DNA testing in baseball – more silly alarmism from reporters and bioethicists

The New York Times is fronting a story that combines two of my favorite subjects – DNA and baseball. Unfortunately, the story is ridiculously alarmist, and either willfully or ignorantly conflates DNA paternity/maternity tests with tests designed to extract other information from a person’s genome.

The plug for the piece is that Major League Baseball has apparently used DNA tests to establish the parentage of a few prospects in the Dominican Republic – a step they have taken to counter efforts by some players to assume a younger person’s identity to make them more appealing to major league organizations. This part of the story is straightforward – before plopping down several hundred thousand, or million, dollars on a 16 year old phenom, MLB clubs want to make sure they’re getting what they’re paying for.

But not content to simply report on an effort to address a problem that has plagued baseball for the last decade (and, it is important to note, has made clubs less willing to take risks on young Dominican players, thus hurting the kids who don’t cheat) the NYT plays the spooky DNA bogeyman card:

“DNA contains a host of information about risks for future diseases that prospective employers might be interested in discovering and considering,” said Kathy Hudson, the director of the Genetics and Public Policy Center and an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University.

Yes, DNA does contain that information. But as Hudson knows full well, the DNA tests used to establish paternity/maternity test a small number of markers simply to establish whether a person is another person’s offspring – they do not look at markers used to predict disease risk, athletic abilities, or any other phenotype.

Now, of course,  MLB teams could choose to carry out such tests. And a scout raises some interesting questions:

…I know they’re looking into trying to figure out susceptibility to injuries, things like that. If they come up with a test that shows someone’s connective tissue is at a high risk of not holding up, can that be used? I don’t know. I do think that’s where this is headed.

Exploring these issues would make a good story. And I think it’s inevitable that this is going to happen unless it is specifically outlawed (and I’m not sure GINA really does that). But it’s absurd to imply that using DNA to establish that people are accurately reporting the parentage is equivalent to  demanding that players undergo extensive genetic screening for inherited conditions that might affect their baseball future.

It’s just another example of bioethicists and the media squawking thoughtlessly about the sinister things that DNA can do without even trying to put it in any kind of context.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted July 22, 2009 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    An interesting article and an important point about the difference between paternity/maternity testing and, for instance, trying to determine if somebody is likely to need Tommy John surgery ten years down the road. The same difference distinguishes this sort of testing from the Eddy Curry case.

    As to whether or not the practice is actually prohibited by GINA, we’ll first have to wait for the law to come into effect and for the EEOC to issue final guidance. I’ve covered the legal aspects in some additional detail here: http://www.genomicslawreport.com/index.php/2009/07/22/mlb-meets-gina/#more-368

  2. Posted March 29, 2010 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    Anything as cryptic as DNA testing is bound to incite some level of alarm in people unfamiliar with the subject.

    Glad there is people out there like you to help lower the alarm.

  3. Posted July 24, 2010 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    I could not agree with you more here regarding DNA testing in baseball. This is all getting too Orwellian, you know 1984, Big Brother. What next? I keep wondering when the line that is crossed will just be to far. It seems as we go forward and keep pushing the limits of what is appropriate we just seem to erase any common sense. Maybe baseball will be more like my pitching machine, they will all be automated players and it will be the team with the best program that wins. God I hope not.

  4. Posted August 26, 2010 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    Technology Resistance has never prevailed, history has shown that it’s human nature to explore and find the unknown, if any team want touse DNA for whatever reason we should encourage them to use this technology. Already
    DNA has proven that many people on dead row has been wrongly convicted.
    This technology is still beeing developed howevr if we encourage it , in the future it will benefit all of us!!