Yesterday, Major League Baseball announced that Philadelphia Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz would be suspended for the first 25 games of the 2013 season for “testing positive for an Amphetamine in violation of Major League Baseball’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.” According to Philly.com’s Matt Gelb and Bob Brookover, the Amphetamine in question is Adderall, a prescription drug used to treat narcolepsy and more commonly attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). While there haven’t been any reports as to whether or not Ruiz has been diagnosed with ADHD (or narcolepsy for that matter) and whether or not he had a legal prescription for the drug, the point is moot in the eyes of MLB, who list Adderall on their list of banned substances. Those who are prescribed Adderall by a MLB-certified doctor can apply for an exemption; since Ruiz didn’t have an exemption, it doesn’t matter (in MLB’s eyes) whether Ruiz had a legal prescription or not (I’ll get back to that later.)
The main issue I have with the discussion about Ruiz that has already happened (and which I knew would happen as soon as I heard the news) was how some people (both journalists and common folk) have just lumped this suspension in with “performance enhancing drugs” (PEDs) – the new catchall term used by people who want to talk about tainted the game is now because damn it everything was better when we were children. The term used to be “steroids” back when – well, when it actually was steroids and Lyle Alzado was dying on Sportscenter and Ivan Drago was getting injected with them so that he could kill Clubber Lang, reminding us how horrible drugs are. “Steroids” became “performance enhancing drugs” as kind of a blanket legal term to cover human growth hormone, other supplements that built muscle, Super-Soldier Serum, gamma radiation, adamantium-bonded skeletons, and crap no one’s ever heard of yet. In doing so, the trend is to lump any drug not approved by MLB as a PED, because hey – why would a baseball player take any kind of drug that wouldn’t make them perform better, right?
Understand this – MLB isn’t classifying Adderall (or any amphetamine for that matter) as a performance enhancing drug. Ruiz was suspended for 25 games, whereas a steroid/PED suspension starts at 50 games for a first offense. However, it’s easy to start to make assumptions, especially in the case of Ruiz, who had arguably his best major league season last year, making his first All-Star team. But for whatever reason Ruiz tested positive for Adderall, it most assuredly wasn’t to enhance his performance, at least not directly.
I should know – I’ve been taking Adderall (well, it’s generic equivalent) for over a year now. It’s legally prescribed for my ADHD. If Ruiz is becoming some sort of super athlete by taking Adderall, well then the brand name must be a hell of a lot different than the generic.
Adderall (and other ADHD drugs I’ve taken in the past) help with focus. For those with attention problems, it can mean the difference between starting eight projects and finishing none of them to starting and finishing one. It does this – in my experience – by tricking the brain into ignoring other possible sensory signals. It doesn’t mean they’re not there – it just means that they aren’t that important if you’re doing something else. Something like smelling coffee brewing, which otherwise might make you get up to get a cup, doesn’t take a priority. It doesn’t prevent you from getting a cup if you’re thirsty; Adderall doesn’t put blinders on you and put you in some noise-free vacuum. It just makes those things less important and easy to forget.
The “forget” thing is key here. As I said earlier, Adderall “tricks” your brain into focus so that things that are outside of what you’re currently doing don’t take a priority. You don’t necessarily have the focus – it’s just that other things that might take that focus away are prevented from doing so. If you have something that you don’t want to do because it bores the hell out of you, Adderall isn’t going to help you. If Carlos Ruiz hates taking batting practice, taking Adderall isn’t going to make him show up at 7AM on game day and spend 8 hours in the cage. It’s not a hypnosis drug. That said, if Carlos Ruiz takes Adderall and goes to a local batting cage at 7AM to get an hour of batting practice in on an off day, there’s a possibility he misses a lunch date if he’s not wearing a watch with an alarm.
The forgetting is weird too in that it’s unnatural. Someone once told me that taking Ambien (an insomnia drug) did the job it said it did – it put him to sleep – but that the sleep wasn’t natural, and didn’t necessarily refresh him like actually going to sleep would. The same can be said for Adderall – it gives you “focus”, but it does so not by causing you to actually focus on a task, but to dull down the things that might take the focus away. This can be a blessing and a curse. Sure, I don’t find myself getting up from my desk every ten minutes to see what other people are doing, but the “forgetfulness” also affects natural triggers that you wouldn’t necessarily want to take away normally. When I’m on Adderall, I generally don’t eat lunch or even take a lunch break. It’s not that I’m “not hungry” necessarily, but the desire to eat gets “forgotten” just the same as the desire to go out or the desire to see what my friend on the other side of the office is doing. Eventually, if I didn’t have breakfast before I took the meds, my body gets pissed off and wants food, overriding the “forgetfulness”, but by then it’s maybe 4 in the afternoon and eating a meal spoils any dinner that might be waiting for me when I get home from work. Again note that this is if I’m left alone; if a group of office friends came over to my cube and asked if I wanted to go out to lunch, Adderall isn’t going to block them out so I don’t hear the request. But it might cause me to forget to meet them at the restaurant if they asked me to meet them in a half-hour. It’s not that I wanted to forget, even on a subliminal level. It just happens.
Adderall isn’t going to impair your own natural senses of danger or emotion; the drug doesn’t make you a zombie. If something catches fire next to you, Adderall isn’t going to cause you to block that out or “forget” that it’s there. However, if you see something that might be a fire hazard when you’re walking through the building, by the time you get to your desk the desire to mention it to someone might disappear (unless that’s your job).
So, you can see why something like Adderall might be appealing to an athlete who is training, whether it be studying film or working out. However, the drawbacks are there as well. Adderall users (me included) generally have some issue with sleep. While it’s easy to assume that the reason for this is due to the stimulant constantly driving you to do something active, it’s not. Adderall dulls your brain’s natural signal to go to sleep just the same as it does other outside stimuli that might cause you to lose focus. Whereas hunger tends to be more direct with its signals, sleep is more subtle and I feel more easily blocked out by a drug like Adderall. I’ve had times when I’ve been on the meds and it’s been 2AM and I’m not tired at all. At least I didn’t think I was – my body was still exhausted, and when I actually got into bed I fell asleep almost immediately. People with poor sleep habits exhibit poorer reaction time, so while an athlete might spend all that time working on their swing, when you have maybe 4/10ths of a second to identify and take action on a pitch, reaction time is just as important. A lack of sleep also affects the body’s ability to heal itself. A perfect swing won’t do much good if you spend half the season on the DL from various injuries. Poor eating habits lead to weight loss and loss of muscle mass, kind of the polar opposite of what the typical “performance enhancing drug” does.
So what about on the field? As stated before, Adderall (and other ADHD drugs) focuses a user’s attention by dulling out assorted distractions that might otherwise pull their attention away from their task. While in an office or school environment, this might be (well, is to me at least) helpful, in a sporting event that doesn’t really apply as long as you’re playing. For a pitcher on their off day or a player on the bench, Adderall might be helpful to keep them focused on the game and supporting their teammates instead of say, oh I don’t know, drinking beer, eating fried chicken, and playing video games in the clubhouse during the game? But for a player, the benefits of the “focus” are minimal, if any, especially since the “focus” is really just a minimization of the temptation of distraction. Adderall won’t help out a player block out crowd noise when they’re pitching or batting. It won’t help them see the pitch clearer or quicker, nor will it help them read the path of a fly ball any faster than they would otherwise. It might help the player better concentrate on the game instead of chatting with a neighboring fielder or someone in the stands, but at the professional level, we kind of expect that a player is able to do this already to some extent, or at least enough so that it’s not a distraction to the team or affects other players.
In fact, one could argue that singular focus for a player during a sporting event does more harm than good. For the majority of the time I played baseball when I was younger (and softball when I got old), I was a catcher. When I caught, one of the things that I took pride in was knowing what was going on anywhere on the field; fielders who were out of position, runners with too much of a lead, whether my pitcher was tipping his pitches, etc. Being on something like Adderall would disable my peripheral vision for those things – the things you catch out of the corner of your eye when no one thinks you’re paying attention. It could be a pitcher noticing a tell when a baserunner is going to steal, or that baserunner reading the pitcher, the first baseman, and the catcher’s position as to whether or not it’s safe to take a big lead. Adderall helps you do one thing at once; often in sports, you’re doing several things at the same time.
As for the physical effects on the field (which would be the biggest concern for those “protecting the sport”), a stimulant such as Adderall isn’t going to make a player do anything he can’t already do. It’s not going to make a player stronger than he already is, and despite it being called “speed”, it’s not going to make a player any quicker. In fact, the stimulant’s use may have a negative effect on the body while on the field. In addition to the indirect effects on reaction time and healing mentioned earlier, additional side effects to Adderall include blurred vision, dizziness, and headaches. Adderall users are also more prone to dehydration, which is a concern for any athlete. In addition, some Adderall users report low blood pressure and increased heartrate, which can lead to increased fatigue (not good if you’re already lacking sleep), and both conditions can mask more serious problems that can go unnoticed if the symptoms are attributed to the stimulant use.
What’s being lost in the story (and if you’ve made it this far, congratulations) and what Major League Baseball doesn’t seem to care about at this point isn’t what he’s taking and the effect it has on his playing performance, but how he got it and what it might hint at. Adderall is a Schedule II controlled substance in the United States, which is the strictest restriction for any drug that can be prescribed by a doctor. Schedule II substances are those that have the following findings:
- The drug or other substances have a high potential for abuse
- The drug or other substances have currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, or currently accepted medical use with severe restrictions
- Abuse of the drug or other substances may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.
Basically, Schedule II means that it would probably be banned if it didn’t have a medical purpose. Other Schedule II drugs include Morphine, Oxycodone, Vicodin, and Methadone. Available only by a prescription, Schedule II drugs are prescribed in 30 day doseages (if needed for that long) and federal law prohibits refills. Regular users of a Schedule II drug (like me) need to obtain a new prescription each month, which I can assure you in a pain in the ass.
Drug possession offenses vary, and I know that Ruiz wasn’t charged with possession or any crime for that matter. The fact that Ruiz was suspended 25 games though means that he has tested positive not once but twice for the drug. This isn’t a “oops – didn’t know it was in my supplement” scenario – this is a repeat user. While I’m not saying that Ruiz should be treated the same as if he tested positive for cocaine (also a Schedule II drug), it should raise flags in the league office and with the Phillies organization. Sure, Adderall can be used for its intended purpose (whether the user has a prescription or not), but it can also be used recreationally and be a sign of a potentially growing problem. The fact that most opinions view Ruiz’s positive test as a relief (“whew – at least it wasn’t steroids!”) show that the focus is being lost here. Ruiz’s situation needs to be monitored closely, if not by Major League Baseball, then at least by the Phillies. If Ruiz is using illegally obtained prescription drugs recreationally, he doesn’t need a suspension – he needs help.