try to for the Colon effect. Should stem cell
treatments be allowed or outlawed?