In Baseball, Is Adderall the New Steroids?

Stats show a huge leap in MLB exemptions for the drug — now that the league is testing for it.

University of Oklahoma right-handed pitching ace Jonathan Gray, one of the top three draft-eligible players in the country, made headlines last month when he tested positive for the ADHD drug Adderall, for which he didn’t have a prescription. Maybe he was just getting ready for the big leagues. In a commentary in yesterday’s Inquirer, Bob Ford noted that the MLB authorized 116 exemptions for Adderall in 2012. That’s 10 percent of the players on the league’s rosters — a rate twice that of ADHD in the general adult population. Ford also notes that when the current drug-testing regimen went into effect in 2006, there were 28 Adderall exemptions. The following season, that number rose above 100, where it has remained ever since.

If you’re wondering why ballplayers would want to take an ADHD drug, it could be because of what I found out when I recently took Adderall for a week — it speeded me up, made me more peppy (to put it mildly), and increased my focus to the point that when I played pickleball (which the Wall Street Journal had a nice piece about on Tuesday), the ball truly, honestly seemed to stop in mid-air and wait for me to get to it. So: No wonder ballplayers want it. I would, too.

There’s a bit of a cloud on the horizon, though. The New York Times reported yesterday that the FDA has just approved the first-ever brain-wave test to help diagnose ADHD. The 15-to-20-minute test uses sensors attached to the head to measure the frequency of two different kinds of brain activity, theta waves and beta waves. According to the FDA, some combinations of those waves are found more often in kids with ADHD than in those without. The FDA approved the use of the device based on a review by “outside” researchers of the results of tests of 275 kids ages six to 17 who had attention problems or hyperactivity. The FDA didn’t release the study’s actual data, and fewer than 300 kids seems a smallish group on which to base the test’s approval, but what do I know?

Naturally, proponents of more traditional testing that takes into account the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as well as behavioral surveys done by parents and teachers are skeptical of the new test’s worth. The Times quotes William E. Pelham, director of the Center for Families and Children at Florida International University, as saying the link between brain-wave tests and ADHD diagnosis is weak — and the new test will only increase diagnostic costs. He said the machines are “totally unnecessary.” But, hey, while we’re still on the All-Star break, let’s run those 116 major leaguers through and see what the results are. As Bob Ford says, “Does anybody remotely believe that all 116 of those exempted players last season had a legitimate reason to take Adderall? … [N]o one is going to worry about a few dozen players who were able to game the system and get an energy buzz.”