Stem cell therapy, athletes, and ethics
Coming into the 2011 baseball season Bartolo Colon was, by most accounts, done with Major League Baseball: he shuffled into spring training at least 30 pounds overweight, looking every bit of his 37 years; he had faced over five years of recurring ailments and disabilities, and he had finished out last year’s season with a damaged rotator cuff.
The former Cy Young winner has had his fair share of amazing games, but like most MLB pitchers heading towards their 40s, it seemed like retirement was imminent. But in 2010 Colon had some of his own bone marrow and fat stem cells injected back into his shoulder and elbow, as noted by the New York Times and Sports Illustrated. Now Colon is throwing, as noted by the Sports Law Blog, about one strikeout per inning, and his fastball has been clocked back up to 95mph.
From the Sports Law Blog:
There is no question that stem cell surgery has done wonders for a lot of people with serious injuries or disabilities and holds great promise for medicine. And like the innovation of Tommy John Surgery 35 years ago, stem cell surgery might allow pitchers and eventually batters to continue careers that would otherwise be shut down due to injuries, wear and tear or old age. Maybe we’ll see more guys playing at a high level into their late 30s and even 40s. More Julio Francos wouldn’t be a bad thing. Fans would get to see their favorite players play longer. And players, knowing that they could have 15 to 20 year careers, would likely take longer-term perspectives in how they view issues in collective bargaining.
I recall a fine essay titled “All Aboard the Bloated Boat: Arguments in Favor of Barry Bonds,” by Lee Klien (Barrelhouse), which notes, among many things, that fans want to see their players dash and smash and blast records right over the Giants Stadium wall into the bay (my words, not Klein’s), and in this instance I’m inclined to side with the editors over at the Sports Law Blog: I’d love to keep our favorite players in the rotation longer. Nobody wants to see someone retire due to injury, or leave the field early because of a blown-out knee or damaged rotator cuff. It’s nice to see athletes bow out when it’s time.
But the real question is if Colon, whose “surgery” is being investigated by the MLB, is cleared to keep playing with his rejuvenated shoulder and elbow, when does it become ethical to “treat” athletes? Tiger Woods had his vision augmented with “corrective” surgery, for example, and Human Growth Hormone can help athletes recover much more quickly. We seem to be treading into that mythical kingdom where we enjoy seeing our players do what they do best, but then we chastize them for enhancing their performance in one way or another. We are hypocrites by asking for purity, but lauding drug-induced successes.
In his essay, Klein notes that Barry Bonds, without HGH, may not have hit as many home runs, but how many other men could connect with a 92mph fastball, thrown by an amphetamine-addled pitcher from the Domincan Republican (mostly Klein’s words), and keep coming back for more? And in Colon’s case, he clearly is a top-tier pitcher, being the first Anaheim Angel to earn the Cy Young award since Dean Chance was honored back when my mother was in grade school (’64). I’m not Yankees fan, but I certainly wouldn’t want to take away the career of a man who is back in true form, and therefore I’m unsure where the MLB is going with their investigation.
But the point of all of this is to say that I’m surprised more hubub hasn’t been raised on this issue since it clearly is going to make a big difference in the world of professional upgrades, whether the MLB sides for it or against it. And until then, I wish Colon the best as he huffs and puffs and chases down those bunted balls out in New York.